Monday 24 June 2019


Dogs barking in the distance. Birds chirping nearby. A man walking through the mist, surrounded by lush vegetation. A distinctive vibrato singing “Speak Softly, Love” over it all.
So begins Inna de Yard, a documentary that can safely be called a love poem to reggae music - or to the “soul of Jamaica”, as the film is sub-titled with an obvious play on words.
The poster for Inna de Yard.
Directed by Peter Webber (whose first feature was the acclaimed Girl with a Pearl Earring), the documentary comes at a timely moment: reggae was inscribed last November on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
Before opening across Germany on June 20, the film was screened in Paris at the UN agency’s headquarters to a full house of spectators, many of whom seemed to know the artists and the songs. Several stood up to dance when the musicians performed after the projection.
Inna de Yard takes us into the lives of pioneer reggae musicians who have come together to record music in a hilltop studio. This is a weathered, old house that offers breath-taking views of the capital Kingston. It is filled with stacks of vinyl records spilling out of decaying jackets, while an ancient piano sits on the porch.
The man walking through the mist at the beginning is a piano tuner, who tells viewers that the instrument is sometimes infested with insects, but he needs to get it ready for the musicians. We watch as he uses bits of wire and other objects to do just that.
Then the music begins in earnest. We are introduced to the artists - Ken Boothe, Kiddus I, Winston McAnuff, Cedric Myton, The Viceroys and Judy Mowatt - as Boothe’s vibrato accompanies aerial shots of the spectacular landscape.
The four main artists of "Inna de Yard" (L-R): Cedric Myton,
Winston McAnuff, Ken Boothe and Kiddus I. 
(Photo copyright: N. Baghir Maslowski)
Kiddus, who appeared in the 1978 cult film “Rockers”, explains in his deep, pleasant voice that the project is “an amalgamation of elders playing acoustic music”, and McAnuff adds that the aim is to capture the music “in its virgin state”.
Mowatt, looking like an urban goddess in her patterned robe, says that the house up in the hills “felt like heaven” when she first visited.
In a previous era, Mowatt performed with the I-Threes, the trio of backing vocalists for Bob Marley and the Wailers. But beyond her presence, the extended Marley clan is not in focus here. This documentary is about the other trailblazers and about the sources of the music.
“Some countries have diamonds. Some countries have pearls. Some countries have oil. We have reggae music,” says bass player Worm in the film.
With footage from the Sixties and Seventies, the documentary recalls the beginning of ska and rocksteady, showing how the music developed, influenced by American rhythm and blues.
One of Judy Mowatt's early albums, "Only a Woman".
“We paid attention to what was happening outside our shores and we amalgamated (that) with what was happening here,” Mowatt tells viewers. “The 1960s was the romantic era, but the 1970s was the conscious era.”
She said that reggae “talked about the realities of life” and that “all of Jamaica was living the songs that were being sung” - songs about political violence, hardships, and police repression of Rastafarians, for instance. It was the “golden age” of the music.
The documentary gives each of the artists space to reminisce even as it describes their lives now. “We miss everything about those days,” says Cedric Myton, a playful, lively spirit in the film who knows he’s “going up the ladder” at 70-plus years old.
During one of the most memorable scenes, we see him heading out in a boat and joking around with fishermen as he sings “Row, Fisherman, Row”, in his iconic falsetto. The film cuts from the sea to the studio in the hills, then to Myton enlightening viewers on the origins of the lyrics.
Like many of his peers, Myton started out in the music business with what seemed a bright future, but troubles in the United States - related to “herb charges” - meant he couldn’t perform there. In addition, all the musicians have had experience with unscrupulous record producers, or “thieves” as Myton calls them.
The musicians and film director discuss their art at UNESCO.
(Photo: McKenzie)
“We’re not giving up because we know there are better days ahead,” Myton says. “But financially it’s been a struggle.”
Some of his fellow artists have had more personal struggles. Winston McAnuff lost his son Matthew, also a singer, in 2012, and his description of the “senseless” death is among the most moving sections of the film. So is the story of younger musician Derajah, who lost his sister to gun violence. We see them working through their grief via the music.
“It’s a message for healing,” Kiddus says.
The “Inna de Yard” project puts the pioneers in contact with younger musicians who perform with them in the studio and on tour, and the film profiles these artists as well. “We learn from the younger guys and they learn a lot from us,” Kiddus comments.
Mowatt also records with two younger singers, the fiery Jah 9 and her colleague Rovleta. Speaking passionately, Jah 9 gives an introduction to the history of the island and the role that the Maroons and their legendary leader Nanny played in fighting against slavery.  Then she joins Mowatt and Rovleta in the studio to sing Mowatt’s “first solo anthem” - an intense track called “Black Woman”, and a call to stay strong.
Filmmaker Peter Webber. (Photo: McKenzie)
“It’s a love splash,” Mowatt characterises the session, describing the affection and solidarity between the three.
Accompanying the individual musicians to their childhood homes, the film also carries us through unspoilt areas of Jamaica - waterfalls, natural diving pools, forested Maroon country. But it doesn’t shy away from showing poor sections of the capital Kingston where the music was born, or the environmental degradation of some beaches. We also get a glimpse into eroticised dancehall culture, during a segment in a bar.
Film director Webber was not interested, however, in showing scenes “that would cause eyes to pop in the West,” as he told SWAN in an interview following the screening in Paris. Webber added that the restraint in filming certain aspects of the culture was “deliberate” as he didn’t “feel the need to labour the point”.
Because of this approach, viewers get a sense of the love and respect for the music, unlike some sensationalist portrayals of Jamaican arts.
Webber said he was first introduced to the island’s music as a teenager in London and became “a huge fan of reggae”. Years later, he was working with French producer Gaël Nouaille on a Netflix project when Nouaille told him about the “Inna de Yard” musicians and their recordings.
“I had never been to Jamaica before, partly because I had a Jamaica in my head, and I knew that if I got on a plane, I would have a touristic experience and it wouldn’t live up to what I imagined,” Webber said. “I didn’t want to spend two weeks on a beach in Negril. But this was a different way to go.”
When he got to the island and met the musicians, he initially wasn’t sure there was a feature film to be made, and he questioned whether he could produce a documentary that would “appeal to a more general audience” than traditional fans of reggae or dub.
He said it was also important to meet younger musicians. “I was wondering: are these guys like the last of the Mohicans?” he joked.
Asked why he was the one to make this film, Webber said: “I did it because of my love and enthusiasm and because I had an opportunity to do it. You may wonder if the world needs another middle-aged white man dropping into Jamaica, but I see myself as a medium. I’m a channel, and I basically put my technical skills and my creativity at their disposal to tell their story. It’s not a film of cultural appropriation.”
He said the documentary developed based on the “spine of the story” - the musicians recording an album “up in this house in the hills”.
The house is indeed at the centre of the documentary, but from there, Webber and the musicians take us on a journey: back to the past, around the island, to concerts in Paris, and into the soul of reggae and Jamaica. And Webber does so with an artist’s touch, reflecting his background as a student of art history. – A.M. / SWAN
Production: Bolsalino / Wagram Films / Le Pacte. Opens in French cinemas July 10.
Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Sunday 9 June 2019


By Dimitri Keramitas
In many countries, abortion has long been legal and so has passed out of current debate. This is the case of most "Western" nations. However, in the United States, where a Supreme Court decision legalized abortion in 1973, several conservative states have passed restrictive laws that are tantamount to a ban. Missouri may soon no longer have a single abortion clinic.
These states aim to force the Supreme Court to reconsider its landmark Roe v. Wade decision, now that a majority of justices (with two recent Trump Administration appointees) are conservative. If this happens, the US won’t want for company. Research shows that 26 nations forbid abortion under all circumstances (including three small European states: Malta, Andorra, and San Merino). Thirty-seven permit abortion only in exceptional circumstances (when the mother’s life is in danger). Thirty-six more permit abortion under slightly less rigid legislation (preserving the mother’s health). And 24 countries take into account preserving the mother’s mental health. (Figures from World Population Review).
A scene from Que Sea Ley.
That makes 123 countries where the right to choose is restricted or prohibited. This is the context to keep in mind when we watch Juan Solanas’s documentary Que Sea Lea (Let It Be Law), about a recent effort to liberalize abortion law in Argentina. The film was screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where women assembled on the red carpet to continue their protest.
Argentina is one of those nations that doesn’t completely ban abortion, but severely restricts it. Many women in the country are too poor to finagle pseudo-legitimate abortions as the more privileged do, and this highlights the sharp schism between rich and poor concerning the most basic of rights, reproductive freedom and control of one’s own body.
On a practical level, it leads desperate women to fatal alternatives: self-abortion and clandestine abortion. A new law was to change this situation. It was voted by the Argentine House of Representatives and needed only the approval of the Senate to become law. Que Sea Lea focuses on the campaign in 2018 to convince the Senate to pass the legislation and put Argentina among the ranks of advanced countries with liberal abortion laws.
The film is on one level a mosaic, with a diversity of segments that alternate. There is kinetic, colourful footage of huge street demonstrations of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, marching on the pavement in Buenos Aires. The atmosphere is festive, with much chanting, singing, drum-beating, and dancing. Visually we note the color green, symbol of the pro-choice movement.
Film director Juan Solanas.
What’s remarkable is the overwhelming number of women, mostly young, with contingents of the middle-aged and elderly, and a smattering of children. It’s reminiscent of the Women’s March in Washington after Donald Trump’s election. This being Latin America, one cannot help recalling the scenes of enormous pro-Allende crowds in the film The Battle of Chile. (Solanas’ father Fernando was the director of another classic Latin American documentary, The Hour of the Furnaces.)
We also see a few scenes of anti-abortion protestors, with their blue color. They seem to be mostly evangelical Christians, with more male speakers, and are generally an older crowd. Like right-to-lifers in the US, they can be vociferous (the crowd’s mascot is a giant embryo reminiscent of the star-child in 2001). Some activists openly make references to the American anti-abortion movement as inspirations (it’s common knowledge that evangelical groups have become increasingly active in Latin America).
We also witness several speeches inside the Senate chamber. There are Senators and guest speakers on both sides. The most powerful pro-abortion advocate is actually an elderly male senator, while a doctor, also male, presents a forceful anti-abortion speech that strangely mixes medical authority and evangelical fervour. Whatever position one has on abortion, it’s hard not to be impressed with the passion with which the Argentines debate the issue. 
There are the inevitable talking heads as well, speaking directly to the camera. Activists, politicians, and doctors contextualize the issue for us. They’re obviously intelligent, educated, sincere persons, and we appreciate the explanations concerning Argentine society. However, as with all such interview sequences, we can’t help feeling we’re being told how and what to think. This is why the great documentary film-makers like Frederick Wiseman do without them, while someone like Michael Moore prefers antagonistic interviewees (e.g. Charlton Heston in Bowling for Colombine) that he can undercut and skewer.
Street demonstrations in Que Sea Ley.
The most impressive figures are the parish priests who work in poor villages. Their faces have a worn yet hardy look, so different from the slick elegance of the upper-class interviewees. Their spiritual values are implicit, incarnate if you will, as they unpretentiously recount the simple facts about the plight of poor women and girls with unwanted pregnancies.
The most searing parts of Que Sea Lea, the set-pieces of the mosaic, are the case studies of women who desperately sought abortions. One woman, Ana Maria Acevedo, seems to have become a cause célèbre. The mother of several children, she died after having a clandestine abortion and receiving egregiously poor care in a hospital. We hear from her parents and her children, see the primitive place where the family lives.
The stories of other women depicted are no less heart-rending. Many of the women were not only poorly treated in hospitals but subjected to persecution by the police - even while hospitalized - for having obtained illegal abortions. In one case a woman had miscarried, yet was threatened with arrest on suspicion of having had an abortion. Thanks to these powerful segments we see that abortion laws aren’t just abstract talking-points but have life-and-death consequences.
The varied segments are not organized haphazardly. Seeking a comprehensive view of an entire society through the prism of one issue, Solanas divides the film into sections dealing with different themes: social inequality, feminism, religion and the like. Keeping the mosaic form throughout, especially the vivid demonstration and case-study scenes, prevents the film from becoming schematic.
There are gaps: the role of sex education, contraception, and adoption are mentioned but not really explored. We also never get the perspective of the men. I don’t mean the male politicians, activists, doctors, priests, and even fathers, but the partners who were co-responsible for the women’s pregnancies. What were their feelings? Did they support the women? Were they irresponsible or just indigent? Perhaps intellectual lucidity comes at the price of not gumming up one’s emotions.
The campaign comes to an end, bringing the film to a close. It was not the result the women campaigners were hoping for. After such heroic efforts and so much heartbreak, the conclusion feels genuinely tragic. But as in a Shakespearean tragedy, once the bodies are cleared away, there are the survivors who carry on. The title, Let It Be Law, implies an arc that will bend to justice one day even if we can’t put a timeline on it. In the meantime, we can be sure that the importance of Juan Solanas’s brilliant documentary is, unfortunately, not limited to his own land.
Production: Les Films du Sud. Distribution: Wild Bunch. Photographs courtesy of the producers.
Dimitri Keramitas is an award-winning writer and legal expert based in Paris.

Wednesday 5 June 2019


If you’re compiling your summer reading list, here’s an opportunity to check out the following new releases.
To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe
This timely and relevant book explores how Black Feminism and Afrofeminism are being practised in Europe today and gives significant historical background on the struggles for gender and racial equality on the continent.
In the form of an anthology of scholarly and creative essays, it brings together activists and artists of colour, who discuss a range of issues in various countries, offering insight into Black women’s experiences in a “racialized and hierarchical” region.
Edited by Akwugo Emejulu, a professor of sociology at Warwick University, and Francesca Sobande, a digital media studies lecturer at Cardiff University, the volume recounts how activist spaces for survival and resistance are built and sustained, among other issues.
The contributors also address the subject of how women engage with creative practice and the arts "as a means of activism and self-preservation”, and this topic gets particular focus in the chapter written on behalf of the Mwasi Collectif, an Afrofeminist association based in Paris, France, that includes artists and writers and which has faced antagonism from officials.
The book equally explores a “variety of critical spaces” such as motherhood and the home, with discussions of Caribbean households in Britain and an examination of Caribbean “versions of patriarchy” (chapter 7). Other countries that feature in the anthology range from Belgium to Greece, for a comprehensive and astute look at Black women’s experiences across Europe. (Pluto Press)
Trouwportretten (Wedding Photos)
Trouwportretten, Surinaamse voorouders in beeld (Wedding portraits, Surinamese ancestors in pictures, Album 1846-1950) portrays more than a century of marriages in Suriname, in word and images. It’s written in Dutch, but you don’t need to be a linguist to enjoy the photographs.
Edited by Lucia Nankoe and Jean Jacques Vrij, the book was inspired by almost 100 wedding photos and dozens of stories. It invites readers to be a guest at the weddings of these Surinamese couples, or couples whose partners have a Surinamese background, between 1845 and 1950.
Surinamese citizens travelled the world early and, apart from finding partners in their own country, they also tied the knot with residents of Aruba, Curaçao or Bonaire (in the Caribbean), and of the Netherlands and North America, according to the editors.
“Although most marriages took place in their own religious, ethnic and social circle, these boundaries were also often crossed,” the editors explain. Several stories in the book show that this was not without complications and prejudice.
“The lovers, however, followed the path of their heart and often the family and community got over it after some time,” the editors state.
Readers get to know the wedding couples not only through the pictures but also through the stories related here, sometimes in the words of family members, sometimes compiled by the editors.
The stories were previously highlighted in the similarly titled exhibition that took place in the Netherlands in 2018 (curated by Nankoe), and more accounts are recorded in this attractive book.
The collection informs readers about Surinamese society in important phases of its history. “This is also the story of immigration and emigration, of different religious backgrounds, of slavery and contract workers and above all of an ethnically-culturally diverse society in a shared national history,” the editors say.
The book’s encouraging message is that ethnic or religious differences between people in intimate relationships often become irrelevant. In other words, love conquers all … sometimes. (Publisher Uitg. In the Knipscheer)
Dogly Days
If you’ve ever wondered how our pets view us and the world, My Dogly Days, by Philadelphia-based Indian writer Vijay Lakshmi, is the book for you.
This is a story of adventure, compassion, friendship and growth, seen through the eyes of that ever-loyal best friend, and it will appeal to both young and “mature” readers.
As playwright Quinn Eli has written, the book comes at a time when “so many of us lose sight of the humanity we share in common”.
He adds that My Dogly Days reminds us that under the surface, "our struggles, our dreams and our aspirations" are all the same.
"We long for companionship, we long for love, and most of all we long to make our stories known," Eli remarks.
The poetic and insightful nature of the book inspires us to look at our neighbours and to realize that we all have similar concerns, that we're all on some kind of a journey. (Austin McCauley Publishers)