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.

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