issue 191 - January 1989
directed by Souleymane Cisse
This is a magical-mythical Story set in pre-colonial Mali. It makes an unlikely feature film. The dialogue is in Bambara and the plot is sometimes confusing and mostly incredible. Yet Souleymane Cisse has made a movie anyone can enjoy.
The photography alone is worth a couple of hours viewing. Yeelen means 'light' and the yellows and ochres of the bleached-out landscape of the Sahel shine across the screen. The sound too adds a timeless dimension of endless desert days and nights. Technically - and particularly impressive for a film produced on a shoe-string - this is wonderfully done.
The storyline has twists and turns to challenge the inattentive. But it is essentially an inter-generational struggle between a father who has magical powers and a son who is usurping them. Soma the father pursues Nianakoro the son across the landscape with the help of a stout magic pole borne on the shoulders of a couple of servants. The pole jerks the hunters off in the right direction rather like a heavyweight human-diviner.
Some of the episodes and dialogue are intentionally comic - as when the son helps a friendly local chief to shake off some warriors from a neighbouring tribe by bringing down a swarm of bees on them. On other occasions one is less certain. At one point the father decides that the thing to do is 'immolate an albino and also a red dog'. Both victims then walk backwards into view. Mercifully we don't see the presumably nasty outcome.
Translation is a problem. Not the words so much as the culture which produces them. Many long exchanges are carried out entirely through metaphors like 'the snake always sheds his skin'. After a dozen or so of these, those of us used to more direct forms of speech are tempted to interpret them as self-parody.
But such is the skill of the production that in the end you just suspend disbelief, accept that you are absorbing a different way of looking at the world and take whatever comes. You might not be sure what Yeelen is about but you'll be glad you saw it.
Nicaraguan New Time
by Ernesto Cardenal
Poetry somehow has so much more meaning in the Third World. Whereas in the West it is generally the province of the privileged, in developing countries it is often the beating heart of resistance to oppression. Not least in Nicaragua, a celebrated example of revolution conducted by poets.
Ernesto Cardenal is their current Minister of Culture. His writing in Nicaraguan New Time, a collection of material from both before and after the overthrow of Somoza, is quite unabashedly dedicated to his social and political concerns. The poetry is direct and unadorned, occasionally rather too much so. But every now and then his plain-speaking style and his political passion come together: as for example, when he switches between a dry, self-indulgent debate in the US Congress about Contra Aid and a graphic evocation of the atrocities committed by those Contras in Nicaraguan villages. Or when he meditates on The Price of Bras:
A niece of mine complains about the Revolution
because of the very high price of bras.
I have no experience of having breasts
but I think I could cope with breasts without a bra.
My friend Rafael Cordova lives near the hamlet of Esquipulas
and he told me many funerals used to pass
along the road
with tiny coffins
four, five, six, eight funerals
they were children's funerals each afternoon.
Old people did not die so often. And not long ago the
Esquipulas undertaker came to him:
'Doctor, I need a little help from you,
I am out of business.
There are no funerals now in Esquipulas.'
In the old days there were cheaper bras.
Now in Esquipulas funerals are far fewer.
You tell me: which is better?
Aid for Just Development
by Stephen and Douglas Hollinger and Fred O'Regan
US foreign aid, the authors say with some irony, has contributed greatly to the 'modernization of Third World poverty'. Their response is more than mere cynicism, however, as they offer excellent concrete proposals for an overhaul, not just of US, but of all major aid and development agencies' programs.
The writers have spent years working with the major international development institutions: they are not just natural opponents carping from the outside, which lends their criticisms all the more value. Put simply, they believe aid fails due to the dichotomy between theory at a distance and practical reality at the local level. There is in this a particularly serious challenge to the World Bank.
They uphold the belief that even the most deprived and humble person is capable of determining his or her own needs with both creativity and industriousness in working towards a solution.
Their guidelines for 'equitable, locally defined and self-sustaining development' are helpful and deserve close study by anyone working in the field. Unfortunately it is only the voluntary agencies which are likely to take its message to heart - and not the government aid departments and World Bank 'experts' who need most to hear it.
Paradise in Gazankulu
by Harry Belafonte
This is Harry Belafonte's anti-apartheid record: the whole album rises and falls to the distant drum of black resistance in South Africa. 'We are the wave,' he sings, gradually wearing down the rock of oppression by our sheer persistence and will to endure. This might seem a bit rich coming from a man who has spent most of his career luxuriating in material wealth as one of the US's most enduring entertainers.
But the sentiments are sincere - Belafonte's antiapartheid commitment not only predates the Nelson Mandela concert but also the birth of many of the performers at it. He finds a neat but dubious way of skirting Paul Simon's problem with the cultural boycott: South African musicians laid down the backing tracks in Johannesburg in his absence and then he overdubbed vocals in the US. Though had Simon produced such a ringing antiapartheid statement as this there would surely have been little grounds for complaint about Graceland.
Musically this benefits from the South African connection, too, lending unfamiliar depth to Belafonte's rather plain voice. Paradise still tends towards blandness in places but overall this is a strong, proud piece of artistic solidarity which merits notice beyond the middle-of-the-road bargain bins to which it has already been consigned.
I Didn't Mean It
by Leon Rosselson
'Land of Dreams'
by Randy Newman
The latest albums by performers from either side of the Atlantic with long and distinguished track records for setting social comment to music. But their approaches could hardly be more different - and neither could their sales figures.
Leon Rosselson is a bit like a house bard for the British Left. He describes himself as having 'worked his way single-mindedly downwards' since a burst of popularity on the Sixties satirical circuit - and part of the reason for that is his determined production of radical anthems regardless of political or musical fashion. This record is typically full of causes and caustic humour, lambasting nukes, spycatchers and experts with equal venom. It is extremely wordy, not least on the best track No Cause For Alarm, which demolishes the official defence of nuclear power. That is his strength - but also his weakness, since music tends to take second place and leave him locked in a radical cabaret slot from which he is unlikely to emerge.
Randy Newman has also consistently used humour to undermine reactionary attitudes. And here there is another of his astute parodies of redneck views, as a deprived black child is urged to 'roll with the punches' like a good American; elsewhere he laments 'it's money that matters in the USA'. But more affecting still is the first half of the record, in which he looks back with a wry, but far from dry, eye on his own childhood. The 'Land of Dreams' of the title is both childhood and the US - and in both cases the quote marks are very deliberate.
As always, the music is as carefully constructed as the words - Newman's grasp of the basics of popular song has been amazingly consistent from his orchestrated debut in 1968 through the height of his popularity with the brilliant Little Criminals to this, the latest jewel in the crown of a quite exceptional body of work.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
The Color Purple
.being the book that made black women's writing popular
'Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.'
When The Color Purple was first published it was greeted by a resounding critical silence. When it won the Pulitzer Prize in the US in April 1983 it started to gather a bit more grudging attention and the occasional baffled or withering review (the London Sunday Times, for example, described it as 'drearily predictable'). Only when it was made into a glitzy film by Steven Spielberg did it become widely read and talked about outside feminist circles. The story of Alice Walker's rise to bestsellerdom emphasizes how the literary star system selects and tokenizes particular works while ignoring others. This is especially true of black women writers, who tend to be plucked out of context to lend a splash of colour to a pallid white landscape - like a single exotic flower among drab, overwatered shrubs.
Perhaps it is the extraordinary popularity of The Color Purple that has led some critics to accuse it of being an uncontentious, sentimental and harmless piece of libertarianism, a family homily that is not just optimistic but eventually even utopian. Here Alice Walker finds herself in a typical double bind: the cultural and political conditions of her novel are deracinated; it becomes immensely popular among white middle-class readers who, unsurprisingly, have read few other black writers; it is accused of assuaging white guilt, of being charmingly apolitical...
The book possesses an appeal which touches readers who, if informed in advance of its provocative politics and disturbing subject-matter, might hurriedly discard it. If I had told my grandmother that it is about an extended black family, child abuse and homosexual love, then she would not have touched it; as it was, she loved it. And whenever I teach Adult Education, it is the one novel I can count on to stir the most sluggish class into enthusiasm, to question their own racial attitudes, to move the least enlightened man to a twitch of shame and the most reactionary to a glimpse of new possibilities.
The entire novel is written in a series of letters: Celie's semi-literate ones to God (the only confidante she can find) which tell of her ugly sexual experiences as a child and wife, her separation from her beloved sister Nettie and ultimately her triumphant love for her husband's beautiful lover; Nettie's letters to Celie; and finally Celie's to Nettie. Just as the novel's form is radical, so too is its content. Alice Walker focusses upon incest and child abuse in a black family, and portrays a black lesbian relationship as tender and liberating. Through anger, self-confidence, love and eventual forgiveness a difficult happiness is forged, not just for Celie but for those whom she loves and those who have abused her. It is a happiness that depends upon bonds between the individual and her community; the inner self and the outer world. The unity of the ending is a fairy tale happy-ever-after that provides a jolting contrast to the grimly realistic descriptions of misogyny and racial hatred.
Far from being a piece of inappropriate sentimentality, such utopianism has a toughness of purpose. It celebrates black women as dynamic and effective, affirms their ability to survive the grimmest experience, and makes their radiant subjectivity triumph over the normal deeply negative representations of them. The unrealistic ending becomes a piece of courageous rhetoric; just as the novel itself refuses to accept unhappiness as a logical conclusion, so black women must refuse to accept it. They can and must change their own lives and the lives of those around them.
The Color Purple is a complex, layered book but it is also immediately and compulsively readable. Like many of the finest works by black North American women - Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Gloria Naylor - it possesses the passionate, paradoxical resilience of an oppressed and abused people. It does not just 'tell us how it is' but also how it can and ought to be; like the South American novel, it combines realism with magic. Moreover, it stands in dazzling contrast to the sombre pessimism of most novels by white writers who seem to suffer what Alice Walker herself defines as a debilitating sense of 'cosmic guilt' and who have largely ceased to believe that literature can actually do anything. In inventing a powerfully compelling fictional world in which women learn to recognize their own power, the book is politically committed, subversive and dynamic in a way that Spielberg did not begin to recognize.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker