My story begins in the French national archives in St Denis in Paris, where one day, whilst enjoying a moment of boredom in the soft sunlight cast through the window of that strange modern building, I was watching researchers leafing through boxes of documents. Some stopped sometimes, and took photos. Their gloved hands awkwardly fingering delicate pieces of paper whilst turning off automatic flashes in compact cameras. All this paper, I thought to myself, all of this dust.
I awoke to the noise of one of the archivists telling me off for the way I was staring at some letters in my white cotton hands.
Il faut pas, il faut pas traiter les documents comme ça, monsieur.
Ah, but these letters! Written to Napoleon Bonaparte by Toussaint Louverture from his castle prison in the mountains of the Jura. I was so keen to hold them, to feel them, to try to feel the presence of Louverture kept over the centuries within these archived documents. As I held the letters I was sure they felt my presence too and in such a way I felt I was in touch with Louverture himself—perhaps he existed within these handwritten lines of ink on paper? With these thoughts in mind I decided it was my task to bring the ghost of Louverture to life, to animate his soul long buried amongst the pines and the chalk of Eastern France. Yet how could I do this? How could I resurrect his ghost with these pieces of paper held in my hands?
Whilst sipping a coffee in the café, an email arrived in my inbox—such an ordinary occurrence on a grey Tuesday. So much so that I was completely unaware of the change it would cause in my research.
Nonetheless it happened—and this is what followed:
SUBJECT: I believe that you can help me
I believe that you can help me.
My name is Ms Maria Denis, from Republic of Benin in West Africa. I am 21 years old and I am the only child of my parents, I lost my parents in a terrible accident caused by an earthquake in the city of Abomey in the year 2010. My father was a very successful business man before he died. He had a large estate which he willed all to me but my uncle have confiscated everything and subjected me into an unbearable pains since the death of my parents. He forced me to live in his house, he treats me like a slave to worsen all my movements and life is being restricted and monitored all day.
But I am glad to discover that he could not trace one of my father's assets which is a consignment deposited in one of the leading security companies in our country. This very consignment contains thirty two million united state dollars ($32,000,000) My father's lawyer (Barrister Ankara Williams) was able to move this CONSIGNMENT to a Finance Company in our neighboring country Togo and have been waiting all this while for me to get to this age before it can be released to me.
I want to ask you, if you are capable to help me on this by receiving this fund and also investing it into any business that can benefit both of us. If you cannot, please quietly look for a reliable and honest person that can handle this as long as you will remain honest to me till we meet together.
I look forward to hear from you.
Ms Maria Denis.
This was my first point of contact with Ms Maria Denis and I was certainly intrigued by her plight. I wondered whether I could help, and whether she perhaps could help me. I replied, in all honesty, and received her reply in just a few days. In fact, I was completely aware of my inability to offer any concrete business plans to settle this deal of 32,000,000 US dollars, as much as I was also aware that Maria Denis was completely unable to offer me the 32,000,000 US dollars she claimed to have. Nonetheless we kept up a correspondence for a few weeks within which I kept delaying the day that I would actually solidify this partnership into something real, and Ms Maria Denis was becomingly increasingly desperate and impatient. Perhaps I was selfishly stringing her along for the sake of some company, but I was enjoying the conversation and was interested to see how her story developed each week—her Uncle had started to make new plans, he was beginning to find out that she perhaps had access to secret money, she was very keen to transfer the money to get it out of Benin. A local witch doctor had been brought in, claims were made on Maria Denis’ sanity, apparently she was possessed with evil spirits, but of course this was a set up by her Uncle to get rid of her and to continue with his evil plans, an attempt had been made on her life! Something had to happen. Something had to change.
Eventually I told her that I was sorry and that I couldn’t help, we had to stop our conversation and I felt I was wasting her time. I know you are lying to me, I said to her one day; you do not have 32,000,000 dollars and you are not being held captive by your Uncle, I am certain this is a scam. In response I received this:
Now you know the truth, can you be true to me? As much as I have lied, you have lied too. Maybe I have wasted your time, but you have wasted mine too. This is my work and I need to make money. Unemployment is big in Benin and I cannot find work—I am a student at the moment and need to pay for my studies. I have to return to my village to stay with my parents in Allada. Why did you decide to lead me on? I thought you were honest. I thought you could help me? You may think this unfair but you have treated me unfairly also. Life is unfair and politicians are corrupt and greedy so we have to turn to corrupt manners ourselves as the young of these people. There are no opportunities for a young Beninese today—we have to make them for ourselves. Now. Ghanaians have Sakawa, Nigeria has Yahoo plus, so we follow the march to claim back some of the riches stolen by Europe.
What did you expect?
Maria Denis had become Jean-Baptiste, and I was unsure whom to believe. Intrigued even further by this sudden change in personality and, in light of my own research interests, struck by this attempt at a kind of neo-colonial defense of scamming practices, I wrote back to Maria Denis-cum-Jean-Baptiste and asked if she/he would please forgive me for having lead her/him along. I said that I was a student also and that I understood the hardships of poverty, relative to my life in France, and that if there was anything I could do to help in matters non-financial I would be more than willing. I explained that as a filmmaker I was aware of the practice of fiction making and that I too was guilty of making up stories for my own benefit, perhaps we could help each other and work together? I saw the potential for a collaboration of sorts, given that we were both practitioners of truth bending, of sliding between the real and the fictional. Indeed, both of us were quite slippery characters! I didn’t hear back for sometime, and I thought that perhaps I had gone too far, when all of a sudden an email landed in my inbox and gave me the response I was keen to read. Indeed Maria-Denis/Jean-Baptiste could forgive me but wanted to be clear not to waste any more time and that we could start a reciprocal relationship based on the sharing of information and trust—a kind of peer to peer exercise on the ratio of 1:1.
Slowly we began a pen friendship, or a keyboard friendship let’s say, and many emails were exchanged. Initially we spoke about our various interests as students—anthropology on her/his part and history on mine. Maria-Denis/Jean-Baptiste was studying for a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Anthropology at the Université d’Abomey-Calavi on the shores of lake Nokoué just outside Cotonou, and was interested in doing a research project on our email exchange. I explained that I was conducting research on Toussaint Louverture but was finding it rather difficult to discover exactly what I was looking for. As soon as I mentioned Toussaint the tone changed in our exchange and Maria-Denis/Jean-Baptiste became very animated and excited.
If you mentioned Louverture before, I could have helped a long time ago! This is very very good! Exciting! My family come from Allada, a village in the Atlantique region in Benin. This is where the family of Louverture come from and there is a statue of him standing in the outskirts of the village. Every year many people come to pay tribute to him in the village.
I found a video that shows you my village and you even see the statue of Louverture >>> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weyrVkDxKQE (10:10)
Not a long time ago we had people from Haiti, they came all together as a school trip on a bus and met with the king of Allada. Here Louverture is considered a hero and we all have a close connection with our brothers in Haiti. Even a few years ago when there was the earthquake in Haiti we here in Allada conducted voodoo rites and sacrifices to help the poor people who suffered the earthquake. Here in Allada we say the earthquake happened there in Haiti because the vodoun of Haiti had not been sacrificing to the gods, it was a form of punishment.
Here is some more you might find good
I look forward to hear your responses.
I was taken aback to say the least, and started to realise that this could indeed lead to some very interesting exchanges. Particularly since I wanted to uncover some facts about voodoo in Benin, and had discovered that Allada was considered a very holy place for the vodoun. Perhaps this was how I would be able to finally get in touch with Toussaint Louverture? After all of this time in the archives in Saint-Denis, trawling through handwritten letters and various documents, nothing had arrived in the sense of a visitation of his ghost. Perhaps this would be a way in which I could resurrect the ghost of Louverture—through an animistic ritual in West Africa. This would be first hand research material of the highest degree! I decided to ask if it would be possible to organise a ritual, focused on the statue that stands in the village, in order to awaken the ghost of Louverture in the present. Maria-Denis/Jean-Baptiste could film the event for me and send me the material via Dropbox. It was all set up, it would be perfect!
This was the response:
Ok ok. Hold up a minute. You want me to do this for you?? What do you expect to get from this? Really? You have a too simple understanding of what our traditional religions are and can offer. I think you are blinded by exotic thoughts my friend. It just does not work like that. What are you expecting? Chickens heads to roll, drumming and people dancing in strange costume? I believe you not to take this seriously. We do not ask if we believe and yet I feel you take this for a joke, or maybe it is like a film for you all of this is just make up—make believe.
But yet are you not aware? This spirit you look for resides somewhere very easy to find him. I have found him and I have found what you want. To resurrect Louverture go no further than here:
Here you find what you are looking for. Trust me. Believe me.
I look forward to hear your response.
Now I started to become rather confused, and I feared I had offended my email friend, perhaps I had pushed it too far? I understood that my own expectations of life in a village in Benin were warped by European representations of the ‘dark continent’ and that I had wanted something that didn’t really exist as a reality for Maria-Denis or Jean-Baptiste. Reflecting on this I thought it perhaps a good idea to try to obtain a better understanding of the reality of Allada and to allow this to take shape in my research. It seemed clear to me that what was important was the discovery of truth, of shedding the light of truth onto murky areas of misunderstanding, and the only way to do this was to experience the place for real. Too much time had been spent in archives in France, how would I get anywhere just going through boxes of stuff? I wanted to face life head on and see what was out there. So I decided to venture to Benin.
I am surprised at you. Do not come to Benin. You do not have to come to Benin. What more reality will you face here than if you stay there where you are, in France?
If you desire to see Benin go here:
Or why not here:
And if you really want to bring Toussaint to life it is by going here and typing his name. He exists my friend, really, here.
You need go no further. What did you think of our correspondence? Was it not real? Did it not take place in reality? Am I not real Louis?
I expected more from an internet native like you—or are you a digital primitivist?
Amities et adieu,
These were the last words I heard from Maria-Denis and Jean-Baptiste, and I was rather sad to have our fine correspondence cut short. Yet this final direction left me astounded, and it started to dawn on me what all of this had been for, what she/he had meant by these final indications of research paths to be taken. Why would I discredit all this time spent on the Internet, on Wikipedia, Youtube, Google Images, Google Maps, online archives and online image banks? The Internet, taken as a material and physical space and repurposed into something other than it has become under contemporary corporate capture can open up new and exciting possibilities for research. As Maria-Denis-Jean-Baptiste had clearly shown, it can be with and through this materialist and potentially animist understanding of the Internet that we can come into contact with the figures we may be researching, all it takes is a certain amount of fiction.
Yet here I use the word fiction not in the sense of being the opposite to truth and reality, but rather as a moulding of truth and reality. Indeed, the word fiction comes from the Latin fingere; to mould, to finger, and thus indicates an idea of a certain shaping of reality. In this light, I believe, fiction can be used as a political tool to ask questions of histories that are presented as fact. The real is treated as an effect to be post-produced rather than a fact to be understood, and I believe that this can pose important ethical questions within documentary practice. Especially with works that deal with histories of colonialism within the often-misleading guise of ethnographic research, which itself expels new forms of neocolonial attitudes and behavior. As a genre of fiction how can the documentary become other through an anthropology that might be the permanent decolonisation of thought? Perhaps it is through opening up our methods of creation—and learning to make reflexive films with people rather than simply about people. Yet how can that really be put into place? It is also perhaps a question of reanimating the space of the cinema into a site for possible collective assemblages, a site for shared communal experience.
As a final point, I would like to say that it is fascinating that it was Maria-Denis-Jean-Baptiste who was able to bring this change in my methodology, especially when one considers that the practice of email scamming is a practice entirely built up on the ability to create fictions, of writing melodramatic situations that are supposed to work on people’s emotions. The email scammer is that slippery character that must be able to surf and slide easily between fact and fiction in order to construct an online reality. Maria-Denis-Jean-Baptiste is the surfer-par-excellence.