Friday, 29 October 2010

London River (and Transnational Cinema?)

Film Review:
London River (2009)

It was an aesthetic delight to experience the work of Sotigui Kouyaté in his highly engaging last film London River (2009) which won him a ‘Silver Bear’ at the Berlinale Filmfestival. Interviewed in 2001 he explained how he felt about his roles as an African and a storyteller:

Let’s be modest. Africa is vast, and it would be pretentious to speak in its name. I’m fighting the battle with words because I’m a storyteller, a griot. Rightly or wrongly, they call us masters of the spoken word. Our duty is to encourage the West to appreciate Africa more. It’s also true that many Africans don’t really know their own continent. And if you forget your culture, you lose sight of yourself. It is said that “the day you no longer know where you’re going, just remember where you came from.” Our strength lies in our culture. Everything I do as a storyteller, a griot, stems from this rooting and openness.

Sotigui Kouyaté was a Malinese actor and storyteller who sadly died in Paris on 17 April 2010. He began his theatrical career in 1966 at the age of thirty. In addition to twenty or more film appearances and roles he has worked with the legendary ‘intercultural’ world-theatre director, Peter Brook, in the adaptation of the Indian epic The Mahabharata (1983), which came to Glasgow’s Tramway in 1989.

London River finds Sotigui Kouyaté working brilliantly with Director and writer Rachid Bouchareb in a film whose story unfolds in the context of the terrorist bombings of London on 7 July 2005. The 9/11 bombings appalled the world and have been subject to a variety of literary interpretations and layers of cultural reconstruction, as well as dubious projects of commercial exploitation. The London and Madrid bombings have been less well covered and are less well understood. But Bouchareb’s moving and poetic film is less an attempt at documentary retrieval of the facts than an opportunity to reflect upon the awkward colliding relationship between an African-French Muslim and a white Guernsey-Christian, who come to London in search of their missing children. As Bouchareb states in the interview reprinted on this site, his film was ‘first and foremost a human drama.’ Prayer and religion is a major theme for the film, but it does not organise the subject matter. Rather, we follow the performances of Sotigui Kouyaté and Brenda Blethyn as the painful necessity of intercultural dialogue and communication emerges through their conjoined destinies. Loneliness and despair alternate with hope and redemption in a film that never collapses into cliché or easy emotional effects. I’d recommend the film and the interviews to anyone interested in contemporary society or postcolonial themes, and would also hope that the film reaches a wide audience beyond the arthouse circuits and smaller indyfestival. The themes that London River presents are global issues; but they are also a call for local interaction, dialogue and conversation, here and now, on our doorsteps. As Sotigui Kouyaté elegantly says in his interview:

“The theme of the film doesn't just concern Africa, but the whole of society. That is, it is about the crisis of communication and the problem of identity. This is particularly relevant to Africa. I believe that every African has a duty towards Africa, since every African carries Africa within him. But Africa is terribly misunderstood - by others and by itself: the word 'Africa', itself is such a superficial term, given the diversity of nations and peoples. African is 3 million metres squared - that's the size of Europe, the States, China and Argentina all together! We can't talk of it as if it were a single entity, there's more to it than that. One of the interesting things about Rachid's film is that he shows an older African travelling abroad to find out what Africans abroad are like, what motivates them. Many films show African-Americans going back to the old continent to discover their roots, but this film shows the reverse of that.”
This, for me, is the first time I've seen that on film. But while I am African, and always will be, what matters most to me is humanity. In any story, if the human being is not at its heart then it doesn't interest me. London River is about the problems that life poses for mankind. It has to do with the attacks of 7/7, and it also talks of Islam, but these subjects are not at its heart. Rather, it wants to show the difficulties people have in accepting one another, the fear they feel. It is a film about how we react to things, and this is what interests me. It teaches us that when you meet the other, don't be scared to look them in the eye; for if you are brave enough to do so, you will finish by seeing yourself more clearly.”

London River is now available on DVD

For further information, please see the London River website

Friday, 15 October 2010

Postcolonial film networks

Having worked as Director of the International Community Film Forum since 2006, I’m delighted to be serving as one of the Film Editors with the Postcolonial Networks website. We would welcome posts on a variety of topics - from film reviewers and critics, to amateur and professional film makers. The posts from members are an opportunity to share your creativity; to stimulate new conversations and to foster critical dialogues.

As a reviewer you might be interested in offering a subversive or experimental reading of mainstream blockbuster films. Perhaps you want to produce a cross-cultural reading that the intended spectator may not have experienced. You may have relevant personal experience that challenges the tired stereotypes that populate our screens. It would be inspiring to read appreciations of film work that has a spiritual dimension; that promote greater understanding between faiths; or that explore the relationships between the material conditions of being and the associated postcolonial forces and theories that appear, or fail, to be relevant.

We are also keen to have questions, notes, and queries. Someone ‘out there’ may know how to find the answer, or where to find it. Also don’t be afraid of being categorised as theologian or cultural theorist – remembers that we want explore connections and overlaps as well as being honest about perceived limits and boundaries.

We would be delighted to have posts which reflect the full range of world cinema and transnational film. If you have favourite directors we would love to hear what you value in their work. You might provide supporting contextual information that will help to introduce their work to new audiences and again we value work that promotes dialogue and debate.

If you have been involved in film making here is an opportunity to write about your experiences. Whether you’re a director or a runner; a scriptwriter or an actor; an editor or a sound engineer you experience will be valued. Film involves ideals, compromises, setbacks and defeats. Sometimes this situation is caused by money and resources; sometimes its poor decision-making or taking the right risks. But we can learn from our successes as much as our failures. A collectivist of communal approach is the underlying principle of a networked group. Accordingly, we celebrate posts that are considerate, creative, critical, crafted and constructive.

Finally, I’d suggest that we don’t frighten ourselves into silence by fearing the orthodoxies of postcolonial theory. Theoretical discourse is more of a willing servant rather than a brutal master!

[Subsequent posts from me will be outlining useful books and online resources; exploring topics such as community film and participatory video; reviewing world cinema; interviewing film makers and researchers; thinking about ‘film’ theory; decolonizing film]

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Spectre of Community and the Big Society

The Spectre of Community
Rebranded as the Big Society, notions of citizenship and community are back in fashion. To borrow and adapt Marx’s Manifesto (1848), the spectre of the community (not communism) is stalking contemporary society. For some commentators it is feared that an army of community organizers are poised for subversive warfare. Alternatively, the force is an awkward spectre awakened from the vestiges of a tired capitalist system.
That’s one side of the argument. The other is that a nostalgic return to the community spirit is just a cover for cuts to public services. Furthermore, there are no plans to limit or democratize corporate economic power, or the private enterprise and management structures. Isn't Big Society linked to less global corporate power? Can a big Society really be forged by simply adding together thousands of local activities?
The semantic force of community is oddly resurgent, even as we begin to trace its loss: the familiar lament for lost ideals and a ‘broken’ society. Let's admit that Times of Crisis are also opportunities for hope, as well as for practical action. But slippery, 'broken' language keep tripping us up. ‘Broken’ is confusing and perhaps also politically misleading. Society is not broken in the same way that a painted china plate or a bicycle can be broken. And our newspapers often use ‘breaking’ as a positive force operating against collective action – as in ‘breaking the power of the unions.’
Perhaps by some strange psycho-social force the pressing trauma of community’s retirement breathes life into the old monster. Dependent on your point of view the civil-political reconstruction it is timely, or, the time is out of joint, and political ideologies are hopelessly muddled.
Initial positions in the debate suggest the urgency of slogans rather than deeper reflection. On a practical note again it’s difficult to identify in any of the commentary so far a basic understanding of the community development praxis. Big Society is vacuity or it’s a farce; it’s our last best hope; it’s the cruellest cut beneath a cheery mask.
Big Society appears to be a muddle without a middle ground. Or perhaps it just is the middle ground; a sufficiently flappy banner to accommodate two political forces, with a tweak here and twitter there - let’s celebrate a mixed bag of tricks rather than a systematic, or a totalising, philosophy.
In so far as there is a potential for hope in the hype, may I propose that we seek clarity in that richly contested old-fashioned word ‘community’; in its relation to commons and commonality; to collaboration and co-operation; even, for those with spirited visions communion ? There are veins of gold and iron running through the rock of community, and they will still be there when the Big Society is looking rusty.
An increasingly unpredictable future embraces an insecure and contested sense of the past. There is nothing new in that. But Mr Cameron has said that the he wants the Big Society to be his biggest legacy, bigger than slaying the Monsters Deficit and War. it is absolutely the present, and it is the future too. But does the ethical and political urgency of the Big Society excuse the bewildering confusion about where the Big Society came from, and where it is going? Seldom has commentary been so critical from trusted right-thinking people.
A survey of current ideas and opinion indicates widespread confusion and a lack of intellectual coherence about the meaning of the Big Society. The gaping holes in community life; the broken ties and weaker networks suggest a variety of remedies coming from unexpected sources. But in this case the source of well-being is Poisoned by Lucifer himself. Gerald Warner was an early critic, writing a blog in The Daily Telegraph entitledDavid Cameron's Big Society is a grotesque fantasy inspired by leftist subversive Saul Alinsky
That’s just the first rhetorical canon. There’s a familiar fear which Burke best expressed in his Reflections on the French Revolution, that an artificial and manipulative state-funded programme is at odds with the organic and local community structures of civil society. As Gerald Warner asserts “Real communities have the WRI, the British Legion, bowling, tennis, cricket clubs – naturally evolved organizations.” The proposed 5000 strong army of community organizers is one fear. Another fear expressed is that the “community organizing movement” has been linked to President Obama, that it’s secretive and manipulative (conspiratorial), even that it’s Satanic.
“If you ever doubted that, under Cameron, the Conservative Party has become ideologically and culturally de-racinated, has lost its political compass and is occupied by an alien clique that has disfigured it beyond recognition, here is the incontestable evidence.
For Gerald Warner it’s a farcical invention, “the whole Heath-Robinson contraption” Repeatedly, one is reminded of Burke’s satirical notion of an artificial (French Revolutionary) constitution; an innovative disaster, and a monstrous assembly of parts that do not fit together, divorced from Nature. The new constitutional proposals are likely further to test the monstrous direction of ‘democracy.’
The oddly inspiring figure chosen by the conservatives is Alinsky. According to Melanie Phillips, ‘Alinsky was a ‘transformational Marxist’ in the mould of Antonio Gramsci, who promoted the strategy of a ‘long march through the institutions’ by capturing the culture and turning it inside out as the most effective means of overturning western society.’ She shares Gerald Warner’s fears for the future, and is in state of disbelief:
“The British Conservative party has signed up to the revolutionary Marxist politics of Saul Alinsky and his seditious strategy of using ‘community organizers’ to turn the people against the state and against the bedrock moral and social values of their country – and it is almost certainly too ignorant, lazy or stupid to realize that this is what it means.
Unbelievable.” (2 April 2010)
For left critics, the Big Society masks our corporate emasculation. As Hilary Wainwright comments in The Guardian:
“But control over what? His idea of the "big society" is pitched at minimizing the power of the state, while doing nothing to give people the power to control the private, "free" market and the inequalities it produces.” (14 April 2010)
“In Britain today, just 947 people – the directors of the FTSE 100 companies – control firms worth more than £1 trillion. (And those directors paid themselves more than £1bn last year into the bargain.)” (14 April 2010)
The Big Society, for Wainright, becomes a kind of infantilism, more Big Toys than Big Society:
‘Cameron's invitation to join the government conjures up a toy-town democracy, a patronising attempt to divert our anger from the real centres of power.”
For Jonathan Raban, reviewing Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix it by Phillip Blond, the rhetoric of the Big Society is
‘shot through with plaintive rural nostalgia for the small, self-contained life of the village; for a world where ‘frontline services’ are ‘delivered’ from within the community by the church, the WI and the Over Sixties Club, where no one dies unnoticed by his neighbours, the pub serves as a nightly local parliament, ‘ethos’ is reinforced by the vicar in the pulpit of St Stephen’s and ‘mutuality’ flourishes in the gossip at the shop.” (London Review of Books (22 April 2010)
The time is indeed out of join when oxymorons proliferate. Red Tory is a case in point.
Specific plans will need to build on community development initiatives already underway and will also need to fulfil the political requirement for novelty and innovation. The perceived problem is that social capital (another oxymoron) is very weak in just those areas of deprivation, where it might have greatest benefit. In that sense the Big Society is a spectre haunting no-go areas, crumbling high-rises flats, closed shops, factories and abandoned call centres.
The Big Society, if there is such a thing, or spirit, or programme, will most likely emerge from the evolution of community, and community development, rather than the ideological urgency of a cutback-driven Little State.
If it all sounds conceptually confused, perhaps it’s down to the marriage of spin doctors and late postmodernity. They lead us to the lair and lure of the Big Society and seek to displace the old politics of Big Brother Business and Big Brother Governments.

See also "Wasteland: Europe stalked by spectre of mass unemployment" By Alistair Dawber. The Independent. 16 September 2010.