Thursday, 10 August 2017

MOVING ON, EXPO ON JAMAICAN MUSIC LEAVES ITS MARK

The Jamaica Jamaica! exhibition: in Paris but departing soon. (SWAN)
As travellers stream through the Gare du Nord train station in Paris, they can’t help but notice several huge placards featuring musicians in an array of poses and distinctive clothing.

Those who stop to examine the images more closely learn that the posters are ads for the blockbuster Jamaica Jamaica! exhibition, now in its final days at the Philharmonie de Paris, a cultural institution within Paris’ immense Cité de la Musique complex in the northeast of the French capital.

A worker stands before a placard at the train station.
The exhibition is France’s first large-scale presentation on the history and impact of Jamaican music, and it has attracted thousands of visitors since it began in April at the Philharmonie, which focuses on music in all its forms.

As the show winds down and gets ready to move on, it is still pulling in viewers, thanks to ads such as those at the station (including on the monitors showing departures and arrivals) and  to special events such as workshops and meetings.

In fact, on Aug. 8, the exhibition was the venue for a reception hosted by the Embassy of Jamaica, to mark the island’s 55th anniversary of independence from Britain.

“The exhibition not only showcases Jamaica's rich musical heritage from mento to ska to reggae and dancehall, it is also about Jamaica's political history, our journey from colonialism to independence as well as the post-independence period ,” said Ambassador Vilma McNish, who welcomed a group of France-based Jamaicans to the Philharmonie, some of whom were seeing the exhibition for the second or even the third time.

Nyabinghi percussion - some of the instruments on display.
“Each visit teaches you something new, as you take note of some exhibits you hadn’t seen before,” McNish added.

For many visitors, one of the most notable aspects of Jamaica Jamaica! is the care that the organizers have taken to go beyond reggae and to give an overall view of the history of Jamaican music, tracing it back to its African roots.

This is achieved while also highlighting the unquestionable contributions of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Jimmy Cliff, the I-Threes and other renowned artists and producers.

“We wanted to show the culture as well as the music and to show that Jamaican music is an important part of the history of the Black Atlantic,” said exhibition project manager Marion Challier, in an interview prior to the opening.

“There are so many stereotypes about the music and so many stigmas attached and we wanted to go beyond that.”
Challier and curator Sébastien Carayol have also focused on the role that art and literature play in portraying the music, with works by master painters such as Kapo and Barrington Watson on display, alongside portraits of musicians by Danny Coxson (see: http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/03/france-hosts-major-exhibition-on-jamaican-music/)
Photos of Bob Marley at Jamaica Jamaica!
In the centre’s bookstore, a wide range of books by Jamaican and other writers (in English and French) are also on sale, many of them dealing with various aspects of reggae and Jamaican culture in general.

But the show naturally contains elements that haven’t pleased everyone. Some visitors have questioned the prominence given to dancehall towards the end of the display, wondering if the less-admirable facets of the music should be the image that spectators take with them as they leave the exhibition.

The wording on some of the panels accompanying the exhibits has also caused puzzlement. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, for instance, is described as seeing The Wailers’ “strong export potential” in the following terms: the “lead singer was, ideally, mixed-race and able to tone down his Jamaican accent when necessary”.

Despite such factors, the exhibition’s unprecedented scope and its impressive assemblage of instruments, records, artwork and film footage have done much to highlight the richness of Jamaican music and the global reach that it has achieved.

The show ends Aug. 13, and the organizers say they hope parts of it will travel to other major cities ... perhaps even via the Gare du Nord. The dream, too, is that it will one day reach Jamaica.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

STUDENTS SEND SOCIAL MESSAGE THROUGH MOVEMENT

Members of Campion College Dance Society in "Roots"

Dance has long been a potent force among the arts in Jamaica, with pioneering companies such as Rex Nettleford’s National Dance Theatre Company holding a mirror up to society and promoting Caribbean culture.

Now students are taking the genre to a whole new level with powerful, socially relevant performances.

The island’s top high school, Campion College, is one of the institutions leading the way. Now in its seventh season, the school’s Dance Society performed to packed audiences in Kingston this month with their “Roots” production, which addressed issues such as violence against women and the challenges young people face in building confidence and self-esteem.

Comprising riveting choreography, vibrant costumes, ingenious stage sets, and an eclectic selection of music, the show at the landmark Little Theatre equally referenced Jamaica’s 55th anniversary of independence from Britain. Dancers wearing the colours of the flag – black, green and gold – leapt through the air as they portrayed the country’s tradition of sporting excellence, in a piece entitled “In Our Lane”, choreographed by Renee McDonald.

Of the pieces performed, however, perhaps the most memorable was a depiction of gender-based violence, and an appeal for it to end. This segment, titled “Misogyny (2017)” featured a mesmeric solo by Shade Thaxter, depicting a strong young woman with her future stretching before her. Then came a shocking scene that brought home the extent to which young people, both girls and boys, are affected by the level of aggression in the society.

The music for this work employed lyrics from the poem “Phenomenal Woman” by American writer Maya Angelou, as well as excerpts of the song “Strength of a Woman” by Jamaican performer Shaggy.

Despite the sombre moments, “Roots” overall was an infectious celebration - of heritage, ancestry, culture, and the numerous achievements of a young nation. 

According to Principal Grace Baston, the students “as much as possible are involved in the creative process with the selection of themes and the music”, under the guidance of artistic director Dwright Wright, a teacher at the school.

“In this ... year, we are being called to reflect on origins, those of our Dance Society as well as those of our nation – hence the most apt title ‘Roots’,” Baston said.

The 64 dancers in the troupe range in age from 11 to 20 years old. For “Roots”, the artistic team and resident choreographers included Oraine Frater and Orville McFarlane, both dancers with the L'Acadco Dance Company, another strong professional company in Jamaica.

Guest choreographers were Marlon Simms from the NDTC as well as Steven Cornwall and Chester Jones, both freelance dancehall choreographers. Their segment used popular grooves to express joyfulness and liberation, rather than the so-called "slackness" for which dancehall has become known.

Superb stage lighting that enhanced the dances was created by Baston’s husband Robin – an architect and theatre director. He oversaw the technical aspects of the production, and his manipulation of the sets added to the show’s impact.

The Campion College Dance Society’s stated mission is to “bridge mind and body through dance”, but with their performances, they go beyond this, inviting the audience on a journey of reflection and discovery, as they build on Jamaica’s dance tradition.

“We can send messages through movement,” Wright said.

At the end of the final show, both he and Baston paid tribute to Rex Nettleford who founded the NDTC in 1962 (the year that Jamaica gained its independence) and to current artistic director Barry Moncrieffe. Some of Campion’s dancing grads have already found a home in that iconic company. 

The flyer for the production.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

HAITIAN ART, CULTURE CELEBRATED AT PARIS FESTIVAL

Seemingly to make participants feel at home, temperatures soared to 37 degrees as a festival of Haitian art and culture began in Paris.

Organiser Josette Bruffaerts-Thomas
“Haϊti aux Grands Voisins” was launched on June 21, during France’s annual Fête de la Musique (Music Fest) and also during the hottest week of the year so far in the French capital.

But the heat only heightened the spirit of cooperation, as volunteers worked to hang paintings, set up stands, prepare for concerts and display books (at a mini book fair that includes literature from some of Haiti’s neighbours).

The festival is the brainchild of former lecturer Josette Bruffaerts-Thomas, president of a Franco-Haitian organization called Haϊti Futur that works to promote quality education and entrepreneurship in the Caribbean country.

The aim of the five-day event is to showcase the side of Haitian culture that often gets overlooked in international media reports, Bruffaerts-Thomas said. On display are works by leading Haitian painters and photographers such as Elodie Barthélémy, Eddy Saint-Martin and Henry Roy, along with emerging artists like Sandra Dessalines, who creates striking papier-mâché work, and Jephthe Carmil, who focuses on installations.

Photographer Henry Roy stands next to a painting by
Elodie Barthelemy. (Photo: McKenzie/SWAN)
This new festival also comprises concerts, film screenings, literary presentations, conferences and workshops.

Performers Joyshanti and Jackson Thélémaque will bring their special brand of energy to the live shows, while a number of chefs will offer courses in Haitian cuisine, and scholars will discuss a range of subjects - notably, the impact of Haiti’s history on its contemporary culture.

The “Grands Voisins” venue, located in the heart of Paris near the famed Catacombs, is an exceptional site that brings together groups and individuals working to improve lives.

Its open spaces, special accommodations, organic-food cafes and atmosphere of solidarity is a good match for this innovative festival celebrating Haitian culture.


Artist Eddy Saint-Martin, with one of his works, at the "Haiti aux Grands Voisins" festival.
(Photo: McKenzie/SWAN)


Artist Sandra Dessalines, in front of her artwork incorporating paper mache, rubber strips
and other materials. (Photo: McKenzie/SWAN)

Monday, 5 June 2017

FORTY YEARS OF DUB POETRY, AND THE BEAT GOES ON

By Tobias Schlosser

Celebrations for the unofficial 40th anniversary of dub poetry have already begun, with several poetry events taking place internationally. Last February, northern England hosted the 14th Annual Poetry in Motion event (founded by dub poet Yasus Afari), and in April the Roots Dub Poetry Reggae Revival took place in Kingston, Jamaica.

Linton Kwesi Johnson
Things will probably kick into higher gear in 2018 to mark 40 years since the first record with spoken words on dub music was released: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Dread Beat an’ Blood.

So, in the run-up, let's look back at the roots of dub and its poetry, and how it all started.

Dub has its origin in reggae, but it has charted its own course. Reggae vibes are often associated with peace, love and harmony, while listeners sometimes forget that this music was born in areas of Jamaica where violence and exclusion were the ingredients of everyday life.

Whereas Bob Marley’s songs created hope, and exhorted listeners to fight for a better future, dub (the pared-down instrumental remix) is often said to have initially created a form of escapism, especially for people who had few prospects of gainful employment. Troubles could be temporarily alleviated when the tunes from the sound systems created a “Dancehall Nirvana”, as the ethnomusicologist Michael E. Veal illustrates in his acclaimed publication Dub. Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae.

The emergence of dub poetry out of Jamaica’s music culture is largely a story of emigration. After World War II, many Jamaicans sought to find a better life overseas. They were encouraged to do so by the British government since the country needed “affordable” labour (it is the same story for Canada, especially Ontario, where Toronto became a centre for dub poetry). But instead of being accepted fully by the society in which they worked, Jamaicans often faced racism and discrimination. Many felt betrayed when they compared their circumstances to what had been promised and what they had left behind, and this situation went on to affect those coming of age in the Seventies. By then, dub was serving new needs; the music was no longer considered a form of "escapism" because with spoken words, it was becoming a medium to reflect the experiences and the disappointments far away from home. At the same time, the tunes were a constant reminder of one’s roots amidst the diaspora.

The sleeve of a 1996 compilation.
Thus Linton Kwesi Johnson’s work would focus on describing the struggles in Britain where some immigrants felt forced to live in the shadows.

Two years after his first release, his now-famous and controversial “Inglan is a Bitch” came out; this potent poem encapsulates the perspective of an immigrant in London who finds it impossible to escape from poverty regardless of the effort he makes.

The poem emerged amid a time of political unrest and protests on the streets, which also found their assessment in dub poetry. For instance, the death of activist Blair Peach after an attack in an anti-racism demonstration is the subject of Johnson’s poem “Reggae Fi Peach” (1980). Johnson is considered the first poet to describe the emotions among immigrants in the British inner cities forty years ago, using words, music and non-violence to help effect change and raise awareness.

Regarding his own evolution as a dub poet, Johnson told Jamaican writer Alecia McKenzie in an interview that he’d first decided to put his poetry to music in 1976.

“I used to recite poetry unaccompanied before that,” he said. “Then I started using Rasta drummers. At the time I was working at Virgin Records, writing sleeve notes and so on, so I asked the people there to help me make an album.”

Virgin founder Richard Branson agreed to finance the record and it was recorded with British dub music pioneer Dennis Bovell and other artists and released in 1978. Johnson has described doing readings in numerous venues after the launch of the album but he told McKenzie he had “never been part of or tried to get into the literary establishment”.

Born in Jamaica in 1952, Johnson moved to London 11 years later and, as a student, was involved in organizing poetry workshops and building solidarity. Throughout the development of the dub poetry genre, he and and other poets have consistently supported one other; for example, Johnson helped Michael “Mikey” Smith to record his only album Mi Cyaan Believe it in the early 1980s. Already an acclaimed poet by age 28, Smith was killed after a political argument in Kingston in 1983 - a murder that outraged and saddened many citizens.

Dub poet Oku Onuoru (photo: Veronique Skelsey)
Johnson’s LKJ record label, set up in 1981, has also recorded fellow poets and musicians such as Jean “Binta” Breeze and Bovell, and he has worked with Oku Onuora, Mutabaruka and several others.

In the interview, Johnson credited Oku Onuoru with popularizing the term “dub poetry”. Onuoru in fact had performed his poetry with a reggae band in 1974, while he was in prison, and after his release he performed live with Mikey Smith. Onuoro released his first dub record in 1979, recorded at Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studios, and he developed a friendship with Johnson during subsequent tours in Europe. His work, too, has always been political.

For Johnson, creating his own record label was a way to “provide a platform for poetry" that came out of the reggae tradition.

“I’d been slagging off the big labels for the way they treated artists,” he told McKenzie. “So I thought I’d put my money where my mouth is.”

The LKJ Records productions include Tracks by Jean “Binta” Breeze, Bushfire by saxophonist and flautist Steve Gregory, Tings and Times by Johnson and Dub of Ages by Dennis Bovell.

On the other side of the Atlantic, where Onuoru and Mutabaruka spoke out in Kingston against local and global injustice, Canada was seeing a growing dub poetry movement as well. In Toronto, a lively and predominantly female dub poetry scene was founded by Lillian Allen, and artists such as Afua Cooper and Ahdri Zihna Mandiela rose out of this. Dub poetry did not only help Jamaicans living far away from home to express themselves on issues of concern, it also became a tool for the second generation of immigrants (such as Benjamin Zephaniah) and it additionally influenced poets in Jamaica (like No-Maddz).

CD sleeve of "LKJ IN DUB" (1992)
With these developments, the messages of dub poetry have become more complex and challenging. In the 1970s, Dub poets attacked the elites and institutions that supported and carried out policies of racial discrimination.

Nowadays, where things have changed with regard to official policies, it is no longer the rules that are criticised, but the structures in which we live.

The tendency today is for dub poets to address structures of discrimination, and by doing so, find similarities with other people facing exclusion. Lillian Allen, for example, illustrates in her poems how extreme masculinity causes violence from which women and men suffer, and Ahdri Zhina Mandiela challenges heteronormative structures in her poetry.

Furthermore, Benjamin Zephaniah sees a sad truth in the fact that it is only a question of the power hierarchy whether you are heard and visible. Referring to Aboriginal people in Australia and Taiwan, Zephaniah made this universal statement in an interview: “It’s a shame that the people who are peaceful, the people who just want to live in peace and don’t seek power, are the people who get walked over.”

Considering these different trends, one might find it challenging to come up with a suitable definition of dub poetry because this art is beyond the mere arrangement of having spoken words on pared-down reggae grooves.

Maybe it can be described this way: Dub poetry is an art movement representing the people whose voices are not heard enough. That is why poet Lillian Allen
Dennis Bovell's "Dub of Ages" - for ages to come?
claims in an interview that dub poetry’s aim is “to disrupt traditional discourse. [Dub poetry’s intention] is to call attention to a whole life that has been ignored, that’s happening and that actually feeds the other life [...], but that has been cut out of the discourse or the images and so forth.”

According to Allen, the core of dub poetry is its “uncompromising and demanding stand”.

We can conclude that dub poetry is alive, and will always be, even if poets were to stop performing the genre. The reason for this is simple. As Mutabaruka's “Dis Poem” demonstrates, a dub poem has the ability “to be continued in your mind”.

And as Linton Kwesi Johnson has said: “I haven’t lost my street cred. It’s been a long apprenticeship, but it’s an on-going process.”

NOTE: Linton Kwesi Johnson received an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, in April 2017.

Tobias Schlosser is a German writer, researcher and expert drink-maker.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

SCHOLARS TEND TO THE GARDEN IN CARIBBEAN LIT

“The garden is a space which is omnipresent in the work of Caribbean women writers.”

This comment by a scholar came at a colloquium in Paris earlier this month, highlighting the many complex forms that “gardening” can take in Caribbean writing, especially in the work of Antigua-born writer Jamaica Kincaid.

The two-day colloquium, titled “The Art and Craft of Grafting in Jamaica Kincaid’s work”, focused not only on Kincaid’s acclaimed range of books, but it also compared her work with that of Michelle Cliff, Olive Senior and others. (Senior’s most known collection of poetry is probably Gardening in the Tropics.)

Prof. Carole Boyce Davies, a keynote presenter.
But why is the theme of gardening or grafting so significant?

According to the organizers of the conference: “When transposed into the botanical world cherished by writer Jamaica Kincaid, the creolization that has long characterized Caribbean cultures can be reread as the art of grafting - an act of defiance in the face of a traumatic colonial history fraught with obsessive monocultures of cotton and (later and above all) sugar cane.”

Plant grafting can thus be read as “the subversion of unicity and as a practice of recycling, irregularity, re-composition and survival: the art of the survival of writing and of living forms”, they added.

Readers may find “medicinal herbs known to the slaves who survived the Middle Passage” as well as Wordsworth’s daffodils growing in Kincaid’s “largely imaginary garden - a space between and beyond the Caribbean and New England”, for instance.

The organizers also pointed out that gardening paradoxically “encapsulates the experience of uprootedness and drifting” - so common to Caribbean history.

One of the scholarly panels at the colloquium.
About 20 scholars from Europe, the Caribbean and the United States presented papers at the colloquium, examining themes of creolization, resistance and survival - as portrayed through literary gardening. Carole Boyce Davies of Cornell University, and Daryl Dance, Professor Emerita at Richmond University, gave the keynote lectures.

The event's organizing committee included representatives from Toulouse University, Paris 8 University and the Sorbonne: Corinne Bigot, Andrée-Anne Kekeh-Dika, Nadia Setti and Kerry-Jane Wallart.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

LISTENING TO JAMES BALDWIN AND RAOUL PECK IN PARIS

By Claire Oberon Garcia

Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s award-winning documentary I Am Not Your Negro opened in Paris this month to a sold-out and diverse audience at L’Arlequin Cinema on the city’s Left Bank.

The powerful film takes an innovative approach to presenting James Baldwin’s life and ideas, avoiding “talking heads” and using only words from his own writing along with archival film footage and clips from the Hollywood movies that Baldwin discussed as exemplifying certain enduring pathologies of American culture.

The filmmaker was in attendance, along with James Baldwin’s nephew and members of the film crew, and the silence of the packed hall was remarkable, almost as if everyone were all in a collective trance.

As Baldwin would pause, for example, in an interview with Dick Cavett to search for just the right entrance point into a response to a question, the audience collectively held its breath.

Save for a few moments of quiet, bitter laughter at points later in the film, the audience was quietly absorbed by Baldwin’s words and the powerful and often violent visual images. Samuel L. Jackson’s voice - almost unrecognizable - respectfully brought Baldwin’s characteristic very personal but formal rhetoric to life.

Images from the present constantly infiltrated Baldwin’s words and archival visuals: footage of
civil rights protestors being beaten in the streets cut to the National Guard in Ferguson treating protestors with an almost mechanical contempt; black and white photos of lynched people juxtaposed with recent family photos of black children who have been killed by police; a litany of aural apologies by various officials and statesmen, including President Donald Trump, overlaid scenes of past and present indifference to humanity.

Writer James Baldwin, in the film.
Despite the film’s emphasis on broader social forces and problems, it also conveyed a sense of Baldwin’s individuality and vision: his development from a bright, curious Harlem boy with bad teeth to a celebrated intellectual who nevertheless always felt himself to be an outsider, a self-described witness to social change rather than a participant in it, who seemed startled to receive a standing ovation by hundreds of Cambridge undergraduates after winning a debate against the aristocratic American right-wing critic William F. Buckley.

The audience gave the film a standing ovation that lasted until the end of the credits, after which Peck spent nearly an hour answering questions from the audience.

Interest in Baldwin’s work has only recently been revived. Peck described the impact that reading Baldwin at age 17 or 18 had on him, and declared that the motivation for making this film was to help make sure that Baldwin’s ideas were not lost to future generations.

When asked by a young woman in the audience whether or not the film had any message for France, Peck declared that Baldwin’s critique isn’t just of the United States, but addresses any society that does not respect various aspects of human difference, including immigration status, gender, and sexual orientation.

Raoul Peck
The film made clear that Baldwin’s incisive analysis of the pathology of U.S. racism is still relevant today, and that today’s increasingly polarized West is badly in need of his brand of intelligent, righteous humanism.

Claire Oberon Garcia is an author and a professor of literature, race and migration studies at Colorado College in the United States. She is co-editor of the book From Uncle Tom's Cabin to The Help.

Monday, 8 May 2017

FRANCE: AIMING TO CHANGE MINDS WITH ‘US AND THEM’

On a day when the independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron beat his far-right opponent to win the French presidential elections, a museum in the Trocadéro area of Paris was packed with young visitors - a symbol of the results.

They had come to see “Nous et les Autres: Des Préjugés aux Racisme” (Us and Them: From Prejudice to Racism), a daring exhibition - for France - that has been prompting dialogue about the origins and nature of racism, both in Europe and elsewhere.

From the exhibition: how do we categorize others?
Launched in the run-up to the vote, and under the patronage of UNESCO, the exhibition’s aim has been clear from the outset: to have visitors emerge with a changed perspective - especially in a climate of divisive politics.

“We hope that visitors will leave different from how they entered,” said Bruno David, president of France’s National Museum of Natural History and of its anthropology branch the Musée de l’Homme, which is hosting the exhibition.

“That’s the objective. What we’re doing is in the tradition of the museum, a humanist tradition, asking questions of society,” he told journalists during the opening at the end of March.

Many observers have been wondering how France reached the stage of having an extreme-right candidate again making it to the second round of presidential elections, as happened in 2002.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front party (she temporarily stepped down from leading the party during the elections), won 34.3 percent of the votes in the final round on May 7, against Macron's 65.7 percent. She had campaigned on a blistering anti-immigration and anti-globalization platform.

Views similar to hers, seen as promoting division and fear of the “other”, have especially caused concern among institutions with a commitment to human rights and equality, as the museum says it is.

“The first network of the Resistance [during World War II] was born here,” David said in an interview at the museum, which opened in 1937 and is located in the landmark buildings of the Palais de Chaillot, overlooking the Eiffel Tower.

“The exhibition is in line with our principles. It is not militant, because we’re a museum and our approach is scientific, but it is fairly courageous, especially during this time,” he continued.

Using photos, film, sculptures and installations in an interactive manner, the exhibition highlights how “differences” have been used throughout history to “imprison individuals in ready-made representations and to divide them into categories”.

Museum workers set up the exhibits.
It stresses that “as soon as these ‘differences’ are organized into a hierarchy and essentialized, racism is alive and thrives”. 

The curators have arranged the display into three parts, focusing on what they call the processes of "categorization", as well as on the historical development of institutional racism and on the current political and intellectual environment.

“It is natural to categorize,” says Evelyne Heyer, co-curator of the exhibition and a professor of genetic anthropology. “But it’s the moral value that we give to differences that determine if we’re racist or not. It makes no scientific sense to attribute a moral value to differences among people.”

Heyer says that based on genetic study, humans have fewer differences among them than breeds of dogs, for example, and that the “categorization of race is inappropriate to describe diversity”.

A panel at "Nous et les Autres".
The exhibition attempts to give scientific answers to questions such as “if there are no races, why does human skin colour vary” and it presents information tracing the origins of humankind to the African continent.

Apart from the scientific aspect, the curators have put much emphasis on the historical and international facets of “racialization”, focusing for instance on Nazi Germany and the “exaltation of racial purity”; the treatment of the indigenous Ainu people in Japan; the divisions between Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda; and segregation in South Africa and the United States.

As on election day, the exhibits have sparked sober discussion. During the opening night, for instance, as people crowded in front of a screen showing footage of civil rights struggles in the United States, a Paris-based African American artist commented, “I remember that so well.”

When a French spectator responded, “But you don’t look that old”, the artist stated firmly: “I am. I was there,” and so a conversation began.

The entrance to the exhibition.
The curators are hoping that the exhibition will prompt long-term dialogue across political divides, but in the end the conversation might only continue among the already converted, say some skeptics, who also wonder about the display's target audience: who exactly is "us" or "them"?

Still, for anyone wanting to learn more about the consequences of racism and discrimination, the exhibition presents a range of statistics.

It provides information, for instance, about the lack of access to employment for certain “groups” in France (job applicants with “North-African-sounding” names often don’t receive responses to letters), as well as figures showing that the population most subjected to racism in the country are the Roma.

“Racism is difficult to measure, but many studies have been done on access to employment and on people’s views of those they consider different,” says historian and co-curator Carole Reynard-Paligot. “We want people to see these statistics and to ask questions.”

She said that she and her colleagues also wished to show the move from individuals’ racism to state racism, to examine how this developed and the part that colonization and slavery have played.

 A view from the exhibition: how to live together?
Throughout the exhibition, which runs until Jan. 8, 2018, the museum is organizing lectures, film screenings and other events. 

From May 10 to July 10, it is presenting works by a group of photographers from French territories, Brazil, Africa and the United States in a show titled “Impressions Mémorielles”. This is in observance of the French national day (May 10) of remembrance of slavery, the transatlantic slave trade and abolition.

Meanwhile, other museums are also taking steps to counter the anti-immigration mindset. The Paris-based Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration (National Museum of the History of Immigration) invited the population to visit its “Ciao Italia!” exhibition, either “before or after” they voted.

This museum, which like the Musée de l’Homme has been controversial in the past because of its “colonialist” displays, said that the Sunday free access would be an opportunity to learn about the story of Italian immigration to France from 1860 to 1960.

It was also a chance to “discover ... the numerous contributions of immigrants to French society”, the museum added. - A.M.

For an earlier version of this article, please see the Inter Press Service (IPS) site: http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/05/in-france-us-and-them-amid-elections/

Saturday, 22 April 2017

FILM REVIEW: QUESTIONS OF IDENTITY AND BELONGING

By Dimitri Keramitas

As the issue of identity becomes an increasingly global one, filmmakers are delving into how characters navigate troubled cultural, national and economic divides to remain true to who they are - or merely to fit in.

Family Member, Cyprus’ contribution to the recent “Week of Foreign Cinema in Paris”, is one such film. It has been making the rounds at international festivals, where the questions it raises have resonated with audiences. 

How does one fit in? A scene from Family Member.
Interestingly, none of the characters in Marinos Kartikkis’ movie is in fact “foreign” within the context of that divided country - they’re all Greek-Cypriot.

The catalyzing figure is an old man who worms his way into a Cypriot family (in Greek, the word for foreigner, xeno, can also refer to any outsider or stranger). Theodoros perturbs the family’s ways at first, and is barely tolerated. But gradually he makes himself accepted and liked, becoming a genuine “family member” (and also humanizing the others, who’d all seemed wrapped up in themselves).

The film begins as grim domestic and social tragedy. Yorgos (Christopher Greco) is a convenience shop-owner struggling to survive in a depressed economy. He tries to be lenient towards customers who can’t pay right away. In any case he doesn’t have much choice: He can either hope for deferred payment, or do without their business altogether.

Yorgos’ wife, Sophia (Yiola Klitou), tries to hold the family’s domestic economy together, but her children nag her for cash or the material things that Western kids normally take for granted. The family gets by with the aid of her aged father’s pension. The father lives with the family, which means that aside from the monetary contribution, he can help care for Yorgos and Sophia’s young son. One day he dies peacefully in his bed, which is not only a personal loss but a financial one - the precious monthly pension.

Out of desperation, Sophia gets the idea to keep the pension money coming by pretending that her father is still alive. After the unrelenting social tone, Kartikkis surprises us by sliding into blackly humorous melodrama, sort of like Shallow Grave or any number of prankish indie films. But the social context makes the plot creepily plausible. Sophia tries to persuade her husband to go along, and his horrified reaction lends more plausibility before he agrees to take the old man’s body to the cemetery for a secret burial. Even the children are brought into the family plot (in every sense of the word).

When Yorgos later catches an old man shoplifting, he pounces on him like an avenging angel but relents from turning him over to the police after the old man’s pleading and the compassionate urging of Sophia. She also sees in the man another way to further her scheme. Soon the old man is staying at their home, not only assisting in the pension scam, but trying to be useful or at least keep out of everyone’s way. The relationships between Theodoros and the family members become more complex, sympathetic and human. But questions about his past life arise, the family plot thickens, and the narrative moves in unexpected ways.

Family Member’s director, a US-trained painter and art teacher, films in a careful way, sometimes stately, other times nearly static. The four-square style plonks the camera in front of the action, which is framed in relative close-up. It’s an austere technique recalling the French director Robert Bresson, except here the aim isn’t spiritual or iconic, but rather brings out characters pressurized by external constraints. One shot feeds into the next fluidly, keeping the film from feeling oppressive, although oppressiveness is the dominant tone.

A "family" dinner in the movie.
The director’s sober filming eventually wavers (which comes as a bit of a relief), with a few headlong pans and vertiginous angles, but he never loses control. The Cypriot setting lends itself to his style. 

Although the island is situated in the Mediterranean’s southern reaches, geographically more Middle Eastern than European, with palm trees decorating the landscape, the urban backdrop seems austere, evoking the island’s history as Crusader bastion, Frankish fief, and British colony. This is also reflected in the characters, all solidly portrayed by a talented cast. Christopher Greco and Yiola Klitou especially bring restrained power to their put-upon characters.

In the end, Theodoros turns out to be more foreign than he first appeared - not just another Cypriot retiree, but someone who’d spent much of his life in England. He comes to represent a different financial reality, from more normal times (just as Sophia’s father, with his pension, had). For people in countries struck by burst bubbles and failed austerity policies, economic normalcy has become a paradise lost. The characters in Family Member find some material consolation, but more importantly they regain their humanity in the process.

What the director illustrates in a cogent manner is how the prolonged economic crises in Cyprus and Greece have stressed not only society and family bonds, but the sense of identity. Parents unable to provide for their families, forced into degrading or dubious undertakings, see their self-image as breadwinners or proper middle-class people fray. Likewise, one’s acquaintances, colleagues, and customers become transformed into adversaries. The most banal government officials are seen as nefarious oppressors. Although Family Member doesn’t deal explicitly with migrants or refugees, the film is a powerful depiction of how in a time of crisis everyone becomes an Other - even oneself.

Production: AB Seahorse Film Production. Distribution: Homemade Movies (Cyprus). 

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