The NI Star rating system. Film

Strange Days
directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Nightmare with a core of hope. Over the past decade Kathryn Bigelow has established herself as one of the more controversial directors working in the US. In Blue Steel she scrutinized the cinema’s fascination with gun power. Casting a woman (Jamie Lee Curtis) in the central role of a New York cop, she also offered a critique of the patriarchal institution of the law – cleverly making the links between sanctioned violence and domestic strife when the cop arrests her father for beating up her mom. But despite her film’s clear intention she is too often dismissed as a freak phenomenon: a woman who makes violent films. This has been the case with her latest and most extraordinary film Strange Days, a cyber-punk thriller which offers a blistering portrayal of the near future. It has already been mistakenly disparaged by some critics as ‘brutal ‘ and ‘amoral’. Brutal it might be, but it certainly does not condone what it portrays. Rather it offers a stern warning about the ‘red in tooth and claw’ nature of Western urban culture. As such, it is perhaps one of the most moral films to come out of Hollywood for some time.

Set in LA on the eve of the millennium, it depicts the city of a civil-war-torn police state. This is not just the stuff of sci-fi fantasy – images of helmeted and armed police patrolling in tanks recall news footage of the 1992 LA riots. In this future too, race relations are fraught. Attempting to make a dubious living in this explosive environment is Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), an ex-cop who now peddles in the latest technology: the state-banned Superconducting Quantum Interference Device or SQUID. This gadget allows one to record and playback individual experiences. One step beyond Virtual Reality, it allows the users to tap into the lives of others. In this respect Strange Days foregrounds the vicarious nature of cinema itself – for, after all, isn’t it about creating fantasies for audiences to slip into? Bigelow explores both the pleasures and the dreadful dangers of this obsession with images, setting up a moral debate about what should and should not be shown as Lenny stumbles across two exceptionally disturbing clips. In one a friend is raped and murdered; the other shows the ritualistic killing of a young black rap singer who has become a hero of his generation. Offering clarity of vision is his best friend, Mace (Angela Bassett), a resolute young black woman who provides the film’s moral centre. While Strange Days shapes the future as a nightmare, it also offers hope in humanity as Mace takes a stand that averts a potentially apocalyptic ending.

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History of a Genocide 1959-1994
by Gérard Prunier
(Hurst & Company, ISBN 1-85065-247-3)

Season of Blood
by Fergal Keane
(Viking, ISBN 0-670-86205-3)

The Angels Have Left Us
by Hugh McCullum
(WCC Publications, ISBN 2-8254-1154-X)

The Silence
by Gilles Peress
(Scalo, ISBN 1-881616-38-X)

The Silence If you love books then your imagination will probably have entered the foul-smelling world of the Rwanda genocide already – at Auschwitz. Perhaps as you entered you felt disconcerted, as I did trying to digest as much as I could of these four terrifying books: TV images had somehow contrived to leave me utterly unprepared. Taken together these books deliver a shattering blow to the complacency of modern international politics.

Gérard Prunier proves the value of a history that engages with the present. You discover something of the complexities that lie behind the banality of evil; how the ‘conservative revolution’ of 1959 switched Hutu for Tutsi oppressors and left Europeans ‘with no more to fear’; how the collapse of international coffee prices in 1989 pushed Rwandans further towards the abyss; how Switzerland made ‘boring’ Rwanda the main recipient of its foreign aid.

Fergal Keane is a courageous British journalist who writes beautifully. He went from South Africa to make a TV documentary about the genocide and this short, moving book tells the story behind it. Yet it is more ‘about’ how he, and other hardened observers who witnessed the same things, were invaded almost unawares by overwhelming emotion. Though he is too gentle to say so, you can find a trace of the banality of evil in those of his colleagues who argued on his return to London that events in Rwanda were of ‘no political consequence’ whatever.

The Canadian Hugh McCullum’s account is of people who, by virtue of their involvement with aid, or with the churches, or with the UN, expect to occupy the moral high ground. In Rwanda they came as close as should be possible to actively participating in catastrophe.

Which leaves the photographs of Gilles Peress. Perhaps The Silence confronts us with the most durable and difficult truth of all. There are no words. The sound of evil, the sound of its aftermath, is silence. The images leave a stark, rigid memorial to humanity in a void.

And the silence persists: under the protection of the UN it lurks in the refugee camps of Zaire or Tanzania; it lives with the people of Rwanda and in ‘dispassionate’ politics everywhere else.

‘Church people,’ writes Hugh McCullum, ‘in my experience usually want to know where to find hope’. John Watson, the Canadian executive director of CARE, ends McCullum’s book by saying that we must ‘recognize and deal with the reappearance of an old enemy – fascism’. We are all responsible, and so we are all powerful. Which brings us back to Auschwitz – and so, for once, to the impossibility of rating these four wonderful books for ‘entertainment’.

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by Giya Kancheli
(ECM New Series 1535 447 808 CD)

It is often said, somewhat tritely, that exile is a condition that bears fruit in the arts department. In the case of Giya Kancheli you could argue that exile has been his musical liberation. A Georgian composer who left the then USSR some years ago for life in Western Europe, his work fits loosely into the dismissively-termed ‘holy minimalist’ genre of Gorécki, John Taverner and Arvo Pärt. Within a rigorous classical structure, Kancheli hints at folk motifs, orthodox liturgical music and an experimentalism that simultaneously reflects a Soviet training as well as a search for something beyond. In exile he was able to blend religious themes with both tonality and atonality.

Exil is a song-cycle which explores an internal sense of separation. Sung by soprano Maacha Deubner and scored for flute with a small string ensemble, the piece addresses the empty spaces which we all, at some time or another, visit. Its sound vistas are sombre, eerie spaces, both contemplative and lonely – suggesting that the separation is perhaps that of mind and spirit. Kancheli’s choice of texts, Psalm 23, followed by settings for three poems by Paul Celan and one by Hans Sahl, all stress the solitary condition of the individual. There is no sense of community – the notes are often sparse, with Deubner enunciating pauses as much as the words. Exil is bleak – but there is also a promise of engagement. At intervals themes played on the lower registers of the cello swell up to suggest that hope exists, and that within the space there is the very real possibility of transcendence.

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T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
...being the first major dramatic film of the liberated sub-Saharan cinema.

‘Film should be a school of history,’ says Ousmane Sembene of Senegal, widely considered the father of African cinema. ‘We have to have the courage to say that in the colonial period we were sometimes colonized with the help of our own leaders... We mustn’t be ashamed of our faults and our errors.’

Sembene made these statements concrete with the 1971 premiere of Emitai, his visually rich and complex drama set in the Diola society of rural Senegal. Perhaps the ideas struck too close to home. The film was immediately banned in Senegal, indeed throughout Africa.

Emitai tells the story of key incidents that took place in French colonial Senegal during the Second World War. The film centres on attempts by the colonial administration to impose a new rice tax in a Diola village and the resistance that followed. The community becomes divided over what strategy to take. The traditional elders are backed into a corner and humiliated, while the village women adopt new tactics and take strong action. In a series of startling and vivid scenes, visions of the gods appear to the elders, while in another part of the village women rapidly organize and hide the substantial rice crop.


The Diola people Sembene focuses on in this film are a small ethnic minority who possess a distinct language, culture and history, and refer to their part of the world as ‘the Sacred Forest’. Before European colonization the Diola organized themselves as a stateless society, ‘roughly speaking as a democracy,’ says Sembene. The traditional elders functioned as political spokespeople, especially in times of crisis. Women played a central role, with responsibility for agricultural production. The Diola religion dictates that the rice crop is sacred. Although it can be eaten, it is the property of the gods – and this forms the thematic core and central paradox of Emitai. The rice cannot be given up because it belongs to the gods. But if it is not given up the society will be destroyed by the French.

Based on his own screenplay, Emitai was Sembene’s third drama and the film that launched his world reputation. But reaching an international audience was not his aim. Rather he wanted to communicate directly with the Diola society. He is proud that the villagers ‘were happy to hear that there was a beautiful language for them’. The film is not about the elders, or the women, the act of resistance, the cruelty of the French or the leading characters. It is all these at once, touching on economics, social structure, religion and culture. The pace may be slow for those of us raised on Hollywood action, but there is a richness of gesture and a symbolic language that holds the attention of any audience. Western viewers will be unable to distinguish fully between the natural speech of the villagers and the stylistic embellishments of the actors, yet this lively fluctuation between the natural speech and artistic play must surely be a source of richness for Diola audiences.

Senegal today is a major cultural and economic power in West Africa. After gaining independence in 1960 it immediately embarked on a widely-copied form of African state socialism. The results have been mixed. Strong nationalized sectors of the economy are now offset by a dangerous reliance on International Monetary Fund policies and on peanuts as an export crop. Human-rights abuses have been widespread, and key artists and intellectuals, such as Sembene, have faced a rocky road.

Born in Senegal in 1923, Sembene served in the French army during the Second World War, then moved to France where he became a dockworker – and immediately launched a prolific writing career. His reputation was quickly established, especially with the novel God’s Bits of Wood (1955), based on Senegal’s great railway strike of the 1940s. Then in 1960, in a dramatic shift of gears, Sembene moved to the Soviet Union to study film-making. Four years later, armed with rock-solid skills and a clear political drive, he was back in Senegal deeply involved in film production, in order, he says, to reach a wider, national audience than he could through literature. Senegal has one of the poorest literacy rates in Africa – 50 per cent for men, only 25 per cent for women.

African cinema has often looked to Senegal to play a leading role. This is partly because unlike the British or the Portuguese, the French provided funding for indigenous film-making in their former colonies in West Africa.

Emitai marked out different terrain and set tough new standards for African cinema, however. It was produced almost entirely with African money and made few concessions to non-African audiences. It presented a daring new artistic discussion of political issues concerning Africa’s past and future. The critique of colonialism was vigorous without simplifying the tensions in African society. And finally, Emitai was unique at the time in its strong portrayal of African women.

Peter Steven

Emitai directed by Ousmane Sembene was released in 1971 and is distributed by Metro Pictures.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 276 magazine cover This article is from the February 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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