Privilege Plays

Privilege Plays

oscarlupitaMany celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio don’t have an Oscar, a jubilant Nairobi commentator wrote today, “It is therefore a big achievement for a first timer to win!”

Kenya’s gone wild. The President of the country sent Best Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong’o several messages just before the Oscars began wishing her luck.

It’s very Kenyan to savor the moment before it happens. In a world with so much defeat, the simple possibility of success carries extraordinary joy.

President Uhuru Kenyatta wrote, “I hope that Lupita wins the recognition that she so richly deserves… I also believe that the fact that Lupita is where she is today is already a massively gratifying milestone.”

Many in Kenya were on their way to work. The sun was just rising in western Lou where Lupita’s family is from when the award was announced.

Another Kenyan commentator filled with hope wrote Sunday, “The first time it happened in India, when Slumdog Millionaire won, or when the South African film, Tsotsi, achieved the same feat, the success appeared to be dreams made in another world… Now, Kenya could have its moment of glory too if the gods of creativity and achievement smile on Lupita.”

Smile they did.

But they are dreams made in another world.

Lupita, as she will now forever be referred to rather than by her surname in Kenya, was born in Mexico when her very politically powerful father was a visiting professor in Mexico City.

Later he would rise to several cabinet positions in the government and like virtually every politician that has ever succeeded in Kenya, become quite rich. Lupita attended privileged private schools in Nairobi and had the resources to succeed abroad.

Her Yale education in the performing arts was instrumental in her later film career.

The rags to riches story doesn’t apply. Jared Leto and even Cate Blanchett are better nominees for that category.

But Kenya and so much of Africa is sustained on hope, and the only thing that’s wrong with that is that it comes so cheaply. Lupita’s talent is undenied. Financial and social resources can take an artist just so far, and she’s made the jump.

She’s proved that a trajectory to success in America, anyway, can all be wrapped into a single lifetime. And that is most Kenyans’ greatest inspiration, today.

little screen America, Big Screen Africa

little screen America, Big Screen Africa

African films are exploding onto the Cannes Film Festival, opening Wednesday, as youthful African societies continue to develop this important art which is being so grossly neglected in America.

The decline in the American film industry is today’s hot topic, but I think everyone’s got it wrong. The emphasis has been on America’s growing and exciting new hand-held technologies and all the products that support them like YouTube.

Undoubtedly that has much to do with it, but I think more so it has to do with the American film industry transforming itself into making money in malls from teenagers.

There’s nothing wrong about making money. And there’s nothing wrong with malls. There’s only a little wrong with teenagers.

Film-making provides the modern world with the best way to transform imagination into reality: it’s the conduit, not the transformer. It’s the best catalyst. Nothing better.

So when that focus is placed on vampire love stories the powerful conduit is twisted towards another universe, not ours. It’s no longer relevant to our reality, and in that instance, it loses almost entirely its preeminence as an art form. Its value becomes dollars and sense, little else.

Africa is stepping into this remarkable void left by the American film industry.

This week in Cannes there is a massive representation of South African films, an excellent collection of Nigerian films and especially Nigerian writers, and from my point of view, the best dose of creativity the world’s seen for some time from Kenya.

Real stories playing into real rapidly changing worlds are American films like Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Lincoln, and Avatar – among my favorite recent American movies.

But they are so few and far between.

Nairobi Half Life and The First Grader are recent Kenyan films produced on a pittance of the budget of a single episode of American Rival, create through the Grecian act of acting and the majesty of writing stories a real and lasting impact on the world.

Madagascar 3 doesn’t do that. Nor do the Terminators or apocalypses or thousands of cars flying into the Grand Canyon. And certainly not vampires.

Good films, and by that I mean films with value to society, films that contribute to art and not just livelihoods, convey moral messages in realistic characters, characters that if we can’t identify with ourselves we can through someone we know well.

And here are several important reasons Africa is displacing America in the film industry:

Of the 150 South African filmmakers attending Cannes this year with some sort of accepted entry into the festival, twelve of them were penniless before sponsorship by the South African government.

That’s right, government involvement. Government is a reflection of society; it’s usually in the forefront – good or bad – of society’s extravagances. Without government involvement many of the best films from Canada and France would never have been made.

Two: African films fuel controversy: they take a point of view and proudly so and at the peril of failure. They dare to retell history, like Lincoln did in America recently. But Lincoln is the exception. Otello Burning is the mainstay of South Africa’s brilliant film industry.

Third and most importantly, film at its best is art. Film in America is business. Shortly before he died, Roger Ebert said this better than anyone.

Africa is developing film as art. It learned how from America. But today business eats art in America. Let’s hope the other side of the world documents this carnage rather than chooses to partake.

A Real Kenyan Oscar

A Real Kenyan Oscar

The Kenyan entry for this year’s “Best Foreign Film” continues an incredible story about East Africa’s blindingly fast social changes and overwhelming tragedy in the struggle to become a modern society.

It isn’t just that “Nairobi Half Life” tells a powerfully realistic story of urban Kenya, but that the story is finally “being told” by Kenyans.

Rather like the Olympics, Oscars often cite a film as coming from a certain country even though the film is actually made by outsiders. Case in point is Slumdog Millionaire, which raised India out of the Bollywood marsh into the real global film world, even though the film was financed, directed, screen played, tecked and in many cases (excluding the lead) acted by British.

The main problem is financing. Even what the Iowa State Film board would consider a low-budget Indie film is a fortune in Kenya. So financing is likely to always come from film capitals like LA or London.

But this year the Kenyan entry for “Best Foreign Film” is almost exclusively Kenyan except for its financing. The techies, actors, supporting personnel and most importantly, the director, are all Kenyan. This will be David Tosh Gitonga’s second foray into big screen directing.

His first — as assistant director of the tear-jerking, soul uplifting, smile plastering masterpiece “1st Grader” – is absolutely one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

Both films portray a real and rapidly changing Kenya. “The First Grader” is set in rural Kenya right after the government declared education a universal and free right. The star is a wonderful old Kenyan who in his 80s is impoverished but proud particularly of his history as a freedom fighter. Unable to read a letter he receives from the government, he shows up the first day of the new term at a primary school in order to learn how to read.

Much more sinister but just as true and realistic, “Nairobi Half Life” follows a young rural Kenyan who migrates to Nairobi to become an actor. But like so many rural immigrants into the city, he is subsumed by the underbelly of a giant modern African metropolis, made hostage to the crime and drugs of its slums.

The film has been shown only at festivals and through a limited release in Germany but film goers are ecstatic. And its promise comes from the very respectable Durban Film Festival where lead actor Joseph Wairimu received the Best Actor Award.

It was not too long ago when Kenya produced nothing but wildlife films. And no criticism intended, they were extremely good.

But what is happening in Africa, and especially in Kenya, is truly mind bending for those of us who have lived and worked there through much of the last half century. But we can’t begin to imagine how it must be effecting Kenyans themselves.

Every single Kenyan is impacted in the tornado of change: The old, like the character in “The First Grader” and the young, like the lead in “Nairobi Half Life.” And unlike what we westerners consider the classic literature explanations of East Africa, Out of Africa is neither real and hardly any more relevant to what happens every day in Kenya now.

Good luck Kenya!

An African Movie Book

An African Movie Book

There are more African cocktail table books than of any other continent, and that’s neither a surprise nor news. So it’s no surprise either that one of the newest productions picture books is multi-media, employing every modern IT trick available. Is this the preview of all future picture books on Africa?

The Kalahari Dream by Chris Mercer and Beverly Pervan is certainly good but nothing outstanding for either its pictures or text. But the compelling story is about rescued animals in the Kalahari all of which have happy endings. The couple worked there for seven years, and this is their joyous report.

Movie Book, is how the world is now beginning to characterize it, and if you download to your eBook reading device, it’s a seamless process to link to the more than 100 photos, videos and audio clips complementing the text.

Some day, of course, all books will be like this. I’m delighted it seems to be starting with Africa!

Religious Horror

Religious Horror

To a young apolitical Iranian woman, America is an army of helicopters ruling purgatory, patrolling the vast, lawless space between the disorganized and deceitful now and the desperately sought paradise. This wondrous insight comes to us thanks to the Zanzibar Film Festival which opens this weekend.

(For a broader summary of the festival, please read my Tuesday blog.)

“Invitation” is a film by Payam Zeinalabedini, an Iranian with a very limited budget. It’s not going to win any technical awards, and as you are carried along by the lilting, beautiful girl’s voice over the film’s haunting music, it becomes hard to “translate” the very poor English subtitles. But please stick with it, and forget the subtitles if you must. It is absolutely a film that every American should watch.

Watch it now, by clicking here, or come back to it, later. It is 30 minutes long and gives us Americans a widely held view of ourselves from the outside.

In a larger sense I think this is why so many Americans love Africa. There is something that we immediately identify with every moment of new experience, whether it be vast Midwest-like plains or thousands of animals. (American’s empathy for animals is legendary.)

And I’d like to think a few clever Iranians understand this, too. Payam’s film has shown in a few other festivals, but its technical merits are wanting. If shown, for example, in Milwaukee or Austin, it would probably fall flat as poorly made propaganda. But the characterization it makes of America will not offend an audience in Africa. And obviously it’s not intended as propaganda, there.

Africa has manipulated America well, for both America and itself, for several generations. Africa knows the good we have, and the bad we seem unable to shake. And because the film really does lack the technical merits of so many of the other entrants in the festival, I have to believe, too, that the Africans running the festival are doing exactly what the Iranians are:

Trying to send us an important message. A post card, if you will, of an essentially apolitical Iranian girl of her journey into Iraq. In a way that won’t evoke our defensiveness before we absorb it. ‘Someone,’ I can imagine them saying to themselves, ‘has to let America know what’s happening.’

Filmed in 2008 it is a story of this young lady making the trek to the holy Shiite shrine in Karbala, Iraq. We never know her name, or the name of her grandmother who she invokes constantly as her mentor and inspiration and the assumed recipient of her remarks.

In fact, throughout the film’s crowded voyage through humanity, no one offers names. At the Iraqi/Iran border where American soldiers finger print and eye scan all pilgrims, names are clearly forged or just made up. Except for imams and holy historical figures, names aren’t used, not even when trying to check into an inn for the night.

The film becomes a documentary of crowds of nameless pilgrims wandering towards the shrine, in a sort of hapless pursuit that things holy must be better.

The Iranian woman narrator has paid an Iraqi tour company for the trip, as have hundreds if not thousands of other Iranians in lines of buses coming out of Tehran. But when the convoy reaches the Iraqi border, the comfortable vacation turns into a horrible expedition.

It’s raining and cold. Compared to Iran’s paved roads, Iraqi’s dirt tracks are terrible. And dangerous. The girl explains that Iraqi security personnel must join the bus groups to guard the continuing journey, because it’s considered so dangerous.

Waning daylight infuses the “second-hand Iraqi” buses bereft of working windows or adequate heaters as the convoy pushes deeper into Iraq. They pass Tikrit, and the narrator turns her camera at Saddam’s palace, but it passes quickly out of view as something no longer meaningful.

It’s dark, cold and still raining, and the colored often neon lights that poke out from villages along the way seem like circuses or game parlors. The narrator remembers the tracer lights of Iraqi aircraft over Tehran during the great wars. She was very little, and she remembers her grandmother telling her to run to the shelter.

Then the tour bus gets stuck in the mud, in the dark, cold and rain. The Iraqi security officer orders them to stay in the bus “And don’t sleep! It’s dangerous!” By the broken English subtitle, she says mournfully, “Grandma, I now know what anxiety for the future means.”

The next day she sees lines and lines of Iraqis walking on the muddy sides of the road to the shrine and feels embarrassed with her fortune. “I am not vengeful,” she begins, invoking the long wars between the two countries, “and I wonder if I should get out and walk with my brothers.”

Americans – which are never shown – are omnipresent, but as if in another dimension, outside real peoples’ realities. At one point, the security officer accompanying her in her bus warns her not to take pictures or use her cell phone, because Americans “have X-rays and we’ll all then get arrested.”

As they approach Karbala in the darkness and drizzle, the sounds of excited pilgrims increase. There is self-flagellation and ominous and aggressive dancing common to this sect of Shiites, unhappy crowds, mixed and uncoordinated singing and shouting. They walk pass dilapidated or bombed out structures as the throngs of people move towards the only lighted structure in the area, a yet distant giant Christmas-lighted mosque and shrine.

They decide to check-in to their inn before going to the mosque. The electricity is erratic and there is no light in the cold, rainy street. Yellow light peeps out from shuttered windows. When they finally locate their presumed overnight lodging, they discover there’s no room for them at the inn. And there’s no representative around from the travel agency that took their money to complain to.

“This is Karbala,” the innmaker intones, “go to Paris, go to the Emirates if you want a room!” The girl remarks they can’t even find an internet café, because there’s no electricity and no computers. She remarks with the first bit of political overtones that this is the country that was supposed to have a nuclear bomb, and they don’t even have working computers!

What she had hoped would be a joyous excursion has become a nightmare. She finds an Iraqi who has the authority to allow her to film inside the shrine, but his laptop doesn’t work so he can’t give her the necessary permit. She finds a laptop from a fellow Iranian traveler, and the official creates a permit using Word.

Suicide bombers have attacked nearby mosques. There are sirens and flashing lights, and suddenly American soldiers who are never shown, though. No one seems to care. “This country is conquered by Americans,” she says as if only realizing it herself, now.

Finally she gets inside the mosque. The light is bright, almost blinding. Most faces turn away from her camera. Those that don’t reveal fear, anger, perhaps terror.

She gets in a line of congested movement towards the shrine, the object of the trek. The orderly movement forward is interrupted by security officials frisking entrants. Inside, she says, “Grandma, perhaps it was your prayers that got me here, but now I’m entrapped among the security Army of Blasphermers.”

“I feel I am supposed to see and hear” inspiration or something religious, and then her voice is drowned out by the sounds of helicopters going around and around, closer and closer, louder and louder.

This is the view of Iraq by a young Iranian. I don’t consider this propaganda, although I think it quite fair to presume the film maker had an agenda in mind. But strip away the commentary and subtitles, and just take the scenes shown for what they are:

A country in endless mourning, restless and lawless, pitifully unfulfilled.

Ready to either implode completely or explode entirely.

An American watching this film must wonder what the hell we’re doing there. We’re not bringing peace, and we’re certainly not bringing prosperity or any measure of happiness. If our national security goal is to impede harm against us, we’re certainly not doing it by making friends. You could not live in Karbala without hating America.

Nevertheless, if this has “kept a lid on terrorism” one wonders if the oppression this thrusts on the peoples of Karbala is fair strategy. In a tit-for-tat body bag game, we’re winning. But one wonders if the game weren’t played at all, if the numbers of dead, injured and unhappy would be infinitely less.

We have turned a once joyful religious trek undertaken for centuries into a modern horror film.

African Doors to the World

African Doors to the World

Who will spearhead the social unrest in China? Are women being mentally beaten to death in Iran? These and similar cutting edge issues find their window to the world Thursday, at the Zanzibar Film Festival.

The world’s great film festivals have become institutionalized, perfected as I suppose they should be in celebrating independent and often unrestrained art. After all, that’s why they arose: the mainline industry had abandoned art for commerce. But in maturing so idealistically to technique, the great film festivals have abandoned many cutting edge social issues.

And movies are one of the best ways to broadcast your issue. Africa has a number of film festivals where this is still the case, and none better than this year’s Zanzibar festival.

I list below films from China and Iran that I believe tell a story no one’s listening to, and which presage very important world events. By so doing I don’t mean to minimize the great African films – particularly Swahili language films – which will also be shown.

A Good Catholic Girl, for example, is a remarkable short film from Uganda with two wonderful lead roles about falling in love across religious and ethnic lines. This is now a multi-generational issue, and when explored deeper says much about the ethnic and gender turmoil in Uganda, today.

The Rugged Priest isn’t a very good technical movie from Kenya, but it is a story rarely told yet enacted over and again especially when I first worked in Kenya in the 1970s. It’s also an interesting benchmark for the growing Kenyan film industry, as the movie was a hit in Kenya.

But what the Zanzibar Film Festival provides is a quiet outlet for film makers in places like Iran and China, whose work would likely be suppressed at home, and is either not submitted to the bigger festivals for fear of drawing attention, or just as likely, because they just aren’t technically good enough.

But I doubt any of you won’t feel the same goose bumps I did watching the trailers, and clearly, these raw yet to fully mature young artists are telling us something very important about the near future in their countries.

Just an Hour Ago, and A Beautiful Snowy Day reveal the oppression of women in Iran is so intense that I believe – and I believe the films are suggesting – that the next great unrest will come from women, there.

The Rice Paddy is a Chinese/French entry which is among the most professional productions, and remarkable for its intense portrayal of the migrant worker in China’s rice fields, a group of people today as important in China as the slaves were to cotton farmers in the 1800s in America.

While The Rice Paddy is not subversive as such, clearly in the light of today’s news about Chinese inflation and migrant worker unrest, it presages cracks in China’s social construction that likely will figure prominently in that country’s imminent transformation.

But the enormously powerful Iranian film, The Invitation I feel so important that I’ll be writing a separate blog about it, Thursday, to commemorate the film festival’s opening. Please come back, then!

Winners in Burkina

Winners in Burkina

by Conor Godfrey on March 8, 2011

I have led everyone astray by failing to warn you that the bi-annual, Pan African Film Festival in Ouagadougou (FESPACO) opened Saturday, February 24th, and ended this past weekend.

FESPACO is the most important film festival in Africa, and I would go even further and say that the festival is the most important modern, pan-African cultural event on the continent.

Every year since 1969 FESPACO has gathered African and diaspora intellectuals in Burkina to discuss the major intellectual currents washing over the continent.

The festivals highest prize, the Etalon de Yennenga (Stallion of Yennenga), goes to the film that best represents ‘African realities.’

Recent winners include Heremakono, from Mauritania, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako,

Ezra, from Nigeria, directed by Newton Aduaka, Drum, from South Africa, directed by Zola Maseko , and Teza, from Ethipoia, directed by Hailé Gerima.

This year the Golden Stallion went to Moroccan Director, Mohamed Mouftakir, for his film Pegase (Pegasus—trailer only available in French and Arabic) I have not seen it, but the reviews are uniformly positive.

Over 340 films were submitted to the jury; here are a few of the other winners.

The Silver Stallion:
Un homme qui crie
(A Screaming Man), Chad, Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

The Bronze Stallion; Le mec idéal (The Ideal Guy), Cote d’Ivoire, filmmaker Owell Brown.

Best Actor; Sylvestre Amoussou, Benin, for his role in Un pas en avant, les dessous de la corruption.

Best Actress; Samia Meziane, Algeria, for her role in Le Voyage à Alger (Journey to Algiers).

The African Diaspora Prize; Les amours d’un zombie (The Loves of a Zombie), Haiti, film by Arnold Antonin.

I’m sorry, but youtube did not come through for most of these trailers. Worse still, the only two films above available via Netflix are Drum, and Un Homme Qui Crie, and neither of those are available right away.

That means that you would probably have to order them on Amazon.com if you wanted to see them.

Be sure to post a comment if you find a way to get a hold of any of these movies.

African film is on the rise from dynamic urban spaces to the smallest villages in West Africa. Read this EWT blog written in February of ’10 about the rise of local African films tackling local issues, especially in Nigeria.

You will notice that Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry that currently produces more films than Hollywood and Bollywood combined, was not well represented on the awards podium.

Most Nigerian directors shoot with handheld or inexpensive digital cameras using a local cast and set.

While these amateur films may not make the cut at FESPACHO, they do sometimes make one thing that most FESPACHO submissions do not—money.

The rampant piracy of African films makes large, expensive productions economically unviable.

This also inhibits the creation of a class of well renumerated actors and actresses, studios, and directors. This very issue was the official theme of FESPACHO 2011—how can Africa create a long term viable film industry.

I hope someone comes up with something soon so that come 2013 we can all see a well financed, professionally produced series of films on the revolutions sweeping North Africa.

North African Film Reviews: Bab’Aziz; The Prince Who Contemplated his Soul, and Outside the Law

North African Film Reviews: Bab’Aziz; The Prince Who Contemplated his Soul, and Outside the Law

by Conor Godfrey on March 3, 2011

Every Thursday in February the Smithsonian Museum of African art opened their galleries for the North African Film Festival, highlighting films from Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.

I would accuse the Smithsonian of war profiteering, but I suppose they had this planned long before Tunisian president boarded his plane for Saudi Arabia.

My favorites this month were Bab’Aziz;The Prince Who Contemplated his Soul, and Outside the Law.

These are as different as two films can be; the first is a beautiful fairly tale that unfolds ever so slowly across the rolling sand dunes of southern Tunisia, while the other is an urban, visceral, action packed guerilla war epic with an elevated body count.

However, I think both put you in touch with the modern fabric of N. African life; one with the whimsical fantasy and mysticism of Sufi Islam, and the other with the legacy of pain and resistance that I have been told figures quite prominently in North Africa’s public consciousness.

Bab’Aziz (The Prince Who Contemplated his Soul)
Director: Nacer Khemir
Writers: Tonino Guerra (collaboration), Nacer Khemir
Stars: Parviz Shahinkhou (Bab’Aziz), Maryam Hamid (Ishtar)

This movie is filled with music—not just the energetic, haunting Dervish music that various wandering souls sing or play throughout the film, but also the music of the wind over the dunes, or the cackle of a fire.

Many reviewers called Bab’Aziz a “visual poem”. The entire movie centers on the Journey of Bab-Aziz, a blind dervish, and his spirited granddaughter Ishtar, as they trek through the desert in search of a gathering of dervishes that takes place once every 30 years.

As Bab-Aziz reminds Ishtar and the viewers throughout the movie, no one knows where the gathering is to be held, but everyone who has been invited will eventually find their way there.

This set up mirrors the quote from the Hadith, or sayings of the prophet, that opens the film—“There are as many paths to God as there are souls on the Earth”.

A quick refresher on Dervishes.

Dervishes are Sufi Muslims following an ascetic path, or Tariqa (Interestingly enough, in the West African Fulani language spoken where I spent my Peace Corps days in the Fouta Jallon, Tarika means tale or narrative.)

Their origins are most likely Iranian and/or from the Indian subcontinent, but today Dervishes are most closely associated with Turkey and to a lesser extent North Africa.

Much like Christian monks, Dervishes can belong to any number of orders whose garb and rituals may vary.

In general, Dervishes take a vow of poverty and seek spiritual purity and enlightenment through humility and dedication to religious principles.

Back to my thoughts on Bab’Aziz.

Time seems suspended as Bab’Aziz and Ishtar wander through the dessert.

The desert becomes a transformative space where normal rules are suspended, and the Dervish aesthetic predominates.

People from the real world that wander into this transformative space throughout the movie are crushed and humbled by the immensity of the desert, and eventually driven onto the invisible path beneath the desert sands that winds, seemingly aimlessly, toward the gathering of dervishes and the unseen conclusion of whatever it was that drove that soul into the desert in the first place.

Young Maryam Hamid puts in a fabulous performance as Ishtar, the grand-daughter, and the supporting cast plays their bit roles well enough to let the “visual poem” unwind without distractions.

Some of my companions found this film beautiful, but slow.

I am sympathetic to that critique in so far as the there is almost no ‘action’ in the film, but it takes time to suffuse the audience with the music and silence of the desert. I think director Nacer Khemir hopes that viewers leave this film feeling crushed and humbled, but with the feeling that somehow they too are on a path.

Outside the Law
(Hors la Loi)

Director: Rachid Bouchareb
Writer: Rachid Bouchareb
Actors: Jamel Debbouze (Saïd), Roschdy Zem (Messaoud), Sami Bouajila (Abdelkader), Chafia Boudraa (their mother), Bernard Blancan (Colonel Faivre)

Do not take a first date to this movie. Outside the Law is 220 minutes of non-stop high drama, with nary a smile for comic relief.

That being said, it is one of the best guerrilla war epics I have ever seen.

The film is also very controversial in France.

Its release drew thousands in protests in Southern France where the war in Algeria still raises temperatures on both sides.

The film opens with a split screen. On one side, jubilant scenes of V-E day in Paris, French women are kissing members of the resistance in the street, and De Gaulle is congratulating the French population on throwing off the tyranny of the Nazi oppressors, while on the other side of the screen, the French military and pied noirs (European Colonists living in Algeria) are massacring peaceful protesters on May 8th, 1945 in the Algerian town of Setif.

This same message is repeated in a myriad of different ways throughout the film.

How can the French, who have just thrown off the chains of oppression themselves, not recognize the righteousness of the Algerian cause?

How can they not see that they have become the oppressors?

In one seat gripping scene, the three brothers at the center of the film kidnap a French colonel who had distinguished himself in the resistance during the Nazi occupation.

They compliment the colonel on having fought on the right side, the side of justice, during the occupation, and ask him to make the same decision again; to fight on the side of justice, in this instance, against la gloire de la France, rather than for it.

The colonel’s decision will ripple through the lives and deaths of the film’s cast for the remainder of the film.

I am neither French nor Algerian, and do not feel entitled to the gut wrenching emotion that this conflict evokes in those whose lives were touched by it…but this film made me feel it anyway.

Don’t Dumb Down the Migration

Don’t Dumb Down the Migration

The filming is fantastic! But NatGeo cable shouldn’t have tried to vie with Dancing with the Stars. They’ve really dumbed down what could have been an outstanding work.

I suppose it’s like anything in the media, today. All that’s offered are sound bites, beautiful pictures, and short sentences, all of which reduce the complex into something often indistinguishable from its real self. Complexity is what makes nature so marvelous!

The series documents twelve epic animal groups whose life cycles involve lengthy migrations and then chronicles one of each of the cycles.

In absolutely stunning photography we watch several families of Mali elephants trekking across the great western deserts, see dusk skies suddenly blackened by myriads of bats, follow giant whales on their lengthy journeys through the oceans, as well as watch the wildebeest migration which is so dear to my own heart.

I can’t speak with much authority on much more than the wildebeest migration in East Africa and the zebra migration in Botswana, but I think it’s fair of me to presume that what is so critically missing in the explanations of those two migrations probably has something similar lacking with them all.

NatGeo says, “Starting in May or June, wildebeest walk from the southeast Serengeti plains westwards toward Lake Victoria and turn north into the Maasai Mara, in search of fresh… By November, they’ve exhausted new grazing lands, and return south.”

One of the features of the migration – one of the really exciting aspects to it – is that when it “starts” as NatGeo correctly says in May or June, it’s an explosive start. It’s hardly a walk. It’s a race, a marvelous thing to see. Files of wilde several or more miles long might stampede for 3 or 4 hours without stopping.

It’s also wrong to suggest they all move together. I’ve never known a single year in the 38 since I’ve visited the Serengeti where this is true. The “herd” at most can be defined in three parts, often in six or seven, each part of which moves mostly north, but some east while others west. There is no “one route.”

With regards to the zebra in Botswana, the production suggests they are drawn into the Kalahari’s pans for salt which isn’t plentiful enough in the Okavango where the migration “starts”. This, too, is wrong. The zebra migrate onto the Kalahari plains shortly after the rains have grown grasses that are much more nutritious than they can obtain in the swamp. So it’s here that they calve, so that the herd has a more nutritious food source to grow the babies.

Some may call all this nitpicking. But there’s a much, much more serious flaw in the larger narrative. NatGeo claims (I believe as with all the animal groups discussed) that the wilde are “hard-wired” to move. That’s simply not the case.

The wildebeest migrate when triggered by hunger. The zebra are likely triggered by enzymes similar to our own feelings of “hunger” after eating a high sugar breakfast, feelings likely caused chemically by pregnancy that draw them away from the less nutritious swamp grass to the much richer plains grasses.

If the animals aren’t hungry, they don’t migrate. NatGeo doesn’t deny this, but it claims that getting hungry is inevitable for such a large congregation of wildebeest, for example. Several times in the narrative Alec Baldwin remarks how they’ve eaten themselves out of house and home wherever they stop to graze, and so then must migrate.

That’s wrong. There’s much more land and grass in the Serengeti than wildebeest, zebra and gazelle available to eat it. So long as it rains, there will be enough grass virtually everywhere, and the wildebeest won’t migrate.

I’ve seen it often enough in forty years. Even this year there was an anomalous migration.

The East African reported last month that “A change in the spectacular wildebeest migration schedule in the great Serengeti-Mara ecosystem has caught ecologists offguard.

That was an exaggeration but it stands as evidence that there is nothing regular about the herbivore migrations. They move when they run out of food, and that happens when it stops raining.

The governing aspect to this great migration is not some hard-wire neuron in the wilde’s head. It’s climate. And that’s a critical component in understanding what is probably true of most of the world’s animal migrations:

There’s more to it than just the animal, itself. The planet is interlaced with life, and what happens to the wildebeest can indeed be traced to the melting glaciers in Alaska. Particularly now with global warming, there is more and more rain especially on the equatorial belt, and this will alter not just the wildebeest’s behavior but likely the behavior of all life along the equator.

Some may argue this is too subtle a distinction, but it really isn’t. Asserting that the migration is innate, “hard-wired” into the life cycle of the wilde robs it of the bit of independence it has as a life form. It begs the question of how much hard wiring we as humans carry around.

I don’t doubt there is hard wiring in all life forms. We normally call it instinct. But instinct removed from environment has no value. I’ve never watched wildebeest migration in a zoo.

There may, indeed, be animal groups NatGeo filmed that migrate to hard-wire responses. Perhaps the monarch’s complexity is so described; perhaps there is something similar with most bird migrations.

But not with wildebeest. And I doubt with any of the larger animals like the elephant seals or whales.

Animals don’t have our level of cognizance to be sure. But let’s not rob them of their own levels of consciousness. They make choices, and they sometimes make the wrong ones. That is one of the reasons for mass migrations: there will likely be more correct choices than incorrect choices, so the herd as a whole continues to survive and validate its natural selection.

Thanks, NatGeo, for some outstanding film. But let’s work a bit harder on avoiding common denominators that dull the polish of the world’s remarkable complexity.

Spielberg, the paleoWhatever!

Spielberg, the paleoWhatever!

No, this is not King Julien XIII.
I was hired by Dreamworks’ ad agency to help promote the first Madagascar. The original screenplay had lemurs living in Kenya! Well, we got that one corrected, but guess what?!!

Original lemurs may have come from Kenya!

Spielberg’s amazing.

Madagascar’s biomass is more unique than any other area in the world, except Australia which is 13 times larger. There are about 35 species of lemurs and twice that number if subspecies are differentiated. The lemur is a fuzzy little svelte panda-squirrel found only in Madgascar.

In fact, 90 percent of all the country’s mammals, amphibians and reptiles are found nowhere else!

How did this happen?

First, natural selection at its most basic can explain Madagascar’s biological uniqueness. Most of the current life forms on the island began evolving 65-62 million or so years ago.

Isolate any ecosystem for that long and you’re going to get some very neat things.

In fact, lots of neat things began to evolve 65 million years ago, including us! This was right around the time that huge meteorite crashed into the Yucatan ending the reign of the dinosaurs and plunging earth into a nuclear winter for hundreds of thousands of years.

Jay Gould’s still controversial theory of punctuated equilibrium add-in to natural selection can make things even clearer: with so much wiped out, there were enhanced opportunities for rapid evolutionary development.

So if Madagascar was really isolated – like Australia – from the rest of the world but large enough to provide a viable ecosystem, then all sorts of marvelous things could happen!

Ooops.

tku, UofCal - Berkeley
Only about ten percent of Madagascar’s life forms seem to have really started out there. Among them were the ancestors of the dodo bird. But lemurs? Sorry. They’re ancestral to the African continent’s prehistoric bushbabies, the lorises, many of whose fossils have been found in Kenya.

These original conclusions were all originally taxonomic, but current DNA studies have affirmed them.

No one has ever disputed the 1861 assertion by Austrian scientist, Eduard Suess, that Madagascar came from the giant single continent of Gondwana, then broke off from India long before the dinosaur extinction. Seuss’ simple observational deductions have been affirmed numerous ways by modern science.

Madagascar has been a lonely isolated island for almost 90 million years.

So how did the Madagascar’s lemur’s gene stock (and most of its other life forms) from the prehistoric African continent get to the island 65 million years ago?

Rafts. (Sort of like Madagascar, eh?)

The idea was floated (pun intended) as early as 1915, but in 1940 George Gaylord Simpson, a famous paleontologist and geologist, published a detailed rafting theory.

Given the vast periods of time available (nearly 30 million years) during which ancestral bushbaby forms didn’t seem to be evolving very much, Dr. Simpson surmised that it was statistically likely that enough ancestral biota rafted to the island to allow for such subsequent unique evolution of lemurs.

Two problems. Why did the rafting stop? Or more specifically even if it didn’t, why did its effects on evolution in Madagascar stop 65 million years ago?

And oops two. The prevailing winds are off the island to the south and southwest, and climatologists have no reason to believe those jet streams have changed even over the last hundred million years.

Ancestral lemurs should have been rafting to Africa, not ancestral bush babies to Madagascar!

How’d Spielberg know?

Ahoy! exclaim Profs Jason Ali of the U of Hong Kong and Matthew Huber of Purdue in a February article in Nature.

Ali is a plate tectonics specialist, and Huber, a palaeoclimatologist who reconstructs and models the climate millions of years in the past. Their collaboration proves that as Madagascar swam away from all the other continents on earth, it “disrupted a major surface water current running across the tropical Indian Ocean, and hence modified [the] flow around eastern Africa and Madagascar.”

See their complete article in Science.

Huber using his super algorithmic computer modeling genius then proved that just about the time Madagascar started evolving its mythic biota, that these currents were strong enough – like a liquid jet stream in peak periods – to get the animals to the island without dying of thirst. The trip appears to have been well within the realm of possibility for small animals whose naturally low metabolic rates may have been even lower if they were in torpor or hibernating.

And then, well then some 60 million years ago, Madagascar’s movement slowed into its current position where the ocean currents are weaker than the prevailing winds off the island. Whap! The little feisty island shut its door to the outside world of evolution.

And that let all sorts of marvelous things grow and evolve into the magical, near mythic world we know today as Madagascar.

Kudus (or Dodos!) to Dr. Simpson for thinking it up in the first place. And hey, what’s a half century or more for the techies like Ali and Huber to evolve, anyway, in order to prove it. It took lemurs 65 million years to do it in the first place!

And Spielberg? Heh, this meets all Liberty University’s criterion for an honorary degree!

This is not the movie Madagascar.

African Film-making in Flux

African Film-making in Flux

By Conor Godfrey

Any Westerner visiting the West African bush will most likely report that two things surprised them the most—the number of people with cell phones, and the number of video clubs.

Villages that boast narry a pump or health clinic will often have a video club.

The video clubs are simple affairs.

Some entrepreneurial soul scratched up enough money for a generator, small television, and a supply of horrible American action movies poorly dubbed into French.

(Thus propagating the belief that while people are all martial arts experts)

My Village Video Club in Guinea
While Chuck Norris and Jean Claude van Dam drew a steady crowd every night in my village, the films that packed the video club to the rafters were the local films in Pulaar ( largest local language in Guinea).

There is a huge market for local stories tackling indigenous themes across the continent.

The African film scholar Mbye Cham observed that “…cinema by Africans has grown steadily over this short period of time to become a significant part of a worldwide film movement aimed at constructing and promoting an alternative popular cinema, one that is more in harmony with the realities, the experiences, the priorities and desires of the society which it addresses.”

The presence and popularity of these local films in my tiny Guinean village is indicative of a continental trend.

Digital technology now allows film-makers and musicians to avoid the costly hurdles of professional production.

Nigeria’s Nollywood puts out more films every year then Hollywood or Bollywood using these low cost techniques.

The Africans who manage to find financial backing for a major production often do well on the film festival scene for one or two years before their movie tumbles into irrelevance.

While digital technology makes production affordable, it tends to produce low quality films with stilted acting.

Most Nollywood films tell hackneyed rags to riches story pivoting on a supernatural object or being.

They remind me of the plot repetitions in American soap operas or reality T.V. spin offs.

I think this is just the beginning.

As Lucy Gebre-Egziabher says in her article on the effect of digital technology on African film, “…we must acknowledge and learn from the achievements of these new directors. They have demonstrated that producing African films, in general, is a viable business and have elicited healthy investment from Africa’s conservative business sector”.

The strength of this market will inevitably improve production quality.

Amateur producers who tackle relevant local themes in new and creative ways will be rewarded by more sales and more investment, while producers who fail to improve will plateau.

For those who live in the New York area and have never seen African film written and directed by Africans—take an afternoon between April 7th and 13th to see the world through African eyes.

African Film Celebrating 50 Years of Independence: April 7th – 13th

African Film Celebrating 50 Years of Independence: April 7th – 13th

By Conor Godfrey

This week the African Film Festival kicks off in New York City, at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. (April 7th- 13th ).

The 19th annual festival explores the theme “Independent Africa”, as 17 different African nations celebrate their independence in 2010.

This exploration will include a mélange of classic and contemporary African cinema and art, as well as a series of panel discussions on current trends in African visual arts.

The general public can pay per film or event ($9-$12), or buy an all access pass ($99) at the Walter Reade Theater box office.

The festival program offers a wide variety of shorts and feature length films written by Africans living on the continent as well as in the diaspora.

Here are a few of the critics’ favorites:

From a Whisper: Director and script writer Wanuri Kahlu’s From a Whisper won the coveted ‘Best Narrative Feature” award at this year’s Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angelus. The film explores the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy from an African perspective.

L’Absence and Burning in the Sun: Both of these films examine the experience of an African emigrant returning home. I find these stories fascinating across all cultures, but particularly in Africa. What does home mean to these emigrants when they return? How does total immersion in Western Culture affect the emigrants African identity?

Sex, Okra, and Salted Butter: Another decorated African film that delves into the immigrant experience. In Mahamat-Seleh Haround’s comedy, a traditional Cameroonian man must deal with the flight of his wife, the discovery of his son’s non-traditional sexuality, and life in Paris’ black community.

I note these films because of their critical acclaim, but there are over 40 films on the program. Many of these films make their U.S. debut this week.