Tuesday, 29 March 2011

17th Bradford International Film Festival: Documenting Africa from the inside

The second thematic post I'm going to include is not quite as comprehensive as the photography documentaries, but two features (although one of these is effectively the collection of four shorts) that are great companions to each other. They are both honest and true insider perspectives on Africa, which is welcome after the bombardment of images during Comic Relief that serve to reinforce dominant Western notions that Africa is wholly comprised of the poor, helpless and characterless. I am not saying that Comic Relief doesn't do some great things or that the things it shows don't happen; it really does and they really do, but when this image is all most see in mainstream media representation of a vast and varied continent, it compounds people’s views as being the only African narrative.

Before this though, just a few words on the accompanying short, WOOD OF VALUE (Bjorn Bratberg - Norway), a warm hearted story of the relationship between Norway and Britain via the annual ritual gift of a Christmas tree to commemorate Britain's support during the second world war. It put a great deal of life and character into this tree, this product of nature; something that many will simply see as an illuminated December gimmick. The woodland that the tree came from appeared unexploited and the whole process seemed heartfelt and genuine. Once the tree arrived in London though, it seemed depleted and limp; this feeling heightened by the miserable wet weather and general urban gloom caught by the camera (a theme you will see is repeated in the films below). Although, once it was illuminated, it seemed to bring joy to those who stood with it. This could be read, that the displacement of trees (or allegorically, people) is sugar coated with decoration and ritual in order to hide the internal suffering or home sickness.

The first Africa themed feature then was a documentary on traditional African medicine called DANCE TO THE SPIRITS (Ricardo Íscar). I was quite sceptical going into this due to it being Spanish produced and directed. I was worried that the film would seem condescending, invasive and exploitative, showing this community as exotic but simple in a really patronising manner. I couldn't have been much further from the truth, as it really did feel honest and genuine; I never felt like anyone on screen was manipulated, exploited, unaware or unduly exoticised. I say unduly, as there were exotic, insightful and enlightening examples of the culture within the tribe, but only in a way to capture their identity from an inside perspective, rather than say 'oh look at these funny people, aren't they charming but simple' as I had sceptically anticipated. A small example is that a scene early in the film saw some of the villagers come back from fishing with the biggest frogs I have ever seen. I can't recall their name, and maybe I haven’t seen enough David Attenborough documentaries, but I have never seen frogs this big; they were as big as toddlers. It's a small example, but one that made me realise I was seeing into a culture that was very different to one I had seen before.

The main contributing factor to its apparent honesty was the doctor, Mba Owona Pierre, with whom the film stays with most of the time. He is far removed from the often stereotyped notion of a spiritual 'witch doctor' or 'sorcerer' - terms that he openly jokes about having been referred to as. He wrote his journals in French, he had a great sense of humour and he wasn't in any way ignorant of, or in denial of physical (western/scientific) medicine. He conceded that this medicine has its place; he often rigorously checked his patients pre-treatment, to see if they were affected by a 'day-world sickness’ and could therefore be treated by the hospitals. If not, if they were suffering from an 'Evu' induced 'night-world sickness' then they must be cured with traditional forms of medicine. His weighted and measured approach makes the case for traditional medicine much better than a blanket damning of western scientific approaches. We all know that there are a wealth of issues that science can nowhere near adequately solve or explain.

A source that the film often unapologetically - and persuasively - singled out as a factor in the dominance of these internal demons, is city life, and the individualistic affluence and accompanying 'dog eat dog' nature that comes with it. The film, without explicitly saying, shows the reverse of this in the village setting, particularly in a charming scene where the villagers go fishing. Working together, singing as they work, they ingeniously build a temporary damn, empty the water out of a section, and then simply pick up the fish, crabs and whatever else is left.

To finalise the film's balanced approach, it isn't entirely nostalgic and in praise of this declining way of life, as the doctor explains that so many people in the village leave without paying. They will stay for their treatment and when they are better, they just leave; therefore it is partly the society's own fault that this system is in decline.

This theme is one in particular that crosses over into CONGO IN FOUR ACTS, which has a much less debatable African origin. The feature collects four shorts from three different Congolese filmmakers, each film covering a different subject within the Democratic Republic of Congo. Throughout pretty much all of them there is the reoccurring theme touched on above; that the people within whatever society depicted are not doing themselves, their people or the rest of their own society any favours, often looking for others to blame or to defer responsibility onto. This is why it is vitally important that this has come from voices within. This subject, if covered from outside would certainly be read (by myself at least) as a problematic statement effectively undermining and denying the damage caused by - not to mention the ongoing legacy of - imperial domination and outside interference.

The first was Wa Lusala and Dieudo Hamada's LADIES IN WAITING, based in a maternity ward. The point was repeatedly made that the husbands of these women were unemployed and that they expected to get their treatment for free, whilst still being pretty rude and obnoxious to the staff. The staff to be fair were quite reciprocal in the hostility and did not refrain from reminding them that this whole process costs time and money, proposing that they shouldn’t expect to receive everything for free without giving anything back. The film therefore not only showcased the general poverty of the region but repeated the theme from DANCE' where people expect to just receive without giving, then wonder why the system doesn't work.

The second, Kiripi Katembo Siku’s SYMPHONY KINSHASA reinforces more points from DANCE'. It is even more blatant in its criticism of a society harming itself, then complaining about it. The film is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital city Kinshasa and at one point, one of the residents remarks that the same people that throw their rubbish straight out on the street will then complain about the pestilence that this brings. Therefore this film reiterates both points made by Owona Pierre made in DANCE’; on the deference of responsibility and on the corrupting and decaying influence of urbanity.

Patrick ken Kalala's SHRINKING PRESS extended upon the disconnect shown in LADIES IN WAITING, between the people and the authorities, although this time it was the police rather than the health service. It basically exposed the police to be a complete joke; at worst corrupt and at best completely ineffectual. One example was that a man, straight to the police officer's face, justified explicitly violent rape by saying that the woman was possessed; that she was a witch. The persuasive argument that DANCE' made, that these ailments are taken seriously, is completely abused by this man and by the authorities for accepting it as a valid reason. This completely undermines the hard work that that Owona Pierre and others like him are doing.

The final film, AFTER THE MINE, another from Kiripi Katembo Siku was similarly bleak as it depicted the joblessness that ravages a community nearby a recently closed down mine. Families have to spend their entire days crushing stones and selling them as gravel, being paid a ludicrously low rate. There was one particularly disturbing shot of a child that couldn't have been older than two helping his mother smash up these slates in the sandy, baron wasteland. Out of the four though, this was the only one that offered any kind of solution and the faintest glimmer of hope. A sheriff had bought some land and employed people to cultivate it. An active statement to the ineffectual and corrupt government who won't do anything; a way that the people themselves, through real employment regeneration will rebuild their region from within.

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