Friday, 23 October 2015


By Dimitri Keramitas

Sand Dollars, directed by Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, is an assured, lushly filmed story set in the Dominican Republic, and one can see why it won the Best Fiction Feature prize at the recent 2015 trinidad+tobago film festival, an annual event in the Caribbean.

Noeli and Anne - actors Mojica and Chaplin
But despite the cinematography, this is a story of inequality and sexual exploitation, even if the setting seems unspoiled.

The movie, loosely based on a book by French author Jean-Noël Pancrazi, portrays the taut relationship between a Western, cosmopolitan grandmother (one of those upper-class seniors who remain svelte and well-coiffed) and a young local woman who’s sensual, though still rather coltish.

The exploitation may seem mutual and consenting - the girl, Noeli (Yanet Mojica) can be manipulative, while the older woman Anne (Geraldine Chaplin) appears vulnerable and well meaning. But the power relationship framing the couple is one-sided: Anne is a wealthy French citizen who can afford a plush Caribbean vacation house and domestic, while Noeli’s one prized possession is a motor scooter. Her dream is to move to France, with the aid of her lover. 

Noeli and boyfriend Yeremi.
The movie spells things out even further: it opens with a scene in which Noeli parts from another Westerner, once more a gentle senior, but this time a man. He leaves her money, but also a necklace as a sentimental gift. The necklace promptly finds its way into a pawnshop. The directors also provide glimpses of her life with Yeremi (Ricardo Ariel Toribio), her young boyfriend. At first he seems to be little more than a pimp, but it turns out that Yeremi is an aspiring percussionist.

Despite what might seem like a stark situation, the movie is something of a pastoral. The Dominican setting doesn’t seem poverty-mired, but a tropical paradise by the sea. Even the poverty we do glimpse seems mellow, like exotic fruit (just as the Spanish spoken by the locals sounds oddly Brazilian with its languid phonemes).

Inequality summed up in a greathouse.
The classic pastoral typically featured innocent youths and animals such as sheep and goats. Here, adults including Anne are portrayed as childlike. (Geraldine Chaplin still does that funny eye thing - a half-yearning, half-empathetic gaze - that she’s been doing since Dr. Zhivago a half-century ago). There’s even a lovely shot of a pair of horses on the idyllic grounds of a beach house.

This dreamy, soft-focus approach is effective for showing the seductive nature of the local environment. Cárdenas and Guzmán film nature beautifully and imaginatively. But the theme is defanged in the process. We get the idea of sexual exploitation but there’s no actual sex to drive home what is at stake.

Geraldine Chaplin is an excellent actress who gives a knock-out performance, but we don’t really believe her as a lesbian. She seems to have more of a mentor relationship with Noeli. The directors shoot Chaplin’s body in a way that brings out her age, wrinkles and all, but is it plausible that such a worldly woman would never have recourse to make-up? It’s ultimately an affectation. It may be that Anne is a cunning manipulator, but this remains vague, like so much in the movie

Noeli and her prized possession - a scooter.
We never see Noeli making love with Yeremi, either. While Mojica and Toribio give marvellous natural performances in their first acting roles, both seem pre-sexual (except in the scenes where Noeli is dancing - but she’s most erotic when dancing alone). There’s no real electricity between them. When Noeli finds out that she’s pregnant we almost take it as a virgin birth. Even her boyfriend is surprised.

At least the pregnancy serves as a catalyst to upset the casual triangular romance that’s been playing out. Noeli decides that she will have the baby, and she gets serious about going to Europe, while her boyfriend wants to keep her at home. Anne, after temporarily rejecting Noeli when she sees her cavorting in a dance club, does all she can to help her. But though there’s talk about continuing their relationship in France, Anne seems more motherly and mentor-like than ever.

The movie poster, in French.
What’s particularly strange in the story of Noeli and Anne is that they’re supposed to have been together for three years. In the case of Noeli this would mean that at the beginning she was very young, with Anne’s attentions bordering on paedophilia. But again, we don’t have a sense of Anne as a genuinely sexual being. And we aren’t given any information about how the relationship has evolved, an inkling, perhaps, that all passion has been spent.

The story of this triangular relationship is interrupted by the arrival of an old friend of Anne’s, a man who brings along a young woman. They are both vaguely Eurotrash. The man seems to be American but speaks with finishing school intonations. The young woman speaks (and sings in one sequence) with just enough of an accent to be off (like Geraldine Chaplin trying to speak American), but not enough to identify her with a real place. From some of the talk, we get the idea of a seedy set that systematically exploits locals for sex (the word-play of the title has already given us the idea), but this is muffled with the usual vagueness.

A work that uses the pastoral form, but within the real world, should at least bring input from that real world, through exposition, description, flashback. Anne has had issues with her 42-year-old son, which has made them estranged. But we get no more than a teasing hint. It may be true that both exploiters and exploited use indirection as an emotional survival tool, or even a weapon. But we expect more from the filmmakers. The directors may think they’re being ambiguous and oblique, but in the end all that vagueness makes the film itself a kind of a tease.

Pancrazi and Chaplin in Paris. Photo: Espagnolas en Paris.
In explaining their aim, the directors have in fact said that they wanted to “depict a world full of contradictions: pay to have company, pay too for the happiness of those who accompany one … and feel the powerlessness that comes with always being a foreigner”. They refer to the story as one of “impossible love”.

Sand Dollars (Dólares de Arena / Les Dollars des Sables) doesn’t really begin or end, however. Like a pastoral, it just starts and stops. The directors frame the film with footage of an elderly singer named Ramon Cordero crooning about his mournful but passionate love. We feel the passion in his voice, and see the results on his face and in his eyes. It’s not pastoral fantasy but life, and this alone is worth the price of admission.

Photos are by courtesy of the filmmakers, unless otherwise indicated. Production: Canana Films/Rei Cine/Foprocine/Conaculta. Distribution: Tucuman Films. Pancrazi’s book (published by Gallimard) has been re-issued in French with a picture from the film on the front cover. 

Friday, 16 October 2015


By Kathleen Gyssels

In 2006, the death of the French-Jewish author André Schwarz-Bart (born in 1928 in Metz) went by virtually unnoticed in the French media, which were much more preoccupied with the Goncourt Prize awarded to Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes that year.

One of the reasons for this lack of coverage was the author’s retreat to the island of Guadeloupe, where he spent most of the year, alternating his time between his Parisian apartment and the plantation house in Goyave owned by his wife, Simone Schwarz-Bart.

The cover of the new book. 
The absence of obituaries for André Schwarz-Bart, who had been the 1959 Goncourt winner for a masterpiece on the Holocaust titled The Last of the Just, contrasted sharply with the enormous presence of Littell's Les Bienveillantes, whose content was strikingly similar to that of Schwarz-Bart’s book.

In 2015, readers who had long waited for a sequel to The Last of the Just, or another volume of the author’s works set in the French Antilles, received a happy surprise with L’Ancêtre en Solitude, a novel that has now gone on to win prizes in both the Caribbean and France.

This new historical work about three generations of Guadeloupean women is introduced by Simone who is listed as co-author. But this is ultimately a collaborative project started after André’s death, and Simone expresses gratitude to a couple of people who helped and encouraged her to get the files left by her late husband in order.

The novel begins with a historical portrait, and we recognize the distinct “plume” of André Schwarz-Bart. The protagonist is Louise, nicknamed Solite, whose dreadful experiences are related in third-person narrative, in a way that reminds us of the stream of consciousness that shaped La Mulâtresse Solitude (A Woman Named Solitude) with a fascinating power and kept the reader hooked until the tragic ending.

In many ways, Louise/Solite resembles Solitude, the protagonist of the 1972 novel which André described as his first “Caribbean novel”. Of this book, which almost was adapted into a movie by novelist Lisa de St Auban de Teran, critic Alan Friedman said: “Reading is believing. ["A Woman Named Solitude"] must be read to be believed. Surely it shouldn't be possible to tell the tortures of slavery in the manner of a fairy tale and still convey the extent of the atrocity.”

Simone Schwarz-Bart (© Hermance Triay)
L’Ancêtre en Solitude takes off where Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes (A Dish of Pork with Green Bananas / 1967, co-authored by husband and wife) ended: Mariotte is an elderly Martinican woman dying in Paris in the late Fifties. She appears to be the granddaughter of the unhappy and miserable Solitude of the earlier novel.

André Schwarz-Bart had planned a huge family chronicle that would span centuries of Guadeloupean, Caribbean, and even world history, as Mariotte is a world traveler. Africa and Latin America are some of the places mentioned in her diary full of blanks and abruptly finished with what the reader can only presume is Mariotte’s sudden death on a frozen square somewhere in Paris.

What is even more intriguing is the friendship between the only Black female character imprisoned in this “Trou” (Hole) and a certain Louise Duployé who gets hysterical each time some of the other characters make jokes about the Jews and their treatment during World War II. This leads us to believe that Louise might be Jewish herself, and we see the authors’ intertwining of both tragedies: French colonialism, with the slave trade and the terrible harrowing experiences on the plantations, and the deportation and extermination of Jews in the concentration camps.

While the co-authors clearly made a statement by dedicating their 1967 novel to Elie Wiesel and Aimé Césaire, two of the most emblematic figures for both oppressed communities, the narrative itself in the books remains implicit.

One single element, however, clearly links this so-called Martinican novel to the Holocaust and the cycle of novels: in her wanderings Mariotte seems to recognize in the streets of the Latin Quarter a certain Moritz Levy, and those who’ve read The Last of the Just will remember him as the elder brother of Ernie, the character who seemed to have survived the Shoah.

The Schwarz-Barts as a young couple. (© D.R.)
Readers of the new novel, however, may find that this half-posthumous work does not always possess the coherence, poetic style, and historic density of both The Last of the Just and La Mulâtresse Solitude. So one could ask this question: why does Simone Schwarz-Bart continue to publish the material found in her husband’s library?

Simone clearly considers this project as the fulfillment of André’s secret desire. The intention of bringing to the public unpublished work is explained in several recent, yet short, interviews Simone has given. In these conversations, it is striking that the Guadeloupian novelist does not mention any of her own novels - the classic Bridge of Beyond and the epic Ti Jean L’Horizon  / Between Two Worlds, or her beautiful play Ton beau capitaine / Your Handsome Captain. It seems as if Simone deliberately situates herself as the author of a couple who takes satisfaction in completing the other’s work. One would hope that she has not given up her own imaginative and creative output.

But to come back to her late husband: by bridging the Caribbean “plantation universe” and the Jewish concentration camps, André Schwarz-Bart was first and foremost a pioneer. Today, authors such as the Algerian Boualem Sansal, the Canadian Nancy Huston, the American Toni Morrison, and so many others, can deal with the “dangerous parallels” between Shoah and slavery, between (French) colonialism in Algeria, apartheid and segregation in the States, and the Holocaust.

Simone receiving a literary prize in Guadeloupe, 2015.
But perennially excluded from the canon of Shoah-literature, at least in French criticism, André Schwarz-Bart would similarly be excluded from another literary canon, i.e. that of the Caribbean, and this in spite of his French-Caribbean novels La Mulâtresse Solitude and the co-authored Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes.

As a matter of fact, Simone’s own successful first novel Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle / A Bridge of Beyond is modeled on her husband’s prize-winning début. In her following novel, Ti Jean L’Horizon, echoes run so deep that one can think of a co-authorship once more.

André thus associated his wife to a large “opus” in which the “Black Atlantic” and the persecution and pogroms of Jews in the larger Europe are interwoven. For him, as he explained to the Parisian journalist Robert Kanters, the Africans deported to the New World were the Jews’, expelled from Egypt under Pharaoh, and so brethren.

Referring to reviews of the latest work, writer Paul West has this to say: "French reviewers (a predictable lot) haven't failed to point out how this new novel renews Schwarz-Bart's commitment to the walking wounded of history, to martyrs and victims, and how it supplies an overt analogy between the tragedy of deported slaves and that of persecuted Jews. All true; but the book's appeal (and major virtue) isn't historical, ideological, or even moral, but psychological."

The prize-winning debut.
West continues, "From Gabriel García Márquez we not so long ago had One Hundred Years of Solitude, and now we have 179 pages of what sounds like the same. I wish there had been more: as much of this one as of the other. Schwarz-Bart is the severer writer of the two, but his exoticism is just as compelling as that of [García] Márquez…"

This is an unbelievable comment since the Colombian Nobel Prize winner had in fact been inspired by The Last of the Just. His One Hundred Years of Solitude actually has an identical long sentence describing the massacre of poor banana-workers enslaved by the Yankees, and Garcia Marquez’s “magical realism” is very much indebted to André’s first Goncourt Prize-winning novel.

But while the Latin-American literary giant never mentioned this particular model, the intertextual play proves that instead of having Schwarz-Bart compared to Garcia Marquez, it is the reverse perspective one should adopt. This and many other examples, notably in the author’s French Caribbean fiction, could be given. It any case, the Schwarz-Barts have always remained discreet and have considered their texts as “shared knowledge” of the “lived experience of the Black” (to quote Frantz Fanon) as well as of the expelled Jew, both in the past and in modern times. 

L’Ancêtre en Solitude contradicts some of the previous conclusions in textbooks. While the earlier co-authorship resulted in more fame for Simone, as several critics have noticed, the new posthumous sequel might, despite some weaknesses, reverse the situation and put the emphasis back on André.

Prof. Dr. Kathleen Gyssels is a scholar at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, and the author of several books and articles on Black and Jewish Diasporas.

Edited / Copyright SWAN

Wednesday, 30 September 2015


The United Nations’ member states this month adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as the world tries to build on the successes – and surmount the failures – of the previous eight Millennium Development Goals, which should have been achieved by 2015.

Culture is just a shadow in SDGs.
The new global objectives still focus on eradicating poverty and hunger, achieving gender equality, and providing good healthcare and universal education. But they now include access to affordable, clean energy, and place much greater emphasis on protecting the environment.

A glaring oversight, however, is culture – mentioned just a few times in the 169 subordinate aims or targets. This is a lapse that many in the cultural sector see as unfortunate, especially when one considers the destruction of cultural heritage taking place in some parts of the world. It seems that the voices appealing for recognition of culture’s role got lost in the UN babel.

At a high-profile meeting last year for instance, Irina Bokova, the director-general of the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO, joined policy makers from different countries in calling for culture to be integrated into the Post-2015 development agenda.

Irina Bokova, UNESCO's DG.
During this special thematic debate on culture and sustainable development held May 5, 2014, in New York, speakers used data and national examples to emphasize that culture “drives and enables the social, environmental and economic pillars of sustainable development”.

Participants also recognized that culture is “the thread that binds together the social fabric of our societies”, as Acting President of the UN General Assembly Khaled Khiari put it at the time. Bokova warned, too, of the dangers of repeating the “mistakes” of 2000, when culture was omitted from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Last October as well, UNESCO hosted its third Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries, in Florence, Italy, where representatives from a range of countries discussed the contributions that culture can make to a “sustainable future” through stimulating employment, economic growth and innovation. (For the full article on this conference, please see:

All this seems to have borne little fruit, however, as culture is mentioned in the SDGs only as a subtext to education, tourism and making cities sustainable.

Is tourism the main reason for promoting culture?
In Goal 4 – to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning – the objective is that by 2030, all learners will have acquired the “knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including … appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”.

Apart from this, there’s Goal 8 – to promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all – in which the member states aim to “devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.

A similar idea is repeated in Goal 12 – to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. Here, states undertake to “develop and implement tools to monitor sustainable development impacts for sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.
Seventeen goals and little space for culture.

Such wording, of course, raises the question: do governments see the promotion of culture only as a way to boost tourism?  Is tourism necessary for promoting culture? The sad answer to both appears to be “yes”, and the SDGs aren’t helping to change this mindset.

The only really clear aim for culture comes in Goal 11: to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Among the 10 targets here is to "strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world's cultural and natural heritage". One wonders if the protection of culture could not have been a goal itself.

In an interview, a UNESCO official said that while some people may be disappointed that the language is not detailed enough, the new development agenda does reflect the role of culture throughout.

"This is a substantial step forward from the MDGs, when there was no mention of culture," she said, while acknowledging that greater action could still have been taken. - A.M.

Monday, 21 September 2015


By Zofeen T. Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan - Though much-rejected and scorned during his lifetime, the great South Asian short-story writer and iconoclast Saadat Hasan Manto is making inroads into the hearts and minds of a new generation of Pakistanis, thanks to a biopic by filmmaker-director Sarmad Sultan Khoosat.

Sarmad Khoosat talking about his film. (Photo: Z.T. Ebrahim)
Written by the playwright Shahid Nadeem, and with Khoosat playing the protagonist, the film “Manto” comes 60 years after the Urdu-speaking author's death. It focuses on the last four years of his tormented life, as he drinks himself to oblivion.

But while the film has taken Pakistani cinema-goers by storm, it has also left them bruised and disturbed.

The movie shows Manto’s life juxtaposed with some seven to eight of his short stories and screen and radio plays, where his characters come and haunt him. The scenes are then interwoven with appearances by an alter-ego (who understands his inner torment and agony), played by the celebrated actor Nimra Bucha.

Many say it was not alcohol but the tragic events of the partition of the sub-continent that killed Manto. He was born in what is now present-day India, but he left, like millions of others, for Pakistan in 1948. 

The Manto poster: the rebel, the writer.
Some of his finest writings chronicle the partition period, and they touch a raw nerve even today as they force readers to re-live that era through the writer's words.

Manto put human suffering above everything else, beyond religion and patriotism, and he scathingly laid bare hypocrisy and pretense. This and other factors make the film disturbing.

"It's too intense and there is too much blood," said Ali, a young lawyer coming out of the theatre.

But this view is not the only one. After watching the film, television actor Saba Hameed said in an interview: "'s the truth that really jolts you."

If this is so, half of Khoosat's job is done and even rewarded. On a recent promotional talk show, when someone in the audience got up to tell him the film had too many disturbing visuals, the director was in fact quite pleased: "I want the audience to be disturbed and if it was, it means the movie has worked," he said, adding as an afterthought: "Manto would have approved of the stress given!"

The film does not portray Manto as an iconic figure but instead humanises him - for the person he was with all his flaws and faults.

Samad Khoosat makes another point. (Photo: Z.T. Ebrahim)
He is shown as an arrogant individual, who knows he is a great writer, honest to the point of being hurtful, an alcoholic who, in his weakest of moments, buys himself a bottle rather than precious medicine for his seriously ill daughter. He is also shown as a family man in one scene, painting a wall with his daughters.

Manto is equally seen surrounded by showbiz types and celebrities but they don't interest him - the underdogs do: people like a horse-carriage driver, the men at a mental hospital where he was admitted, prostitutes, even pimps.

He is obsessed with writing and conveying the truth in all its severity. In fact, it seemed he could foresee that he had much work to do, much to show, but time was running out.

A book of essays by Manto.
He was just 43 when he died in 1955, leaving behind 22 collections of short stories, several radio plays, a novel, collections of essays and personal sketches, and many film scripts.

For Khoosat, whose love affair with Manto began at a young age, this "passion project" was like a "dream come true". It got better when he was asked to play the lead role. "Who'd want to miss this opportunity?" he asked.

Calling it an unbelievable, almost "cosmic" journey that he was destined to undertake, Khoosat said he worked on the film for three years and termed that time as "living with Manto". While it took him just three months to shoot the film, it took over two-and-a-half years on the editing table meticulously going through hours upon hours of footage which he said "wasn't easy". 

It took Pakistan's government 57 years to acknowledge Manto as a short story writer of the Urdu language when he was posthumously bestowed with a Nishan-e-Imtiaz (Distinguished Service to Pakistan award) on August 14, 2012, the year of his centenary. That same year the idea to make a film on him was born.

Now that the movie has been released, how does it feel for Khoosat to be sharing his creation with the public? "I want to share him without fear," the filmmaker said.

Samad Khoosat signs a movie goer's book. (Photo Z.T. Ebrahim)
Sania Saeed, who plays Manto's wife Safiah, interrupted saying that Khoosat was “slowly and dangerously becoming really Mantoesque", and she thought that this breaking away from the protagonist was much needed.

While Khoosat may have immortalised the legend, to Saeed the bigger victory is to be able to present the film to the public and see their acceptance of a non-conformist. "Today, people can identify him for the person he was - someone who thought ahead of time," she said.

Ironically, while India and Pakistan squabble over just about everything, for years neither India (where Manto spent most of his life) nor Pakistan (where he spent the last few years) deemed it necessary to own and claim  the sizeable literary treasure that he produced.

But today Manto lovers have found it in them to pay tribute to this giant of an Urdu writer in a befitting manner. The film is expected to be released internationally in the coming months, with screenings in the United States and other countries.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan.

Saturday, 12 September 2015


Several internationally renowned artists, including Jamaica’s Sean Paul and Benin’s Angelique Kidjo, have released a song urging world leaders to reach an effective global accord during the next United Nations climate conference taking place Nov. 30 - Dec. 11 in Paris.

Jamaican singer-rapper Sean Paul.
The track, titled “Love Song to the Earth”, is now available for download from iTunes and Apple Music.

The UN said that the artists, producers and directors of the song – as well as Apple – are donating their respective proceeds to environmental group Friends of the Earth US and to the UN Foundation.

With vocals too from Paul McCartney, Leona Lewis and Jon Bon Jovi, among others, the song “aims to reach new audiences with the message that the time to act on climate change is now”, the UN added.

Listeners are encouraged to share the song and to sign a petition that will be delivered to world leaders at the beginning of the climate summit.

The initiative is part of an international rallying of artists ahead of the conference (COP 21), where 195 states will try to reach a universal accord on reducing carbon emissions to curb global warming.

President Hollande (Photo: SWAN)
The French government also launched its own mobilization on Sept. 10, with filmmakers, musicians and others participating in a high-profile ceremony at the Élysée Palace, the official presidential residence.

With his top ministers in attendance, French President François Hollande emphasized his commitment to making COP 21 a success, but he also warned about the possibility of failure.

“There is no miracle … there is a chance we’ll succeed but also a great risk we might fail,” Hollande said.

To avoid failure, all sectors of the society have to get involved, including artists, the president added.

Spearheading some of France’s cultural happenings is a group called ArtCOP21, which plans to “stage city-wide events that address climate as a people’s challenge and work to create a cultural blueprint of positive and sustainable change”.

Pharrell Williams (Photo: courtesy of Live Earth)
The group’s director, Lauranne Germond, said that sometimes artists can connect with those that politicians can’t reach.

On Sept. 19, Paris was scheduled to host a huge public concert in front of the Eiffel Tower as part of “Live Earth: Road to Paris”  a movement co-founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, with singer Pharrell Williams as creative director.

The event would've come 30 years after Live Aid, when artists mobilized massively to raise funds for millions of people affected by famine in Africa.

But the show has reportedly been cancelled, although Live Earth’s organizers are still urging that "now is the time to deliver a single message to world leaders: Take Climate Action Now.” 

Watch "Love Song to the Earth":

Tuesday, 8 September 2015


By Dimitri Keramitas

Sigo Siendo - winner of the Best Documentary award at the Lima Festival de Cine - is a fascinating meditation on music, and a number of other things.

A young singer with charming musicians in Sigo Siendo.
Directed by Javier Corcuera, the film is situated in a well-defined generic niche, similar to Buena Vista Social Club. That is, it tells the story of very old, very charming individuals in Latin America and their entrancing music. Like Buena Vista Social Club, the movie takes place in the present but often harkens back to a golden age several decades ago when its subjects were young (usually during a difficult political context). Happily for viewers, Corcuera goes off in his own idiosyncratic direction.

The movie focuses on Maximo Damian, “Don Maximo”, an indigenous Peruvian violinist. He seems to be a lifelong itinerant musician. No spring chicken, Don Maximo crosses the beautiful but forbidding Peruvian hinterlands - hills, jungle, parched landscapes - as well as the teeming capital of Lima. The scenery is beautifully captured by the director and cinematographer, with the vividness of a travelogue, but an atmospheric, near-mythic quality as well.

Hitting the parched road in Sigo Siendo (I'm Still).
Don Maximo plays at one festival or celebration or another. Often these are linked to indigenous rituals, for instance calling upon the waters to replenish the land (with the help of the canal whose operation is being inaugurated). Water is a chief symbol in what remains a very agrarian country. One of the polarities we observe is between the dry countryside and Lima, which is not only an urban metropolis, but located next to the ocean. Don Maximo recounts how when he saw the beach for the first time as a youth he wondered where the giant “flood” was coming from.

There’s a striking cultural dichotomy depicted between the indigenous world and the more Westernized Hispanophone society. Aside from the Indians’ link to ritual and nature, there’s language. Most of the people we see speak a native language, rather than Spanish (the film’s alternate title is Kachkaniraqmi), and it’s in this language that the music is sung.

Landscape plays a big role in the film.
Yet the dichotomy is more complicated than we might think. The indigenous world has adopted Western fabrics and clothing, and the music is played on conventional instruments as well as traditional ones. We meet one indigenous man who long ago moved to the capital and became a chemical engineer, seemingly in disguise in his Western business suit, but also maintaining a parallel life as a traditional musician.

Some viewers may also be surprised to see that in addition to the indigenous and Spanish cultures in Peru, there’s a vibrant Afro-Latin culture.  There the music has the percussive stress of African music, as well as bluesy lyrics (sometimes laced with humour), and types of dance that resemble clog dancing and tap. Don Maximo has no problem harmonizing when he takes part in a procession in which dozens of rhythmically stamping feet are as much percussive music as dance (and also provide a visual show as they raise clouds of dust on the unpaved road).

Making music together in Sigo Siendo.
One last dichotomy has to do with age and gender. All the male musicians portrayed are quite old. Is it because the director chose to focus exclusively on them? Or does it indicate that the young male generation isn’t interested in traditional music? This is left unexplored. There are also a number of women singers depicted, nearly all younger. We understand that the older generation of indigenous women was constrained by manual work and domestic life, even if they participated in local celebrations. The young women we see are obviously talented, but with an emotional streak somewhat at odds with the austere purity of the traditional indigenous sound.

The poster, and a hint of Afro-Peruvian music.
In general, Don Maximo seems to travel effortlessly from one world to another, on foot and for longer distances by bus and minibus. He may wear simple clothing, or put on an elaborate Amerindian costume for celebrations. As a boy he apparently had a troubled family life - his father was also a violinist but for some reason opposed his son’s choice to follow in his footsteps, going so far as to hide his instrument and to un-tune it. He was clearly closer to his mother.

Don Maximo has his own family, whom we never see. We don’t know if his wife is still alive, or where his children are. Beneath the ups and downs of his peripatetic life, the ambiguities and mysteries, is his ever-present violin. When Don Maximo muses on mortality he says that if he was to be reborn, his future incarnation would still have the violin.  

Production: Rolando Toledo/Gervasio Iglesias/Guillermo Toledo. Distribution: New Century Films. Photos courtesy of the distributors.

Sunday, 6 September 2015


“Ignorance or concealment of major historical events constitutes an obstacle to mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation among peoples.”

Artwork by Cuban artist Kcho.
These words from the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, were prominently displayed during a seminar, artistic performance and exhibition that the organization hosted on Sept. 4 in Paris - part of an event titled “Artists and the Memory of Slavery: Resistance, creative freedom and legacies”.

To promote dialogue and help “break the historical silence”, UNESCO launched an exhibition comprising several monumental works by 15 contemporary artists from Benin, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, who offered “a fresh perspective on the tragic history of relations between Africa and the Caribbean”, according to the agency.

The exhibition, “Modern Times”, will be open to the public at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters from Sept 7 to 11, allowing viewers to discover both new and established artists and how they perceive the memory and legacy of 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade.

In addition to the unveiling of the works, UNESCO invited artists, researchers and cultural experts from different parts of the world to take part in sessions that focused on the influence that the remembrance of slavery has had on literature, the visual arts, music and dance.

Artwork by Remy Samuz of Benin: "slavery hasn't ended".
Participants included Congolese musician Ray Lema, American saxophonist Archie Shepp, and French actor and director Jacques Martial, who is President of the Memorial ACTe in Guadeloupe - a new Caribbean centre devoted to the "Expression and Memory of Slavery & the Slave Trade".

The main hallway of UNESCO’s Paris headquarters also formed the stage for an original work of dance and music about tradition and modernity, titled “Ogun Today”. In this, a five-member band provided “world beats” to accompany a dancer who did an acrobatic routine, first with machetes in his hands (an enslaved person working in the fields?) and then with a broom. Meanwhile a drone observed his actions from overhead, dipping and diving to keep the "surveillance" going.

The event marked the 21st anniversary of the Slave Route Project – an initiative launched in Ouidah, Benin, in 1994 that has put awareness-raising on the international agenda.

Work by Miguelina Rivera, Dominican Republic.
It has contributed to the recognition of slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity, a declaration made at the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

The Project has also been collecting and preserving archives and oral traditions, supporting the publication of history books, and identifying places and sites of remembrance so that "itineraries for memory” can be developed.

At the Sept. 4 commemoration, however, some observers wondered about the under-representation of women artists and of participants from the English-speaking Caribbean. 

But a UNESCO official said that this was a consequence of having a limited budget. The agency is still facing a funding crisis mainly due to the United States' withholding its dues since 2011, when Palestine beame a member.

A performance artist at UNESCO's "Artists and the Memory of Slavery" event. (Photos: McKenzie)

Monday, 24 August 2015


By Dimitri Keramitas

Prashant Nair’s Umrika comes at a critical moment of migration crisis in Europe, where thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa face overwhelmed services in Italy and Greece, where expanding refugee camps are putting pressure on the governments of France and the UK, and where backlash in Germany and other countries threaten the lives of asylum-seekers.

Saying farewell - a scene from Umrika.
In America a similar situation with Latin American migrants has become a heated political issue, particularly in the presidential campaign (Republican Donald Trump has maligned Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals”, and supports building a wall to keep them out).

A number of recent films, such as Hope and Dheepan, have powerfully depicted the plight of migrants and the ordeal of trying to enter the so-called First World, whether "illegally" or through the asylum process. Umrika, which won the audience award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, is different in focusing on life before migration. The move to Umrika - America - comes only at the end of the film. It portrays that life not only in terms of material deprivation, but complex family relationships and a skewed idealization of the Other Land - the flip side of how those from wealthy nations sometimes exoticize developing countries.

Umrika gives the back story.
The director begins by showing traditional village life in an arid Indian landscape. Nair is meticulous in giving us the details of the harsh daily routine of the villagers, but his visuals are so vivid he almost makes it attractive. Almost, but not quite - we can understand why the villagers seek their fortune elsewhere. In one particular family, it is the eldest son Udai (Prateik Babbar) who decides to leave and head for Umrika. His parents are grief-stricken, especially his mother. She genuinely loves her child, but as a deeply traditional woman she is also bereft at the absence of the first-born from social and religious ritual. Also saddened is Udai’s much younger brother Ramakant (Suraj Sharma), the real protagonist of the film.

For a long time the family agonizes at the absence of any letters from Udai. While others receive word from distant loved ones, there is nothing from their son. Smita Tambe’s strong performance as the mother makes us feel the pain of the families migrants leave behind. Then letters do start arriving, with pasted photos and descriptions of the outlandish country on the other side of the world. It seems that Udai is becoming an immigrant success story.

Positive change also seems to come to the village, but that progress is often only apparent. New electric lines are put in, but in a shoddy way. Nair doesn’t explore the political dimension explicitly or deeply, but he makes it clear that we are in the period of Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency. The father (a very affecting Pramod Pathak) winds up dying, electrocuted by accidentally stepping on a wire, and Rama leads the funerary rite, though it should be his older brother. (Indira Gandhi also has a tragic end, assassinated by her bodyguard.)

Faced with a dire financial situation, the now older Rama decides to set off for the city, sneaking away in the night without his mother’s knowledge. He is determined to make a sufficient living to support his mother, and to carve out a future for himself. In addition, there is growing doubt about those letters from his brother, and Rama will proceed to inquire about them.

Up to now the film has been reminiscent of Satyajit Ray, for the authentic, very human portrayal of peasant life, and the treatment of children. Nair’s expert, empathetic direction is matched by the performances of the actors playing the villagers. When Rama strikes out on his own, the film shifts, reminding us of Slumdog Millionaire and the novel White Tiger, cynical depictions of urban India’s lower depths.

The film is also a love story.
Rama is driven to survive, and is not above stealing another youth’s bicycle, which he needs to get a delivery job. The deliveries are for a firm selling halva for celebrations, but it’s implied that there are also special, more dangerous deliveries. What’s striking is that Rama maintains his humanity in this rough new environment, bonding with friends and falling in love with a girl from a deprived family. It’s a tribute to the director and to Sharma’s moving performance as Rama that this never strains credibility.

Nair’s direction appears sure-footed, even when we suspect at certain moments that it really isn’t. He sometimes includes Bollywood-type music, but this is to underline the mind-set of his characters. The photography gets grainy, like 16 mm or even Super 8, but this tends to happen when the environment and goings-on become murky. Camera movements and the use of close-ups turn out to be controlled, even when we think at first that the director is making heavy-handed stabs at emotion.

The logo sums it all up.
Aside from the dense emotional texture, what distinguishes the film from the Slumdog genre is the thematic drive, the focus on Umrika. Through photos and news reports, we get a humorous parallel history of America in the ’70s and ’80s. Events in America are absurd enough already, but are distorted through the Indians’ interpretations, even the tendency to make analogies with Indian myth and legend. We see how the Other Land is imbued and overlaid with elements of  projection, transference, sentimental longing, resentment, and idealism, just to name a few.

Rama’s search for his brother continues, with ultimately shattering results. Not unrelievedly so, happily. But without revealing too much of the plot, it is Rama himself who will pick up the baton and decide to fulfil his brother’s promise. There Umrika ends, and America begins. The migrant will have no choice but to discover the true moral and social nature of the Other Land. Prashant Nair’s film gives us the opportunity to understand the reality of the migrant, beyond the headlines.

Production: SSPL/Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. Distribution (France): ARP Sélection.

Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based legal specialist and prize-winning writer.