Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Great Transition: Week 6 (only three behind now!)

On top of the usual distractions that keep one from watching and writing about films 24/7, I must confess to a certain amount of trepidation in writing about this weeks films – after the proper feature, Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl, we were treated to two short films, Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black and Charles Burnett’s When it Rains; the combination of which are clearly a trifecta of masterpieces. It has become more common in the last few weeks for Rosenbaum to enlarge upon the feature presentation by presenting clips that support and/or enlarge upon that feature’s meanings. He’s really gone above and beyond here - neglecting clips in favor of short films, allowing us not merely a glimpse but instead cohesive, and in these cases, definitive statements of radical humanism. All three films provide a useful corrective to last week’s nihilistic pseudo-farce Zazie dans le Metro, suggesting a deliberate programming schedule that isn’t entirely dictated by print availability or whimsy. Replacing Malle’s simplistic notion of absolute destruction, Rosenbaum presents us with politically and socially astute documents that edify as much as they confront and entertain as much as they educate.

As usual, Rosenbaum prefaced the screening with some introductory notes on the filmmakers. Semebene lived a fascinating life, coming to filmmaking relatively late and only after establishing himself as one of Africa’s premier novelists (he died last year, and along with Edward Yang, had the extreme misfortune of being overshadowed by the more high profile demises of Antonioni and Bergman). Born in 1923, Sembene served with the French Army in WWII, was a dock worker in Mairsailles, and eventually became a Union Leader and member of the French Communist Party. He wouldn’t make Black Girl, his first film, until he was 40. Black Girl is also generally considered the very first African film, a distinction that earned Sembene the title “Father of African Cinema”

Funded largely by French money, Rosenbaum posits Black Girl as a kind of international co-production that is in fact an object born of colonialism and imperialism. The French title, La Noire de…, means literally “the black girl of…”, or “the black girl belonging to…”, both of which seem more evocative and suggestive than the bluntly translated English title. The film follows Diouana, played by Mibissine Therese Diop (like almost all of his films, the actors here are non-professionals). Cutting between a bourgeois French household and flashback scenes set in Dakar, Sembene traces Diouanna’s transformation from a human being to an object. I think Rosenbaum has something larger in mind than merely suggesting that the film is about race relations, which is a given. Instead, it is the notion that the affects of colonialism have in someway filtered into the modes of production, a more insidious proposition. For instance, it is suggested several times by her white employers that Diouanna doesn’t speak French, or that she can’t understand something, suggesting that her grasp of the language in tenuous. But as a largely French production, Sembene was compelled to shoot it in French, and Diouanna’s interior monologue throughout the film is rendered in French. Needless to say, this causes some confusion; is Diouanna’s reluctance to communicate with her employers caused by a language barrier (they have no names and are credited only as “madame” and “monsieur”), or her own petulance?

The film packs in quite a bit in a short running time, less than 70 minutes. Short of a full plot synopsis, mentioning a few motifs might suffice. Diouanna gives her new employers an African mask while working with them in Dakar. When she arrives at their home in France (they have “summoned” her), it has been decoratively placed on the wall. At the end of the film, angry and embittered, Diouanna takes it back, insisting that it was bought with her money and that it is hers to give or take as she pleases. The mask seems to represent several things simultaneously – obviously, her disillusionment with whites, but also their insensitivity towards African culture. The mask is a phantasm, an exotic object that they further mystify by turning it into a simple decoration. For them, the mask is a souvenir, a reminder of the good old days in Dakar, as well as repository for their anxiety of the “other”. Diouanna is confronted daily with this symbol of colonialism and her employer’s condescension towards African culture. It seems likely that Diouanna’s reappropriation of the artifact is in fact an act of cultural reaffirmation. But lest we forget that Sembene was a prominent Communist, the mask is also a commodity, a metaphorical stand in for the French/African economic relationship. In this sense, Diouanna is asserting her rights in monetary terms – she worked for the money to purchase the gift, and by demanding it back is asserting the value of her labor (I fear I’m describing all of this far too schematically, as Sembene’s film, while certainly polemical, is never less that natural and graceful). After her death, “monsieur” returns to Dakar to find Diouanna’s mother. He wishes to return the mask to her, as well as Diouanna’s wages. It’s a complicated moment, as Sembene sees the white characters with some sympathy and clearly means us to take monsieur’s gesture sincerely. But it seems impossible (to me at least) to not view the gesture as simply more condescension. Monsieur wants to deny his culpability and assuage his guilt with money, essentially an attempt at buying them off. The film ends with a child wearing the mask, following monsieur around as he tries to make his way back to the airport. In a stunning point of view shot (one of the few subjective shots in the entire film), the audience becomes monsieur as the masked boy stares at him. It’s a bold confrontation, an entire nation looking back at us, and as Rosenbaum notes, an extraordinary way to begin African cinema.

Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black is a short film shot in an Iranian leper colony. Farrokhzad and a small crew spent two weeks there living amongst their subjects, and the film is a stunning reaffirmation of life. The film begins with a shot that rhymes with the ending of Black Girl in a startlingly evocative manner. A cloaked figure stares into a mirror, their eyes drooping, twisted and deformed by disease. The camera holds the image, lingering over it. It’s a piercing glance, and it penetrates the viewer. Like Black Girl, it is a look that confronts and demands autonomy, but also a certain amount of empathy. We proceed to see people living, laughing, loving, raising children, but also horribly scarred and deformed, receiving treatments that repulse. Despite the grotesquery on display, this is no freak show. The camera forces us, compels us to look, a look that implies both an affinity and a kind of complicity between viewer and subject. It also contains one of the most stunning gestures I’ve ever encountered in a film. The camera observes a woman sitting on the floor. She makes eye contact with the camera, (and by extension us, the viewer as well as the filmmakers), and instinctively raises her hand to cover her scarred face, only to hesitate and then put her hand back down. It strikes me that this woman is asserting herself now, in front of us, against a lifetime of fearful, disgusted looks. It is an almost disturbingly powerful moment, and speaks volumes about film’s capacity to communicate. The film has an alternating voice over commentary, periodically changing between Farrokhzad reciting poetry and quotes from the Old Testament and a male voice reciting a more straightforward political creed. If Farrokhzad’s commentary relates this plague to divine injustice, the real power comes from the male’s indictment of a society that allows it’s poor to suffer, noting that when treated, leprosy can and will disappear, that it is curable when treated properly, and that wherever there are poor, leprosy will follow. Essentially a call to arms (again raising issues of complicity, as we are all in this global society together), The House is Black gives us an image of the dispossessed, then demands that we pay attention to them.

No doubt, these are both heavy films. It was almost a breath of fresh air to view Charles Burnett’s When It Rains, a small, unassuming little film that chronicles a day in Watts. By small, I don’t mean to denigrate the film in any way. I merely wish to suggest that its relaxed, breezy mood sets an optimistic tone. A woman and her daughter are about to be evicted from their home on New Year’s Day. A good Samaritan tries to help them out by running around the neighborhood, pleading their case, collecting donations, and calling in old favors. The legacy of films like Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society have left us with a particular view of urban neighborhoods, and I would certainly think that Burnett had such representations in mind when constructing his scenario. Here is a gentle reminder that real people live in these neighborhoods and that a community can bind together when necessary. But Burnett is not na├»ve, and things don’t exactly go smoothly. The landlord refuses the Samaritans initial pleas on the women’s behave, and not everyone in the neighborhood is inclines to help out. At one point, a potential donator reminds the Samaritan that he owes him money, and the Samaritan is forced to pay up. Indeed, the situation is only resolved with an act of bartering (the landlord happily accepts a rare jazz record by John Handy in exchange for the back rent). Rosenbaum likens the film’s structure to that of a jazz song, suggesting that each of the characters “registers like a separate chorus in a 12-bar blues”. Rather than suggesting that money triumphs after all, the record exchange strikes me as a kind of reminder that certain things are worth more than money. I didn’t ask Rosenbaum to explain further, but I can’t imagine that a record, regardless of scarcity, could be worth more than a few months back rent. Rosenbaum cites the jazz artist Handy as popular amongst hippies at a time when white and black cultures still mingled and when whites might traverse the ghetto with less trepidation than today. In keeping with the other films on the program, When It Rains is yet another reminder of what we are loosing when we ignore, at our own peril, these marginal or invisible peoples.

1 comment:

Hanlon said...

Copy Editing:

"certain amount of trepidation in writing about this weeks films"
Should read:
"certain amount of trepidation in writing about this week's films"

"the notion that the affects of colonialism have in someway filtered into the modes of production,"
Should read:
"the notion that the effects of colonialism have in some way filtered into the modes of production,"

"a metaphorical stand in for the French/African economic relationship."
Should read:
"a metaphorical stand-in for the French/African economic relationship."

"The landlord refuses the Samaritans initial pleas on the women’s behave, and not everyone in the neighborhood is inclines to help out."
Should read:
"The landlord refuses the Samaritans initial pleas on the women’s behalf, and not everyone in the neighborhood is inclined to help out."

"When It Rains is yet another reminder of what we are loosing when we ignore, at our own peril, these marginal or invisible peoples."
Should read:
"When It Rains is yet another reminder of what we are losing when we ignore, at our own peril, these marginal or invisible peoples."