New Internationalist 331 Jan / Feb 2001
Some Majority World filmmakers managed to make their mark this year. None more so than Chinese ‘New Wave’ director Zhang Yimou with two magnificent achievements. Not One Less (reviewed in NI 324) showed the wonders that may be achieved using non-professional actors. In this case many were children, playing themselves or roles very close to themselves. This was a beautiful downbeat film that neither patronized nor idealized. Zhang’s The Road Home (reviewed in NI 326) similarly dealt with universal and modest things. There were no plot twists, no trick endings, no feats of technology to marvel at – just a love story simply told and a poetry that lingered long after viewing. Garage Olimpo (reviewed in NI 324) directed by Marco Bechis brought a disturbing political drama about Latin America to the international big screens – something of an achievement in itself. Set in Buenos Aires during the military dictatorship when 7,000 disappeared, its portrayal of the torturer as neither monstrous nor psychotic, but as a man spiritually impoverished and emotionally isolated, made for a superb film that did not shy away from complexity.
It was a good year for quality fiction. But two novels gave particular pleasure and pause for thought. The first was Dreamer by Charles Johnson (Payback Press, reviewed in NI 324), which eloquently traced the last years in the life of Martin Luther King by creating a fictional decoy for the over-stretched and under-protected civil-rights leader. It made fascinating and compelling reading. The second was Smile by Paul Smaïl (reviewed in NI 322). This astonishingly direct and fresh novel was structured as a series of diary entries of a young man of Arab origin as he tried to make his way in the seedy down-at-heel suburbs of Paris. Raw, angry and committed, this was a triumphant début from a writer of rare talent. On the nonfiction front, Jonathan Raban excelled with Passage to Juneau (Picador, reviewed in NI 323), retracing the 1792 voyage of the Discovery under George Vancouver, up the Inner Passage from Puget Sound to Alaska. This was a beautifully structured narrative in which the personal and the political, the present and the past were entwined, each illuminating the other.
Selecting an annual favourite is a fraught business. This year the choice is split between two. The iconoclastic questioning of Einstürzende Neubauten’s Silence is Sexy (Mute, reviewed in NI 324) showed this group of Berliners at the height of their considerable powers. This album, released in the group’s 20th year, ripped through German history with ferocity of heart and mind. Just try to forgive the terrible title.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, Virginia Rodrigues (Hannibal, reviewed in NI 325) presented the flipside of Carnival’s ecstatic music with her superb and mysterious album Nós. Her throaty, honeyed voice gives Brazilian music an urgency and sadness you only hear in the very best. ‘Captivating’ does not begin to describe this album’s spellbinding power.
Ever since those hip hop originals, Eric B and Rakim, struck upon the idea of splicing Ofra Haza’s Yemenite song into what was otherwise a straight-ahead New York rap record, the idea that dance music’s breakbeats could be enhanced by a cross-cultural fertilization has been firmly embedded in the minds – and mixing desks – of DJs and producers. Tribal Futures, an album whose laudable aim is to raise money and awareness for endangered tribal peoples across the world, takes its cue from this method of dance practice.
The compilers have certainly gathered a persuasive list of collaborators and remixers: there’s Leftfield’s excellent reconstruction of Yothu Yindi’s ‘Timeless Land’; Banco de Gaia’s mix of Ensemble Bash’s ‘Mopti Street’ plus sterling work from the dub-rumbling Zion Train. The album as a whole is marked by a characteristic sensitivity towards original material and samples that range from Kalahari San song to Mbuti and Inuit sources. Much could reduce a club dancefloor to quivering delight. All of which is great, but larger questions remain. For example: what do the remixes and cut-ups bring to the original works? And, given Survival’s brief to protect the integrity of indigenous peoples, does such work, reflecting as it does a subtle ‘globalization of the beat’, run contrary to the original aim?
The answer to the first question is: not much. The remixers and samplers have created something entirely separate and different. The more vexed issue of the second question depends on how you approach issues of authenticity and ‘cultural bleed’. Whatever your approach, that these new works reverberate with the sheer joy of dancing is, I expect, something we can all grasp with enthusiasm.
A Lo Cubano
Rap Cubano! There’s a extraordinary verve and sensuality to Don di Niko and Livan (aka Flaco-Pro) and their welding of hip hop, filtered through a Parisian lens and ghetto-raw Havana salsa. Taking their name from the gods of Afro-Latin religion, the two Paris-based producers – joined by fellow-Orishas and Cuban rappers Roldan, Ruzzo and Yotuel – have created a début album that’s as fresh as it is timely in its social message.
A Lo Cubano dances a defiant line between salsa and sampling, between the secular and the sacred. From the short opening, with its Yoruba-language priestly incantation, the band storm into a set that locks the listener into an addictive groove. The rappers, voices dark and sweet as soul singers, have a presence that transcends the language – mostly Spanish with some forays into French. But don’t be tricked into thinking that A Lo Cubano is all fun, even if their version of Cuban classic ‘Chan Chan’ on ‘537 CUBA’ – the number refers to the international dialling code – might suggest otherwise. ‘Atrevido’, all muted trumpets and interwoven rhythms, addresses the sex industry that’s grown up to service Cuba’s growing tourist trade, while ‘Atencion’ addresses itself to Havana’s poverty. This record brings both Cuba’s continued impoverishment at the hands of the world’s superpower and the country’s music to the fore. Let’s just hope the world listens.
This novel springs from Gillian Slovo’s traumatic experience of sitting in on hearings of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the police officers who killed her mother, Ruth First, applied for amnesty for their crime. Such close contact with her mother’s murderers led her to contemplate the bonds that tie enemies together.
In the novel the Truth Commission comes to the small, isolated town of Smitsrivier to hear the amnesty application of Dirk Hendricks, a policeman who has admitted torturing ANC activist Alex Mpondo, now a Government MP. Opposing the amnesty are Sarah Barcant, cajoled into returning home from New York by her mentor Ben Hoffman, an ageing and sick civil-rights lawyer, to help in what is probably his last case. Also involved are the parents of Steve Sizela, desperate to find his body after he ‘disappeared’ while in custody.
Through the clenched civilities of courtroom procedure, many versions of ‘the truth’ are advanced and tested. Alex’s cross-questioning of his torturer raises crucial questions about the unwilling intimacy of these former foes and the role of the Truth Commission in unearthing old wounds and suppressed guilt.
Part courtroom drama, part novel of ideas, this book doesn’t really gel. The flat prose is often unequal to the task of carrying the story’s moral weight and the characters are too thinly drawn to convince. Indeed, the most vibrant character is the township of Smitsrivier, from the spectacular dawns to the omnipresent desert dust blowing through the town. Red Dust is an ambitious and admirable idea undermined by flawed delivery.
A Squatter’s Tale
Ike Oguine’s début novel is a sparky, fast-moving account of success and failure on two continents. Obi, an arrogant and hedonistic young Nigerian, is living the high life in Lagos, his existence defined by the consumer goods and party-going that he can afford and those around him can only dream of. When the dodgy finance company he works for collapses with huge unpayable debts, Obi is forced to flee to the US to escape the wrath of a government ‘fixer’ who is owed millions and is more than willing to use extreme force to extract retribution.
In the US Obi obtains a forged ‘green card’ work permit with the help of his drunken, bumbling Uncle Happiness and enters the workforce at the bottom of the ladder as a night-watchman. Obi’s lack of qualifications and his job, ill-paid and with its topsy-turvy routine, make it next-to-impossible for him to break out of the underclass and as the months pass he sees his life ‘seeping away like blood’.
Despite an awkward structure, rambling plot and a selfish, far-from-likeable central character, A Squatter’s Tale is an honest and readable report from the marginal, twilight world of the economic migrant. It neatly skewers both the chaotic cannibal capitalism and endemic corruption of Nigeria’s kleptocratic rulers and the hopeless, dehumanizing rhythms of the underclass that is the dirty secret of the American dream.
Planet Earth: The Latest Weapon of War
In the early 1980s Rosalie Bertell, a Canadian scientist, nun and peace activist, published No Immediate Danger, a pioneering study of the effects of low-level radiation. Her new book, Planet Earth: The Latest Weapon of War continues the examination of environmental effects on human health, with a particular focus on the long-term consequences of modern ‘sophisticated’ weaponry.
Dr Bertell sets her discussion of the environmental implications of warfare within an historical context and challenges the assertion that so-called ‘natural’ disasters such as floods and typhoons are distinct from and uninfluenced by human behaviour. Taking as her test cases the Gulf War and the Kosovo conflict, she looks beyond the obvious aftermath of war and analyses the harm done to the environment, both locally and globally, by our inventive genius for destruction.
Carefully sifting facts from military obfuscation, the author makes a persuasive case that Depleted Uranium weapons are a possible cause of Gulf War Syndrome.
She examines the hidden cumulative effects of research programmes such as the Strategic Defence Initiative and shows how powerful electromagnetic military hardware has destabilized the ecosystem and caused environmental devastation which in turn creates massive economic and social disruption across the globe.
Planet Earth is a heartfelt plea for a fundamental shift in the way we treat our world. Closely argued and packed with facts and figures, it is not an easy read but it is a timely and authoritative addition to the crucial debate about the fundamental priorities of the human race in the 21st century.
A self-pronounced satire of racism in American popular culture, Bamboozled is a return to the broad strokes and agit-prop style of some of Lee’s early films, such as Do the Right Thing. The film focuses on the dilemma faced by Pierre Delacroix (Daymon Wayans), a lone black producer in the almost completely white world of US television. From his Harvard-honed mid-Atlantic accent, to his impeccable dress, Delacroix oozes urbane sophistication. But his white boss sees him as the representative of hip and edgy black street culture and pushes him to write a television show which will draw a young audience back from new media. Sick to his soul, Delacroix decides to risk his career on a modern-day minstrel show featuring two caricatures of nineteenth century racism, Mantan and Sleep ’n eat. Predictably enough, the show is a huge hit, winning ratings wars and even a clutch of Emmys for Delacroix.
There are a number of brilliant and funny set pieces in the film, but no gripping narrative to pull us through. The actors on the minstrel show flesh out the story, but never really become fully rounded characters. Not only does Lee begin the film by defining satire, he proceeds to give the audience the background on minstrelsy. It’s as though Lee wants to make a smart film but isn’t sure that the audience will follow him there.
Bamboozled takes its name from Malcolm X’s characterization of the situation of African Americans. But, perhaps most interestingly, the film represents some of Lee’s own soul-searching as a participant in the very same racist entertainment industry he derides.
A group of newly trained itinerant teachers, blackboards on their backs, ply their trade among the all-but-deserted villagers that dot the rocky Iran-Iraq border. When helicopters force the men to scatter, two set off on their own. One of them, Reeboir, encounters a group of child ‘mules’ smuggling goods from one country to the other and attempts to teach them the value of reading. The other, Said, falls in with an elderly group of weary travellers who instead of lessons would rather he simply lead them to their homeland so that they might die in peace. Though each man’s education is largely scorned, the tools of their trade, their blackboards, prove useful indeed.
Samira Makhmalbaf’s acclaimed début The Apple focused on two Iranian sisters who, having been kept indoors all their lives by their blind mother, are at last free to discover life beyond the home. The characters in her equally lyrical Blackboards also seem trapped by their circumstances. Even for the teachers, somewhat ridiculous in their insistence on the three Rs, education offers no way out really (‘I didn’t listen to my father,’ laments one. ‘He told me to be a shepherd. I’ve failed’). What’s most useful in these conditions is instinct, adaptability and initiative. That the blackboards are transformed into shelter, door, splint, shield – and even dowry – wryly captures both the desperation of these lives and the sheer ingenuity of the human spirit. Unusual and uplifting in its quirky way.
This article is from
the January-February 2001 issue
of New Internationalist.
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