issue 252 - February 1994
by Marcelo Pineyro
Speak Up! It’s So Dark
by Suzanne Osten
by Nettie Wilde
I Wanted to See Angels
by Sergei Bodrov
The Saint of Fort Washington
by Tim Hunter
There are not many showcases for socially committed and Third World cinema – but Toronto’s Festival of Festivals is consistent in providing screens for some excellent feature films which hopefully will make it beyond the narrow art house market. Here are four highlights:
Set in Buenos Aires in the late 1960s, Tango Feroz unfolds the dramatic tale of a rock singer who falls foul of a state soon to be engaged in the wholesale slaughter of Argentina’s youth. Tango gets involved with rebellious students and a police chief who wants to make him ‘sing’. He ends up incarcerated, first in prison then in a mental hospital, for his refusal to capitulate to authoritarian power and the record industry. Fast-paced, this film captures the idealism of 1960s youth in urban Latin America pitted against the looming power of the morbid state. As one police official ominously warns: ‘You will learn – at least those of you who survive’.
Power and brutality are explored in a rather more intimate way in Speak Up! It’s So Dark which homes in on the relationship between a neo-fascist skinhead and a Jewish therapist. They meet on Swedish train and the doctor becomes a source of both challenge and hope for the troubled skinhead. The stormy ‘therapy’ sessions in Suzanne Osten’s film make for some pretty disturbing viewing, but what emerges is a brilliant portrait of the psychological mindset of those who serve the far right as cannon fodder.
In the early 1990s Canadian native Americans launched direct action campaigns across the country to recover their rights. Blockade is a graphic case study of one such confrontation between the Gitksan people of northern British Colombia and the logging industry that is laying waste their land. Director Nettie Wilde does not try to simplify her story to add dramatic flair. She captures the frustration and the fear of the loggers who have earned their livelihood from the bush as well as the determination of the Gitksan to recover their land and culture.
In I Wanted to See Angels veteran Soviet director Sergei Bodrov eschews the traditional Russian sentimentalism that has marked his earlier films for a tough and uncompromising view of Yeltsin’s Moscow. Bodrov lays bare the hardship and cynicism affecting the nation’s youth that has accompanied the spread of predatory capitalism in Russia.
Finally, The Saint of Fort Washington renders the streets and single-men’s hostels of New York in their full terror and beauty – and has the power to change the way homeless people are viewed. The hopes, fears and underlying humanity of the film’s main characters – played by Danny Glover and Matt Dillon – are revealed as they struggle to survive in the tiny niches left after the ravages of the free market, more hindered than helped by cops and well-meaning social workers.
Beat the Border
by Geoffrey Oryema
(Real World/Virgin CDRW 37 – CD only)
‘At the age of seven,’ says Geoffrey Oryema, ‘I was struck by the musical disease’.
This is perhaps an odd way for the Ugandan musician and songwriter to describe his prodigious talents and compulsion to make music. But Oryema claims a line of poets and instrumentalists as his ancestors. He himself specialized on the nanga harp, lukeme thumb piano, flute and guitar. At college, he studied Stanislavian method acting and applied it to indigenous African forms.
Not surprisingly, a breadth of influences runs through all Oryema’s music and this latest album, Beat the Border, is no exception. Sung half in Acholi, half in English, it manages to be traditional in an untraditional manner. The songs match African instruments with the studio effects of Bob Ezrin (a producer who counts Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd amongst his credits) and Peter Gabriel’s long-standing engineer, David Botrill.
Oryema fled Uganda for Paris in 1977 after his father – a minister in Idi Amin’s government – died in mysterious circumstances. After 10 years gigging in Paris, Oryema was invited to perform at The World of Art, Music and Dance (WOMAD) concerts. Contact with musical pioneers like Brian Eno, Gabriel and Daniel Lanois provided some of his most intriguing recent influences.
A quiet, beguiling quality haunts Beat the Border’s ten songs, each possessing its own attentiveness to the moment. Market Day tells of a sister who spends the house-keeping money on cheap make-up. Lapwony, about a teacher struck dead by lightning, describes the rain that follows and washes away the ink on his letter home.
Oryema is an observer, but his choice of events is not seen with a passive gaze. In Gang Deyo, on the theme of a fashion show, the percussion clicks away in imitation of the cameras. Like many of his songs it is about mutability – and the powerful impact of one culture upon another.
The Critical Villager: Beyond Community Participation
by Eric Dudley
(Routledge ISBN 0-415-07344-8)
Supporting ‘development’ seems more suspect than ever. Look at the large number of successes on paper which are in reality mediocre projects with little influence on people’s lives; or arguments about the paternalism and implicit racism of aid.
Eric Dudley’s book is enlightened and chastening as it charts a considered path through the problems related to aid intervention. His analysis is direct and he often asks the kinds of questions that get ignored because they seem too obvious. Building upon a well-focused critique of development he calls for greater honesty and an abandonment of the ‘covert imposition of values behind the jargon of empowerment’. The aid worker, he says, should ‘openly declare beliefs and argue for them’.
‘The hazy principle that “the people” are always right is not only irrational, it is also patronizing. Respect is best shown for the villagers by treating them as consenting responsible adults with whom one can argue, disagree and negotiate.’
Many of Dudley’s insights have the weight of experience behind them. Take his view that offering employment to villagers within projects makes a lot more sense than fashionable ‘workshop’ approaches. Or that articulate spokespersons are the greatest obstacles to communication because they attend every interview and ‘explain’ other people’s views. Or his exposure of the more cynical motives behind producing development education materials: ‘A booklet which is ostensibly aimed at semi-literate villagers is likely to find its way instead on to desks in Washington, university libraries in Europe...’ Here is a sane and sure-footed guide through such hypocrisy.
It is a common human trait to put things in pigeonholes, assigning each object, thought or feeling to the designated slot. Books are no exception. Novel, non-fiction, travel, autobiography – we feel happier if we have an exact fix on the book under consideration. Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams frustrates such compartmentalized thinking. It is at once a natural history of the Arctic, a chronology of exploration, a hymn of praise to the flora and fauna that manage to survive in such unpromising conditions, and a chronicle of the time Lopez has spent in the Arctic. The book grew from a love of the landscape and the desire to explain and preserve its unique qualities. Lopez combines a poet’s appreciation with the rigours of scientific method.
Following his previous book, Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez was drawn back to the Arctic and spent four years researching in the Sub-Polar regions, travelling on survey ships, living and working with geologists, palaeontologists and naturalists. In scope Arctic Dreams is a complete encyclopedia of the Arctic but it is much more than an arid recitation of the facts. The underlying philosophy is that the better we understand fragile environments such as the polar regions, the better equipped we are to fight their despoliation and destruction.
Also, an appreciation and respect for our environment reflects what we value and hold important in our own selves.
Lopez identifies three themes in his investigation of our habitat and our own lives: ‘The influence of the arctic landscape on the human imagination. How the desire to put a landscape to use shapes our evaluation of it. And confronted by an unknown landscape, what happens to our sense of wealth. What does it mean to grow rich?’ He does not pretend that these are simple questions or that they have definite answers. In Lopez’s eyes, though, the altered perspective of a land that – unlike the temperate climates – cannot tolerate the slapdash husbandry that we grace with the names ‘progress’ and ‘development’ offers at once a challenge and a great opportunity.
The name we give this area derives from the Greek arktikos, ‘country of the Great Bear’. Through much of history it was an unknown void. In myth it was transformed into a land of warmth and fertility out of which came fearsome enemies of civilization such as the Old Testament figures, Gog and Magog. More recent attempts to understand the Arctic have tried to pin down with scientific fact the metaphysical nature of the place; for instance, our idea of the ‘Magnetic Pole’, the ‘Geomagnetic Pole’, the ‘Geographic Pole’, the ‘Pole of Inaccessibility’, and the simple ‘North Pole’.
Lopez offers a beautiful example of the ability of the Arctic always to slip beyond our ken. In 1597 the Dutch Willem Barents and his crew were forced to overwinter on the Siberian island of Novaya Zemlya. The darkness was as trying to them as the cold and, when the sun finally reappeared, 12 days earlier than they had calculated, they offered prayers of thanks for what they saw as divine intervention. In fact what they saw that far-off January was not the sun but a solar mirage; the actual sun was still five degrees below the horizon, its rays bent towards them by atmospheric refractions. A reminder that the universe is oddly hinged.
Examples of oddness and adaptability of life on earth abound in this book. Lopez devotes a chapter each to the joyous exploration of the way that polar bears, musk oxen and narwhals fit into their particular niche, how they thrive in conditions which are highly inimical to warm-blooded life, and how their interactions with humans – both indigenous hunters and newly arrived exploiters of resources – affect their chances of survival.
In a chapter called ‘The Intent of Monks’ Lopez discusses what it means to be a human being living and working in this environment. A passage that is at once dramatic and commonplace describes how he and a party of scientists were trapped by the drifting sea ice and the methodical way they found their way out of danger. When Lopez says: ‘you accept the possibility of death in such situations, prepare for it, and then forget about it,’ he is not being melodramatic, merely stating a truth. Such circumstances are conditions of work, not the reason for being there.
Arctic Dreams is a beautifully crafted work which lingers in the mind and reaffirms a faith in humanity; it speaks for our entire planet and our place in it, not merely the portion at the top we call Arctic. Indeed, the more Lopez understands the particular character of the Arctic ecosystem, the more his argument becomes a general one which applies to all environments, all people, in whatever circumstances.
Lopez ends as he began, with a profound gratitude to the land: ‘I looked out over the Bering Sea and brought my hands folded to the breasts of my parka and bowed from the waist deeply towards the north, the great strait filled with life, the ice and the water. I bowed before the simple evidence of the moment in my life in a tangible place on earth that was beautiful... I was full of appreciation for all that I had seen.’
Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez (Macmillan 1986, Picador 1990)