issue 170 - April 1987
When the Wind Blows
directed by Jimmy Murakami
The film of the play of the book of the... Raymond Briggs' When the Wind Blows is a multi-media success which has got a peace movement message - that any idea of surviving nuclear war by means of civil defence is absurd - to a mass audience. And this animated version by the team which treated his children's story The Snowman so beautifully, together with big-name (if very ordinary) music by David Bowie and Roger Waters, will undoubtedly reach more people than ever.
But serious doubts about the whole idea persist. The appeal of the story lies in the humour generated by the old couple who are its only characters. We are encouraged to feel superior, to laugh at them again and again for their ignorance and simple-minded faith in authority, for their mispronunciations and misunderstandings. The condescension borders on contempt - and is not helped by getting posh-voiced establishment figures like John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft to put on quaint working-class accents.
The idiocy of the British Government's leaflet which pretends to offer practical ways of surviving the holocaust certainly comes through. But as a whole When the Wind Blows takes one step forward by taking three or four backwards.
Sitting in Limbo
directed by John Smith
It could have been very depressing - a film about a pregnant teenager and her unemployed boyfriend facing poverty, racism and a shaky relationship, all set in the frigid winter of Montreal.
But Sitting in Limbo tackles the topic with fine acting, humour and a choice selection of classic reggae that ties it all together. The result is a 'small' film that tells a simple story with genuine warmth.
Pat is an 18-year-old woman sharing a cramped apartment with two single mothers and their children in Montreal's Caribbean community. She discovers her pregnancy just as lover Fabian is being thrown out of high school for chronic lateness. After accusing Pat of getting pregnant to hang onto him ('Are you anybody to trap?' she snaps back tellingly), Fabian reluctantly accepts some responsibility.
He finds a job, rents a flat and furniture and convinces Pat to move in, against the skeptical advice of her roommates But as the sad lyrics of Many Rivers To Cross fill the soundtrack, things begin to fall apart.
The story might be an unhappy one but you can't pity a woman with Pat's dignity, intelligence and pride. And the many funny scenes help make the film balanced and realistic. Yet even with enthusiastic reviews and the backing of Canada's National Film Board, Sitting in Limbo may be left on the shelf for supposed lack of box-office appeal. It may be as difficult for the film to break out of limbo as it was for first-time actors Pat Dillon and Fabian Gibbs.
The international division of Canada's National Film Board can be reached at P0 Box 6100, Montreal.
Sweet Sugar Rage and Lionheart Cal
by Sistren Theatre Collective
(Women's Film and Video Distribution and the Women's Press UK)
Finding out 'why men treat us bad' is the aim of the Jamaican women's theatre collective, Sistren. This group from the poorest parts of Kingston met on a scheme set up for unemployed women. They have now been running workshops and producing plays for ten years but these are their first ventures into film and print. Using colourful Jamaican dialect they talk from the gut of women's experiences: violence, mothering, back-breaking sugar-estate labour and the strength that comes from shared friendships.
The technically fine video moves from depicting theatre workshops to showing women working in the scorching sun on sugar plantations. The women speak in vibrant voices, projecting energy that is captured in the colour-saturated shots of the Jamaican landscape. The acting is full of dignity and conveys the frustration of long hours tending sugar cane - and the history becomes an act within a much bigger play.
The Living Economy
edited by Paul Eklns
Marxists and Keynesians and Monetarists are the secret rulers of the world: we all bow down before the 'dismal science' of economics. But all three emperors have been embarrassingly exposed over recent years - stripped almost naked by stagnation, inflation or mass unemployment.
The Living Economy is a reaction to their failure and to the ecological devastation wrought by most forms of 'growth' economics The book is the collected thoughts of two years of The Other Economic Summit an annual gathering that brings together thinkers and activists of various shades of green. What these new gurus offer, however, is more of a patchwork quilt than a coherent suit of clothes: replacing GNP as a measurement, creating local currencies, democratizing stock ownership, de-linking the rich and poor nations.
This is not to be read at one sitting. But it has been skilfully edited to offer an accessible encyclopaedia of radical ideas. And you don't have to be an economist to make sense of it. If you think that human and ecological health are essential to a sound economy you'll find information and arguments to back up your instinct - along with an invigorating sensation that may be another way of ordering the world.
by Sergio Ramirez
The Nicaraguan hero of Charles Atlas Also Dies sees the ad that changes his life in a pin-up magazine given him by a US marine.
The year is 1926. The young man has won the marine's friendship by marking on a list of local inhabitants the names of those whom he thinks might be involved with the Sandinista rebels. The next day those marked are rounded up and taken away.
This little detail is mentioned only in passing as the hero/narrator gets down to telling us the really important part of his story: his transformation from sandy-faced weakling to superman - thanks to Charles Atlas's 'Dynamic Tension' exercises - and his pilgrimage to New York to meet the aged and decrepit symbol of 'Yanqui machismo'.
Typically Sergio Ramirez' writing is ironic and understated. Nicaragua's leading storyteller, now Vice-President of his country, he lets the characters in the tales speak with their own voices. This lightness of touch makes the stories at once elegant, entertaining and deeply disturbing. The characters are locked into their own illusions - never able to get outside themselves long enough to perceive what might be going on in the wider context of their country's life.
Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense
by Fela Anikulapo Kuti
Fela Kuti is a difficult character to come to terms with politically. Do you admire his outspoken and fearless attacks on the corruption of successive Nigerian governments? Or do you attack him for his equally outspoken misogyny? Probably both.
Happily the contempt for women is nowhere evident on this double album, which has just two songs and two instrumental versions of the same songs. The title-track evinces Fela's normal concerns - the vote rigging and authoritarianism of politicians - while Look and Laugh deals with his personal harassment by the Government, which includes his long spell in prison for alleged armed robbery.
The labyrinthine ins and outs of local politics may be difficult to grasp but the music isn't. Which is perhaps why the stand-out track is the instrumental Look and Laugh with its hypnotic, circling structure and its sax orchestra. As Afro-jazz intelligible to a Western ear this could easily follow in Sade's wake as yuppie backing music of the highest quality.
Things Fall Apart
...being the book that showed Africa shattered by colonization
On a hot night in Brazil just after the Carnival, on the occasion of a full moon, I watched a group of young Bahian women dance to the beat of a lone drummer. Each woman represented both a Christian saint and an African spirit, for the two had become interchangeable, or so it seemed. As each in turn was taken by her saint, she fell to the floor, then rose and danced wildly in a paroxysm of ecstasy. I remember being puzzled by the odd mixture of religions - by the way the guise of Christianity, once used by African slaves in Brazil to conceal their true religion, had remained part of this ceremony - and troubled by my position as voyeur to an 'exotic ritual'. But above all I was moved by the power and beauty of a ceremony which had survived all attempts to suppress it.
Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart, also opened the door for me to a vibrant and often tragic dance whose complexities I could only begin to understand. Like the Bahian ceremony, its form and content emerged from the meeting of two cultures, two religions. Achebe brought African, more specifically Igbo, oral literary traditions - proverbs, poetry and story-telling - to an essentially European genre, the novel; and created a central character, Okonkwo, with the qualities of both a classic tragic hero and a great warrior in the tradition of the Igbo community.
Written in 1958 just before Nigeria gained its independence, Things Fall Apart is set in a village at the end of the nineteenth century just as the British are moving into the region. Achebe devotes a good deal of the novel to descriptions of the daily life of Okonkwo land his community. We learn about Okonkwo's struggle to farm his land, his subsequent accumulation of wealth and status. He has three wives, a favourite daughter he wishes were a son, a son he scorns for being too womanly.
Okonkwo is not an easy character to like - he beats his wives and intimidates his children - but Achebe's description of him is not without humour and charm: 'He was tall and huge and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look. He breathed heavily and it was said that when he slept, his wives and children in their outhouses could hear him breathe.' Because he is ashamed of his cowardly and irresponsible father, Okonkwo cannot abide weakness in anyone, least of all in himself. This courage born of fear is the tragic flaw which helps to destroy him.
It is the individual stories which remain with me. Each episode is like a recent snapshot of lost history, making up the tragedy of a community shattered by change. There is the arrival of the locusts, 'a slowly moving mass. now broken by tiny eyes of light like shining stardust'. And then the moonless night when the priestess of the hills and caves asks for Okonkwo's daughter and carries her on her back for miles. But the most significant incident is the killing of Ikemefuna, the young boy given to Okonkwo's clan by a nearby village as a peace offering. The boy lives in the compound and grows close to Nwoye, Okonkwo's son. When the priestess of the hills and caves calls for Ikemefuna's death, Okonkwo is warned not to take part in the killing - instead he is drawn by his fear of being thought soft into strking the decisive blow. It is this kind of transgression of community values which not only brings Okonkwo's downfall but also makes the Igbos vulnerable to the new religion of Christianity. Devastated by the loss of his friend, Nwoye finds a substitute for that relationship in the brotherhood preached by the British missionaries.
Achebe never directly criticizes the British, but allows the cruelty and absurdity of their actions to filter through the impressions of the Igbos. In a sense he reverses the situation of the colonial novels of such writers as Conrad and Cary in which the Africans' culture is dismissed and their position in history made marginal. For the British do not appear until late in the novel, after we have come to understand and appreciate this Igbo community - its personalities, conflicts, rituals and values - so that the invasion of the white missionaries and administrators comes as a bitter shock.
Two of Achebe's other books, Arrow of God and No Longer At Ease, go on to show the Igbos at various stages of Nigeria's history before independence. They are more directly political, perhaps more complex, at least in structure, but neither of them has quite the same beauty or immediacy. Things Fall Apart leaves you with the sense that you have stepped back in time to a world misunderstood, maligned and nearly forgotten, but a world as real as the dance on that Bahian night.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe