Better late than never, right? Hopefully that’s how you guys will approach my final Calgary International Film Festival write-up. This one turns out to be the only non-shorts related package I will review, but it’s a strong work – and has recently been announced as Canada’s nomination for the foreign language category at the 2013 Oscars.
I went into the film with some trepidation. As you can see from my previous articles, I’d been thinking a lot about colonialism and sexism in the films I had been seeing, and this one definitely had the potential to fail at both of those things. To my surprise, this film about a woman kidnapped into the horrors of war, by a Canadian (male) director with seemingly no African roots, worked surprisingly well. In many ways, I found it quite similar to the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, another work that was surprisingly gentle in it’s telling of Other stories (read my take on it here).
I have to state off the bat, that in my analysis of Fishing Without Nets, I brought up the idea of authenticity without properly explaining my issues around it. My problem with works like that, is not that as an outsider you cannot tell a good, and likely somewhat accurate, story, but rather that the act of telling it in a context like this, putting yourself forward as the creator of the characters and their voice, is in itself an act of colonialism. When you put yourself forward as an authority on something you take a position of power, and if you don’t belong to the group you’re representing, then that is problematic. There is a long history of well-intentioned people trying to help out the “poor whomever”, because they are “incapable” of doing so themselves. However this incapability is historically due to the fact that they were denied access to the resources needed (or rather, in this day and age where technology is cheaper and easier to get, that people rarely put in the effort to seek out the artworks that the Other make about themselves – probably because it is more difficult to find, and it’s easier to pick up a big Western name that has done the work, than to find an obscure artist with no distribution and no fame behind them). As a counter-point to this type of programming, in 2010 The International Film Festival Rotterdam did an amazing focus series called “Where is Africa?”, which unfortunately does not have a program online anymore, but has a couple write-ups left here: http://www.filmfestivalrotterdam.com/en/iffr-2010/programme-sections/signals2/signals-where-is-africa/. It featured a series of short film programs by African filmmakers from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and more, as well as a fantastic historical program on Moustaha Alassane, a seminal filmmaker from Niger (his lineup at Rotterdam here) and the Senegalese “Father of Film”, Ousmane Sembène.
With Rebelle and with Beasts of the Southern Wild, I think the key difference in my feelings towards them lies in the magic-realism element in both. There are portions of both films that set the experience of the characters outside of our reality – Hushpuppy from Beasts lives in her own world and sees fantastical creatures that act as a metaphor for her emotional journey and Rebelle deals with Komona’s journey in the same way – with the ghosts that follow and guide her. Within the work, the idea of magic is repeated and the film never dwells on the question of whether it’s reality or not. It’s part of Komona’s reality and that is all that matters. Witchcraft is used as a political tool for power, by having the warlord focus on witches as a key to his sustained victory. In the sequence where Magicien tells stories to the child-soldiers, the film also highlights the links between storytelling and magic, and connects both these means of propaganda to the political warlord’s political aims. The themes of magic help to build a world that lives outside of our own reality. Within the film itself, the soldiers use drugs and magic to reach a place where they are distanced from the trauma of their every-day, and the film implicitly does the same for the audience. Although the storytelling and the ideas of witchcraft as a tool for power are also a part of our reality, they are likely treated as a more abstract concept, and by Western standards, are rarely considered to have a direct impact on the world around us. It is interesting to see this film subtly blend the notions of witchcraft and storytelling together, to make a point about the power we have over the way we see and engage with the world around us.