The Picador Book of African Stories
Attempting to encompass the literary output of 53 countries with widely disparate experiences of colonialism and development, Gray has wisely tackled his brief region by region, dividing the book into five geographical sections. His coverage of those areas with a vigorous literary tradition – West Africa, Egypt, Southern Africa – is excellent and there are first-rate stories here from some of the big names of African writing. Of particular note are Ben Okri’s moving tale of famine and the Western response, A Prayer from The Living; Mia Couto’s angry story of exploitation and misery in the Mozambique goldfields, The Russian Princess (shortlisted for the 2001 Caine Prize); and a lyrical contribution from Ahdaf Soueif, the title story from her collection, Sandpiper.
But it is in seeking out the lesser-known byways of African writing that this anthology really excels. Gray is justifiably proud to have included, for the first time in an English-language anthology, two authors from Djibouti: Abdourahman Waberi and Idris Youssouf Elmi. There are also fascinating stories from Madagascar, Mauritius and the Comoros as well as a strong showing from Togo, Cape Verde and Senegal. As an introduction to the exciting variety of African writing that is being produced now, this collection could hardly be bettered.
Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower
At a time when the US has declared war on terrorism Rogue State is a most timely guide to the state-sponsored terrorism that the US has been exporting around the globe since the Second World War as an integral part of its foreign policy.
In short, information-dense chapters Blum covers the training of insurgents and foreign armies in terror tactics, including sabotage, torture and assassination, at the School of the Americas; election manipulation across the globe through the National Endowment for Democracy and its money-laundering fronts; the deployment of weapons of mass destruction from napalm and Agent Orange in Korea and Vietnam through to cluster bombs and depleted uranium in Kosovo; support for numerous murdering, human-rights crushing regimes; and plots to assassinate leading members of foreign governments.
A lot of this material has been dealt with in more detail elsewhere (and usefully the book is fully referenced) but the value in Blum’s book is that it assembles all this information in one place in a populist way. The sum effect is so overwhelming that there is a danger the book could induce resignation. We should remember that US foreign policy can also be viewed as a set of problems or, increasingly, as crisis management of ‘blowback’ scenarios against a background of a burgeoning grassroots democratic movement and a generalized re-politicization.
Although there is something in Blum’s style which can occasionally undermine the potency of his material this fully referenced, wide and damning indictment of US foreign policy is still a highly readable overview and an indispensable corrective to the amnesia of mainstream media.
My Name is Red
In late 16th-century Constantinople, just after the Ottoman-Safavid wars, a team of miniaturists beavers away on a major work for the Sultan. In this gateway between Europe and Asia, fundamentalists are damning representational art as an outrage against Islam and demanding that artists not stray beyond manuscript illustration. The artists must choose between the safety of traditional painting methods and the exhilaration of those from devilish Europe.
One miniaturist, thought to side with the fundamentalists, is found murdered. The master, who has a more inclusive view of art, is also killed mysteriously. A third illustrator decides to solve the crimes, but is distracted by his love for a woman who is (or perhaps is not yet) a widow.
For the main characters, art is both ‘the silence of thought and the music of sight’. They often digress to discuss the nature – and limits – of art and its relation to reality. The artist’s pursuit of identity thus mirrors society’s own. Turkish people today struggle with both the weight of tradition and the challenge of Western ideas of what life is, or could be, about.
Pamuk is one of the few Turkish intellectuals to explore these issues in recent generations.
He uses the techniques of classical Islamic literature both to locate his story in a tradition of local narratives and to create subtle ironies. With grace and playfulness, he brilliantly recreates the grit and guts of daily life.
Fight to Win
So his father declared his own state, once married 27 women in one day and was a constant thorn in the side of Nigeria’s military rulers. Oh, and he also created afro-beat. Let’s face it: Fela Kuti’s son Femi has a hard act to follow; an act so gigantic as to assume mythological significance.
The immense pleasure of Fight to Win is that Femi Kuti manages to encompass contradictions and similarities. He is, no doubt about it, his father’s musical heir – the winding brass and the persuasive, sonorous saxes say as much – but he is also very much his own man. One aspect of Femi Kuti’s innovation is to import DJs and rappers such as Money Mark and Mos Def into his updated afro-beat.
Fight to Win is an unashamedly political CD (a song like ‘Traitors of Africa’ is a blistering attack on General Babangida’s government), but it also has its own intensely private moments. The poignancy of ‘Stop aids’ ( hiv killed his father) or ‘Walk on the Right Side’ accentuate the personal in the political. This album’s strength lies in addressing both microcosm and macrocosm. Femi Kuti’s message is that personal as well as political respect is essential for the healthy function of any system.
Fight to Win is fired up on rich choral arrangements courtesy of Positive Force and Femi’s dense, motivating sax lines. In all, perhaps a gentler approach than his father’s, but there’s no mistaking the fact that Femi Kuti is one serious man.
Whenever the ‘moral majority’ gets itself in a lather about anti-authoritarian pop stars, maybe they should just thank their lucky stars that they don’t have someone of the order of Fela Kuti on their tails. Simply, Fela Kuti (who died in 1997) still makes the Sex Pistols or Marilyn Manson look like teletubbies. The difference is Fela Kuti really did want to smash the system; ‘the system’, one upon which he focused a whole career and some 80 albums, being the misrule of his Africa.
A Yoruba Nigerian who studied classical music but fell in love with jazz in London, Kuti was aware that the problems of Africa lay as much in a colonial legacy as in a profound level of corruption and mismanagement by the newly independent states. Returning to Lagos in 1963, his music was fed by a burgeoning political awareness – pan-Africanism led to what Kuti would term afro-beat. He fused this politics with a music that sensuously manipulated and spliced high-life sounds with improvised, flying sax solos and incendiary vocals.
Zombie is a good introduction to the master’s work. Dating from 1976, it is one of 15 remastered and re-released Fela classics now available from the UK-based Wrasse Records. Its three tracks – Kuti’s songs can each last for some 30 minutes – were red rags to Nigeria’s regime. The title itself is a direct attack on the mindless military. Following the record’s release, a thousand soldiers burnt down Kuti’s house and fatally injured his mother. The album was produced in court against him. This release combines the incisiveness of Zombie’s funk lines with two unreleased tracks: ‘Mistake’ and ‘Observation is No Crime’. Together, they’re capable of getting people on to their feet – something that should scare anyone in their path.
Djomeh is desperately lonely. He lives in exile, banished from his Afghan village because of his love for a woman both older than him and widowed. Under the eye of his older, more conservative cousin, Habib, he lives and works on a small dairy farm in a remote, dusty, mountainous area of Iran.
Habib, who is also lonely, hides his loneliness under stoicism. But, kindly, easy-going Djomeh is neither hard enough to follow his cousin’s example, nor does he see the point: he wants there to be more to his life than cows. Iranian director Yektapanah’s gently paced, deceptively simple début feature explores Djomeh’s limited possibilities. He works – and he talks. And with the brusque Habib, he quarrels. But driving around in the truck on the daily milk round, Djomeh can talk openly and honestly with the dairy owner – Mahmoud, 40-odd and, like his two workers, still unmarried.
After Djomeh sees Setareh, the village shopkeeper’s daughter, he finds every excuse to jump on his bike to go shopping – and wooing. It isn’t easy. Tradition forbids an unmarried man and woman speaking. And he’s an outsider, ignorant of local ways, and poor.
The Hollywood dream factory insists that romances end happily. Its aim is to make the viewer, identifying with the lovers, feel good. Yektapanah’s refusal of a simple resolution instead leaves his viewers with an abiding sense, not just of his characters, but their wider social and historical circumstances. A restrained and impressive film, that explores the ways in which people overcome barriers and create the possibilities for friendship and community.
Behind the Sun
Like a demented ghost, a bloody shirt, pinned by the arms, flaps in the wind. In the burning sun the Breves family examines the colour. When it’s faded to yellow the elder son Tonio will set out to avenge his dead brother. And when he has killed his brother’s killer – one of the Ferreira clan – his victim’s brother will, in turn, set out to kill Tonio. And so it goes on.
The blood feud may seem an unlikely subject for Salles, director of the Oscar-nominated Central Station. But like Ismaïl Kadaré’s Albanian novel, Broken April, which Salles has adapted and relocated in the north-east of his native Brazil, Behind the Sun pits reason and humanity against pointless, brutal tradition.
Salles is a great storyteller. His tale has a tragic inevitability, but its dénouement is, at the same time, surprising. In its sweltering action and locale the film has a harrowing authenticity. The actors, a mix of professionals and non-professionals, naturally and convincingly handle animals; they harvest, grind and process sugar cane with tools and machinery pre-dating the steam engine. The turning of the cane crusher is as inexorable as the cycle of revenge. But the world is changing, the father’s authority loosening, and the two remaining Breves boys are caught between loyalty and obedience, and the world beyond the farm – and the killings.
Beyond the Sun never caricatures, never gives anyone less than their due – even the patriarch, a man sacrificing everything and everyone. About love and loyalty, authority and freedom, it’s a tragic, beautiful, vividly photographed film.
Although he’s sceptical about being viewed as a leader of any kind, it seems clear to me that Zacharias Kunuk’s film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner speaks to the fact that indigenous media now have the chance to take their rightful place at the table of world cinema. Based in Igloolik (in Canada’s eastern Arctic), Kunuk has been well known in Canadian video-art circles for some while, having worked for the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation and made a number of stunningly photographed tapes (mostly about an hour long) that recreate various aspects of traditional Inuit culture. Until now, Kunuk’s masterpiece had been a 13-part, six-and-a-half hour programme called Nunavut – set in the 1940s before the Canadian Government got serious about forcing the nomadic Inuit to settle, which resulted in the total collapse of their traditional ways of life. Nunavut was completed in 1995, four years before the devolved territory and Inuit homeland of that name was officially established.
But Atanarjuat takes Kunuk’s work to a new level, not least because last May it became the first Canadian film to win the Camera d’Or (awarded for the best first film) at the Cannes Film Festival. Like his previous videos, it features mostly non-professional actors, is set in the past (Kunuk says it’s the 16th century), is entirely in Inuktitut (the language of the Inuit), and makes stunning use of the Arctic’s frozen landscape. It tells the story of Atanarjuat, whose love for a woman named Atuat raises the ire of the camp leader’s son, Oki. Oki eventually tries to kill Atanarjuat and his brother. But Atanarjuat survives and later tries to settle the score.
Although the narrative is at times soapesque (Kunuk often acknowledges soap opera as an influence on his work), it serves to evoke a now-lost society that, as we see from the occasional flashes of violence, was far from a romantic paradise. And the detail with which Kunuk explains the story (it’s not always easy to keep track of the web of relationships) and occasional sequences of tremendous visceral impact are something new. A scene where a naked Atanarjuat is chased for a long time across the frozen Arctic Ocean is like nothing I can recall in recent world cinema. While Kunuk’s earlier work tended to be lyrical and not particularly narrative-dependent, this film is better understood as an epic.
Kunuk’s work, like much indigenous cinema in both North America and Australia, has always had a certain link to TV and video, with an attendant formal (and often thematic) modesty. Partly this is because television, especially in Canada and Australia, has been somewhere that indigenous media artists could make a place for themselves, however small; but it is also because small-format video has often been the only medium available to them.
Atanarjuat was also shot on video; it currently exists, though, as a 35-mm film. And while most films shot on video and transferred to 35 millimetre look just awful, here the effect is quite organic. The images do indeed feel flat, and the colours feel a bit more intense than they should, but this gels very nicely indeed with the enormous, barren landscape of Nunavut. Video’s unique visual properties also add to the film’s sense of intensity and slowness of pace.
Atanarjuat not only speaks to a new possibility for indigenous filmmaking, but is turning a new page for world cinema. For too long the world of ‘serious filmmaking’ – such as you would find at film festivals and expect to be narratively and visually ambitious – has been thought of as entirely separate from ‘video art’ (which you’d find at galleries) or ‘community media’ (which you’d find on television or at community centres). Atanarjuat steps right across all those borders and is going to demand a new openness, and a new sophistication, from those who care about film. The rewards, for those willing to make some leaps, will make the effort worthwhile.