New Internationalist

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Issue 286

Reviews

The NI Star rating system. Books

Return of the Indian
by Philip Wearne
Cassell/Latin America Bureau (ISBN 0-304-33458-8)

500 Nations
by Alvin M Josephy Jr
Pimlico (ISBN 0-7126-7421-7)

Return of the Indian Other people have always felt free to impose upon the indigenous peoples of the Americas more or less whatever took their fancy at the time. Five centuries ago, greed for gold was enough to justify unbridled savagery by European adventurers who used the term ‘Indian’ to describe the 2,000 distinct peoples and cultures they encountered. Today, the 800 peoples that remain find themselves portrayed as the guardians of ecological wisdom, the last remaining reason to believe that it survives at all in the human mind. Meanwhile a more gradual but equally relentless form of genocide continues across the two continents, North and South. In Canada, 90 per cent of the indigenous languages are in decline or endangered. The most remarkable thing is that they have survived at all.

With Return of the Indian Philip Wearne has rescued us – quite as much as the ‘Indians’ themselves – from the clutches of anthropologists, missionaries and sentimental hogwash, the muzak of cultural destruction. He has given us an extremely lucid, informative and compelling account of what really matters: how some 40 million indigenous people in the Americas see themselves. What we then discover is their giddying diversity, through which Wearne leads us with a sure-footed deftness.

There are, nonetheless, unifying themes as well. One is a form of indigenous ‘multinationalism’ that engages with the nation-states and vested interests of the two continents on its own terms. Another is resistance, amplified by a more recent shift away from the limitations of mere survival towards the possibilities of revival.

Rigoberta Menchú, the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, says in her foreword to the book: ‘We are moving into the light of a new era for our peoples. We believe that our voices will make themselves heard, that you will listen to us.’ The best possible way to keep that faith is to read this book.

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Shirt worn by Ghost Dancer. Many dancers believed the shirt would protect them from the whites' bullets. How indigenous Americans have been perceived by their oppressors is also an element in Alvin M Josephy’s 500 Nations, though his focus is mainly on North America. He details how, on a late December day in 1890, a small band of Minniconjou Sioux led by Chief Big Foot arrived at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. On their heels were US government forces intent on stamping out the banned ‘Ghost Dance’ religion. For the Sioux these dances, prayers and songs were a way of invoking dead ancestors and vanished buffalo herds. In the eyes of white government agents and soldiers, a group of indigenous people dancing looked like preparations for an uprising. That night Big Foot’s band camped under the watch of the US Seventh Cavalry. The following day a random shot started a panic. Within a short time almost 250 Sioux had been massacred by the soldiers – and with them the final battle for freedom for the Indian nations died too.

With its eloquent text and over 450 lavish illustrations and photographs, this book is an ideal and stirring introduction to the hundreds of Native American nations that once blanketed the continent. It also pays homage to those who continue to survive, despite the problems of poverty, racism, alcoholism and high unemployment. In the words of Mario Gonzalez, an Oglala Sioux: ‘Destiny is not a matter of fate. It’s a matter of choice. And we have some choice of continuing to survive here on this planet as Indian people. That’s our goal...’

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Music

Rumba Argelina
by Radio Tarifa
(World Circuit WCD 042)

(One:)
by Indigo
(EMI Premier PRMDCD/TC12)

Rumba Argelina Much has been written about the way Spanish flamenco and North African music have infiltrated each other over the course of centuries. But rarely does an album demonstrate these links as vivaciously as Radio Tarifa’s Rumba Argelina. Hailing from Tarifa in southern-most Spain – a crow’s fly from Tangiers and close enough to North Africa to hear the muezzin’s call to prayer – Radio Tarifa is headed by Benjamin Escoriza, Vincent Molina and Fain S Duenas. Their music, although made up of easily identifiable elements, is quite unlike anything else. It’s imaginary music: a music for a place and time that never was. Medieval-sounding cadences combine with haunting flutes, hammering flamenco beats and sombre violin lines. The Spanish-language songs are mainly traditionally based though removed as if to a parallel world by the group’s touch. An astonishing range of instruments is used: medieval crumhorns, arab flutes, synthesizers, an Indian harmonium, accordions, saxes, guitars, rice-shakers and a terracotta pot.

Every available item, it seems, has been used to contribute to the precise textures – some delicate, some gruff – that make up Rumba Argelina. Escoriza’s vocals are always direct and unruffled and there’s a hint of the heroic about them.

There’s music to suit every fantasist’s mood: foot-stamping dance, some mysterious and plangent tunes with slinky zither sounds and – one of the best moments – a stately song of courtly love entitled ‘Nu Alrest’. By taking up disparate elements to create a new voice, Rumba Argelina is a truly innovative and exciting album which comes highly recommended.

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Indigo’s debut release (One:) is similarly hybrid in inspiration, although the results are very different. Producer and songwriter Kenny Young and Franco Lautieri have set the songs and chants of indigenous peoples to a music more easily recognized as the international club sound. Tuva, Inuit, Tibetans, Ogoni and others all get the dance remix treatment. The fact that sales of (One:) will financially benefit the tribes involved is the album’s saving grace. It’s just a pity that Indigo’s social concerns do not translate into anything of much musical interest.

But if, by using their contacts with Western club audiences, Indigo can generate interest in the various folk musics then it will be an achievement of sorts.

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Film

Fallen Angels
by Wong Kar-wai

Fallen Angels At a time when the heart of the modern city beats to the rhythm of technology Fallen Angels comes to the screen as an extraordinarily powerful account of isolation and romantic disenchantment. It’s a passionate study of human life and emotions in a world where faxes, mobile phones and video cameras have become everyday tools of artificial proximity and fast food is proof that time is yet another consumer product.

Set against a backdrop of contemporary Hong Kong, the film explores an internal world in which the main characters narrate their memories and desires and these become more important than their actions. Constantly seeking the past or the future, they are unable to engage with the present.

Director Wong Kar-wai evokes the old theme of love in a completely new way. It is no longer based on the romantic encounter – in fact the two partners in love almost never interact directly throughout the entire film. Sexual pleasure is not a shared experience but an act of masturbation. In their romantic frustration and search for completeness the characters navigate through a range of feelings and behaviours. There’s the reflective woman who adores the objects of the man she longs for; and the demanding one, loudly asserting her rights over the phone to an uncaring lover. There’s the nice guy who offers her his shoulder to cry on; and the gangster who kills with no apparent reason and is unable to commit himself emotionally.

The characters are all young, part of Hong Kong’s so-called ‘Generation X’. Consumers of modern city culture, they are also paralyzed by it and reduced to a kind of political and moral passivity. But Wong Kar-wai is not preaching. Rather he is holding up a mirror to the state of things as they are, making us aware of what we are losing. Dramatically contemporary, Fallen Angels calls us to reflect on this world of simulacrum that takes us further and further away from any notion of reality and a modern culture that leaves us increasingly alone.

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T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
[Safe]
...being the film about the banality of peril.

A couple drives past the carefully sculpted facades of Los Angeles suburbia. It is night and everything seems to float in an eerie green light. Reaching home, the couple enter through their domestic security arrangements into a sleeping suburban pile. Next we see the woman’s face, wiped-out, passive, fearful perhaps or confused. Above her, her husband’s torso jerks in the rigours of marital sex. What is going on? Is this a film about gender clichés, or a critique of affluent ennui? Why is the woman’s face ultimately so indecipherable?

As the film progresses we realize that the woman is Carol White, a suburban housewife, possibly bored, possibly misunderstood, but also suffering from a mysterious debilitating illness which she herself cannot define and which male doctors see as ‘all in the mind’. The opening scene is already getting qualified: Carol is caught in a stereotypical gender role, but her lack of interest in sex is also the manifestation of her illness. Her fragile identity, marked mainly by externals such as aerobics and shopping, is also a factor. Such a multiplicity of meanings abound in almost every scene, and director Todd Haynes constantly trips up our expectations.

Julianne Moore’s quiet, selfless portrayal of Carol is consistently amazing. There are no ‘Dammit, I’m dying’ histrionics. As we realize that Carol’s illness is immune-deficiency related and is caused by multiple chemical sensitivity we begin to examine every detail in her environment – which could be our own – as potentially lethal.

Her illness is shored up by more general ills: her suburban isolation, her lack of purpose, her unfulfilled self. It’s metaphoric meanings are numerous: it can be read as an aids metaphor, as a reflection of ecological collapse, as an emblem of political inertia and as an opportunity to forge a new self. ‘It’s the thing that kicks her out of unconsciousness, out of this unexamined life,’ Haynes has said. It makes the viewer realize that identity is ‘a fragile and basically an imaginary construct that we pretend to carry around. The more unexamined it is the more vulnerable you are.’

[Safe]

Eventually, Carol decides to join Wrenwood, an isolated healing centre where exposure to chemicals is minimized and the emphasis is placed on the self. The inspirational figure at Wrenwood is Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman) who has chemical sensitivity and is hiv-positive, but remains radiantly healthy. ‘We are one with the power that created us,’ he declares. ‘We are safe, and all is well in our world.’ But is it?

Carol seems to have substituted one kind of isolation for another. How can you fight something when you are in retreat from it? Why is dissent not taken seriously at Wrenwood? Why does Dunning live in a mansion removed from the retreat? Why is the strategy for healing based only on personal transformation and not on other therapies?

This section of the film bristles with ambiguities. The group-therapy sessions are both revealing and cringe-worthy. Wrenwood is a supportive environment yet it does not make Carol better. In opting for a ready-made ‘solution’, Carol has again given up her own initiative. Before Wrenwood, Carol had met up with a group of sufferers getting together to exchange information and make sense of their condition and mobilize for change. This was a group that did not have the answers but was fighting to find them.

Haynes has given a wider political reading to Wrenwood as being ‘about the failure of the left; how it imploded into these notions of self and self-esteem and the ability to articulate and share emotions in the workplace or whatever. And it’s such a loss because what was once a critical perspective looking out, hoping to change the culture, is turning inward and losing all its gumption and power.’ It’s this critique of passivity that chills the viewer with the force of its truth.

This is deliberately not a film about gay people (though Haynes is gay himself) or drug-users or people living near a nuclear plant. It is located in ‘safe’, impossible-to-ignore, ‘normal’ suburbia. Despite all its ambiguity and multiple layers of meaning, [Safe] finally offers a stark choice: in the face of environmental collapse – and by implication political and cultural failure– is one to wait for someone else to come up with an answer, or get involved in the search to find it? Now the reply to that one at least should be easy.

Urvi Patel

[Safe] is directed by Todd Haynes (US, 1995) and is available from Tartan Video, 79 Wardour St, London W1V 3TH.
Tel: (171) 494 1400.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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