issue 172 - June 1987
Chronicle Of a Death Foretold
directed by Francesco Rosi
A dusty, empty town square. Dramatic music. A lone, long-legged hombre ambles to his doom. The frightened locals look on from behind their windows. There are staccato cuts to steely-eyed weather-beaten faces.
This is not a spaghetti Western; more a spaghetti Southern. Gabriel Garcia Marquez' short novel has been given the Italian multi-million, multi-national, multi-lingual treatment and just about survives to tell the tale.
Set in a remote riverside town in Colombia, the 'death foretold' is that of the town's handsome young rake; two vengeful brothers dispose of him for deflowering their sister.
The story is a strong and simple one. But the treatment is often bizarre. Most of the film is in Spanish. But the dark, handsome stranger who has the movie's central role has a remarkable gift of tongues. Though portraying a Colombian, he insists on speaking Sloane Square English to everyone he meets. And, remarkably, everyone from his landlady to crowds in the street, instantly responds in kind - though continuing to speak Spanish to each other.
This may be because the character is played by Englishman Rupert Everett. And it did look as though the rest of the polyglot cast, though dubbed into Spanish, were actually using their own languages and thus mouthing anything from French to Italian.
The real stars of this movie though, are the scenery and colonial buildings of tropical Colombia The camera lingers lovingly over the steamy river, and the colour effects of some of the cool interiors are quite stunning. Were there an Oscar for 'Best Boat' it should certainly go to the town's tiny multi-decked ferry which patiently chugs up the river like a motorized wedding cake.
It's a pity that a lot of the elements of a good movie were undermined by such odd casting and distracting eccentricities. God knows what the author makes of it all, but he deserves a lot better
Black Women and Invisibility
By Ayoka Chonzira and Julie Dash
Vaseline. Soap. Ironing. The oven. The desperation mounts. Nothing - but nothing - can keep those curls down. They always win. Hairpiece, a short cartoon film, wittily exposes the torment of black people's 'nappy', or fuzzy, hair. May the (straightening) Force be with us all.
This package of four films on one video also includes Illusions. It's about Hollywood in World War II and shows a young black woman 'passing' as white, rising to be an executive in the film industry and then being exposed by a little squirt of a lieutenant who pursues her, with tongue (and much else) hanging out.
Just as we are bracing ourselves to see her betrayed she makes a magnificent speech, declares war on hypocrisy and racism and crushes him. (Well, that's the effect) A brilliant half-hour film with a street-wise feminist plot as gripping and spot-on as a Hitchcock.
Syvilla is the third film: the story of a black dancer who should be as well known as Martha Graham but for the fact she's black... And finally there's Four Women: a dance to a sassy Nina Simone number.
Get this package. It's an inspiration.
Available from: Circles Women's Film and Video, 113 Roman Road, London E2 OHU, UK.
by Hugh Masekela with Kalahari
'A big-eyed floy-doy of a jazz maniac' was how Drum magazine once described Hugh Masekela, whose township trumpet playing in the 1960s brought acclaim and fame. He's still a great performer, as this latest album demonstrates, and his fame will no doubt spread further through his new contract with Warners and association with Paul Simon on the controversial Graceland tour.
The music here is bright but sophisticated. Backing vocalists chant to a disco-like beat while Hugh trumpets aloft or sings himself. A slick but rather antiseptic sound, reminiscent in places of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, it seems a long way away from the townships.
Until you listen to the words. Bring back Nelson Mandela cries the first track while Everybody's standing up features a roll-call of recently deposed dictators from Marcos to Amin, and warns Pinochet and Botha that their end is near.
Masekela has been playing with Kalahari for six years, four of them spent in Botswana. This record was made in London in 1986 and the exile's life comes through forlornly in London Fog: 'Always raining and the winters are forever'; and the sadness of separation 'My friends never seem to find the time to write a short letter.'
But that track aside, the album carries the scent of victory with a jauntiness that will buoy up any flagging spirits.
Canada and Common Security
edited by Penny Sanger
(Group of 78)
Willy Brandt and his high-powered associates never made much headway in North America. The Brandt Report, a convincing call to conquer world poverty, hit the stands in 1980 in the midst of a US election year. It was quickly buried by Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and dismissed as liberal blather by the new Reagan-style conservatives.
In Canada too the Brandt Report was ignored by Ottawa and the media - and consequently by the public. But within the country's well-organized community of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) Brandt's slim volume struck a responsive chord.
This crisply designed booklet is the newest publication by the Group of 78, a somewhat eclectic band of Canadian public figures united in 1981 by Brandt's vision of 'mankind as a single global community'.
The Group of 78's clear and ultimately humanitarian call for global co-operation makes this collection of brief articles interesting for non-Canadians too. The booklet is refreshing because it is both hopeful and practical. Written mostly by NGO activists, they cover a wide range: from the global nuclear threat and specific regional conflicts in Central America and the Middle East to the debt crisis.
Is the Future Female?
by Lynne Segal
Men are violent, competitive, power-seeking. They make wars. They need to dominate and subordinate women. It can't be helped, it's in their nature.
Women are more nurturant, co-operative, peaceful - but always under threat from male violence be it rape or nuclear war. The best thing women can do is separate themselves from men and work together to create a new, more caring, more 'female' future.
This is a crude reduction of the current 'cultural' feminist orthodoxies - expounded by Dale Spender, Mary Daly and others - which are powerfully challenged in this book. What concerns the author is less that such attitudes can be unfair to many men, but that their inherent fatalism is actually very dangerous to the women's movement.
By separating themselves from the world of men and 'malestream' thinking, women are removing themselves from the political arena where rights have to be fought for - however rough, tough, nasty and alienating that process may be.
They also fail to recognize that the feminists of the sixties and seventies did win crucial battles to gain sexual equality against the odds in a male-dominated world.
The Jaguar Smile
by Salman Rushdie
There was a young girl of Nic'ragua
Who smiled as she road on a jaguar
They returned from the ride
With the young girl inside
And the smile on the face of the jaguar
Does this young girl represent the Nicaraguan Revolution - about to be torn apart by the sharp claws of the US? Or is she actually an innocent 'Miss Nicaragua' in danger of being swallowed by the Revolution?
This, whimsically put, is the heart of the debate about Nicaragua. Salman Rushdie's investigation doesn't pretend to be objective and comes to no firm conclusion. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, The Jaguar Smile is probably the most vivid, honest and accurate description of the soul of the Nicaraguan revolution yet published in English. It is also tremendously entertaining - populated by real Nicaraguans: offensive, stupid or arrogant; friendly, intelligent or humble. Many of them Rushdie would not have dared invent in a work of fiction.
Rushdie is never a comfortable guest for the Sandinistas. And he reports glumly on a conversation with a senior journalist on the Government newspaper Barricada: 'So, I asked... are such matters as the freedom of the press just cosmetic? His face lit up and he nodded enthusiastically. 'Cosmetic, that's the word. Yes.'
Nevertheless the young people running the Revolution are unlikely to turn into jaguars and devour the freedoms they fought so hard for. Rushdie cannot prove this. But he is sure that this interpretation of the riddle is, in his words, 'well, wrong'.
The Jaguar Smile will not tell you all you want to know about the country. But if you were to buy one book on Nicaragua, this should be it.
Fire on the Mountain
...being the book that describes an Indian woman's escape from her family.
I felt very sorry for my mother when my sister and I left home. And just over a year later, when my father died, I couldn't even contemplate her desolation. Although she had a part-time job, she saw herself primarily as a wife and mother. After we had gone, did she feel that her life had been sabotaged?
Reading Fire on the Mountain gave me optimism. It is about an elderly woman, Nanda Kaul, whose experience of such a time is one of intense pleasure. When her husband died she left the family home in the Punjab and moved to Carignano, to a house in the Himalayan foothills. On her first day there she realized 'with a great, cool flowering of relief' that this was 'the place, and the time of life, that she had wanted and prepared for all her life'. The abandonment by her family was a liberation; the empty years ahead, a haven of peace and tranquillity.
A letter from her daughter shattered this cherished existence: Raka, Nanda Kaul's great-granddaughter, because of a welter of domestic complications, was being sent to Carignano for the summer. The tone of the letter was both patronising and peremptory: 'Darling Mama. I know how happy it will make you to have your great-grandchild for company in that lonely house.'
Resigned to her fate, Nanda Kaul prepared for the child's arrival with a heavy heart. She thought back over her time in the Punjab: the chaos and excess, the meals to be prepared, the babies, the servants, the guests. She dreaded being responsible for a dependant once again; she dreaded this ransacking of her long-awaited privacy.
In fact, her granddaughter would not fit neatly into this pattern. Her father, a diplomat, was an alcoholic and philanderer; her mother, succumbing to these pressures, was continually ill and depressed. As a result, Raka had retreated into a world of her own; she was solitary and independent and was happiest roaming in the countryside, lost in her thoughts. Nanda Kaul saw in her something she had seen in no other child, not even her own. The tug of responsibility became a tug of love.
But as soon as Nanda Kaul had learned to accommodate - and even enjoy - Raka's presence in her life, there came another threat. Ila Das was an old school friend who had been dogged with disaster. She was born into a rich family, but her brothers had squandered the family inheritance. Ila Das had never married and had moved from one job to another, eking out an existence. Most recently, she had become a welfare officer in a district close to Nanda Kaul.
Ila Das' visit to Carignano confronted Nanda Kaul with a barrage of issues that she no longer had the heart to countenance. Her friend's very life distressed her, victim as she was of a society that always favoured men. Her memories of their shared past distressed her. But, more disturbing were the stories of her work as welfare officer. Carignano was an island and a refuge. But in the villages all around, Ila Das was battling against child-marriage, poverty, disease, premature death, and - to add insult to injury - antagonising local people by her efforts.
Not long after Ila Das had left, the telephone rang. Ila Das had been raped and strangled.
Nanda Kaul broke down; her whole life flooded past her eyes, a tidal-wave of self-deceit and wrong action. She hadn't come to Carignano out of choice. She'd had no option but to run away - run away to escape the failure of her marriage, the memory of her husband's lifelong affair with another woman, the memory of her children whom she'd neither understood nor loved.
At this point - one final blow - Raka came running in to announce with great jubilation, that she'd set the forest on fire.
At first, this ending disappointed me. Anita Desai had painted a powerful and convincing picture of an elderly woman's hard-won independence and contentment, only to allow her to be smashed - swiftly, easily - by the force of circumstance. I felt she'd let us down: my mother, myself and thousands of women struggling to transcend generations of conditioning to put others' happiness before our own.
But I soon realized that I'd have felt cheated if Nanda Kaul had been perfectly strong - no self-doubt, no fear - and her life had worked out ideally, just as she planned it. The strength of the book is that Nanda Kaul is a real woman in a real world.
Fire on a Mountain did give me optimism. Nanda Kaul had achieved a self-sufficiency which, though it wavered, was exhilarating. Thinking back over the book, I still feel that exhilaration - warm and bright as summer sunshine.
Fire on a Mountain by Anita Desai
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