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new internationalist
issue 192 - February 1989


Star rating system. Film reviews

Veronico Cruz
directed by Miguel Pereira

Drifting towards war: teacher and pupil in Veronico Cruz. Here is a film to catch, for its appearances on the major circuits are bound to be fleeting. Strung together like beads on a rosary, a slow-paced but highly polished series of tableaux unfold the life and times of a village school teacher and his friendship with a shepherd boy, Veronico Cruz. Set in the remote Andean foothills of Northern Argentina, it covers the stormy political years of the military coup in the 1970s through to the Falklands/Malvinas war in 1982/3; all from the vantage point of the village of Chorcan. The boy is introduced to the romance of the sea through books and comics supplied by the teacher, and ends up on the Belgrano during the war.

It's a true story. As such, Veronico Cruz is part of a second generation of films to come out of Argentina since the downfall of General Galtieri. The first flood tackled the repression, the torture and the disappearances head on. It was a national catharsis. But now a more elliptical approach, which uses metaphor and hints at the wider issues, is proving far more satisfying.

The movie is sombre. Simple objects and stunning geography are all beautifully shot with a lovely use of available light and low camera angles. This is the first feature film of the director, Miguel Pereira, and a notable achievement. He was shrewd enough to play to his strengths. He knew the area well and with the extraordinary configurations of rocks, salt pans, snow, skies, and mountain peaks suggests how the topography shapes the people. Through the metaphor of life in Chorcan, he goes on to make statements about under-development, nationalism (both Argentinean and British), the coup, military rule and the war.

London's gutter press has already created a controversy around Veronico Cruz without even seeing it. For the British Film Institute and Channel Four, bless their cotton socks, part-funded the work. Helping an Argentinean make a film which includes the Belgrano episode is, it appears, tantamount to treason. Such a crude jingoistic reaction simply shows the need for more of the same sort of films.

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directed by Oliver Schnitz and Thomas Mogotlane

Mapantsula's aptly named gangster called Panic. After the two recent big movies set in South Africa - the flawed, though well-intentioned Cry Freedom and the excellent A World Apart - there is a distinct need for feature films that dramatize the lives of black, rather than white, South Africans. And Mapantsula goes a long way towards filling that need. This is the first major feature film to be written and co-directed by a black South African - and it is very much Thomas Mogotlane's baby.

The result is as authentic a glimpse of black township life as you could wish. Whereas the two aforementioned movies used locations in neighbouring Zimbabwe, Mapantsula was filmed entirely in Soweto and Johannesburg - and it shows. You can almost feel the vibrant life of Soweto and, as documentary film-makers discovered long ago, there is a strange visual beauty to these lines of uniform four-room houses, to these scarred, unmade roads full of children.

But there is a problem. The film revolves around a gangster called Panic, played by Thomas Mogotlane himself, who has been picked up by mistake along with political activists from the United Democratic Front. We see him brutally treated during interrogation but most of the action is a recapitulation of the month or so of Panic's life which led up to his arrest. And basically this life involves treating everyone around him like shit, from his landlady to his girlfriend, from the people he robs to those he knifes. There is a point to this in Panic's apparent redemption in the final frame. But until then he has no redeeming features at all, so that it is pretty difficult to care what happens to him.

There is a political problem, too, which cannot be ignored now that the film is being shown at film festivals the world over. Anti-apartheid sympathizers can relish the authentic township settling and point to the oppression that gives Panic's amoral approach to life a certain logic. And black South Africans (in the unlikely event they ever see this - it has already been banned in the Republic) will be able to see this particular slice of their collective life in the right context. But uncommitted white viewers will see an antihero who may bolster their very worst racial stereotypes and fears.

Go and see Mapantsula: it is an important film with plenty in it to relish. But taking with you someone who needs persuading about the anti-racist cause may not be such a good idea.

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Book reviews

The Green Consumer Guide
by John Elkington and Julia Hailes

[image, unknown] As the subtitle explains, 'From shampoo to champagne, high street shopping for a better environment.' This is an idea with great appeal - a best-buy guide based on neither cheapness nor reliability but ecological acceptability. Inevitably such a guide can only cover one country and its unique brand names - Britain in this case - but similar guides could and should be produced for every market.

The book is arranged in a commonsense fashion, with sections on each of the main retail areas from the DIY store to the travel agent, the garden centre to the garage. Yet there is a smidgen of disappointment at the foggy analysis. By the authors' own admission it is designed to appeal to a 'sandals-to-Saab' constituency and so the contradictions between low- and high-consumption lifestyles are never adequately tackled. In as much as big spenders pack more of a punch with their 'effective demand' it appears they are to be applauded. Finally, The Green Consumer Guide doesn't deliver its ambitious promise. In certain sharply defined areas like paints or household polish, brand names of the environmentally superior brands are mentioned (unleaded Crown Plus Two and Johnsons cleaners). But in far too many areas we are given just vague guidelines.

On the credit side The Green Consumer Guide is attractive and easy to dip into. Far from doom, gloom and wringing of hands at environmental problems, small but concrete purchasing answers are being given. It's a response to the 'Yes, but what can I do?' cry. And that can't be bad.

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Music reviews

Conditions Critical
by Lillian Allen
(Verse to Vinyl)

Lillian Allen is one of those rare creations - a politically angry and talented artist who is also popular. Her second album Conditions Critical consolidates the success of 1986's Revolutionary Tea Party while branching out to include two poems. Allen considers herself to be first and foremost a poet and her musical style is the African/Jamaican hybrid of 'dub', which creates music out of the rush and rhythm of words.

Her songs are set to music by members of the Parachute Club, a Toronto-based band: smooth, accomplished reggae with a hint of jazz. The three stand-outs are Sister Hold On (on which her five-year-old daughter Anka has the final say), the upbeat Dis Ya Mumma Earth and the fiery Freedom Is Azania ('An amputated arm will offer itself/To an old lady in the night/ Smuggling food to frontline fighters! A dead leg will run off to the bush/ To conspire for ancestral revenge.')

Allen has had to fight for her right to be an artist - on moving to Canada from Jamaica she had to work as a domestic servant in order to set up her own record company. And that energy and fighting spirit are etched in every groove of Conditions Critical.

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Available from Verse to Vinyl, Box 311 Stn E, Toronto M6H 4E3, Canada


The Corporate World
by Gail Ann Dorsey

[image, unknown] Already acclaimed in some circles as the debut album of the year, Gail Ann Dorsey has all the right credentials for transatlantic success. Gifted and black (though not particularly young) she spans Britain and the US in both background and musical approach - and chose to record her first album in London, Bath, Hollywood and New York as if to emphasize the point.

The result is a rousing blend of rock and soul: Dorsey cites not only Chaka Khan but also Canadian raunch merchants Heart among her list of inspirations, and it shows. There are a number of clean and melodic love songs and the record closes with one of these, remarkable primarily for having a chorus starting 'I hear Sonata Number 14, Opus 27.'

But the core of The Corporate World lies in the tracks which open each side. Wasted Country is particularly explosive, from Dorsey's own bass through Eric Clapton's guitar solo to a lyric which lambasts the ecological impact of our current way of life ('the throwaway world growing under your feet/ Business man can ruin the land'). The title-track attacks the cut-throat capitalist ethic ('Time is money and the money is mine') while its companion-piece No Time turns the problem neatly around to look at the destructive effect that ethic has on the people who benefit from it ('I've got business to attend and/ Money to spend/ Time is my enemy/ I got no friend').

Worth investing in.

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Reviews editor: Chris Brazier

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The Forest People
.being the book that proved anthropology could be inspiring

In the late 1950s anthropologist Cohn Turnbull went to live in what was then the Belgian Congo with the pygmies of the Ituri Forest. Nothing remarkable in this, you might think: he did what anthropologists do. But what makes The Forest People so exceptional is the depth of understanding and sensitivity with which he describes a way of life so different from his own.

This is in part a personal journey: Turnbull retraces his steps from the initial search for the pygmies to the eventual reluctant farewells, leaving individuals he has come to know and love. Yet throughout this journey he takes a back seat - this is the story not of a white man in Africa but of the lives and loves, joys and fears, sadnesses and celebrations of some forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers. We emerge with at least some idea of what it must be like to experience the world as they do.

Theirs is an experience dominated by the forest, this mysterious place, hated and feared by outsiders - even by villagers who live on its edge, who avoid its dampness and darkness. To the pygmies it is cool and restful: a shield from the sun's burning rays and a place of plenty. 'It is their world,' Turnbull says simply, 'and in return for their affection and trust it supplies them with all their needs.'

With their songs and laughter and their openness it is difficult not to share some of Turnbull's deep affection for these people. But he doesn't paint them as innocent noble savages running wild and free in paradise. Instead he presents us with the ins and outs of personalities and relationships in a small close-knit community. There is sneaky Cephu, there is the widow Asofalinda enjoying her freedom, there is Masisi who always argues more loudly than anyone else, and there is Turnbull's closest friend, Kenge, always quietly looking after him.

There are also tensions and troubles and a system of marriage exchange which sets up conflicts between families. But what comes through most strongly is the utterly sensible way in which disputes are dealt with. First, the pygmies show their emotions, so that everyone knows where they stand. Second, they need and want to get on well together: 'Co-operation is the key to pygmy society; you can expect it and demand it and you have to give it'. The sense of belonging to a community is so strong that troublemakers are punished simply by being ridiculed, ignored or at worst, banished to the forest alone for a few hours.

Many anthropologists describe how looking at another society sheds light on their own attitudes and values. And the honest, unselfish way of life of the pygmies - now tragically vanishing along with their beloved trees - certainly gives food for thought. But what a rude awakening Turnbull had when he turned his attention to The Mountain People. Here he describes a society in crisis, a people slowly starving to death. Their callousness to each other - even to their own children - is chilling. They steal from each other, jeer at the dying, ignore cries for help.

These people - the Ik - are as easy to hate as the pygmies are to love. Yet the breakdown of Ik society came about as a result of Britain's colonial policy in Africa: they were forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and farm in a land without rain, in the barren mountains that separate modern Uganda from Kenya and Sudan.

In the midst of his horror Turnbull suggests we look in the mirror and ask ourselves how firmly rooted are our own most basic rules of decent behaviour. 'The circumstances that have brought this about, for it certainly was not always so with the Ik, are admittedly extreme, but they are circumstances into which we could all conceivably fall and the potential for what we might care to call the inhumanity that we see in the Ik is within us all.' If we need any further nudging, he points out that our society's high esteem for individualism conveniently forgets that those who push themselves ahead do so at someone else's expense.

The pygmies help a disabled girl to walk on crutches by making a game out of it, by all having crutches and chasing each other on one leg; the Ik lock a disturbed little girl away to starve to death. Turnbull retails these things with a directness which makes them seem almost a part of our own experience. He achieves the notoriously difficult task of explaining how people tick, offering us other ways of seeing the world and asking us to confront our own.

Tess Lemmon

The Forest People and The Mountain People by Colin Turnbull (Picador).

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