Best of the Arts 2011
The wonderful and humbling Benda Bilili! (NI 440) by Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye followed the mostly paraplegic Kinshasa band, enlightening us on the way about life in Africa’s third-largest city, and human potentiality and happiness. No small feat!
Immensely powerful and compassionate was Bill Weissman and David Weber’s doc We were here (NI 448), which looked back on San Francisco’s AIDS epidemic. Céline Sciamma’s feature Tomboy? (NI 446), about a 10-year-old girl pretending to be a boy, didn’t sentimentalize and similarly showed that when people really connect with each other, they can overcome. A gem.
The year’s funniest film, and one of the most commercially successful, was Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids. This was a lively, feminist and delightfully rude pisstake of America’s big taboo: class.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Pan Books, NI 440) told the true story of a poor black US woman who, before she died and without her permission, had cancer cells removed from her body which were to become central to countless medical breakthroughs. Rebecca Skloot’s sensitive narrative was as gripping and well written as the best fiction. Another remarkable non-fiction work that read like the best of fiction was In the sea are crocodiles (Harvill Secker, NI 448). The five-year journey of Afghan refugee boy, Enaiatollah Akbari, was told to and crafted, with great skill and intuition, by Fabio Geda. Memorable and oddly uplifting.
For pure fiction there was Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (Jonathan Cape, NI 448) a bittersweet comedy of errors set in a Karachi hospital that was simultaneously hard-hitting and soft-centred. A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards (Oneworld, NI 441) showed writing of such poise and authority it was hard to believe this was a début novel.
Meanwhile, Nicholas Shaxson’s superb and crucial Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world (Bodley Head, NI 439) was a non-fiction book to make any fair-minded reader extremely angry. The same can be said for Owen Jones’ Chavs (Verso, NI 443) a splendid analysis of the demonization of the working class in Britain.
PJ Harvey’s songs are well-crafted wonders that resonate in many registers, but Let England Shake (Island, NI 441) reached far beyond anything that had gone before, and brilliantly so. Couched in a strong knowledge of English folk and recorded in a rural church, it was a furious indictment of war and as important in its own way as the work of any war artist.
Sven Kacirek’s Kenya Sessions (Pingipung, NI 442) was an album which saw the German jazz drummer meeting up with Kenyan musicians on his travels and doing what musicians do – that is, jamming. The musical conversation was beautiful, and so are the ethics of the record. Everyone’s paid and credited, as they should be. June Tabor’s latest collaboration with the Oyster Band Ragged Kingdom (Topic, NI 448) showed off the vocal shading and dignified stance that’s made her so great.
And for newcomers: keep a watch on Norway’s Jenny Hval: Viscera (Rune Grammofon, NI 444) was a concentrated dose of crystalline musicianship – think Björk without the froufrous.