New Internationalist

Best Of The Year

Issue 320

new internationalist
issue 320 - January-February 2000

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Causing quite a stir: Deepa Mehta's Fire (pictured) and Earth (below). Deepa Mehta Due to the bizarre and varied workings of international film distribution, two of the most outstanding films which – for most NI subscribers – went on release in 1999 were the work of one director: Indian-born, Canadian-resident Deepa Mehta. First she caused a stir with the daring, memorable and beautifully filmed Fire (reviewed in NI 310). With sensitivity, compassion and even humour, this film entered the taboo area of a lesbian love that ignites between sisters-in-law in an outwardly ordinary middle-class family in Dehli. The emotional turmoil, as all the characters are pulled apart by the conflicting pulls and prejudices of modern urban India, is palpable. The film passed India’s censors but provoked violent outrage from some quarters. Undeterred, Deepa Mehta’s subsequent film Earth (reviewed in NI 319) also entered a potential minefield, the Partition of India in 1947, again with considerable skill, humanity and sensitivity. Based on the book Ice Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa, it added to a growing canon of works tackling this explosive theme, which was for decades barely mentionable (see Books).

Earth

 

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[image, unknown] The best were a fairly serious bunch this year, suitable for millennial ponderings of the ‘where are we going?’ nature. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch (Picador; reviewed in NI 313) was an extraordinary and chilling probing of the logic of genocide. How, in Rwanda in 1994, could 800,000 people be killed in less than a 100 days in the most efficient mass killing since Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Gourevitch examined how such acts are possible and what can make communal killing a ‘normal’ response to social problems. This heartfelt, deeply distressing and immensely important book could not be more timely for, in the words of Primo Levi: ‘It happened, therefore it can happen again… it can happen, and it can happen everywhere.’ Noam Chomsky’s offering Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order (Seven Stories Press; reviewed NI 312) confirmed his continuing relevance as a debunker of the myths of the ‘free market’. But he also offered hope: the greatest fear of the aristocrats of the market is an informed and organized opposition where people act as citizens not consumers. Information and the quest for truth was at the heart of Urvashi Butalia’s groundbreaking project, The Other Side of Silence (Viking Penguin India; reviewed in NI 310). This exploration of the Partition of India in 1947 was based on personal testimonies and interviews with ordinary people, especially women. But to this task Butalia also brought her feminist sensibility and analysis, pointing to how difficult it is to arrive at ‘the truth’ when the patriarchal consensus dominates and the men do the talking. Sane, compelling, compassionate, this book deserves the widest possible readership.

 

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Cesaria Evora Robert Wyatt The release most capable of influencing the way we approach music was actually a book, Exotica by David Toop (Serpent’s Tail; reviewed in NI 316), which radically questioned how we listen to music from other cultures. So, with some trepidation, here are some favourites of 1999. First, there’s Café Atlantico by Cape Verde’s wonderful Cesaria Evora (RCA Victor; reviewed in NI 315) whose mournful blues[image, unknown] really stir the soul. Next comes Britain’s Robert Wyatt, a man whose contribution to pop over the past 30 years is hard to measure. His latest release, EPs (Hannibal; reviewed in NI 313), amply demonstrated how Wyatt has managed to combine startling originality and artistry with an unswerving passion for social justice. For musical graffiti at its most strident, the Australian band Midnight Oil came up trumps with Redneck Wonderland (Sony/Columbia; reviewed NI 311). Without mincing their melodies they took on racists, polluters, complacent suburbanites, the loony far-Right and a motley bunch of other players in the culture of greed.

 

Reviews

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Voices of the Crossing
edited by Ferdinand Dennis and Naseem Khan
(Serpent’s Tail, ISBN 1 85242 583 0)

Colonies of the Heart
by Jeremy Seabrook
(The Gay Men’s Press, ISBN 0 85449 267 4)

[image, unknown] Fourteen people arrive in Britain from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Some are early arrivals, migrating in the 1940s and 1950s; others in more recent decades. But what they have in common is that all are to become successful writers. Stored in their mental luggage are vivid pictures – coloured by imperialism – of what the place they are coming to has to offer. Less clear is the sense of what it may take away from them.

As a project, Voices of the Crossing was prompted by a fear of loss – of roots, culture, language, experience, identity. Paradoxically that fear has produced a collection of essays that is superbly rich in thought, feeling, recollection and insight. The contributors are nearly all fiction writers – and it shows. Their sheer diversity is an added bonus, ranging from John Figueroa, poet and regular contributor to the BBC World Service Caribbean Voices programme in the 1950s, to Pakistani-born contemporary feminist playwright and translator, Rukhsana Ahmad.

Belonging, writing and isolation are recurrent threads, most movingly spun by a Pakistani writer of an older generation, Attia Hosain: ‘It is only with the written word that one can reach out to people and let them know they are not alone. But that sense of aloneness is often heightened when people who have never “crossed frontiers”, or never needed to do so, deny one a sense of belonging anywhere...’

For Jamaican-born Ferdinand Dennis, writing was a refuge from such feelings. Coming to a cold grey Britain, aged eight, shivering in cotton shorts, his first few years were ‘lost in the trauma of arrival’, made worse by the almost immediate breakdown of his parents’ marriage. There followed the racism of the playground, withdrawal into the solitary act of writing, then, in his late teens, a political awakening thanks in part to writers like Fanon and Cleaver. Dennis wrote and was published. But ‘having discovered the pleasure of reading and writing before my racial awakening, I was alarmed to hear intelligent people speak of encouraging “black literature” and the birth of a new genre of “Black British Fiction”.’ A sentiment which will no doubt find many echoes, not least in the redoubtable and idiosyncratic Nigerian-born novelist Buchi Emecheta who complains of the publishing industry’s relentless need to try to pigeonhole her – an impossible task.

Collections are tricky. They can be bitty and repetitive. But this one really works. It also offers some of the most eloquent and instantly recognizable vistas on Britain itself. ‘There is great subtlety in this old England of ours,’ writes Indian-born Homi Bhabha, ‘shades of meaning and degrees of cultural distinction seem to flow into each other like a range of old hills disappearing, fold upon fold, into the unseeable distance. You stumble upon a social landscape where the merest tremor of a tone, a vowel flattened or faltering, reveals a whole geography of belonging – class, region, family, education.’

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[image, unknown] Colonies of the Heart has a different, more metaphorical take on the colonial experience. It’s a mixed double from a frequent NI contributor, Jeremy Seabrook. The first part consists of a novel entitled Dilraj: Empire of the Heart, which sets its protagonists on a journey of self-deception and discovery across cultural and emotional shifting sands. Detailing the uncharacteristic love affair between Frank (an older British man at the receiving end of the gay-lib fall-out) and Prakash (an Indian hill lad from a poor family for whom a ‘gay’ identity in the Western sense is an alien concept), it rises above being an exercise in social anthropology by dint of the author’s unflinching gaze. But the real jewel in this book is A Woman’s Life, a fictionalized memoir of his mother’s blighted marriage and the shadow it cast over his own Northampton youth. At one point Seabrook writes: ‘My relationship with my mother had little to do with love: it was inevitable, necessary, an inescapable bonding by sensibility, a kinship of character; desolating, emancipating, crippling and enhancing. It took its course like any other natural phenomenon.’ There is no denying the rightness of such contradictions and Seabrook’s voice is by turns surgically dispassionate, suffused with tenderness or bitterness, raging one moment, reasoned the next. The writing glows off the page and the overwhelming impression one takes away from this account is of a hard-won honesty.

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Film

October Sky
directed by Joe Johnson

Hathi
directed by Philippe Gautier

Nang Nak
directed by Nonzee Nimibutr

The race towards faster and more exotic means of transport has proved one of the defining activities of the twentieth century across the globe, in its wake disrupting age-old work patterns which have united communities.

In Joe Johnston’s October Sky, it is the first-ever satellite Sputnik traversing the carbon night above Coalwood, West Virginia, in late 1957 that fuels a teenager’s dreams of space travel, and ultimately of escape from the small-town mining job that is otherwise his destiny. Based on the book Rocket Boys, Homer H Hickum’s real-life account of his three school friends’ attempts to launch their own projectile, this captivating film turns out to be much more than a simple re-run of the American Dream. Homer is in conflict with his father, the heroic mine superintendent who aspires for his son to walk in his boots below ground, and the film touches on a number of issues, such as the value of team work and the broadening of horizons through education.

Journey to an unkown future: in Hathi Makbul and his elephant cross India’s vast plains and a changing world. Meanwhile, the lyrical Indian film Hathi – about a family of elephant trainers – focuses on an all-but-vanished way of life. The cinematography of Southern India is breathtaking: the story is revealed via stunning imagery with a voice-over to provide the detail. A simple tale is woven around the boy Makbul and his eventual entry under his father’s training into the society of mahouts whose job it is to use their elephants to fell and drag trees.

Makbul is given an elephant calf, Vikrama, and they grow to be inseparable. But progress rolls on even into the depths of the forest. When the Government decides to sell off Vikrama, it breaks the now-adult Makbul’s heart. He reminds himself that ‘a mahout must not forget that he does not own his elephant’, even though the animal is treated almost as one of the family. In a romantic twist on the myth that ‘an elephant never forgets’, Makbul tracks down his animal friend, reclaims him and together they journey across India’s vast plains to an unknown future.

Also remarkable for its fine camerawork is the Thai box-office hit Nang Nak. But this film has at its heart a darker, supernatural core. An intense version of a fable – the beyond-death love of beautiful Nak for her husband Mak – it plays like a Buddhist take on The Sixth Sense, complete with unexpectedly grisly moments.

The pregnant Nak is beside herself when her partner sails off to war. She stands watching his boat disappear into the distance, repeating his name mantra-like as if she could wait forever. One can’t help but have feminist reservations about her dependency on ‘her man’, but when Nak dies in childbirth while her husband is still away, and Mak comes back to an apparently healthy wife and child, one has to admire her persistence. Nang Nak is essentially about bereavement, but what makes it intriguing is its life- and love-affirming spirituality and its emphasis on loving connections across the barriers of life and death.

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Music

Broken Ground
by Waterson: Carthy
(Topic TSCD 509 CD)

The Rough Guide To The Music Of The Gypsies
by Various
(World Music Network RGNET 1034 CD)

Waterson: Carthy - in their hands music is living material. There is, it is often said, only one thing that the warring tribes of eastern Europe can agree upon: the malign influence of ‘the gypsies’. The folk legends are wearily familiar: the gypsies are apparently dirty; they’re cheats and child thieves, the root of all evil. And the image of the gypsy as the ‘outlaw other’ has survived even in countries with little tradition of them. This is explored in Broken Ground, the latest album from two of Britain’s prime folk exponents, Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy. ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsies’, chosen as the album’s opener, is an old song, supposedly the tale of the countess of Cassilis who forsook her goose-feather bed for the open road. In this version, Waterson and Carthy leave off one of the song’s endings: the countess’s recovery by her lord and the hanging of the gypsies, and the effect is to focus the song on the temptation that ‘otherness’ proffers. In their hands the strange poetry of the tale comes alive and the slow rhythms – with some twists and turns orchestrated by a four-piece band that includes their fiddler daughter Eliza Carthy – accentuate the wildness of the upturned order that the song’s gypsies represent.

The rest of Broken Ground addresses itself to a collection of wonderful hornpipes, dances and traditional songs, with such stand-out moments as the haunting (in both senses) ‘The Bay of Biscay’, the ribald ‘Bald-headed End of the Broom’ and the terse ‘Ditchling Carol’. It is a typically well-balanced album and Waterson’s clear vocals are sweet and direct in their effect. This music is not, in their hands, anything other than living material.

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[image, unknown] For the sheer diversity of ‘gypsy music’ look no further than The Rough Guide to the Music of the Gypsies. It’s a well-researched delight that also helps undermine ideas of exotic otherness. Here, we find music not just from the expected territories of Eastern Europe, but from Spain, Turkey and Rajasthan. There are, courtesy of the Taraf de Haïdouks, wild Balkan violin lines played at breakneck speeds that are probably identical to the tunes that Bartok heard and quite certainly indistinguishable from the Jewish klezmer tradition in their oriental cadences; trance-like drumming from Kosovo’s Krusha Madhë; and flamenco from Tomatito.

The appeal is immense: this is, whatever the nuance, real community music. It’s also a timely album: for all their resilience, the nomadic existence is a fragile one. The twentieth century has wrought a terrible destruction upon the gypsies and the nomadic way of life which appears to pose such a threat in our computerized, centralized, normalized world.

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Reviewers: Louise Gray, Dinyar Godrej, Catherine von Ruhland, Vanessa Baird.
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

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