Saturday, July 18, 2009

Navigating a Familiar Chasm: Evolution and The Documentary Tradition in God Grew Tired of Us

“As a helpless human, I survived by trekking across many punishing landscapes while being bombed by Sudanese air forces, while dodging land mines, while being preyed upon by wild beasts and human killers. I fed on unknown fruits, vegetables, leaves, animal carcasses and sometimes went with nothing for days. At certain points, the difficulty was unbearable. I hated myself and attempted to take my own life. Many of my friends, and thousands of my fellow countrymen, did not make it through these struggles alive.”
-Valentino Achak Deng, Preface to What is the What
”Then, perhaps, when your back is to the wall, you will let loose at last that new violence which is raised up in you by old, oft-repeated crimes. But, as they say, that's another story: the history of mankind. The time is drawing near, I am sure, when we will join the ranks of those who make it.”
-Jean-Paul Sartre, Preface to The Wretched of the Earth
“We will accede to universal rights because power is too fluid in advanced technological societies to circumvent this mammalian imperative; the long-term consequences of inequity will always be visibly dangerous to its temporary beneficiaries. I suggest that this is the true reason for the universal rights movement and that an understanding of its raw biological causation will be more compelling in the end than any rationalization contrived by culture to reinforce and euphemize it.”
-Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature
“If we could manage to see people on other continents as part of us, drawing them into our circle of reciprocity and empathy, we would be building upon, rather than going against, our nature.”
-Franz de Waal, Our Inner Ape

If we consider God Grew Tired of Us as an archetypal or microcosmic view of human history, things look bleak yet with a slight chance of change. The stressors facing orphaned refugees are going to be extremely difficult at best for “First” world countries to grasp, and terms that social scientists use to consider more Westernized* societies (e.g., schadenfrade, ressentiment, and many others) will appear as an alien lexicon, completely unable to reckon the experiences of the individuals in this particular, non-Westernized society. It is the work of film to establish a linkage with the issue, give it a human face (so that we may feel sym/empathy with those affected), and in a perfect world, hint at what we may do about it.

The history of Sudan is given little recognition in GGTOU, except that we are told about the spread of Islam and of the fractious recent past due to this. Although humans evolved into “modern homo sapiens” in eastern Africa about 250 to 150k years before present (ybp), the first stable society there is still only dated at 60k ybp, which is just 10k years before there were permanent settlements in countries as far away as Australia. Of course the American/Western viewer can more readily relate to the spread of Islam throughout the world during the middle age, but this doesn't give a story which is so common in history its just historical due. Because of this, scenes about the 4th of July and Christmas also don't get their historical due. In a society down near the bottom of the Maslow totem pole, you're forced to pick your God and tenaciously hold these dogmas from birth. You're a member of the black Christian north or the Muslim south. And so the woes about Christmas are given a Christian appraisal, even if pagans partook of these same rituals years before. John is expressing sadness at the loss of Christian values, like holding up a prismatic magnifying glass that was forced upon you and calling out imperfections with a skewed chiaroscuro, unable to pull the lens away and see what the colors really look like. Also absent is the official United States position on the Lost Boys, and what we see is more like democratic nation-building on an individual. This proves slightly dubious as well, as black Christians will naturally accept the reins of another Christian nation, but why do the Muslims of the south not? An interesting documentary would explore, along the lines of Somit and Peterson, why these two religions continue to butt heads in nation after nation.

God Grew Tired of Us (GGTOU) shares a lot with the Grierson/Flaherty school of documentary -making. In his proto-Doc, Flaherty shot Nanook (an eskimo living in the biting cold, in Nanook of the North), giving this cultural lifestyle a human face. Nanook, like many of his culture, died of starvation and so the politicization of film began in that we would see a plight and feel for this plight and potentially do something about it. Few documentaries have really attempted to enable their audience to make concrete steps toward change. This film (GGTOU) adeptly shows the human side of the Lost Boys much better than a lecture or non-fiction book, and this is an effective documentary style. Seeing Daniel, John, and Panther go through the daily routines of refugee camp life, their elation at finding a home in a new place and the chance to set down new roots, and their day to day struggles to fit in and conform to American life. Our emotions run the gamut, from the humor at the question of the dish soap (“is this going to turn everything green?”) to what should be a sincere buyer's remorse at the attempt to explain what a shower was. Its hard to imagine life without a shower in the United States, although as water sources and aquifers dwindle we may crash headlong into that possibility. It is equally hard to imagine citizens of the United States having such a cordial and easy going response to such a drastic change of habiliment. Indeed, they argue about this in the commentary, coming to a non-accusatory point of saying that other people would do the same in a complete cultural immersion.

In these senses, the documentary succeeds admirably. Hopefully this film has sparked the interest in learning more about these atrocities and similar ones all around the globe (Darfur in the same country, for instance). We get a bit of background of the area, and a lot of very real knowledge about the day to day lives of those who have been lost (even if they're all “boys”). What we don't get is a list of links or organizations that we can (snail or e)mail to urge congress. We don't get an ecology of disparity, in which we are able to connect this to very similar things happening on many parts of the globe. Certainly one dvd can't do it all, but many viewers are likely to feel helpless and turned off by this omission.

There's not a doubt in mind that Robert Flaherty would have urged Nanook and his family to leave their harsh climates and come into the fold (of “civilization”, as it were) if he knew that they would perish in a year's time. God Grew Tired of Us is the next step, as it documents the protagonists' movement and highlights the problem. There now needs to be the third step of documentary-making, in which a beleaguered and disinterested American audience is given a toolkit with which they might start fashioning a framework for change, and perhaps a blueprint showing how their lives are connected to the lives they see on the screen.

*Westernized here means European (including Russia and its satellite states) or American, although many countries have a slough of sociological terms that wouldn't apply to a war-ravaged, refugee state.

-God Grew Tired of Us, Quinn and Walker, 2006
-Nanook of the North, Flaherty, 1922

-Barnouw, Erik. 1993. Documentary: A History of the Non-fiction Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
-Caton, Hiram. 2006. “Evolutionary Constraints on Democratic Nation Building. A review of The Failure of Democratic Nation Building: Ideology Meets Evolution by Albert Somit and Steven A. Peterson. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
-de Waal, Franz. 2005. Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. New York, Riverhead Books.
-Eggers, Dave. 2006. What is the What. San Francisco: McSweeney's.
-Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
-Wilson, Edward O. 2004. On Human Nature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Monday, June 29, 2009

La Vie est Belle as Social Document: An Evolutionary Reading

“The aim of the filmmakers was to transform the polemics against the elite into jokes made at the expense of the elite and to make films that appeal to the African masses because they can identify with the characters in them.” - Diawara, pg. 142

The critic Andre Bazin once stated that all films are social documents and this is true in many ways. If all things depicted in the film are an attempt to (re)produce and project reality, at the very least they depict some sort of underlying ideology as to why a member from a civilization at a particular time would attempt to (re)produce and project reality in that particular way. As such, we notice what a film lampoons just as much as what a film tacitly nods toward. In terms of gender and class, La vie est Belle is a great example of this bifurcation.

It has been said that the birth of agriculture may very well have been the birth of hierarchy, or at least the birth of hierarchy writ large. First peoples have chiefs, shamans, leaders, and/or other distinctively assigned positions, but they tend to get less strident the further toward the hunter/gatherer spectrum that they get. If we consider this as a sort of window into societal organization, we could think of a hunter/gatherer society as being very free of class structure and societies like India and the United States as being societies with a high degree of class structure. So where does the Democratic Republic of the Congo fit into this spectrum, at least as seen through La vie est Belle? Perhaps the filmmakers were attempting to show just how much class disparity exists by caricaturing the rich and the poor. Nvouandu, who seems to genuinely represent a good deal of wealth, still interacts and befriends the younger servants and townsfolk. Since the movie is a comedy, we can understand this attempt at levity in the face of great disparity, but again, this attempt has an inherent ideology behind it. We could tell the same stories at the Arc de Triomphe and in Central Park, and despite the lushness of the park, if we were shown any amount of the Park's surroundings or any amount of the Arc's surroundings, we would have an intrinsic appreciation of the two. New York, being an American city, is laid out in a series of grids and matrices, creating this sort of compartmentalized, disconnected vibe. Civic engineers consider this centrifugal planning, as small communities and boroughs extend outward with no real center. Paris, on the other hand, is organized around a center. It is a centripetal design, intended to draw communities inward to unite in a center, as if ventricles were converging in the heart, the seat of convergence. Kinshasa has a clear alliance to the latter structure, as amidst the rickshaws and palanquins, we are navigating just as much with Mercedes Benzes. The rich visit the city centers and market places, just as interested in the wares (or selling them in the common market) as the poor who may be begging for them. And so even as the movie is a critique on wealth disparity, and a cleverly phrased poke at it, we see an underlying value system that still has a more firm grip on equality than the compartmented, distanced, and desensitized audiences of the west, especially the United States.

Gender plays a similar dual role in La vie est Belle. While at one point we are critiquing and laughing at aspects of the movie, there is a certain uneasy ideology at play that we never really get to question. First, the criticisms, which range from ED and machismo to the lack of coyness in female advances. Visiting a witch doctor, Nvouandou tries to dispel his issues with sexual virility, and yet at home, what may potentially be his problems are directed at his first wife. Like a silly bird trying to attract females, his jacket is worn by him and later taken by Kourou with the same purpose. Though to outside audiences this may appear as a poke at society's fixation on fashion, it apparently is a sophisticated urge to steal from the rich, as the real-life, top “Sapeur” ("fashion-conscious youth" who "take pride in wearing the most expensive clothes and shoes, and parading on the sidewalks of the capital cities"), Papa Wemba, plays a good part in setting the fashion tone of his country. Ukadike, in writing of the film, makes a faux pas in assuming that this fashion sensibility may not be a function of wealth, as it absolutely is, and the film makes this fairly clear, even if it seems to nod toward it in a Robin Hood-type manner. Furthermore, he writes of the “dwarf who hawks” shish kebabs as ironic in its dealing with “societal discrepancies” because the “dwarf” is saying the titular “life is rosy” as he watches lovers frolic. Some form of voyeurism is present in human nature (this is a film essay, for instance), and the irony is truly in Ukadike's considering this scene as an ironic societal discrepancy. Diawara also finds this “dwarf” to be a “lonely and unhappy person” (pg. 143), despite the lack of evidence for this. One is reminded of the sort of base, neo-bigoted dealing with achondroplasia that is present in R. Kelly's, “Trapped in the Closet.” It's interesting that in La Vie, the most ridiculously portrayed female is the one who makes advances on Kourou, and later his cousin, as if to say let the man pursue the woman, let's not portray woman's sexuality as having inherent choice. This has plenty of backing in millions of years of evolution, as females had to find males who would nurture the young and produce parental investment, but certainly our societies have come far enough to realize that female choice has as big (or bigger) a part in coupling as male choice? Perhaps, sadly, not. This is an ideology present in human culture, foisted by biological half-truth, and then buttressed by conservative religious dogmas. It's no wonder that the witch doctor is lampooned as if saying that drawing simple, dogmatic truths from tradition to apply to modern situations is limited at best. Amidst all of this, the partially polygynous evolution of humanity, its application in certain ethnic groups, and an African Muslim history of justification are all taken for granted. Unlike the films of Ousmane Sembene, which tend to be a bit more serious in their treatment of polygamy (along with many other themes on display in this film), La Vie est Belle seems to sort of comically lambast this, while winking and nodding toward its acceptance.

Despite its dated vibe, its lack of complete critical appraisal of questionable practices, and a slightly disjointed narrative, this may well be among the most superficially enjoyable and genuinely humorous African films. A good comedy should possess a good deal of social criticism, and this film certainly does. It is interesting to turn an evolutionary eye to African film as it is the place where humans first evolved and where some of the largest crimes in history have been committed. This film shows that it doesn't take the dry, droll tone of documentary film to cinematically approximate and stimulate our concern for and appraisal of our fellow human beings.

-La Vie est Belle, Lamy/Ngangura, 1987
-Moolaade, Sembene, 2004
-Xala, Sembene, 1997

-Bazin, Andre. “Film As Social Document.” Film Comment, September/October 2008.
-Diawara, Manthia. 1992. African Cinema: Politics & Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
-Kasinitz, Philip, ed. 1994. Metropolis: Center and Symbol of Our Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
-Ukadike, Nwachukwu Frank. 1994. Black African Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press.