directed by Robert Lepage
Canadian theatre director Robert Lepage – who established himself on the world stage with such dynamic and innovative pieces as Needles and Opium and Tectonic Plates – has made his cinema debut. The result is quite dazzling. Le Confessionnal is set in Quebec and spans a young lifetime as it moves between 1952 and the late 1980s. It pivots on an intriguing premise: in 1952 the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock came to the French-Canadian city to film I Confess – about a young priest facing the death penalty because of his refusal to break his confidentiality vow over the confessional. Pierre Lamontagne (Lothaire Bluteau) was in his mother’s womb at the time but that summer’s events are key to him as he becomes involved in his adoptive brother Marc’s (Patrick Goyette) search for his real father. Marc is very much the drifting sort who has abandoned his go-go dancer girlfriend to turn tricks for rich and influential Johns. This search for paternity is as much about finding roots and security.
Out of this elegant conceit Lepage has created a compelling, labyrinthine thriller of sorts that makes atmospheric use of Quebec locations whether in scenes set in the underworldly aquarium or from the dizzy heights of the revolving restaurant from where the city looks as if it is swirling out like a glittering fabric. The director has a sharp eye and has come up with some haunting, at times beguilingly, abstract images. But Le Confessionnal’s ultimate strength is in its astute examination of the questions that it raises – whether about Catholicism and how it has evolved over the last 30 or so years, or about the complex nexus of the family. But ultimately Lepage’s film is a brilliant triumphing of Oedipal anxieties. As such it is a modern day tragedy that would have Sophocles quaking.
by Askia Modibo
(Stern’s Africa STCD 1060)
Bursting into life with a tight, cantering rhythm, Askia Modibo’s Wass Reggae is an intriguing record. It fuses the insinuating rhythms of his native Malian Wassoulou music with a soulful reggae sweetness that owes more to Bob Marley than dub’s darker spaces. And, unusually, it combines the spirit of both musics without losing any sense of its own cultural identity.
Modibo’s musical life started as a shepherd boy singing traditional Bambara songs. He then took in a wealth of US soul classics – notably James Brown – and then did a stint with Ivory Coast’s reggae star Alpha Blondy and Le Super Tentemba. Modibo uses reggae’s propulsive rhythms to fuel songs that variously offer advice, deplore the traffic jams of Bamako and question the relationship between Africa and the West. All this and a low-level dose of piety thrown in.
But it’s as a football fanatic that Modibo is also known. Many of this album’s 11 songs – sung, incidentally, in Bambara with a smattering of French and English thrown in – appeared two years ago on Les Aigles, a cassette dedicated to Mali’s national team. In fact, ‘Les Aigles du Mali’ is one of Wass Reggae’s centre points: a hunting song updated with shots of rock-steady brass and spliced with recordings of cheering crowds. Its passion is translated to other aspects of Malian life: ‘Circulation de Bamako’ details in both word and rhythm the frustrations of being caught up in one of Africa’s worst traffic jams. An odd subject to sing about, perhaps, but why not? After all, this is a record firmly rooted in Modibo’s own territory.
The Malian Wassoulou sound has, in recent years, been dominated by female artists of international calibre – Oumon Sangaré, Nahawa Doumbia and Dieneba Diakité are all worth checking out. Modibo’s approach shares their flexible, lilting vocals and he has a pleasing tenor voice capable of punctuating melodies with numerous twists and turns. But he favours a more Western instrumentation; his band is very much the exemplar of the African dance band – guitars, keyboards, percussion and a lively horn section.
Modibo tackles a wide range of contemporary themes: ‘Ou Va l’Afrique?’, ‘Devaluation’ and ‘Immigration Zero’ (the title taken from a French anti-immigration speech made by minister Charles Pasqua) have a continent-wide, if not global, relevance. And peace is the motivating message of much of the album. ‘Stop war!’ he sings in a style which is pure Marley with a chorus echoing the message in three languages. It’s an emphatic point made with musical rigour and delight.
Workers in an Integrating World: World Development Report 1995
by The World Bank
(Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-521102-2)
The World Bank’s current charm offensive means that the human dimension (known to journalists as ‘colour’) now features more prominently than before in its annual Development Report. So the latest of these reports is dotted with little stories about the little people called ‘workers’ whose best interests the Bank carries very close to its heart.
‘Economic growth,’ it instructs us, ‘is good for workers’. Full stop. Thanks for the tip, chief!
‘Toys from China,’ it continues, ‘copper from Chile, rice from Thailand – trade in goods and increasingly in services is the most important and most stable form of economic contact with the rest of the world for Joe, Maria and Xiao Zhi.’ Sure thing, jefe!
It’s a bit odd, though. Toy factories in China kill people in fires; copper miners in Chile get maimed by explosives and knocked about by bits of rock or military thugs; rice farmers in Thailand fall sick from pesticide poisons. Not worth a mention?
From what little we can discover about them in this report, we know that ‘Joe’ in fact works in a bank in Texas, ‘Maria’ in an export-only maquila factory in Mexico and ‘Xiao Zhi’ in a Hong-Kong-owned textile factory in Southern China. They figure not as workers but as beneficiaries of the ‘integrating world’ that the World Bank advocates with semi-mystical zeal.
The Report whispers in passing that between 1970 and 1990 industrial wages in the South – where 80 per cent of the world’s industrial labour force is now located – either stagnated or declined everywhere except in East Asia and the Pacific. Not so wonderful for workers, you’d have thought. The World Bank has presided over this fiasco. It shows no sign of wishing to preside over anything else.
So, despite the colourful company of ‘Joe’, ‘Maria’ and ‘Xiao Zhi’, you can read this dismal document without feeling that you’ve come into contact with anything even remotely resembling a human being. In fact, you begin to doubt whether the three of them can ever have existed at all.
Reviews by Louise Gray, Lizzie Francke and David Ransom.
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
As a child I had a picture book which attempted to convey history through accounts – heavily edited – of the lives of important individuals. Among the many oddities of this ‘Great Man’ approach was the way the central figures were imbued with all the virtues and made every critical decision alone, without consultation. Thus, Drake thwarted the Armada, Wellington defeated Napoleon in single combat and George Washington begat the American Revolution in splendid isolation. In fact, Washington was a very reluctant rebel and if any one man can be said to have been the architect of the US it is not the army commander and first President but an Englishman from Thetford entirely absent from my child’s history book: Tom Paine.
Uniquely, Paine was both an inspiration to and a central figure in revolts on two continents: the American and the French revolutions. His writing, particularly Commonsense and Rights of Man, sold in vast quantities and have been hailed or blamed as being instrumental in fomenting uprisings the world over. How did the self-taught son of a poor corset-maker achieve such worldwide fame?
Born in 1737 on the street leading to the local gallows, Paine was obliged by family poverty to leave school early and follow his father’s trade as staymaker. When the corset trade declined he was forced to seek alternative careers and was – variously – a tax collector, schoolteacher and merchant seaman. Extreme poverty continued to dog his footsteps and he leaped at the chance to travel to America in 1774, where, under the patronage of Benjamin Franklin, he became a freelance journalist. His pamphlet Commonsense was published in January 1776 and was an immediate success, selling more than 150,000 in America alone. Paine’s invective against the monarchy and his contention that the colonies had rights that superseded their obligations to the King caused outrage across the Atlantic but struck a chord in the infant nation.
Paine entered the struggle for independence wholeheartedly, becoming a militiaman and observer with Washington’s rag-tag army. If Commonsense set out the philosophical underpinning of the American Revolution then his series of 16 propaganda tracts, entitled Crisis, bolstered the morale of the rebels at the crucial moment when the revolt looked like foundering. The opening tract gives a good flavour of Paine’s rhetorical spirit:
‘These are the times that try men’s souls... Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: ’Tis dearness only that gives every thing its value.’
Paine continued to serve the cause of the revolution. He became Secretary to the Congress’ Foreign Affairs Committee, in which capacity he made several visits to Paris. When the War for Independence was won, Paine – who had refused any payments for his propaganda writing – was given a farm in New York and enough money to make him comfortable. Such leisure allowed him to indulge in his lifelong fascination for science.
But in 1787 his passion for politics drew him back and he spent the next 15 years of his life engaged on shuttle diplomacy between France and England and as an active participant in the French Revolution. Paine’s exploits in republican France made his American experiences seem tame. He helped draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and was elected deputy to the National Assembly. He wrote his most famous work Rights of Man, setting out his doctrine of natural rights and his opposition to inherited privilege, in response to an attack on the French Revolution by the Tory philosopher Edmund Burke.
Paine spoke out bravely against the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and he opposed the growing Terror in which the Jacobin Revolution became a hideous, self-consuming engine of death. Arrested on the orders of Robespierre, he escaped the guillotine only because of an error in the marking of his cell door. Released after the fall of Robespierre, he continued to speak and write on the subject of liberty and returned to America, his adopted homeland, in 1802 – dying peacefully there seven years later at the age of 72.
Thomas Paine was a supreme popularizer of ideas and a peerless propagandist for the cause of human liberty. His writings are a challenging contribution to an argument that continues today: what is the most just form of government and how may we best achieve it? Paine’s legacy to us, in his passionate words and his exemplary life, is that the first and foremost step on the road is, steadfastly and fearlessly, to speak the truth to power.
Commonsense and Rights of Man are available in a number of editions including Penguin.
A new biography Tom Paine: a Political Life by John Keane is published by Bloomsbury (London, 1995).
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996