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iffr: come back africa

A bit of an anomaly at the Rotterdam Film Festival, the 1959 fictionalized documentary 'Come Back Africa' (directed by independent filmmaker Lionel Rogosin), which provides a rare glimpse of life in South-Africa under the apartheid regime. The film had long lain dormant in archives, but has recently been restored by the Cineteca di Bologna and now tours world festivals.

'Come Back Africa' was made secretly, without permission from the authorities, under the pretense of shooting a music documentary. Collaborating with the popular Drum magazine, Rogosin used an all-amateur cast to portray the harsh and degrading life in the townships. Though the film follows a fictional storyline - the attempts of Zulu worker Zacharia to find a job in Johannesburg - this is embedded in a documentary depiction of the daily life of ordinary people, shot largely with hidden cameras.

Most of the film takes place in Sophiatown, at that time an epicenter of black culture and music in Johannesburg. Not long after the completion of the film, the township was completely demolished and replaced by a white suburb cynically called Triomf (Triumph).

Amid the institutionalized racism, economic exploitation, and the poverty and squalor of the townships, Rogosin finds a surprisingly vibrant street culture, with various dance and music performances, as well as a lively, if somewhat intoxicated debate on politics and religion. One of the film's highlights is a performance by Miriam Makeba in a clandestine bar.

Although it has its flaws (the acting is rather poor at times and the sound quality is horrible), 'Come Back Africa' is fascinating as a time capsule from a shaming era of world history. While the film long suggests hope, it ends on a particularly grim note - which no doubt only adds to its realism.

See also this 1960 review from Time magazine.

Update: Here's the scene with Miriam Makeba singing 'Into Yam'.

iffr: milky way

As a personal kickoff of this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Hungarian 'Milky Way' ('Tejút'), directed by Benedek Fliegauf, proved to be a fascinating meditation on that strangest species in the universe: humans. Perhaps the best way to describe this film is as a 'Songs from the Second Floor' in extreme slow-motion. Consisting of ten tableaux vivants, all beautifully composed exteriors, it presents an absurd and comical view of human life, in the slow pace of a wild life documentary.

Milky Way - 1

In an interview, Fliegauf referred to the tableaux as haiku. And indeed, their meaning is in the observation itself, and in the space and time they leave for reflection. Though the film is what you'd call an acquired taste, Fliegauf's attention to detail (he was also responsible for art direction), as well as the subtle sound design, keep every tableau interesting - even if it's only in the way the clouds move across the sky, or a certain kind of ripples on the surface of a lake.

Milky Way - 2

If there's a 'message' to the film, it is implicit in its special, unhurried way of looking at the world and the people that inhabit it. As Fliegauf sees it:

Human beings are just one race in the biosphere. We behave and look like VIP guests on this planet, but we are not. In the film, the human beings look like little, very delicate creatures.

Thus two mountain bikers crossing a rocky hill become strange ants on wheels, and some elderly people in a swimming pool - their bodies distorted under water - become lazy amphibian creatures driven by their instincts. Some of the tableaux offer a more disturbing view of mankind, as in the scene of a man at a container terminal, who comes to pick up a woman hidden in one of the containers.

Milky Way - 3

With its complete lack of context or explanation, the behavior of humans in 'Milky Way' acquires an alien, dreamlike quality that is quite refreshing if you're willing to invest the time to let it sink in. If absorbed properly, it works outside of the cinema as well...

life-lies

The Theatercompagnie's rendition of Henrik Ibsen's 'De Wilde Eend' ('The Wild Duck', 1884) is an unflinching and crystal clear psychological drama with convincing acting all around. The play's fundamental dilemma could be summed up as whether it is better to live your life in the ignorant bliss of lies or in the harsh light of truth.

Ibsen's craftfully structured story centers around a family - husband, wife and daughter - whose lives are built on lies, though in those lies they have found a status quo of happiness. As a wry symbol of their situation, the daughter keeps a wild duck in the attic. It is characteristic of wild ducks that when they are in danger they will dive to the bottom of the sea and hold on there until they die.

The family's status quo is disrupted by Gregers (Mike Reus), the son of a dominant father who - without giving away too much of the plot - is responsible for the entire family's situation. As a consequence, Gregers is determined to remedy his father's mistakes. With zealous idealism he forces the members of the family to look the awful truth in the eye, hoping they will then be able to make a clean slate in one grand, cathartic sweep.

De Wilde Eend

On the opposite end of this dilemma is Dr. Relling (Sieger Sloot), a lonely, cynical man who has not only lost all faith in the "truth", but has been actively encouraging the family to indulge in their own lies. From Relling comes the crucial statement: "When you deprive an ordinary man of his life-lie, you rob him of his happiness."

(The concept of the life-lie was introduced by psychologist Alfred Adler, not long after Ibsen's play, to describe a "fictitious, uncomprehended and logically contradictory guiding idea" that people use to deceive themselves. Adler said of neurotics that they were "nailed to the cross of their own fiction" - a fitting description of many of Ibsen's characters.)

Indeed, Gregers' experiments with truth have disastrous consequences for the family. People can handle only so many skeletons in their closet, but Gregers throws them all out in the open, destroying their lives and happiness. By the end of the play, the remaining family members seem to have found a new equilibrium, but at great cost. The question remains whether the truth was worth all their suffering.

However, Ibsen's discussion of this theme has another dimension. Both Gregers and Relling are like puppeteers in their ideologically inspired meddling in the family's affairs. While they have contradictory aims, both are convinced they know what's right for other people, and both turn out to be wrong, blinded by their own dogmatism. Once again the wild duck provides an apt symbol, because just as the family creates a make-belief microworld (a "wilderness" in the attic for the pet duck), so too Gregers and Relling - each in their own, opposite way - create a microworld (the family they meddle with) to justify their own existence. The play's abstract backdrop, by the way, beautifully visualizes this idea of a fantasy world behind the world of appearances.

Thus all key characters in the play, while they talk of their "life task", really live in a life-lie. Ibsen's ultimate irony is to cloak Gregers' and Relling's life-lies in their condescending meddling in other people's life-lies. And what's more, the result - a family picking up the broken pieces of their former life - is ambiguous enough to affirm the life-lies of both of them.

While in all the family drama the wild duck seems all but forgotten, it still survives, clutching on at the bottom of the sea...

See also the Theatercompagnie's trailer for the play (in Dutch).

tarzan vs. ibm

As Nouvelle Vague's venture into science fiction, Jean-Luc Godard's 'Alphaville' (1965) is still a fascinating piece of conceptual (as opposed to spectacular) sci-fi. Fully titled 'Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution' ('Alphaville, a strange adventure of Lemmy Caution'), the film portrays a dystopian future dictated by Alpha 60, a super-computer which resembles Kubrick's later HAL. Intergalactic special agent Lemmy Caution (003), disguised as a reporter, is the archetypical film noir anti-hero who runs amok in this technocratic world where logic rules and emotions are a crime.

Like any Godard film, 'Alphaville' is a cinematic essay more than a conventional story. The film was shot without special effects in 1960's Paris, creating a future that resembles today (or, by now, yesterday) more than tomorrow. At the same time, it has the timeless, exaggerated feel of a comic strip, with titles flashing, charicature dialogue and discontinuous editing. In fact, an alternative title Godard considered was 'Tarzan versus IBM'. (Also, Caution is sent on his mission to Alphaville after several agents have already failed. Among them: Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon.)

Alphaville - 1

Language, and specifically poetry, plays an important role in 'Alphaville'. Every hotel room and household contains a Bible, but in Alphaville, the Bible is a continuously updated dictionary, with 'emotional' words disappearing from it every day. Moreover, asking 'why' is forbidden; instead, one should say 'because'. But even though language and emotions can to some extent be controlled, poetry still survives in Alphaville, symbolizing the individual in man, the personal and irrational which no logical computer can fully fathom. As the man condemned for weeping when his wife died exclaims before being executed:

Listen to me, you normals. We see the truth that you no longer see. This truth is, that there is nothing true in man except love and faith, courage and tenderness, generosity and sacrifice; everything else is but the artifice created by the progress of your own blind ignorance.

Besides extensive quotes from poet Paul Éluard's 'La Capitale de la Douleur' ('The Capital of Pain'), another important source of references in the film is Jorge Luis Borges' essay 'A New Refutation of Time', from which Alpha 60 repeatedly quotes. In this essay, Borges wrestles with the concept of time and its relation with the individual. Philosophically, he goes back to the subjectivism of Berkeley, who maintained that since man ultimately has to depend on his perceptions, which are fundamentally subjective, the outside world cannot be proven to exist objectively, outside of the subject's perception. (Whereas Berkeley, a Bishop, believed that God perceived everything and thus lent coherence to the world, Hume denied even this.)

Borges takes this doctrine to its logical end, arguing that time cannot be proven to exist either, since it is only a subjectively experienced series of perceptions. Crucially, however, in Borges' (and Hume's) argument the individual also disappears as a meaningful concept. Ultimately, Borges isn't willing to accept this conclusion, and he ends his essay by refuting his own refutation of time.

Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.

In the same vein, 'Alphaville' shows how Alpha 60's logical refutation of all that is meaningful to humans is ultimately doomed. Lemmy Caution has several conversations with Alpha 60, who at one point asks him what his secret is. Caution answers by posing a riddle:

Something that never changes with the night or the day, as long as the past represents the future, towards which it will advance in a straight line, but which, at the end, has closed in on itself into a circle.

Alpha 60 is sure it'll find the solution to the riddle, but Caution warns him:

If you find it... you will destroy yourself in the process... because you will have become my equal, my brother.
Alphaville - 2

The answer to the riddle is exactly the quality of being a human individual - something Alpha 60 will never know except by becoming human itself. Ironically, Alpha 60's last words, after having been destroyed by Caution, hint at the machine's realization of its own identity. Echoing Borges, it says:

For our misfortune, the world is a reality... and I... for my misfortune... I am myself - Alpha 60.

In the end, of course, Caution escapes from the chaos of Alphaville with the woman he loves, who has to relearn how to use the word 'love' all over again.

The entire film is online - watch it here.

in jerusalem

Some inspiring literary discoveries today at the Winternachten festival in The Hague, at a program ironically titled How to Bluff your Way into Arabic Literature. Featuring eight poets and writers from countries ranging from Morocco to Lebanon (and everything in between), each author read from their own work, as well as a favorite excerpt from Arabic literature.

Among the younger generation, Egyptian Ahmed Alaidy and Palestine Tamim Al-Barghouti stood out. Alaidy read from his novel 'Being Abbas El Abd', a humorous, angry-young-man account of a video store clerk at "Amerco Video Film", abounding in postmodern wordplay and global-cultural references. (Word of the day: "Decidophobia: fear of making decisions.")

Even more furious was Al-Barghouti's poem 'In Jerusalem', a long Ginsbergian rant against the current political situation that is as incendiary as it is eloquent. Apparently, Al-Barghouti became greatly popular after participating in a TV poetry contest called The Prince of Poets, aired throughout the Arab world. For the full story (in English) and video (in Arabic) of Al-Barghouti reading his poem, see this post from 3 Quarks Daily.

Unfortunately, there's no translation of the poem online...

thud

In 1972 American psychologist David Rosenhan conducted an experiment to test psychiatric diagnosing. In what has become famous as the Rosenhan experiment, a number of mentally healthy people went to psychiatric hospitals around the country and applied for help. They told doctors they were hearing a voice in their head that said "Thud". Apart from this one symptom, they behaved completely normal.

All eight 'pseudopatients' were admitted and diagnosed as suffering from mental illness (seven as schizophrenic, one as bipolar), thus proving Rosenhan's suspicion that distinguishing sanity from insanity, and normal from abnormal, is much more difficult and contextually determined than had previously been assumed.

When the results of the experiment were published, one mental hospital challenged Rosenhan to repeat the experiment with them, confident that such mistakes would not be made in their institution. Rosenhan agreed to send one or more pseudopatients to them. And indeed, over the next months, the hospital identified 41 impostors from among their applicants. Rosenhan then revealed he hadn't sent a single pseudopatient to them, proving once more how fallable psychiatric diagnosis really is.

But to return to the first experiment, its greatest irony lies in how difficult it proved for the eight pseudopatients to get out of hospital again after they had been admitted. Once inside, they had been instructed to tell their doctors the voices had disappeared and they felt fine again. This, however, did not impress the staff, who proceeded to medicate and observe them. (As the pseudopatients took notes during their stay, many of the daily reports on their behavior contained the observation "Patient engaged in writing behavior.")

As none of them were able to convince their doctors they were not insane, it became clear, in a bizarre kind of Catch-22, that the only way out was to first admit they were insane, to affirm their psychiatrists' diagnosis, and then to show them they were getting better.

In the end, in one case after being confined for almost two months, all Rosenhan's pseudopatients were released as schizophrenics "in remission" (which is not to say they were sane again, just that their symptoms had sufficiently abated!).

...once labeled schizophrenic, the pseudopatient was stuck with that label. If the pseudopatient was to be discharged, he must naturally be "in remission"; but he was not sane, nor, in the institution's view, had he ever been sane.

Rosenhan wrote a paper about the experiments, called 'On Being Sane In Insane Places' (PDF). See also this interview where Rosenhan recounts the experiment (from the documentary 'The Trap').

manufacturing consent

At almost three hours long, the classic documentary 'Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media' (1992) by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, provides a good introduction to Chomsky's ideas on (American) politics and (corporate) media. Though given Chomsky's own insistence on nuance and getting the facts straight, it can't replace the book it was based on, or the pile of others he's written on the subject.

The book, 'Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media', cowritten by Edward S. Herman, described a propaganda model of the media, stating that commercial media are inherently biased since they are market-driven and therefore will tend to further (or at least not obstruct) the interests of their advertisers. Later documentaries like 'Outfoxed' have presented more glaring examples of this tendency.

Far from being a conspiracy, the propaganda model is merely "an outcome of the workings of market forces":

Most biased choices in the media arise from the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market, and political power. Censorship is largely self-censorship, by reporters and commentators who adjust to the realities of source and media organizational requirements, and by people at higher levels within media organization who are chosen to implement, and have usually internalized, the constraints imposed by proprietary and other market and governmental centers of power.

However, the manufacture of consent - a phrase from Walter Lippman - has another dimension. As media are dependent on major news sources like the government to fill their programs and papers, they are vulnerable not only to spin but also to selection and domination of certain news facts to the exclusion of others. A large portion of the book is devoted to painstakingly researched case studies counting and comparing news appearances of different events.

In this context Chomsky and Herman cite the Parkinsonian-sounding "principle of bureaucratic affinity", which states that "only other bureaucracies can satisfy the input needs of a news bureaucracy." If the previous point was relevant only for commercially owned media, this one holds for public media as well. The cluttered Dutch media landscape of today is a good example, with increasingly large amounts of airtime and column space being devoted to what certain people said in other media. Thus one news fact is kept alive for days by just getting responses to responses to responses to what wasn't a very interesting statement in the first place.

Anyway... Watch 'Manufacturing Consent' online (partly out of sync) or download it (.avi).

The film includes a brief excerpt from a debate between Chomsky and Michel Foucault, held in the Netherlands in 1971. (More excerpts from this debate can be found here and here, and a full transcript here.)

It also includes some curious exerpts from another appearance of Chomsky in the Netherlands, in a 1988 debate with liberal politician Frits Bolkestein, organized by the NRC. (The individual piece can be seen here.)

Chomsky.info contains a great many other interviews and articles.

startling

Subtraction (Startling)
 

Some interesting textual art by San Francisco artist Tauba Auerbach. This one's called 'Subtraction (Startling)'. See her 'Alphabetized Bible' as well.

Via SpaceCollective.