Top of the list, and at the core of this magazine’s concerns, was Jeremy Seabrook’s intelligent and passionate In the Cities of the South (Verso, ISBN 1-85984-081-7). From Jakarta to Bombay, Kuala Lumpur to Manila, he paints a picture of communities under siege, but forging collective defences of organization, education and association. Like a city, this wonderful book seethes with light, action and endlessly varied personal dramas. It will make you weep, it will make you angry, but it will give you an abiding sense of the human capacity for hope, struggle and progress. The Diary of Frida Kahlo (Bloomsbury ISBN 0-7475-2247-2), with an introduction by Carlos Fuentes, was one of the year’s most intriguing offerings. This radical Mexican painter’s sketches, drawings, scribblings and writings are so much more alive than her finished artwork. They communicate a sense of her as a spirited, imaginative, politically committed woman, living through one of the most interesting periods of Mexico’s recent history, while wrestling with her own demons and disabilities. Rohinton Mistry’s novel, A Fine Balance (Faber and Faber ISBN 0-571-1766-4) was short-listed for the Booker Prize in Britain, hyped to the sky by some critics and slated by others. It remains a powerful story, well told, focussing on the interweaving lives of ordinary people living through a period that includes Indira Gandhi’s terrifying Emergency of the 1970s. It’s not a cheerful read. For humour mixed with verve and politics, there was Patience Agbabe’s Raw (Gecko Press, London, ISBN 0-9524067-1-3). This fine young performance poet is unusual in that she’s as good on paper as she is in the flesh. Using tight-sprung rhythms, a driving rap style and an impeccable sense of timing, she can pack a punch, draw a smile and warm your heart while tingling your mind with her subtlety. A new talent well worth looking out for.
The contenders for this slot have been monumentally good this year, but Radio Tarifa’s extraordinary and expansive Rumba Argelina (World Circuit WCD 042) was a worthy winner. Rarely has the relationship between North African, Arabic and Spanish flamenco music been developed with such imaginative flair. With haunting flutes, hammering flamenco beats and sombre violin lines, this is an album with its feet in the past, present and future. Several others make the shortlist: Patti Smith’s welcome return with Gone Again (Arista CD 74321 38474 2); Tenores di Bitti’s S’amore ‘e Mama (Virgin/Real World CDRW 60); and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook’s Night Song (Virgin/Real World LC 3098 CD).
Los Masis’s El Corazón del Pueblo (Tumi CD 062) and Sheila Chandra’s ABoneCroneDrone (Real World CDRW 56) did not make it to the columns of the NI but are also worthy of attention, as is Norma Waterson (Hannibal HNCD 1393), by the same, which redefined and revivified English folk.
It’s increasingly difficult for Southern films to get onto the international movie-house circuit and this year’s Northern-dominated crop of the best reflects this reality. A recurrent theme was the crisis in contemporary culture as we approach the eve of the millennium. Maverick director Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days was one of the best, drumming up a Cassandra-style warning in a dazzling kinetic film set in a riot- torn LA of the near future. [Safe] by Todd Haynes also made a profound comment on our times, telling the tale of a suburban housewife with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Disorder who effectively becomes allergic to the late twentieth century. This was a horror film in which the real horror remained hidden. Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda made an astounding debut with Maborosi, a beautifully observed account of one woman’s attempts to get over her husband’s suicide.
Meanwhile, Small Faces by Gilles Mackinnon brilliantly evoked the darkness of childhood as well as the wonder, in its depiction of filial betrayal in Glasgow in the 1960s. Breaking The Waves, by Danish director Larsvon Trier broke conventions – and the heart – in a searing tale of love and faith set in a strict Scottish Presbyterian community in the 1970s. One of the few major films from the South to have made it to Northern screens this year was Cyclo, made by Scent of Green Papaya director, Tran Anh Hung. Set in contemporary Saigon, this was an extraordinary, difficult film that challenged the viewer with its abstract range of jarring images. But it was one of the most important and evocative to have come out of Vietnam to date.
The Open Sore of a Continent:
A Personal Account of the Nigerian Crisis
by Wole Soyinka
(Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-510557-5)
On 12 June 1993 the Nigerian people elected Moshood Abiola as their leader. Even as the elections were being internationally lauded, a despotic clique of power-crazed politicians, unsettled by the fact that their ‘persuasion’ had had no effect on the electorate, banded together to annul the process and place a tyrant, General Sani Abacha, at the helm. This is the central event to which Wole Soyinka’s eloquent testimony returns time and time again.
Here is how he recounts it: ‘After the initial noises of realism and surrender to a popular, democratic will, the reprobates of the old order recovered their breath and recollected their endangered interests, regrouped and ranged themselves behind a mouldy concept of an eternal right to governance and control. The latest instrument of their feudal, despotic will is General Abacha, the last in the line of the reign of deception, of obfuscating rhetoric and cant in the service of a straightforward will to domination by an anachronistic bunch of social predators.’
Soyinka is an excellent witness – poetic, polemical, impassioned, witty, and above all fiercely articulate. He is at his most withering when dealing with Abacha: ‘Totally lacking in vision, in perspectives, he is a mole trapped in a warren of tunnels.’ And: ‘Abacha will be satisfied only with the devastation of every aspect of Nigeria that he cannot mentally grasp, and that is virtually all of Nigeria.’
Eminently quotable, Soyinka’s prose has the consistency and richness of fudge, without any of its indigestibility. It is partisan and personal, and does not pretend to be otherwise. But personal engagement is what one would expect from a writer who had his passport confiscated by Abacha and who was forced into exile by threats to his life. Soyinka has suffered the brutal stupidity of former dictators and their death squads. His friend Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni activist, was murdered after a farcical trial by the current regime. It would be absurd for him to affect disengagement.
Recounting that it took five attempts to hang him, Soyinka reveals Saro-Wiwa’s anguished words from the scaffold, – ‘Why are you people doing this to me? What sort of a nation is this?’ – as a leitmotif of his examination of nationhood and nationalism. In coming to his simple conclusion that nations rest on the common will of their peoples, Soyinka nevertheless examines the complexity of the worldwide resurgence of jingoism. When talking about Nigeria his account may not be chronologically arranged but the lucidity of its argument is consistently thought-provoking. A tendency towards repetitiveness and occasional grand rhetoric are minor irritations.
Recalling past dictators Soyinka observes that: ‘Nowhere in... most other West African countries are the spoils of power thus routinely handed down from villain to villain and extended retroactively to shield past villains.’ Abacha’s regime which foments strife among different groups in Nigeria in order to justify its repression marks the end, for Soyinka, of the Nigerian nation. The book is his vital summing-up of the case for its preservation.
The Greenpeace Message and the Media
by Stephen Dale
(Between The Lines Press, ISBN 1-896357-04-0)
A dinosaur of the 1970s, a victim of its own success, or a model for environmental and opposition groups worldwide? Stephen Dale’s new book offers strong proof that Greenpeace represents all three.
Founded in Vancouver in 1971, Greenpeace quickly emerged as the world’s most successful fighter for the environment. From its first triumph publicizing the US Navy’s Amchitka nuclear tests, to the savagely effective campaign to eliminate the Newfoundland seal hunt, Greenpeace has become a household word.
This fascinating, well-researched book follows the mix of anarchy and planning behind the key Greenpeace campaigns. It also looks at the challenge of taking a green message onto the international stage. In South America, for instance, Greenpeace had earlier been labelled as a mouthpiece for US trade interests, and a front for the CIA. Yet, as Dale shows, the outfit has changed and made significant strides in developing true partnerships with Southern environmental groups. Their joint efforts to place green issues alongside Southern social and economic forces have led to effective campaigns to block North-to-South toxic dumping.
Dale writes at length about the problems of simplifying one’s message. Yet ironically, the book also tends to flatten and simplify the role of television, and especially television audiences. Statements like ‘TV is incapable of complexity’ and ‘TV is inherently ahistorical’ can’t simply be declared. They need to be proved.
Greenpeace’s successes and failures and the constant ebb and flow of its international public image make this an important book for all people trying to publicize their message and change the world, not just green it.
Also worth reading....
Free to be Human by David Edwards (Resurgence, ISBN 1-870098-56) challenges the notion of freedom, both personal and collective, within so-called democratic societies. It’s a clarion call to spot the hidden persuaders and their manipulations and to free oneself ‘both personally and as a political agent’ by means of ‘intellectual self-defence’. This book is clear, intelligent and engaging. Similarly ambitious in its scope is Yvonne Burgess’s The Myth of Progress (Wild Goose Publications ISBN 0-947988-77-7). Burgess – who wrote the regular Letter from Mawere column for the NI back in the 1980s – gives a distinctive personal and idiosyncratic spin to her critique of the dominant values of the West, weaving in memories and stories along with political and philosophical analysis. This is a personal meditation, global in its span, bold in its passion, healing in its intent.
Compilation records usually evoke an immediate response – especially those with ‘Best of...’ in their titles. As the would-be listener rummages down the track listings looking for their favourites, it’s hard not to look for the obvious omissions. Where, in the 100-odd tracks across these six albums, is, say, Najma, the England-based singer of Pakistani gazals? Or Nigeria’s Fela Kuti? Or, or? Is it really possible to present a country’s musical heritage in 70 minutes?
Of course not, but the Rough Guides make a very good try. These CDs follow previous releases dedicated to Scotland, West Africa and – ambitious, this – The World. Most of them correspond to the excellent Rough Guide travel books: discs scheduled for 1997 include Brazil, reggae and North Africa. Once the musical merits of each track are established, the basis of track selection is often subjective admits the Rough Guide’s compiler Phil Stanton. This seems an honest way of producing records which function as travelling companions, introducing you to the sounds you might hear in a given place.
It’s an enormous undertaking and there are some real gems: the Zimbabwean Bhundu Boys’s ‘Foolish Harp’ from Best of Africa, for example, or the delicate tracery of drumming from the Master Musicians of Tanzania from Kenya and Tanzania, or the fantastically sinewy weaves of the Moheme Dance group from the same album. The Zimbabwe and Best of Africa albums are especially fine, filled with infectiously-crafted dance tunes and songs, showcasing the talents of, amongst others, Stella Rambisai Chiweshe, Aster Aweke and Mansour Seck. The India and Pakistan disc covers extraordinary distances, representing a range of traditions including karnatic, raga and folk. Check out the snake-charming songs of the Poets of Rajasthan or the strange tones of pashtu singer, Zarsanga, whose music occupies a sonic hinterland between numerous traditions. Only the immensely successful filmi genre which has grown up around Bombay’s Bollywood film industry is omitted. Considering that filmi is a genuinely indigenous response to new forms of culture this lack is regrettable.
Sometimes the gaps can’t be ignored. The Irish Music CD contains all the jigs, reels, fiddles and pipes you might expect, but the glaring omission is sean nos or unaccompanied song for which the island is justly famous. The fact that the sleeve notes ramble on about sean nos only rubs in the loss. But in six records this is the only major gripe. The Rough Guide discs do not set themselves out as definitive guides but as travelling companions or suggestions for your own research. The road starts here.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival
directed by Various
organized by Human Rights Watch International.
A film festival about human rights raises certain expectations – not least that filmmakers from these countries would be invited to put forward their own versions of national problems.
Human Rights Watch is a non-partisan charity and is understandably wary of jeopardizing that impartiality. But such caution doesn’t adequately explain the dearth of work by Southern filmmakers in their selection which has been screened in London and New York. Of the sixteen films only two were produced outside the US, Northern European, Israeli-Palestine axis.
In terms of bringing an awareness of humanitarian issues to a broad audience, however, the festival is a success. The approach is diverse, mixing straightforward documentary reportage with more meditative pieces. There is, for example, the sweetly affecting Our Burmese Days directed by Lindsey Merison in which she probes her mother’s refusal to acknowledge the Burmese side of her own mixed identity. Another film which successfully explores the connection between psychology and cultural history is Lost in Mississippi directed by Jim Chambers. One of the more visually arresting entries, this film is also a devastating, slow-burn account of the South’s racial and Bible-belt heritage and the effect of these tensions on a prison system that has seen the deaths of 47 inmates over the past five years.
The festival’s highest profile is reserved for two lengthy documentaries. One is the monolithic US-made story of Tiananmen Square, The Gate of Heavenly Peace directed by Carmen Hinton and Richard Gordon. With its exhaustive archival documentation of the historical context and the internecine struggles within the Square, the film achieves a sense of the chaotic, frequently undemocratic nature of the revolutionary process. This documentary has apparently incurred the wrath of Chinese authorities and dissidents alike and it is not hard to see why. Focussing on the striking demagogic figure of Chiang Ling – a woman quite unlike any other seen on screen – it offers a penetrating, cautionary insight into the ambivalent nature of leadership and collective action. Much less can be said for the film Mandela, directed by Jo Menell and Angus Gibson, which is due to be released in March. Though it comes trailing impressive claims to be the first authorized biography of the great man, it is in the end a sadly anodyne portrait of the president and his role in the country’s political history.
Reviews by Peter Steven, Dinyar Godrej, Esi Eshun, Louise Grey.
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird.