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‘The Man With the Crooked Arm’ Creator Perivi Katjavivi on Using Genre to Revisit Germany’s Colonial Crimes in Africa

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“The Man With the Crooked Arm,” a Western drama series created by Perivi Katjavivi that was presented at the Berlinale Co-Production Market, is the latest attempt by the Namibian filmmaker to wrestle with the legacy of German colonialism in his southern African nation.

The eight-episode limited series follows a notorious Black cowboy who sets off on horseback across colonial-era Africa with stolen loot and an orphaned boy. When a robbery goes awry, he has to decide whether he’ll protect the young orphan — whose father he just killed — or pursue his nemesis, a corrupt German missionary.

The series is based on the real-life Jonker Afrikaner, “a notorious figure, a bit of a badass — essentially, a cowboy and bandit who, along with his father, came into Namibia in the 1800s and caused chaos and transformed the place with the Bible and guns,” says Katjavivi, whose sophomore feature, “Under the Hanging Tree,” plays this week at the Joburg Film Festival.

The show pits Afrikaner against a missionary “who is trying to impose his vision of what Namibia should be in the image of a German-esque kind of civilization,” says the director, adding that the series — inspired by shows like “Deadwood” and “Boardwalk Empire” — will “reimagine [the Western genre] in the Namibian context.”

Katjavivi began developing “Crooked Arm” as a spin-off to “Hanging Tree,” a noirish drama about a hard-edged female detective whose investigation into a mysterious murder finds her delving into the country’s colonial past. The two projects both wrestle with “real-life historical events and stories, particularly related to the colonial period in Namibia,” says Katjavivi, adding that he wants to “reimagine [those events] in fresh and fun ways and have them grounded in some sort of relatable, recognizable genre.”

“The Man With the Crooked Arm” was one of 10 projects selected for the Berlinale Series Market’s Co-Pro Series pitching event, a TV industry showcase that in the past has launched titles including the hit Norwegian series “State of Happiness” and the landmark German period drama “Babylon Berlin.” Working in episodic drama for the first time, Katjavivi reported strong interest from several potential German co-producers. “It’s been refreshing. Colonialism is really hot right now,” he says, laughing.

Indeed, the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival was awarded to French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop for “Dahomey,” a documentary about France’s attempt to correct colonial-era injustices with the return of looted artifacts to the West African nation of Benin. Unfolding against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war, the politically charged festival also showed the host country reckoning with its own past, amid scrutiny over its relationship with Israel and antisemitism and its crackdown on pro-Palestinian protests.

Nevertheless, Katjavivi sees progress in how Germany is finally reckoning with its colonial-era crimes in Africa. “Five years ago, nobody was interested, and nobody was talking about this, and nobody would give you the time of day when you pitched projects like this,” he says. “And now, it feels very different — the interest and openness to Namibia, for mostly good reasons.”

“The Man With the Crooked Arm” is set at the turn of the 19th century, before Europe’s colonial project had fully taken shape. Presaging the dark period that was to come, Katjavivi says the show’s central conflict between Afrikaner and the German missionary is representative of the broader “fight for the soul of the continent” that would reshape Africa’s geography, economy, politics and culture throughout the colonial era and beyond.

In “Under the Hanging Tree,” which premiered last year at the Rotterdam Film Festival, Katjavivi explores how that trauma continues to haunt Namibia in ways both seen and unseen. The story centers on a hard-boiled cop who has little connection to her language, her culture, or the bloody history that shaped her young nation.

“She’s very much like myself, and like many Namibians who are city kids and grew up with their consciousness defined by an urban space, and a modern environment,” the director says. “Beneath the surface, there’s the remnants of [the past]. It’s always there, but one is a bit ignorant of it.”

Perivi Katjavivi’s films explore the legacy of German colonialism in his native Namibia.
Courtesy of Namafu Amutse

“Hanging Tree” is not the only film playing in Joburg to grapple with the brutal legacy of German colonialism in what is now known as Namibia. Also screening is “Measures of Men,” German director Lars Kraume’s period drama about the genocide committed by the German army against the Herero, or Ovaherero, and Nama tribes in what was then known as German South West Africa.

At last year’s Berlin Film Festival, where “Measures of Men” had its world premiere, the Afro-German film collective Schwarze Filmschaffende denounced Krause’s film, saying it “claims to make an important contribution to the re-examining of German colonial history and its crimes, but deliberately does so [by] relegating the actual genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama to the background.”

While not commenting on “Measures’” merits, Katjavivi praised the “vision” of the Joburg programming team for screening the film alongside his own, which “centers a Namibian voice” in its approach to examining and revisiting the colonial past. (Ironically, Namibian actor Girley Jazama stars in both.) “It’s a good time [for this conversation],” he says. “I appreciate how things have changed.”

The Joburg Film Festival runs Feb. 27 – March 3.