Film Review: Tabataba (1988) by Raymond Rajaonarivelo
Film: Tabataba (1988)
Director: Raymond Rajaonarivelo
Country: Madagascar, France
Language (s): Malagasy, French with French Subtitles
Genre: Historical Drama
Tabataba (Rumour) is Malagasy director Raymond Rajaonarivelo’s first feature film, which was selected for the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. After Madagascar won independence in 1960, several Malagasy students were regularly sent to France to study cinematography, Rajaonarivelo among them.
The film follows the fate of a small Malagasy village in Eastern Madagascar as it gets caught up in the revolt for independence from France. French colonial forces brutally repressed this uprising, leaving 30,000 to 90,000 dead depending on your sources, and the subsequent famine led to the deaths of many women, children, and elders as well. Rajaonarivelo was told stories about this time by his father when he was a child and these stories influenced his screenplay for the film. The horrors of the repression of this revolt were not readily acknowledged by France until recently when, in July 2005, then French President Jacques Chirac, during a visit to Madagascar, stated that the nature of the repression was “unacceptable” and “born of the excesses of the colonial system”.
Tabataba in Malagasy has many meanings beyond “rumour”, including “noise”, “trouble” or “political unrest”. It is probably best understood to mean the chaos that results from the spreading of rumours. As we watch the film, we see that the villagers, inexperienced in political resistance and not well-informed about the realities in other parts of their own country, let alone the world, are reliant on “rumours” as they make decisions about what actions to take during the revolt. We first hear the word used in the film when the village chief tells the villagers to stop making “noise” and listen.
The film opens with a stranger arriving in the village. He is a representative of Mouvement Democratique de la Renovation Malgache (MDRM) , a Malagasy political party established in 1946 in response to the island becoming a French Overseas Territory. MDRM wants full independence for Madagascar. The village’s teacher, Raomby, welcomes the stranger. The villagers are informed that they are now “free” and have the right to vote. He encourages them to vote for the MDRM so that Madagascar can gain its independence. However, some of the villagers do not believe that the French colonial officials will let them have their land back so easily and predict that it will only be able to be won back in battle. Raomby and the party representative believe that violence will not be necessary. One of the villagers who believe that war will be necessary is the young Lehidy, whose father we learn also died resisting the French. It is Lehidy’s little brother Solo who is the central character of the film, although he is unable to participate in any of the major action because he is a child, it is through his eyes that much of the narrative plays out. Bakanga is a village elder who throughout the film sits regally in a Louis XVI chair given to her, she says, by a colonial general. She passes advice to passers-by, including Lehidy, who she discourages from getting into conflict with the French. When it is stated that if the French invade the village, the inhabitants can flee into the forest and hide there, she warns that people will end up starving, which foreshadows later events.
When French colonial officials arrive in the village to run elections, we see an amusing case of miscommunication as the French colonial official must rely on his Malagasy assistant to translate for him. But we viewers can see that the words of the Frenchmen and the replies of the villagers are being mistranslated. We can see the theme of miscommunication, which runs throughout the film, beginning to develop. The French official informs the villagers that they are now allowed to have representatives in the French government as a reward for their colony’s service in World War II. When Raomby sees that MDRM is not on the ballot and asks why, he is informed by the French official that the MDRM has been banned and are considered a seditious party. Raomby refuses to vote and storms off. He is then arrested by the colonial authorities. Lehidy and other villagers who see this as a call to arms, attempt to rescue Raomby from prison but in the shoot out that ensues Raomby is shot and killed accidentally. Lehidy and his comrades flee the village. Lehidy reassures his little brother Solo that he will return with weapons from the Americans.
The villagers learn that the uprising is spreading across the country through various dubious sources, including a number of posters that wash on shore. These messages tell them that their side is winning. Solo is told that his brother Lehidy has become a general. However, when Solo spots a neighbouring village being burned by Senegalese Riflemen, he warns the village and everyone flees into the forest, except Bakanga who remains in her chair in the centre of the village until the Senegalese Riflemen and their French commander arrive and find her dead. They do not pursue the villagers into the forest but instead wait for them to return out of hunger. We watch as Solo and his mother struggle to find food and shelter in the forest. Solo becomes so ill from malnourishment that he begins to have hallucinations about fruits. Eventually, he and his mother return to the village to find that rations are being provided by the French colonial forces.
Solo still holds out hope that Lehidy will return with American weapons, but when the remaining resisters from the village are captured that hope dies. Solo and his mother learn that Lehidy has been killed and that their fellow villagers were trying to lead a revolt with wooden guns!Eventually, the French troops leave the village, but only after burning the teacher, Raomby’s, house down.
The film was cast mostly by the residents of the village it is filmed in, Maromena. Despite this, the cast is engaging, particularly the actors who portray Solo and the village wisewoman Bakanga.
One of the rumours that keeps being spread by the villagers is that the Americans will come to their aid. This may puzzle many viewers. American reviewer Thomas E. Billings, who reviewed the film in 1989 after watching the U.S. Premiere at the San Fransisco Film Festival, at which Raymond Rajaonarivelo was in attendance, explains:
At several points in the film, there are references to the fact that the Malagasy people believed that America would intervene on their behalf and send weapons. This was due to two things. First, the Malagasy heard that America had “saved” France in 1945 (liberation of France in World War II) and they thought that America was going to “save” the entire world, including Madagascar. Additionally, an American sea captain had given (in early 1947) a pistol as a gift to a native on the west coast of Madagascar, and this caused many rumors that America was going to help the Malagasy. The information above concerning the belief of the Malagasy people that America would help them is not explained in the film. As this was the U.S. premiere, the film’s director was in attendance, and chaired a discussion afterwards where this information was brought out.
Again, the villagers are relying on rumours that are entirely baseless to make life and death decisions. The death of Raomby is a turning point in the film, and as we see with the symbolic burning of his house, his role in the village as its educator was crucial. As an educated man, he could have helped the villagers discern fact from rumour. He also advocated peaceful resistance over violence.
However, as he was not like the villagers, as he was a man from the city, he perhaps did not fully understand the villagers’ anger against the French for taking their land. The villagers are farmers but what they are cultivating is coffee, a plant which is not native to Madagascar and which they don’t even use. The coffee they are growing is for export. Although not stated in the film, famine had become a regular occurence in Madagascar as less and less farmland was available to grow food and was instead used to grow useless products to satisfy colonial appetites. Of course, tea was similarly cultivated in Kenya by the British.
The French use of les tirailleurs senegalais (Senegalese Riflemen) to crush the revolt particularly disturbed me. The ways in which colonizers use colonized and marginalized peoples against each other never ceases to trouble me, whether it be the Nubians used by the British to suppress the Mau Mau Revolt in Kenya, or the Americans’ use of African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” to suppress resistance in the Philippines. Les tirailleurs senegalais were used extensively during World War 1 and World War 11 to defend France, and after 1945, were used by France to protect its colonial possessions in Indochina and Algeria.
Rajaonarivelo has continued to make political films in Madagascar, most recently the documentary Mahaleo (2005) about the Malagasy music group by the same name whose music was the inspiration for the 1972 uprising against the neo-colonial regime in Madagascar. In 2007, he opened a free online Film School in order to teach aspiring Malagasy filmmakers.
Other Malagasy writers have taken it upon themselves to write about the events of 1947, such as Malagasy Novelist Jean-Luc Raharimanana’s Nour 1947, written in French. Valérie Magdelaine-Andrianjafitrimo discusses this novel as well as others in her essay Madagascar, 29 mars 1947, « Tabataba ou parole des temps troubles »
Tabataba Film Review by Karine Blanchon
Tabataba Film Review by Thomas E. Billings
Trailer in French available online
Interview (2007) with Raymond Rajaonarivelo in French available online
Tabataba, un film malagache by Francoise Raison-Jourde (film review in French available online)
Madagascar, 29 mars 1947, « Tabataba ou parole des temps troubles » by Valérie Magdelaine-Andrianjafitrimo (essay in French available online)
Painful memories of the revolt of 1947: Nationalism or survival? by Philippe Leymarie (Monde diplomatique article in English available online)