The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman

Just beautiful. The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman is a love letter to the women in her family, a celebration of their strength which sheltered and nurtured her, a thanksgiving for all she owes to their sacrifices and their character.

The filmmaker returns home to Cameroon after 7 years, now a new mother with a European husband. You feel the ache of homesickness throughout the film. There is a need to fit back into a place which is sculpted for you, where the shape of you is missing and there is a peace in returning. She has been away so long, and she has underwent these huge life changes, she broke from tradition and forewent an arranged marriage, wedded a foreigner, and gave birth to her first child. You get a sense of the vulnerability she must have felt, after growing up in the bosom of this circle of support, the many voices of encouragement and practical wisdom, to be left to look after a child alone, be responsible for this most precious life, and have no one to help or turn to.

You can feel a palpable exultation at her return and a sense of relief. And in this emotion, she interviews her mother, her aunts, and films her family and community. Her mother and her sisters are such strong people. They talk about their lives, which have not been easy. There has been illness and loss. There has been poverty and hardship. There has been work and toil. There has been the callousness and selfishness of men. And they remember still, war.

Throughout this though is the constant language of togetherness. They got through these hard times by supporting one another, by setting an example for one another, by teaching one another, by standing steadfast by one another, “to make a chain so that none of the women fall”.

Coming from a family of strong women, I so identified with the sense of gratitude she felt. Not only for the practical sacrifices, but for the sense of dignity, self-reliance, and belief in oneself. The filmmaker is a dreamer, she talks being transported through books, then cinema, then literally taken abroad by her studies. Despite the airiness of her ambitions, her mother supported her through all of it, paying for her school fees working a market stall.

The Two Faces of A Bamileke Woman is about what is shown and what is buried in the countenance of her mother and her sisters, the strength that shows but also the sorrows it hides. It is also about the filmmaker, who has both this wandering spirit, keen always to see what is elsewhere, and yet also desperately and lovingly grounded in the heart of her family in Cameroon.

A Fish Tale

A hard watch. Because this isn’t about things coming together, it is about them falling apart.

A Fish Tale follows Johnny, a Ghanaian fisherman who came to Israel to learn modern fishing techniques. Over the course of 10 years, he tries with everything he has to accomplish this single task, so that he may bring the knowledge back home to Ghana and make a success of the family fishery business. But being poor means every single part of every step is difficult, even impossible.

He finds Raana and Yoav who allow him to learn at their fishery for free, teaching him the techniques he will need to increase his yield. And it seems at first like a godsend, a free education with hands-on experience. But he still needs to earn money, which means working every hour he can at his cleaning job, and having only study time on the side.

On top of this, he has a young son, and before much longer twin girls arrive. Johnny and his wife Therese moved to Israel 12 years ago, leaving behind a young son and daughter, thinking it would be temporary and that they would return with what they needed soon. Now they have more children born outside Ghana than there, and Therese’s sense of responsibility shifts.

The film begins with Johnny receiving the news his father has died, and he is now head of the household. The responsibility weighs heavily on him from the outset. His duty to bring home the means of prosperity is for his family as a whole. However Therese starts to question what life she will be taking her children back to. Fewer opportunities, no internet, inadequate infrastructure, she doesn’t want to deprive them of things they have grown up their whole life knowing.

As racist, far-right marches are on the move, and protests are held condemning Christian Africans for ‘taking up a place’ that could be used for a Jew in Israel, Johnny decides to send Therese and the kids home, before harm can come to them. But Therese must make a choice about what the future holds for their family.

A hard watch about the raw unfairness of the world.

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Elder’s Corner

Fascinating documentary looking the popular music of Nigeria from the 50s to the 70s. It takes in highlife and juju music, interviewing many of biggest names of their time. And through their musical legacy, seeing the history and character of Nigeria as it emerged from colonialism.

So many things you don’t even know you don’t know. Elder’s Corner is such an eye-opener. I was unaware of what a rich and varied musical landscape Nigeria had in the mid-20th century.

It starts in colonial Nigeria, where jazz and calypso fuse with tradional Nigerian music to make the 5-beat highlife genre, a music for dancing, singing, and spreading the rising sense of optimism that attended the decolonisation movement. Many artists had a socially conscious message to their music as well as a great rhythm.

Similarly you get juju music emerging in the early days of independence, which takes much of the features of highlife and attempts to decolonialise it, reindigenising it with traditional Yoruba sounds. This sense of the deep pride in Africanness and heritage resonated with the younger generation experiencing self-rule for the first time.

The film also looked at the impact of the military coups and civil war, which saw a decline in highlife as a reflection of the decline in optimism in the country. On a practical level, it prevented any live music being played while strife was ongoing, but the horrors of war also put an end for some musicians to their ability to create such light-hearted tunes.

The film wraps up its musical memoir in the 1970s, when the wave of Black Pride across Africa and the whole globe was bringing focus to the rich contribution Black culture and creativity brought to the world. Nigeria hosts Festac, Festival of African Culture and Arts, hosting all the stars from Nigeria, from other African nations, and the African diaspora, including Sun Ra and Stevie Wonder. It is a great celebration of the Nigerian musical landscape, as well as showing its connectedness with global music genres.

However, in its shadow, when outspoken critic of the military government, musician Fela Kuti slated Festac as a propaganda exercise, as well as a money laundering scheme, his home was set ablaze by soldiers, destroying its studio and all the records and instruments stored within.

This moment of ambiguity, where on one level you have Nigerian music being celebrated and uniting people from around the world, while there is repression of expression at home, kinda captures the sense of how people feel about modern Nigeria. The music of that time spoke so of its age. The optimism and the light-heartedness, the return to roots and infusion of pride in African heritage. It kinda of peaks and rolls back as a new age of more nuanced, arguably more cynical perspective takes hold.

Elder’s Corner is a wonderful treasure trove of interviews and musical insights. Great film.

8

While ostensibly a horror, because the mystery is explained early on and the main villain is so sympathetic, you could also see 8 as a supernatural drama. Set in 1970s South Africa, Mary is an orphan living with her aunt and uncle, as they move back to their family farm. There she meets Lazarus, a wandering man with a kindly disposition, and the two strike up a friendship. But there is a dark evil in this place, and it draws both their lives into its design.

The plot follows that of a traditional ghost story, but with in a manner stylistic enough to keep the audience engaged. The performances are strong, especially that of Tshamano Sebe playing Lazarus, who infuses the character with such tragedy and vulnerability that it warps the good versus evil binary that such a straightforward ghost story should tell.

Poppie Nongena

Poppie Nongena is about a woman, who finds out the week before Christmas that she has now been deemed an illegal immigrant in the country of her birth. The film is set 1970s apartheid South Africa, when the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act deported black South Africans to territories the government had assigned to each ethnicity. As a Xhosa woman, Poppie is scheduled to be deported to Transkei, a place she has never been.

I didn’t even know about the Bantu Homelands scheme, it was just one of the many atrocities that get wrapped up and buried in the word ‘apartheid’. The history that its beneficiaries now sell of apartheid is one of separate buses and doors, as though it was merely an inconvenient unfairness. Not living in a state of permanent terror that the government, and police, and pretty much any white person with a mind to, could do anything they wanted to you with impunity.

Poppie Nongena is a film about a woman coming to the end of her strength. Of having worked and struggled and swallowed all she can take in a world that is perpetually set against her existence, and having weathered each wave of hatred over the years, as it takes new forms, new laws, waiting to see if this one will be the one that drowns her. And finally she has met the wave that is about smash her family to pieces.

Poppie’s husband is disabled and can’t work. If he was working, she could apply to stay, and he spends the film frustrated and desperate to save the family he has seen her carry on her back for years. She tries to get her employer to intervene, and tries to get help from anti-apartheid activists, and begs her friends. All want to help her, but the juggernaut is unstoppable.

While she’s trying to keep her family united in the face of this adversity, it is falling apart. Her eldest son has joined organised radical resistance against apartheid, who take direct action to destroy government property and halt government activity. Their worldview is simple and clear, because they are ideological and young. They resent the accommodations the older generations have made, which has bartered their children out of a future. The necessary sacrifices their parents have made, their daily negotiation through apartheid, is seen as collaboration, which must be ended, by force if necessary. They spend almost as must time policing their own people as they do fighting the source of their oppression.

As the younger generation seem born in fire to fight without compromise, Poppy feels her own strength waning. She feels like she is coming to the end of a very long fight she no longer believes she can win, and is about to blow away like leaves.

This film in a way is about the strength that got generations through apartheid, not just worked to overturn it. The generations of women who held their families together. That provided for their families. That got their kids their schooling. That passed down the sense of self-respect and dignity necessary to survive in a world determined to tell you you were entitled to neither.

Kmedeus

I wanna go to Sao Vicente, it looks amazing chill. Also weird. A place where everyone is an artist, everyone has a passion, everyone is creative. People are never introduced as storekeeper, but storekeeper/cinephile, their engagement with and contribution to the cultural life of the island is acknowledged and validated.

Kmedeus is a film memorialising a ‘street lunatic’ who made outsider art in Sao Vicente. Since little remains of his life or his origins, the film is made of interviews with people who knew him, who were influenced by his art, and tributes to him in dance and painting.

It is equally a film about Sao Vicente, a place Kmedeus drew inspiration from and where he found a community of sorts. I think that is what is heartening about this film. This is a film made by the artists of Sao Vicente to acknowledge the contribution this mentally ill, homeless person made to their community and their work. That despite the immovable maladies of this world, a place could be made in the community for everyone, and their differences respected and accepted.

Antonio Tavares, a local musician, dancer and choreographer, links the unique perspective of Kmedeus (a name that means Eat God), with the movement to decolonialise both the art and the mind of the artist. In a world where sanity and sense is defined and handed down by the oppressor, there is resistance in insanity and nonsense. In speaking in his own individual voice, Kmedeus was an inspiration to Tavares to reach for an authentic sense of self.

While art is so often used to immortalise the artist, street art, like the street artist, is so often transient. Much of Kmedeus’s art has been whitewashed over, or lost or unrecorded. Instead we trace its ghost as it moves through the work of others.

I think Kmedeus’s art meant so much to the people of Sao Vicente because it chimed with character of the place. It was at once playful, with a sincere searching for meaning. Fused with syncretism, yet wholly authentic to itself.

And weird. Sao Vicente seems very weird.

How To Steal A Country

How To Steal A Country is a documentary on the Gupta state capture scandal that ended Jacob Zuma’s presidency. I remember hearing about the state corruption reports at the time, but watching this, it was so much worse than I remember. Apparently almost 1 trillion rand was funnelled out of public coffers under Zuma’s tenure.

The Guptas were Indian-South African businessmen, who inserted themselves into Jacob Zuma’s inner circle, and used their power and money to manipulate contracts and procurements for nearly every public works. This film does a good job of explaining what can at times feel like overwhelming and confusing machinations, just for the sheer number of complex scandals. They effectively hollowed out government over the course of a decade, where the running of all public services, from transport to security to energy, were within their control, and being run for their profit.

The real heroes here are the journalists and activists who fought tirelessly to expose these crimes. The uncovering of this corruption could not have been done without activists willing to fight for their democracy, voting to replace Zuma’s crony as president of the ANC, and protesting and taking to the streets to keep pressure on for action. What Zuma and the Guptas underestimated was the vigilance the South African people have over their democracy. It’s creation happened within their lifetime, and many remember what it was like before its inception. There is less complacency and more political engagement than you see in some countries where corruption has already destroyed people’s faith in their system.

Also, in a world where we are increasingly seeing journalists being branded enemies of the people for questioning the narrative of those in power, it was really refreshing to see a film with journalists braving abuse and attacks to get the truth out – that the people were being robbed, and their democracy sold out from under them. It shows how integral their role can be in mobilising against the erosion of democracy.

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The Psychosis of Whiteness

The Psychosis of Whiteness is a film essay analysing the movies Amistad, Belle, and Amazing Grace for how they create a false narrative around transatlantic slavery, in which white people are the central protagonists acting as saviours to agency-less black people, in order to propagate and perpetuate the myths and delusions around those historic crimes, and their continued affects through racism today, to a white audience.

Now. Here’s why those films are important. While some people may have seen more accurate depictions of slavery in films like 12 Year A Slave, or on tv like Roots, the first, biggest budget, and most widely promoted films are those three films. If you are new to the subject of slavery, either because you’re young, or because you’ve never been exposed, you are far more likely to have seen trailers for and ads to go see Belle and Amazing Grace, than you are to have been encouraged to see Roots. So it’s important that this is the message that is reaching people first, and creating their impressions of what slavery was about.

Secondly, it is important to reflect on these movies and ask ourselves why are we pouring so much money into telling this kind of story over and over again? What purpose does it serve? And what are its effects?

There is also then tendency to dismiss criticism of historical films for inaccuracy. By virtue of being a recreation, people expect historical films to be inaccurate, and are mostly just going along for the story. No one cares if it is a button or a popper on the guy’s lapel in Peaky Blinders, even though one would be historically inaccurate, why should they care about this? Well, because it’s not about inaccuracies in dress or location or set design that we’re talking about. We’re talking about racist propaganda being given millions of pounds to be spread as widely as possible. And that matters.

So what do Amistad, Belle, and Amazing Grace have in common? They all focus on court or governmental procedures relating to slavery in which abolition is billed as the end point of victory. They all focus on white protagonists in a largely white cast, where black people are represented as being ‘done to’ and helpless. The black actors are frequently silent, unintelligible, or in the case of Amazing Grace, spending just under 1 and half minutes speaking out of the 2 hour runtime. The eventual victory of the films’ heroes is seen as a full-stop, in which racism and the exploitation of black people becomes a thing of the past.

They are also largely fictional. Even when they cherrypick an exceptional case, like that in Amistad, where the court ruled in the favour of slaves, they still have to alter the substance of the arguments to be moral condemnations of slavery, as opposed to what was actually put forth, which was a very technical matter of law. The case of the Amistad was not an argument against slavery, nor did it lead to abolition as the film implies, as slavery continued for another half century in the US.

In Belle, the decision to rule in favour of an insurance company over the captain of a slave ship is depicted as pivotal in acknowledging the humanity of black people and valuing their lives, again supposedly laying the foundation for abolition. Truth is it was a ruling entirely in keeping with the status quo, a decision that made the continuance of slavery easier, and contrarily, had the opposite happened, and the decision been found for the ship’s captain, it would have actually thrown more of a wrench into the workings of slavery.

In Amazing Grace, the British Parliament passes legislation to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, supposedly due to the efforts of one man, William Wilberforce. No mention is made of the historical context in which this change took place, where Britain was essentially getting squeezed out a market America was better at, that the Haitian Revolution had made slavery in the British West Indian colonies a much greater financial risk, nor that the slaveowners were compensated in the biggest government payout to a civilian endeavour ever in its history, while slaves themselves were given nada. Nor is any mention made of the fact they are sitting surrounded by the wealth that the slave trade has made them, and they’re just going to keep that, thank you very much.

In all three movies, black people are passive observers in a drama about white people’s consciences. The violence against them is minimised, either taking place in brief flashbacks, again emphasising their place in the past, or happens not at all. They are not shown as central, active in their fight for their freedom, or leading the charge against slavery, or even speaking at all much of the time. They are props in a story about whiteness to a white audience. Their pain and oppression is merely the playground in which the white protagonist can play saviour.

While it is easy to dismiss Amistad, Belle, Amazing Grace as three crap films that don’t get it right, it is important to note that these are the stories being promoted. They are not all accidentally identically inaccurate in a racist way, they are deliberately created and promoted because they are the story a white audience wants to hear about itself.

Time for them to stop getting what they want.

I Am Samuel

Beautiful and intimate documentary about Samuel, a gay Kenyan, who is considering coming out to his family now that he has met the love of his life, Alex.

This film for me was about the universalities and uniqueness of queer people’s stories. Every queer person watching this can identify with growing up receiving the message that straight is the only way to be, and thinking you are the only person you know who is queer, and having anxiety about parental rejection when you come out. Across the world, queer people can identify with that.

Yet this film is also about Samuel’s story in particular. He grew up in a rural, religious family. The family is very close. As a teenager, to try to conform to being straight, he slept with and knocked up a local girl, and now is raising a daughter as a single dad. She stays with his sister while he goes to work in the city, in order to earn the family a little money, and pay for his daughter’s schooling. But in Nairobi, he had a complete awakening. He realised he is not the only gay person, that there is in fact numerous gay people, and plenty right there in Nairobi. He made a crowd of friends, met and fell in love with Alex.

Kenya is a very devoutly Christian country, and being gay is illegal there. Homophobic violence is a constant source of worry.

But what was really encouraging about this film was there, like here, things are changing. Just because you can’t see them on the surface, in the penal code, on the tv screen, doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. And it’s happening as it happens all around the world, another universal queer experience: things change when people live their truth openly, and when people choose love over hate.

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Beyond My Steps

This film is fucking gorgeous. Beyond My Steps in a documentary following the Contemporary Dance Company of Angola as the dancers rehearse for the performance of the piece (De)construction. Choreographed by Monica Anapaz, the piece deals with construction and deconstruction of central cultural themes of identity, place, tradition and change.

The cinematography of this film is just spectacular. It is sumptuous to watch, bringing alive with sharp clarity this vibrant, bright and colourful place, people and performance. The score is also excellent, all tying together with film’s focus on communication through art.

The dancers reflect on what they are bringing to the performance, and what the piece means to them. They are predominantly from the provinces, and are now working and living in the capital, so urban alienation is a factor, with the divide of the rural and urban mirroring the tense negotiation between tradition and increasing globalisation. The different way of life can often be jarring, with increased access to technology, tv and social media often existing side by side with less community cohesion and interconnectedness.

And nationally, there is a struggle for cohesion, especially with the legacy of the decades-long civil war. CDCA is the first professional dance company in Angola, and they want their work to speak to the diversity of the country, but also bring that together, as one performance by complementary performers.

For the dancers, how this piece finds a way to incorporate traditional Angolan dance forms syncretic with contemporary modern, and its deconstructive process, speaks to a continual lived experience in which we carry who we are forward in our lives, collectively. While trying capture the choreographer’s unique vision, they nonetheless create a universal message.

Just beautiful.

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