THIS ARTICLE MIGHT CONTAIN SOME SPOILERS
Short films regularly draw the short stick when it comes to being written about. As someone that’s worked with a short film festival, I love the short format, not only because it gives the filmmakers a chance to work concisely and poetically, but also because it offers the best challenge to the curator. I don’t mean to downplay the work involved with selecting feature films, but in a short program the curator can pull together critical themes and juxtapose works that build dialogues with the other works.
Generally short film programs are only showcased at film festivals and specialty screenings, and this week I’ve been offered a great chance to hang out at the Calgary International Film Festival (thanks CIFF!) It’s odd to be back in Calgary after being away for only a few months, but having all these films to watch and writing to do will certainly keep me too busy to wallow in the weirdness of hanging out with the city I broke up with. Sorry Calgary – it’s not you, it’s me. Make sure you check back often over the next week to see plenty of reviews and writing about the festival, art events and more.
Anyway, the first program I caught was a short film package called Crime Wave (Sunday September 23 @ 4:45; Eau Claire Cineplex). It was programmed by Peter Hemminger, the Short Film Programmer for CIFF (as are the other shorts programs I’ll review later on in the week). This first package pulled together works under the theme of crime and showcased a nice variety of storytelling and cultural perspectives. It featured works by filmmakers from the US, Romania, Kenya, Brazil, Italy and the UK. It was exciting to see such diversity of viewpoints and storytelling.
When I first sat down to write about the program, I was prepared to write about the thematic links in the package. Each of the works questioned the morality of the crimes they enacted, specifically “Finnish Cow” in which a farmer takes illegal action to save a life, “Fishing Without Nets” which looks at the moral choice between piracy and survival in Somalia, and “My Bow Breathing” where revenge might be justified by trauma.
However, on starting to write, I looked deeper into the work “Fishing Without Nets”, which is labeled as a Kenyan film. It was a solid work, which I quite liked in terms of cinematography and the fact that on the surface, it told an African story. I can’t pretend to know much about the details of its’ production, but with some research, I found out that the filmmaker, Cutter Hodierne, is a youth, white American. His previous work before making this film was touring with U2 as their documentarian. Now, as much as I enjoyed the story itself, I also find myself struggling with the idea of authenticity, and questioning my initial reaction to the film.
With my own roots in apartheid-era South Africa, I try to be sensitive to cultural context. I am a white woman, who lives a comfortable life in Canada, and therefore even though I think of myself as African, I certainly don’t feel that I have the context or right to tell stories that don’t belong to my experience. Granted, there are probably examples where it is possible to tell foreign stories in a considerate way, but I still feel like there is no way to understand a situation with nuance unless you have lived it. There is an uncomfortable colonialism in telling stories that belong to other cultures, and even as an expat, I don’t have current context and can only really authentically tell the story of a middle-class white woman whose understanding of South Africa is coloured by childhood memories. “Fishing Without Nets” takes on a poor, black protagonist that faces the moral challenge of choosing between piracy and buying food and medicine for his sick daughter. It’s a fine narrative, that doesn’t necessarily push one viewpoint over the other (although the protagonist is eventually forced to choose piracy), but it certainly doesn’t build a subtle cultural context, and on afterthought, I have no idea what any of the main character’s names were (no one is named in the program blurb). In addition, the film is also set in Somalia and shot in Kenya – further distancing the work from authenticity and recalling the stereotyping of Africa that often makes countries and peoples indistinguishable from one another.
In some ways it’s likely that I also gave the film extra credit for being from Kenya and telling what I thought was an authentic story. It’s an uncomfortable problem, that I think happens quite often in the art experience, especially since Canada puts the multicultural ideology of diversity on a pedestal as part of our cultural values. In addition, as someone that is also from another country, I look forward to seeing works that remind me of my personal history and activate my nationalistic spirit. I often give these works extra leeway in terms of quality just because it makes me happy to see a South African artwork succeed, and it makes it difficult to disengage my personal feelings and look at the work in an unbiased way. It’s always hard to talk about race issues without bias and hesitation, but I guess either way, this film stuck with me and pushed me to think about it further, so perhaps it doesn’t really matter if it’s “authentic”. Maybe in the end, all that matters is that we acknowledge these problems and apply them to our discussions.