issue 250 - December 1993
directed by Jane Campion
Jane Campion’s The Piano is one of the most striking films to have been made in many years. This may sound like hyperbole, but it is difficult to think of other recent films that can match its richness, whether emotionally or intellectually. Set in an isolated and densely forested corner of Aotearoa/New Zealand in the mid-nineteenth century, it is both a powerful essay and profound poem about the period, with conclusions that resonate boldly today. In interviews, Campion has talked about the influence of such writers as Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson upon The Piano. Indeed the film has the visceral strength of their work and with its thunderous gothic style is a truer cinematic adaptation of their sensibility than, say, any of the movie versions of Wuthering Heights.
The story revolves around Ada (Holly Hunter), a young woman with a moon-pale face who has not uttered a word since the age of six. Instead she communicates through her piano, upon which she composes most stridently much to the consternation of those around her (Michael Nyman composed the film’s rapturous score, but Hunter played the piano herself). She also ‘speaks’ through her small daughter, Flora, with whom she shares a secret sign language. The film commences as the two arrive in Aoteraoa/New Zealand where it has been arranged for Ada to marry Stewart (Sam Neill), a landowner who is set on staking out his territory on sacred Maori ground.
Erupting with the most potent of passions, The Piano takes a tangled emotional situation and delicately unravels it. For Ada becomes involved with Baines (Harvey Keital), Stewart’s estate manager, after he buys her piano against her will. Indeed, it is Ada’s strong will which burns through the film like a bright light that also threatens to singe. But The Piano is about so much more than the surfacing of a repressed female sexuality. Under less subtle direction it might have been just that. Campion explores the colonial moment when the white man mapped out the territory whether it be over the land of others, or women’s bodies, but she invests Stewart with as much understanding as the other characters.
The force of The Piano is in its complexity of thought and feeling. Ada’s music is described as a ‘mood that passes through you’; in the same way the audience absorbs the film. Long after you’ve seen it, you’ll find it lingering within, echoing still in the chambers of your heart and brain.
The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor and Other Stories
by Hama Tuma
(Heinemann ISBN 0-435-90590-2 )
‘Writers in Ethiopia are as rare as peace,’ asserts Hama Tuma and that alone could be reason for welcoming his book. But there are others. The first half consists of satirical stories set in a court of law where such dangerous criminals as queue-breakers and incurable hedonists are tried.
Though the stories are short on plot they have a Swiftean bite: the writing is deceptively simple and admirably taut. The Ethiopia that is revealed in this collection is a land of paradoxes where everyday people must have an array of masks ready to counter the machinations of the militia. As case follows case in the courtroom, the most topsy-turvy arguments are followed to more and more bizarre conclusions. Yet the reader finds the overall picture getting increasingly clear.
Like all good satire the details are worked out for maximum effect, giving the stories a sense of inevitability. The narrator acts as a naive observer who, like the child noticing the Emperor’s nakedness, reveals every discrepancy of an absurdly repressive state through what he says and what he leaves unsaid.
The excellence of the first half is not mirrored by the second which consists of sombre tales of a ravaged people suffering the dehumanisation of a brutal regime. Without the satirical sharpness of the earlier set, these stories seem melodramatic and somewhat contrived and have that whiff of worthiness that every writer of fiction must dread.
by Justin Cartwright
(Macmillan ISBN 0-333-59281-6)
The dust jacket is a warning – two elongated Masai heads drawn in pastels. The Masai in this novel are hardly more real. Colourful and decorative, they stream across picturesque plains in their blazing robes. The publisher’s blurb is accurate: this book deals with ‘the preoccupations of urban man [sic] highlighted against the startling backdrop of the African wilderness’. ‘Backdrop’ is what Masai country is reduced to and the ‘preoccupations’ are one white Londoner’s thoughts on his lover’s infidelity and clumsy juxtapositions of the holocaust and the condition of the Masai.
The central character, Tim Curtiz, is in Africa writing a screenplay about a beautiful French anthropologist who worked with the Masai people and later was sent to an SS concentration camp. The idea of film is central to the novel: everything is visual, objectified and has the distance of a created image. The narrative can be ironic about everything in sight because the narrative itself is open to question. It’s a shame really, as Justin Cartwright seems to have interesting things to say about relationships, cultural difference, and contemporary insincerity.
The Spirit Cries:
Music from the Rainforests of South America and the Caribbean
by Various Artists
(Rykodisc, RCD 10250)
Given the ubiquity of pop music and the modern-day rituals it throws up, it is easy to forget that music possesses more than a ceremonial role. For millions of people, over thousands of years, it has had a power literally to call the world into being.
The Spirit Cries, the first in a series of recordings digitally remastered and produced by the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, belongs to this second category. Part of what Hart has called the ‘Endangered Music Project’, this is an astonishing album of nearly 30 songs and tunes all recorded in the rainforests and jungle clearings of South America and the Caribbean. The original recordings were made between 1949-1987 and lodged in the Library of Congress in the US. Hart has polished up the original sources – much of it recorded on the most basic equipment – to replicate the actual performances.
There are songs for the placation of ancestral spirits from Belize’s Garifuna, an Aluku song from Surinam which protects against bullets and a Wayana women’s cassava wine song from French Guyana. The hypnotic Kromanti rhythms of the Jamaican Maroons – descendants of escaped slaves who fought off British colonialists – are straight out of Africa.
Many of these songs have not been sung for years. Many more are threatened by the encroachment of evangelists and political forces. The continuity of the Andean Ashaninka culture faces a daily battle for survival against both Peruvian government-sponsored relocation programs and Shining Path terrorists.
It would be easy to detect an overriding melancholy in, for example, the graceful songs of the Garifuna or Shipibo. Such songs – the product of isolated communities – occupy a difficult position in a modern world which seeks to homogenize global culture. Yet the methods by which the heritage of these peoples can be preserved are not without tension: the dangers of exploitation and cultural voyeurism are always present.
This album is undoubtedly an archive, but not an exploitative one. The proceeds of sales will be ploughed back into the communities and performers, to ensure a living archive. We can only guess at how the next generation of songs from the rainforest might evolve.
Victor Jara of Chile
He lived like a shooting star
He fought for the people of Chile
With his songs and his guitar
by Adrian Mitchell
Twenty years ago a military coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet and supported and funded by the CIA, overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. A savage wave of bloodletting ensued as the Chilean military tortured and murdered socialists, communists, trade unionists and artists.
Among those rounded up in the Santiago Stadium was the singer and songwriter Victor Jara, a staunch Allende supporter and thorn in the side of the political Right. He was recognized and taken aside for ‘special treatment’. Beaten, taunted, mocked, he was forced to sing for his captors, tortured for two days, then shot.
In the brief three years of Allende’s Popular Unity government, Victor Jara had championed Chilean culture and music. Together with Violeta Parra and the groups Inti-Illimani and Quilapayun he stood against the tide of trite coca-cola culture imported from the US. Just as Allende was attempting to prove that there was a ‘Chilean road’ to socialism and justice, the artists and musicians of the Chilean New Song Movement were working to develop a sense of their own culture.
In 1983 Victor’s widow, Joan, wrote a moving and impassioned book, Victor, an Unfinished Song, in which she tells of their life together and explores the roots from which his commitment grew. Growing up on the estates of the powerful Ruiz-Tagle family, Victor experienced first-hand the feudal nature of Chilean society, supporting a pampered and entrenched oligarchy. With his father absent or violent, his mother was forced by poverty to move the family to a Santiago barrio where she slaved to keep her family fed and out of street gangs. Following his mother’s death, Victor considered becoming a priest but studied and practised drama and folk culture instead, becoming a central figure in the informal circles where people gathered to sing, eat, and talk politics.
The New Song Movement was not just an arty metropolitan group. They took their music to factories, copper mines and isolated villages. And in his songs Victor did not resort to slogans and hectoring but wrote about real people such as the street girl who died in the district where he grew up (Who killed Carmencita?). He saw it as his business to support the struggles of ordinary people by telling the truth about their lives in song. ‘My guitar is a worker,’ as he said in the song Manifesto. And he enraged the Right with the pointed satire of songs such as Ni chicha ni limona (roughly ‘Neither one thing nor the other’) and El Derecho de Vivir en Paz (‘The right to live in peace’). The album Manifesto, compiled from tapes smuggled out of Chile, is perhaps the best introduction to Victor’s songs, covering his solo work as well as material recorded with other members of the New Song Movement and including introductions and translations by Joan Jara.
I remember how, as a teenager, I was inspired by the progress of the Chilean people and shocked by the brutality of their suppression. I believe that a brief flowering of freedom in Chile two decades ago and the life of this singer-songwriter have an importance increased rather than diminished by time. With a new and fragile democratic government in Chile, but with the military still powerful and waiting in the shadows, it’s appropriate to remember and celebrate Victor Jara’s life and work.
We live in cynical, diminished times, our dreams and aspirations deformed by the fallout from the collapse of communism and the abject failure of the capitalist ‘New World Order’. Victor Jara is important not only because he attempted an alternative to the pasteurized ‘world culture’ nor because he tackled the might of the US in what the superpower regarded as its own backyard. The continuing relevance of Victor Jara lies in the message that for the people to rise from serfdom, be it material or cultural, two qualities are necessary – hope, and a sense of the value of your own identity. In his last poem, smuggled on a scrap of paper out of Santiago Stadium hours before his murder, Victor is still raising his voice for justice and understanding:
How hard it is to sing
when I must sing of horror
Horror in which I am living
horror in which I am dying
To see myself among so much
and so many moments of infinity
in which silence and screams
are the end of my song
What I see, I have never seen
What I have felt and what I feel
will give birth to the moment...
Victor, an Unfinished Song by Joan Jara (Jonathan Cape, 1983) and Manifesto by Victor Jara (Conifer Records, 1986).