Sundance: 15-29 January 2009
Pan African: 5-16 February 2009
Of Mormons and Men
Never was the paradox of Sundance felt so profoundly, and, I will add, so creatively, as this year. The entire country was reeling under the effects of the ongoing economic crisis – and yes, the concerns that “there would be less buyers” turned out to be true. Companies who’d usually send three to five executives sent only one, or none. Chic restaurants on Main Street were doing badly (but the homey, moderately-priced Vietnamese eatery was consistently full: “We are cheap,” commented the owner. “You are good,” I added.) Yet, the real event of the festival was extra-cinematic. On 20 January, in front of hundreds of cameras, Barack and Michelle Obama walked into the White House, and a wind of hope swept the American landscape. The excitement of the moment was felt at all times in Park City (I don’t think there were too many people in the movie theatres that Tuesday morning; they were either glued to their hotel room television or watching the inauguration on large TV screens in the street.) The paradox is, for all its foolishness and foibles, the film industry (Hollywood and indies) is liberal-minded, while Utah, one of the five “solidly red” states (states that traditionally vote Republican) played an infamous role in the last California election as the Mormon Church contributed more than 20 millions to support Proposition 8, that makes same-sex marriage unconstitutional in California.
Even in the midst of the elation on the night of 4 November, a sad figure emerged: Proposition 8 had passed, which means that a significant portion of the people that had elected Obama had also voted to forbid gays and lesbians to get married. The African-American community was quick to involve in some soul-searching, and, for example, The Pan African Film and Arts Festival participated, on 22 November, in a town hall meeting organised by the respected Black-owned newspaper, The Los Angeles Sentinel, in which “Black Clergy, Theologians, Community Leaders, Elected Officials, and LGBT Persons” were invited to discuss “Homophobia in the Black Church, Black Voter Support for Prop. 8, and the Blame of Blacks for Prop. 8′s Passage”. (1)
The film community was facing a painful situation of its own, as it was revealed that Richard Raddon, the director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, and also a Mormon, had contributed $1,500 to support Proposition 8, a situation that generated protests and a heated controversy. In spite of a vote of confidence from the Board, Raddon resigned on 26 November. Another high-profile donor to the campaign for Proposition 8 was the theatre chain Cinemark – that, in Park City, owns the complex “Holiday Village” whose multiple screens host both a significant number of public screenings and a large majority of the press and industry screening. This, coupled with the fact that the Mormon Church’s headquarters are located in Salt Lake City, Utah’s capital (where some Sundance screenings also take place), meant there was talk about boycott within the LGBT community. In turn many put forward the crucial role played by Sundance in the genesis, development and visibility of the “New Queer Movement” of the 1990s – premiering and giving high visibility to films such as Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991) or Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992) – and the boycott finally did not take place. (2)
White Money, Rainbow Dreams
In terms of cultural diversity, Robert Redford, the Festival’s founder, has steadfastly asserted his commitment to Native American causes (launching, for example, Chris Eyre’s career with Smoke Signals in 1999), and Sundance has showcased many films by and about various ethnic groups. The opening of an international competition (both for narrative films and documentaries) as well as of the “New Frontier” section for more experimental films represents additional efforts toward a more generous outreach. Yet, the film industry, independent or not, is still dominated by white money, and in the snow-bound streets of the ancient mining town-turned snow resort that is Park City, white faces are still in majority. One can’t expect a film festival, no matter how prestigious, to change the world, but there was definitely something in the air, a sense of novelty and excitement, the reflection of a time when Oprah Winfrey has become the most powerful woman in America, and the very mainstream CNN is hiring black journalist Tavis Smiley to be part of the team covering the inauguration and its aftermath. Last year, the Documentary Grand Prize had gone to Trouble the Water, a film that focused on African Americans’ response to Hurricane Katrina, (3) but it was months before the film found a distributor – and a small one at that (Zeitgeist Films, a wonderful outfit – the only one to be run by two women! – specialised in avant-garde, independent and foreign art cinema, but without much money for publicity). (4) For the few days that followed the last festival, there was talk about the fact that the film awarded both Narrative Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award (a very rare occurrence), Lee Daniels’ Push: Inspired by the Novel by Sapphire, may encounter a similar fate. Then things became complicated, with two distributors reportedly competing for the rights, and finally Lionsgate taking it all, renaming the film Precious in the process. I attended the film’s third screening, on Tuesday the 20th, hoping to see the legendary author/performance artist/poet Sapphire – but, like the majority of the African American cultural luminaries, she was attending the inauguration in Washington.
An outspoken bisexual writer, Sapphire started to get known within lesbian poetry circles, and was working in the sex industry in New York in the late 1970s – at roughly the time Lizzie Borden was struggling to complete Born in Flames (1983) – a feminist sci-fi fable in which groups of black radical lesbians from Brooklyn played an important role – and Working Girls (1986), a faux documentary unfolding 24 hours of the life of a (white) lesbian photographer working in a middle-class brothel. (5)
This was also the time cultural critic bell hooks was publishing her first essays on black women, feminism, the politics of representation, and, last but not least, “homophobia in black communities” and the complex issues raised by the coexistence between racial and sexual oppression. (6) In 1988, for a conference on “Sexism, Colonialism, Misrepresentation,” hooks had written a short text, “Do You Remember Sapphire?”, in which she recounted her reaction, as a child, watching Kingfish’s castrating wife in Amos ‘n’ Andy popular show on television. “She was even then backdrop, foil. She was bitch—nag. She was there to soften images of black men, to make them vulnerable, easygoing, funny and unthreatening to a white audience. She was there as man in drag, as castrating bitch, as someone to be lied to, someone to be tricked, someone the black and white audience could hate… She was not us.” Later, when rewriting this text, she added “Grown black women had a different response to Sapphire; they identified with her frustrations and her woes. They resented the way she was mocked… And in opposition they claimed Sapphire as their own, as the symbol of the angry part of themselves white folks and black men could not even begin to understand.” (7) This healthy, humorous defiance against a negative stereotype was one of the reasons for which Ramona Lofton chose Sapphire as a nom de plume – the other being that sapphires are precious, almost magical stones. Having financed her way toward a degree at New York City College in 1983, Sapphire moved to Harlem, and worked as a literacy teacher in poverty-stricken areas of Harlem and the Bronx, where she worked with teenage girls who inspired her to create the composite character of Precious. In 1989, already a noted poet, Sapphire attracted a lot of attention, most of it negative, when one of her poems, Wild Thing, was attacked by conservative senator Jesse Helms in his crusade against the National Endowment for the Arts and the work it supported. (8)
To recount the story of Precious, an overweight teenager living in Harlem, Sapphire had adopted the mode of an internal monologue, written in ungrammatical, vernacular, almost phonetic English – as if we were peeping into a diary. In the first page, Precious matter-of-factedly informs us that, at twelve, she gave birth to a baby, afflicted with Down’s Syndrome, is again pregnant by her father and basically illiterate. (9) To articulate Precious’ voice, says Sapphire, “the secret was to make all the other characters silent. Every time I tried to speak through the teacher’s voice or tell the mother’s story they rose up like a big shadow and stomped Precious out… Because Precious was such an underground figure, such a blade of grass coming up through the sidewalk cracks, I couldn’t let a whole lot else in.” (10)
Instead of being a tale of ghetto horror, Push is a luminous tour-de-force, recounting Precious’ discovery of her talents as a writer. This unexpected development, which comes at one of the darkest hours in her life, is made possible in an alternative school, through the mentoring of a female teacher and her gay lover. As Sapphire strictly sticks to Precious’ point of view, she humorously reproduces her young protagonist’s unsophisticated suspicion at the lesbianism of her rescuers, as well as her daydream romantic fantasies. Gradually, the book becomes a celebration of the strength of black women, in the tradition of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Published in 1996, Push was a success, and soon Hollywood was beckoning, but Sapphire could not imagine “Hollywood doing a picture of her without exploiting or sentimentalising her…. There are many ways that Hollywood has done black people a disservice.” (11)
White Gaze/Black Power
Cultural critics like bell hooks have often commented on the “invisibility” of black women in mainstream cinema; in Laura Mulvey’s classical paradigm – “woman as image, man as the bearer of the look”, (12) the “spectacle” that creates “visual pleasure” and “halts the narration” is a white woman. The visibility-of-woman-as-a-spectacle, however is an element of reification and alienation; only when a woman masters the gaze, and directs it upon the objects of her choosing, can she become the subject of narration. In mainstream Hollywood, with a few exceptions, black subjects, whatever their gender, were Ralph Ellison’s invisible men. (13) Contradictory and multi-faceted as it is, popular culture has somewhat shifted the equation in the last few decades. As objects of spectacle, from blaxploitation to the antics of comedians, from pop singing to the feats of athletes and boxers, black men (and a few women) sell tickets. As gender theory has been deconstructing the images of women/female movie stars, contemporary culture theory involving race and post-colonialism is now deciphering the complex mixture of commodification and agency, “minstrelisation” and empowerment that unfolds with the (re)presentation of a black figure within the context of an entertainment industry largely dominated by white money. (14) Such is the paradox of the Sapphire character in Amos ‘n’ Andy, the negative stereotype of a “black” character, produced and fashioned by the white establishment.
The blaxploitation of the 1970s was, originally, a white concept, produced by the major studios, alternatively directed by white and black directors and starring an all-black cast, in order to attract black audiences. It eventually became a vehicle to express ideas of black power, with the characters of Shaft or Coffy (15) – and, more to the point, ground-breaking and imaginative black directors returned the stereotype (the oversexed black subject) and produced films that went much against the grain. His project turned down by all the studios, Melvin Van Peebles produced, directed and starred in Sweet Sweetback Big Badasssss Song (1971), his second feature, that received partial funding from Bill Cosby and was hailed for its revolutionary message by Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party. Sweetback ends in the Mojave desert, with the protagonist fleeing the white police and acquiring almost super-human powers due to his sexual stamina, as the famous title fills up the screen: “A bad ass nigger is coming to collect some dues!” It is usually assumed that it is the success met by the film with black audiences that inspired the studios to explore blaxploitation. From another point of view, Van Peebles opened the way toward black independent cinema – from Charles Burnett and the luminaries of the “LA Rebellion” of the late 1970s/early ‘80s to Spike Lee.
However, as blaxploitation developed, its revolutionary potential was muted and it became, more often than not, a commercial vehicle for black comedians (such as Michael Schultz’s Car Wash  starring Richard Pryor). While some young African American directors continue to produce insightful portrayals of their generation (I will quote a single example, Barry Jenkins’ sharp Medicine for Melancholy), such films are usually produced independently, while comedians and gangsters are dominant in mainstream representation. The importance of black comedians has been paramount – people like Bill Crosby, Richard Pryor, the Wayans Brothers, Woopy Goldberg, Mo’Nique or Chris Rock have all fought against the invisibility of black life on the screen. And while it was often done at a price – flirting with stereotypes in a way that is sometimes too close for comfort – it brought under-represented aspects of black culture to the forefront.
A nagging question is still whether or not, once turned into a spectacle, the black body is not submitted to a loss of agency not dissimilar to what happens to the image of woman in the Mulvey parameter. The growing number of films directed by African American directors may be only a partial answer – as some, very skilfully, deliver what is expected of them by their producers – that are still, in majority, white. Commercial success is often praised as a way of “advancing the race”, but it seems that the key to real change lies in black production.
The question of invisibility has been displaced. Black stars, black entertainers are indeed visible, yet some aspects of their personas are hidden. Hollywood has a hard time shedding its own tortured history in terms of segregation. The time is not so far when a dark-skinned black actress was limited to Mammy’s roles – or when you needed a “high-yellow” skin like Freddie Washington or Lena Horne to star in major pictures. “Passing” or almost passing is another form of invisibility. This painful contradiction is given a new life in Precious’ monologue. She is more than big – she is obese, no way you can miss her. Her skin is dark as coal. Yet she complains that, to the people around her, she “don’t exist”. She has just started her life, but is already considered a lost cause, a non-entity.
Big Women, Small Miracles
Sapphire must have thought long and hard before finally allowing Lee Daniels to adapt her novel. In his life and career, Daniels articulates interesting new avenues in contemporary black culture. Openly gay, he has two young children who appear with him in public. He started his career being a casting director and talent manager. Aware – like Oscar Micheaux a few generations ago – that it is important for a black man to write his own ticket, he founded an independent production company, Lee Daniels Entertainment, based in Harlem. His first project, Monster’s Ball (2002, directed by the Swiss-German born director Marc Forster, later of Quantum of Solace fame) became the first entirely black-produced film to be nominated for an Academy Award (Halle Berry received the Oscar for Best Actress as the wife of a death row inmate). A critical and box-office success, the film was however denounced in some black circles for showing Berry’s character having sex with the white prison warden who had supervised her husband’s execution. This was followed by The Woodsman (2004, written and directed by Nicole Kassel), in which Kevin Bacon played an ex-child molester trying to extricate himself from his obsession after being release from prison. In 2006, Daniels directed his first feature, the violent thriller Shadowboxer, which broke several taboos by showing a black/white May/September relationship between Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren, as well as frontal male nudity for the arch-villain (Stephen Dorff).
What makes Daniels’ adaptation of Push work is his magnificent handling of the contradiction between the way Precious perceives herself and her physical presence. He cast a newcomer, 24 year-old Gabourey Sidibe, unconventional because of her bulk and personal history (her mother sang in bars and in the streets) and throughout the film, we hear her internal monologue, which sometimes explains, sometimes contradicts, sometimes comments on what we see. The role of her abusive mother was given to comedian Mo’Nique, famous for her relentless attacks against the stereotype of the “large black woman” (and who received an award for her performance in the film). With these two formidable presences on screen, the film becomes a story about women – an insight which Daniels developed by reducing the presence and importance of the male characters (the father/rapist is virtually not seen) and insisting on the relationships between Precious and other women: the school teacher and her lover, the other girls in the special education class, the social worker assigned to her case (a sharp, muted performance by Mariah Carey). We realise that Precious’ father has no more importance for her than she has for him. He used her to satisfy his needs, belittled her, despised her, but never looked at her – and in turn he is nothing for her; he didn’t see her; we, as the audience whose gaze is identified with that of Precious, don’t see him. The person Precious loves with a broken heart is her mother, Mary – and only the care, respect, gaze and love of other women will allow her to break from the bewitched circle. One of the film’s most extraordinary scenes takes place in the social worker’s office. After kicking Precious out of her apartment with a violence rarely seen on film, Mary requires to be reunited with her. A meeting is arranged and, for the first time, the mother speaks about herself – revealing a sad, dependent woman, so afraid of being left alone that she allowed her lover to abuse her “precious baby” since she was a little girl – all the time hating her for “stealing him”. This moment is a turning point; Mary becomes vulnerable; we might pity her. Precious sees her mother clearly for the first time – but does not indulge in facile emotionalism. There is nothing for her here – she makes one adult decision.
All throughout her ordeals, Precious is revealed as a strong, talented young woman with a rich fantasy life, a no-nonsense humorous streak, and a hidden talent as a writer, which is extracted from her, word after word (at the beginning of the film she “can’t recognize words on the page”) by the dedicated teacher. It is not often that the mysterious alchemy produced by writing is depicted on the screen with some kind of credibility. Daniels accomplishes a small miracle.
It remains to be seen how the film will fare in its commercial release. As often happens at Sundance, the studio that bought it may have paid “too much” for it (apparently, more than 5 millions US dollars) – which means box-office success is going to be needed to recoup the initial investment. I hope that Lionsgate will handle the publicity with flair, but was a bit worried upon reading that the change of title was officially announced at the premiere screening of Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail. (16)
From Celebration to Mythology
Whether or not the success of Push will be epoch-making, Sundance became an occasion to celebrate various aspects of African American culture. Robert Townsend’s Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy was an homage to careers and an entertainment tradition that have blossomed within and without the mainstream for several decades. Comedian Chris Rock enlisted the help of Australian comedian/comedy director Jeff Stilson to produce and star in Good Hair, a very amusing documentary about black women’s obsession with “good” hair (i.e. hair that is straight and flowin’ in the wind as in a shampoo commercial), the hair stylists that cater to them, the multi-million industry that sells them products… and, last but not least, the men who live with them. While happily discovering aspects of African American life that were novel to me (such as extravagant hair-styling competitions or black men’s frustration at being forbidden to touch a woman’s hair during lovemaking, to protect the precious “weaves” added to her natural hair), I am reminded of the cautionary title inserted by Lubitsch at the beginning of That Uncertain Feeling (1941): “There is a place in which man has not yet penetrated: the women’s powder room”. Restrooms or beauty salons for women may not be a place for a man to investigate, even if he is Chris Rock. While he interviews a number of women (the majority of them, entertainment celebrities, except for Maya Angelou), he spends more time and seems more comfortable hanging out with “the guys” in barbers shop, bitching and complaining about how much this hair business is costing them emotionally and financially. Yes, it’s informative, funny – and a little sad. I can’t wait to see a black woman addressing the issue. (17)
Spike Lee was present with Passing Strange, the sympathetic but rather uninspired recording of the closing night of the Broadway musical of the same name, written and starred in by Stew, that made me mostly regret to have missed the stage production. Born in Los Angeles, Stew became (in)famous in the early 1990s for founding a band, “The Negro Problem”, and the Afro-Baroque Ensemble cabaret called STEW (in collaboration with his white creative partner, Heidi Rodewald). Passing Strange is a witty semi-autobiographical deconstruction of the notion of blackness, an exploration of the stuck-up US versus free-thinking Europe, and how is a young man to monitor his career, sexuality and creative ambition (not to mention a few drugs and hardcore politics on the side) when Mommy is waiting for him at home in a very middle-class ‘hood.
The problematics of visibility allowed for an elegant merger between Native American issues and black authorship. A respected voice in African American documentary, Stanley Nelson (18) investigated archival footages, interviews of survivors and the sharp insights of his usual screenwriter, Marcia Smith, to direct Wounded Knee. The title comes from the name of the notorious town in the Pine Ridge Reservation (South Dakota) in which 200 armed American Indian Movement (AIM) activists fought federal agents for 71 days in 1973. (19)
The same, non-competitive section (“Spectrum”) also showcased Kevin Willmott’s “revisionist western”, The Only Good Indian, shot in English and Cherokee. Willmott had made a splash at Sundance a few years ago with C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004), a political satire about what would American history be if the South had won the Civil War. With his new film, he reinvestigates history through literature, mythology and a few hard facts. Thousands of Native American children were taken away from their families to be “educated” in religious boarding schools in which the use of their native languages was forbidden. Nachwihiata (newcomer Winter Fox Frank) is one of these kids, and his new educators rename him Charlie. In his rebellion, he is, however, more versed in the ways of the White Man than thought to be. His favourite book is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whose succession of chapters provides the structure of the film. Willmott also punctuates the teenager’s journey (from capture to escape, re-capture and wanderings in the company of a bounty-hunter) with revealing encounters between traditional culture and early 20th century technology: a huge clock whose splendid mechanism is exposed in the boarding school steeple; a motorcycle; a film screening – as well as with the mythology of the Old West. Nachwihiata falls into the hands of an original, colourful character, Sam Franklin (legendary Cherokee actor Wes Studi), a former Indian scout for the US Cavalry, whose dream is to become a Pinkerton operative. (20) Aiming initially at getting a reward for bringing the boy back to school, Franklin is offered more money to chase a “mad” woman, Sally, escaped from an insane asylum for Indians and wanted for murder. En route they meet Sheriff Henry McCoy (J. Kenneth Campbell), a legendary killer of Indians. As Franklin is both mentor and foil to the boy (mastering skills Charlie would like to acquire, but rejecting his tribal identity, which Nachwihiata refuses to do), he is also caught in a game of perversely inverted mirrors with McCoy – an echo of he relationship between Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) and Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – both couples being prisoners of the passeist legend of the Old West and only able to destroy each other. In Ford’s film, the printed press is what perpetuates the myth, or the lie. In The Only Good Indian, it is the cinema. A weathered, complex character, who thinks that abducting Indian children to white boarding schools is more cruel than outright massacre, McCoy once chances into a one-reeler magnifying his own life, and storms outside the makeshift theatre. Trapped as he is in the territory of these living dead, Charlie/Nachwihiata, however, represents an alternative way of recounting history, as he interweaves the contradictory layers of his experience and assumes his position of being both inside and outside modernity.
Mythology of another kind was at work in Black Dynamite (“Park City at Midnight”), directed by Scott Sanders (AKA DJ Suckapunch). A wickedly exhilarating, saucy, imaginative spoof, the film intelligently reconnects with the original inspiration of blaxploitation – the pleasure to watch a kick-ass, super-cool and sexual black hero – and sprinkles its flawless reconstruction of the era (1970s interior design, polyester suits, huge, brightly coloured cars, oversized Afros, mini-skirts, day-glo make-up, generous cleavage, colourful slang, muscular dudes, daring chicks, un-PC racial jokes, the flat delivery turning the clichés of the dialogue upside down and, last but not least, De Music, overwhelming the key shots, cascading in-between the jump cuts, imposing its rhythm to the action) with smart contemporary touches. Michael Jai White (who also co-wrote the screenplay and combines a martial arts background with an impressive acting resume) plays the eponymous character, a retired CIA agent who gets back into the business of arresting bad people when his younger brother is murdered by Italian drug dealers in what turns to be a botched undercover operation. All white men, even the friendly ones, are scum, and partake in a sinister plot to get orphans addicted to lethal substances and rob black men of their virility. The brothers are not all prize packages either, as Black Dynamite push his way through a motley collection of over-dressed pimps, holier-than-though revolutionaries, shrinking queens (a nice come-back for comedian Arsenio Hall, who had fallen on hard times recently) and ordinary joes with a taste for the bottle; yet, that does not prevent them, while kibbitzing, to discuss Greek mythology in the hope of finding the cue to criminal activities… And the sistas – well, they are sex objects at best, a beauty pageant of partially dressed Madams and whores (played by actual porn stars) ultimately upstaged by Gloria (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), a “proper” school teacher who needs protection and will not resist the hero’s seduction.
The film also alludes to a turning point in black popular culture, when entire neighbourhoods would go downtown to watch the latest Chinese kung fu flick, for the sheer joy of witnessing a man of colour (no matter that he was a Chink) beat the shit out of white asses. Black Dynamite eats a few diminutive Chinese martial artists for breakfast, and his most lethal opponent is the fiendish Dr. Wu (Asian American actor/martial artist Roger Yuan, made up and affixed with white beard, moustache and eyebrows to look like an evil eunuch in a Shaw Brothers production). As it turns out, the real evil lies with The Man himself, with Tricky Dick pulling all the strings (Chinese and white) in the shadows. Black Dynamite ends up with a black man in the White House, although it’s kung fu, not elections that brought him there. The real villain gets what he deserves; Pat Nixon is very upset when her china gets smashed, but eventually all too happy to switch to the coded role of the white chick in awe with black masculinity.
Diffracted Points of View
It was also a pleasure to see insightful representations of the various ethnicities that now compose the United States. Don’t Let Me Drown (“U.S. Dramatic Competition”) by first-time feature director, Mexican-born and Brooklyn-based Cruz Angeles, co-written and co-produced with his long-time creative partner, Maria Topete makes us share the impact of September 11 on poor Latino families through a Romeo-and-Juliet romance between a Mexican teen, Lalo (E.J. Bonilla), and a Dominican high-school girl, Stefanie (newcomer Gleendilys Inoa). (Mexicans consider themselves “white” while Dominicans are “black” – the film subtly suggests the absurdity of such categories in our multi-racial societies…). Stefanie’s sister – a college graduate who was the pride of her family – was working in the World Trade Centre and her father, overcome with grief, becomes mean and intolerant. Lalo’s father has been hired to clean Ground Zero, works long hours and has started to cough black blood. In the neighbourhood, unemployment and gang violence are rampant, and the Latino immigrants are acutely aware that, even in this moment of national mourning, their pain, efforts and tragedies matter less than that of others…
Directed by Sundance veteran Peter Bratt, who is part Quechua from Peru, part Anglo (21) La Mission (“Spectrum”) offers another take on teenage sexuality in Chicano communities, with a daring twist. Taking place in the eponymous Chicano neighbourhood in San Francisco, the film explores the emotionally fraught relationship of Che Rivera, a tough-looking macho bus driver (powerfully played by Benjamin Bratt, who is the director’s brother as well as the producer of the film) (22) with a history of former incarceration, alcoholism and uncontrollable rage. He has two passions: refurbishing vintage cars for lowriding with his buddies; and Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez), the teenage son he has raised alone after his wife’s early death – a quiet, sensitive, straight A high-school student on his way to entering UCLA. When Che accidentally finds out that Jesse is gay, and is dating an upper-middle class young white man from the other side of the tracks, Jordan, he is teeming with rage. He has other issues as well – like other “ethnic” neighbourhoods in major American cities, La Mission is in the process of gentrification, and his new neighbour is a new Age-type of independent, bicycle-riding young black woman, Lena (Erika Alexander), who bakes cookies with canola oil and burns incense in front of a Buddha in her pad. Bratt skilfully avoids pits and clichés, and, instead, brings contradictions to the fore. There is no romance per se between Che and Lena – just a protracted exploration of the different meanings of the phrase “you get under my skin”, and a mutual education of sorts. The shadow of class difference comes within the relationship between Jesse and Jordan, at first playfully between the two men (Jesse paying “gangbanger” with Jordan, or the later asking “who is lending you his mother’s BMW?”), then in a darker mode when Che comes to speak to his son who has sought refuge in his lover’s parents house: in the perfectly manicured garden, Hispanic men are mowing the grass, cutting shrubbery and casting strange looks at Che.
Both Don’t Let Me Drown and La Mission explore painful contradictions endemic to immigrant and minority communities. As they are trying to preserve their identities and traditions, some of them emerge as outdated, oppressive relics of the past, such as the patriarchal control on the children’s sexuality. Stefanie and Jesse fall victims to their father’s emotional blindness. Cruz offers a tentative solution, with the two young lovers holding hands by the water. Bratt goes a little further, suggesting, in his open ending, that a bad-ass machismo father may accept that the son he loves is gay, and grow from this realisation.
The most hauntingly spectacular film in the US Dramatic competition was Sin Nombre, distributed by the powerful indie studio Focus Features and for which first-time feature director Cary Joji Fukunaga (23) received the Directing Award, and DP Adriano Goldman the Excellence in Cinematography Award. It may also be one of the most historically significant. Long the backyard of the United States, Central America is now exporting the problems created by this domination (poverty, unemployment, drug cartels) straight into the US, where right-wing groups see no other solution than building walls and barbed fences and keeping a small army of immigration officers to protect the frontier. Sin Nombre clearly gives you a sense of why it can’t work: poorly constructed levees can’t stop a flood. Sounds familiar? The flood here is made of these hundred of thousands of desperate bodies ready for everything just to pass on the other side – and this is the “story” Fukunaga brings to us, by interweaving the fate of three very young people dragged into this tidal wave.
We have all read articles or seen TV reports about illegal immigration, about people hopping on trains; we had even known that, on these trains, the poorest of the poor were robbed, raped or murdered by the local mafia… It’s another thing to see the top of a freight car crowded by hundreds of people hurdled together, to see them powerless and terrified when gangsters attack them; to be taken into the makeshift rest stations in which, sometimes for charity, sometimes for a fee, the immigrants can take a shower, get some food, and sleep on a hard mattress in-between two train rides; to witness “la Migra” chasing exhausted men, women and children at every station; to imagine what happens to a man after he’s fallen between two moving freight cars while trying to escape federal agents; to watch a young girl take her clothes off and put them in a plastic bag with her meagre possessions to cross a river with a coyote that has previously demanded all her available money. Yet, Sin Nombre is not a “demonstrative” or “message” film. Fukunaga’s young protagonists, rather than being the elements of a sociological equation, actually resist the story in which they are plunged. They are desiring subjects, who know darn well what they want – but much less, alas, about what they don’t want. Casper (newcomer Edgar Flores), attracted by the lifestyle of the “Mara Salvatrucha”, Honduras’ mafia, wants to be a “good gangster”, appreciated by the main honcho; so he introduces his young friend, 13 year-old Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), to be initiated into the gang. For the kids as for the more seasoned gangsters, it is clearly the only way not to live and die like a dog, in abject poverty – which also means that territories and allegiance must be respected, no matter how atrocious the price is. Casper’s secret love affair with a young woman outside the “territory” puts him at odds with his boss. Meanwhile Smiley loves him, but maybe he loves being in the “Mara” more. A few miles away, in a small village, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) dreams of a better life. She has no desire to endeavour the long, difficult journey to the US, but will allow her father and uncle to convince her to follow them. The trap is set for what is, depending on your point of view, an updated Western, or a Greek tragedy.
Another tale of immigration gone sour, Amreeka (“US Dramatic Competition”) starts in the West Bank, where Muna Farah (Nisreen Faour) and her teenage son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) are subjected to the routine humiliation and muted violence of Israeli check points. In better times, when she was still married to Fadi’s father (now living with a younger, slimmer woman), she had applied for residency to join her married sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass) (24) in the US. Her application is approved, but new sets of problems start when they arrive in the Illinois home of their relatives. Her brother-in-law’s medical practice is suffering from war-time anti-Arab sentiments, (25) Muna can only find a job in a fast-food restaurant (a fact she carefully hides by pretending to work in a bank) and Fadi becomes “dangerously” westernised. Amreeka is Cherien Dabis’ first feature, but the young Jordanian/Palestinian American woman, who grew up in Ohio (where her father was a doctor too), is hardly an unknown quantity in the US media landscape. The partner of indie director Rose Troche (whose first film, Go Fish, a lesbian love story, premiered at Sundance in 1994), she directed several award-winning shorts and was involved in various capacities (staff writer, story editor, producer) in The L Word, a much-beloved TV series that ran from 2004 to 2009 and playfully inserted gay, transgender and bisexual issues in the mainstream. She also worked with Jane Campion and for another TV series, The West Wing.
Hearing the Silent Voices
“Hybrid” (culturally or sexually) or “hyphenated” identities seemed to be a dominant force in Sundance – as well as the desire to give the floor to rarely expressed voices or to revisit history from a hitherto repressed point of view. Another example is the fascinating documentary El General (“US Documentary Competition”), in which Natalia Amalda, who spends her time between Brooklyn and Mexico, deconstructs the history of her great grandfather, Plutarco Elîas Calles, a former general during the Mexican revolution who became president in 1924. Instead of focusing on “the legend” (but wittily alluding to it by inserting an excerpt of Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata  in her footage), Almada weaves together a patchwork of more intimate traces: audio-tapes left by her grandmother, Alicia Calles; everyday conversations with street vendors in Mexico City; newspaper clippings and excerpts of forgotten Mexican films that were popular at the time; marks of urban destruction in working-class neighbourhoods. Displacement is at the core of the project – from the poverty and shabby, unstable living conditions at the heart of Mexico city, to religious pilgrimages, to the history of the filmmaker’s family. A great believer in a traditional Christian education for women while pursuing an anticlerical policy Plutarco had sent his daughters to be educated in a convent school in San Diego, while his own government was fighting a Catholic uprising (known as la Cristada), and newspaper photographs showed priests shot by firing squads and hung on lamp posts. Alicia ended up living in the US after her marriage, far from the overbearing and controversial political figure of her father who, after the end of his term in 1928, continued to exert power through a succession of puppet presidents of his choosing. He was called “The Bolshevik” or “The Mexican Mussolini”, yet in 1929 he founded the PRI that was to become Mexico’s ruling party for the following eight decades. In 1936 the new president, Lázaro Cárdenas, sent him to exile in the United States – although Calles was eventually allowed to return to Mexico where he was buried next to Pancho Villa… and Lázaro Cárdenas.
As I had, at first, experienced the opening of international sections at Sundance with scepticism, I am all the more pleased to see how rich and interesting the selection has become. Echoing and updating Almada’s reflection on Mexican history, Alberto Cortés’ Corazón del Tiempo (Heart of Time) takes place in a Zapatista “autonomous municipality”. (26) As it is with El General, the film aims at reinserting silenced voices (a grandmother, a teenage girl) in history-at-large. Cortés scrutinises the heart of a young woman, Sonia, who, rather than accepting a pre-arranged marriage, falls in love with another man. Both the fiancé and the new love are comprados fighting in the mountain, and Sonia’s change of heart reveals still unsolved contradictions. On the one hand, the Zapatistas have enacted a “Women’s Revolutionary Law” which states women’s equality and their right to participate in the struggle; (27) on the other hand, patriarchy is still a part of Mayan mores. Shooting entirely on location and with non-professionals, Cortés acutely observes the shifts that occur when more agency (romantic, political, intellectual) is granted to women and creates an engaging document on the organisation of autonomous rural communities; we see the permanent to and fro between the daily life activities of the village and the comprados in the mountain; how electricity is installed in the village; how conflicts within the community are solved. Heart of Time is also a reflection on the power of the image; in the fiction film, which can be used to present their struggle to the world, the comprados are seen with video cameras, systematically recording every militant “action” and every interference from the federal forces.
With Sebastián Silva’s La Nana (The Maid, Chile, World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic), we return to another form of immigration and exile – the permanent displacement of these women who uproot themselves from one part of Latin America to the other in order to find work as domestic workers. Without bitterness or sentimentalism, Silva delves into the case of one of these women, Raquel (played by Catalina Saavedra, whose uncanny performance received a “World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Acting”), at a turning point of her life. She has worked for the Valdes, an upper-class, double-income family for 23 years, she considers herself as “part of the family” without realising that, through nobody’s fault, her sense of self, her boundaries, have been eradicated. Mean and generous, loving and possessive, reduced to childishness and sexual immaturity (living with her stuffed animals and scrap-books in a small room with a narrow bed), overworked and overweight, estranged from her faraway family and without a social life of her own, Raquel clings to a fantastic image of her role, does not realise that life is passing her by, and becomes rabid when the Valdes attempt to hire another maid “to help her”. Her antics at the introduction of each new “intruder” provide material for spirited, acerbic comedy, but Silva goes further, in an astonishing, unexpected turning point – a tearful meeting between two women in a freshly disinfected bathroom – during which tentative female bonds are woven and the true nature of class exploitation finally enunciated. And so, slowly, minutely, things begin to change…
Small, understated details are at the core of Najwa Najjar’s first feature Al Mor wa al Rumman (Pomegranates and Myrrh). Films by and about Palestinian women are too few and far between, and this one weaves a delicate tale about a difficult situation. Shortly after her wedding to Zaid, an olive grower, Kamar witnesses his arrest during a scuffle with Israeli soldiers who have administrative orders to confiscate the land. The two young people are very much in love, and Najjar’s camera tenderly captures the muted pain of their meetings with the jail wire mesh between them. Yet Kamar is involved with a modern dance group; she refuses to play the expected role of “martyr’s wife” and to repress her physicality (Kamar is played by the athletic Yasmine Al Massri, who had already embodied a rebellious young woman in Nadine Labaki’s Caramel), even if it means assuming the chemistry that exists between her and the company’s new choreographer (Ali Suleiman, another great Palestinian actor.) Rather than indulging in melodrama, Najjar draws the portrayal of a life under occupation, in which minute decisions and small gestures of resistance are what matters. Hiam Abbas (see note 24) appears in a great supporting role, as the tough, loud-speaking, spirited owner of a little café – and an unconventional role model for Kamar.
The Sundance documentary section has always hosted great political documentaries – so this year was no exception, but it seemed that environmental concerns weigh heavier in the balance. Louie Psohoyos’ The Cove (Audience Award: US documentary), Joe Berlinger’s Crude, Bill Benenson’s and Gene Rosow’s Dirt! The Movie, as well as (in the World Cinema Documentary Competition) Rupert Murray’s The End of the Line addressed the intersection between politics and the destruction of the environment. The most exhilarating was a genuine piece of agit-prop, directed by and starring Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, The Yes Men Fix the World. This was the second time the two politically astute trouble-makers were in Sundance, as they were already the subject of Chris Smith’s and Sarah Price’s The Yes Men, that had shown in 2004. Operating from their small base in Northern California Bichlbaum and Bonnano forge fake websites, get invited to international conferences and impersonate executives from some of the corporations you love to hate. The film starts with one of their most notorious actions – when they appeared on the BBC to proclaim that, having acquired Union Carbide, Dow Chemical Company was taking full responsibility for the 1984 chemical explosion in the Bhopal plant in India and was finally going to indemnify its thousands of victims and the families of the survivors. (28)
After the broadcast, which reached 300 million people, Dow’s share price dropped by $2 billion in 23 minutes – and the Yes Men managed to leave Paris, where the interview had taken place, without being arrested. They went to Bhopal, where Dow’s fake public statement, then its immediate retractation, had created ripples in a city marked forever by the biggest industrial catastrophe in modern times. The Yes Men use humour, but they are not comedians – as political activists they are aware of the complex ramifications of their actions; in the second half of the film, they demonstrate how their pranks are inserted in a wider form of militancy, how they interact with communities of similarly-minded people. The stand-up ovations that welcomed The Yes Men Fix the World both at Sundance and at Berlin (where it won the Panaroma Audience Award) were the mark of its accuracy and timeliness. Not only do Bichlbaum and Bonnano pose the right question, but their modus operandi reflects the new politics as represented by the Obama campaign – it is not the leaders, the men in front of the cameras who matter as much as the people working with them and around them.
My favourite section at Sundance, “New Frontier”, dedicated to experimental, avant-garde, multimedia work, is the brain-child of Shari Frilot, a woman who reduces all sorts of artificial boundaries to ashes, as proven by her resume: the director of five short films and videos dealing with femininity, sexuality, queerness and blackness, she co-founded and programmed Mix Brasil and Mix Mexico, the first gay film festivals in Brazil and Mexico, respectively, was director of Mix: The New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival and Outfest: The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, before becoming one of Sundance programmers in 1998. I don’t think it’s pure accident that the feature films presented in the section were all directed by women – from explorations of femininity by Laurel Nakadate (Stay the Same Never Change), Ry Russo-Young (You Won’t Miss Me) to Elja-Lisa Athila’s experimental reconstruction of an incident taking place in colonial Algeria – without forgetting the imaginative shorts of Maria Marshall.
The pièces de resistance were two programs of experimental/political documentaries directed by multimedia artists whose work I have followed for years. Deborah Stratman’s O’er the Land explores and deconstructs the concept of “freedom” as it is understood in North America. Following her idiosyncratic artistic practices, she “sculpts” time and space by juxtaposing blocks of images and sounds together; at first, they don’t seem related, but gradually it all makes sense, and creates ripples of thoughts in the viewer’s mind. The red thread is provided by a book written by Colonel William Rankin, who was ejected from his plane at 48,000 feet and fell down through a storm for 45 minutes. What fascinated Stratman in Rankin’s account of his experience is that, far from reflecting on its extraordinary aspects, maybe encountering a sense of God, the void or the meaning of life, he focuses on minute details of survival (when not to open the parachute, what was happening to his body at a certain time) and congratulates himself on his training as a Marine, that taught him what to do. We all have this romantic notion, that maybe one day, a momentous event will “change our life” and we’ll start doing things differently. Instead, when something major threatens us, the only freedom we hope for is to be able to continue our life as before.
Stratman leaves the question open, but weaves a dense tapestry of scenes with mysterious resonances: reenactment of famous 18th century battles, cheerleaders at football games, gun shows in which men amuse themselves blowing ammunition and setting fields ablaze – all in the name of freedom – but the freedom from what, the freedom of what?
Two Kinds of Shots
No less intriguing is photographer/filmmaker Sharon Lockhart’s newest extravaganza, the most radical double bill of the festival. The first film, Lunch Break returns to cinema’s second greatest invention after the close-up: the tracking shot. Contemporary spectatorship, this monstrous, bastard child of Marx, Coca-Cola and the zoom lens, had lost the sensual experience of the tracking shot and been exposed to a cinematic space crushed by an indiscriminate use of the new toy. The zoom flattens the field – a violent contrast with the hidden beauties of a well-performed tracking shot: the relationships between the elements keep changing, what was concealed from our initial view is revealed, distances are modulated, new configurations appear. It is both ironical and meaningful that one of the major texts of the American avant-garde, Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) is a 45 minute zoom within a 80-foot long urban loft; Snow knew what he was doing when he ended the film on a fixed image – a black-and-white photograph of immobile waves stuck on a wall. This is what zooms are for: capturing what is already dead.
So it is no accident if the rebirth of the tracking shot in contemporary culture came from places in which “the subaltern” had to learn how to speak, places where the construction of the “real” was a daunting, yet modest, task: post-socialist Hungary with Béla Tarr’s mournful and operatic camera movements, such as the epoch-making Sátántangó (1994, 450 min.); or post-socialist China, in which, in a no-less operatic manner, Wang Bing reinvented documentary by walking, a small digital camera on his shoulder, among derelict industrial spaces to produce West of the Tracks (2003, 9 hours) or exploring workers “break rooms” in Caiyou riji (Crude Oil, 2008, 14 hours).
Lunch Break revisits Wavelength by endowing it with the dignity of the tracking shot and casts the shadow of Wang Bing’s achievements over it. A detail is revealing: while the drone in Snow’s film was overlaid over the image, in Lunch Break it is diegetically produced within the cinematic space. At about one hour into the shot, the noise becomes louder and louder, and we find ourselves facing a huge white vent – presumably its origin. The juxtaposition of sound and image, jumping from the formal to the documentary, becomes political: in this relentless sonic environment, iron workers are having their lunch break. Lockhart’s tracking shot does not create a “structural film” – in which, as it is generally admitted for Wavelength, the human element would eventually be deemed “irrelevant”, destroyed by the real subject of the piece, the mechanical operation of the zoom, that becomes a sort of Platonician idea, or a Kantian a-priori (the condition of perception, of human consciousness). Lunch Break, on the other hand, uses the cinematic apparatus to “track down”, literally, the precious, minute, humble signs of specific human existences, captured at such a quotidian level that we can’t help being moved to the core. As they appear and disappear, depending on what the advance of the camera offers to our gaze, these fleeting – yet excruciatingly slow – moments allude to narratives that we can guess but never grasp. Real life eludes you, trapped as it is in the confines of this industrial setting. Lunch Break is a testimony of this loss – yet, turns these imperfect bodies into sculptures in time.
The tracking shot explores a long, narrow, windowless corridor, lit by fluorescent ceiling lamps that drench the whole scene into a green-greyish hue; it is flanked on the right by endless rows of lockers, and on the left by tables and mismatched pieces of furniture, upon which workers, one by one or in small groups, are sitting, unwrap their sandwiches, exchange small talk, read the paper or surrender their tired muscles to a quick nap. They look at the camera or not, it does not matter. This is their “down time”, their bodies caught in the claustrophobic architecture of the factory. Digitally reworked, the tracking shot has been slowed down to what seems an eternity. Time is congealed, you get engrossed in the discovery of small details, the mundane poetry of simple gestures as poised as balletic figures, the slowness here being a metaphor for repetition, boredom and the endless cycle of exploitation. And then, after 80 minutes, the tracking shot ends; but it stops on nothing – not on a picture, not even on the opposite wall; we still have an empty space ahead of us. There is no closure, no ending. Tomorrow will be the same.
The challenge posed by Lunch Break – once the original 35mm footage was slowed down and transferred to HD – was to find an appropriate sound-track. In collaboration with fellow filmmaker James Benning, Lockhart mixed the droning sound of the machinery and vents with unintelligible bits of conversation recorded through a long period of time, a Led Zeppelin song suggesting a hidden transistor radio, and composer Becky Allen’s abstract sounds. This, in turn, intensifies the contrast with Exit (40 minutes). Here, a fixed 16 mm camera captures the flood of workers as they leave the shipyard, in real time and in sync sound. The film is an allusion to another film history classic – the Lumière Brothers’ Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895). Yet, Lockhart shoots the workers from the back, and then repeats the shot, on five consecutive days, at exactly the same time. In the bright July afternoon light, we are treated to a fascinating array of spontaneous body language, released from the confines of the plant and the previous film’s congealed time and choreographed operatic grandeur. We hear thousands of footsteps (made by the rubber soles of ubiquitous sneakers), scraps of conversation, even discrete narrative threads: a man waiting for his buddy, a couple talking to another worker, an allusion to post-divorce shared custody. While most of the workers are men, there are a few women, notably a blonde whose ponytail stems from a base-ball cap and who is always among the last to walk out, a male companion at her side. Most of the men carry empty lunch boxes – there seems to be about two or three different styles of them, and a limited range of colours. The cool guys have a backpack – hanging, in some cases, from a single shoulder. The really cool guys carry nothing. One man holds a plastic bag filled with recyclable cans. Some people, instead, are entering the factory. Have they forgotten something? No, there are too many of them; and it’s the same ones, day after day, including an older woman with short grey hair dressed in overalls. This must be the maintenance crew. Going back to the empty lunch boxes – you notice that only men carry them. Their wives must have carefully prepared their lunch, at dawn, when they were shaving. These lunch boxes are the sign of their domestic status, but also the anchor that keep them fastened. There’s no way you can go boozing or partying when you carry an empty plastic lunch box. No, these men are going straight home. As the film unfolds, I realize the multitude of these details that were offered to my gaze and that I had ignored at the beginning. I can’t wait to see the film again. Lunch Break and Exit will remain not only as a high point in the history of experimental film, but a significant moment in the representation of American labour.
Meanwhile, the wheels kept turning. Mid-February Geoffrey Gilmore announced his resignation as Director of the Sundance Film Festival (a position he has occupied since 1990) to become Creative Director of Tribeca Enterprises (that produces the Tribeca Film Festival). It was no surprise when, a couple of weeks later, Director of Programming John Cooper (who had joined the Festival as a very young man 20 years ago) was appointed director, a well-deserved promotion. Back in Los Angeles, a drama was unfolding on a smaller, but no less significant scale. Founded in 1992 by Ayuko Babu, the Pan African Film and Arts Festival (PAFF) has become one of the rare opportunities American audiences have to see films from the larger African diaspora with a community and on a large screen. Yet, operating on a shoestring budget, the Festival has no permanent home. In the last few years, it had settled in a huge shopping mall in the district of Crenshaw, in South-West Los Angeles. With its neighbouring district Leimert Park (famous for its jazz clubs, literary cafes, poetry readings and cutting-edge community centres), it became, in the late 1970s, the largest black-middle enclave in the US. In 1994, the former basketball star Magic Johnson opened a chain of 6 movie theatres in predominantly black neighbourhoods, including 15 screens in the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw plaza shopping mall. A partnership with PAFF seemed the right thing to do, so, in the first two weeks of February, half of the screens were allotted to Festival screenings. In the main gallery of the shopping mall, about 100 artists, painters, jewel makers, weavers, clothing designers from all corners of the US, Africa and the Caribbean opened small stands, and the whole event was a joyful celebration, with glamorous Afro-centrist costumes and hair styles mixing with the shopping mall regular crowd. In-between screenings you could wander in the bustling Art Market, or explore a fantastic array of soul food restaurants within a mile.
Things were slowly deteriorating, though. The enclave is suffering from a combination of real estate speculation (that has forced a number of Leimert Park cultural landmarks to close) and increased criminality. Magic Johnson had opened the theatres in partnership with Sony-Loews, which, in 2005, was acquired by AMC. Johnson withdrew his investment two years ago, so the theatres are no longer black-owned, and soon Babu was faced with rental prices his organisation could no longer afford. This year the screenings moved further west, in a theatre complex in Culver City. I was quite upset at first, as I missed a neighbourhood and a community I had come to know and love throughout the years, and discussed it with a lady I recognised as a long-time volunteer of the Festival. “This new location is much more convenient for me,” she responded. “My community is here.” Of course! Next door to Culver City is the incorporated city of Inglewood, another middle-class black enclave, whose history was equally significant in terms of black pride; it had its first black mayor in 1980, and was the first city to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday. Yet, I still missed the Art Market, so I spent one afternoon there, talking to the exhibitors. Most of them were very saddened by the new arrangement. They were, indeed, making less money than last year, but were unclear whether or not the separation from the screenings or the economy were to blame. “Let’s not forget that this recession is striking the African American population more severely”, Babu told me. The most articulate exhibitors, though, said clearly that they viewed this division as “a mistake”, in a spiritual, cultural and financial manner. A man who is both a jewel maker and an independent filmmaker of educational documentaries spoke of the necessity of “resurrecting the consciousness” of unity that had existed before. A collective of weavers from Ghana explained that they arrived in Los Angeles with their cargo unaware that the film festival was in a different location. A French-speaking African man living from his shop in New York while trying to start a production studio in Ivory Coast complained that he couldn’t see films. I offered him a ride. We had planned to see Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Sexe, Gombo et Beurre Salé (Sex, Gumbo & Salted Butter, France), a dramatic film taking place in the African community in Bordeaux, south of France – but the film arrived in digital form and the Culver City theatre complex didn’t have a projector that could screen PAL, the format used in France. In its stead, they had rescheduled Skin, a UK/South African feature, directed by a British man, Anthony Fabian, which, for some reason, I had avoided. I was wrong, for this was arguably one of the best works shown at PAFF (where it received the Audience Prize for “Best Narrative Feature” and was singled out as “Jury Favourite”.) Starring Sophie Okonedo (29) who delves into her own hybrid identity to express the dilemma of Sandra Laing, a young woman born of white parents but with black skin and nappy hair (most probably the outcome of some hidden, secret genetic pool among these Afrikaners), the film underlines the atrocious absurdities of Apartheid. As her father successfully fights to have Sandra registered as “white”, her existence and the way people perceive her are in acute contradiction with her official identity; she cannot, for example, have a relationship and children with a black man without committing a crime. Fabian collaborated with the real Sandra Laing (who came to the Festival) and explores the emotional intricacies of the situation – how Sandra is gradually expelled from white societies, how this all proves too much for her initially “’liberal” parents. Her father turns against her, and her mother, in a tearful last minute reconciliation, gives her back the memento she had carried wit her all these years: the white doll she had as a child.
Skin is yet another example of the vitality of South African cinema. The opening night film, Ralph Ziman’s Jerusalema (South Africa’s Academy Awards official selection) is the entertaining, yet not terribly original recounting of the rise and (semi)fall of a young gangster from the slums in the post-Apartheid society, where “the promised city” seems within reach. In a class of its own was Zimbabwe, the soulful new work by the ever-prolific Darrell Roodt. Mostly known for the musical adaptation Sarafina! (1992, with Leleti Khumalo, Whoopi Goldberg and Miriam Makeba) and Cry, the Beloved Country (1995), Roodt also directed Yesterday (South Africa’s Academy Award entry in 2004), the beautiful, understated portrayal of a young peasant woman, Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo), who, while her husband is working as a miner in Johannesburg, discovers she is HIV positive. Zimbabwe (Kudzai Chimbaira), the eponymous heroine of Roodt’s latest film, is Yesterday’s spiritual daughter. Both her parents have died of AIDS – her father while working in Johannesburg – and the elders order her to leave the village with her younger brother and her niece. The main difference is that she lives in Zimbabwe (hence her name, symbolising her father’s nationalistic pride when the country became independent in 1980) and neighbouring South Africa appears to be, by contrast, a land of milk and honey. After an exhausting journey, she and her ward are sheltered by a reluctant and mean auntie – but then appears a young man who promises a way to cross the frontier and to find a job in Johannesburg…
Tremblements lointains (Distant Tremors, Senegal/France/Belgium) by Belgian director Manuel Poutte, is an elliptic, exquisitely crafted tale about the unsettling effects of post-colonialism on both black and white subjects. In a small Senegalese village, Bandiougou (Senegalese musician Papa Malick N’Diaye) earns a shabby living by being a tourists guide and boatman, while dreaming of being reunited with his French girlfriend in Paris. When a letter arrives, announcing that a visa has been secured for him, Bandiougou, who cannot read, asks the daughter of the local French doctor, Marie (Amélie Faure) to tell him the content. Inexplicably, Marie lies to him. A sullen, often childish teenager born in Africa, she chafes under the possessiveness of her father, whose initial goodwill to “help the people” has turned to cynicism and the sourness of an old colonist. She may or may not be mad – and she is probably, against her better judgment, in love with Bandiougou. Meanwhile, the latter is now convinced that he is under the spell of an evil spirit, and his dilemma is further complicated when one of the Doctor’s friends (Jean-François Stévenin) asks him to find a sacred fetish for art collectors in Europe. Boarding Bandiougou’s boat, the four protagonists endeavour a journey in the heart of the jungle (shades of Joseph Conrad and Francis Ford Coppola…) and, apparently lost in the magic of the place, must face a hidden part of themselves.
The Question of the Gaze: Take 2
These four films, outlining a sometimes disturbing picture of contemporary Africa, were all directed by white men – two of them (Fabian and Poutte) born in Europe. Moreover, the much-acclaimed Munyunrangabo (which I, alas, missed), shot in Rwanda, was the first feature of Korean American director Lee Isaac Chung. Even Maria Govan, who received the “Best First Feature Director Award” for Rain, asserts her identity as “a woman of Greek, Scottish and Bahamian descent”.
There were also a number of international films directed by black or Arab filmmakers – one of the most poignant and successful being Hakkar Amor’s La Maison Jaune (The Yellow House, Algeria/France). Like other young filmmakers with a double identity (born in Algeria, raised in France, such as Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche, for example), Amor is not interested in re-hashing Algeria’s painful colonial past. He tells a simple story: one day a peasant family is told that their older son, who was doing his military duty, has died in a car accident. The father goes to collect the body in a little tricycle with mechanical problems. He relies on the kindness of strangers to be able to complete his task. Halfway through, the tone of the movie shifts, from the father’s road journey to the effects of the mother’s depression on the entire family. Painting the house yellow, or getting a dog won’t help. A few days before dying, the son had recorded a videocassette in which he says hello to his family. The distant village does not have electricity. Visits are paid to officials. “What is the problem?” says the Prefect. “We don’t have any problems,” replies the mother. “We just want electricity.” So she can watch the image of her beloved son, in the privacy of her home, not in a public place: she’s a good Muslim woman. Modernity treads such strange paths, through grief, tradition, and passive resistance.
Whatever the ethnicity of the director, all these films are showcased together, not only at PAFF, but in most African and Black film festivals; the vagaries of independent film production allows for an hyphenated labelling stressing an Afro-centrist or diasporic origin. More to the point, these films are loved by black audiences who see their own images projected on the screen. The question of agency remains paramount for African American features, in which the desire “to tell our own stories” is central – and a sizeable portion on the PAFF offerings is American-made. In addition to storytelling, this is particularly true in documentary, as proven by Sam Pollard’s Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun. Pollard was one of the five jury members in the US Documentary Competition at Sundance this year. He was editor of a number of Spike Lee’s movies, either narrative or documentaries, but also worked in that capacity with younger or more experimental directors, such as Shola Lynch (Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, 2004) or Thomas Allen Harris (Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, 2005); he is mostly known as the writer/director of two episodes of the black-produced, epoch-making series Eyes on the Prize (1990) about the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and as the executive producer of Nancy D. Kates and Bennett Singer’s Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, that premiered at Sundance in 2003. A charismatic figure in the Civil Rights Movement, Rustin fell from grace when he was imprisoned for homosexuality, which is why his name has somewhat been eradicated from history (it is usually not mentioned that he organised the March on Washington in 1963). Based on rare archival footage, Pollard’s documentary on Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) plunges into the contradictions that run through the author’s life and work. More than anyone, Hurston knew how important it is for black people to tell their own stories not only by themselves, but also the way they felt like telling them. She started her career doing ethnographic research and collecting folk stories in Southern communities, with the support of white patrons – which was later criticised. In her own fiction, such as the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937 – a distant inspiration for Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, 1986), she reproduced speech patterns she had identified during her field research, therefore giving literary dignity to Southern black vernacular. This was also criticised at the time as a kind of debased folk representation (or “minstrelisation”) of “the Negro” for the enjoyment of white people. Today it is considered that she opened the way to contemporary African American literature, such as that of Toni Morrisson or Sapphire. At the end of her life she opposed desegregation, fearful that some of the means used (busing, bringing black children into white schools) would mean a dilution of authentic African American culture. Taking Hurston back from her pedestal of “heroine of the Harlem Renaissance”, Pollard outlines the complex portrait of an extraordinary woman who had more than one battle to fight – who won some, and then lost some.
As Hurston is a key figure in African American story telling, a discussion of her role makes sense within a Pan African film festival that has the guts to show, side by side, images of black people and black life produced by black, white, Asian and white people. In the US, we still have too few occasions to watch images of Africa, of black communities in Latin America or the Caribbean that are not distorted by publicity or sensationalism, if they are offered to us at all. The gaze of the Other may be objectifying – it may also be loving. Without eschewing the urgent issues posed by the access of African filmmakers to the means of cinematographic production, a true multiculturalism may be just this: the coexistence, overlapping, cross-pollination of different sorts of gazes. Maybe some of us have learnt a couple of things in the last few decades. This is why we were able to bring to power a President born of a Kenyan father and a white mother. This is why this election is such a symbol, a turning point. This is why it may be possible to hope for a change in the culture when we watch movies shown at a large prestigious festival like Sundance, or a more modest, community-organised event like PAFF, the year Obama walked into the White House.
- Newsletter, Pan African Film and Arts Festival.
- See Gregg Araki, “Don’t Slam Sundance”, The Advocate, February 2009.
- See my report on Sundance 2008.
- See http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com. For news about Zeitgeist Films picking up Trouble the Water see The Hollywood Reporter, June 11, 2008.
- Borden took many years to complete both films, so the work on Born in Flames started in the mid- to late-‘70s, and eventually influenced the research done by Borden on radical groups of women (such as the collective C.O.Y.O.T.E) representing sex workers that was the inspiration for Working Girls. There was an important number of feminist artists working in the sex industry at the time, either to pay the bill, or for more subversive, political reasons, as evidenced by the panel discussions organised around the subject at the time.
- ”Often black people, especially non-gay folks, are enraged when they hear a white person who is gay suggest that homosexuality is synonymous with the suffering people experience as a consequence of racial exploitation and oppression… White people, gay or straight, could show greater understanding of the impact of racial oppression on people of color by not attempting to make these oppressions synonymous, but rather by showing they are linked yet differ…” bell hooks, “Homophobia in black communities” in Talking Back: Thinking Feminist – Thinking Black, South End Press, Boston, 1989, p. 125.
- bell hooks’ original essay was published in Sexism, Colonialism, Misrepresentation, a special issue of Motion Picture Magazine, B. Reynaud (ed.), Collective for Living Cinema, New York, 1990 – documenting the film series and conference of the same name that took place at the Collective for Living Cinema, 25 April – 8 May 1988. It was later integrated into the text “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Women Spectators” in bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation, South End Press, Boston, pp. 115-131, and later in Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies, Routledge, New York, 1996, pp. 197-213.
- “Wild Thing” had originally appeared in The Portable Lower East Side Queer City, a publication receiving (modest) NEA funding. The text was adapted into a short film, Wild Thing: A Poem by Sapphire (1989) by Cheryl Dunye, who, a few years later, similarly attracted Jesse Helms’ scorn with her debut feature, The Watermelon Woman (1996), “the first feature film directed by an African American lesbian” (Kristin Pepe, Manager, The Legacy Project/Outfest).
- “I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver. This was in 1983… This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She’s retarded… I should be in the eleventh grade, getting ready to go to the twelf’ grade so I can go ‘n graduate. But I am not. I am in the ninfe grade. I got suspended from school ‘cause I’m pregnant, which I don’t think is fair. I ain’ did nothin’!” p. 3. Knopf, New York, 1996.
- Owen Keehnen, “Artist with a Mission: A Conversation with Sapphire”, gltbq website.
- Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” reproduced in Constance Penley (ed.), Feminism and Film Theory, Routledge, New York, 1988, p. 62.
- See Ralph Waldo Ellison, Invisible Man, Random House, New York, 1952.
- See, in particular, Jesse Algeron Rhines, Black Film/White Money, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1996, and Jill Watts, Hattie McDaniel – Black Ambition, White Hollywood, HarperCollins, New York, 2005.
- Gordon Parks’ Shaft (1971) starring Richard Roundtree, with music by Isaac Hayes; Jack Hill’s Coffy (1973) starring Pam Greer.
- An independent film and theatre producer/director, Tyler Perry is mostly known for his comical, cross-dressing impersonation of the female character Madea, a fat black granny.
- Actually, it’s been done, but I am only aware of two short films, not of any feature. The first one, Ayoka Chenzira’s Hair Piece: A Film for Nappyheaded People (1984) uses animation and humour; the second one, me broni ba (My White Baby), was completed in 2008 by California Institute of the Arts graduate Akosua Adoma Owusu, and shown this winter at New York’s MoMA; half-experimental documentary, half elliptical narrative, the 22-minute film unfolds an impressionist series of vignettes, shot mostly in hair salons in Ghana, to delve into issues of post-colonial repression and identity. It should be noted that, upon screening excerpts from her film, Owusu secured an internship with Chris Rock’s production company, and is therefore credited as “post-production assistant” for Good Hair. However, her project was conceived before the Rock vehicle.
- Nelson has directed films on such important topics as The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (1999) and The Murder of Emmett Till (2003) – about the racial murder of a black teenager in Mississippi that was one of the sparks igniting the Civil Rights Movement – among others.
- That year, Marlon Brando publicly refused his Oscar for The Godfather, in solidarity with the AIM and to protest about the misrepresentation of Indians in Hollywood. 1992, Sundance had shown a documentary on one of the Indian activists, executive produced and narrated by Robert Redford, Michael Apted’s Incident at Oglala – The Leonard Peltier Story (1992). Stanley Nelson’s film is actually the fifth episode of a PBS series, We Shall Remain, about Native American history. The first four episodes are directed by another Sundance alumnus, Chris Eyre.
- Founded in 1880, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency played an important role in the repression of organised labour in the last 19th and early 20th century when their agents were hired by factory owners as private armies to break strikes. One of the most famous incidents was the murder of the (partly Native American) union leader Frank Little by six masked men believed to be Pinkerton operators during a copper mining strike in 1917. Dashiell Hammet was working on and off for Pinkerton from 1915 to 1922, but it is unclear whether or not he was in Butte at the time of the murder. He later wrote the thriller Red Harvest (1929), in which an anonymous detective uses highly unorthodox methods to fix the corruption that became rampant in the city (which he playfully renames “Personville/Poisonville”) after the violent squashing of the strike. Travis Wilkerson’s incisive experimental documentary, An Injury to One (2002), further deconstructs the story of the strike, Hammet’s possible involvement in the chain of events, the political repercussions of the repression and the current ecological disaster engulfing Butte, Montana.
- Bratt’s feature debut, Follow Me Home, about three mural painters, on Chicano, one African American, one Indian American, was showcased in the 1996 Sundance edition and eventually caused him to receive a Rockefeller Genius Grant in 2000.
- A well-know television and film actor, Benjamin Bratt has appeared, among others, in Nicole Kassel’s The Woodsman, Mike Newell’s Love in the Time of Cholera (2007), a number of films produced in Latin America and 94 episodes of the TV series Law and Order (1995-99). He is also the narrator of the PBS series We Shall Remain (2009) (see above, note 19).
- Born in Oakland, of Japanese and Swedish heritage, Fukunaga was listed among the “Twenty-five New Faces of Independent Film 2005” by Filmmaker Magazine after his short, Victoria para Chino (2005) was shown at Sundance. Inspired by a real-life incident, in which 20-odd illegal Mexican immigrants suffocated to death in the trailer truck carrying them across the boarder, Victoria became the blue-print for a more ambitious project involving the lives of illegal immigrants.
- Hiam Abbas started her career with Michel Khleifi’s landmark Palestinian film, Ursl al-jalil (Wedding in Galilee), in 1987; she worked with Amos Gitai, Eran Riklis and Hany Abu-Assad; she became famous through her role as a middle-aged Mom-turned belly dancer in Raja Amari’s Satin Rouge (2002) and graces the second half of Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor (2007). She is also a screenwriter and a director of shorts.
- The role of Nabeel Halaby is held by the great Arab Israeli actor Yussuf Abu Warda who has worked with Michel Khleifi, Amos Gitai and Eran Riklis.
- Organised in the Mexican state of Chiapas, in Southern Yucatan, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) has waged a war against the Mexican government since 1994 (the date of NAFTA’s implementation).
- See http://www.mujereslibres.org.
- For a refreshing take on corporate greed, check Union Carbide’s site designed to address the “incident”: http://www.bhopal.com.
- Born in London of a Nigerian father and an Askhenazi mother, Okonedo is mostly known for her role in Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004), for which she received several nominations and a Black Reel Award. However, she started her career in Isaac Julien’s first dramatic feature, Young Soul Rebels (1991) and her career has since included a combination of more commercial features, art/independent films and television.