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The NI star rating system. Film

directed by Andrei Schwartz
(Wüste Filmproduktion, Hamburg)

Life on a dump named 'Dallas'. In recent years a new documentary genre has emerged. Its creators share a worldwide subject-matter. The men, women, and children in these films live on, and make their livelihood from, the garbage dump.

Wasteland is meticulously structured. Beautifully edited scenes, stitched seamlessly with a minimal, well-written commentary, hang together like gems on a string. But it’s the tone that is most striking. Everything in Wasteland drips with irony. One woman who has lived at the dump for years complains that too many people are moving in. ‘All I get are leftovers,’ she says. Right from the opening scene we hear that this stinking mountain of waste, outside the Romanian city of Cluj and inhabited by a Rom or Gypsy community, is called ‘Dallas’.

The people of Dallas work at the modern occupation of recycling. Their goal is to separate the valuable materials, such as metal, paper, and plastic from the vegetable and animal offal destined to rot as compost. Children run, fight, and work everywhere on the site. They are often the first to leap onto arriving trucks, raking, dragging, and picking the best materials before others can wade in. Some of the best fun comes from chasing the rats. They also work at night. Amazingly, families make a living at this, reselling their day’s salvage to local scrap dealers. But, they worry, will the local authorities arrive some day with eviction notices and bulldozers to run them out?

Most of the children attend school, a real achievement for squatter and refugee children anywhere. The best moments in the film show the lives of these children. Scenes of bathing in preparation for school or singing a wonderfully childish song with their teacher, only underline the wretched details of their other lives. The Romanian-born Schwartz introduces himself in voice-over as a journalist. In this role he mixes a familiar batch of documentary conventions. At times he aggressively pushes his camera into a scene to influence its outcome, but he quickly retreats from any sentimental or pathetic effects. If anything, Wasteland treads precariously close to a cool detachment and the irony of the term Dallas gets stretched to uncomfortable lengths.

‘Why do they call this place “Dallas?”’ Schwartz asks a young woman. ‘I think,’ she replies, ‘it’s because all the relatives play a part here, like in the movie.’ Such naivety about the full irony of the word almost turns to a joke at her expense. Perhaps our discomfort is what Schwartz is striving for.

We might call this muckraking journalism – literally – a form of inquiry that has always stirred up trouble and controversy. And in that tradition Wasteland walks a fine line between pathos and respect for the human spirit. Does the film leave us simply depressed that people have to live like this? Or will the fragments of joy and struggle that we see on-screen, even in Dallas, prompt us to act for social change?

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Under the Dragon: Travels in a Betrayed Land
by Rory MacLean
(HarperCollins ISBN 0 00 257013 0)

Under the Dragon by Rory MacLean Ten years on from the brutal massacres that crushed the Burmese pro-democracy uprising, comes this alert and well-informed account of travels in a land gripped tight in the claws of the military. It is a travelogue insofar as the author and his partner trek to some of the more inaccessible parts of Burma, and there are regular awe-struck generalizations about ‘the Burmese people’. But it is also much, much more.

MacLean’s empathy for the suffering of the people he meets is enhanced by unobtrusive research and his sharp eye for telling details. He makes palpable the fear felt by ordinary people, a fear which makes them spout pro-government slogans in public and furtively enquire after Aung San Suu Kyi in private. The narrative takes in a wide range of people and issues – enslaved labourers working and dying on Burma’s roads, girls tricked into prostitution, a trigger-happy warlord, Chinese businessmen on the make, the opium trade, Buddhism’s refuge, state censorship, and the omnipresent signs of repression. It is the couple’s numerous encounters with people who have adopted quiescence as a survival tactic that remain branded in the memory.

Burma’s military rulers have been wooing foreign recognition and money for a long time – last year they even changed their name, prompted by American PR consultants, from the forbidding State Law and Order Restoration Council to the more tranquil-sounding State Peace and Development Council. And MacLean comes across several Western tourists who choose to remain ignorant of the fear and despair that surrounds them. The book is his attempt to ‘redress the balance’ and it’s a gripping read, weaving the stories of four women – some fictional – into the account. Here I sometimes felt uneasy: the evocations of intimacy seemed dangerously close to crossing the boundary from empathy to voyeurism. Nonetheless this is an important book, and if you haven’t paid much attention to Burma recently, an essential book.

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Hot Death, Cold Soup
by Manjula Padmanabhan
(Garnet, ISBN 1-85964-111-3)

Hot Death, Cold Soup. What curious stories Manjula Padmanabhan’s mind brews up – unafraid to grapple with big issues, they prickle and tease long after the last page has been turned. There’s the odd damp squib, like the title tale, a laboured attempt at Indian Gothic, belonging clearly to the thesaurus school of fiction. Or the story about a groper on public transport which doesn’t really go anywhere. But then there are stories like ‘Stains’ which chew happily on themes of exile, tradition, racism, female rivalry and communication problems within relationships, all riding on the central theme of a woman coming to terms with her menstrual pulse. Impossibly, and within the space of a mere 20 pages, these issues crystallize in the foreground of the story without it toppling over. The India she writes about presents itself as it is, without heat-and-dust mystique.

If there’s one thing Padmanabhan is partial to, it’s a good twist at the end, and the ingenuity of some of these stories is breathtaking. Her narrative about dowry murder – a much-abused issue in Indian fiction – avoids the pitfalls of stating the obvious and throws all its energies into a rush of events that lead quite naturally to an unexpected and very satisfying conclusion. The sci-fi tale, ‘Stolen Hours’, has as it’s protagonist an unlovely adolescent prodigy with dangerous intentions. As the tale proceeds one is torn between hoping that he won’t succeed and that somehow he will. Both things come to pass without contradiction.

NI readers who’ve read her contributions in NI 269 and NI 293 will know that Padmanabhan’s curiosity is vast. Each story runs down a completely different alleyway and she skips genres without a care in the world. A recurrent feature, however, is the centrality of the body, its functions and betrayals, above all its connectedness to the mind. The concluding tale, ‘The Annexe’, which deals explicitly with this connectedenss is astonishing in its intellectual daring, even though marred by a prim take on lesbian sex. It’s an interior odyssey, a fantasy that makes ideas of self and its distinctiveness tangible, like Lego bricks the reader can shape and reshape. A mixed bag then, but the ones that work are stunners.

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The Rough Guide to Cajun and Zydeco
by Various
(World Music Network RGNET 1028 CD)

The Very Best of Beausoleil
by Beausoleil
(Nascente NSC DP24)

The Rough Guide: Cajun and Zydeco. Pull the indigenous music of the state of Louisiana apart and what do you get? A bit of 12-bar blues, a bit of jazz, certainly a lot of French-language lyrics: in other words, a musical meltdown that’s as mixed and heated as New Orleans gumbo. Cajun and zydeco are as inseparable from each other as they are from their own history. Zydeco is just a blacker, more blues-orientated version of Cajun, which itself sprang from French settlers around the sleepy stretches of the Mississippi. As the accordions and fiddles wind themselves up, one quickly realizes that these are enduring dance tunes that have lasted generations. They are not, however, impervious to change, each tune marinaded in sly twists and turns. Neither slow, like their musical cousins from the Appalachians, nor indulging at the breakneck speeds that characterize some of the wilder excesses of country influenced rock, Cajun and zydeco just wind their imperturbable ways onwards.

Of these two albums, the Rough Guide’s 19-tracker offers a pretty comprehensive approach to the subject, featuring artists like zydeco king Clifton Chenier, Eddie Lejeune, Buckwheat Zydeco and Michael Doucet. The latter is the fiddler behind the band Beausoleil and one of the prime movers in the resurgence of modern Cajun. One of the most striking songs comes from another Doucet, guitarist and singer David, whose ‘Balfa Waltz’ is a slower number of great precision and power.

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Compiled from recordings originally made over the past 25 years, Beausoleil incorporates elements not just from zydeco, but country and electric folk too. It includes tracks like ‘Zydeco Gris-Gris’(the spirited opener to the film, The Big Easy) and the melancholic strains of ‘Sur le Pont de Lyon’ . With guest performances from new country vocalist Mary Chapin Carpenter and Britain’s giant among guitarists, Richard Thompson, there’s a sense of a music striving to make connections with its wider roots.

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Reviewers: Louise Gray, Dinyar Godrej, Peter Steven.
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
...being an African filmmaker's allegory of international aid.

Djibril Diop Mambety, the Senegalese director who died in July this year, was African cinema’s greatest maverick. He made only two full length films and a handful of shorts in his lifetime. But both Touki Bouki, made in 1973 when he was just 27, and Hyenas, released 19 years later, are classics of a kind too rarely seen in Africa or any other continent.

Mambety and his films meant a lot to me. I had the good fortune to meet him twice and there’s no doubt, in my mind at least, that he was a visionary. He had the capacity to invest his films with a remarkable, dreamlike intensity: a visual sense shared by a few other African filmmakers, though rarely with the same modernist – or even post-modernist – sensibility.

He was vividly independent in spirit and his films seemed to say more about the tortured nature of post colonial relations and what it feels like to be born brilliant, poor and questing, in modern Africa, than any number of more overtly ideological social realist films.

Mambety’s youth was marked by a taste for the unconventional. His father was an imam and had things gone differently he’d probably have taken his place among the ranks of the country’s ruling elite. As it was, he left school at 16, exasperated by the colonial education system, becoming in time an actor and director with Senegal’s national theatre and a self-taught filmmaker.

Hyenas In Hyenas he transposed Swiss dramatist Friedrich Durenmatt’s parable about greed and corruption, The Visit, to an indeterminate West African desert state. It’s a beautiful, ultimately morbid allegory, yielding intriguing insights into the nature of the relationship between colonialism, multinationals and international donor systems. The director lays down some of these analogies from the earliest scenes in which the inhabitants of a sleepy town, Colobane wait for the arrival of Linguere Ramatou – an elderly woman last seen in the town when her neighbours banished her some 50 years earlier as a pregnant 16 year old. Her former lover Draman Drameh waits more anxiously than most. As the owner of the town’s only grocery store he’s held in high esteem by his neighbours and is a decidedly benign presence. It’s hard to believe then that as a young man he disowned Ramatou and bribed two men to admit to having slept with her.

Cast out on her own, Ramatou was forced to become a prostitute. Against the odds however, the years have brought her an extraordinary fortune. Richer now than the World Bank, she returns to Colobane wreathed in black silk robes and equipped with an entourage complete with impassive butler (the director himself) and a Japanese, Chanel-wearing personal assistant. Drawing up in one of her Rolls Royces, she totters on solid gold crutches onto the golden desert sands and greets her well-wishers.

Ramatou stands like an angel of destruction at the top of the town’s walls. With her unlimited sources of capital she symbolizes, on the one hand, the ruthlessness of an invading economic and cultural power system, and on the other, the African continent’s immense capacity for victimhood. She draws on both sides of her nature when she calls a town meeting to announce that she will bestow riches beyond imagining on Colobane if its people agree to kill the hapless Drameh for her. Appalled at first, they quickly close ranks around him. But, responding to Ramatou’s steady stream of free consumer goods and organized festivities, they soon change allegiances.

Hyenas buzzes with parallels between Ramatou’s bribes and the conditions the World Bank and the IMF routinely attach to aid giving; their standard requirement that the recipient countries prepare the way for free trade and democratic government. At the end of the film when a silent crowd converges on Drameh, leaving only scraps of his clothing behind on the desert sands, his murder signals the triumph of the dark side of self-interest and the grotesque distortion of the democratic consensus into mob rule.

Mambety doesn’t lay all the blame of Africa’s crisis on foreign donors, though. Before Ramatou’s appearance Colobane’s citizens are strikingly apathetic and after the deed is done, Mambety inserts an epilogue – a bulldozer razing the town to the ground – to illustrate how the people’s failure to capitalize on their benefactors deliberately short-term donations has resulted in further tragedy.

The picture Mambety draws of Africa isn’t uniformly bleak. For all its pessimism, Hyenas is shot through with an ironic warmth towards its characters and with a genuine awe for its landscapes. There are moments, for example when the town’s people first receive their gifts or when Ramatou drives into the desert’s heart, technology flashing in her wake, that the audience gets to share in the people’s delight in their material possessions. Mambety thus gives a glimpse of what an Africa secure, if only briefly, in its own sense of plenitude, might be like.

Esi Eshun

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