Looking For Butter Boy
by Archie Roach
(Mushroom, MUSH 15CD0)
It’s hard to know where to begin with Archie Roach’s music. Looking For Butter Boy is the native Australian’s third album and it’s certainly not in the music or its manifest merits that any difficulties lie: Roach has established himself as a powerful and lucid singer, comparable with Neil Young and Ben Harper. Rather, it has something to do with the sweetness with which he approaches a subject matter of desperate sadness. The cause, one might say, of his own music.
Looking For Butter Boy really only has one subject. Roach’s songs refer constantly to the ideas of mother, of earth, of brothers and children. Literally and symbolically, they are songs about belonging, sung – as perhaps they only can be – by someone who is an outsider. Charcoal Lane, Roach’s debut album released in 1990, introduced this theme quite clearly. In ‘Took The Children Away’ Roach described how he, as a three-year-old boy, and his siblings had been taken forcibly from their parents to be resettled with white Australian families. No further contact was allowed. This brutal activity, discontinued only in the 1960s, was part of federal policy to assimilate the aboriginal populations. In addition to centuries of systematic extermination and suppression of native peoples and their cultures, it is responsible now for the plight of many of Australia’s native citizens. Looking For Butter Boy is suffused with memories. The singer has spoken of his music originating in his dislocated upbringing. He ranges from the jaunty reggae inflections in ‘Beggar Man’, to the blues of ‘Reach for You’ to the rockier attacks of ‘Djabugai Lady’. It’s fine, compelling music which draws the listener in, although nothing in the steady rhythms or light arrangements can ever prepare one for songs of such deprivation and loss. ‘My mother’s heart is beating somewhere in the earth,’ Roach sings in ‘Mother’s Heartbeat’, and one can’t help but be bowled over by the way Roach draws her breath into a greater, if ambiguous, symbol in which either the heart beats for ever or the entire world mourns. The extraordinary aspect of Looking For Butter Boy is, ultimately, in the lack of bitterness. Although an album predicated on the most personal of stories, it is open to other losses – Roach simply touches a chord. This album is an astonishing communication and it’s salutary that something replete with such humanity could arise from such inhumane beginnings.
Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam
edited by Linh Dinh.
(Seven Stories Press, New York, ISBN 1-888363-07-X)
A Land of Stone and Thyme
An Anthology of Palestinian Short Stories
edited by Nur and Abdelwahab Elmessiri
(Quartet Books, London,ISBN 0-7043-7092-1)
Most fiction in English about Vietnam has been about America’s war – with the exception of Bao Ninh’s widely read The Sorrow of War. The bare plot of Ninh’s story in this collection, Night, Again, is almost clichéd. A woman looks after a sick soldier; maybe they are in love. During a bombing raid they lose each other. The story is a lament for the acts of kindness and love that come to nothing, but also an acceptance of the irrevocable. Duong Thu Huong, imprisoned for seven months in 1991 for advocating democratic reforms, tells a similarly meditative tale about a student who dumps the girl who looks after him. A futile romantic liaison is as optimistic as these stories get. They present a world of squalid motives and exploitation of others for material gain or, at best, survival. A beggar hires a baby, neglects it. It dies. A couple’s plan to kill off a parent goes wrong. They’re left to look after a bedridden victim. This is a vivid literature of disenchantment and fracture, of Vietnam’s version of glasnost, ‘Doi Moi’ or ‘Reno-vation’; the flipside of the ‘canned cheeriness’ and sanctioned subjects of the formerly proscribed Socialist Realism.
In A Land of Stone and Thyme, by contrast, social isolation is aberrant. These stories are drenched in a sense of common identity in the Palestinians’ loss of their land, their autonomy, and of their refusal to concede. A peasant, notified that his land now belongs to the Israeli state, continues to go off to his fields as he always has. In another story the population of a youth’s village is expelled at gun-point. He escapes and feels reborn, joyous at being alive and equal to anything that can happen. The stories often use a common fund of Palestinian, Arab and Qur’anic tradition and fable, but they remain accessible. Their subjects are easy to identify with as ordinary, thinking, feeling and suffering human beings, ensnared in the everyday consequences of national catastrophe. What is perhaps most surprising is the absence of malice toward the occupier, who though only a background figure, determines much of the narrative.
Ironically and exceptionally two stories by Ghassan Kanafani, assassinated by Mossad, portray from an Israeli point of view the ‘otherness’ of a Bedouin shepherd and the thoughts of a border soldier who has indiscriminately fired at people. Death is a constant presence but not the final word. A man who is dead emerges from his grave. A boy spins a fable that demonstrates that his missing father will return. This is not tendentious or sectarian fiction but one that, as if in passing, reveals an involuntary and undying need to live without molestation. This should more seriously disturb any opponent of Palestinian self-determination.
I Have Lived Here Since the World Began
An Illustrated History of Canada’s Native People
by Arthur J Ray
(Lester/Key Porter, Toronto, ISBN 1-895555-94-9)
The history of aboriginal peoples in Canada has usually been told by archaeologists and anthropologists from a Eurocentric perspective. In this book historian Arthur J Ray seeks to balance this limited viewpoint. He rejects the tags of ‘wise environmentalist’, ‘noble spiritualist’ or ‘heathen savage’, focusing rather on aboriginal economics, patterns of migration, trade and warfare. Indigenous people are portrayed as active participants in a still-evolving partnership – albeit one now gone horribly awry, in which land has been stolen and the struggle to regain it persists. Far from being dependants rather than contributors to the so-called public purse, indigenous peoples have paid their dues several times over – a point which Ray amply illustrates.
I Have Lived Here Since the World Began is a chronological overview of 12,000 years of history – in 398 pages. It is not an easy read. The writing can be dull and there are times when the author’s compression of material makes uninviting reading. This is alleviated, however, by some wonderful colour reproductions of contemporary Native Canadian art.
Since Ray does show a sensitivity to indigenous reality – his research included consultation with aboriginal historians – it is disappointing that he chooses to open the book with a regurgitation of the Bering Strait ‘land bridge’ theory which claims aboriginals are migrants too. Aboriginal people believe they have always been in North America. But this idea terrifies most non-aboriginal Canadians because it messes with the terra nullius fiction they have created to justify their peculiar colonial brand of Social Darwinism. Ray’s Eurocentrism casts a disturbing shadow over the admittedly solid scholarship that follows and the book’s title is painfully at odds with the map on page three with its large arrow pointing somewhere back to Siberia.
My Son the Fanatic
directed by Udayan Prasad
At the heart of this deceptively slender tale of cross-cultural and generational tensions is a central performance so tender it sometimes makes the heart ache. Indian actor Om Puri mesmerizes as middle-aged taxi driver Parvez – a man whose 25 years hard graft among the Pakistani community in the northern English town of Bradford has brought neither wealth, status, nor true satisfaction.
The well-intentioned Parvez – a man who personifies Britain’s fabled tolerance of cultural difference – resonates with suppressed energy. His comfortable, unambitious life ignites into emotional crisis when student son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) suddenly converts to Islamic fundamentalism, leading to an estrangement between the two and the undermining of Parvez’s unexamined sense of local and national belonging.
Hired as a regular driver by a visiting German executive, he is asked to introduce one of the local prostitutes he regularly encounters on his route. When Bettina, the young, tough-talking prostitute, proves a sympathetic listener to Parvez’s troubles, the two find themselves falling tentatively and touchingly in love, their relationship delicately colliding against their own moral codes and running headlong into countless wider dictates.
Director Udayan Prasad and writer Hanif Kureishi are careful not to let gentle satire against fundamentalism tip over into outright criticism. Although the film deals with wider social issues through emotional conflicts, it does allow the fundamentalist Farid to put his case, albeit in an unconvincing manner. His slogans about truth, purity and identity may sound curiously bloodless, but they do give some indication of the complex spiritual and cultural malaises behind many second generation British Asians’ growing interest in fundamentalism.
The unlikely love affair remains at the film’s core, but Kureishi’s portrayal of women does leave a little to be desired. Despite the luminosity and flinty texture Australian Rachel Griffiths brings to the part of Bettina, the character remains enigmatic and as sketchy in her way as Parvez’s wife Minoo, played with a nuanced awareness of split loyalties by Gopi Desai.
What’s particularly appealing about the film however, alongside its fund of humanity, is the creation of Parvez. While he isn’t devoid of flaws – his easy-going liberalism topples into a dangerous lack of judgement at times – his depth and warmth provide the film’s main weapons against Farid’s oppressive spirituality on the one hand and the dead weight of materialism the German executive represents on the other. Kureishi and Prasad have succeeded in crafting an engaging, subtle drama. It’s not the most heavyweight affair, but it’s all the better for wearing its heart, rather than its message, on its sleeve.
Reviewers: Louise Gray, Malcolm Lewis, Suzanne Methot, Esi Eshun
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
John Akomfrah agreed to an interview at the British Film Institute, where he is currently editing his latest film Speak Like A Child. When I arrived he greeted me with a smile and we started chatting about Cuba, the Latin American Film Festival, the work of Cuban film-makers and the Revolution. He spoke warmly of the first Film Festival in Havana, ten years ago, where movie-makers discussed the politics of their work and Cuba was as much a reality as a symbol of an alternative way of looking at the world.
An hour later I hadn’t even started recording, he had to go back to the editing and we arranged another meeting. We hadn’t spoken at all about his own films but I was left with a sense of the power of Akomfrah’s concerns and memories which are at the heart of his work. Our second meeting further revealed a feeling for film-making that verges on the mystical.
John Akomfrah was a founding member of Black Audio Films, a production collective set up in 1982 to deal specifically with legitimizing black voices and concerns. It defined its own editorial policy on the basis of black cultural and political agendas.
His first film, Handsworth Songs, was a documentary about the Brixton riots in 1985. The early 1980s in Britain were a turbulent period of riots and civil disorders of all kinds but the mainstream media seemed fully to misunderstand the underlying causes. ‘We saw a connection,’ Akomfrah explains, ‘between the events of 1985 and events 30 years earlier, when the parents of the kids who were now rioting came off the boat at Southampton Docks. We tried to provide the urban unrest with a memory and a history. Television is very amnesiac.’
In the 1980s most black film-makers were part of a collective or workshop as a cultural and political option in order to explore certain themes. Akomfrah went on to direct numerous documentaries and feature films, such as, Testament, Who Needs a Heart?, A Touch of the Tar Brush, Seven Songs for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King – Days of Hope. He has been profoundly influenced by film-makers who were religious or spiritual, from Tarkovsky to Bergman, Bresson to Giaubert Rocha.
But, he says, he has a kind of love-hate relation with religious iconography. ‘With Seven Songs for Malcolm X, I thought we could speak through the image, the icon, because most people never met him in his life and he came to us as a sanctified image, while people remember King for his legacy,’ he says. The religious elements in both films are reflected in very different ways. Seven Songs For Malcolm X takes the form of a classic tableau, from which various black personalities and members of his family present a range of perspectives on Malcolm X. The documentary on Martin Luther King is more of a journey through light and darkness, which functions as a metaphor for King’s different stages in US politics and the Black struggle. Akomfrah explains that the use of lighting in the film was ‘a way of unmasking his life. I wanted to find a way of making the emotional undercurrent of the film transparent to the viewer without using a voice-over.’ This ability to let the subject dictate the visual form of the film has proved, throughout his films, his endless capacity for finding new ways to tell a story.
Akomfrah has also been influenced by the New Latin American cinema of the 1960s, the Europeans Antonioni and Godard, and the Indian cinema of Ritwik Ghatak. ‘What I learned from these cinemas is that to make something new you have to question the premises of the mainstream. In this I have a cultural and a political agenda but I don’t have a “way”. I believe you have to be committed to the process.’
His work also includes documentaries that are part of African Political Broadcast Series and African Footsteps Series which reflect the connections he makes between the African continent and its diaspora. It’s important, he says, to make those connections between the different fragments of the Black world, to keep a sense of the Atlantic. Other films, such as, Last Angel of History, Memory Room 451 and Mothership Connection have dealt with the African diaspora through the subject of science-fiction.
‘The interest in science-fiction for me has to do with the encounter between Africans and Modernity. Science-fiction narratives are usually about alienation, abduction and transportation and that is a very powerful narrative for understanding the transportation and displacing of African people across the world.’
Akomfrah has focused on black issues but he is certainly not limited to them. His latest film Speak Like A Child, about three kids in the North of England and their development into adulthood, reveals the same sensitivity with which he imprints all his work.
John Akomfrah’s films are available through Black Audio Films,
21B Brooksby Street, London N1 1EX. Tel: (+44) (0) 171 6076161. Fax: 6077171.