New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 240

new internationalist
issue 240 - February 1993

Reviews

STAR RATING Film

Sarafina!
directed by Darrell James Roodt

Apartheid: The Musical. Whoopi Goldberg & Co making a song and dance of the Soweto Uprising. The idea of a big-budget musical about apartheid may seem like an absurd joke but Sarafinal is an altogether plausible venture, even though its blend of politics and high-stepping doesn't quite gell. It had its roots in a stage musical by actor/musician/writer Mbongeni Ngema that was massively successful in the US a couple of years ago; and it has its rationale in the tight associations in South Africa between political resistance and music. There's a clash between the township jive dance routines and the hard realism favoured by director Roodt - he's too much of a documentary filmmaker to help the hoofing catch fire - but there's also a sense of conviction, especially in the acting, that really comes across.

Sarafina! is set in Soweto (where it was shot) at the time of the 1976 state of emergency when schoolchildren were being massacred by troops. Sarafina is the name of a teenage girl, played by Leleti Khumalo, whose dreams of pop stardom have a decidedly political twist - the pinup she moons over every morning is Nelson Mandela. She dreams of playing him in the Whoopi Goldberg and Sarafina. school end-of-year production, supervised by Mary Masombuka (Whoopi Goldberg), a teacher determined to give her pupils a sense of identity in the face of daily repression. But when troops move in on the school to question pupils and staff about a classroom burning, Sarafina's painful politicization is not far off.

Whoopi Goldberg was a wise choice, her showbizzy style fitting in more self-effacingly than you might expect (and her accent's not bad either). Although her role is little more than a cameo with a tragic payoff, her dignified sarcasm towards the Cape Town police sets the tone for Sarafina's own persistence. And Khumalo is extraordinary as the young heroine, making a convincing transition from naive vibrancy to hard-edged determination in the face of the torture she eventually suffers. Part history lesson, part spectacle, the film never quite pulls off the difficult balancing-act between rage and jubilation. But at the beginning, when its cast of kids dance Fame-style around a mock-up of the Hollywood Sign that reads SOWETO, you can't help but applaud the ambition. And it certainly has better music than any Hollywood movie you'll see this year.

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Romper Stomper
directed by Geoffrey Wright

This film is not for the squeamish - but then again neither is much of contemporary society. The plot is simple: to a defiantly multicultural suburb in Melbourne comes a neo-Nazi group committed to pursuing its aims (ridding the country of non-whites) with violence. Racism, the increasing gap between rich and poor, alienation and social isolation are recurring themes as the group of skinheads at the centre of the film see their world crumble about their ears. The violence which governs their lives is far from glamorized - the pain of each blow and the trauma of the aftermath is shown with repulsive accuracy. Yet Romper Stomper is unable to identify the roots of racism or even of the violence itself - and even suggests simplistically that the skins' errors stem from the failures of a dysfunctional family.

The anti-fascist message is driven home without any recourse to subtlety and, like its own soundtrack of disturbing noise and the vacuous lyrics of skinhead anti-music, clarity is anathema. And due to the restrictions of time and even the film form itself, the behaviour of Asians and skins alike tends to reinforce stereotypes.

Romper Stomper will challenge viewers by its apparent breaking of conventions, but as is all too often the case, the greater potential to clarify debate has been lost.

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Music

Ragas and Sagas
by Jan Garbarek, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan
and musicians from Pakistan (ECM)

Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek has tended to be associated with Nordic coolness because of his penchant for building improvisations around Scandinavian folk melodies. But he's also been an adventurous searcher in other areas, working in the past with Greek and Tunisian musicians, and with the famously eclectic Indian violinist Shankar. Ragas and Sagas finds him in the company of a group of classical musicians from Lahore, headed by singer Ustad Fateh Ali Khan (not to be confused with the well-known qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) and his student Deepika Ththaal. The other instruments are tabla and the 39-stringed violin the sarangi, while also present on one track is drummer Manu Katche (known for his collaborations with Peter Gabriel), who puts a decidedly spacy and modernist twist into a music which often sounds austere and antique.

For all the austerity this is an immensely sensuous music, built up on rhythmic repetition that's nudged open by the vocal lines, alternately sinuous or rattling in staccato, and by Garbarek's nagging, edgy soprano. Garbarek features almost as a guest here, all the compositions except one being by Ali Khan; but it's very much in the sense of an honoured house guest given freedom to roam a very palatial family mansion. Three of the five tracks come in around the 13-minute mark, giving all the musicians a space for concentrated expansiveness. It's a record that works on all fronts - from musical invention through sensuousness to cultural dialogue.

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Books

Distant Voices
by John Pilger (Vintage)

Distant Voices by JOHN PILGER 'They who put out the people's eyes reproach them of their blindness.' John Milton's words, which Pilger quotes, remain true today. John Pilger sets himself to restore our sight, to help us see the inhuman crimes that governments commit in our name. His new book gathers together 46 of his articles, most from 1991 and 1992. He ranges all over the world: from an English coal mine to Florida's Disney World; from Cambodia (of course) via the Philippines to Iraq and the Gulf War.

The section on Cambodia is the most substantial and most heartfelt of the nine sections into which the book is divided. It tracks the way Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge have been lifted back into a dominant and threatening position in Cambodian politics with help from within the US State Department and the British Foreign Office - and Pilger will be making his full case in the April issue of the NI. The 12 articles under the heading Mythmakers of the Gulf War bring us face to face with horrors that the powers-that-be would prefer us not to know: how bulldozers buried Iraqi conscripts alive; how Iraqi children contracted disease from eating dirt; what a cluster bomb does to people.

The experts and the mainstream media have sought to normalize the unthinkable; to turn our faces away from the horrors of war. Pilger is one of those who help us to hold on to our consciences, our sense of humanity. Even if you have read some of these articles already they deserve reading again - and to be given pride of place on your bookshelves.

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Reviews editor: Chris Brazier

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Mythologies
... being the book that turned nature into history.

Mythologies. Mythologies is a series of essays, written in the mid-1950s, about typical Western consumerist habits and pastimes. Their apparent triviality is signalled both by their titles (Soap Powders and Detergents, Operation Margarine, Toys, Steak and Chips, Plastic) and their brevity. But the odd seriousness with which their author, Roland Barthes, treats such commercial detritus, and the stylishness with which he does so, together suggest that something of considerable cultural importance is happening. And so it is.

A single example will show that these essays are anything but self-indulgent investigations of the negligible. In a piece called Wine and Milk Barthes catalogues the reasons for the seemingly 'natural' French passion for wine. Essentially this means uncovering the ways in which wine exists as a symbol as much as a substance. In one paragraph he refers to wine as a 'resilient totem', a 'galvanic', 'converting' and 'alchemical' substance with a 'philosophical power'. Such symbolic status derives from wine's capacity to change and reverse consciousness and behaviour. From this arises a national 'mythology' of wine to which every French person is expected to subscribe - if you don't confess to such belief in wine you risk being labelled dangerously deviant.

This national euphoria over wine, Barthes points out, is so habitual that it now seems 'natural', and its economic basis is deliberately and outrageously ignored: 'its production is deeply involved in French capitalism, whether it is that of the private distillers or that of the big settlers in Algeria who impose on the Muslims, on the very land of which they have been dispossessed, a crop of which they have no need, while they lack even bread'. Barthes thus devastatingly links the seemingly innocent everyday pleasures of French life with the barbarities of imperial conquest. His intention is to show how the 'mythology' works, as a means of shattering it: 'wine cannot be an unalloyedly blissful substance, except if we wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an expropriation'.

All of the essays, in one way or another, show how Western consumption is regulated by a mass culture (the media, advertising, education) which produces certain 'mythologies'. Mythology is deeply bound up with forgetfulness. The mythologizing of daily life invites us to forget or ignore the economic basis of all consumption, investing commodities with a symbolic 'naturalness'. 'I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn,' Barthes explains in his preface, 'and I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there'.

Barthes identified this process of creating 'naturalness' for the masses as one in which a 'bourgeois' version of experience was offered as universal, and the use of this word indicates his close relationship, at this time, with the Marxist tradition. But Mythologies has no truck with mechanical Marxist notions of 'false consciousness', which see 'the truth' as being systematically withheld from the working population by the propaganda of a ruling class. In the long theoretical essay with which Barthes concludes the book (Myth Today) it is clear that there is no 'reality' separate from the ways in which social life is represented. Our 'real' lives are inextricably bound up with the ways in which we represent ourselves and interpret others' representations (in films, in news, in magazines, and so on). The difference, for example, between New Internationalist and The Economist, is not that one is 'true' and the other 'false'. Both are ideological, but each represents social life in fundamentally different ways. We favour one or the other because we see in it the prospect of our individual or collective interests being advanced.

Why is this important? Well, traditional Marxism's only answer to 'false consciousness' was political insurrection by a revolutionary minority which would then establish 'the truth' of communism. This alternative vision of the political potential of the vast majority of people in any society is arguably as impoverished as that which it replaces. In both cases popular consciousness is deliberately managed by a small élite which is confident of its own absolute authority. That we now see the simple-mindedness (never mind the danger) of this position is partly due to the work of Roland Barthes. For if our consciousness is formed through our representations, it can also be transformed by them. Such 'intellectual' transformations have to be struggled for every bit as much as 'economic' ones: the two can't be separated, and indeed often depend on each other.

But, after all, I can only be telling you this to remind you of it. For you already believe it. If you didn't, why would you be reading this magazine?

Macdonald Daly

Mythologies by Roland Barthes (1957), is published in English by Paladin.

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