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)