‘Our dreams have no boundaries or borders, citizens of the infinite world.’ N: The Madness of Reason, is a dream without borders, a spiritual odyssey through West Africa that crosses boundaries with a glide of the camera. It defies geographical boundaries, flitting around the region and rarely stopping to indicate where, precisely, that region is. It defies cinematic boundaries, switching between observational documentary, meditative duologue and strange fiction about spirits. It defies boundaries of easy identification, which is fitting for a film that lives on the tension between order and chaos, identity and anonymity.
Raymond Borremans moved to West Africa when he was 23 and over the course of his life he tried to compile an encyclopedia of The Ivory Coast, but he only ever got as far as the letter N. He also collected insects and butterflies, tried to bring education to remote locations and took cinema screens round rural areas. This experimental semi-documentary is told from the point of view of his spirit as it soars, free from mortal restraints, through the countries he loved so much. He is accompanied by an unnamed female spirit, and the two of them talk to each other about the past, present and future of the region. Borremans is shocked by the nations he sees today, by the violence that is tearing the region apart and the chaos that still seems to exist there. The female spirit points out the futility of his mission – reason is madness, as the title tells us.
Borremans’ spirit is obsessed with cataloguing and collecting, and many new themes are introduced via a giant letter on a typewriter. His companion spirit is suspicious of this approach. In her eyes, definition brings division or, as one old man observes, ‘paper forces us to linearity.’ There’s a sense that the Ivory Coast is far too complex to be categorised, that the pen and paper of Borremans’ craft does a disservice to the nation he loved so much. When categorisation is shown, it brings with it violence, from the deaths of fragile butterflies for entomology’s sake to a long tracking shot of Ivorian ID cards of voters who had been killed, lined up neatly in alphabetical order. These deaths bring the pain of the region into sharp relief. Borremans’ voice sounds distraught as he sees rebels, dead bodies and closed off borders – a far cry from the nation he knew. His grand quest was an attempt to make sense of a world that was – and is – often nonsensical, and it seems as though his mission has failed. It’s in these moments that the film rings with compassion for the people it depicts, and it’s heartbreaking to watch.
It’s a complex, abstract film, but it’s also hugely accomplished technically, too. Crane, aerial and tracking shots keep the camera an active part of the film – often (if not always) used as the point of view of Borremans’ spirit – while inventive framing (a dancer in a series of mirrors is particularly striking) and gorgeous landscapes make it a visually breathtaking film. It’s edited brilliantly, too, with an occasionally oppressive score making the most of drum beats and claps to synchronise the music with the cutting. West Africa is a region plagued with conflict but is also full of beauty, ingenuity and wit and the editing manages to cram all these paradoxes together, often in moments of startling juxtaposition; a sequence involving children learning to write with the letter N especially sticks out as a marvel of cinematography and editing. War and peace, love and hate, violence and compassion are thrown together in a heady mixture that the encyclopedia writer cannot fathom within his categories.
Throughout the film, the power of the camera is evident. Passers by glance straight into the lens, bemused by its presence; touring cinema screens carry on the work of Borremans, inspiring awe and fear; the spirit tells Borremans that writing is not the only form of documentation. Towards the end of the film, it seems as though the editor is finishing the encyclopedia, but the ever present typewriter and the breadth of topics discussed suggests something else – that the film itself is Borremans’ work being completed, and his spirit will not rest until Africa is better understood. So this film, in a way, is a completion of Borremans’ encyclopedia, an alternative way of trying to categorise that which is often uncategorisable. Mostly, however, it is a dream, and it is one that you will be reluctant to wake up from.
N: The Madness of Reason is playing at the Edinburgh Film Festival on the 20th and 22nd June.