Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 19, 2013

So what the fuck was Humphrey Bogart doing in North Africa anyhow?

Filed under: Africa,Film,war — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

Back in the late 50s the only way you could see a movie on television was to turn on the CBS network. With the Early Show, the Late Show, and the Late Late Show, you got to see just the kinds of films that are the staple of the Turner Classic Movie cable station today. Today I stumbled across a TCM screening of the 1943 “Sahara”, one my favorite movies from way back when. Written by CP’er John Howard Lawson and starring Humphrey Bogart as a tank commander in Libya during WWII, I always felt like standing up and cheering when the dirty Nazis surrendered to the outnumbered allies, a small band of men assembled from the “united nations” fending off Nazism. There was a Brit, a Frenchie, some Yanks, a North African, and an Italian prisoner who eventually gave up his life to help his captors. Like most CP’ers in Hollywood, Lawson really knew how to spin a tale that would get people rallying around the stars and stripes.

The only problem was figuring out what the hell Humphrey Bogart was doing in North Africa. After reading chapter seventeen of James Heartfield’s “Unpatriotic History of World War Two”, a book that I would nominate for Isaac Deutscher Prize of 2013 if I were on the jury, I will never be able to see “Sahara” in the same light.

Bogart plays Sergeant Joe Gunn (sounds like a Tarantino character?), whose tank crew has been attached to the British army to gain experience in desert fighting. The film opens with the British in general retreat after Rommel’s forces overran Tobruk, a seaside city on Libya’s eastern border to Egypt.

At a bombed out field hospital, Gunn picks up a motley crew of soldiers from other countries including a Sudanese with an Italian prisoner named Giuseppe played by J. Carrol Nash, an Irish actor who had perfected an Italian accent. We used to watch Nash in “Life with Luigi” back in the 1950s, a show that might be described as the Italian version of “The Goldbergs”. Nash’s role in “Sahara” is to personify the inept Italian army that had no heart in fighting. Made in 1943, the film reflected the state of Italian fascist politics. Mussolini was tossed aside that year and a new Italian government took up the fight against the Nazis, but eventually showed more grit in suppressing the local CP partisans who had dealt the deathblow to Mussolini.

Rex Ingram, an African-American who was the first to receive a Phi Beta Kappa Key from Northwestern University, plays the Sudanese soldier. As might be expected, his first acting role was in “Tarzan of the Apes”. Wikipedia comments drily: “He made his (uncredited) screen debut in that film and had many other small roles, usually as a generic black native, such as in the Tarzan films.”

Apparently Ingram’s notions of Black theater clashed with those of the Communist Party, as related in Mark Naison’s “Communists in Harlem During the Depression”:

Shortly after the performance, the company announced plans to stage additional full-length dramas based on a “program of social realism.” The movement toward a black theatre of protest posed difficulties for black artists. “Social realist” drama had numerous cliches and conventions: e.g. the conversion, the crisis and the obligatory concluding strike —that made it difficult to portray human relationships that were not explicitly political. Such difficulties increased in a black setting where writers and their left-wing critics often felt compelled to emphasize the theme of black-white unity and to counteract popular stereotypes of black behavior. When an artist portrayed blacks as criminals, religious enthusiasts, or hedonists, no matter how accurate that might be in a particular setting, s/he risked the displeasure of Communist critics. Such a fate befell Rex Ingram. At a theatrical benefit for the ILD [International Labor Defense], Ingram’s company put on a play called Drums Along the Bayou, which portrayed the radicalization of black workers in Louisiana and their rejection of voodoo for Communism. The final scene, in which the “previously superstitious” workers began “shouting Communist slogans” and the voodoo drums beat a new “supposedly Communist rhythm,” horrified Daily Worker writer Alice Evans:

The treatment, presenting Communism for the Negro as a sort of sublimated voodooism, full of hysteria and drum beats, is very dangerous, in that it confirms the vicious capitalist myth about the Negro as a jungle creature instead of a human being. Thinking of the fine self-control, remarkable discipline, and quiet reasoning power of Negro workers, proved in hundreds of struggles it becomes extremely regrettable that Rex Ingram should have given us so frenzied a picture of Negro conversion to Communism.

The CP’s arrogance toward Rex Ingram should give you an idea of what a mixed blessing their hegemony represented. While far more capable of reaching workers and Black people than their Trotskyist rivals, they took such advantage of their power that they eventually turned their friends into enemies. No better example can be found than Richard Wright.

Despite the ability of Lawson to craft a movie that was made to order for the CP’s wartime needs, it was not so long ago when he was going through the same kind of travails as Ingram. Wikipedia reports:

During the 1930s, leftists accused Lawson of having a lack of ideological and political commitment. New Playwrights Theatre associate Mike Gold attacked him in The New Masses on April 10, 1934, calling him a “A Bourgeois Hamlet of Our Time” who wrote adolescent works that lacked moral fiber or clear ideas. Lawson responded a week later in The New Masses in the article “‘Inner Conflict’ and Proletarian Art” he cited his middle-class childhood as the reason why he could fully understand the working people. He also recognized that his prosperity and Hollywood connections were suspect in the fight for workers’ rights. Due to the criticism, he joined the Communist Party and began a program of educating himself about the proletarian cause. He would soon travel throughout the poverty-stricken South to study bloody labor conflicts in Alabama and Georgia.

In “Sahara”, Bogart’s small group of democracy-loving fighters stand off a much larger Nazi force who have become weakened due to a lack of water. When Bogart offers to exchange guns for water from the oasis he commands, they refuse. Ultimately the elements get the better of them just as it did in the invasion of Soviet Russia and they surrender en masse to the good guys.

But what the fuck were the Brits doing in North Africa to begin with? Let me turn the microphone over to James Heartfield:

In Western Europe, neither Britain nor Germany were willing to cross the channel – bombing each other’s cities, and attacking ship the Axis and the Allies’ respective armies did not meet on their own soil, but in North Africa. Italy’s bid for African Empire ended in ruins. Germany’s overtures to Arab nationalists added to the Empire’s troubles. Once the British Army had regained control over the Middle East, they could face the threat of Rommel’s Desert Army. Europeans would vent their hatreds in other people’s countries.

Britain had assembled an army of 630,000 British and colonial troops under Auchinleck, outnumbering Rommel’s men by three to two. Auchinleck had 900 tanks to Rommel’s 560 but were still being out-foxed. Pressed to take on the German, Auchinleck in February of1942 threw the War Cabinet into despair when he said he needed four months to get ready. In the end he was told to strike before 15 July or be relieved of command, which he did. But still Rommel fought back, taking Tobruk after intense fighting on 20 June. The next day, wrote Ribbentrop’s press officer,

Rommel entered the city of Tobruk at the head of his combat group. He found a pile of ruins. Hardly a house remained intact … the harbour installations and the streets had been transformed into a maze of rubble.

Thirty three thousand prisoners were taken, among whom were fully one third of all of South Africa’s armed forces.

Once Italy entered the war in 1940, trade in the Mediterranean was called to a halt by attacks on shipping, which undermined Middle Eastern economies. A Middle East Supply Council under E.M.H. Lloyd struggled with shortages of tea, coffee, spices, sugar and grain. In June 1941 Lebanon’s rich cereal harvest was broken up by the Allied invasion of Syria, so that by the winter the Middle East was without grain and close to famine. There were riots in Damascus. Allied authorities ordered all grain be sold to a control board for distribution, closing – in some cases burning – local mills. The Allies taxed the Middle East heavily and put a freeze on wages and salaries, just as prices were rocketing.

In October and November of 1942 the British Eighth Army – now under the command of General Bernard Montgomery – and Rommel’s Afrika Korps fought their decisive battle at El Alamein. At the same time American and British forces landed to the west, catching the Axis forces in a pincer movement. The Axis surrendered on 14 May 1943, with 275,000 taken prisoner. For nearly three years the Axis and the Allies had been avoiding a direct confrontation over their own territory, by hitting at each other in North Africa, but the surrender brought that phase of the war to an end. In September 1945 Sir Edward Grigg, Minister Resident in the Middle East summed up the British position:

the Middle East is no less vital to Britain than Central and South America to the United States, or than the eastern and western glacis of the Russian land mass to the Soviet Union … It was not for nothing that we sent to Egypt in 1940, when this island was in imminent jeopardy of invasion, the only armoured division of which we stood possessed. It was no mere accident that the whole face of the war began to change after our victory, two years later, at Alamein.

January 18, 2013

Senegalese portraits in cinema

Filed under: Africa,Film,immigration,imperialism/globalization,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:55 pm

Last Saturday a Facebook friend asked me for my opinions on an article in the December 28, 2012 CP-Africa:

Most African countries could be middle income countries by 2025

By Shanta Devarajan and Wolfgang Fengler

Hardly a week goes by without an African investors’ conference or growth summit. Portuguese professionals are looking for opportunities in Angola. Silicon Valley companies are coming to Kenya to learn about its home-grown ICT revolution. This is not an irrational fad.

Since the turn of the century, Africa’s growth has been robust (averaging 5-6 per cent GDP growth a year), making important contributions to poverty reduction. The current boom is underpinned by sound macro policies and political stability. Unlike in some rich countries, public debt levels in most of Africa are sustainable.

Earlier in the month The Economist ran something in a similar vein titled “Africa’s hopeful economies”.

I plan to write a detailed critique of such claims at some point but only wish that the authors of such shameless propaganda could join some of Senegal’s desperate undocumented workers who risk their lives in small fishing boats over a 7-day voyage to the Canary Islands. On January 23rd the Film Forum in New York will be premiering Moussa Touré’s “The Pirogue”, a powerful narrative directed by someone who could identify with his characters based on this interview:

My father died when I was 14 and as the eldest in the family I had to go out to work. I went to see a friend of my father who was making a film. That was my first job. For my second, I heard a film was being shot with François Truffaut, although I didn’t know who he was, and I went along! I learned very quickly, and started off working in the lighting.

“The Pirogue” is set in a small seaside village that is slowly being drained of its population due to a stagnant economy. Despite the authors cited above, it is doubtful that it would attract a maquila let alone a delegation from Silicon Valley looking for a place to set up a tech support call center.

Unlike a Europe that is in a recession, Senegal’s economic woes are more deeply entrenched and chronic in nature. If you stroll down New York’s avenues, you will see men and women selling counterfeit wristwatches and pocketbooks. Most are from West Africa and Senegal in particular. By the standards of the hapless citizens of the fishing village, these are people who have become fabulously successful even though they are only a step ahead of the cops.

The film begins with preparations for the journey with a fisherman named Baye Laye sizing up the job as captain. There will be 30 passengers, including him. Some are from Senegal and others are from Guinea. For the land-locked Guineans, who do not speak a word of any of Senegal’s languages, there is a sense of dread about the voyage anybody would feel but compounded by the fact that none of them have ever seen the ocean before. One man, a desperate peasant like all the others, is gripped by panic attacks as soon as they venture out to sea. His fellow passengers are compelled to tie him up and put a gag over his mouth to keep order in the rickety boat. Although I have not seen “Life of Pi”, I suspect that “The Pirogue” is the ultimate anti-Pi, forsaking the woozy mysticism of the lavishly funded 3D movie in favor of a kind of neorealist plea for ending the brutal exploitation of Senegal that forced 30,000 of its citizens to take such desperate measures, leaving 6,000 victims of drowning, dehydration, and starvation in the process.

Despite the neorealist aesthetic, “The Pirogue” is beautifully filmed and strengthened by a film score drawing upon Senegalese popular music. At one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the film, when the boat people begin to realize that they may never reach their destination, they take turns singing songs from their respective ethnic regions.

In the press notes for “The Pirogue”, Touré was asked what he thought when he saw the finished film. His reply:

I wondered how we can live in such a climate. That’s the question the parents back home ask themselves. They know there’s nothing they can do to help their children, that there is no future for them in the country, and there’s no point in trying to hold them back. I also watched my wife cry like I’ve never seen her cry before. I was almost ashamed to have moved her so deeply. In a way, it was a kind of sufferance making this film. I have put all my energy, all my truth and emotions in this film. It was something I had to do.

Put “The Pirogue” on your calendar. It is not only a glimpse into African filmmaking at its most political; it is also a work of art.

Among the wheelbarrow full of DVD’s I received from The Weinstein Company in November was one unheralded French film titled “The Intouchables”. (This decision to retain the French word for “untouchables” strikes me as perverse. Perhaps the Weinstein’s were afraid that it would be confused with the Elliot Ness movie.)

I have to confess that I postponed watching “The Intouchables” as long as I could, even putting in behind Dustin Hoffman’s “Quartet”, a film that I correctly anticipated would be a soporific exercise in the Merchant-Ivory vein. (I gave it my customary 10 minutes worth of attention.) “The Intouchables” was described as an “inspirational” tale about the bonding of a super-rich Frenchman quadriplegic and the impoverished African youth who is hired as his caregiver.

The great Omar Sy in “The Intouchables”

Having had a strong reaction against “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, Julian Schnabel’s film about a paralyzed stroke victim from the French upper class, I worried that “The Intouchables” would be more of the same—an unendurable descent into someone else’s misery.

Nothing prepared me for the sheer energy and ebullience of a “buddy” movie unlike any I have ever seen. From the minute that Driss (Omar Sy), a Senegalese youth from the banlieues, the outskirts of Paris populated largely by poor North African and other non-white immigrants that erupted in riots in 2005, meets Philippe (François Cluzet) in a job interview, the young man demonstrates neither the professional background nor the cloying sympathy for the “victim” that other applicants display. Driss admits to Philippe’s staff that he is there mainly to fulfill his obligation to the unemployment bureau. He has to show up for job interviews or else his benefits are cut off.

Philippe admires the young man’s honesty as well as his rebelliousness, obviously seeing some kind of kindred spirit despite their class differences. Philippe has enjoyed taking risks all his life, including a passion for paragliding that would eventually rob him of the use of his arms and legs. As Philippe’s driver, Driss takes him on a joy ride through Paris’s streets in a Maserati at speeds over 100 miles per hour. When the cops catch up to the two, Driss tells them that they were racing to get to the hospital since Philippe was suffering some kind of seizure. To fool the cops, Philippe manages to get white foam pouring out of his mouth. Afterwards the two men have a big laugh and go out for dinner and drinks.

As Driss, Omar Sy delivers a charismatic performance that helps put the film over the top. It is almost impossible for me to imagine any combination of actor and character that works as well. With a Senegalese father and Mauritanian mother, Sy understands exactly what kind of experience Driss has had in the banlieues since he came from one: Trappes. Despite having moved to Los Angeles to improve his English and further his career, Sy will continue to fulfill his obligations as a French citizen. He told The Independent: “I grew up with [state] family benefits. They gave my parents a big helping hand. Paying taxes is no problem for me. It is a bit like I was paying back a debt.” That’s a real Frenchman, not the loutish Gérard Depardieu.

Quentin Tarantino has claimed that “Django Unchained” has revealed the truth about slavery as if “Gone With the Wind” was Hollywood’s last film on the topic. While it was not a movie, “Roots” had much more of an impact than “Django Unchained” can ever hope to have, as well as reflecting what an African-American author felt about the subject. When it aired on ABC TV in 1977, it became the 3rd highest-rated production in history. Based on the novel by Alex Haley, who co-wrote Malcolm X’s autobiography, the show had a dramatic impact on public opinion. Although Haley had plagiarized sections of the novel “The African” by David Kourlander, who whom he settled out of court for $500,000, most of “Roots” reflects Haley’s 12 year research project on slavery.

While I never watched “Roots”, I have to believe that it is a better introduction to the “peculiar institution” than “Django Unchained”. But despite its obscurity and its general unavailability, the movie that I would recommend to my readers is “Ceddo”, which appeared the same year as “Roots”. Directed by the Senegalese Ousmane Sembene, Africa’s greatest director and arguably one of the world’s as well, it tells the story of how both Islam and Christianity conspired to force slavery on indigenous peoples in the 19th century.

The ‘common folk’ of “Ceddo” are the serfs of a small village in 19th century Senegal who are miserably oppressed by organized religion and by their feudal overlords. The clerical structures are much more modest than those found in any feudal society (Islamic services are held on the open ground bounded by pebbles), but the bonds enforced by custom are the same. The ceddo must pay tribute to their King in the form of firewood bundles. An Islamic caste also takes tribute in the form of slaves, who are exchanged for guns or cloth in a general store run by a white man. To round out the microcosm of feudal society, there is a single white Catholic priest who is barely tolerated by the Moslems.

Weary of oppression, a ceddo youth kidnaps the daughter of the king and takes her to an isolated wooded glen near the ocean. She will only be returned after the ruling classes forsake slavery and forced conversion to Islam. Played by amateurs, as is the case in nearly all of Sembene’s films, the villagers, have a simple desire to live as they have always lived.

The film’s most dramatic scenes pit the hostage-taker against aristocrats from the village who come to rescue the princess with rifles in hand. Armed only with a bow and arrow and superior cunning, the ceddo youth vanquishes them one by one. In the course of his courageous resistance, the princess begins to warm to him although he is slow to respond in kind. His memory of oppression remains too strong. In one of the more gripping images of the film, the beautiful princess bathes nude in the ocean while the young commoner stands on the beach glowering at her, bow and arrow in hand. He will not indulge himself in desire as long as his people are in bondage.

In a conflict between the King and the Islamic clergy over how to divide up ceddo tribute, the clergy seize power. Now that they are the new ruling class, they force the village to undergo conversion. One by one, the men’s heads are shaved as they are given new names. The arrogant Imam tells the disconsolate villagers: “You are now Ishmaila”, “You are now Ibraima”, etc. , Whether in Africa or in the New World, cultural assimilation always precedes economic assimilation. Implicit in Sembene’s films is the notion that cultural renewal must precede social and economic transformation.

Born in 1923, his father a fisherman like the captain in “The Pirogue”, Sembene fell in love with movies at an early age after seeing scenes of Jesse Owens’ track victories in Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi documentary Olympics documentary. “For the first time,” he told the LA Times in 1995, “a black honored us by beating whites. . . . It became the film for the young people of my generation.” We can be sure that this was not Riefenstahl’s intention.

Sembene quit high school after punching out a teacher who had hit him first. He then joined the Free French army during World War II. After the war he became a rail worker, participating in an epochal Dakar-Niger railroad strike in 1947-48. After stowing away in a ship to France, he became a longshoreman in Marseilles and a member of the French Communist Party.

In France he started writing fiction in order to depict the reality of modern African life that could best be represented by the African. His first novel “The Black Docker” was published in 1956. But in the early 1960s, Sembene decided to turn his attention to filmmaking (“the people’s night school”) because most Africans were illiterate and could only be reached with this medium. His films would follow the same road as his writing, to offer an alternative to Tarzan movies and garish epics like “Mandingo.” “We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms,” he said.

So he went to Moscow, where he studied at the Gorki Institute under Soviet directors Mark Donskoi and Sergei Gerasimov. This was the time when the USSR was not only offering an economic alternative to developing countries, but a cultural one as well. Indirectly, the Soviet Union became a midwife to modern African cinema.

How sad it is that a great talent such as Ousmane Sembene is neglected while Quentin Tarantino’s grindhouse remake of movies like “Mandingo” get taken seriously by our most prestigious film critics. I agree. We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms. We need class-conscious films about slavery that are rooted in African and American reality. It will probably take a political sea change that will make it possible for works like “Roots” and “Ceddo” to reappear. Until that happens, I am not going to offer tributes to something like “Django Unchained” that offers tributes to nothing but Quentin Tarantino’s inflated ego and Harvey Weinstein’s corporate coffers.

September 19, 2012

Ethiopian 70s pop revival band

Filed under: Africa,music — louisproyect @ 2:15 am

July 5, 2012

Bembeya Jazz!

Filed under: Africa,music — louisproyect @ 5:05 pm

June 22, 2012


Filed under: Africa,anthropology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

Watch Trailer here

When documentary filmmaker Cevin Soling was in seventh grade, his social studies teacher passed out a copy of an essay by Lewis Thomas titled “The Iks“. It referred to a small tribe in northern Uganda that might have been called “the Ickies” based on what Thomas wrote:

The message of the book [anthropologist Colin Turnbull’s “The Mountain People”] is that the Iks have transformed themselves into an irreversibly disagreeable collection of unattached, brutish creatures, totally selfish and loveless, in response to the dismantling of their traditional culture. Moreover, this is what the rest of us are like in our inner selves, and we will all turn into Iks when the structure of our society comes all unhinged.

They breed without love or even casual regard. They defecate on each other’s doorsteps. They watch their neighbors for signs of misfortune, and only then do they laugh. In the book they do a lot of laughing, having so much bad luck. Several times they even laughed at the anthropologist, who found this especially repellent (one senses, between the lines, that the scholar is not himself the world’s luckiest man). Worse, they took him into the family, snatched his food, defecated on his doorstep, and hooted dislike at him. They gave him two bad years.

Three decades later, Soling decided to travel to Ik territory and meet the people who were either maligned by Turnbull or lived up (or down) to the portrait. The chronicle of that voyage is in the marvelous documentary “Ikland” that closed yesterday at the Quad Cinema in New York City but can be ordered from the film’s website. As someone who has followed controversies in academic anthropology for the better part of two decades, I can say that this film should be required viewing in anthropology classes everywhere. It is a singular lesson in how the social scientist can impose their own worldview on an innocent people in a manner that reminds one of  colonial domination. After all, Turnbull’s Britain once ruled all of Uganda so why shouldn’t he have his way with a mere tribe?

While it was within the realm of possibility that the Ik were as bad as Thomas portrayed them (he did blame their obnoxious traits on circumstances forced on them rather than any genetic predisposition), Soling must have sensed that another reality lurked beneath the surface as he said in a statement on the Ikland website:

I also had guiding principles of what not to do. I did not want to take an objective detached approach of treating people as experimental subjects, where comparisons to the viewer become implicit. At the same time, I did not want to take the other extreme of idealizing their society. When people were interviewed, I designed a conversational tone to overcome inherent distance, which focused on their daily concerns and enabled their dignity to emerge.

On my own website, I include these words from Frankfurt School luminary Max Horkheimer: “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.”

After watching “Ikland”, one cannot help but think that Soling’s trek into Ik territory was also a “voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief” that the intended subjects of the film were so deserving of having their story told that any sacrifice made on their behalf would be worth it. In Soling’s case, and that of the tiny production staff that accompanied him, that sacrifice might have been their lives.

As documented in the film with surprising casualness and even a comic tone, the trip into northern Uganda involved numerous threats to health and safety. Soling and his comrades sleep in an infirmary in a tiny village, the nearest thing to a hostel in the Ugandan countryside en route to their destination. In nearby beds, there are people suffering from Dengue fever and anthrax. As they continue north, they pitch tents on a dirt road (more like a trail) and are awoken in the middle of the night by growling lions just outside the flaps. In a phone interview conducted with the director last night, he revealed that the only thought that came to him was this is where I am going to die. Continuing further, they run into a herd of elephants and once again escape with their lives. (African elephants—unlike their Indian brethren—are not only untrainable, they are violently hostile to people.) But the biggest threat of all was bandits and the feral combatants of The Lord’s Resistance Army, a group prone to wanton amputations and executions. While on the road in the middle of the night, the tiny convoy is attacked by small arms fire and only survives by driving ahead on punctured tires.

When they finally arrive in Ik territory, they are greeted warily. Few whites venture that far north and the Ik people tend to view all outsiders with some degree of suspicion since they have been preyed upon by hostile tribes in Uganda and the Turkana from Kenya to the north. The Turkana are warlike pastoralists who raid in order to steal food and cattle or goats reminding me in some ways of the Comanche who used to launch raids into Mexico in the 1850s. Despite having lost a number of their tribe to Turkana raiders in recent days, an Ik leader tells Soling that the Turkana can be generous when times are good. Given the desertification impacting almost all of northern Africa today and the exploitation of fertile land for agri-exports like coffee or cotton, it is understandable why the Turkana would be on the warpath much of the time.

Once the film crew settles into a daily routine with their hosts, we learn that Colin Turnbull’s analysis was not to be trusted. Like most people living communally, the Ik share their goods. When asked if some of the tribe hoards during a famine, they reply that in such times nobody has anything so there is nothing to hoard. Soling’s goal in enabling the Ik “dignity to emerge” is met with flying colors. As survivors of terrible privations, the Ik remain stoic and generous with each other and accepting and good-natured toward their guests. Perhaps the only defecation left on a doorstep was Colin Turnbull’s misbegotten book.

One of Turnbull’s sharpest critics within the profession is Bernd Heine, whose “The Mountain People: Some Notes on the Ik of North-Eastern Uganda” (African: Journal of the International Institute, Vol. 55, No. 1, 1985) sets the record straight.

To start with, Turnbull visited the village of Pirre, an Ik center, but he came at a time when war forced non-Ik peoples to seek temporary refuge since it was the only village in the area that was policed and hence safe from banditry or terror. At times, therefore, the Ik were a minority there. Some of his main informants were not Ik at all but members of the Diding’a tribe.

Another of Turnbull’s errors was to view the Ik as hunter-gatherers like the pygmies he had also researched. He theorized that their anti-social behavior had something to do with being deprived of their livelihood since the state had banned hunting in Kidepo National Park, something that Lewis Thomas repeated:

The small tribe of Iks, formerly nomadic hunters and gatherers in the mountain valleys of northern Uganda, have become celebrities, literary symbols for the ultimate fate of disheartened, heartless mankind at large. Two disastrously conclusive things happened to them: the government decided to have a national park, so they were compelled by law to give up hunting in the valleys and become farmers on poor hillside soil, and then they were visited for two years by an anthropologist who detested them and wrote a book about them.

Thomas got the business about an anthropologist detesting them right, but they were never nomadic hunters. Instead they were farmers for at least 3000 years according to Heine, and as such quite good at it. Turnbull never figured out that they were farmers and kept looking for evidence of hunters being deprived of their way of life, almost one supposes like members of the NRA having their worst nightmare come true.

One of the most amusing and revealing passages in Heine’s critique deals with Turnbull’s flawed understanding of the Ik language:

Usually one of the first things an anthropologist in the field learns is the greetings. Turnbull made an effort, but with limited success. He notes, for example, that ‘the common, everyday greeting’ is ida piaji (Turnbull, 1974: 246). The Ik have a wide range of greeting forms, depending in particular on the time of the day. One of them is i-ida? (‘Are you [all right]?’), to which one replies, i-ida ‘bia ‘j? (‘Are you [all right] as well?’). It is probably the latter which he calls the ‘traditional’ or ‘common, everyday greeting’. It would seem that for all the two years he lived among the Ik he was not aware that he was greeting them with a reply to a greeting, furthermore with one which is used neither during the morning (ep-ida) nor during the afternoon hours (iria-ida).

I got a laugh out of this since my Turkish professor once read me the riot act when I told him “güle güle”, as a way of saying goodbye. Don’t you know, he said, the person staying behind says this, not the person leaving? Of course, I never claimed to be an expert on Turkish culture so I might be excused. Turnbull is another story altogether apparently.

I will conclude with Heine’s own restrained but devastating conclusion:

At first it was difficult to understand how Turnbull came to treat the Ik in his writings the way he did. The longer I was able to talk to the Ik about his work the more I got the impression that he tended to project his own feelings on to his research subjects. There are in fact some indications that what he claims to be typical Ik behaviour is rather an indication of his own mentality. For example, although dealing with a people he suspected to be hunter-gatherers his writings suggest that he was entirely ignorant of the plant and animal life of Ik country. Yet, as I have shown above, he concludes that it is not he himself but rather the Ik who are unfamiliar with their fauna and flora (Turnbull, 1967: 63).

When he observes that for the Ik ‘Misfortune of others was their greatest joy’ one is reminded of passages like the following, his descriptions of his own feelings and behaviour, which seem to point to his own frustrations:

It was one of the few real pleasure’s I had, listening to his shrieking and yelling when they caught him and did whatever they did … and then watching him come flying out of the odok holding his head and streaming with tears… [Turnbull, 1974, 102]

it was a pleasure to move rapidly ahead and leave Atum gasping behind so that we could be sitting at the di when he finally appeared and laugh at his discomfort. [Ibid., 178]

The unpleasantness of returning was somewhat alleviated by Atum’s suffering on the way up the stony trail. Several times he slipped, which made Lojieri and me laugh … [Ibid.]

The frustrations he encountered among the Ik are described in great detail, but he goes on to note: ‘For want of something to do, I used to measure the amount of rain that fell … The exactness of detail was no measure of my academic zeal, simply of my own frustration and boredom’ (Turnbull, 1974: 212). He describes the lack of mutual trust that he finds characteristic of the Ik, but he himself is not prepared to trust anybody, as sentences like the following suggest: ‘I disbelieved every word of this on principle…’ (Turnbull, 1974: 228).

The Ik are portrayed as a people lacking social integration, but if there is anyone who shows no interest in social integration it is Turnbull himself. He isolates himself behind a stockade ‘even bigger and stronger than that of my neighbours’ (Turnbull, 1974: 63), and ‘I used to shut myself up in the Land-Rover again to cook my meals and to eat them there’ (Turnbull, 1974: 79). It is not surprising, therefore, that my Ik informants frequently told me, ‘He made his observations in the bush, not where people were.’ To conclude, my observations have confirmed the claim made by Beidelman (1973: 171) in his review of The Mountain People: This book cannot be discussed in any proper sociological terms, for we are provided with only snatches of data. Rather than being a study of the Ik, this is an autobiographical portrait of the author utilizing the Ik as counters for expressing his personal feelings and experiences in the field.

October 7, 2011

The Sons of Tennessee Williams; Elevate

Filed under: Africa,Film,Gay — louisproyect @ 5:51 pm

Although the adjective “inspirational” is one of the most hackneyed in the film reviewer’s vocabulary and hence one that I tend to shirk, I could think of no other word that better describes two new documentaries: “The Sons of Tennessee Williams”, opening today at the Quad in NY, and “Elevate” that opens at the AMC Empire in NY on October 21 and in other major theaters around the country thereafter. The first is about gay men in New Orleans who used Mardi Gras as an opportunity for what amounted to gay pride demonstrations long before Stonewall. The second is about Senegalese high school students who win basketball scholarships to prep schools in the United States. While sharing some of the same dark concerns as “Hoop Dreams” (basketball as a problematic ladder up from poverty) and “Lost Boys of Sudan” (African youth dealing with an alienating white bread American environment), it is instead an uplifting story of true grit and the finest movie I have ever seen about basketball.

Joining “Before Stonewall” and “The Celluloid Closet”, “The Sons of Tennessee Williams” illuminates the efforts of gay people to express themselves when the law and a backward society were against them even much more so than today. The film is structured around old home movies and still photos taken by the men themselves and their reflections on the past. Most are now in their 60s and beyond and obviously thrilled at the idea of telling anybody who will listen that they had nothing to be ashamed of. While Hollywood fiction films still tend to the “gay as tragic” motif, documentaries continue to make the case that gay men and women can live happy and fulfilled lives if the bigots would just leave them in peace.

“The Sons of Tennessee Williams” tells the story of “drag balls” in the early 60s that used the cover of Mardi Gras to allow gay men to express themselves. Even if cross-dressing was not necessarily their “thing”, these occasions were opportunities to implicitly “come out” since it was understood by everybody that they were coming at things from a different angle than the heterosexual men who cross-dressed during Mardi Gras in the same way they might have wore more conventional costumes. Of course, New Orleans being what it is, just about everybody enjoyed getting in rhinestone-studded outfits whether they were gowns or cowboy duds.

The cops generally allowed these “krewes” as they were called some leeway but it was understood that anybody caught in a dress after carnival was over would be arrested. The press notes for the documentary describe the origins of this early foray into gay liberation:

In February 1959, a group of gay men in New Orleans decided to have a Mardi Gras ball of their own. Mardi Gras organizations in New Orleans, called krewes, are social clubs comprised of members who celebrate the season together. Each krewe has their own festivities, including parties and parades, usually ending with a formal ball and the coronation of a King and Queen. Everyone seems to have a krewe of some kind to belong to. A full decade before Stonewall, a gay Carnival krewe was founded. They called it the Krewe of YUGA or “KY”. In 1962, “KY” rented a school cafeteria in the notoriously conservative suburb of Jefferson Parish. Securing such a venue for an all male krewe to hold a Mardi Gras ball would not likely raise suspicion. Most krewes were, in fact, made up of an anonymous all male membership. Various personnel from the venue were present at functions like these, however. This would no longer be a private event. “It was a kindergarten, is what it was.”

Familiar with police raids, the men knew that the 1962 ball would break a few laws. They made absolutely sure to be in full drag anyway. “It was a ball, after all, not bowling night.” The police roared in precisely at coronation time, alerted by private citizens of crossdressing men entering the building at night. Krewe members attempted to escape by running into the swamplands adjacent to the school, chased by officers with dogs and flashlights. Many were betrayed by their glittering costumes while hiding in the dark night and tall grasses of Jefferson Parish. They were taken to jail, identified by name in the newspaper and eventually prosecuted with the charge of “disturbing the peace.” The significance is this. The following year the ball was not raided nor was any subsequent ball in the history of these annual events. By 1969, there were four gay krewes legally chartered by the state of Louisiana as official Mardi Gras organizations, holding yearly extravaganzas at public venues across the city. “Society matrons begged for ball tickets from their hairdressers.” New Orleans was the first place in America where gay and straight people came together to publicly recognize gay culture.

Not only does the film celebrate gay culture, it is a celebration of what makes New Orleans a special place. The film has a perfect title since Tennessee Williams, despite his first name, was the city’s poet laureate. It begins with a quote from Blanche Dubois, from his greatest play “A Streetcar Named Desire”. (Streetcars in New Orleans actually had such names.) When asked by her brother-in-law Mitch whether she was being straight with him, Blanche answers: “Straight? What’s ‘straight’? A line can be straight, or a street. But the heart of a human being?” How true.

“Elevate” begins in Dakar, Senegal at the SEEDS Academy, where young basketball players from across West Africa come to get intensive athletic and academic training. We are introduced to Amadou, Assane, Byago, Dethie and Aziz as they go through the paces on the basketball court and the classroom.

We also see them at home where you can get an idea of domestic life and family relations in West Africa that is unlike anything I have seen in a documentary before. The warmth and solidarity that family members offer the young athletes is one of the film’s most engaging aspects. With so much emphasis in documentaries about war-torn countries like Sudan or Ivory Coast about cruelty and suffering, these scenes are a reminder that there is more to Africa than doom and gloom.

Once the athletes get off their planes and drive to their new schools in the United States, the contrast with Dakar could not be starker. One school has mandatory chapel services that Assane amiably takes part in despite his Muslim faith. After services are finished, he goes back to his room and prays toward Mecca. At the very minute another athlete Aziz is eying a hot dog in his school’s cafeteria during Ramadan, worrying if there is pork in it, the film cuts back to Dakar where it shows his mother preparing a traditional Senegalese dish in a huge kettle. The contrast drawn between America and Senegal throughout the film is not one intended to be judgmental, only to help one understand the psychological adjustment the young protagonists had to make.

And make them they did. The film benefits from having five of the most likable and engaging young people as you can possibly imagine. Wise beyond their years, they have few illusions about making it to the NBA. They see prep school not as a path toward a McMansion and a fleet of cars but rather one that can get them into an American college on a basketball scholarship and then a profession, like medicine or law.

Much of the film consists of locker-room banter, games on the court, sessions between the athletes and coaches or guidance counselors that are ostensibly mundane. But they take on a highly dramatic character since everything the five young heroes are involved with amounts to stepping stones toward a better life. This is a documentary that takes a seemingly routine business—the lives of Senegalese basketball scholarship students in America—and turns it into high drama. Highly recommended!

September 1, 2011


Filed under: Africa,music — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

This is a Tuareg group from Mali that has a new CD coming out. One of their members was in Qaddafi’s army. An article on Tuareg mercenaries in Libya appears on the Atlantic Monthly website. I can’t vouch for its veracity but it is worth a look at: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/08/former-qaddafi-mercenaries-describe-fighting-in-libyan-war/244356/.

Here’s the NY Times on Tinariwen:

Blues From the Desert, Recorded On-Site

Marie Planeille

The African band Tinariwen named its new album “Tassili,” after the desert region near Algeria’s border with Libya where it was recorded. More Photos »

Published: August 31, 2011

In the language of the Tuareg nomads who for centuries have roamed the most remote reaches of the southern Sahara, “tinariwen” means “deserts.” But ever since the musical group of that name released its first CD in 2001, its members have recorded not on their home turf but in much the same way that American and European bands do: in the artificial environment of a recording studio, in cities like Paris and Bamako, Mali.


Members of the group at its July visit to the Highline Ballroom. Their new album, “Tassili,” was released on Tuesday. More Photos »

Chad Batka for The New York Times

Ibrahim ag Alhabib of the group Tinariwen performing at the Highline Ballroom in July. More Photos »

With “Tassili,” released on Tuesday, Tinariwen, whose music is a hard-rocking hybrid of Berber, Arab, Western and black African styles, has sought to return to its beginnings. Named for a spectacular area of canyons and sandstone arches near Algeria’s border with Libya, the CD was rehearsed and recorded out of doors there, in tents and around campfires much like those where the group’s founding members, political exiles then living in refugee settlements, first came together to play.

“We wanted to go back to our origins, to the experience of ishumar,” which means exile or being adrift, explained Eyadou ag Leche, the band’s bass player, speaking in French during an interview in New York in July. “Those were times when we would sit around a campfire, singing songs and passing around a guitar. Tinariwen was born in that movement, in that atmosphere, so what you hear on ‘Tassili’ is the feeling of ishumar.”

Tinariwen was founded around 1979 by the singer and guitarist Ibrahim ag Alhabib, who was born in Mali but fled that country as a child after his father was abducted and killed by government forces trying to put down a Tuareg rebellion. Now 51, Mr. Alhabib spent time in Algeria, Niger and Libya, where he joined a Tuareg army backed by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi; there his ability to write songs about the plight of the Tuareg, shuttling from one country to another but belonging to none, made him a leading voice of resistance and autonomy.

By 1985 “Tinariwen’s songs were already circulating across the Sahara on the cassette grapevine, copied over and over again,” said Andy Morgan, the group’s former manager, who is writing a book about the band. For the next four years, he added, “Ibrahim and several others who had already received infantry training were in a camp near Tripoli, where their job was to play music” sympathetic to the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, which aimed to establish an independent Tuareg republic in the Sahara.

Over the last decade, though, Tinariwen has won a following among American and European pop musicians and audiences that crave authenticity and passion in both music and attitude. The guitar is not a traditional instrument for the Tuaregs: Mr. ag Alhabib recalls fashioning one as a child after he saw it being played in a movie, but when he and other members of Tinariwen were able to return to Mali in the 1990s, the band began building or acquiring all the instrumental accoutrements of a modern rock band.

“Theirs is music that at the same time seems very familiar, starting with the guitars and the call and response element in the vocals, but also sounds exotic to the ear,” said the guitarist Nels Cline of Wilco, who supplies an eerily swirling guitar background on “Imidiwan Ma Tennam,” the new CD’s opening track. “You’re listening to stuff that really rocks, but is also very stripped down. There is an air of mystery and longing, and that creates a mood that is palpable, very compelling and attractive for all kinds of people. It’s wonderful music, and not just for guitarists.”

Tinariwen’s music has sometimes been called “desert blues,” and the group’s penchant for writing songs in minor key modes certainly creates a sound that has a blue feeling. But the band’s members prefer to talk about “asuf,” a sentiment from their own culture and Tamashek language that describes both a sense of spiritual pain, yearning or nostalgia and the emptiness of the desert itself. That, they acknowledge, creates a certain kinship with the bluesmen of Mississippi and Chicago.

“We didn’t know about these people at first because we were in our own universe,” Mr. ag Leche explained. “But when we first started hearing Hendrix, just to name someone, we felt something immediately. It was almost as if I had known that music from the day I was born. I’m told that a lot of the Africans who went to North America came from West Africa, from our part of the world. So it’s all the same connection. I think that any people who have lived through something that is very hard, feel this asuf, this pain, this longing. That is what will make their music sound similar to each other.”

For the more organic and acoustic sound Tinariwen wanted on “Tassili,” the group turned to Ian Brennan, an American producer who has worked with other African groups as well as with American artists like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Peter Case. Hundreds of pounds of equipment had to be hauled to a canyon deep in the desert and run off a generator placed about 150 yards from the main tent to eliminate hum from the recording and “to keep any critters from coming closer,” Mr. Brennan said.

“This music needs space, it needs to be wild and free,” he added. “My interest is in capturing and conveying emotion, so I believe that raw and real is almost always better. They feel the same way, and so this was the least overdubbed, most live, band-centric and song-oriented record they have done.”

For the other Americans who were invited to play on “Tassili,” making the record in the heart of the desert was both an adventure and a challenge. As the producer, Mr. Brennan was there for the entire three-week session last November, and for eight days he was joined by two members of the Brooklyn indie rock band TV on the Radio, the guitarist Kyp Malone and the singer Tunde Adebimpe, who had first met Tinariwen a couple of years ago when the two bands were on the same bill at the Coachella festival in California.

“There were cultural differences to consider, but it was one of the most rewarding musical experiences I’ve ever had,” Mr. Malone said. “Making the record seemed almost secondary to the overall experience of people coming to hang out and pay tribute, bringing animals to eat and sitting around the fire with friends of the band who could play rings around me, singing Algerian and Tuareg songs. It felt like a privilege to be there.”

But with a tour scheduled this fall to support “Tassili,” soon it will once again be time for Tinariwen — which operates as a collective, with anywhere from five to nine members, depending on factors like who has herds to tend or whose wife is pregnant — to move out of its cultural space and into ours. And with that, the feeling of asuf will return, feeding a yearning for the desert even as it powers the music.

“You think differently when there are walls around you,” Mr. ag Leche mused. “In a studio or a city you have to eat at a certain time and follow a schedule. In the desert the freedom is total. You do what you want when you like. When we are onstage, you can see us, we are there. But our heads are in a different place. We are at home.”

August 2, 2011

Loketo – Extra Ball

Filed under: Africa,music — louisproyect @ 6:35 pm

June 8, 2011

Viva Riva!

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

Opening on Friday at theaters in NY (Angelika), LA (Nuart), and Portland (Cinema 21), “Viva Riva!” appealed to me just on face value alone. Filmed in Kinshasa, this marks the debut of writer-director-producer Djo Tunda Wa Munga. Considering the fact that the top two box office attractions in the U.S. are a prequel for the shopworn X-Men franchise and a sequel for “The Hangover” that my favorite critic Mr. Cranky described as a “fill-in-the-blanks photocopy … with all major plot points intact and only the window dressing changed so that the suckers in the theatre seats don’t feel too stupid about having shelled out $20 for a ticket, popcorn and a half-gallon of questionable cola that comes in a jug shaped like Zach Galifianakis’ head”, I was convinced that “Viva Riva!” certainly could not be any worse. As it turns out, this brilliant film noir with a cast of mostly nonprofessional actors is on my short list for best movie of 2011.

Riva is a Kinshasa native who has just returned from Angola with a truckload of stolen gasoline. As soon as he gets paid by his accomplice for the first batch of gas to be sold on the black market, he changes out of his filthy clothes, showers and shaves, and gets set for a night out on the town. Kinshasa might have a shortage of gasoline, but it certainly not lacking in the night life department. Like everything else in this marvelous film, the nightclubs that Riva visits are filmed on location and they really swing. As soon as he steps into one particularly rocking joint, he makes it clear that he is ready to party, just like Ray Charles in his classic “Let the Good Times Roll”:

Hey y’all tell everybody, Ray Charles in town,
Got a dollar and a quarter and I’m just rarin’ ta clown,
Don’t let no body, play me cheap,
I got fifty cents more than I’m gonna keep.

Riva, who is played to perfection by a Congolese pop musician named Patsha Bay, spots Nora on the dance floor. She is a ravishing red head (played by Manie Malone, a Paris-based professional actress) who responds to his flirtation with a warning. She is the mistress of Azor (Diplome Amekinda, a first time actor), a local gangster who might remind you of Marsellus Wallace in “Pulp Fiction”, in other words someone not to cuckold. When Azor sends over one of his underlings to warn Riva to stay away from Nora, Riva breaks a champagne bottle over his head. This is the first sign that the anti-hero has something of a death wish, even if he does not know it.

In many ways, “Viva Riva!” reminded me of an early Kurosawa film titled “Drunken Angel” that stars a very young Toshiro Mifune as a yakuza suffering from TB who is burning the candle at both ends. Many of the scenes in “Drunken Angel” are filmed on location in a bedraggled but vibrant post-WWII Tokyo. In a very real sense, the co-star of this Congolese movie is Kinshasa itself, a city that has a throbbing street life that the director captures vividly.

Not long after Riva’s celebrations have begun, trouble comes looking for him. A squad of Angolan gangsters led by the malevolently foppish Cesar (played brilliantly by the Angolan actor Hoji Fortuna, now working in New York) arrives in Kinshasa determined to retrieve the gasoline and murder Riva. They recruit a female officer in the Congolese army (Marlene Longange, a non-professional) to help track Riva down. When she refuses them initially, they threaten to kill her sister who is living in Angola.

Once the basic dramatic conflict is laid out, the film proceeds at a rocket pace until the mind-blowing conclusion. I don’t want to give away too much, but if you have seen James Cagney in “White Heat”, you will wear a smile on your face at the end of “Viva Riva!” seeing what might be homage to Raoul Walsh’s film noir classic.

Given the difficulties of life in Congo today, including the gasoline shortages dramatized in the film, it is amazing to see how the production crew surmounted them so capably. In the press notes, the director gives a sense of how they went about their work:

Over the past twenty years, Kinshasans have lived in bedlam, through every kind of spirit-crushing experience imaginable – war, crime, corruption, food and energy shortages, poverty and the breakup of the family structure – yet their clocks still keep on ticking, and life goes on.

As word got out that a film was being made, people all around us in the community began to reach out and help us in ways large and small – any way they could. Shooting the film as we did, we were constantly on our toes, ready to shift the scene, take off or improvise solutions at a moment’s notice. We sometimes let people know we were making the film and wanted to use their home, place of business or car. And almost all the time, the answer was “yes, please do.” In how many other cities, I wonder, could we have found such cooperation?

There are no acting schools in the Congo, so we made a first round of casting in the very small circuit of local theater companies, then a second round by casting a very wide net over the streets of the capital. We wanted to find Kinshasan actors who could bring something personal to the film – add some spry and sprightly energy to a film that was otherwise anchored in documentary realism.

Twenty candidates were selected to participate in a workshop that stressed screen acting skills and included tai-chi, dance and other exercises to put the players in touch with the way their bodies moved. The work we accomplished led us to sharpen our casting of certain roles and invite some participants into a second workshop where, over two months, we went further into defining characters, without working on specific dialogue, lines for which came later. Dialogue in the final film was entirely scripted – none of it was improvised.

All things were lining up so well on the production that we realized we had been offered a golden opportunity. It was time for us to envision a new world and to take a big step forward as storytellers. The actors, especially, took on the self-assured confidence of pioneers. One of the most challenging aspects of the production was the depiction of frank sexuality in a culture where nude scenes remain taboo and are never even implied. Our first thought was to bring in European or American actors; but then my second assistant, a young Congolese documentarian, pressed me to ask a number of local girls to consider playing the part.  I explained to them that I wanted to properly portray the city and its club life, where we all know what is going on behind the walls. I wanted the film to be real. However, once we all resolved that, first and foremost, we wanted to portray the city and its club life in a very real way, as it is today, nothing could stop us. The cast and crew gave it their all every step of the way and took the film over the top with flying colors. For that, I am more than grateful.

“Viva Riva!” opens to nation-wide distribution following its debut on June 10. I can find no words to describe how great an achievement it is and only invite you to see this film for yourself. Scheduling information is here: http://www.musicboxfilms.com/viva-riva

April 12, 2011

A Screaming Man

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 3:41 pm

About the highest tribute I can pay to Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, whose “A Screaming Man” opens tomorrow at the Film Forum in New York, is that I regard him as the finest director coming out of Africa since the death of Ousmane Sembene in 2007. Hailing from Chad, Haroun cites Yasujirō Ozu as his major influence. While the focus on a family, the pacing, and the psychological insight of his latest film is clearly Ozu-esque, “A Screaming Man” differs from the Japanese director’s work by placing the family in the crucible of civil war. While most films about civil war in Africa tend to be documentaries made by Europeans or Americans from the standpoint of shocked and outraged outsiders “bearing witness”, this fiction film is far more interested in demonstrating how the already frayed relationship between a father and a son is exacerbated by the broader conflict taking place on the battlefield.

The two main characters are Adam, a fifty-five year old pool attendant who was once an amateur swimming champion, and his son Abdel who works alongside him. There are subtle signs that globalization has overtaken Chad’s capital city N’djamena. Abdel is obsessed with his digital camera and insists on taking photos of his father on practically a daily basis. When asked by his father why he bothers, Abdel answers that he wants to record life as it passes by–one supposes like director Haroun himself. The hotel has recently been privatized and is owned by a Chinese woman who appears to have absorbed the colonialist mentality of her French predecessors (the characters all speak French). She tells Adam that he has a nice job sitting comfortably by the pool each day, implying that he is a loafer.

That is about to change. Mrs. Wang is downsizing. She fires the cook from the Congo, as well as the security guard who tends to the automobile gate at the hotel’s entrance. That job now belongs to Adam who reacts angrily. How can a former swimming champion be made into a low-level flunky? It probably never dawned on him that tending to the pool is not that much of a step up. But in poverty-stricken Chad, everything is relative.

The crushing blow, however, is that his old job will now go to his son. There is something almost Oedipal about this arrangement since Adam now feels that he has effectively host his manhood. Or looking at a more recent tragedy, he evokes Willy Loman whose self-worth is totally wrapped up in his ability to make the rounds as a salesman.

Just as Satyajit Ray’s aptly named “Distant Thunder” dramatizes the impact of WWII on the people of Bengal who would suffer famine after the British seized their grain, the distant thunder of civil war in Chad begins to impinge on Adam, Abdel and their countrymen. At first, it is only felt economically. A venal district chief spouting government propaganda pressures Adam to make “voluntary” contributions to the war effort. Things take a turn for the worse, however, after the district chief raises the subject of fresh recruits for the military. In a pact with the devil, Adam decides to turn over his own son in order to reclaim his job at the hotel, a decision that has tragic consequences.

Adam is played by Youssouf Djaoro, who conveys his various emotional states (anger, regret, compassion) through facial expressions as much as words. Abdel is played by Diouc Koma, who grew up in Paris. Haroun directed him to act as if he was a young man from Chad and succeeded.

Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is no stranger to civil war. In 1980 he was severely wounded and left Chad on a wheelbarrow to reach neighboring Cameroon. In 2006, when he was filming “Daratt”, another movie about civil war in Chad (available from Netflix), rebels invaded N’djamena, where he was shooting. The same thing happened two years later when he was making a short titled “Expectations”. All this obviously helped to shape “A Screaming Man” as the director states in the press notes:

I tried to depict this atmosphere of fear of the future in A SCREAMING MAN. When you see that the world around you is going to pieces, when you have lost all your bearings, when the political and social pressure is too strong, you end up being out of your depth. This is what happens to Adam. After committing the unforgivable sin, he immediately wants to atone for his misdeed in order to redeem himself. But he comes to the sorrowful realization that despite his cry of pain God remains silent. He realizes that there will be no redemption. That he will never find peace.

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