Sunday, 20 May 2018

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL PUTS THE FOCUS ON ‘OUTSIDERS’


A scene from Rafiki (Friend), which is banned in Kenya. It got a standing
ovation in Cannes. (Photo courtesy of the festival.)

With the usual posse of big-name directors and actors missing from this year’s Cannes Film Festival in southern France, the event created space for cutting-edge films from Asia, Africa, small European states, and the Middle East.

Most of these films put the focus squarely on stories about outsiders, highlighting issues of exclusion, disability, racism and gender inequality (including in the film industry). The result was a festival with some of the most engaging movies in the last five years, alongside the trademark glitz.

The winners in the two main categories of the festival, which ran from May 8 to 19, exemplified the concentration on the underdog. Manbiki Kazoku (Shoplifters) by Japanese director Kore-Eda Hirokazu won the Palme d’Or top prize, from among 21 films, while Gräns (Border), by Iranian-born Danish director Ali Abbasi, was awarded the Un Certain Regard Prize, beating 17 other movies. The latter category recognizes films that stand out for their originality, and many critics agreed Gräns was remarkable.

“We feel that out of 2,000 films considered by the Festival, the 18 we saw in Un Certain Regard, from Argentina to China, were all in their own way winners,” stated the jury, headed by Puerto-Rican actor Benicio Del Toro.

“We were extremely impressed by the high quality of the work presented, but in the end we were the most moved by … five films” (including Gräns), the jury added
A scene from Gräns (photo courtesy of the festival).
Full of suspense, Abbasi’s movie tells the story of a “strange-looking” female customs officer who has a gift for spotting, or sniffing out, travellers trying to hide their contraband and other secrets, and it takes viewers on her journey to discover who she really is.
We see her experiencing verbal abuse from some travellers, and we slowly discover the exploitation she and people like her have suffered, while also learning about her origins, and seeing her fall in love and deal with appalling crime.
Based on a short story by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, and with superb acting, the film combines romance, dark humour and the paranormal to deliver a subtle message about the treatment of people who are different and society’s behaviour towards those most vulnerable, among other subjects.
A second film that won a major award in the Un Certain Regard category also dealt with “difference” and the acceptance of one’s individuality. Girl by Belgian director Lukas Dhont is a first feature about a boy who dreams of becoming a ballerina, exploring the journey of a trans-teen with a passion for dance. Victor Polster, the 15-year-old actor who plays the title role with poignant credibility, won the best actor award, while Girl also won the competition’s Caméra d’Or prize for best first film.
The poster for Rafiki (Friend).
However, Rafiki (Friend), a movie that some critics expected to receive a prize, had to be satisfied with the extended standing ovation it received from viewers at the festival. The film – about love between two young women – is banned in Kenya, despite being the first Kenyan film selected for screening at the festival.
Director Wanuri Kahui said she was moved by the appreciation the film received, telling reporters that people are eager to watch a “joyful” and “modern” African movie, away from the stereotypical images of poverty and disaster.
Regarding the ban, she tweeted in April: “I am incredibly sorry to announce that our film RAFIKI has been banned in Kenya. We believe adult Kenyans are mature and discerning enough to watch local content but their right has been denied.”
Apart from the Palme d’Or winner (about a family of shoplifters), the films that generated widespread buzz in the main competition included Arabic-language Yomeddine, directed by Cairo-born A.B. Shawky, and featuring a leper in Egypt, and BlacKkKlansman, by African-American director Spike Lee, which won the Grand Prix, the second highest honour at the festival.
Yomeddine stood out for its choice of subject and for portraying and employing persons with disabilities. Viewer and British actor Adam Lannon called the film “beautiful and brilliant”, adding that it was “excellent” to see “actors with disabilities working on screen”.
The film’s main character, Beshay, is a man cured of leprosy, but he has never left the leper colony where he has been placed by his family since childhood. When his wife dies, he sets out in search of his roots, with his loyal donkey. He is soon joined by an orphan boy named Obama, whom he has been protecting, although he would rather have been alone.
What follows is an uplifting road movie across Egypt, with a series of tear-jerking encounters on the way and echoes of “Don Quixote”. Shawky’s first feature has some flaws in that certain elements seem too predictable, but he scores overall with his appeal for humanity and inclusion. "It has always been my desire to film the oppressed, the excluded, the journey of someone who pulls through, against all odds," he said in the movie notes.
Director Spike Lee (left). Photo courtesy of the festival.
For Spike Lee, anger at racism comes across clearly in his latest work, which is the story of a real-life African-American policeman who managed to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan in Colorado. Lee incorporated recent events in the United States in the movie, particularly the killing of Heather Heyer as she protested a white-supremacist gathering in Charlottesville.
At his main Cannes press conference, Lee slammed the current U.S. administration, in a speech full of expletives. “We have a guy in the White House … who in a defining moment … was given the chance to say we’re about love and not hate, and that (expletive deleted) did not denounce the Klan,” he told journalists.
Gender issues were also raised at the festival, with the #MeToo and #TimesUp issues never far from movie-watchers’ consciousness, as is the global scarcity of female directors. Only one film directed by a woman (The Piano by Jane Campion) has ever won the Palme d’Or, and women have long been underrepresented at the directorial level.
During the event, 82 women working in the movie sector took over the famous red-carpeted stairs to protest that inequality. Their number was an indication that since the Cannes festival officially began in 1946, following World War II, just 82 movies by women directors have been selected for competition. In contrast, 1,645 films by male directors have been chosen.
Led by the five women on this year’s competition jury, including jury president Cate Blanchett and American director Ava Duvernay, the protest coincided with the screening of Les Filles du Soleil (Girls of the Sun), a movie by French director Eva Husson about a group of female fighters in Kurdistan.
Front cover of the book.
This was just one of several protest events. A few days later, black women working in the French film industry also denounced the lack of quality roles. Sixteen women who have contributed to a book titled Noire n’est pas mon metier (Being black is not my profession) made their voices heard on the red carpet.
“We’re here to denounce a system that has gone on too long,” said Senegalese-born French actress Aïssa Maïga, who described how black actresses tended to be cast only in certain roles.
Among the three women directors in the main competition, Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki took home the biggest award - the Prix du Jury for Capharnaüm, about a boy who sues his parents for bringing him into the world.
In a moving speech, Labaki called for everyone to do more to protect children and ensure their education.
“Loveless childhood is the root of all suffering in the world,” she said.
By the time the festival wrapped up with a performance from singers Sting and Shaggy on May 19 (the same day as the royal wedding in England), it seemed that both filmmakers and the public were yearning for lasting change, and different stories.
Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Monday, 30 April 2018

GUADELOUPE SHOWS CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS IN PARIS

In a new cultural initiative, works by established and emerging artists from Guadeloupe are on vibrant display in Paris, highlighting the artistic talent in the French Caribbean region.

Freedom by Ronald Cyrille (mixed media on canvas),
200 x 144 cm. Photo copyright D. Dabriou.
The show is the first in a planned series titled Éclats d'îles (Island Bursts), “initiated by Guadeloupe and the regional President Ary Chalus”, according to A2Z Art Gallery, which is hosting the exhibition.
The series will be held throughout 2018, presenting the works of contemporary artists from the various islands that form the French overseas department, in collaboration with the Krystel Ann Art agency.
“This project, which is a real commitment to the field of arts and culture in the region, aims to give visibility to Guadeloupe artists beyond the local territory,” A2Z stated. “The gallery takes enormous pleasure and is extremely proud to reveal to the public, the universe of these selected talents, throughout these exhibitions.”
Under the patronage of renowned Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé, the current show presents the works of six artists, whose different styles make for a rich viewing experience. The artwork was selected “on the basis of the aesthetical properties, the questioning of Antillian identity by the artists, their representation and creative vivaciousness”, according to the gallery.
Among the artists is the 33-year-old rising star Ronald Cyrille, who has won a number of "young-talent" awards. After attending art school in Martinique, he launched his career doing street art in Guadeloupe, and got noticed by gallery owners and curators. He still does street murals, alongside his studio work of paintings, collages and sculptures, and he has become  known for his daring, striking symbolism - mixing images of animals and humans to pose questions about Caribbean identity, societal violence and art itself. SWAN spoke to Cyrille after the opening of the show on April 26 (it runs until May 9) about his background and creative process. The interview is translated from French.
Artist Ronald Cyrille (photo by A. McKenzie).
SWAN: How did you start painting?
Ronald Cyrille: I started when I was a child, first with cartoon characters such as Picsou, Dragon Ball Z, Mickey, Ninja Turtles and others of this kind. I loved to represent things by trying to make them as faithful to the original as possible. Over time, I began to move away from this while keeping some characters from this universe that allow me a certain singularity in my art. I actually use different techniques now, which can be installation, sculpture, drawing or painting.
SWAN: One of your main themes is freedom. How do you choose your subjects?
R.C.: I’ve been developing certain questions based on a personal way of thinking - across creolisation, legends and stories that nourish my imagination as well as my artistic vocabulary. In my work, the violence in contemporary society is something that echoes my cultural heritage, tied to the Caribbean, Africa and Europe.
And yes, I’m quite free in my choice of subjects. Painting allows you to dream and to travel in your mind, in your imagination. In fact, one of the works on exhibition at Éclats d’îles is titled "Freedom". I’m also inspired by the thoughts of some of our writers such as Aimé Césaire, and also Édouard Glissant through his concept of “Tout Monde” and creolisation.
SWAN: Can you tell us about the media that you use?
R.C.: I often use different techniques, depending on the work I envisage. I think technique is like a toolbox for artists, allowing them to experiment or create things according to their need. The techniques or media can be mixed or might be acrylic, spray paint, pencil, etc.
SWAN: Does your mixed Caribbean background (parents from Guadeloupe and Dominica) influence your work?
R.C.: Yes, I think so. It’s a double richness. So naturally my vision is not limited to Guadeloupe but reflect a need to question our differences as much as our similarities, as a kind of cultural wealth. And despite our insularity, Guadeloupe and the Caribbean are a part of the world.
SWAN: How do you feel about this exhibition in Paris?
R.C.: I think that it’s a beautiful experience and that this kind of action should be multiplied so that our artists can be better known and people can see the diversity and singularity of the Guadeloupean (Caribbean) aesthetic.
Our artists often lack visibility and recognition in mainland France. Fortunately things are gradually changing, pushing us beyond this insularity. I think that people have greatly appreciated my artwork and that of my compatriots, and that they have travelled via the works.
SWAN: Please tell us about your other shows in France.
R.C.: Last year, I took part in an exhibition in Bagneux (a commune south of Paris) titled “Mémoires Caraïbes”, with artists who were very representative of the Caribbean. The town acquired two of my grand-format drawings.
I've also exhibited at Memorial ACTe (centre for the memory of slavery) and, following a one-month residency in Sainte-Rose (a commune in Guadeloupe) from Feb. 5 to March 5 this year, I'm presenting an exhibition at the Habitation la Ramee titled “Traces d’hier et empreintes d’aujourd’hui” (Traces of Yesterday and Footprints of Today).  It comprises 43 new works created during this period. They include drawings, sculptures, paintings and installations, and the show runs until June 29.
SWAN: What are your views on the art scene in the French Caribbean?
R.C.: I believe that we are very creative and could have a firm presence in the world of arts, like Haiti, Cuba or Jamaica. We have to develop our market by supporting the sector and finding our place. My generation is very dynamic and audacious.
SWAN: How do you see your work evolving? What are your plans for the future?
R.C.: I’m increasingly trying to teach myself to live in the present. Meanwhile, I continue to create and to increase the number of collaborations in the Caribbean and beyond. In the years to come, I would like to find a good gallery or a good art dealer, participate in some biennales and have more frequent access to a certain number of artistic events. For the moment, I do realize that things are moving in the right direction.
The first edition of Éclats d'îles runs until May 9, 2018, at A2Z Art Gallery, Paris. The six artists represented are: Joël Nankin, Alain Josephine, Nicolas Nabajoth, Anaïs Verspan, Ronald Cyrille, So Aguessy Roaboteur.
You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale.

Monday, 9 April 2018

EXPO: ‘AFRO-TECH AND THE FUTURE OF RE-INVENTION'

By Tobias Schlosser

In the imagination of the “Global North”, Africa is often pictured as an “underdeveloped” continent marked by poverty and conflict. The exhibition “Afro-Tech and the Future of Re-Invention” in Dortmund, Germany, challenges this stereotypical image, however, and presents the continent as one full of resources, especially with regards to art and science, and their interconnectedness.

Representing 22 countries, the show - now in its final weeks - comprises 20 Afrofuturistic artistic perspectives and 12 technological projects from Africa. The public may see these as technological productions to be contrasted or compared with devices from “Western” societies.

The poster for "Afro-Tech and the Future of Re-Invention",
Design: KoeperHerfurth.
One innovation from Cameroon, for example, is called the “CardioPad” and has medical sensors attached to a tablet. Non-experts can use “Cardiopad” to carry out medical examinations which will be analysed by doctors from a distance.

This invention can be handy in rural areas as it saves time, travel and expense, and balances out infrastructural inequalities that limit access to medical facilities.
Secondly, the South African company “Robohand”, founded by machine artist Ivan Oven and carpenter Richard van As, creates designs and software that can be used to manufacture medical prostheses via 3-D-printers. In this way, people who need prostheses of fingers, hands, arms or even legs now have an Open Source to get their prostheses at incredibly low cost, no matter where they live.
In addition, the exhibition shows that Kiira Motors Corporation has developed a solar-energy bus that has the capacity to run for the whole day without being recharged, thanks to its lithium-ion batteries. With that sustainable invention, Uganda’s cities could become less polluted and noisy. These are only three of the striking technological concepts on display.
The artistic perspectives of “Afro-Tech” are based meanwhile on the concept of Afrofuturism in which a future is imagined where inequalities no longer exist. However, due to new forms of technology and digitalisation, the future visions also detect possible dangers, and function as a warning for certain issues such as ecological disasters or new forms of exclusion and marginalisation.
The artistic media range from photographs, (short) films, documentaries and a video cycle that celebrates the works of jazz musician Sun Ra, to a music station where visitors can explore the sounds of the iconic techno music duo Drexciya - who tell the myth of a black Atlantis. The music playlist contains music from “canonical” Afrofuturistic artists such as American singers Erykah Badu and Janelle Monáe as well as Jamaican dub musician and producer Lee “Scratch” Perry.
An installation at the "Afro-Tech" exhibition.
Photo: Woidich Hannes.
Some of the documentaries screened at “Afro-Tech” are challenging and quite avant-gardist, such as the almost 20-minute-long video “Deep down Tidal” (2017) by Guyanese-Danish artist and activist Tabita Rezaire. The video puts forward the argument that in a postcolonial world where there is no space left to be conquered, electronic space is created that everyone depends on, so it can be colonised.
The view is that the Internet does not create equality, but gives room for racism, homophobia and transphobia with its “architecture of violence”. This examination is underscored by the fact that the fibre-optic cables which are under the Atlantic Ocean serve to facilitate the exchange of Eurocentric knowledge within the “Global North” and they are exactly the same routes used during the slave trade.
Thus, the ocean or water reminds one of every historical deed because it bore witness to earlier crimes and now it sees how neo-colonial routes are being established. This circular approach to time indeed rules many Afrofuturistic oeuvres (the form of exclusion may vary, but the politics of exclusion remains), and it works against cultural amnesia.
“Water is a communication interface. Water will download your secrets.” – Statement from the documentary “Deep Down Tidal” (2017) by Tabita Rezaire
These mechanisms of marginalisation are also the reason why some of the artistic positions seem quite apocalyptic. The photo-series “The Prophecy” by Belgian-Beninese photographer Fabrice Monteiro shows spirits of the Earth who demonstrate the consequences of pollution in a disturbingly dystopian way. Here, an animistic world-view is used as a warning.
Wangechi Mutu's The End of eating Everything, 2013.
Copyright Wangechi Mutu. Courtesy of the artist.
The same applies to the short film “The End of eating Everything” (2013), created by Kenyan visual artist Wangechi Mutu in cooperation with US-American R’n’B singer Santigold. The film portrays the Earth as both a ship and a monster which is run only by consumption, greed and a total loss of control. It is eating up everything that is still living and poisons the atmosphere with its exhaust fumes before its destruction and rebirth.
Besides these alarming visions, the exhibition highlights rebellion and resistance. Based on the Rastafari philosophy, the Italian artist and activist Jaromil (Denis Roio) designed an operating system called “Rastasoft” which can be downloaded for free and which is not controlled by commercial interests of the conventional operating systems. People are thus not forced to spend money in order to have a system which allows them to publish online.
Having the real innovations on one side and the dystopian visions of a final destruction of the planet on the other, the exhibition “Afro-Tech” leaves no doubt that there is a thin line between use and misuse, between emancipation and discrimination, and between chances and the politics of exclusion.
Emphasising the interconnectedness between futuristic and artistic visions and the inventions coming from Africa, the exhibition further illustrates that the future has already started. In that sense, "Afro-Tech" presents not only a future of re-invention - as the title of the exhibition indicates - it promotes a re-imagination of Africa as a continent full of technological and artistic resources.
“Afro-Tech and the Future of Re-Invention” runs until April 22, 2018, and can be seen at “Dortmunder U”, a centre for art and creativity. It is organized by the German multi-award- winning art club HMKV (Hartware MedienKunstVerein), in cooperation with the regional association “Regionalverband Ruhr” (RVR) and the association Africa Positive e.V.
For more information:
Tobias Schlosser is a writer, researcher and expert drink-maker, based in Germany. He thanks Steven Rattey for his enthusiasm and expert knowledge about science-fiction and futuristic art. Without it, this article wouldn’t have been possible.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

A 'TEMPEST' OF QUOTING, REWRITING AND TRANSLATING

The acclaimed Martinican writer and politician Aimé Césaire, one of the founders of the négritude movement, passed away 10 years ago at the age of 94, in April 2008. His literary works, however, have never ceased to provoke thought and discussion, and they are being increasingly read and examined to discover explicit and implicit meanings.

In a new article, scholar and translator Giuseppe Sofo has analysed Césaire’s Une tempête, a postcolonial rewriting of, or response to, Shakespeare’s The Tempest that was published for the first time 50 years ago by the pioneering publishing house Présence Africaine, in 1968, and then by Seuil the following year.
 The cover of Une tempête.
In the article, Sofo reads Césaire’s Une tempête in parallel with the French translation of The Tempest that was done by François-Victor Hugo and published in 1859 - to prove the influence of this translation on Césaire’s text. Incorporating other French translations in his research, Sofo highlights how the relationship between original text and rewriting - and between translation and rewriting - has influenced the evolution of Césaire’s text.
The research emphasizes the significant role of translation in the literary system, and especially in the reception of a text by the public. It also aims to show that Césaire’s work is the fruit of a “double derivation”, since it is both linked to Shakespeare’s text and to Hugo’s translation of that text.
Readers can access Sofo's full article in French at: 

Citation, réécriture et traduction :
Une tempête d’Aimé Césaire et les traductions françaises de Shakespeare
Aimé Césaire est décédé il y a dix ans, en avril 2008, à l’âge de 94 ans. Son œuvre littéraire n’a pourtant jamais cessé de produire de la pensée, et elle est de plus en plus lue et examinée pour découvrir toutes les significations explicites et implicites impliquées dans ses textes.
Le texte au centre de cet article par Giuseppe Sofo est Une tempête, réécriture postcoloniale de La Tempête de Shakespeare, publiée pour la première fois il y a cinquante ans, par Présence Africaine, en 1968, puis par Seuil en 1969. Dans cet article, Sofo lira Une tempête de Césaire en parallèle avec la traduction de La Tempête par François-Victor Hugo, publiée en 1859, dont on montrera l’influence sur le texte de Césaire, et d’autres traductions françaises, pour souligner comment la relation entre texte original et réécriture – et entre traduction et réécriture – a influencé l’évolution du texte.
Cela nous aidera à souligner l’importance du rôle de la traduction dans le système littéraire, et surtout dans la réception d’un texte par le public et à montrer que l’œuvre de Césaire est le fruit d’une double dérivation, puisqu’elle est à la fois le fruit de l’œuvre de Shakespeare et celui de la traduction d’Hugo.
SWAN propose un lien pour trouver l’article complet de Giuseppe Sofo:

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale. For tweets about the translation of Caribbean writing, please follow @CaribTranslate.

Monday, 19 March 2018

WRITERS TALK LITERARY ACTIVISM AT PARIS BOOK FAIR

The 2018 Paris Book Fair (Livre Paris) took place against the backdrop of demonstrations in Mayotte that echoed similar protests a year ago in French Guiana, putting the topics of literary activism and popular disaffection high on the agenda at the March 16-19 event.

Literary representatives from French Guiana at Livre Paris.
Writers from France’s overseas regions and departments, which include Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, spoke out about their role and contribution to French literature, highlighting the social and economic conditions in their territories.
Launching an anthology of short stories titled Guyane: Nou gon ké sa (We're fed up), Guyanese authors said they felt compelled to address on-going struggles.
“The demonstrations were for better security, healthcare, infrastructure, transportation, all of which affects everybody,” said Joël Roy, one of the contributors. “Writers aren’t separate from this.”
In March 2017, strikes and protests in Guiana blocked streets, caused the temporary closure of schools and some businesses, and delayed the launch of a rocket from the aerospace centre that is run by France and the European Space Agency.
Reports of the demonstrations filled the airwaves in mainland France, with some commentators making it seem as if the population was being unreasonable (“We can’t keep sending money there,” said one Parisian). But writers have been among those spotlighting the hypocrisy in government policy, where money can be found to launch rockets but not to improve access to healthcare or to control crime.
Tchisseka Lobelt, founder of Promolivres, French Guiana.
French President Emmanuel Macron eventually visited Guiana to address the concerns of the 250,000 residents, and to make a number of pledges; but there was no political representation at the launch of Nou gon ké sa in Paris, despite invitations having been extended, said Tchisséka Lobelt, who chaired the literary panel at the fair.
While the authors and activists present (such as Sylviane Vayaboury and France Nay) evoked the grievances and injustice that led to the protests, they aren’t just waiting around for political support, although this would be welcome.
Lobelt, for instance, is one of the movers behind promoting the literature of Guiana and providing a platform for writers. In 1996, she founded an association called Promolivres, which in turn created the Salon du Livre de Cayenne - a biennial book fair that had its 10th “edition” last November.
The Salon attracts participants from neighbouring countries such as Brazil and Suriname, and the 2017 “guest of honour” was Colombia.
For Lobelt, intra-regional literary cooperation is important, and she believes translation can help to pave the way for readers to know more about the literature of France’s overseas departments and regions.
A new anthology of stories by writers
from French Guiana.
“Translation is key, and we have to develop a real policy to get books translated from French and Creole into other regional languages and vice versa,” she told SWAN.
Anglophone Caribbean writers such as Guyana’s Pauline Melville and Jamaica’s Alecia McKenzie (founder of the Caribbean Translation Project, and SWAN’s editor) have been able to participate in the Cayenne book fair because of translation, Lobelt said. Both have been winners of the Prix Carbet des lycéens, a prize awarded by French high-school students in Guadeloupe, Guiana, Martinique and (now) London.
In addition, French writer Jean-François Tifiou, who has written an absorbing and well-researched book about the women prisoners sent to Guiana when it was a notorious French penal colony, is looking at getting his work translated into English and Spanish. Tifiou visited schools in the region to present De Quimper à Cayenne (From Quimper to Cayenne), and many readers believe that the book deserves to be more widely known.
“Even if we translated one book per year, that would already be something,” said Lobelt. “We can do a lot on our own, but we still need institutional help.”
At the Paris Book Fair, the French “Outre-Mer” Ministry emphasized support for writers and publishers from the overseas departments and regions, which are traditionally grouped at a special pavilion. The ministry cited the international stature and unique “witnessing” of writers such as Maryse Condé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Aimé Césaire, among others.
A visitor checks out some titles at Livre Paris.
“Literature from the overseas departments has a true specificity, far from clichés and stereotypes,” said an official brochure. “As Chantal Spitz (Tahiti) has declared: ‘My country is not a postcard’.”
This was certainly borne out by some of the debates at Livre Paris (which, uncomfortably, had Russia as the 2018 “guest of honour”).
More than anything, what was notable was that many writers and publishing professionals seemed determined to open the eyes of those who would perhaps prefer not to see certain social situations.

For more information about current events in Mayotte and French Guiana, please see: 

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

REVIEW: WHEN 'WITCHES' ARE NOT LIKE HARRY POTTER

By Dimitri Keramitas

I Am Not a Witch is Rungano Nyoni’s provocatively titled first film, which had a Paris screening at the 2017 Amnesty International Human Rights Film Festival. It depicts the scarifying progress of a young girl accused of witchcraft in a rural African country, presumably in southern Africa, although this isn’t entirely clear; but the vagueness lends the film a fable-like quality.

The poster for I Am Not a Witch.
In the same way, we don’t know where the young girl Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) comes from, or why she appears out of nowhere. Local police, acting on the complaints of the community, put Shula into a camp of other witches - or would-be witches - which seems little more than a forced-labour group.

One can’t help thinking of Harry Potter, although I Am Not a Witch reminds us that throughout the history of the persecution of alleged witchcraft, it was overwhelmingly women who were accused. The film brings home the oddness of the Rowling franchise:  although written by a woman (her gender muffled if not masked by those famous two initials), the book’s hero is male, as are most of its main characters. In Nyoni’s film, all the alleged witches are female.

Shula is a child, but the others tend to be elderly, bringing home that other object of witch persecution - the aged, when they’re not in a protected family context. Instead of riding around on brooms and playing flying games, the African witches are tethered to ribbons wherever they go, so they won’t escape (otherwise they may turn into goats).

Furthermore, instead of being comfortably ensconced in a Hogwarts-like institution and making friends, Shula is trundled from place to place to work. She’s adopted by the older women, but still feels achingly alone. Eventually a father figure appears, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), a jovially corrupt government official who exploits the women’s labour. When Mr. Banda observes how Shula acquires some celebrity after using her supposedly clairvoyant abilities to discover a thief (who may or may not be guilty), he takes her under his wing. He protects and cozens her, but also uses her newfound celebrity. Here the film takes a turn to satire, which broadens its concerns but loosens its focus on Shula.

The loneliness of the outsider: a scene from the film.
All the actors in I Am Not a Witch are natural and convincing. Maggie Mulubwa as Shula has a stark presence, and is as assured as Quvenzhané Wallis, the young star of Beasts of  the Southern Wild. The other witches appear to be non-actors - like figures from a documentary rather than a fiction film.

If the movie is a bracing corrective to pop fictions about witchcraft, it also makes us think of the reality of people being accused of practising witchcraft. On the African continent and in India, this has become an improbable 21st-century outrage. Many women have been lynched or hounded from their homes because they were thought to have done supernatural harm to their alleged victims. This is in addition to a veritable melting-pot of the irrationally persecuted: albinos (whose body parts are supposed to have magical powers), so-called heretics (e.g. minority Muslim sects in Turkey and Indonesia) and so-called pagans (such as the Yazidi in Iraq).

I Am Not a Witch touches on these. There’s a harrowing scene where Mr. Banda’s trophy wife (also a witch) goes shopping at a supermart and is hassled by a crowd that looks like it might turn violent. The director also offers a glimpse of a couple of albino children. But she doesn’t follow up on these, and more importantly she doesn’t take the central story of Shula to its logical conclusion. “I am not a witch” turns out not to be a desperate plea or a defiant cry, but merely a young girl’s assertion of her selfhood. We expected more. Aside from easy satire of politics and pop culture, there’s an ostensibly tragic development which somehow makes tragedy seem facile.

Transporting the "witches" in I Am Not a Witch.
Nyoni’s direction is smooth, whether for panoramic shots of the African landscape or arresting close-ups of her characters. For a first film, there’s not a ragged sequence in it. This is something we miss at times, for the stumbling moments in a neophyte director’s work are often the cracks that let in genuine emotion. The lack here is underlined by the classical theme music that turns certain scenes into sentimental interludes.

In the end credits, we see that aside from the writer-director (who was born in Zambia, grew up in Wales and now lives in Portugal) and the principal cast, almost all of the technicians and other participants are of European origin. The sources of financing were also European. The production and distribution of the film - ditto. If what has been sold as an African work of film art is in fact overwhelmingly European, it’s no surprise if it’s been co-opted into a conventional, slick Western aesthetic and vision. Ultimately, I Am Not a Witch may be less an exploration of a social phenomenon in some parts of the world than a parable about itself.

Production: Arte Film Prize, BFI Film Fund, Clandestine Films, Film 4, Soda Pictures, unafilm. Distribution: Pyramide Distribution (France).

Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based writer and legal expert.

Friday, 9 February 2018

CABO VERDEAN SINGER LUCIBELA DELIVERS RICH DEBUT

The name “Lucibela” conjures up an idea of beauty and light, and listeners may think the same of this Cabo Verdean artist’s music. 
The 13 tracks on her first album, Laço umbilical, reveal her extraordinary vocal technique, which “lies in her ability to explore the deep register of Brazil’s great sambistas while adding a thrilling vibrato”, according to one critic.
Born in 1986 on São Nicolau, one of the Barlavento islands lying to the north of the Cabo Verdean archipelago, Lucibela grew up in São Vincente (known for the Port of Mindelo and for being the birthplace of icon Cesaria Evora). Her music correspondingly reveals various influences.  
Lucibela says she has always loved bossa-nova, and this is clear from the album, but she grew up listening as well to Brazilian pop, rock and jazz - music she performed herself as a teenager in her first group, when she had to earn a living following her mother's death.
Her audience in the hotels and bars in Mindelo wanted to hear more “customary” music, however, and she became versed in that too. Her label Lusafrica, which produced Evora’s albums, says Lucibela learned the late singer’s repertoire, which she performed alongside her own.
Although she now lives in Portugal, Laço umbilical is meant to be the cord that links her to Cabo Verde. She sings about issues such as relationships, what it means to be a woman from the islands, and how if feels to be living far away.

From the traditional and upbeat “Chica di Nha Maninha” to the slow, poignant title track, the rich and diverse rhythms of her homeland are there in all the songs, but  Lucibela still manages to forge her own sound. Recommended.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

BOOKSHOPS AND RACE: NIGERIAN WRITER SPEAKS OUT

“Are there bookshops in Nigeria?” asked a French journalist of famous Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, igniting  a firestorm on social media following an event in Paris on Jan. 25.

Many outraged observers accused the journalist of racism and ignorance, while lauding Adichie’s response.

“I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you have to ask this question. Come on, it’s 2018,” Adichie replied, after the journalist qualified her question by saying French people knew little about Nigeria, apart from hearing about Boko Haram and violence.

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
(Photo: V. Lebrun-Verguethen)
The exchange took place at a public event held at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the third government-sponsored Night of Ideas (Nuit des Idées), whose goal is to “celebrate the stream of ideas between countries, cultures, topics and generations”, according to the organizers.

Adichie, one of  Africa's leading authors, was the headliner or “Ambassador” of the “Night”, which comprised several discussions around France and in other countries.

As an international “icon of feminism”, and a bestselling writer, she was expected to speak about global issues affecting women, but her insightful comments on a range of topics got lost in the firestorm of protest that followed the “bookshop” question.

Many of those who posted about the interview had evidently seen it from secondary sources, and they spread information that the journalist had asked about “libraries” rather than “bookshops” (for which the French word is “librairies”). Summaries of the question and response were re-tweeted thousands of times.

Adichie, author of the novels Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun as well as the book-length essay We Should All be Feminists, later said on her Facebook page that she did not expect a French person to know almost everything about Nigeria.

“But to be asked to ‘tell French people that you have bookshops in Nigeria because they don’t know’ is to cater to a wilfully retrograde idea - that Africa is so apart, so pathologically ‘different,’ that a non-African cannot make reasonable assumptions about life there.

“I am a Nigerian writer whose early education was in Nigeria. It is reasonable to expect that Nigeria has at least one bookshop, since my books are read there,” she added.

Hundreds listen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
at The Night of Ideas, Paris. (Photo: V. Lebrun-Verguethen)
“Bookshops are in decline all over the world. And that is worth discussing and mourning and hopefully changing. But the question ‘are there bookshops in Nigeria’ was not about that. It was about giving legitimacy to a deliberate, entitled, tiresome, sweeping, base ignorance about Africa. And I do not have the patience for that,” she posted.

“That said, the journalist Caroline Broué was intelligent, thoughtful and well-prepared. When she asked the question, I was taken aback because it was far below the intellectual register of her previous questions,” said Adichie in the Facebook post.

After the event, Broué told SWAN that her question was “badly formulated”, as she had been attempting irony,  trying to convey how little information is given about countries such as Nigeria. She was clearly embarrassed and surprised by the strong reaction.

For many in the diverse audience, the question was just proof of how white Europeans regard those of African origin. “This is not something you can ask, no matter what,” said one spectator following the interview. “It’s just stereotyping as usual.”

While most of the reports about the Nuit des Idées focused on this aspect, Adichie in fact spoke out on various subjects, including the role of literature, the treatment of refugees, and society’s expectations of girls and boys.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie listens,
as she's introduced at the Night of Ideas.
(Photo: V. Lebrun-Verguethen)
“I think words matter,” Adichie said, when asked about the impact of writing. “I think words can make change ... storytelling is very important.”

She said that telling the stories of refugees, for instance, could help to change perspectives. “The discourse on refugees, especially on this continent, it seems to me that it’s so dehumanising,” she told the audience, adding that everyone should try to put themselves in the place of “people who are seeking better lives, better homes”.

On the subject of “African literature”, Adichie said that although she sees herself in the tradition of writing from the continent, “it’s not so much the labels as the value we give to them”.

“Sometimes I’m asked if I’m an African writer, and when I’m in a bad mood, I say ‘no’,” she joked. “We tend to read African literature not as literature but as anthropology. African writers write books, they write literature.”

Regarding feminism, Adichie said she had a pragmatic approach. “For me, it’s really about how do we change things ... and sometimes it’s about incremental change,” she said.

“I think feminism is about men and women,” she added, describing her impressions of how society treats girls and boys. She said that watching her daughter at playgrounds, she saw that “little boys get more room to fail and to fall”.

Society shapes men just as it shapes women, according to Adichie, and the idea of masculinity needs to be changed. “Let the boy cry. Expect him to cry,” she said. Meanwhile, parents should raise girls to “reject likeability.”

“It’s girls that we raise to think they have to be liked,” the writer said. “Where is the damn anger?”

She described feminism as being “about equality” and said that In terms of gender, "we should look at people as people".

“I don’t want my well-being to depend on a man’s kindness. I want my well-being to depend on being a human in the world,” she declared.

Regarding racism in different parts of the world, she said countries should look in their own backyards. While many Europeans preferred to focus on racism in the United States, she said it was essential to discuss it wherever it occurred.

In France, for instance, she described “unpleasant experiences with immigration” where people of African origin are “treated with a kind of contempt”.

“All human beings really deserve equal dignity, and it shouldn’t depend on the passport that we carry,” Adichie said. - SWAN

UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, a new discussion has been raging about Adichie's comments on postolonial theory. In response to a question, she replied: "Postcolonial theory? I don't know what it means. I think it is something that professors made up because they needed to get jobs."

See:
www.rocketnews.com/2018/02/french-racism-anxiety-and-love-for-postcolonialism

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale