issue 182 - April 1988
directed by Med Houab
Sarraounia is the first ever locally financed epic from Africa. But it isn't just that which makes it an historic film. It is that it is thematically and aesthetically so radical. Sarraounia is the mythologized Queen of the Aznas. She is believed to be invincible. But she is a ruler with a difference. We see her as a child learning all that a ruler must know - medicine, archery, diplomacy, and how to manage people. The traditions she will nurture and defend are democratic, peace-loving and co-operative, they are respectful of everyone.
The story tells of the murderous incursions of the French at the turn of the century. Bribing the Sudanese to enslave West Africans and to become mercenaries, attempting to divide and rule by fanning the mistrust between Muslim and infidel, they bring death and destruction. Sarraounia, the warrior queen, is their last target. Anybody expecting a Boys Own treatment of this essentially adventurous theme, will be mistaken. For the treatment is immensely subtle and humorous when at home among the Africans - though perhaps less so when dealing with the French.
But the film is magical and compelling aesthetically. It gives ample space to the beauty and elegance of the people of Burkina Faso, their homes and traditions. And this is counterpointed by quite exceptional music, especially composed and performed by musicians from Burkina and Gabon.
The financing was local - it cost three million dollars to make - but the rest of the input was international. Based on a novel by Abouaya Mauncea from Niger, it is directed by the writer-director Med Houab from Mauritius with great skill. The elements are diverse; with French, pidgin-French and more than one Burkina language spoken by the French, their Sudanese conscripts, the rival Muslim groups and the Aznas. But they are sewn together without a seam. The result is absolutely spectacular.
Distributor Blue Dolphin 15-17 Old Compton Street London W1, UK Tel 01-439 9811
Amazing Grace and Chuck
directed by Mike Newell
Amazing Grace belongs to the Hollywood genre of 'miracle films' in which the realm of probability is chucked out the window at the start. But it is unusual among them for making a political point - it challenges the concept of nuclear deterrence on which the Pentagon's multi-billion-dollar budget is based.
The movie centres on 11-year-old Chuck, a star pitcher in little-league baseball from a small town in Montana. When his class is taken by a conservative politician on a tour of a strategic air command missile silo, Chuck tumbles into a state of shock. He feels the only appropriate response is to give up the thing he likes best, baseball, as a form of protest. Soon Amazing Grace Smith star of the Boston Celtics basketball team, shows up on Chuck's doorstep to explain that he is giving up his own multi-million-dollar job in solidarity. A worldwide avalanche of athletes doing the same thing follows, forcing the superpowers to meet and cut back the arms race.
The film is rather Disney-esque, especially when it comes to the motivation of the characters. But why shouldn't we have politically helpful fairy stories? This is an interesting attempt to use a vacuous Hollywood form to raise a serious issue.
by Toni Morrison
(Chatto & Windus)
If you only read one novel in the year, make it this one. Toni Morrison brings anger, anguish and compassion to the subject of slavery and a mother's love. She has taken a hideous history and turned it into a magnificent and audaciously imaginative novel of heartrending despair and fierce optimism.
Beloved is set in the mid-1800s. At Sweet Home in Kentucky slavery is under attack from the abolitionists - but escape from the benevolent imprisonment of Sweet Home has a fearful price for Sethe and her children. Freedom is fragile and dangerous and the past erupts into the present as a mother's awesome love flowers into desperate violence. Death is the only sanctuary. 'Beloved' is the name, carved on a tombstone, of the daughter that Sethe kills to save, and it is Beloved who returns to demand retribution.
Toni Morrison has written a passionately bighearted novel in which sadness is tragic and love dangerous. She shows how the human spirit can be crushed, but she also shows how it can rise above suffering - defiant, desperate and transforming.
A fate worse than debt
by Susan George
(Penguin/ The Grove Press).
Susan George, who explained world hunger in her classic How the other half dies (Penguin, 1976), has pulled it off again with A fate worse than debt. She manages to put over a comprehensive and radical analysis of the Third World debt crisis and make it easy to read.
Cutting through the complexities and technical language, George's gift is to call a spade a spade. She argues that there is a consortium of rich nations and banks using the one trillion dollar debt burden - that's a hundred billion dollars - to keep the Third World in line. The International Monetary Fund is their instrument, imposing austerity measures and adjustment policies on debtor nations in exchange for further loans.
Seldom mentioned in the same breath, the US owes two trillion dollars - which it has borrowed to finance its military spending. Washington can only borrow by pushing up interest rates worldwide, effectively making the other debtor nations pay for the US arms race, George argues.
She reports on the brutal impact of the debt crisis at the grass roots, from Mexico to Zaire. In one Zaire town, for example, where a family needs 80 zaires a day just to buy food, the teachers' salary is 20 zaires a day.
A kind of 'Financial Low-Intensity Conflict' is being fought by the consortium against the underdeveloped world. Its aim? Similar to President Reagan's war in Nicaragua, not to win but to keep the adversary dependent, weak and subservient.
Inevitably the book has been partly overtaken by events, notably the stock market crash which happened after it went to press. But everyone who wants to see a tourniquet applied to the flow of funds from the nations of the South to the North should read it.
Thunder Before Dawn
by various artists
The second record in a series called The Indestructible Beat of Soweto - a title which shows a sharp eye for selling to the South African solidarity market. This is a compilation of mbaqanga music, very typical of the township jive you would have heard in any shebeen since the 1960s: lively, rollicking music with fluid, chattering guitars. Don't look here for anything rousingly political - instead we are offered the everyday concerns of township life from 'shared beer' to a sister's wedding, marital arguments to 'the importance of proper education'. And listen here for rhythm and exuberance - the best vocal moments are the cool interjections of the Mahotella Queens, part of the township supergroup Mahlathini Nezintombi Zomgqashiyo.
There is overall a certain uniformity to the record. But it is an astutely packaged and worthwhile collection nonetheless, with translations from the Zulu on the sleeve.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
Memories, dreams, reflections
...being the real life of a psychologist for the New Age
In the 400-odd pages of Jung's autobiography there is scarcely a hint of the usual epic of the 'great man': career, lectures, conferences, successes, honours, meetings with other 'great men', schisms, politics or money. For none of this interested him in the very least. Jung lived his life from within, and only that which touched him psychically is recorded here. It is an account of dreams, visions, meetings, coincidences and study, described with the poetic intensity of a child. We find Jung, nearing 50, building himself a stone tower by the lakeside where he would draw water and chop wood and cook. 'It would be something of an African hut,' he said, 'round, to express familial wholeness.' He abandoned his academic duties to do this. And it illustrates his indifference to the conventional concerns of the professional world as well as his commitment to living out his ideas.
It is usual to describe Jung as a mystic, given his dedication to the study of alchemy, ancient and primitive thought and religious experience. Yet, as he points out, in contrast to the Eastern mysticism of ascetic withdrawal, he was an intense participant in the physical (though not the social) world around him. It was an intensity which never faded. Here is Jung, in his mid-thirties, writing to his wife from a stormy voyage across the Atlantic: 'The objects in my cabin had all come to life: the sofa cushion crawled about on the floor... A recumbent shoe sat up and looked around in astonishment, then shuffled quickly under the sofa. A standing shoe turned wearily on its side and followed its mate... under the sofa to fetch my bag and briefcase.
Jung was an explorer of the human mind. Objects, nature, dreams and visions, and apparently random events had a life and coherence of their own. That coherence was the core of his psychology. It related more to future than to contemporary scientific knowledge. It was based on the twin ideas of connectedness and wholeness: of matter with mind; of religions and their symbols with the sciences and theirs; of humanity past with humanity present. The common elements were to be found in the collective unconscious in the form of images and archetypes to be found in all cultures.
Some people have interpreted Jung's ideas on primitive thought and consciousness as a belief in inferior forms of thought and consciousness, as expressing a form of racism. This is understandable. Jung had no awareness of the politics of imperialism. And he often expressed himself in the racist language of his era. But such an interpretation misses the heart of his philosophy. All forms of thought and consciousness were for him equal in value to the human condition. The subjugation and denial of some forms were for Jung the origin of the tragic in human affairs. Above all he feared the pseudo-rationality of the European. His journeys out of Europe were immensely significant from this perspective. He was searching for peoples who used all the power of their minds. In both African and North American Indian society he found forms of wisdom and an elegance of outlook which left an indelible impression on him.
Like Freud, whom he respected, he saw a link between the symptoms of his patients and cultural myths. As with Freud, those psychic symptoms were not for medical classification but were essential spies into the condition of humanity. But beyond that the two psychologists diverged. For Jung, spirituality - as shown in religious beliefs and in imagination - was not simply a product of a biological system as it was for Freud, but a primary element of the mind.
Jung didn't see life as a struggle towards moral perfection - the conventional Christian attitude. For he believed the more you try to do good, the more evil is likely to surface elsewhere. Instead he saw as important the balance between (and the integration of) inferior elements (by inferior he meant unacknowledged), with the superior (acknowledged) elements in the mind. And he saw the struggles of humanity in essentially the same way. His only recommendation for saving the world from total disintegration was that of finding the balance between polar forces: not just those of good and evil, but of male and female, inner and outer, feeling and reason.
His vivid sense of connection to the cosmos through everyday experience and through being attentive to his dreams and visions permeates the book with happiness. Although it has been said that Jung, at the end of his life, was pessimistic about the future of humanity, gripped by compulsive, rational-but-monstrous science, his autobiography is suffused with calm hope.
Jung, maybe the most remarkable thinker of this century, was a psychologist for an age which has not yet arrived. He looked beyond the extroverted, other-directed, materialistic spirit of our world, to one where people would know how to find richness and strength within themselves.
Memories, dreams, reflections by Carl Gustav Jung
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