New Internationalist 323 May 2000
Those Bones Are Not My Child
For 12 years before her death in 1995, Toni Cade Bambara had been working on this panoramic novel. The book has now been edited for publication by Ms Bambara’s friend Toni Morrison. The harrowing story-line deals with the notorious Atlanta child murders, the disappearance and killing of over 40 black children during the early 1980s. The community had a monster in its midst but the powers-that-be were woefully slow to deal with the crisis. When a black man, Wayne Williams, was arrested and found guilty the authorities announced with relief that the killings had not been racially motivated and closed the files.
Toni Cade Bambara’s fictionalized account of those nightmare years is a powerful indictment of such official complacency. Her central character is Marzala Rawls Spencer, whose eldest boy Sonny becomes the latest child to disappear. As Marzala and her estranged husband Spence begin a desperate search for Sonny, they are blocked and frustrated by those very organizations – police, social workers, the Mayor’s Task Force – responsible for aiding her. Her path through the labyrinth of competing agencies exposes in painful detail how Atlanta’s complex traceries of race, class and politics impeded the search for the real killer.
Those Bones Are Not My Child is an important and impassioned work which carries the reader forward on a quest for truth and justice, finally revealing, as Toni Morrison says ‘what clogs the bloodstream of The City Too Busy To Hate’.
Passage To Juneau: A Sea and its Meanings
In his previous book, Badlands, Jonathan Raban’s travels took him to the drylands of Montana in search of bankrupt sharecroppers and paranoid militiamen. His first love, though, is the sea – a passion explored in Coasting and his underrated novel Foreign Land. Passage To Juneau finds him once more afloat, retracing the 1792 voyage of the Discovery under George Vancouver, up the Inner Passage from Puget Sound to Alaska.
Raban is much more than a mere travel writer and, though his book is rich with nautical and topographical details of the Pacific Northwest, his journey is a beautifully-structured narrative in which the personal and the political, the present and the past are intertwined, each illuminating the other. Thus he moves naturally from a reflection on the Discovery as a floating microcosm of the eighteenth-century English class system to a wonderful disquisition on the canoe-culture of the Northwest Indians and how their folk tales of malevolent underwater creatures underpinned their essentially aquatic society.
More personally, the book’s emotional centre concerns the death of Raban’s father, the break-up of his marriage and his relationship with his young daughter, Julia. Raban weaves this strand of his story into the whole with grace and unflinching honesty.
This may be Jonathan Raban’s best book to date. It is certainly his saddest, most elegiac, wisest work, sharing with the reader his explorations not only of the physical terrain but also of the human heart.
The Heart of the War in Colombia
It says much about Colombia’s past and present that the country can boast an academic field of violentólogos – experts in the study of violence. It’s not a cushy number for researchers, many of whom have come to a sticky end themselves.
Today the country is gripped by the longest civil war in Latin America. Thousands are killed each year and 1.5 million have been displaced. The challenge to anyone reporting on this is: how do you get to the human heart of the matter? How do you express what all this means for ordinary Colombians in a way that people in other countries, with very different lives, can understand and empathize with?
Colombian journalist Constanza Ardila Galvis has endeavoured to do so in this unusual book. She weaves together the stories of ten ordinary people, with their cargo of memories, traumas, feelings, failings and skeletons-in-the-cupboard. Their interconnecting stories and conversations are told in such a way as to become like characters in a novel. The author has been compared with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. That’s stretching it somewhat, but the book remains an interesting and moving piece of psycho-journalism. And Ardila’s work – based on actual collective therapy sessions – has an emotional reality that lingers in the heart and mind.
The Community Tourism Guide
Planning a holiday in the Majority World? Then you could do a lot worse than get a copy of this book of ‘exciting holidays for responsible travellers’. Well-organized and packed with entries, Mark Mann’s guide is eminently useful – whether you are visiting the Inuit above the Arctic Circle, staying in a Senegalese village or investigating Sri Lankan turtle conservation. It also outlines clearly the principles of community tourism and eco-tourism. But the proof, of course, is in the pudding and no doubt responsible travellers will feed back information to Tourism Concern for future editions of this excellent initiative.
A Crash Course in Roses
Fuelled by ecstatic reports of Catie Curtis’ live gigs in the US – no talent like her since the early kd lang days – comes A Crash Course in Roses, a third album which may well see things turning towards the big time for its young creator.
If there’s any justice, it certainly should. A Crash Course in Roses is an accomplished collection of richly detailed songs – emotive, challenging, intimate – whose appeal increases on each listening. Ably supported by a finely tuned band with an intriguing range of experience (Morphine’s drummer Billy Conway, indie rock’s Jimmy Ryan on guitars and Mary Chapin Carpenter singing harmonies), Curtis has space to explore the stories that her songs tell. And space is the operative word here: producer Ben Wisch has created a prairie-sized horizon for this 14-track album which lends the songs a mythic dimension. Curtis isn’t reserved when it comes to subject matter either. ‘What if I am Black or Jew/Straight or queer mother-of-two?’ she sings on ‘What’s the Matter?’ But then on the ‘gay’s ok’ country front, we’ve got the unlikely figure of Garth Brooks to look to for stealing a lead.
Curtis is at her best, however, at her most intimate. One of the most wistful tracks, ‘Roses’, is a powerful account of a conscripted soldier sent to the Great War and a masterpiece of economy and shadowy harmonies. Meanwhile, ‘Magnolia Street’ is a superb song whose poetry captures the rupture in language that the instant of falling in love is all about. If you only hear one Curtis song, hear that one.
Guarapero/Lost Blues 2
Here’s some howling, twenty-first century blues from the wild blue yonder. A late-twenties slip of a lad from Kentucky, Will Oldham is a songwriter whose work sits at an intersection between lo-fi folk and country, blues and the spaced-out rock from such pals as Royal Trux. His wiry songs and strangulated vocals are fantastical affairs, with their miscued entrances and exits worn like ghostly visitations. There is an atmosphere of vulnerability and unremitting weirdness – small wonder that Nick Cave, the Dirty Three and Neil Young are big fans.
As a 16-track collection of singles and rarities, Guarapero/Lost Blues 2 is as much an introduction to Oldham’s music as it is a must-buy for the collector. Weaving its way through live sets and sweet cowboy songs, there’s a timeless quality here. Oldham picks up the weariness and weight of despair in stand-out tunes like ‘Let The Wires Ring’, the crackling of late-night radio on ‘Gezundheit’ and a sense of enveloping history on ‘Every Mother’s Son’. Dolly Parton it’s not. Oldham’s country music is something striated with blues, rock and sometimes plain old moonshine singing. The absence of saccharined nostalgia makes Oldham’s legacy a poignant and literate addition not just to American music, but to America’s history of itself.
When British filmmaker Arthur Howes made the award-winning Kafi’s Story about the Nuba people in the Kordofan mountain region of Sudan he promised to return to show villagers the completed film. Ten years of visa restrictions and the outbreak of a civil war conspired to delay his eventual, clandestine re-entry into Sudan.
Howes’ new film Nuba Conversations is an eye-opening account of a little-known humanitarian disaster. Having tracked down some of the villagers, he finds them eking out existence as refugees, victims of the Government’s ruthless policy of Islamicization. Their testimony forms the heart of a powerful and compassionate film that should succeed in drawing attention to the plight of a people under real threat of cultural extinction.
The first screening of Kafi’s Story takes place covertly in a barren housing complex in Khartoum where men live without women and where wrestling, the cultural life-blood of traditional Nuba society, has been banned. We hear stories of exile, reports of torture and the wholesale destruction of villages. Nuba children are being removed en masse from their families to join Government militias.
This is a complex war, waged ostensibly between the Government-backed Arab North and the African South. Neither the battle lines drawn around race and religion, nor the experiences of the Nuba themselves – a linguistically and socially heterogeneous people – fall neatly into place.
Particularly disquieting is one soldier’s account of the way that he, like so many Nuba Muslims, has been compelled by poverty to join the aggressor’s army. In a poignant evocation of split loyalties he laments that his only chance to revisit his mountain home might be as part of a mission to kill his former neighbours.
Grim though Howes’ material is, his film never becomes defeatist, thanks in no small part to his interviewees’ wry sense of humour and their abiding warmth and spirit.
Nuba Conversations was recently screened at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in London.
There are few filmmakers today one could genuinely call visionary. Jim Jarmusch is an exception. Ghost Dog, his latest release, glides effortlessly and originally across the screen as it focuses on desolation and loneliness in a gentle offbeat way.
Played by Forest Whitaker, the eponymous hero is a man who lives with his pigeons in a shack on the roof of an abandoned building. He is also a Mafia assassin – obscure, anonymous and answerable only to the man who saved his life and with whom he communicates by pigeon. When the Mafia boss’s daughter witnesses one of Ghost Dog’s contract killings he becomes the Mafia’s target and the film turns into a thriller.
Through use of a brilliant cinematic device we slowly gain access to Ghost Dog’s imaginative space as excerpts from The Way of the Samurai are illuminated on the screen. It’s these rules he lives by – rules that belong to an ancient world of formidable passions, formidably expressed.
Forest Whitaker gives an extraordinarily gentle and understated portrayal of a man who does not want to be known. He is possibly insane but Whitaker plays him with heartbreakingly sane affection. The only people with whom he strikes up any sort of companionable friendship are a French-speaking Haitian ice-cream seller and a child with whom he shares his books.
The pitch and pace are perfect, the music and imagery stunning. Hard to place in a conventional ethical universe, Ghost Dog requires a child’s-eye suspension of moral judgement and no intrusion of self-consciousness. But it’s wonderful.
African cinema has never been completely hip – at least not in the way the continent’s music periodically becomes hip when it’s ‘discovered’ and served up for global consumption by a momentarily mesmerized Europe and America. Too political to be truly hip, African cinema’s relationship with the North remains ambivalent and awkwardly dependent at best. Tough and expensive though it is to make a film on the continent, African filmmakers none-theless benefit from a post-colonial development strategy which makes aid agencies, and the French Government in particular, chief funders of their work. With the proviso that films continue to reflect some semblance of Africa’s myriad problems, directors struggle to turn out beautifully crafted, socially conscious work. The problem, however, is that hardly anyone gets to see their work.
Reasons for the anomaly go back to the birth of African cinema in the immediate post-independence era. It was then that Senegalese author-director Ousmane Sembene, dubbed the ‘father’ of African cinema, envisaged using cinema as a tool for Pan African unity and for the construction of emerging nation-states. Not only would it correct the endemic misrepresentations of Africans perpetuated by the North – an antidote to the Hollywood, ‘Bollywood’ and Kung Fu films dominating the continent’s screens – but it would critique the social and political inequalities in neo-colonial society too, encouraging respect, unity and independence of spirit for all Africans.
As the former colonial powers, France and Britain, and those Africans who continued to look up to them were held up to ridicule in film after film – Sembene’s Xala or Ghanaian filmmaker Kwah Ansah’s Heritage Africa are notable examples – so the relationship between Northern exhibitors and African filmmakers began to harden. Today, film exhibition in Africa continues to be controlled by a handful of powerful French or American commercial enterprises. However worthy or potentially popular an African film might be, cheap Northern or Indian films are deemed more lucrative – particularly when the African films in question also harbour uncomfortable insights into the domestic or international balance of power.
Today, the biggest and most important forum for African cinema is the biannual FESPACO film festival held in Burkina Faso’s capital city, Ouagadougou. The festival remains true to the spirit of Pan Africanism and prize-winning films invariably reflect a high degree of social conscience. But winning the festival doesn’t necessarily bring guarantees of film sales, one rare exception being Souleyman Cisse’s 1987 film Yeelen. Significantly, however, Yeelen – a visually sumptuous tale about a supernatural power struggle between a gifted young Bambara man and his malevolent father – deliberately downplayed overt political references, preferring instead to couch its message in a semi-allegorical fable about tolerance, within a landscape redolent of eternal cultural and spiritual verities. That this film, rather than Cisse’s earlier prize winner, Finye, about a pair of young lovers embroiled in a student uprising against the corrupt education system, should have found favour with global markets and audiences isn’t all that surprising.
What is surprising is the near absence throughout Africa of distribution networks beyond the few monopolistically owned cinema halls. For African filmmakers to get their work seen even within their own countries requires guile and grit. No-one could accuse Anne Mungai from Kenya of lacking the latter. As a woman in a continent where only two per cent of filmmakers are female, she is truly up against the odds.
Like others she has to organize her own methods of distribution, ferrying her films and a projector around rural areas. In the countryside she finds her audiences surprisingly appreciative – once they’ve reconciled themselves to the fact that her films aren’t all about sex or killing. If anything, movies like Mungai’s Saikati challenge the negative portrayal of African women found in the work of Northern and male African filmmakers. But it seems a shame that Mungai’s struggle has to incorporate the basic right to have her work seen by her own people.
For more on African films see: www.africaatthepictures.co.uk
This article is from
the May 2000 issue
of New Internationalist.
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