New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 248

new internationalist
issue 248 - October 1993

Reviews

STAR RATING Film

Daughters of the Dust
directed by Julie Dash

On the shores of a New World: the exquisite Daughters of the Dust. Daughters of the Dust is the first full-length feature by the African-American writer/director Julie Dash, who has already established herself as a film-maker of considerable note with shorts such as Illusions, about a black woman who passes for white in Hollywood during the 1940s. Daughters of the Dust continues Dash’s project to construct a history of the female African-American experience. It is set on the Sea Islands off Georgia at the turn of the century as members of the Peazant family prepare to journey to the mainland to start a new life.

The Sea Islands are where the captive Africans were landed before being sold. On the abolition of slavery many set up home there on this hinterland between America and Africa. Dash weaves its magical sense of place into the very texture of her film, drawing on diverse mythologies and traditions from Islamic to African, not least in the cadences of John Barnes’ sweeping, almost operatic, score.

We wear our scars like armour. Dash eschews conventional narrative and knits up the story using different voices, which lends comparison to such African-American writers as Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison more readily than to other film-makers. Here the charged wisdom of the family elder, Nana Peazant, and the sweet comments of a child about to be born into the family are braided together, holding this pivotal moment of beginnings and endings in place. Within that cradle, other stories and conflicts tumble and find resolve, whether that of Yellow Mary who left for the mainland years before and now leads an independent life as a prostitute, of Viola, who went to the mainland to become a Baptist, or of Eula, raped by a white land-owner. Daughters of the Dust is about how these women resist victimization: ‘we wear our scars like armour for protection’. These are the children of ‘those who choose to survive’.

Exquisitely photographed by Arthur Jafa in the richest of colours, Dash honours the Peazant family with the beauty and grace that has been obscured by a colonial past - and present. There is a huge legacy to be dealt with. Full of ritual and celebration, Daughters of the Dust is a fittingly ceremonial place to begin.

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Music

Majurugenta
by Ghorwane
(Real World/Virgin)

Confidence in adversity: Ghorwane. If Mozambique still lacks a presence in modern African music it’s not for want of talent. Ghorwane – the name comes from a lake that, even in the hottest season, never runs dry – prove that. Majurugenta is their first commercial release: recorded in 1991, two years in the can has done nothing to reduce its vivacity.

Ghorwane were formed in 1983, in the thick of the bitter war that followed Portugal’s cession of the former colony in 1975, and their own history is inextricably tied to the volatile politics of their homeland. Band members oscillated between the group and the army while their chief and prolific writer, Jose ‘Zeca’ Alage, was murdered earlier this year - the motive for the murder was not political but it reflects the social turmoil endemic in Mozambique.

Ghorwane take an unblinkered look at their society. The Alage-penned opening track - Muthimba - uses a traditional lament which speaks of the rigours of war. In Buluku (‘Trousers’) they sing that some women have resorted to prostitution to get clothing. Mavabwyl (‘Illness’) remembers those dying in hospitals where medicines are rare: the implicit message is that the Frelimo government is too busy fighting the Renamo rebels to provide for its population.

These were, as Ghorwane’s popularity attests, accurate snapshots of everyday life in Mozambique. Yet it wasn’t only the civilian listeners who paid close attention to such lyrics. The boefs - security services - were also interested and it was only the direct intervention of the late president Samora Machel that saved the band back in the mid-1980s.

The subject matter may be weighty but it is set to music characterized by a light and insinuating quality. The nine-piece band intersperses traditional Mozambican rhythms with hints of zouk, soukous and even reggae, and there are Brazilian overtones in the instrumentation - horns, percussion and a weave of rhythm guitars - which contribute much of the dancey atmosphere. And the album’s title track, which refers to a fashion style, is equipped with the kind of captivating guitar lilt that would put much Western dance music to shame.

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Books

Bloodlines
by Kev Carmody
(Festival)

Despite both groups being prisoners of sorts, Australia’s convict colony mostly sat uncomfortably with its de facto hosts, the Aborigines. Now, 200 years later, elements of colonial Irish ‘larrikinism’ and Aboriginal questioning have been blended with blues and folk to form an inspiring musical package.

Carmody, a Murri Aborigine, is the son of an Irish father and a Murri mother. Bloodlines, his third album, has an energetic and richly layered sound, showcasing a wide variety of musical styles.

The lyrical themes are even more diverse, from the experience of young urban Aborigines to health-and-environment issues such as asbestosis. The single, Freedom, was written for Nelson Mandela’s first visit to Australia. Here, Carmody connects the themes of freedom, equality and justice, and ties them to the Aboriginal beliefs in a Mother Earth which links ‘the law, the land and human birth’.

The breadth of vision is typical. At one moment Carmody is writing of ‘the majesty of the universe, beyond all human worth, through which the Messenger soars suspended in the sacred cathedral of the earth’; at another of the darker urban realities of freeways and McDonalds; and at yet another of the trendy lefties he calls the ‘bourgeois drop-out progeny’, who ‘eat organic food from land their forbears stole’.

Carmody’s Bloodlines complements Yothu Yindi’s foray into the commercial music industry. Together they form an indelible presence on the stave of the Australian music industry - one which should resound to the benefit of indigenous peoples throughout the world.

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Fair Trade Fair Trade
by Michael Barratt Brown
(Zed)

Twopence in the pound, two cents in the dollar - that is, at best, the tiny fraction of what we pay for coffee and sugar that flows back to the plantation workers who picked the berries or cut the cane. Much the same is true of the other products that the South sells to the industrialized North. The plight of the individual peasants is matched by that of the countries they inhabit, which are up to their necks in debt.

‘Unfair Trade’, the first part of Michael Barratt Brown’s admirably clear guide to a notoriously soporific subject, explains how peasants and labourers in the South are exploited all the way along the line: by the local middlepeople, moneylenders and speculators (known as coyotes in Mexico, piranhas in Peru and as sharks elsewhere); by the almighty multinationals and the operators in the international commodity markets.

It is one thing to show what is wrong; another to say what might be done about it. But the second part of the book - ‘Making Trade Fairer’ - goes that extra difficult mile to suggest how things might change. We have good cause to be sceptical about the possibility of the global powers-that-be accepting fairer regulations for trade that hit their own pockets but Barratt Brown’s case for them is incontrovertible. And in the meantime we can take direct action as consumers by supporting both the growing network of Alternative Trading Organizations and the associated idea of a Fair Trade Mark, to be awarded to products which offer a fairer deal to their Third World producers.

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T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Metropolis
... being the science-fiction film that is steadily becoming fact.

Metropolis. When German director Fritz Lang visited the United States in 1924, his first glimpse of the country was a night-time view of the New York skyline from the deck of an ocean liner. This, he later recalled, was the direct inspiration for what is still probably the most innovative and influential science-fiction film ever made – Metropolis.

Metropolis is a bleak vision of the early twenty-first century that is at once both chilling and exhilarating. This spectacular city of the future is a technological marvel of high-rise buildings connected by elevated railways and airships. It’s also a world of extreme inequality and social division. The workers live below ground and exist solely to operate the city’s machines in an endless routine of mind-numbing 10-hour shifts while the city’s élite lead lives of luxury high above. Presiding over them all is the Master of Metropolis, John Fredersen, whose sole satisfaction seems to lie in the exercise of power.

Lang’s graphic depiction of the future is conceived in almost totally abstract terms. The function of the individual machines is never defined. Instead this mass of dials, levers and gauges symbolically stands for all machines and all industry, with the workers as slave-like extensions of the equipment they have to operate. Lang emphasizes this idea in the famous shift-change sequence at the start of the movie when the workers walk in zombie-like geometric ranks, all dressed in the same dark overalls and all exhibiting the same bowed head and dead-eyed stare. An extraordinary fantasy sequence sees one machine transformed into a huge open-jawed statue which then literally swallows them up.

On one level the machines and the exploited workers simply provide the wealth and services which allow the élite to live their lives of leisure, but on a more profound level the purpose of all this demented industry is to serve itself. Power, control and the continuance of the system from one 10-hour shift to the next is all that counts. The city consumes people and their labour and in the process becomes a perverse parody of a living being.

It is enlightening, I think, to relate the film to the modern global economy in which multinational corporations now routinely close their factories in one continent so that they can take advantage of cheap labour in another. Like the industry in Metropolis, these corporations’ goals of increased efficiency and profits have little to do with the welfare of the majority of their employees or that of the population at large. Instead their aims are to sustain the momentum of their own growth and to increase the monetary rewards to a tiny élite – their executives and shareholders. Fredersen himself is the essence of the big company boss: Rupert Murdoch would probably feel perfectly at home in his huge skyscraper office with its panoramic view of the city below. And it is important that there is never any mention of government in Metropolis – the whole concept is by implication obsolete. The only people who have power are the supreme industrialist, Fredersen, and his magician/scientist cohort Rotwang.

So far so good: when the images are allowed to speak for themselves the film is impeccable both in its symbolism and in its cynicism. The problem with Metropolis is its sentimental story-line, which sees Freder, Fredersen’s son, instantly falling in love with the visionary Maria. Maria leads an underground pseudo-religious movement and preaches that the workers should not rebel but should await the arrival of a ‘Mediator’ between the ‘Head’ (capital) and the ‘Hands’ (labour). That mediator is the ‘Heart’ - love, as embodied, finally, by Freder’s love of Maria and his father’s love of him.

Lang wrote the screenplay in collaboration with his then wife Thea von Harbou. In 1933 he fled from the Nazis (and continued a very successful career in Hollywood). She stayed in Germany and continued to make films under the Hitler regime. There is a constant tension within the film between the too-tidy platitudes of von Harbou’s script and the uncompromisingly caustic vigour of Lang’s imagery.

To my mind, both in Metropolis and in the real world, it’s not so much that the ‘Head’ and ‘Hands’ require a ‘Heart’ to mediate between them but that the ‘Hands’ need to develop their own ‘Head’, their own political consciousness, and act accordingly – through the ballot box, through buying power and through a sceptical resistance to the materialistic fantasies of the Fredersens.

All the same, Metropolis is probably more accurate now as a representation of industrial and social relations than it has been at any time since its original release. And Fredersen is certainly still the most potent movie symbol of the handful of elusive corporate figureheads who increasingly treat the world as a Metropolis-like global village.

Tom Tunney

Metropolis directed by Fritz Lang (1926)

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