Captive of the Desert, 1990

A caravan lackadaisically assembles at the foreground near the site of a desert fortress at dawn, and is spurred into action by the appearance of three figures bisecting the frame as they emerge from the fortress to join the expedition. An extended, medium shot of the cavalcade as they traverse the stationary frame on an undefined journey through the seemingly endless desert reveals the curious sight of a lone, non-native young woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) at the rear of the procession of nomadic tribespeople and camels, as a pair of men dressed in paramilitary gear flank her to prevent escape. A subsequent, sublimely photographed image at dusk taken from an extreme long, axial shot of a crepuscular sun disappearing into the horizon captures the caravan longitudinally traversing the horizon. These establishing images of dislocation, separation, and inevitable transformation provide an understated, yet incisive framework into Raymond Depardon’s poetic, elegantly rendered, and thoughtful portrait of alterity and isolation in Captive of Desert. Drawing inspiration from his extensive coverage of the 1974 hostage kidnapping and protracted captivity of French archaeologist Françoise Claustre by Toubou rebels in Chad during the Frolinat Rebellion, Depardon eschews the underlying international politicization, geographic specificity, and social repercussions of the incident to create a broader social exposition on the eternal nature of cultural isolation and assimilation – a sense of timeless division that is established in the introductory sequences of silent migration and decontextualized spaces (note the absence of a specific geographic destination in their tribal migration, only to a series of self-constructed encampments). At the core of the film is the unnamed European woman’s paradoxical imprisonment in a land of vast, open – and largely unsecured – spaces, where scarcity of life-sustaining resources and distance from western civilization imposes its own natural and psychological imprisonment. Through recurring aesthetic compositions of intersection, bifurcation, and symmetry, Depardon creates a metaphoric landscape where communion between civilizations is not hindered by ethnography or language, but by the very consciousness of an intranscendable distance of otherness.

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