Monday, November 3, 2008

Africa on Film

Writer's Note: The piece on Lumumba, the film on the African freedom fighter and Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba, and the ABC Africa film review, and the Ousmane Sembene piece were written at different times.

Raoul Peck’s Lumumba

Raoul Peck’s Lumumba is a mostly well-made, good looking film about the short but important political career of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the post-revolutionary Congo (also known as Zaire) in 1960, after a struggle against Belgium for independence.

The film begins and ends with the murder of Patrice Lumumba intercut with shots of military strongman Joseph Mobutu on his throne (the corrupt Mobutu was backed by European and American powers), and this interweaving clearly connects the murder of Lumumba with the rise of Mobutu. (Both African locals and European nations were complicit in Lumumba’s death.) The film shows us Lumumba’s rise as a political activist, his attempts to create a post-revolutionary government, his argument with an important regional leader who becomes part of Lumumba’s defeat, Lumumba’s mistaken appointment of Mobutu as army chief, and also Lumumba’s tender ties with his wife and child. (The family scenes are brief but among the films best, showing Lumumba’s care for his family, his joy with them, and his reacting to their pain with a startled thoughtful look in his eyes and trembling lips.) The actor who plays Lumumba, Eriq Ebouaney, is very effective. He conveys an agile intelligence matched with a straight-back confidence, the kind of man who sees the intelligent thing and expects people to do it. Such a portrait allows us to look more closely at heroism.

Heroes and leaders—such as Lumumba, but also Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X—through their self-cultivation, and location of situations that nurture or need them, are often ahead of the general populace. (It is unfortunate that we do not see Lumumba’s childhood in this film, nor his close personal friends.) The recognized rare value of such men is also what makes them vulnerable to antagonism, misinterpretation, and violence. Why cannot such men better see the danger that surrounds them and protect themselves from it?

The film’s drama resides in the scenes pitting Lumumba’s intelligence against brutal Western power and African short-sightedness (a vision that doesn’t see how the decisions made today will affect tomorrow).

What we call history—an influential past, the combination of personality, culture, economics, political power, and time and their effects on relationships and events and the distribution of resources—is ongoing, is behind us, beside us, and before us. This film gives us back a part of our history.

© DG

ABC Africa
a digital video moving picture by Abbas Kiarostami
on AIDS in Africa and the resulting orphan children

The documentary ABC Africa begins when the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (The Wind Will Carry Us, A Taste of Cherry) receives a fax inviting him to view the Uganda Women’s Efforts to Save Orphans (UWESO) program, a program that was begun in 1986 in response to the devastating impact of AIDS, which has struck down many adults and has left more than one million Ugandan children as orphans. The program involves organized business training and financial savings. The women, five in a group with ten groups forming a cluster, are encouraged to develop work skills, even entrepreneurial skills, and helped to develop a banking system. Each woman deposits a set amount weekly into a savings account and the women are allowed to take money out in times of emergency or as loans to help in starting a business. Thirty-five of thirty-nine districts are active in this volunteer organization. Kiarostami accepts the invitation, and travels to Uganda to see for himself, and he begins to take digital video notes during his ten-day stay, and out of those notes have come this documentary, which is being shown in U.S. theaters.

After the fax comes through, we see the director Kiarostami in Uganda at the airport. He asks his driver to put on music from the driver’s native Kampala. The driver is soft-spoken, as are many of the men we see, including one who begins to explain to the director the UWESO program. As we ride with the director through the streets, we see many people traveling on foot, and also people on bikes and in cars and trucks, and there is a large bulletin board advocating the use of condoms to prevent AIDS contamination. We learn that condom use is considered by the Catholic Church there as family planning, and as a practice that might encourage promiscuity (no consequences, no restraint), both of which the church is against. Later we’ll see a poster-calendar featuring the pope with the slogan “Stay a Virgin.” We also learn that in the year 2002, the number of orphans is predicted to increase to two million.

The children we see in the documentary are shy, curious, watchful, ready to perform, taunting—many of them seem like children anywhere. We see children playing kickball and singing. One woman lives in a small house, and takes care of more than thirty children. It is the circumstances the children live in that are unusual—the specter of death and life without parents and the poverty. Although there are signs of modernity in the hotel and some housing developments and the music boxes and cars, most of the Africa we see in the documentary is an Africa in which there is hardly even the thinnest line between nature and civilization. The video is full of long views of cultivated valleys and streets that aren’t tree-lined as much as forest-lined. There are outdoor butcher shops and fruit stalls and we even see coffins being built outside. One of the most beautiful images in the documentary is of a boy in a clearing of trees preparing to lift onto his head a bundle of sticks and tree limbs, presumably for a fire; we see him lift the bundle onto his head and walk away from the camera.

The sight of ordinary black faces and the brief view of ordinary black lives are part of the value of this documentary. The colorful fabrics some of the women wear and the music of the men are a pleasure. At the same time, one does wonder, whose ordinary movements can sustain a camera’s attention for long, a camera’s implicit request (or is it our request) for entertainment, information, and meaning—for a justification of existence? It is sad that to get those ordinary views we must see a documentary focused on suffering. We visit in the documentary an AIDS hospital, full of sick children and sick adults. Their slim, anguished faces are hard to look at, but they’re why we’re here, why the program exists: a syndrome of illness in full force for two decades continues to kill and wreck lives. A nurse methodically wraps a dead child in cloth and cardboard, and the body is given for transportation to a man on a bicycle.

During a night in Uganda the film crew looks at mosquitoes near an outside light and wonder about malaria. The electricity is scheduled to go off at midnight, and when it does, they continue to talk. They talk about the torture of not having light, of how they can’t stand its absence for five minutes but if they had to live without light for fifty years they would, because humans can adapt to anything. In this darkness, with the screen black and the talk ongoing, one sees several things, and one of them is the nature of cinema—that it is so often connected with modernity, with money and technology, and with image and superficiality, but that it can be an embodiment of consciousness.

Certain questions regularly arise in regard to Africa: how much of its trouble is its own and how much related to colonialism’s brutality, economic exploitation and calculated subversion of culture? Why don’t we know more about what’s going on there? When there is disturbing news there, why isn’t there more response from the West? Where are “knowledge” and “system” and “technology” in Africa, and how are they used in relation to problems? Who is best qualified to tell the story of Africa?

This documentary, which at its best is journalism and visual poetry and meditation, does not address most of these questions. Arguably, it didn’t attempt to, but its very name—ABC Africa—conflates one country, Uganda, with a continent, Africa, and thereby a whole mythology is summoned. The needy African child is a story the West has been telling for a long time—and there are moments in the video when the people, because of the simplicity of their lives, do seem very much “other.” (How “other,” and how hateful and wasteful an American life might look from another perspective—it is difficult to see one’s self from another’s view and standards, difficult to accept that view.) While the people interviewed are articulate, I found myself wanting to hear from African intellectuals who might have put the issues the video raises and those it ignores in the most comprehensive terms. There is no mention, for instance, of any actual or proposed U.S.-type public assistance programs, which is what an American grandmother asked when I told her about the documentary. What we know is what we see, and though we are shown a lot we do not see everything and so we must be told.

The camera is sometimes (sometimes?) intrusive: one woman looks embarrassed as it captures her breastfeeding. A woman turns her face away from the camera as she answers questions about the death of her husband, her eyes glistening with unshed tears and her words coming to us in English from a translator.

One grandmother in the documentary lost four sons and has eleven grandchildren to care for. One woman lost a husband and six of her twelve children and also has four grandchildren. It is remarked that there are few men in the villages, as they become ill and die in their prime. There are small, important, and not uncomplicated moments of hope: A woman talks brightly about seeing how the women in the UWESO program move from fear of constant dependency on others to self-sufficiency. A man and woman who both lost spouses to AIDS plan to marry. An Austrian couple, the man a doctor and the woman a teacher, both white, adopt a baby girl whose parents have died of AIDS, a black African child, who when we see her is wearing a top with the alphabets ABC. The parents want to take a brief tour of the locale and take pictures so in years to come they can tell the child what it was like. They seem conscientious. The documentary ends with a plane flight out of Uganda, with images of children’s faces imposed on the clouds, but before that happens someone has reiterated the struggle of the grandmothers and implored the West to help.

© DG

Ousmane Sembene
Excerpts, from “A Bleak Heroism of Words”

Ousmane Sembene’s films include Borom Saret (1963), Black Girl (1966), The Money Order (1968), Emitai (1971), Xala (1974), Ceddo (1976), Camp de Thiaroye (1988), Guelwaar (1993), and Faat Kine (2000). His Moolaade is a film of beauty, and it focuses on conflicts between tradition and modernity, men and women, and religious and secular values.

Ousmane Sembene, now considered a master of film, was born in 1923 in southern Senegal in modest circumstances, was expelled from school in 1936 for indiscipline, and worked from 1938 to 1944 as a mechanic and bricklayer. He served active duty in World War II on behalf of France, and after the war in 1946 he joined a union and saw that activity become part of his country’s political struggles. Ousmane Sembene migrated to France in 1947 to live and work; and he continued his union activities, which accelerated his political and intellectual growth, as he began to attend seminars and workshops (on Marxism), and pursue culture, exploring museums and theaters. Richard Wright, John Dos Pasos, Pablo Neruda, and Hemingway were among his influences, according to a scholar of his work, Samba Gadjigo, a professor at Mount Holyoke College. Ousmane Sembene published his first poem in 1956 at thirty-three in Marseilles. He published the first of several novels in 1956, The Black Docker. He returned to Senegal upon its independence from France in 1960, and became interested in making films to be able to reach illiterate people, and made the short film Borom Saret in 1963. Ousmane Sembene has been quoted as saying that the Africa of the past fascinates him but the Africa of the future excites

...In Moolaade: Women talk about what’s going on with the men in the village—the ban of radios; and one of the women says, “Our men want to lock up our minds.” To which another says, “But how do you lock up something invisible?” (That question has always enraged tyrants, who then decide that the simplest way to still the mind is to cut off the thinking head.) Later women gather near the new partially enclosed water pump, unable to sleep. It seems early morning (a lovely scene: the women are near a tree, mostly seated, and there’s some light in the sky, not a lot, and a large shadow on the ground and in the distance one can see the green of the trees. It is one moment in time that is obviously about to become another—sunrise, or sunset. The film’s cinematographer is Dominique Gentil, the production designer is Joseph Kpobly, and the editor is Abdellatif Raiss). “We bought those radios, didn’t we?” one woman says. Some of them begin to shower as a man atop a mosque begins a call. Colle’s husband tells her, in front of his older brother, that he wouldn’t have married her if she hadn’t been cut; and his older brother defines genital cutting as part of their tradition. The Salindana women come to speak with Colle and she goes out. Her husband is told by his elder brother that Cire is laughed at in the village as he cannot control his wife—and the elder brother leaves a whip with Cire, who says he has never beaten a woman, nor even his daughter. Colle is at the meeting of the Salindana and village elders when her husband comes and whips her in front of all, telling her to speak the word to end the moolaade. “Don’t say it,” many of the women yell. “Tame her,” some of the men say. The village seems divided mostly, but not entirely, along the lines of gender (I was reminded of James Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie, in which something similar occurs between black and white Americans, two choruses with differing consciences). Colle is whipped near to falling and the mercenaire steps in to stop the beating (he says he can’t stand violence, an irony coming from someone who had been a soldier). “After all this beating, not a word—unprecedented,” says one of the village leaders. The mercenaire, who we have seen trying to seduce various women (and called a womanizer by some of them—they are no fools), is accused of corrupting the wives and daughters of the village. His intervention in the public whipping—in which he shows that not all men agree with indiscriminate use of power over women—might be seen as another aspect of “corruption,” of changing perceptions. He is told by the men that they want him out of the village, but he doesn’t try to leave until they come at night after him with their faces masked, carrying torches and weapons. As her own wounds are being tended, Colle learns that one of the refugee girls was taken by her mother while Colle was being whipped, that the girl was taken, cut, and died; and that the mercenaire was killed in the night. Colle, having survived her ordeal, orders moolaade ended; and the rope in front of the compound is undone. Women visit Colle with food gifts; and a mat is unrolled for them to sit. They have come to get their daughters and claim they felt Colle’s pain while she was being whipped. The woman who took her child from Colle’s compound grieves that she held her crying, bleeding, dying daughter in her arms (we see a flashback of her luring her daughter out and carrying the protesting girl to the red-robed Salindana women). The grieving mother is given a baby to take care of for life by one of the other mothers.

Ousmane Sembene died June 9, 2007.

© DG