issue 230 - April 1992
At Play in the Fields of the Lord
directed by Hectar Babenco
Argentinian director Hector Babenco has proved to be one of the few film-makers able to work within Hollywood and still maintain a political perspective. Since Pixote - a nightmarish study of street kids in Brazil - Babenco has been fortunate with his English-language projects, Kiss of the Spiderwoman and Ironweed.
At Play..., however, sees Babenco swamped by the scale of his ambition, although it's a more engrossing and sensitive film than most other Hollywood directors could have made. It's based on a novel by Peter Matthiessen, published in 1965 and remarkably prescient about environmental and colonial questions that only became popular currency in the 1980s.
It's the story of two missionary couples in Brazil, out to convert the rainforest-dwelling Niaruna tribe to their own gung-ho Baptist religion. Meanwhile, two dissolute American mercenaries - Wolfie (Tom Waits) and the half-Cheyenne Moon (Tom Berenger) - are being leaned on by the local Comandante to bomb the Niaruna out of existence so that he can claim their land. High on local rotgut, Moon becomes aware of his own kinship with the tribe and takes off into the jungle, where the Niaruna accept him as an emissary from heaven. When the missionaries follow him up river, one of them is forced to re-examine his faith.
The drama unfolds over a full three hours, and would have been considerably tauter if Babenco had done the expected thing and stuck to the Americans. It's his clear fascination for the Amazon people and their disappearing existence that gives the film its special flavour but also makes it cumbersome. Still, the film carries a sense of authenticity and on the whole avoids the National Geographic style you might have expected. The film-makers seem also to have applied some of the lessons that were so hard learned on productions like Apocalypse Now and Herzog's Amazon epics. Amazon tribes provided 90 per cent of the extras and were not forced into an artificial situation that might disrupt their own lifestyles.
This, then, would seem to be the serious, non-exploitative rain-forest movie that Hollywood has long been due to make. Babenco says he intended to deliver what was missing in the book, a fuller understanding of the Amazon tribes' culture. He has taken on more than even a three-hour film can handle, both politically and dramatically, and ultimately the film says little more than 'Hands off!' But it's still a valiant effort.
Tales of the Heart
by Tom Hampson and Loretta Whalen
This is a treasure trove. Originating in a series of seminars conducted by the US aid agency Church World Service, Tales of the Heart - effective approaches to global education is primarily aimed at One World-orientated Christians. But anyone with a thinking (and, as the title implies, feeling) commitment to changing the world should be able to dip into this collection of quotations, cartoons, workshop exercises, songs and readings with pleasure.
The flavour of the book is best conveyed by a few of its quotations and one of its cartoons (see below), all of which aim to counteract compassion fatigue and despair about the state of the world - and to convince each of us that we can make a real difference.
Publishers Friendship Press can be reached at
P0 Box 37844, Cincinnati, OH 45222-0844, USA.
'When the forms of an old culture are
'Pain and suffering are a kind of false
'If I go as a Hindu, I will meet a Muslim
'I will act as if what I do makes a difference.'
(cartoon: Don Payola)
Conflicts of Interest
edited by Jamie Swift and Brian Tomlinson
(Between the Lines)
Shortly after the Brandt Commission reported in 1980, Between the Lines in Toronto published a book titled Ties That Bind - Canada and the Third World. Conflicts of Interest is something of a sequel, following a decade in which the gloomiest of Brandt's predictions came true. Brian Tomlinson sets the tone for the ten contributions to this book by laying the blame for the deepening Third World crisis squarely on the classical development model of 'growth'-based economics - and on the structural-adjustment programmes pushed as remedies by the IME and the World Bank throughout the debt-beleaguered decade.
During these years, not only did the world's poor suffer a drastic drop in living standards, but the ME gathered $4.2 billion more in repayments from developing countries than it gave out in new loans. The policy of boosting commodity exports to Northern markets itself led to a drop in prices, and growth failed to provide the foreign exchange that would reduce debt.
The fundamental illusion, as Tomlinson points out, is that the South can duplicate a Northern industrial model which actually depends upon the exploitation of the South's human and natural resources. Canada's official aid agency, CIDA, is usually considered quite progressive but unquestioningly accepts the IMF/World Bank's analysis of the world economy.
Conflicts of Interest performs two important functions. It demonstrates, using the indisputable evidence of the last decade, that free-market economics shows no sign of delivering the goods to the poor world-wide, even at a time when the former Soviet bloc has been converted to it. But most of all it debunks the myth that Canada is somehow more sympathetic to Third World interests, more altruistic and moral, than other Western nations.
Women of Wassoulou
by various artists
One of the most interesting trends in African music in 1991 - at least as seen from the West - was the increasing prominence of women. Benin's Angélique Kidjo made a massive impact on the dance front, while more traditional exponents of West African vocal skills like Ami Koita and Oumou Sangare - made their presence felt in international tours.
Women of Wassoulou is a compilation of music from what is definitely a female preserve - the Wassoulou region of southern Mali, where 90 per cent of the singers are women. The music emerges from a rural culture in which women traditionally accompanied men's hunting dances. Far from the hereditary griot tradition of praising nobles, these are songs rooted in everyday questions of life and love.
The tradition is evident in many of these tracks, which maintain the rough edge of Malian acoustic music - as in the particularly visceral sound of the violin and the guitar-like ngoni. But there's also the awareness of pop technology that African musics now invariably exhibit and it's this tension between tradition and innovation that makes the record so fascinating.
In this respect the hi-tech production of Konyan, sung by Coumba Sidibe, really stands out, with its tough electric rhythm part embellished with flute samples. Expansively unrolling over seven minutes, it's a beautifully sculpted piece, with a fine kora solo dropped in, and it boasts the toughest voice on the album, dense and abrasive.
Oumou Sangare, whose own World Circuit album Moussolou is well worth seeking out, has a couple of tracks, as does the harsh-toned young star Sali Sidibe. At a time when many of West Africa's grands maîtres of crossover funk - Mory Kante and Salif Keita - are getting distressingly sloppy or self-indulgent, this is a welcome reminder of how good the less publicized female competition can be.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
I just wanted to fulfil my potential as a woman,' my friend Alison said, 'but I was born into a world controlled by men. So I competed with them and I won. Now I have got this wretched job as a lecturer at a university - and I am surrounded by men in grey suits who want me to talk like them and act like them.' She started to laugh as at some nightmarish joke.
'You wouldn't believe the things I have to do to be taken seriously,' she said. 'I can't even dress as a woman any more. I have to wear a jacket and trousers.' Her laughter stopped abruptly. 'I don't like men so much that I want to be one. But I don't know what I am any more.
Her confusion reverberates among many women who became feminists because it seemed the only way to be true to ourselves in a society made by and for men. The choice demanded many sacrifices. Often we competed with men - and won - only to be left wondering, at what cost?
It is to us that Marion Woodman speaks in her book The Pregnant Virgin - for we have by necessity embarked on a quest for a real identity, not one imposed by the patriarchy in which we live, nor one we imposed on ourselves for so long by living out the expectations we unconsciously absorbed from our mothers and fathers. The identity we seek must come from a much deeper place within.
This place Woodward calls 'the virgin' - by which she means that aspect of the feminine that exists in man or woman which has the courage to Be and the flexibility to be always Becoming.' 'The virgin' is pregnant with possibilities. She has a loving relationship with unity, balance and positive energy - which Woodman calls the Great Earth Mother - and if 'the virgin' can allow herself to be penetrated by 'the spirit of life', a woman can become conscious of herself as an individual soul.
This consciousness is a kind of rebirth brought about through ritual. In traditional societies rites of passage enabled human beings to pass through each stage of life - birth, puberty, marriage, parenthood and death - allowing them to forsake the old for the new, to move forward and grow. 'The participant left the ritual with enhanced meaning, with a profound sense of belonging to the cosmos and to a community that respected that cosmos,' writes Woodman.
In Western societies, however, the emphasis on linear growth and achievement alienates human beings from the cyclic patterns of death and rebirth. We experience ourselves as victims, powerless to resist an overwhelming Fate. The resulting sense of aloneness is particularly acute for women who have rejected the collective masculine values of patriarchy.
For us, initiation into mature womanhood comes about through abandonment - the abandonment of our sense of destiny and belonging. It forces us to seek out our own 'inner story', driving us into even greater conflict with the very forces that we seek to integrate into ourselves - the internalized mother and father who reside in our unconscious minds, and which are themselves the constructs of patriarchy.
So long as we remain driven by these unconscious forces we cannot be free. Instead we perpetually live out unconscious relationships with our parents, often seeking to please our fathers - perhaps by achieving in creative fields previously dominated by men, or by mourning the absence of significant relationships with men in our lives. To be truly liberated we have to make our unconscious drives conscious, to reclaim our abandoned self. Only then can we truly know who we are. Like the symbol of the black Madonna, we must pass through the fire to achieve wholeness.
Just as traditional rituals were marked by pain like scarification, the abandonment which is our rite of passage into womanhood is fraught with pain, fear and danger. It can lead us to reject our bodies - expressed through eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia - or to develop addictions.
Yet at the heart of our distress, our true nature is intact. 'The abandoned one at the heart of an addiction is the soul of the potentially conscious woman,' writes Woodman. To reach her, we must develop a balance between our hearts and minds, which otherwise threaten to tear each other apart. By allowing ourselves to feel with our hearts while accepting with our minds, we can avoid becoming bitter or cutting ourselves off from our own reality.
Despite the vagaries of language and density of concepts, this book offers some penetrating insights into the inter-relationship between the psychological and social pressures upon Western women. It is well worth reading - especially for feminists who have dared to ask the question 'who am I?' For it confirms what some may have already suspected: that we are engaged in a soul-making process of which the pain is an essential part:
'...the tongues of flame are infolded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one. '
The Pregnant Virgin by Marion Woadman (Inner City Books 1985).