New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 254

new internationalist
issue 254 - April 1994

Reviews

STAR RATING Books

Harvest of Fear
John Murphy
(Allen & Unwin, ISBN 1 86373 449 X)

Green Technology House and Garden
Michael Harris and Caire Beaumont
(ATA Books, ISBN 0646 15196 7)

Mcheshi goes to the market
illustrated by Nicholas Sironka, Judy Wanjiku Mathenge, James Okello and Martin Otieno
(Jaracanda Designs Ltd, Nairobi)

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Mcheshi goes to market [image, unknown]
Daniel and the Mischief Boy Come home soon, Baba [image, unknown]

Come home soon, Baba
by Janie Hampton
(Blackie Children’s Books ISBN 0 216 94019 2)

Daniel and the Mischief Boy
by Paul Vallely with pictures by Mike Goldwater
(Fount/Christian Aid ISBN 0 00 627675 X)

 

It was 1954. Richard Casey, Australia's External Affairs minister, knew how to sum up popular middle-Australian sentiment with regard to the country's place in Asia: "With the black cloud of China hanging in the north, we must make sure that our children do not end up pulling rickshaws with hammer and sickle signs on their sides". Much can change in a generation. And much can remain the same.

Such feelings were at one level natural exten- sions of the fear of Chinese expansion after the communist victory in 1949. These were years of uncertainty, anxiety and almost foreboding about world events.

Harvest of Fear is a history of Australia's experience of the Vietnam war, its longest and most contentious armed conflict. Such military intervention naturally reflected the political align- ments of Australia and New Zealand in the Cold War, but also the region's deeper and more trou- bled anxieties about Asia.

The book is strengthened through its painting a picture of social and political life in colonial and post-colonial Vietnam.

It is moreover a helpful portrait of the origins and political impact of the powerful Australian anti-war movement. Harvest of Fear's strength lies in these two complementary threads. First, that anti-war activists in Australia saw themselves not only in opposition to their country's involve- ment, but also as critics of the new forms of sub- urban indifference, the emerging 'civic withdraw- al' from activism.

The second thread is that a third of the book is devoted to Phuoc Tuy province, where Australian soldiers lived and fought. But rather than simply being a treatise of military woes and exploits, it also covers Vietnam's colonial and post-colonial social history, and, most importantly, the dynam- ics of revolution and war at a local level. It is here that Harvest of Fear serves readers best, provid- ing a unique insight into Vietnam past and pre- sent.

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Homes provide us with rest, safety and shelter, but the way their design shapes our lives is some- thing we rarely think about. The Green Technology House and Garden book not only deals with making your home more energy effi- cient, but also how it can become more healthy to body and soul (yours and other people's). There is a wealth of practical information on minimising environmental impact, whether building or reno- vating, low cost heating alternatives, and eco-gar- dening.

It may not be the first book on this theme, nor the most comprehensive. But it is an excellent introduction, being neither too technical nor too overwhelming for beginners.

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There are very few books for children which present life in Africa in ways they can understand. All too often children are left to interpret Africa through the images of starvation and poverty that they see on TV. So these books are a refreshing change. Mcheshi goes to market is a colourful book, beautifully illustrated by four Kenyan artists. With both English and Swahili text, it takes the reader straight into Mcheshi’s life as she asks: ‘Do you want to come with us?’ From then on the reader follows Mcheshi through an outing to the market, buying a shirt for her brother and hiding from her mother.

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Come home soon, Baba also takes a direct approach, tracing the feelings of the child, Blessing, when his father has to go away to work. Blessing’s father – or Baba in Shona, a Zimbabwean language – promises to be back by the time the chicken’s eggs hatch and we follow Blessing’s anticip-ation as he helps his family make bricks for a new room.

Blessing likes the feel of mud on his toes – what child does not? – and the cool clear water of the river as he splashes in it. Finally, the eggs hatch and Baba returns. A story that’s simple, but real.

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Daniel and the Mischief Boy is real in a different way. Mike Goldwater’s excellent colour photographs accompany the story of Daniel, a little boy who is not afraid of ghosts or the Monster Monkey. Daniel and his family live in Eritrea, and the book traces the scrapes that he gets himself into as he takes the ox to water or lands on his bottom in a cactus plant.

This book does not shun the harsh realities of Daniel’s life but at the same time it manages to catch the fun of being a 10-year-old boy – anywhere in the world.

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These books can be purchased through:
Letterbox Library,
2nd Floor, Leroy House, 436 Essex Road, London N1 3QP, UK.
Tel (71) 226 1633. Fax (71) 226 1768.

 

Film

Schindler’s List
directed by Steven Spielberg

Schindler, slipping into a hero's role. When the man who brought world audiences ET, Jaws and Jurassic Park announced that he was going to adapt Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark for screen, many demurred. How could Hollywood’s ultimate myth-maker tackle the true story of Oscar Schindler, the opportunist German Catholic businessman who saved 1,100 Jews from the Nazi Holocaust by buying them and employing them in his utensils factory?

Schindler’s List does find Spielberg in exceptionally solemn mode. He has produced an arresting film that cannot fail to disturb, not least because it recreates terrible scenes of the atrocities meted out to the Jews. Using his supreme skill at entertaining, Spielberg draws the audience into that gruelling era of history, and holds our attention for the film’s three hours.

Like many of his films it is preoccupied with good and evil – and its arbitrariness. There is a sense in which Schindler slips into the role of hero, just as a Nazi soldier might have ‘slipped’ into the role of murderer.

The fact that it is shot in black and white gives Schindler’s List an art-house edge, alluding to the documentary footage from the period but also reminding us that it is a feature film. But is it right to recreate scenes from the Holocaust? The debates around the film are similar to those around Holocaust museums in Washington and Los Angeles which use theme-park-style interactive effects to recreate the experience of death camps.

So how does one preserve the memory of events of such significance, particularly when fascism is on the rise again? Perhaps it is indicative of our culture that there can no longer be education without entertainment.

Schindler’s List will attract audiences who have not seen the monumental documentaries on the Holocaust: Marcel Ophul’s The Sorrow and the Pity, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah or Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog. Spielberg has made an emotionally powerful film, but its real strength is in the issues it raises and the debates it provokes after viewing. So go and see it – and talk about it.

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Music

Ayé
by Angelique Kidjo
(Mango/Island 518432 CD/LP/MC)

Kidjo: A lithe, controlling spirit.
PIERRE GAYTE

Benin’s diva of afro-funk could not have chosen a more apposite word with which to title her third solo album. In her native Fon language, ayé refers to life’s beginning. There are always new beginnings and that Kidjo’s album underpins funky soul sounds with traditional rhythms only reaffirms this quality of ayé.

Kidjo has journeyed to the funky heartland of our times: much of the album was recorded at Prince’s studio in Minneapolis. The result is a heady mix of African and Afro-American beats.

Ayé’s 10 songs are clear and stylish, and the dance numbers are capable of filling the most leaden shoes with helium.

But it is Kidjo’s voice that stands out as most extraordinary. From the opening growl of Agolo to the sweet invocation to the priestess of voodoo which closes the album, her range is always rich and versatile. Soaring above up-tempo numbers like Adouma (which translates as ‘Come and get it!’) she hovers like a lithe and controlling spirit.

The music is assertive and so are the lyrics, with a focus on the world. Singing in Fon and Yoruba – translated into French and English on the album sleeve – she tackles homelessness, racial conflict and environmental concerns. Even the more stereotypical subjects like love and pain are approached with a difference: ‘You feel like an alien in this world,’ she sings in Idje Idje, building a gentle tune into a thing of stirring intensity, with a belting soul chorus, bass, horns and a piano line to kick the song into orbit. Its model could be a classic Motown, reshaped by direct contact with Africa.

Other genres are also invoked on this album. A loose, reggae-inspired beat flexes through Tombo and some of the fiery sax work seems inspired by Washington’s go-go bands. But Ayé always maintains a strong sense of its own identity, driven by an African heartbeat. This is a fine achievement, of interest to dance enthusiasts and fans of world music alike. Tipped in many corners as a musician capable of breaking into the Western markets is a big way, Angelique Kidjo seems to be on her way. With Ayé her arrival is only a matter of time.

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T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Brazil
... being the film that has nothing
to do with Latin America

photo by BFI STILLS Watching a recent rerun of a 1970s Monty Python’s Flying Circus series proved to be a depressing experience for me. What I remembered as the radical cutting edge of satire and comedy proved to be a flabby concoction of dubious humour and undoubted sexism.

The only parts of the programme to withstand the ravages of time were the oddball animation sequences put together by Terry Gilliam.

Gilliam is probably best known for these freewheeling, anarchic cartoons although he went on to direct the Python movies and then to make his own feature films. His early attempts – Jabberwocky and Time Bandits – were patchy affairs occasionally inspired but uneven fantasies. But in 1985 Gilliam hit his stride and produced what I believe to be his masterpiece with his third film Brazil.

I’d better say right away that Brazil has nothing to do with Latin America, and the title – taken from the popular tune that appears throughout the film – is a typical piece of Gilliam whimsy. The film is in fact a futuristic dystopia, a curious amalgam of 1940s Britain – vacuum tubes, valve computers, huge groaning machines of doubtful efficacy – and a nightmarish totalitarian state. Bombs are planted by the security forces to justify a reign of terror and a pampered élite indulge in trivial pastimes oblivious to the sufferings of the majority.

The plot centres around a clerical error in which an order for the arrest (and ‘disappearance’) of one Tuttle, a rebel leader, is issued in the name of Buttle, a totally innocuous man who is duly sucked into the security apparatus and disposed of. Sam Lowry, a lowly bureaucrat played by Jonathan Pryce, attempts a belated reparation for the mistake; while his colleagues are more concerned with disclaiming responsibility, he goes to see the man’s family. This act begins a chain of events which are to have dramatic and unforeseen consequences for Sam – he had previously been a closet rebel, confining his defiance to fantastic dreams of flying and battles with giant stereotypical enemies. Confronted with the evils of the system he has helped to run, his opposition becomes overt and he uses his knowledge to help Jill, a freedom fighter slated for the next roundup of subversives. The fragile and doomed love affair that blossoms brings Sam into head-on confrontation with the full power of the state.

Such a bald plot summary does the film no justice; in texture and detail it is like no other film I have seen. Crammed full of incident and layers of meaning, it is as perplexing and as susceptible to interpretation as the best literature – or perhaps this is just another way of saying that linear, logical plots have never been Terry Gilliams’s forte! Either way, Hollywood could not make head or tail of it, studio executives discussed truncating the film to impose a false happy ending, exactly as had been tried with Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. This would have had the dual effect of cutting an excruciating but essential torture scene and of rendering much of the preceding film meaningless. Gilliam, like Welles, won his battle to keep the film intact and preserve his chosen ending.

Although the ‘studio suits’ saw it as terribly negative and downbeat, Brazil is in fact a warm, funny and humane film. Despite the crushing system, people engage, as they always do, in small but significant acts of subversion – such as Sam’s office workmates switching their monitors to classic black and white films like Casablanca when their boss’s back is turned. Meanwhile the aforementioned Tuttle, played by Robert de Niro, is an heroic freelance plumber who operates outside the bureaucracy of ‘Central Services’ – an illegal and foolhardy act of independence. It is a strange but liberating world-view in which fixing central heating is a revolutionary act!

Brazil is that rare thing, a dystopian vision that is not soured by pessimism and defeatism. Unlike Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, it is a work in which humanity is oddly enlarged and ennobled rather than crushed by the terrible struggle with totalitarianism. Sam’s escape from the system is not suicide, nor acquiescence and acceptance of Big Brother. He has at least attempted to engage with the world on his terms and defeat in these circumstances is no disgrace.

I can’t say that viewing this film clarified my thoughts on where you draw the line between sullen dislike of an unacceptable regime and positive action to hasten its downfall; Gilliam’s vision doesn’t easily lend itself to any ‘party line’ on such matters. This has led to charges of incoherence and flippancy towards oppression. I can only say that Brazil is one of the most uplifting and heartening films I’ve ever seen; grandiose, overblown, startling, rich in visual imagery, thought-provoking. Unafraid of failure through overreaching, it is a beautifully made hymn to the human longing for freedom and a hugely entertaining satire on the lengths to which our masters will go to stop us having it.

Peter Whittaker

Brazil is directed by Terry Gilliam

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