In ‘Battledream Chronicle,’ animator and director Alain Bidard shatters cages to unlock history
Colonization is chaos. I think that resonates so well in a lot of films and transmedia projects with an Afrocentric and Afrofuturist lens. So much of our cultural production has had to deal with restructuring the many histories of the African Diaspora. It isn’t fair that a great deal of Black creativity is burdened with negotiating our place in the world after the tumultuous effects of the slave trade exacted upon African people. Part of our charge is the un-colonizing of our imaginations so we can readily move forward into a future we deserve. However, we must deal with the past and move into this Afrofuture as whole beings.
“Battledream Chronicle” (2015), the wondrous film by pioneering Afro-Carribbean animator and director Alain Bidard, creatively codifies these tensions in its internal gaming logic and gives us a satisfying and celebratory narrative that symbolically shatters so many cages
that seek to separate us from our history and, ultimately, ourselves.
After recently watching “Exterminate All the Brutes” by Raoul Peck, I began to read Bidard’s animated film as a complimentary text with Peck’s painful and deliberate four-hour documentary on the history of European colonialism. They honestly play really well off of each other. Peck’s monotone narration slowly unveils the terror of how this world came to be. Bidard uses the animated characters in his film to display the fact that our minds are also colonized and our memories have been taken from us and replaced with something totally not ourselves. Even our dreams are a battlefield, and chaos reigns when we don’t know what our true history is.
When viewing “Battledream Chronicle,” it was hard not to see comparisons to other science fiction narratives that may or may not have had an influence on the animation’s aesthetic. For instance, I was reminded of Alex Rivera’s 2008 film “Sleep Dealer.” Like “Battledream Chronicle,” “Sleep Dealer” uses the darker aspects of gaming and virtual bodies to unpack some of the more troubling aspects of being inside of the technologies with which we are interacting.
The metaphor of the game also brings to mind Gavin Hood’s military thriller “Ender’s Game,” where a talented prodigy wages a real war via a virtual construct. Another obvious comparison would be “The Matrix” franchise, in which the perceptions between reality and a digitally generated construct are blurred and a human being is chosen to be the avatar of the entire virtual space.
Bidard seamlessly merges these familiar tropes with nods to various aspects of the culture of Martinique while expertly engaging with the social issues around a people who are still dealing with a colonized imagination. I would definitely situate the central themes of “Battledream Chronicle” squarely within the philosophical aesthetics of Afrofuturism. The film actively engages with the tensions around a colonized people, the system that still exists and tries to destroy them, and articulates a mastery of the system that ultimately gives way to a potentially glorious future. Transcendence of the pain and trauma of slavery and colonialism is the central goal of the narrative.
The avatars of the computer virus called Isfet perfectly indexes the complex relationships between the colonizer and the colonized. One of my favorite books on race and identity is “The Racial Contract” by Charles W. Mills, who uses the metaphor of virtual reality to explain the deliberate projection of race on the colonized or racialized subject. “Battledream Chronicle” really delves into this from the beginning. The virus avatar Isfet, named for the Egyptian concept of chaos, uses her formidable computing power to dominate the protective firewalls of Queen Syanna, whose memories, legacy and power are all taken from her. Queen Syanna becomes another slave in the game, simply playing to survive.
One of my favorite aspects of the film is when an ally of Syanna named Goonz shows her all of the memories that the conquerors have deleted in order to control her. These memories take the form of a collection of books floating in mid-air. There are blue books and black books. The blue books represent memories she has been allowed to keep. The black books are memories that have been deleted. Goonz and Syanna stand surrounded by what seems to be hundreds of thousands of books. The black books are the dominant color.
This visual metaphor is so stunning because it not only represents the idea of a chronicle, but it also beautifully and painfully illustrates the level of disruption and erasure that has happened to people of the African Diaspora who have been subjected to the violence of colonization. Syanna bravely states that she wants all of those memories back, whether they are good or bad. They belong to her and need to be accessed.
Another aspect of Afrofuturism is the idea of reclamation. The mere idea of speculative fiction by people who were never meant to have a future is just so powerful. This emotional moment is what drives Syanna to victory.
Syanna, in her angel-inspired costume, must access a system of keys to unlock the game. The idea of keys to the future isn’t lost on the audience as she skillfully uses spoken words to activate internal powers and defeats her enemies to gain freedom from the virtual cage she has been captive within. When Syanna beats the game and staves off the virus of colonialism, the billions of her subjects who were thought to be dead are actually merely sleeping in a sort of coma. The lovely allegory of a beautiful queen awakening her subjects and giving themselves back to them is just so smart and refreshing.
In the end, the “Battledream” is also a “Freedomdream,” to borrow from Robin D.G. Kelly’s “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.” Bidard not only created a stellar and groundbreaking piece, he used the powerful combination of technology and his own culture to make a seminal film that now belongs in the canon of Afrofuturist works.