Monday, 24 August 2015


By Dimitri Keramitas

Prashant Nair’s Umrika comes at a critical moment of migrant crisis in Europe, where thousands from Africa and the Middle East have 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.

Friday, 31 July 2015


It’s vacation time at SWAN and we’re in a rush to pack and get going. But below are five carefully selected books and one journal that will definitely be in our hand luggage. They are listed in no particular order.

Dimitry Elias Léger's God Loves Haiti has been called a “wonderful book” by several readers that we trust. This first novel by the Haitian-born, France-based writer traces the story of three lovers in Port-au-Prince and the “challenges they face readjusting to life after an earthquake devastates their city”. According to publishers Harper Collins, God Loves Haiti is an homage to a lost time and city, and to the people who embody it.

One just has to hear Caryl Phillips read an excerpt from his latest book to become hooked on the story, and we had that privilege recently in Belgium at a conference on "madness in Caribbean literature". The Lost Child (One World) is partly a prequel to, or a “dialogue with” Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. It moves between time and space to tell the story of a Heathcliff-type lost child as well as the “lost” descendants of enslaved Africans. The Independent newspaper said the novel is also “a more familiar story of marriages gone wrong and of children who must find their own way in the world”. The St. Kitts-born Phillips, who grew up in England, has won many awards for his work which includes Crossing the River, A Distant Shore and Dancing in the Dark.

For those who are fluent in French and want to practice the language over the summer, a great way would be to read Hemley Boum’s Les maquisards. This is the Paris-based, Cameroonian writer’s third novel, and it is a compelling read, shining a light on little-known aspects of the fight for Cameroon's independence. The story is told as a family saga, without sentimentality or beatification of the characters, as the author tries to clarify the past to explain the present. Boum’s French publisher Sylvie Darreau, director of the independent compnay La Cheminante, calls the book “a lighthouse in the night of memory”.

Moving away from novels, Kei Miller’s Writing Down the Vision: Essays and Prophecies also comes highly praised. The Jamaican poet, essayist, novelist and all-round writer won the prestigious Forward prize for the best poetry collection of 2014 for his work The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way To Zion; but he told SWAN that he feels most “revealed” writing essays. Many of these pieces will have you laughing out loud at the sharp and witty observations because Miller has the keenest of eyes - able to spot foible and foolishness from afar. (Peepal Tree Press)

Tansy E. Hoskins is a British journalist and activist who describes the failings of the fashion and retail apparel industry in Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion (Pluto Press). With summer being a time for holiday shopping - adding to the coffers of the trillion-dollar industry - this is a good book to remind one to buy ethically. To paraphrase Hoskins: think, and read, before you buy. For more about this book and the ethical fashion movement, see:

Finally, the Spring 2013 issue of the Journal of Caribbean Literatures arrived in the mail this summer, two years after it was expected. But it has been worth the wait. Edited by Dr. Maurice Lee and Aaron Penn, the journal comprises scholarly essays as well as fiction, poetry and book reviews. “In literature, there are a surprising number of universal themes, stemming from shared experiences that ignore human boundaries,” says Penn in his introduction. “We all share these basic experiences, and we all can see the reflections of these themes in [other] cultures.” A good reminder when we travel.

Thursday, 9 July 2015


Jamaica’s Blue and John Crow Mountains - which provided refuge for the island’s indigenous people and later for Africans fleeing slavery - are among 24 new sites incribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List, a first for the Caribbean island.

Nanny Falls in the Blue & John Crow Mountains (JCDT)
The UN's cultural agency said the mountains were selected for their universal significance, their relationship with unique traditions and their position as the natural habitat of biologically diverse plant and animal life. These criteria are part of the requirements that all World Heritage List “candidates” must meet.

The mountains are designated as a "mixed, cultural and natural site", while the 23 other sites are "cultural" entities in countries such as China, Mexico, Singapore, Uruguay, France and Turkey.

The List now comprises 1,031 sites in 163 countries, with Italy, China and Spain leading the pack. UNESCO extended the boundaries of three existing sites as well, including the Routes of Santiago de Compostela, while three sites in the Middle East were added to the "in-danger" list.

Meeting in Bonn, Germany, from June 28 to July 8, the agency’s World Heritage Committee also adopted the so-called Bonn Declaration. This recommends that heritage protection be included in the mandate of peacekeeping missions "where appropriate".

UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova additionally launched a “Unite for Heritage Coalition”, whose aim is to strengthen mobilization in the face of deliberate damage to cultural heritage, according to the UN.

Jamaican Tody, a mountain native. (Photo: R. Miller)
In the view of the World Heritage Committee, the Blue and John Crow Mountains in Jamaica have special significance not only for the island's residents but for the rest of the world.

“The site encompasses a rugged and extensively forested mountainous region in the south-east of Jamaica, which provided refuge first for the indigenous Tainos fleeing slavery and then for Maroons (escaped African slaves),” UNESCO says in its description.

The Maroons “resisted the European colonial system in this isolated region by establishing a network of trails, hiding places and settlements, which form the Nanny Town Heritage Route,” it continues.

“The forests offered the Maroons everything they needed for their survival. They developed strong spiritual connections with the mountains, still manifest through the intangible cultural legacy of, for example, religious rites, traditional medicine and dances. The site is also a biodiversity hotspot for the Caribbean Islands with a high proportion of endemic plant species, especially lichens, mosses and certain flowering plants.”

The mountains have been represented in many Jamaican literary and historical texts, including the prize-winning novel Sweetheart. But mining operations have recently marred other areas of the region's beauty, so this inscription on the World Heritage List may give a boost to environmentalists.

For more information on the inscribed sites, go to:

Tuesday, 30 June 2015


“When you have a platform to speak out against oppression, and to speak for your people, you have to embrace it,” says Kashif Powell, a poet and postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University in the United States.

Kashif Powell (Photo: A. McKenzie)
Powell was one of some 200 scholars attending the 2015 biannual conference of the Collegium for African American Research (CAAR), which took place at Liverpool Hope University in northern England, June 24 to 28.

Titled “Mobilising Memory: Creating African Atlantic Identities”, this latest CAAR conference more than ever highlighted the need for dialogue about the transatlantic slave trade and its legacy, especially in light of recent atrocities against people of African descent in the United States.

It took place also against the backdrop of Liverpool’s history as a major slaving port in the 18th century and placed particular emphasis this year on the role that writers, artists and scholars play in preserving and “activating” memory in the struggle for social justice and human rights.

“When one is part of a group, part of a besieged identity, one has the responsibility of active involvement,” said Irline François, a Haitian-born professor at Goucher College - based in Baltimore, Maryland, where protests occurred earlier this year after an African-American man, Freddie Gray, died in police custody.

Gray was one of several unarmed young black men killed by police in recent months. Then, just days before the start of the conference, a white gunman killed nine people inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. These murders gave an added sense of urgency to many of the scholarly presentations.

The CAAR poster for Liverpool, by artist Lubaina Himid
“It is crucially important to preserve memory as a scholar and to do work that’s built and forged in community activism,” François told SWAN when asked about the contributions of academics - long criticised for being too cut off from the real world in their “ivory towers”.

Author of a forthcoming book on the African Diasporas in the Americas, François presented a paper that looked at the work of Haitian writers Edwidge Danticat and Yanick Lahens in relation to “history, memory and forgetting”.

She and other CAAR participants including Powell argued that it is only by examining human rights abuses as well as personal and collective trauma that healing can be achieved, and scholars have a part to play in this.

“I do have a responsibility but it’s also a privilege to represent my black experience,” Powell said in an interview. “I think it’s important for people to be made to remember. We can’t just pretend that certain things never happened.”

Prof. Cynthia Hamilton, co-organizer of the CAAR conference. 
Formed in 1992, CAAR began as an “association of individual European scholars working in the field of African American studies”. It has grown to become an “intercontinental organization” with members from around the world, according to a statement from the organizers.

“We are convinced that African American Studies has broad implications for the world today,” the association says. “Placing the field in an international context provides valuable reciprocal insights.

“African-Americans are the best studied ethnic minority in the world, and the theoretical and empirical understanding gained from this research is relevant to ethnic and racial issues elsewhere,” it added. Members say that the organization is trying to re-define itself to achieve greater diversity.

For this year’s conference, CAAR teamed up with the new Institute for Black Atlantic Research, or IBAR, based at the University of Central Lancashire, north of Liverpool. Alan Rice, professor in English and co-director of IBAR, and Cynthia Hamilton, head of the Department of English at Liverpool Hope University, were the co-organizers of the event.

IBAR’s involvement led to the participation of more writers and performance artists at the conference, as the institute’s emphasis is on art and culture, Rice said.

Tayo Aluko (Photo: A. McKenzie)
Rose Thomas, a 73-year-old author and Liverpool resident, read from her manuscript about life in the city for Black people in the 1950s, and poet and musician Curtis Watt got the assembled scholars laughing with his ironic sung-poems about the forms that discrimination can take.

Keeping with the theme of memory and activism, Tayo Aluko performed excerpts from his one-man show Call Mr. Robeson, about the life of American singer and activist Paul Robeson.

In his moving baritone, the Nigerian-born and Liverpool-based Aluko takes on the persona of Robeson, telling of his rise to fame in the nineteen-twenties and Thirties and the persecution that came with his speaking out against class discrimination and racism.

The U.S. government even confiscated Robeson’s passport, preventing him from travelling and performing, but officials couldn’t suppress the songs. Aluko’s renditions of “The Battle of Jericho”, “Ol’ Man River” and other pieces keep alive the memory of Robeson’s long fight against oppression.

His performance also underscored the links between art, politics and activism, which many scholars discussed during the conference. The academic presentations ranged from an examination of “Rebellious Thinkers, Poets, Writers, and Political Architects” to a discussion of “Slavery, Representation and Black Cultural Politics in 12 Years a Slave”.

Part of the exhibition at the International Slavery Museum.
The conference additionally drew attention to the role that museums are playing in the fight for social justice and equality. One of the keynote speakers, David Fleming, said that some museums are rejecting the notion of “neutrality” and opting to take a stand on human rights.

“Social justice just doesn’t happen by itself; it’s about activism and people willing to take risks,” said Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, which includes the city’s International Slavery Museum.

The latter looks at aspects of both historical and contemporary slavery, while being an “international hub for resources on human rights issues”.

As the conference was taking place, the museum launched an exhibition titled “Broken Lives”, about slavery in modern India and the experiences of the country’s Dalit community. Nearly half of the world’s victims of modern slavery are in India, and most of these are Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”, the exposition pointed out.

Many CAAR participants went to view this exhibition as well as the museum's permanent display on the transatlantic slave trade.

Some also took part in a “slavery tour” whose aim is to remind the public of Liverpool’s past as a dominant actor in the slave trade. The city is also the home of the oldest Black African community in Britain.

“It’s important to have a space like this to show the importance of remembering,” Powell told SWAN’s editor Alecia McKenzie, as they ran into each other at the museum on the last day of the conference.

(In September SWAN will have a special article about IBAR’s work.) 

Thursday, 11 June 2015


Singer Elida Almeida. (Photo: Brian Cook / Golden Sky Media)

PRAIA / PARIS - Elida Almeida is Cape Verde’s newest star, with thousands of fans in Africa and Europe. She sings, dances, plays the guitar, tells jokes, and makes her audiences laugh as well as groove. But behind it all, her music carries a serious message, about the importance of overcoming setbacks, avoiding unplanned pregnancy and following one’s dreams.

Now 22 years old, Almeida was discovered by the same record producer who launched Cesária Évora, and people who see her in performance or listen to her outstanding debut album - Ora doci Ora margos (Sweet Times Bitter Times) - will be struck by the similarity in background and by her maturity.

Almeida performs in Paris.
 (Brian Cook/ Golden Sky Media)
The audience at a recent concert in Paris, France, for instance, evidently recognized her talent, judging by the waves of affection directed her way.  They sang along, danced along and recited along to the music Almeida performed.

But it wasn’t all upbeat. Almeida’s songs tell of her rough childhood on the Cape Verdean island Santiago, where her father died at an early age. She had to move afterwards to the unfamiliar island of Maio, where she helped to take care of her siblings while her mother worked as a street vendor. Growing up, she also learned to sing at church and spent time after school listening to the radio because there wasn’t much else to do for entertainment, she said in an interview.

“There was no electricity, so the [battery-operated] radio was really all we had to amuse ourselves, and I listened to music from Cape Verde, from the United States, from other countries,” she told SWAN.

As a student, Almeida had dreams of entering the legal profession, but she became pregnant and gave birth to a son at age 16, and so had to rethink her future after returning to Santiago.

She managed to finish high school and attend college, while caring for her son and coming to the realization that music was her true passion, not law. She wrote her first real song at age 17, putting her experiences into the lyrics, and the others that followed are also autobiographical, she says.

Almeida offstage. (Photo: A. McKenzie)
“My mother was so disappointed when I became pregnant that she said it was the end of her life,” Almeida recalls. “But afterwards she was really supportive. She is the reason that I’m able to tour and perform now, and the family of my son’s Dad are also helpful.”

Her eyes light up when she speaks of her five-year-old son, but Almeida readily acknowledges that teenage pregnancy is a problem in her country as in many others. She stresses that enough information is not given to young people about their bodies and sexuality, and she hopes that more schools will implement sexuality education as part of the curriculum.

“I didn’t know much,” she told SWAN. “Nowadays girls who are even younger than I was are having children, at age 14, 15, and they need assistance.”

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), about 20 percent of the children born in Cape Verde in 2013 were to women under 18 years old, down from nearly 24 percent in 2011 but still high. The agency says that mortality rates are higher for a pregnant teen than for women aged between 25 and 29, and that the unborn baby is at an increased risk as well.

Jose Da Silva. (Photo: A. McKenzie)
Many teenage mothers will face a life of poverty and hardship, especially if they don’t have a means out, such as continued education or a career. Almeida’s big break came when she was “discovered” by José Da Silva, the CEO of record company Lusafrica, while performing in Cape Verde. Da Silva is the former musician who established Lusafrica in the late 1980s to record Evora - the “barefoot diva” who became an international star - and he has also boosted the careers of many other African artists.

He brought Almeida to Paris to record, insisting that she sing her own songs, he said in an interview. The album, released in Cape Verde at the end of last year and in Europe this year, has found immediate success, with listeners apparently able to relate to the young singer’s experiences. The audience in Paris, consisting mostly of the ex-pat Cape Verdean community, knew all the words to Lebam Ku Bo and Nta Konsigui, the first two songs which have received great airplay and been released on video to many thousands of views.

“Each song has a message, even when it’s more festive,” Almeida says. “I’m telling girls to be careful, and also to fight for their own success.”

The album cover.
The album comprises intricate arrangements as well as the melodies and beats of Santiago, where batuque, funaná and morna are among the genres. Almeida brings her own personality to the music, and even the more traditional arrangements sound fresh and modern, with her stirring voice doing the songs justice.

On stage, her performance pulses with energy and youthful sassiness. At one point in the Paris concert, a spectator seemed to issue a challenge about dancing, and Almeida promptly invited the woman on stage to show what she could do. Tying scarves around their hips, singer and spectator engaged in an amiable dance-off, more moving together than trying to outdo the other.

“It’s easy,” Almeida teased the audience afterwards. “You just do it like this.” Smiling, she shook her hips to the left and the right, and got everyone laughing.

Bassist Nelida Da Cruz.
(Photo: Brian Cook / Golden Sky Media)
Enjoying the ambience, the five-member band played what sounded like their best, with both the drummer and percussionist filling the cosy Studio de l’Ermitage in the “hills” of Eastern Paris, with irresistible rhythms. Virtuoso guitarist Hernani Almeida recreated his arrangements from the album, while female bassist Nelida Da Cruz - “the only woman bassist from Cape Verde”, as Almeida introduced her - also had people swaying.

Asked about the inevitable comparisons with the late Évora, Almeida said that her music is very different, but she was also quick to pay homage to Évora.

“Cesaria is a pride and joy for us, for all of Cape Verde,” she said. “I come from a different island, with a different culture and different singers, but I recognize her value and everything she has done for us.”

Another young singer in the future might one day say the same of Almeida, especially if the latter is able to build on her current success. - A.M.

Fans record Almeida's performance. (Photo: Brian Cook / Golden Sky Media)

A version of this article is published by Inter Press Service:

Thursday, 4 June 2015


By Dimitri Keramitas

Among the films selected for France’s influential Cannes Film Festival were several from Latin America, and one remarkable entry in the Un Certain Regard section is a Colombian movie called Alias Maria, directed by José Luis Rugeles Gracia.

Karen Torres as Maria.
With its main theme of the irrepressibility of love and birth, alongside the consequences of insurrection for child fighters, the film - while difficult to watch sometimes - is also a touching work.

It stars Karen Torres as the eponymous Maria, a young woman fighting with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. It’s not clear, but Maria may have been dragooned into the guerrilla army, judging by her discontented attitude. The title implies that her name is a nom de guerre, that she’s been robbed of her real identity.

Maria is also clearly of indigenous background, contrary to most of the other fighters. In a telling moment she addresses a woman guerrilla commander as Señora (otherwise they’re all Compañeros). It’s never explicitly stated, but racism seems to rear its ugly head even among revolutionaries, and Torres brilliantly evokes all these registers of feeling and ambiguity.

Director Jose Luis Rugeles Gracia
(Photo: Jaden Rangel)
The above-mentioned commander has a baby, and it’s implied that her privileged position gives her the right to do so. Other pregnant guerrillas must abort. When Maria takes up with a young guerrilla and gets pregnant, she keeps her condition a secret, on pain of forced termination. Ironically, the plot of the movie is the mission to take the commander’s baby on a long trek through the jungle and drop it off with friends.

The detail carrying out this mission is a veritable children’s crusade. Maria is in charge of caring for the baby. Yuldor (Erik Ruiz), a child soldier who looks to be about twelve, is sent along for the perverse reason of turning him into a man, in other words to hack away his childhood. An Afro-Colombian guerrilla named Byron (Anderson Gomez) serves as mentor for the boy and overall den mother for the group, though the “veteran” is barely out of his teens. The leader is Maria’s boyfriend, who looks uncannily like Che Guevara. As Mauricio, Carlos Clavijo captures an idealist’s youthful sweetness that gradually develops into the brutality of the professional revolutionary.

Birth and rebirth in Alias Maria.
The director portrays the world of the guerrillas with seeming authenticity, as a slog of routine, alternating with flight. One wonders if the revolutionaries have been whitewashed into overly intellectual and soldierly barbudo-type freedom fighters. (Rugeles Gracia dedicated his film to “all those who struggle”.) We don’t see the resemblance to the actual group which kidnaps and deals in narcotics, among other nastiness. But as pointed out above, Rugeles Gracia does show the guerrillas’ underside in a subtle manner, and these shades of gray are definitely of a dark hue.

The paramilitaries who are fighting the guerrillas are even worse. We catch brief glimpses of what seem like psychopathic maniacs committing bloody atrocities. The short, scarifying sequences are the closest that Alias Maria gets to being an action film. But the guerrillas tend to take a sane position when coming too close to the paramilitaries: They get the hell away.

Child fighters in the film.
Most of the film depicts the long march through the rain forest. This has all been filmed on location - although here it’s more like in location. Rarely has the all-encompassing, invasive jungle environment been depicted with such vividness, bringing to mind the films of Werner Herzog (minus the hallucinatory quality). The photography, by cinematographer Sergio Ivan Castaño, is a near-perfect balance between clean professionalism and documentary immediacy.

The mix of professionalism and immediacy also marks the acting. Rugeles Gracia seems to be using the Satyajit Ray technique of using both professionals and non-actors (meticulously directing the latter), to great effect. The unknown cast of Alias Maria makes a greater and more lasting impression than many recent performances by better-known actors.

In the course of the march, the young group discovers solidarity and dissension, hair-raising escape and mortality. They seem to grow up before our eyes. Most of all, the life force of the young people persists against all odds. As Maria keeps making her way, we wonder what will become of her in a few years - not to mention the new life she carries within her. The title allusively calls to mind Ave Maria. Whether that’s intentional or not, the film is a work full of grace.

Production: Rhayuela Cine, Axxon Films, Sudestana Cine. Distribution: Cineplex (USA). Photos are courtesy of the film.

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

Friday, 29 May 2015


By Brenda F. Berrian

It is a cool afternoon at the Place de la République in Paris, and, clad in black, several people of Caribbean descent are kneeling on the pavement to form Le Brick, or la fresque humaine (The Brick, or the Human Fresco), with their bodies flat on green mats to duplicate the way in which their departed ancestors had been packed onto the bottom of a slave ship.

People attending the commemoration.
Photo: Brian Cook / Golden Sky Media
This is May 23, 2015, and the participants who make up la fresque humaine are among more than 30,000 people of Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Réunion and various other ethnic origins at the 17th annual memorial commemoration of slave ancestors.

The free 13-hour Limyè bayo (Light for Them) program, with the themes of Acknowlegement and Reconciliation, also includes vendors, speakers, dancers and a free concert. 

This celebration is held under the auspices of Le Comité Marche du 23 mai 1998 (The Committee for the March of May 23, 1998, or CM98). This group lobbies the French government on issues related to Caribbean history, including the National Assembly’s passage of the 2001 Taubira Law and the inauguration of a holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery.

Serge Romana and Joycelyne Beroard
Photo: Brian Cook / Golden Sky Media
“We have come to honor our great-grandparents,” announced Serge Romana from the stage set up at the Place de la République.

Romana, who's a Guadeloupean professor of medicine and president of CM98, served as one of the evening’s hosts.  “The holiday erases the shame that people feel upon hearing the word slavery…The name I carry is my great-grandmother’s that was given to her in 1848, when slavery was abolished. It isn’t so long ago,” he said.

After her performance, Jocelyne Béroard, the Martinican singer of the band Kassav’, said: “In Martinique, everyone wanted to forget about slavery and its history. For them, slavery symbolized pain. They had to deconstruct what was constructed in their minds. When Guy Deslauriers’ 2003 movie The Middle Passage about the indignities and sufferings of slavery on a ship from Africa to the New World was shown, people walked out and demanded back their money whereas I cried. They and I must know our history in order to move forward.”

Spectators enjoying the concert.
Photo: Brian Cook / Golden Sky Media
CM98 was founded after the Paris march of May 23, 1998, in which 40,000 people including Caribbean nationals, Africans and Europeans protested  racial discrimination in complete silence from la Place de la République to la Place de la Nation. The CM98’s main purpose was the rehabilitation and defense of the memory of colonial slave ancestors who were based in French Guiana, Martinique and Guadeloupe.

The march was unprecedented because not more than 1,000 or 2,000 Caribbean people usually showed up for other marches. This time, however, the Caribbean population chose to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery to ensure that the present and future generations would know their true history, which had not been taught in the French-oriented school system through the Caribbean islands.

Christiane Taubira
 (photo: SWAN)
In June 1983, the French Republic instituted the commemorations of the abolition of slavery throughout the overseas departments (DOM-TOM). The law of June 30, 1983, accorded a holiday to the departments. Then, on May 23, 2001, the Taubira Law was passed by the National Assembly to recognize that slavery was a crime against humanity. In 2008, after many debates, May 23 was chosen as the official date to honor the slave ancestors in France. Yet Martinique continues to celebrate the abolition of slavery on May 22; Guadeloupe on May 27; and French Guiana on June 10.

On Saturday, 17 years later, people of all walks of life were in attendance with V.I.P. guests such as George Pau-Langevin, the Minister of the Overseas Departments; Christiane Taubira, the Minister of Justice who lent her name for the 2001 law; and Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris. The free musical concert, with the Martinican journalist Marijosé Alie as the Mistress of Ceremony, included entertainers from Guadeloupe, Martinique and Haiti. The legendary Tabou Combo, the Haitian compas group, gave special tribute to Haiti. Live coverage of Limyè bayo was provided by a number of television networks.

It was a celebratory evening that gave voice to the fact that the ideas of liberty and freedom matter to all. La Place de la République, the largest pedestrian area in Paris, also symbolized a space where people meet to exchange various viewpoints.

Brenda F. Berrian is Professor Emerita of Africana Studies, University of Pittsburgh (USA).

Monday, 25 May 2015


The 2015 Cannes Film Festival awarded its top prize to a film about a trio of immigrants from Sri Lanka trying to adapt to a tough urban environment in Paris.

Jesuthasan Antonythasan in Dheepan
Dheepan, by French director Jacques Audiard, won the Palme d’Or for the story of a former Tamil Tiger fighter in the Sri Lankan civil war who immigrates to France with a fake family - a “wife” and “daughter” he hardly knows - and faces new challenges that require his old skills.

Many critics were surprised by the choice, but others said the Jury (headed by famed American filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen) had made a bold decision in awarding the prize to a film about such outsiders, not normally the stars of big-budget movies.

Britain's Independent newspaper called Dheepan  “a radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head, and takes a faceless immigrant coming from a war barely covered in the media and turns him into a [kind of] anti-hero”.

A scene from Dheepan (photo P. Arnaud)
The movie stars the France-based Sri Lankan writer Jesuthasan Antonythasan, who drew on elements in his own background for his screen portrayal, and Indian actress Kalieaswari Srinivasan, who plays his fake wife.

They arrive in Paris with their young “daughter” - a girl they have to travel with to give the semblance of a family - and end up in a bleak suburb of the capital, rife with crime. The film shows the unusual ways they find to cope with their new situation.

Some of the festival’s other prizes were more predictable. The Grand Prix (or second prize) went to the Hungarian Laszlo Nemes for his moving Holocaust drama Son of Saul while the Jury prize was given to Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos for his futuristic (and stomach-turning) story The Lobster, about people being forced to choose a mate or risk being turned into animals.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien (by Yao H-I)
Chinese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien was named best director for his martial-arts thriller The Assassin, and the best screenplay prize went to the young Mexican helmer Michel Franco for Chronic, about a nurse who works with terminally ill patients and who needs them as much as they need him.

Veteran French performer Vincent Lindon was named best actor for La Loi du Marché (The Measure of a Man), the story of a long-time unemployed worker who finally gets a job that turns out to be utterly soul-destroying. But in perhaps the biggest surprise of the night, Rooney Mara of female-love-story Carol, and Emmanuelle Bercot of destructive-relationship tale Mon Roi were jointly awarded the “best actress” prize.

Blanchett in Carol
Cate Blanchett, who probably gave the greatest performance of her career in Carol - an understated story about love between women in 1950s America - was inexplicably left out of the awards.

In the festival’s Un Certain Regard segment, comprising innovative and off-beat films, the top prize went to Grímur Hákonarson of Iceland for Rams, about two brothers reconciling to save their beloved animals, while Croatian director Dalibor Matanić won the Jury Prize for  Zvizdan (The High Sun), a literally heart-breaking and no-holds-barred look at the dangers of loving across ethnic lines in the Balkans.

Japan's Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to the iconic Akira Kurosawa) meanwhile won the best director award for Kishibe No Tabi, or Journey to the Shore, a mystical tale about a husband who returns home three years after drowning at sea. 

The Avenir prize was awarded jointly to two talents to watch out for: Indian director Neeraj Ghaywan, for Masaan, a story about  moral choices; and the Iranian filmmaker Ida Panahandeh, for Nahid - about a divorced mother’s struggle to keep her children. Panahandeh was one of the few women directors represented at Cannes, an on-going issue for the festival.

A film still from Masaan (photo: K. Mehta)
In addition, Colombia’s Cesar Augusto Acevedo received the Camera d’Or (best first feature) for La Tierra y la Sombra, or Land and Shade, a film about a man going back to his family some 17 years after abandoning them and shown in the Semaine de la Critique section of the Festival, a sidebar to the Official Selection.

But here again, missing from the awards was the critically acclaimed Lamb by Ethiopian first-feature director Yared Zeleke (see SWAN’s previous article).

Lamb was one of our favourite movies shown at the festival, along with Mia Madre by Italian director Nanni Moretti. The latter, which touchingly depicts the grief that comes with a mother’s last days, also went away prize-less, just like the superb Timbuktu last year. With films, though, one person's feast is always another person's flub. - A.M.

(The Cannes Film Festival ran from May 13 to 24. For more information: