The Assurance of Belle, the Insurance of the Zong, and the Speculation of Cinema

12 Jun

Last night I had a delightful evening with my wife in one of the best places on earth, the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, where we snacked on delicious Haitian-style hors d’oeuvres and sangria at the La Caye Restaurant and Bar before going to see the new movie Belle at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, or BAM, as it’s commonly called. If you haven’t seen this movie already, you should. The film, directed by Amma Asante,  is a period-piece drama that critics (e.g., [here]) have compared to the many adaptations of Jane Austen novels such as Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, except that unlike the usual period-piece fare, the heroine of this film, Dido Elizabeth Belle, is biracial, and also unlike the usual period-piece fare, woven into the romance plot is the court-room drama concerning the infamous massacre of 132 human beings on the slave ship Zong. The film is important for its foregrounding of very important historical events that are somewhat unknown to the general public, as Dido Elizabeth Belle was a real person (as the famous scholar of African-American literature Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has written about [here]), and the infamous Zong case was an event so horrible that it challenged one of the most important foundations of the transatlantic slave trade — a foundation that few think of when they think of slavery — insurance. I am hoping to do more research on the historical details behind this film, but since this movie is also a work of fiction and a speculative interpretation of history that aims to explore the complex emotions of its characters, I agree with critics such as Sheryl Estrada and Dodal Stewart who note that the movie is also worth seeing for its imaginative and narrative qualities, for its relevance to conversations about the ambiguities of racial identity in our world today, and for how young women of color see their potential illustrated in cinema.

The movie usefully connects with a considerable body of literature. As the director has discussed in an interview with NPR [here] and as an article in the Guardian [here] discusses at length, the movie was inspired by the portrait of the real-life Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray and resonates for historians with a recently published biography of Belle’s guardian, Lord Mansfield, who was the judge deciding over two important legal decisions about slavery, the Somerset and Zong cases. What the director of the film and critics neglect to mention are the many other recent literary works about the Zong case, including a book of poems by M. NourbeSe Philip entitled Zong! (published in 2011), a novel by Fred D’Aguiar, Feeding the Ghosts (published in 2000), and an influential work of cultural theory by Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (published in 2005). What the director and film critics also neglect to mention is how much this film connects with what is now being taught in college seminars on eighteenth-century American and British literature, notably the now canonical autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, who was a former slave and successful businessman and who also happens to be the individual who first brought the Zong case to public view, and the novel A Woman of Colour, a Jane-Austen-like story about a biracial heroine originally published in 1807 (four years before Jane Austen’s first novel) and only just recently rediscovered and published in 2007 in a well-researched edition that uses the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle as the cover art.

Dido Elizabeth Belle

It actually strikes me as somewhat humorous that the critics are suggesting that the movie resembles a Jane Austen novel, considering that we might just as easily suggest the reverse, that Jane Austen novels resemble the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle and the fictional character in A Woman of Colour (both of which, after all, did happen before Austen wrote.) In fact, one criticism I have of the movie is that it presents Belle as an anomaly, when in fact there were many wealthy black men and women in the cities of England at this time (e.g., Equiano, mentioned above, who was directly involved in the same Zong case that Belle began to involve herself in. Might we imagine that Equiano and Belle met each other? How would a conversation between two black characters change the movie’s story which so thoroughly, and so problematically, isolates Belle, the lone black character amidst an otherwise all white cast?)

I also think many of the critics (even Henry Louis Gates) who focus entirely on the simple historical fact of black presence are missing what is truly interesting about Belle – and also what is interesting about the movie that received far more attention last year, 12 Years a Slave – and that is the ways the movies reveal the troubling and complex legalities of property, debt, and insurance. In fact, in many ways, although the mainstream media critics wrongly asserted the groundbreaking uniqueness of 12 Years a Slave (as I discussed at length in this blog a few months ago [here]), which for the most part was pretty much the same story that people have been telling about slavery since the 1850s when the book was published, that movie was somewhat unique for showcasing how slaves were part of a network of debt relations. The best scene in 12 Years a Slave is, unfortunately, a scene that is not given enough explanation and context, and that is the scene when the slave’s life is protected from violence simply because he is the property that secures a bank loan.

In many ways, Belle is a more unique and interesting film not just in the way it presents a more complicated portrait of race relations in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than the racially and morally black and white movie 12 Years a Slave, but also in the way that it focuses more intently on the peculiar legal history of the insurance industry that underpinned the slave trade. The Zong case was a case of basic insurance fraud, as the owners of the slave ship claimed they had to throw the bodies overboard to protect the ship and so demanded compensation from the insurance underwriters; the underwriters argued that the ship’s captain did not need to kill the slaves and that he did so deliberately in order to collect the insurance money. Significantly, what was not a legal option for the court to decide at that time but nevertheless was repeatedly commented upon during the trial was the morality of treating human beings as little more than insurable cargo. Without insurance, such far-flung capitalist enterprises such as the slave trade would lack the financial backing to be so prosperous and also so entangled in every aspect of the modern economy. As Ian Baucom’s work of scholarship on the Zong case that I mention above points out, the slave trade may today be illegal, but many of the legal structures governing the economic system that emerged from it remain. This presents us viewers with a more complicated picture, which is why I think the movie Belle deserves far more attention than it seems to me it has received.

What is also very compelling about the movie is the growth of the characters, Belle becoming a self-assured, ethical person the more she engages herself in the court case about the Zong’s insurance claim and the more she becomes self-conscious of the confusing and unjust ambiguity of her social position. In fact, almost all of the characters (except one) appear to grow and mature under the film-maker’s speculative interpretation of history. In contrast to the almost pornographic brutality of abuse and incessant degradation in 12 Years a Slave, what is great about Belle is that it presents a positive image of a black woman in the eighteenth century, one who is self-assured, moral, and full of potential. In my criticism of 12 Years a Slave, I complained that neither white nor black audiences could identify with any of the characters, but in contrast, the moral and cultural ambiguities for all the characters in Belle are still with us today.

To conclude, I want to further complicate and challenge how all the critics have talking about the movie Belle. As you are reading my blog and perhaps wondering about the funny title of this post, I hope you are noticing the puns I am making comparing financial metaphors with narrative metaphors (e.g., growth, potential, speculation, insurance, assurance, etc.). What is wonderful about this movie is the way it allegorizes the ambiguous double-bind of the law through character of Belle. Just as the law governing insurance and the lives of human cargo are contradictory, so are the rules governing Dido’s position in the household. The story plots the contradictory rules governing both Dido’s life and the insurance claim beautifully. As Belle confronts the legal conundrum, she increasingly abandons the “marriage market” and stays true to her principles, as well as, financially, her principle – that is to say, her inheritance that empowers her. The speculation of cinema, like financial speculation, trades on assurances that the audience’s hopes for human potential and freedom can be realized. (And if it bothers you that my deliberately playful mixture of metaphors ironically juxtaposes the noble story of Belle’s assurance with the more dismal story of financial speculation, then good, because I think that it should, as that subtext is the real strength of the movie.) I am hoping to explore this theme further in a more detailed literary analysis, so I welcome any comments, advice, or suggestions for further reading.

Something of a post-script, for there is another detail to consider. Could the movie have given its audience more information about the Zong massacre and shown just how brutal it was? I half suspect that the movie may simply have lacked the budget to film this, or maybe the director wasn’t sure (or assured) how to do it  in a way that was both artistic and respectful of human tragedy. I don’t know, but I will simple end here with an 1840 painting of the massacre (that you can see up close and in person at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.)

J. M. W. Turner’s painting of the Zong massacre, painted 1840

Languages, Globalization, and African Film Language: Bamako by Sissako

13 Apr

I begin this blog post with a set of coincidences from the past few weeks. In the African Cinema class that I am auditing, we have raised the question of whether one can define an “African film language” (counter to the Hollywood and European-auteur film languages, and possibly related to or possibly distinct from “Third Cinema“) while watching a movie that directly confronts the problem of globalization, structural adjustment, and international debt: Bamako (2006) by the internationally acclaimed director Abderrahmane Sissako from Mali. At the same time, in the post-colonial literature class that I am teaching, we just finished studying the well-known debate between two of the most famous African authors Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya). In his classic essay Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi argues that African authors ought to enrich their own indigenous languages such as Kikuyu, Igbo, or Wolof by writing novels and poetry in those languages if they are to truly overcome the psychologically debilitating effects of the legacy of colonization and neo-colonialism. Achebe counters in his essay “The Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature” by arguing for the viability of using the language of the colonizer (English, French, Portuguese, etc.) as a political and artistic tool for liberation. For class that day, I invited one of our senior English majors, Katie Hamilton, to talk to my class about her honor’s thesis about the question of language in three African novels about child soldiers in Africa: Sozaboy, Beasts of No Nation, and Allah Is Not Obliged. Katie analyzed how the authors employ deconstructed “rotten English” as a signifying tool against colonialism in a way that questions the possibility of language and literary form to fully represent or redeem the child soldier’s traumatic memory. Meanwhile, unrelated entirely to any of this scholarly inquiry, at a meeting open to the public, some of my colleagues raised the issue of language requirements, language instruction, and something sometimes ambiguously and problematically entitled  “intercultural competency.” I teach in Staten Island, where according to the Modern Language Association’s “language map” only 70% of Staten Island’s population speaks English as their primary language. As for the rest, 10% of the Staten Island population speaks Spanish, 3% speak Russian, 3% Italian, a little over 1% speak Arabic, and about half a percent speak  “African languages.” Other languages include Chinese, Korean, Urdu, and Tagalog, among many others. This is where we are, certainly. And so, the coincidence of these overlapping conversations about language, art, teaching, and globalization presents a bit of a conundrum for me as I find myself struggling to manage the various points of view and complex ideas as I sit down now to do my “homework assignment” for my African Cinema class and meditate philosophically about the question of language in the global context presented by the films I have been watching. To make things more difficult, I find myself writing for multiple audiences: my professor of African Cinema, my colleagues where I teach, my colleagues around the world, the students in my classes on post-colonial literature, introduction to film, and advanced literary theory, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, my close friends who work energetically on behalf of the Oromo people in Ethiopia.

Dhaba, me, Steve G., and Tesfaye at Mount Entoto in Ethiopia

Dhaba, Steve T., Steve G., and Tesfaye at Mount Entoto

And here now, before I meditate on the question of language and how the film Bamako has something interesting to say about that question, I should admit a certain personal orientation, which is my connection with the Oromo community both here in the United States and in Ethiopia, as it is the language and ethnicity that I happen to have married into. At the end of my class last week, while my students were debating whether Achebe or Ngugi was right, one of my students turned to me and asked, “but what do you think, professor? Whose side are you on?” I told him that as an academic and educator, it is not my role to take a side but rather to expose students to voices and perspectives typically excluded from the mainstream conversation and to amplify those voices — and in this case, ironically, a range of voices and perspectives not yet included in the conversation about language instruction and international education at my own institution. But then I felt this principled statement about my professional role might be a cop-out, so after the students pressed me further, I said, “O.K., I will admit why this is important to me personally and why it’s difficult for me to take a clear stand.” My wife’s ethnic community claims a history of oppression at the hands of the dominant Tigray and Amhara ethnic groups. Although the history and politics of cultural diversity and mixing are quite complex and multifaceted (see here), it is a fact that for much of the twentieth century the Ethiopian government banned the Oromo language from print and radio media as part of their official cultural policy called “Amharization” — the purpose of which was to politically unify Ethiopia under the language of its dominant ethnicity. For my American readers, it is important that we recognize the role of the United States government in this state policy which, from the perspective of many (not all) of my Oromo friends, would be be considered a policy of cultural genocide that would repress not only the Oromo language but also over 80 other ethnic languages in the region as well. Although the Oromo language spoken by over 30 million people has proven itself quite resistant to this policy, there are 28 languages in Ethiopia alone — and roughly 3,000 languages worldwide — in danger of extinction according to the United Nations. The American role in this policy in the form of funding and weapons has been documented by one of the most respected historians of Ethiopia, Harold Marcus (a historian respected by all the political and ethnic groups, it is important to mention) in his book The Politics of Empire: Ethiopia, Great Britain, and the United States, 1941-1974. This policy was reversed after the revolution in 1991, and I am proud to be a friend and a partner to Dhaba Wayessa, one of the first individuals to publish a novel and produce a play on the national stage in the Oromo language in his home country. I have listened to him and Oromos older than him recount stories of going to school and being punished by their teachers for speaking Oromo on the playground rather than the national Amharic language. Their story directly parallels the stories of colonial language instruction recounted by Ngugi in Decolonizing the Mind as well as by the famous Martinican philosopher, psychoanalyst, and revolutionary Frantz Fanon in his classic study of the psychology of race, culture, and language in France and the French colonies, Black Skin, White Masks.

From what I’ve written so far, it might seem that I am committed to the perspective of Ngugi and my Oromo nationalist friends, and so my students thought for a minute until I continued on to explain that I was actually quite conflicted on the matter. After all, Achebe was writing his response to Ngugi after years of brutal civil war in Nigeria, in part due to ethnic tension, and in part due to a more complex set of socio-economic forces. Fanon was more interested in moving forward than in going back to a mythic linguistically pure past. An important argument for a national language and political unity of the former colonies is a strategic nationalism to protect themselves against the debilitating divisiveness of ethnic conflict as well as against the political power of Europe and the United States. To put it another way, a far greater danger to indigenous languages than the language of the colonizer might be the language of international finance and free market economics. It is obvious which language the banks speak, and it is not a language taught in any department of foreign languages. It is the language of current account balances, foreign direct investment, profit margins, interest rates, and debt.

The language of global finance — something the scholar of literature Amitava Kumar has called into question in an ironically titled book “World Bank Literature” –  is the subject of the film Bamako, and last month I had the lucky opportunity to hear one of its producers, the famous actor Danny Glover, have a conversation about the movie with his friend, the even more famous scholar and activist Angela Davis at NYU. It is also, incidentally, the subject of another film that I watched this month: Hyenas (1992) by the avant-garde director Djibril Diop Mambety (Senegal) about an impoverished town that is willing to cannibalize itself (like a pack of hyenas) in order to find relief from its debts.

You can see the trailer for Bamako below, which features one of the most awesome vocal performances of all time by Christy Azuma, here:

Beyond the subject of globalization, I think this movie has a lot to offer anyone thinking seriously about language instruction and administrative concerns about intercultural competency, diversity, etc. The premise and formal structure of the movie is brilliant and unlike anything I have ever seen before. The director Sissako imagines a trial in which the plaintiff is “African society” and the defendants are the “international financial institutions.” The trial is held inside an African compound, the home of Chaka and Mele. Mele is the beautiful nightclub singer, and her husband Chaka is unemployed and cares for their sick daughter Ina at night. While he cares for his daughter, Chaka studies Hebrew in hopes that if Israel ever opens an embassy in Mali, he will be a prime candidate to work as a guard there — a notion that prompts his friend to break into a fit of laughter. Also in the compound are women who tie-dye cloth. Throughout the film, as the trial takes places, the speeches of lawyers and witnesses are juxtaposed with the ordinary life of the town and its people: a sick man cared for by his daughter, women going about their business, unemployed men chatting outside the compound walls, little children playing with the official documents, and the tragic drama unfolding between Chaka and Mele. The language of the trial is French, though some of the witnesses do not speak French so there is a court translator who can speak Bambara. In contrast to the concerns of African novelists about the language of their art, film directors have more easily mixed colonial and various indigenous languages. However, juxtaposed to the language of the trial is the language of ordinary life, which is life itself, constantly asserting itself against the lofty speeches.

It is possible to read this film as nothing more than wish-fulfillment, an indictment of the global financial institutions that protestors around the world have been calling for since the mid-1990s, the sort of trial we might wish would happen but that has never happened and will never happen. However, the artistic structure of the film, with its surrealistic mixing of private and public spaces, is more complex than that. For most of the film, we only hear part of speeches as the film cuts in and out of the trial and cuts to and from scenes of daily life inside the compound or to scenes of the men outside who sometimes turn off the speakers, muttering to themselves, “this trial is becoming annoying; when is it going to end.” There is the scene when Chaka is being interviewed and suggests that the journalist not waste his time, as nobody will listen anyway. In his book African Film (2010), Manthia Diawara has compared the structural devices of Bamako to Jean-Luc Goadard’s classic Tout va bien in which a cross-section of the building allows the audience to see the “superstructure” and “base” of society at the same time, but Sissako’s film does more than that by delighting in the uncontrollable events and cutting between random shots, including the incessant squeaky shoes of a child that one can hear beneath the speeches of the lawyers. Here the illegible and unintelligible are juxtaposed with the grim statistics of globalization. As Kenneth Harrow has argued in Trash: African Cinema from Below (2013), what asserts itself in Bamako against language is the reality of what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life.”

A significant moment is when the griot (African town poet and storyteller) named Zegue Bamba begins singing his lament, addressing the judges and lawyers with his traditional fly whisk. This is the only moment in the film when the words are not translated, and yet it doesn’t matter, for we feel his lament. Indeed, so does everyone else in the town, for the entire movie seems to be arrested by his voice. The movie itself seems to stop, and suddenly, because of the griot’s untranslated voice, the movie becomes another movie entirely. While he sings, the camera shows us the faces of the judge, the audience, the women working, and the men sitting outside who all stop and listen intently, clearly moved. Later in the film, one of the lawyers (who is played by real life politician Aissata Tall Sall) does translate some of the griot’s words for us, when she suggests that his voice is an embodiment of the people: “Why don’t I sow anymore? When I sow, why don’t I reap? When I reap, why don’t I eat?”

This notion of embodiment and the complex performances of a language that is not fully translatable is important for a recent 2009 essay by Gayatri Spivak called “Rethinking Comparativism.”  Spivak is famous not only as the translator of one of the most important and controversial works of 20th-century French philosophy (Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology) and one of the most important works of contemporary Bengali literature (Mahasweta Devi’s Imaginary Maps), but she also as one of the most often-cited theorists for post-colonial theory. In that essay, she begins with the problem of translation in recognition that certain aspects of language and culture are untranslatable — what she calls an “irreducibility of the idiom.” Considering this, she argues for the importance of comparative literature as a discipline uniquely suited for thinking about the problem of language and the global situation dramatized in a film such as BamakoShe continues to argue that academic institutions ought to play a role in “undoing the historical injustice toward languages associated with peoples who were not successfully competitive within capitalism.” In other words, she implies that American academic institutions have in the past been complicit with the cultural genocide of the world’s diverse languages by promoting the languages of empire (e.g., English, Spanish, French, and even Arabic and Chinese) at the expense of other languages in part because of the institutionalized nation-centered notion of language that does not always even account for the linguistic variation within the imperial languages (e.g., the Basque literary movement within France and the linguistic impact of Arabic on Spanish.) She does not make this argument simply out of despair over the thousands of languages and cultures that might be forever lost to history, but for the important role these languages and their idioms play in our thinking differently about the world in which we live and in the imperfect and troubled history of political and cultural relations. Hence, the goal of language instruction is not simply to learn how to translate or “get by” in another language, but to discover the untranslatable difference and to reconsider the history of one’s relation to others, a ghostly history that may be repressed by simplistic notions of “national languages” that are wrongly imagined to exist outside of historical time and are somehow magically independent of each other.

The flip side of Bamako is the movie Daratt (2006) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Chad) and filmed in a mixture of Arabic and French about a young boy Atim whose grandfather has asked him to seek vengeance upon a man named Nassara who killed his father. The historical context for the film is after a civil war and the government’s decision to grant amnesty to all war criminals who committed atrocious acts of political violence. Atim searches for and finds Nassara who has repented his past life and is now a baker who gives bread to the poor. Without revealing his identity, Atim begins to work for Nassara and learns the trade of the baker. There is almost no dialogue in the film as Nassara can only speak through an electronic device since someone tried to cut his throat. Rather the film speaks to the audience through long moments of silence and what in film studies is called “film grammar” (the camera shots and editing). Nassara and Atim come to know each other not through words but through their shared labor. Eventually, Nassara begins to love Atim as a son and proposes to adopt him. However, Atim has no answer to Nassara’s questions “do you love me?… where is your father?” These questions are too painful, and the question Atim’s silence provoke the audience to wonder about throughout the movie is whether Atim will take vengeance or forgive the man who killed his father in a moment of “truth and reconciliation.” I will not spoil the ending in my blog, as I hope everyone will go see it. Here is the trailer:

The point about language that I think emerges in this film is the flip side of Bamako – the terrible silence of history and the unspeakable memory that the characters can not find voice for. But not all silences are from trauma and pain. Other silences are from joy. My favorite moment in the film is when Atim begins to bake bread by himself, and in this scene the cinematography beautifully reveals an entirely different sort of language, the language of manual labor and economic production and the psychologically transformative pride Atim takes in his work.

Film offers us a unique medium for thinking about language since it is essentially a medium (as Kenneth Harrow argues in his analysis of Bamako) of something the philospher Jacques Ranciere calls the “sentence-image” in which language and image combine in ways that are not fully commensurate — e.g., the image may contradict what the characters are saying, or there may be a gap in meaning between the words and the image. This gap in meaning opens up a space for commentary, play, aesthetic transformation, and the insistence of  un-representable reality and untranslatable idioms.

In Bamako, one formal device that comments on the globalization of film language and the history of cultural relation between the West and Africa is the brilliant film-within-a-film, in which Sissako interpolates a terribly cartoonish sphaghetti western set in Africa entitled “Death in Timbuktu” starring Danny Glover and an international host of other film personalities. The conceit for this film-within-a-film is that one of the families that lives in the compound where the trial is being held is about to watch a movie on Mali’s national television station. The movie cuts back and forth between the film itself and the family watching it, but the film-within-a-film mirrors the movie as a whole as the film language of the spaghetti western is juxtaposed with ordinary life in an African town. In “Death in Timbuktu” the American-style-gangsters accidentally shoot a woman, and her baby is crying. It is a terrible, awful scene that parodies the western genre, but then the cowboy-gangster starts joking and laughing with his compadres, and suddenly we cut to the audience watching the film, and a small boy is laughing along with the psychopathic cowboy-gangsters. The movie thus makes a satirical point about the impression American and European film has on African viewers, but also the film-within-a-film serves as an allegory for the larger structure of the film, as the “western” institutions of global finance cause havoc in African towns. You can watch the film-within-a-film here:

This is an instance of film language self-consciously commenting upon itself as well as upon the medium of film’s relationship to culture. Here we have an African parody that alludes to an earlier African parody “Le retour de l’aventurier” (1966) of an Italian appropriation of an iconically American film genre. We might call this an “African film language” — not because the movie asserts a nostalgic sense of original and authentic African-ness or one of Africa’s ethnic languages, but precisely because it reveals the poetics of relation of African film to the global film industry that parallels the troubled relation of African languages to European languages. This poetics of relation is not only troubled; it is also creative and productive of new cultural formations that can’t be reduced to the simplistic paradigms of national languages instrumentalized by a college curriculum. It is to the credit of language departments today that, in spite of the impetus place upon them, they resist such instrumentalization through programs of civic engagement and through pedagogical models that foreground the complex cultural history within which language subsists. However, considering Spivak’s call to thinking about the thousands of other languages in the context of globalization and her suggestion about the important role of comparative literature to redress the political conditions of language and literature, I wonder how we can think through the profoundly deep problematics of language, literature, film, and culture — “problematics” (in the philosophical sense of that word) that for me are not merely academic and artistic questions, but political and personal questions.

The Question of “Third (World) Cinema” and the Crisis of Representation: the Films of Souleymane Cissé and Idrissa Ouedraogo

17 Mar

As I mentioned in my last blog post about Ousmane Sembene’s 1977 film Ceddo, this semester I am studying “African Cinema.” In this blog post, I turn from Sembene to two later important Francophone African film makers, Souleymane Cissé (from Mali) and Idrissa Ouedraogo (from Burkina Faso). The two directors have noticeably different styles and political perspectives. Cissé‘s three most famous films are Baara (1980, translated as “Work”) about the labor movement in his country of Mali, Finye (1983, translated as “Wind”) about a clash between the student movement and the dictatorial government in the capital city of Bamako, and Yeelen (1987, translated as “The Light”) that draws from the literary tradition of Bambara epic poetry to depict a mythic struggle between father and son. Ouedraogo’s two most successful films are Yaaba (1989, translated as “Grandmother”) about a young boy’s relationship to an outcast woman considered by the village to be a witch, and Tilai (1990, translated as “The Law”) about the conflict between a father and son who both love the same woman. Since Yeelen and Tilai have a similar plot (conflict between father and son), and since both are set in a historically indeterminate pre-modern time, and since both also won the Grand Jury prize at the prestigious Cannes film festival, I want to focus on those two films comparatively in order to indicate just how widely different two African film styles can be and also to address some theoretical questions about “third (world) cinema” that have been raised by many scholars since the 1980s (e.g., Teshome Gabriel’s Third Cinema in the Third World: the Aesthetics of Liberation.)

Let’s start with Yeelen, whose story has been compared to the Sophocles play Oedipus Rex (here) and to the movie Star Wars (here and also see this YouTube mash-up), and whose cinematography has been compared to the gorgeously cinematic Western Once upon a Time in the West by Sergio Leone (here.)

Despite such comparisons to western literature and film, Yeelen begins explicitly with allusions to African literary tradition, and hence very clearly announces itself as a self-consciously African film. The story is about Niankoro’s quest to fulfill his destiny, become a man, and retrieve his birthright. He is pursued by his jealous father, Soma. Both Niankoro and Soma possess magic powers not unlike those of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vadar, but the distinctly African poetic tradition is translated into film through expertly edited montage sequences that create a sense of magic and epic scope as you can see from the opening scenes here:

In addition to the archetypal conflict between father and son, there are also archetypal themes of water and fire, as the main character Niankoro’s mother prays to the god of water and procreative life and his father prays to the god of fire to help him take revenge on his son. The epic scope contains within it an implicit national vision as Niankoro has embarked on a long personal journey across a dramatic landscape where he encounters and gradually forms problematic but meaningful relationships with the other ethnic groups of Mali. Cissé‘s camera technique is expert, using various camera shots and imagery to relate individuals to the landscape and to each other in contrast to Sembene’s films that rely heavily on dialogue to carry the story.

There is a lot going on in this film that one can talk about, but I want to focus on the question of the film’s relationship to modernity, Afrocentricity, and the so-called “third-world” struggle for self-definition against European colonialism and American-style global capitalism. Because the movie adapts a traditional epic story, one might be tempted to read this film as merely an Afrocentric return to its traditions (in contrast to Cissé‘s earlier film Finye where traditions are presented more humorously and in contrast to most of Sembene’s films where African cultural traditions and Islamic religious traditions are satirized.) However, the conversation between Niankoro and his uncle Djigui indicate a concern with the future. “Science is inexhaustible, miracles eternal,” says Djigui as the camera cuts from him to Niankoro’s newly pregnant wife bathing in the magical water of a spring. “The country’s future hangs by a thread.” Literally, as we soon find out, the future hangs by the umbilical cord of Niankoro’s wife, as her son must carry on the father’s legacy into the future. Likewise, in Cissé‘s film Finye, we can see a similar theme connecting tradition and modernity as the main characters look to tradition for sources of inspiration, power, and even trickery to combat a dictatorial governor but always in ways that are inventive or adaptive to changing socioeconomic conditions and give way to a progressive politics.

One example of this issue of modernity is the symbolic image of the blacksmith that appears multiple times in Yeelen. This image may serve to remind the European audience of the Afrocentric point that Africa (not Europe) was the origin of such technology, but it is also symbolically important for the larger themes of the movie as it presents us with the problem of modern science, since Niankoro’s father uses this technology for destructive rather than creative purposes. Ultimately, the film does not choose between tradition and modernity but stages a mythic dialectic of destructive and creative forces (fire and water) that forge the new nation. In conclusion, in my view, Yeelen is a modernist synthesis of traditional mythic tropes to create self-conscious national epic.

In contrast, Ouedraogo’s Tilai focuses on the drama of ordinary life, a conflict between father and son who are both in love with the same woman (Nogma). The movie begins with the son (Saga) returning from a long journey to learn that the father has taken Nogma as his second wife. But Saga and Nogma are still in love and begin an affair. The town condemns the affair, and Saga’s brother Kougri is expected to carry out the sentence by killing Saga. What the movie so brilliantly plots in this archetypal drama is a conflict between two laws — the law against adultery versus the law against killing one’s brother. The drama also presents a tragedy where father and son fail in their relationship, the father pursuing his own sexual interest rather than loving his son, and the son consequently disrespecting his father, leading both to reject each other. Hence, there is no easy moral answer to this troubling situation, and therefore the movie encourages not a return to any particular traditional framework but rather a liberal generosity and openness to the human condition. You can watch the whole film on YouTube here:

The gorgeous imagery and cinematography appears to capture some pre-modern village culture. Unlike the films of Sembene that focus intently on the relationship between Africa and Europe, and unlike the films of Cissé that focus on the continuities and discontinuities between tradition and modernity, Ouedraogo creates a world that seems to exist outside of any historical time. Considering that Islam came to the region as early as the ninth century, it is unclear when this story (in which no Islam or Christianity is present) would have taken place. Other anachronisms, such as the presence of maize and peanuts (both food originally from Central and South America) suggest a community out of historical time. His films have been criticized for being “calabash cinema” (named after the kind of large gourd that the African women use to carry water on their heads) — that is to say, cinema that appeals to a European’s anthropological stereotypes about Africa as a primitive place. It is cinema that might remind us of the old issues of National Geographic magazine rather than a self-consciously progressive African cinema. But in my view, Tilai is a postmodern film that presents a nostalgic image of not so much a pre-historical past but an a-historical timeless time and place-less place.

Such a timeless place devoid of any contact with the outside world is also the setting for Ouedraogo’s film Yaaba, as you can see in its opening scenes here:

If we consider Ouedraogo’s films in our present-day context of African identity and African cinema, we can read this film as a reinvention of African traditions, drawing from African folktales and poetry. In that sense, Ouedraogo’s films assert a distinctly African cinema in the context of a global movie industry dominated by Hollywood and Europe. Chinua Achebe does something similar in his classic novel Things Fall Apart that begins with a family drama in a small Igbo village. His novel presents the rich history of a town–explicitly, as we see at the end of the novel, the sort of rich history that would merit little more than a footnote in the European account. According to some of my students, Achebe’s novel is sometimes taught in American high schools as a window onto African culture, even though to teach it this way is a mistake, since the novel in fact is really a dramatization of a very specific historical event — how European colonialism and Christianity undermined the Igbo framework for law and order in the nineteenth century. The difference between Ouedraogo and Achebe is that Achebe is very specific about the historical and geographic frame for his novel and the political relationship between colonizer and colonized that interests Sembene, but Ouedraogo’s work seems to step outside of history and political geography.

This step outside of history into a nostalgic indeterminate past is what the scholar and theorist Fredric Jameson criticizes as an essential feature of “postmodernism” in his book Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). Following Jameson’s conceptualization of postmodernism, Ouedraogo’s cinematic style focuses on two-dimensional spatial relations (i.e., relations between those inside and those outside the village walls — what anthropologists call liminal spaces) rather than historical relations (i.e., the historical dialectic that concerns Sembene and Cissé.) For Jameson, such a commodification of the past that we may discern in Ouedraogo deceptively presents an image of a more innocent bygone era that appears “real” (and even “realistic”) even though the representation is actually appropriated from an imaginary museum (or what the psychoanalytic theorist Lacan calls the “imaginary“.) I will have more to say about Ouedraogo’s postmodern style later, but for now I want to reflect a bit about my hypothesis that Cissé‘s movies present national allegories concerned with the continuities and discontinuities between modernity and tradition in contrast to Ouedraogo’s movies that present a historically vague postmodern liberalism.

To theorize this representational difference between Cissé and Ouedraogo further, I will consider the debate between Jameson and Aijaz Ahmad in the pages of the journal Social Text about the term “third world.” In his essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” published in the fall issue of 1986, Jameson poses the argument that following the independence movements, post-colonial novelists, poets, and film-makers faced an aesthetic dilemma or “crisis of representation” (p.81) in the face of neocolonialism and uncertainty about the fate of the nation state. Jameson uses the work of Sembene as a case study to argue the controversial point that “all third-world texts are necessarily… national allegories” (p.69). What Jameson means by that is that the story about the personal lives of individuals represents the political issues of the nation state. To be sure, it is hard not to read Sembene’s films this way since as a writer and director he was so self-consciously concerned with the politics of national development after decolonization.

Jameson makes several problematic points, but before I summarize Ahmad’s critique of Jameson, I think it is worth putting Jameson’s argument in a context — in this case, my own context that I think might somewhat parallel the context he gives for his own essay in the opening paragraphs. In casual conversations I’ve head with colleagues, friends, and students, I’ve noticed that for many — if they know any African films at all — Sembene’s classic movies La Noir de… and Xala may be the only African films they can claim any familiarity with, and consequently, in a somewhat odd way, Sembene comes to stand in for all of African cinema in various undergraduate classes such as world literature, world history, post-colonial literature, introduction to film studies, and even French cinema. I am guilty of this myself (though in my “introduction to film” class I selected his later, more feminist work Faat Kine.) Indeed, when Jameson famously made the case way back in 1986 in his controversial essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” for English and Comparative Literature departments to get over their parochial attachment to western modes of reading that fetishize a certain style of “literariness” that is narcissistically self-referential and canon-specific (e.g., T.S. Eliot’s famously elitist, Eurocentric, and somewhat depressing notion of tradition and the individual talent), the one work he chose to stand in for Africa was Sembene’s Xala (both a novel and a film). This presents a problem because, as influential as Sembene was on later African film-makers, he is also famously idiosyncratic. Arguably too, La Noir de… (translated as “Black Girl”) is perhaps popular in world literature and French cinema classes  not only because it is brilliant (which it is), but because it is the most “French” of Sembene’s films in terms of its style and content.

However, Sembene is not the only African film-maker, which is why I have been repeatedly returning to the differences between Sembene, Cissé, and Ouedraogo in this blog post. As Aijiz Ahmad argued in his response to Jameson published in Social Text the following fall (1987), such a classification of the “third-world” is rife with categorical problems, one of which is the lack of awareness of the diversity of literary agendas and styles in these so-called “third-world” countries (something Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would has pointed out in a more simple manner is a perennial danger of the single story.) Ahmad’s larger point is that Jameson unwittingly invents the third-world as an Other in binary opposition to the first world. And to be sure, not only can one find countless examples of literature in countries such as Pakistan and India (where Ahmad is from) that are not “national allegories,” but also one can find plenty of examples in British and American cinema that are. Consider racist films such as Birth of a Nation, or consider any James Bond movie, or even consider the recent 12 Years a Slave, all of which are usually discussed by the critics (in very different ways of course) in terms of national allegory — that is to say, who we are and where are we going as a nation. For a more literary example, how else could one read Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible than as an allegory for the McCarthy trials of the 1950s?

But in critiquing Jameson’s first-versus-third world essentialism, Ahmad never acknowledges the ways in which Jameson is actually taking seriously the very self-consciously internationalist “third-w0rld” political movement following the 1955 Bandung Conference as well as the arguments for revolutionary struggle and the development of the modern nation state by no less a figure than Frantz Fanon. After all, in the 1960s and 70s, a movement started called “Third Cinema” precisely advocating for a revolutionary film against the hegemony of the United States and Europe. In other words, we can imagine that a film-maker such as Sembene might very well agree with Jameson rather than Ahmad considering the “crisis of representation” in an African film industry still dependent on France for production and distribution (as well as for international recognition at the Cannes film festival.)

Can a comparison of Cissé and Ouedraogo’s films help us resolve this debate? Manthia Diawara’s 1988 essay for the Film Quarterly entitled “Popular Culture and Oral Traditions in African Film,” observes the influence of oral traditions on African film style and aesthetics. His argument, though, is not that there is a singular African aesthetic determined by such a tradition; rather in affirming the potential of African culture against the Western hegemony, African film-makers have responded in varying ways, not only to those traditions but also to each other. Specifically, their attitude towards tradition may be subversive and satirical as well as affirmative. Stylistically, they may (like Sembene) position the camera in ways to accentuate the tradition of oral poetry and public debate by fixing the camera in one spot rather than cutting between points-of-view. Or, they may (like Oudraougo) follow the stylistic conventions of Hollywood realism perfectly but use them to tell African stories. One may theorize (and Diawara doesn’t attempt to theorize it in that essay) whether the relation to oral traditions in African film collapses the public-private division. It is this relation between the private life of the individual and the public/communal representation of the nation that Jameson describes as the difference between first-world and third-world literature. In other words, for Jameson, unlike western literature that focuses on the aesthetics of the individual, third-world literature concerns itself with the individual’s representative relation to the collective (perhaps an alienated relationship, perhaps antithetical, or perhaps heroically championing, but always somehow in complex allegorical relation to it.) Is there a formal connection between that sort of oral tradition and a cinema that is politically allegorical to collective identity? I don’t know.

I think it is arguably true that Sembene and Cissé‘s films are national allegories — complexly so, as I indicated in my previous blog post about Sembene. As stylistically and ideologically different as Sembene and Cisse are from each other, both foreground a modernist interest in the relation between past, present, and future. In contrast, one might point to Ouedraogo’s films as examples of movies that are not national allegories, that avoid the burden of political representation, and that instead focus on the fullness and richness of daily human life. One might do that. But instead my argument is that the postmodern liberalism of Ouedraogo’s films actually illustrates the more general hypothesis of Jameson’s work on postmodernism and the cultural logic of late capitalism. True, Tilai is definitely not the national allegory that Jameson claims is “essential” for third-world literature, and also true is that it it does not represent the political agenda of “third cinema” and the revolutionary aesthetics of Frantz Fanon, but it is also arguably weak, politically speaking, in the way that Jameson argues postmodernist literature and cinema is.

The Figuration of Gender in Ousmane Sembene’s Ceddo

21 Feb

This semester, as part of my research into the state of Ethiopia’s film industry, I am auditing a seminar on African Cinema, and the class naturally has begun with films by one of the most famous African film-makers, Ousmane Sembene. After watching his films Borom Sarret, La Noire de…, Mandabi, and Xala, we have now watched his 1977 film Ceddo, a film set in the seventeenth century about the conflict between the local traditions of a west African town and the encroaching religions of Islam and Christianity. The film stages the tragic disintegration of a community and presents a dark view of religion (whether the traditional indigenous religion, Islam, or Catholic) as mere pretext for power politics and greed. The movie reminds me of the famous 1961 novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, but Sembene’s film is far darker than Achebe’s novel and more directly satirical in its mockery of religious leaders. In Sembene’s film, we have the short-of-stature, Napoleonic, power-hungry imam  and the curiously mute European slave trader whom the common people hilariously call “the white man who sells alcohol” and who operates in concert with the Catholic missionary. Perhaps because of this dim view of religious leaders, and because things do actually fall apart as violence among factions escalates, and because the movie concludes  with the killing of the king, the priest, and the imam, the movie was temporarily banned by the Senegalese government in 1977. You can watch the movie subtitled in its entirety on YouTube here:

There are many things to say about this movie. For example, the reversal of the colonial gaze back upon the colonizer, as Manthia Diawara discusses in his book African Film (2010), when he suggests that Sembene’s “naturalistic and documentary approach to creating fiction out of reality… is a kind of reverse anthropology in which the gaze and the voice belong to the Africans” (page 95). Alongside that, we might note the emphasis on the traditional art of political oratory and debate and the film’s thematic resemblance to Walter Rodney’s book about the “underdevelopment of Africa” due to the power politics of colonialism,  published just a few years before Sembene made his film. We might also talk about the movie in terms of Frantz Fanon’s question of whether anti-colonial violence is justified in the name of national unity and the future of the “new man” who must emerge from that struggle. However, because the entire plot revolves around the character of the Princess Dior Yacine, who we might imagine to be a “new woman” representing the Fanonian dialectic, I want to focus on the question of the figuration of woman in Sembene’s movies.

In this film, the princess has been kidnapped by the “ceddo” (common people)  in protest against the rising influence that the imam has with their king and the new oppressive decrees that disrupt their traditional lives. The catalyst that precipitates this event is when the imam insists that the inheritance of the king must be patrilineal according to Islamic law rather than matrilineal according to local custom, thus prompting the nephew to organize a rebellion. When the princess is first captured, she proudly asserts her Muslim identity and the alliance between her father (King Demba War) with the imam. The rest of the story is about the attempt to rescue the feisty princess from her captors by the various patrilineal heirs to the throne, who are killed in their attempt one by one, and which results in an escalation of violence and the need for guns, which the Catholic Europeans are more than happy to provide in exchange for slaves until the priest is killed when the Catholic compound is raided. Meanwhile, after all of the king’s sons have been killed in their attempts to gallantly rescue the princess, the king mysteriously dies (assassinated by the imam), and into the power vacuum the imam steps in and begins to force a mass conversion to Islam. The princess is finally rescued just as the imam is in the midst of shaving the heads of each and every ceddo male and giving him a new Muslim name, but in a dramatic plot twist, she takes up a rifle and shoots the iman with the apparent support of the community.

This plot twist is foreshadowed during the princess’s captivity as she gradually sheds her Muslim identity by shedding her clothes as she waits proudly and gorgeously for her chance at escape or rescue. According to an article in Jump Cut by Gorham Kindem and Martha Steele about the “Women in Sembene’s Films,” Sembene’s films show a connection between the forces of colonial oppression and gender oppression and suggest that women had a more “exalted position place” in traditional society than they did in the Islamic and Christian-influenced colonial society. The describe a typology of gender roles in Sembene’s films that includes the allegorical figure of the mother, the symbol of fertility, the trophy (or object of pursuit and patriarchal power), and the militant warrior leading her people against oppression. They argue that the pleasure of the film Ceddo is in the collective identification with Princess Dior and the allegory of Princess Dior’s transformation into a symbol of unity for the people, which she must accomplish by shedding the symbols of privilege, class, and religious distinction (her clothes) and taking up arms.

I find the argument by Kindem and Steele compelling, but I would suggest that it overemphasizes the return to the traditional culture of a matrilineal society through the invocation of an indigenous typology. In Sembene’s film, the traditionalists are just as guilty as the Muslims and Christians for using their religion as a means to political power. Although the article posits a complex “third-world” synthesis of Marxist neo-realist film style with African traditions and argues that Sembene’s female characters function in the narrative as a link between Africa’s past and future, it is unclear whether we are to celebrate Sembene’s progressive forward-looking feminism or the traditionalism that the cultural allegory invokes.

Rather, in my view, the figuration of woman in this way is an uneasy symbolic displacement of the tensions of postcolonial Africa and the debates about the film industry narrated in chapter four of Manthia Diawara’s book African Cinema (1992). There Diawara describes a tension between the nationalist, anti-colonialist goals of the Federation Panafricaine des Cineaste (FEPACI) in the 1970s and the freedom of film-makers to make aesthetically interesting, culturally complex, and political critical films that would not be mere propaganda subordinate to national interests. One discerns a classic ideological contradiction in the goal of developing “national” cinema in Africa at a moment of profound social transformation and the conflict between Afrocentric assertions about the value of traditional culture, the desire to modernize, and the leadership’s appeal to Muslim and Christian identities to give moral legitimacy to their positions of power. In this context, it seems to me that the figuration of “woman” in Ousmane Sembene’s films, and the scopophilic pleasure of her disrobing, is a fantasy of political unity — a desire for political unity that is allegorized by the figure of a beautiful woman. It is she whom all the town is looking for as it struggles to define itself and overcome dissent. In contrast to the men, who are constantly debating, we rarely hear the princess speak. Her symbolic power is naturalized in the narrative, which is why she need not speak, but can communicate with her people by a mere look. Thus it is her image that the camera focuses on, and the “looking relations” between her and the ceddo created by some fancy editing in the final scene that create a sense of the town’s potential political future.

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Addendum, 18 March 2014

After some further reading recommended by the professor, I’d like to add something to this blog post. Above, I suggested that the figuration of woman is a displacement of political conflict and ideological contradictions in post-colonial Senegal and the Francophone African film industry. In some ways, my point agrees with Laura Mulvey’s essay “Xala, Ousmane Sembene 1976: The Carapace that Failed” published in the journal Third Text in 1991 when she suggests that “For Sembene, class politics determine over and above sexuality. Sexuality plays its part in the drama as the site of the symptom, the first sign of a return of the repressed” (p. 31). However, Mulvey’s more generous reading of Sembene suggests that his films intentionally put in play these psycho-sexual symptoms as a way of exposing the deeper socio-economic relations that have been repressed. Considering her larger point about Sembene’s brilliant interrogation of both traditional and capitalist fetishes (the idealized “woman” being one of those fetishized objects that constitute the status of the male ego), I find her argument persuasive. However, in my view, there is still something about the figuration of “woman” in Sembene’s films that can not be reduced to this politics. I guess I will leave the conversation there for now, since to continue would embroil me in a lot of fancy theorizing about symptom versus sinthome, dialectic versus rhizomatic, etc.

The Reception of “12 Years a Slave”

18 Feb

I meant to write this blog post several months ago when I saw the movie 12 Years a Slave, but my trip to Ethiopia in December and the stress of the new semester in January kept me so occupied that I never got around to it. Also the seriousness of the subject and the historical complexity made me feel like I had to do some research first, reading the other reviews, watching some other movies, and reading the original Narrative of Solomon Northup published in 1854 that the movie is based on. But now that it’s the middle of “African American History Month” and the Academy Awards are less than two weeks away — and it looks like Twelve Years a Slave has a good chance of winning best picture — I feel compelled to hurry it through. The movie is a spectacular achievement and deserves to win as much as any film does. Not having seen all of the other candidates, I must admit that I can’t say for sure, but in any case, that is not the argument I wish to make here. Rather, my primary concern is with the reception of the film in the media and with what that reception says about how Americans understand history — not only the history of slavery, but also the history of black culture — because I think the reception of the film in the mainstream media unwittingly betrays that history.

In quite a few of the interviews and reviews in the major venues (e.g., follow these links to the reviews in National Public Radio, The New York Times, The New Republic, Slate, and The New Yorker, and this interview with the director Steve McQueen and lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) we hear a common refrain. The common refrain celebrates the film as a groundbreaking achievement, long overdue, because the movie industry has neglected this important subject for so long that average Americans continue to have little understanding of the truly horrific realities of slavery. The comparisons the reviews make are with nostalgic, racist films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) made during the height of the Jim Crow era or with non-serious exploitation films such as Mandingo (1975) and the more recent Django Unchained (2012). (Even though it is surely the case that high schools don’t actually rely on such Hollywood movies when they teach the history of slavery, the point is still well taken.) What all these reviews aim to do is conjure up what Walter Benjamin once described in his seminal 1936 essay on the nature of film “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as an “aura” of originality and authenticity by showing how superior and different 12 Years a Slave is when compared to these other movies.

In part, I agree with the basic idea of these reviews that, considering the centrality of slavery to American history, it is remarkable how few films about slavery have been made. I would also agree that this movie has some visually arresting scenes that brilliantly capture some of the legal complexity of a system when human beings are treated as property as well as the insane gender dynamics that it caused.  However, several things are missing in all this praise of the movie’s originality. The first and foremost is any mention of other serious films that have been made above slavery (all listed on Wikipedia, incidentally) — an odd omission indeed in reviews that place so much importance on this film being so original. Never mind Spielberg’s Amistad. I’m talking about the well-known TV series way back in 1977, Roots (written by Alex Haley who also co-authored the Autobiography of Malcolm X), and the well-regarded movie Sankofa (1993) directed by the acclaimed Haile Gerima. Even more strangely, they neglect to mention that Solomon Northup’s book had already been made into a movie before called Solomon Northup’s Odyssey in 1984 by one of the most celebrated African-American photographers (and also the director of Shaft), Gordon Parks. I do not blame the average American for not knowing about these films, all of them written and directed by black artists. But I do blame a reviewer for not doing his or her job (in the case of the above, all the reviews were written by white men), especially since by ignoring the history of black artistic achievement, they are also ignoring the years of cultural work and social activism that has galvanized black communities for decades. These are the earlier films that made 12 Years a Slave possible.

In addition to the loss of a sense of black cultural achievement in the art of film-making, by ignoring these other serious films about slavery, we also lose a critical perspective on 12 Years a Slave, because by celebrating 12 Years a Slave as so profoundly original, we are offered no real point of comparison. Indeed, the question nobody is asking is what makes this movie produced in the year 2013 any different from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, which was not just the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, but also one of the most popular stage plays and eventually adapted multiple times for the silver screen. It is also a novel that has been deeply problematic for black artists and leaders in the twentieth century, most famously James Baldwin’s scathing essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and Angela Davis’s Women, Race, and Class (as well as hip hop such as Public Enemy’s “Louder than a Bomb“) that indict the novel for its sentimental morality and disturbing fetishization of the suffering black body. The absence of any comparison in the mainstream media’s reviews is surprising considering that the original Narrative of Solomon Northup was dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe and was advertised as “Another Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — alluding to the “Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that Stowe published in 1853 in order to provide documentary evidence of the claims made in the novel. Why this matters is that certain dramatic features of the movie 12 Years a Slave actually follow some of the themes and narrative conventions of mid-nineteenth century story-telling, and other features don’t. As this excellent essay in the Atlantic argues, the book in 1854 and the movie in 2013 have a different sense of reality and of how to make their audiences feel the “truth” of the story — hence, the movie takes several liberties with the original story in order to heighten the dramatic intensity of the film. However, some problematic nineteenth-century conventions remain unquestioned. For instance, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the movie traces the protagonist’s movement from a moderate master to a psychotic and abusive one who is an alcoholic. The evils of alcohol are somehow mixed in with the evils of slavery, and in the nineteenth century, many of the members of the abolitionist movement were also members of the temperance movement. The effect is to tell the history of slavery in terms of individual morality and psychotic brutality to which slaves are the victims — a narrative that simplifies history into a good-versus-evil story. What is hard to imagine in such a narrative is how such a system of slavery could have been economically so successful in America for two centuries if the slave owners were merely brutish, insane drunks.

To be sure, the brutality, terrorism, and constant threat of violence of the institution of slavery is an important story to tell, but in telling the story this way, the movie is missing two things, not just two things that are present in the original book, but also two things that are present in other works of literature and movies about slavery, notably the movie Sankofa, which I am arguing here is the movie about slavery that everyone should be talking about. These two things are (1) a conscious reflection on one’s roots and our enduring cultural connection to the past, and (2) a sense of the positive culture of resistance and survival that would give African Americans a sense of pride in their identity as a people who overcame this institution rather than an image of absolute deprivation and horror. Let’s contrast 12 Years a Slave with the more politically Pan-Africanist film Sankofa, since I think Haile Gerima’s Sankofa remains the best movie on slavery in terms of its narrative content. Sankofa‘s narrative technique is a bit more complex, since it begins with the present — a young black fashion model doing a photo shoot in Ghana near the ruins of a slave-trading fort. She experiences a deep psychic transference that puts her consciousness in the body of a slave. The narrative technique relates thematically to the title of the movie: the word Sankofa in the Akan language means that one must look back to the past in order to move forward in the future. (The image is of a bird looking backward.) This movie very directly asks the audience to think about who they are now and where they came from. In contrast, the relatively simple narrative of 12 Years a Slave shows us a past that seems to have no enduring relation to our present and creates a moral distance between the viewer and the movie that never really demands that we ask ourselves what we would do if we were in the position of the slave or in the position of the slave owner. We the audience leave the movie theater with the feeling of moral superiority  to the slave owners in the film — what we have seen is the horrors of a past that has since been corrected, and we are not them. Hence, as much as the reviews of 12 Years a Slave claim to be righting the wrongs of the past, they may actually have the opposite effect, serving an aesthetic escape from any real questioning of our own ethical position today. After all, does not slavery still exist in the world, and are not the clothes that we buy manufactured in sweatshops for multinational corporations? How do we understand our identities as citizens of the United States still today in relation to the reality of our global economy and the legacy of our political institutions that continue to support that economy?

In addition, Sankofa tells the story of the positive attributes of slave society including a slave community’s efforts to organize a revolt. Much of  Sankofa focuses quite accurately on how slaves actually lived and supported each other, the day-by-day successes of the community to maintain itself despite the many tragedies and abuses and failures. It celebrates the cultural memory through the songs they sang, the traditions of medicine they brought from Africa, the food they cultivated and prepared, and the personal and social relationships they struggled to maintain. As much of the past century of scholarly research has revealed, the slaves were not simply victims, but rather they profoundly influenced American culture and actively resisted slavery sometimes through direct revolts but more often in subtle ways. Often the slaves were able to exploit legal loopholes and the inherent contradictions in a system that valued the slave as property and not as a human being.

But this is not the story 12 Years a Slave tells. Focusing on the deprivation of slaves under a brutal, terrorist regime, it has little about the positive culture of resistance and widespread political organization by blacks against that regime. If a white audience is never really asked to identify with the slave owners in the film and never really forced to ask the question of what we would do if we were in that position, likewise, the film doesn’t give the descendents of slaves much to identify with either. Ironically, here the movie and the book differ. The book includes many in-depth scenes of slave culture and forms of solidarity that the movie leaves out. The book also focuses more intently on the economics of running a plantation including the laws of property ownership and debt that actually keep Northup from getting killed by his master since he is not simply owned but actually is actually part of a network of debt relations among the wealthy elite. In the movie this is dramatized brilliantly (as is described in many of the reviews) when Tibeats tries to kill him, but he is protected by the overseer who leaves him hanging in a noose until the master Ford cuts him down. (Unlike the book, however, the movie does little to explain the contradictory legal structures and economic relations of debt that would cause all this to happen.) Likewise, the book also shows the efficiency of the plantation economy including the use of slaves as overseers. In the movie, this troubling history of black-on-black violence is represented only as the psychotic episode of a drunk master when Epps forces Northup to abuse Patsey, but the movie cuts out the part of the book when Northup is just an ordinary overseer who regularly manages other slaves with his whip. This reality of the lives of slaves was far more morally conflicted and confusing than the movie shows. In other books and movies about slavery, such as Sankofa, this common feature in the ordinary and efficient management of a plantation is presented as a very real political problem and challenge to black solidarity — an important issue for the black communities and audiences during the twentieth-century Civil Rights and Black Power movements to be sure, though not an issue explored with much nuance and understanding in 12 Years a Slave. The challenge of black solidarity was also an important issue for black abolitionists in the nineteenth century such as Fredrick Douglass and Martin Delany, though we never see much evidence of the abolitionist movement and black social networks in the new movie 12 Years a Slave (In contrast, we do see all this in the 1984 version directed by Gordon Parks.) Noticeably, although the original book indicates awareness of the importance of the abolitionist movement and organized resistance to slavery, as well as the challenges of black solidarity within a brutal, contradictory system, the movie emphasizes individual suffering and Northup’s exceptional personality.

What is my point here? I do not mean to detract from the importance of this new movie, which I expect to win the Academy Award for best picture. It’s a brilliantly made film, and probably I will include it in my own teaching of early nineteenth-century literature when I teach Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and many other canonical authors who wrote about the issue of slavery. It may not be the original film on slavery or even the best film on slavery as the reviewers suggest, but it is certainly doing something that no big-budget film has done before (including the winning of the Golden Globe award for best picture already.) My criticism is directed less at the movie itself than at how the mainstream media has presented it to the public. Ultimately, in my view, the movie is a story of a black man who experiences the terrors of slavery and is eventually rescued by a white man (Brad Pitt), instead of the story that black film makers in the 1970s and 1980s were more interested in — the story of black communities working to rescue themselves. Indeed, what is missing from 12 Years a Slave and the mainstream media’s discussion of it is the same historical fact that is missing from Spielberg’s Lincoln (as I wrote about in this blog [see here] and discussed in a public forum [see here]) — and that is the heroic work not of individuals, but of organized communities.

Finfinne Diaries 1 January 2014 “The Last Day”

5 Jan

I am writing this blog post back home in Brooklyn about my last couple days in Oromia-Ethiopia, especially about the afternoon of the last day, when I traveled to the small town of Holeta, about 30 km west of Finfinne/Addis Ababa in the heart of Ethiopia’s industrial-scale agriculture, with a young man named Ebessa who was in the midst of starting his own philanthropy to fight HIV-AIDS and help poor children get an education. Holeta also happens to be the place where Nelson Mandela received some military training just months before his arrest by the South African government, the subject of a new documentary film currently in the midst of production entitled Mandela’s Gun. Ebessa is the older brother of Tesfa, the man who had been our driver the previous two weeks, and my purpose for meeting with him was simply to scout out possible non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with whom my students at Wagner College might do some volunteer work if they visited the country. Earlier that same day, in fact, I had met again with Aster and Lensa of the Gudina Tumsa Foundation (whose site in the arid district of Fantalle I had visited in 2010) to discuss this very same subject over lunch. However, what I thought would be a simple meeting with Ebessa turned out to be a lot more.

The day before (New Year’s Eve day by the European calendar) had been pretty much the usual for me and my wife Maya. My stomach had recovered from whatever it was I ate on Sunday that had caused it so much distress, and I had spent the morning writing a blog post about the previous few days. After a quick lunch at Kaldi’s Coffee — the Ethiopian version of Starbucks (except a whole lot better than Starbucks) named after the fabled goat-herd Kaldi who discovered the coffee plant — Maya and I visited the beautiful campus of Addis Ababa University and the ethnographic museum that is part of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, housed in a building that was once the emperor’s palace. We then had coffee with the scholar Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa, who teaches at Kettering University in Michigan and whom I have met several times in the United States at Oromo Studies Association conferences. He was in Addis to run a short winter-term seminar at the brand new Center for Human Rights at the university, and he gave us a brief tour of the center. He also invited us to come out to see the legendary Oromo pop star Ali Birra give a live show for New Year’s Eve, but Maya and I had already planned a triple date for the evening with my friends Alessandro and Roba and their girlfriends (recently arrived from France and Italy) at a fancy Egyptian restaurant, and I was still not feeling 100% enough after Sunday night’s food-poisoning to attend a late-night concert. Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, all of us on this triple date are in bi-racial relationships, which got me to thinking that if you aren’t in a bi-racial and/or intercontinental relationship, you just may be out of touch with the twenty-first century, ha-ha-ha. Then again, who cares. After this last evening out, I thought that things were tapering off — that the next day I’d just have a couple of meetings, after which Maya and I would have dinner with her grandparents, and then we’d go to the airport for a midnight flight home. But the afternoon turned out to be one of the most interesting afternoons of my whole trip.

Taking notes in HoletaEbessa picked me up from outside the Kaldi’s Coffee by the Bole Madhane Alem Cathedral in an ancient Toyota Corolla he’d rented for our trip from an acquaintance. In the open compartment below the dashboard were some CDs and DVDs that belonged to the car’s owner, including bootlegs of the American TV suspense drama Nikita with sexy pictures of actress Maggie Q on the covers. Ebessa had originally planned to become an evangelical minister, attending the Mekane Yesus Seminary, but his experience as a high school student volunteering to help victims of HIV-AIDS had instilled in him a passion for philanthropy, and so he changed his program of study to management and leadership. He got a job with an NGO working in Holeta, but that program was phased out after two years (as is, unfortunately, far too often the case with such non-governmental programs.) During those two years, he had formed a relationship with the community, and so he decided to start up his own organization that would help poor children go to school. He was currently working with about 80 children (about ten from each of the eight kebeles — or “wards” — of the town) to help them with food security, school supplies, and life-skills. In addition, considering his own experience with short-lived programs, he is already planning for the possibility that his program may not last by setting up a chicken and goat farm that will be owned and operated by the families he works with even after he leaves. After we drove into town, he first first took me far off the main road to this farm, where we met a few of the men and women caretakers. When we left, the caretakers said “ciao” — the Italian word for goodbye, which is how most people say goodbye in Ethiopia. Next, Ebessa took me to visit one of the neighborhoods to visit a couple of the families and their homes. On the way from the farm to the families, we picked up an elementary school teacher named Kidist who works closely with some of the children.

Comin out of house in HoletaIn the pictures uploaded to the blog, you see me, always with my pad and pen, taking notes. On this trip, I learned a lot about Holeta and the “kebele” town organization that I didn’t know before. As is explained in the town’s promotional video that I’ve inserted below, Holeta is a big agricultural area with a government research facility and even a wildlife preserve. For ordinary people in the town, the research center is simply the place where they go to get milk. Holeta and the nearby towns also have many large flower farms owned by foreign corporations, and you will sometimes see Chinese and South Korean writing and flags next to the Oromo and Ethiopian writing and flags. On the one hand, such agribusiness is good for the community, providing thousands of jobs. The parents of the children I met worked for these companies. On the other hand, the families still seemed quite poor, living in small houses with dirt floors, mud walls, and thatch roofs, and the companies did not always follow environmental standards, so the long-term effects on the local ecology (especially the water) is a major issue. From the elementary school where Kidist works, if one looks in one direction, one can see these enormous industrial-sized hot houses, and if one looks in the other direction, one sees the construction of a brand new building for a facility that will train security guards for government embassies. It’s a curious irony that these two things would be within sight of the same school that is itself looking forward to the children’s future.

Holeta with Tibabuu and KidistFurther down the dirt road from the school, we stopped and got out of the car and walked for a bit, passing the kebele office building, which is important for a number of reasons. For those of you unfamiliar with Ethiopian history, a “kebele” is an administrative unit originally set up in the 1970s after the revolution to transform the feudal system of lord-and-tenant farmer into a system of governance by peasant associations. What I learned is how central the kebele office is for the community, as it is the office that allocated the land for the small homes that I visited and it is where families go to get water from the faucet (unless they want to get it from the local creeks, which may or may not be polluted.) If anyone wishes to do business or philanthropy in the neighborhood, or even just visit, one must go through the kebele. I visited just one of the eight kebeles in Holeta. At the first home I visited, I met a small boy named Tibabuu, who showed me the perfect score he received on his math quiz that week.

I left with many questions, and reflecting on my experience now, a few days later, I think that getting a complete picture of the situation would require months of work. One question was a question that Ebessa was himself dealing with, and that is how to create a grass-roots NGO that would be able to sustain itself. Another related question is funding, and a third question is when and how to begin identifying which individuals had HIV-AIDS since it still was a horrible stigma in the community, despite government and church efforts at public education. Lastly, I wondered what my students could usefully do there in the limited span of a week, or if the place would simply be too difficult for them. The promotional video above explains that the name “Holeta Genet” suggests a garden of Eden. It isn’t.

Finfinne Diaries 31 December 2013

31 Dec

There is an old notion about creating your own luck, and another way to put it is that “the more you do, the more you do.” In my case here in the capital city of Ethiopia, each thing that we have done soon led to more opportunities, and so I want to narrate the chain of events to highlight what I perceive to be a cause-and-effect. During the first week in Finfinne/Addis, as I described in my blog back then, my colleagues and I held a public forum about the state of the film industry in Ethiopia. One of the things that I believe this led to was some conversations with some government officials a few days later, as I described in a previous blog post, but in addition to that, another thing that it led to was an invitation to me and Alessandro from the Alitinos young film-makers association to present at one of their regular meetings.

So, on Thursday, the day after Maya and I returned from our trip to Wollega, we had a nice café with Alessandro and a few members of the Alitinos group at old Taitu Hotel (where there is a lot of good modernist art on display) in the Piazza neighborhood and then walked over to the Russian Cultural Center where we gave our presentation. The questions posed to us ranged from academic curricular issues to local question about making film in Ethiopia to the globalization of the film industry, and it was an enjoyable discussion.

Following the discussion, one of the young film-makers invited me and Maya to his “studio” (basically an office in his home) on Saturday afternoon to watch his first film, have lunch, and converse with him and the president of the Alitinos group about film technique. Maya and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I have had some amazing opportunities here in Ethiopia, better than I anticipated, and I look forward to coming back again.

Meanwhile, on Friday, I arranged a brunch meeting with my friends Roba (the coordinator for activities in Ethiopia by the international environmentalist organization Slow Food) and Gammachu (a professor of forestry) so that I could introduce them to each other and begin brainstorming about a possible Sandscribe Communications documentary film on environmental issues. One question we raised was how to make an original movie about the environment. Another was how to involve ordinary people in the making the film so that it expresses their points of view and so that the stakeholders can represent themselves (which, in Ethiopia, also means getting government permission to do that.)

But I don’t want the readers of this blog to think all my time here is just about film-and-media and work. We also are tourists, and we spent Friday afternoon at the National Museum (which I’ve written about before in my other blog [here]), checking out the bones of the first human as well as some pretty amazing modern art, and we spent Saturday morning at the Red Terror Museum (which I’ve written about for the Oromo webzine Ogina [here]) where took an incredible guided tour by someone who had actually been imprisoned and tortured by the military Derg regime in the late 1970s, which was both moving and informative.

Also important on this trip is friends and family, and for fun on Saturday night, we met some friends at the Beer Garden Inn, which is the first German-style brew house to serve its own beer in Ethiopia. On Sunday, we spent the day eating far too much food with Maya’s grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and then went out with her cousin for some young-people’s time at the Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant. This restaurant features live performances of traditional singing and dancing – including the traditional Ethiopian version of “twerking,” and I half-expected to see Miley Cyrus to make an appearance, hahaha. It is also one of the few restaurants that serves the traditional  home-made dhadhi (a.k..a, tej, a.k.a., honey wine or mead.) As you might guess, this place is a popular tourist spot, and half the audience were either white or Asian. The owner of the restaurant is ethnically Gurage, and the performances were quite diverse, representing the cultures of different regions of Ethiopia from western Oromia to southern Sidamo and Gurage as well as the central Shoa and northernTigray. In retrospect, I should have taken my colleagues Jennifer and Stephen to this place for dinner (as was recommended by our driver.) One funny thing is that a lot of it reminded me of the many “culture nights” put on by the Oromo Students Union at different colleges and by International Oromo Youth Association that I’ve attended in Minnesota (and that I’ve blogged about before [here]). They both blended singing and dancing with small skits. One difference is that the restaurant had musicians playing traditional instruments, not recorded or synthesized music, but the bigger difference was the location and audience – one was in Ethiopia and consisted of mostly tourists, and the other was in America and consisted almost entirely or Oromo immigrants. I began to think about this uncanny parallel between the tourist experience and the immigrant experience of traditional culture. Another surprising event was when the performers invited audience members to try to dance, and an Asian man got up on stage and impressed everyone, so later he was crowned “king” of the dance (like a homecoming king) alongside an Ethiopian woman. I noticed that he could actually speak Amharic, and I wondered how many American businessmen in Ethiopia could do that, and while wondering, I also speculated that there may be a reason behind China’s success in Africa. To be honest, I don’t know much about China (though I studied ancient Chinese philosophy and art as an undergraduate and love Chinese cinema), but there was something about the performances and skits at the Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant that reminded me of Japanese skits and musical performance that I saw when I lived in Tokyo for two years. The similarities really struck me, and I see some real opening for cross-cultural connection. In some ways, the more I travel, the more I think that people are basically people, and all this talk of cultural differences and identity politics might  be missing the point. The real differences that I see are differences in wealth and power (and I see those everywhere I go), not culture. On the other hand, the cultural differences are pretty fascinating too.

As you might guess from how this blog post has no focus or theme, our trip is winding down, and I’m a bit ready for home.  After a weekend of food and fun, I got sick and spent Monday in bed. Maya took care of me, and then, at my urging, went shopping with her aunt at the Shiro Meda market. Today we plan to have dinner with a couple of friends (and we might even remember that it’s New Year’s Eve, though we might not, so far away are we from “Western” life right now), and tomorrow I plan to meet with a couple of local NGOs to see about possible volunteer opportunities for my students, and then we board our flight back to New York. This is my last blog post from Finfinne, but I hope to compose a more reflective and theoretical post once I am home in Brooklyn.

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