Film: Le silence de la forêt (2003)
Countries: Central African Republic, Cameroon, Gabon, France
Language (s): Diaka, Sango, and French with English Subtitles
Le silence de la forêt (2003), which goes by the title The Forest in English, is the first film to come out of the Central African Republic. It is co-directed by Central African filmmaker Didier Florent Ouénangaré and Cameroonian filmmaker Bassek Ba Kobhio. The film is an adaptation of the 1984 novel of the same name by Central African writer Étienne Goyémidé. The story begins with the return of Gonaba, played by French-Cameroonian actor Eriq Ebouaney best known for his portrayal of Patrice Lumumba in Raoul Peck’s film Lumumba, who has been away studying in France, to his home in the Central African Republic. He is idealistic and hopes to use his education to improve the lives of his countrymen. The film then fast fowards to ten years later and Gonaba is now a civil servant in the Central African Republic’s corrupt bureaucracy. As Michael Dembrow describes him:
Gonaba is now the regional Education Inspector for one of the Central African regions, and his voice-over commentary lets us know just how disappointed and frustrated he is with his inability to fulfill his dreams. The country is poorly run by a corrupt military, police, and education infrastructure. No one cares for the greater good, but only for ways to get ahead, which means somehow lording it over others. The ideals of Barthélemy Boganda (who led the fight for independence) and the trappings of traditional folklore are manipulated and corrupted towards this end.
So Gonaba has failed to “liberate” his countrymen with his education but he soon finds another group of people to “liberate”: The Baaka (Babinga) People, better known as Pygmies. While attending a party at the home of the regional governor (Prefect) Gonaba witnesses the ill-treatment of the Baaka people. As Dembrow writes:
For big shots like the Prefect, they are sub-human, natural resources to be exploited (as “tourist attractions” or as indentured servants) just like any of the country’s abundant natural resources. He sees them dancing (and treated like animals) at the Prefect’s party, then meets one while on a school tour (the man is serving as a virtual slave to the local chief). He decides that he has discovered his true vocation—eschewing the corrupt world of village and city, he will penetrate the forest and teach the Baaka how to read and write (in French), thereby giving them the tools to advocate for themselves and protect themselves from exploitation. It is a noble vision, but it can only lead to failure.
Gonaba goes to live with the Baaka people in what obviously seems to be an attempt to redeem himself. However, his perception of them as “noble savages” who simply need to be enlightened by reason in order to be freed of the superstitions that plague their romantically simple lifestyle soon backfires on Gonaba and ends in tragedy. I really appreciated how the film portrayed the forms of oppression that exist between African peoples, whether it be overt racism and exploitation, as we see with The Prefect, or the more subtle but equally detrimental paternalism of Gonaba. According to the review of the film written for California Newsreel: “The fact that this film is the first to focus on the exploitation and racism between more modern Africans and an autochthonous people, so ironically reminiscent of the attitudes of European colonists towards Africans, makes it even more unusual and fascinating.”
The Baaka, like many of the world’s indigenous peoples, are seeing their way of life destroyed by the increasing deforestation of the regions they call home. The film was actually filmed in a Baaka village and many of the actors were villagers with no theatrical training. In an interview Didier Florent Ouénangaré discusses working with the Baaka:
The initial idea was to draw attention to the Pygmies, an ethnic minority ignored by the politicians, the administration, and the world in general. When you go into the heart of the forest, you realise that deforestation is making it impossible for them to live from hunting, gathering, and nature as they used to. They are at risk of being wiped out like the Native Americans, only they wont even be confined to reserves! Gonaba’s role serves to hold a mirror up to show the Central Africans what they are doing.
It’s not only racist; it’s a human catastrophe too. I have had several opportunities to make documentaries about the Pygmies. Catholic nuns are trying to integrate them into the civil population by sending the youngest members of the Pygmy population to schools, but it doesn’t work because they go about it the wrong way. You can’t take someone who has lived a life firmly rooted in the forest and ask him to live like a Westerner. It isn’t for us to impose what we want. It’s true that Westerners came and imposed the way in which we live today on us, which isn’t only negative, but it’s better to ask people what they want.
I am the first to be fascinated by the Pygmies. Two had already gone on tour in folkloric dance troupes abroad, but the rest had never left their village! I told them that we were going to film a tale and that they needed to think that they were in the tale itself. But when I wanted to marry two actors in the film, they refused for fear of the husband’s reaction… But with some cigarettes, a drink, and a good long discussion, they agreed.
We looked for a site that wasn’t too far from a town, but at the same time was sufficiently far away. We built a village to house the Pygmies, and another for the studio. Everything that you see in the film is a village-studio, built according to the screenplay. They lived in an adjoining village built specially for them.
Trivia: In the 2003, the film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the non-competitive Directors’ Fortnight. It was the only African film included in that year’s line up. It won the Jury’s Prize at the Namur Festival in Belgium. Eriq Ebouaney actually had to learn the Central African language Sango , which is the primary language of the country, in order to play the role of Gonaba. The film was scored by Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango.
About the film Le silence de la forêt
Review by California News Reel available online
Review by Michael Dembrow available online
Review in French available online
Review in French by Valerie Ganne available online
Interview with Didier Ouénangaré in English available online
Interview with Bassek ba Kobhio in French available online
About Étienne Goyémidé
Profile in French available online
La dynamique des rapports interculturels chez Étienne Goyémidé by Francoise Ugochukwu (academic essay in French available online)
Goyemide on Slavery: The Liberating Power of The Word by Francoise Ugochukwu (academic essay available online)
About the Pygmies
Pygmies.org is a website dedicated to the hunter-gatherer peoples living in the Central African rainforests, commonly called Pygmies.
Are the men of the African Aka tribe the best fathers in the world? By Joanna Moorehead (article in The Guardian UK available online)
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)
Film: I Sing of a Well (2009)
Director: Leila Djansi
Genre: Historical Drama
The film opens with the following words, written by Ghanaian actor J.O.T Agyeman, who also stars in the film, and narrated by Jimmy Jean-Louis, the Haitian model turned actor, who is best known for his role as The Haitian in NBC’s Heroes.
In a time long ago, before Christopher Columbus, before the first ships made their way across the shores of Africa; before Asanteman and the Ashantehene, in the time of the Mali Empire and Mansa Musa, his influence and affluence. In the days when the dust of the ground rises with the crackling sound of the hoofs of horses and camels. When men flee the comfort of their homes for the deep of the forests. Torn from their holds and sent off into the sunset never to return. Running from the four corners of the earth, pursued by their own brothers. Their limbs severed from flesh to flesh in their bid to flee the hand of those who by-pass the will of the gods and make themselves gods. Through the darkness, their shadows encompass village after village creating widows and orphans. Emptying kingdoms of men and relieving kings of their stools and skins. In these times, the dry earth lived in fear. Everything, anyone, anything is an enemy. But in the kingdom of Kotengbi, a dwelling in the Ghana Empire, there are those whose spirit preserve in contentment and in soreness the instructions of reason about what he ought and ought not to fear. They are men of faith, men who still believe that will rule not in the space provided by the toil and suffering of their courage. Their fortitute exists not only in their resistance.
“I Sing of a Well” is the first installment of the trilogy Legion of Slaves. Written, directed and co-produced by Leila Djansi, the film aims to give the African perspective on the West African slave trade. This first film is set in the Kingdom of Kotengbi, in the Ghana Empire, in the time of the rise of Mansa Musa in the Mali Empire. The Kingdom has begun to be troubled by slave raiders and the elderly king is at a loss about what to do and so decides to allow his son, Prince Wenambe (J.O.T Agyeman) to become king in the hopes that he will be able to find a solution. Prince Wenambe decides to build a stone wall around the Kingdom and pledge allegiance to Mansa Musa in the hopes that he will protect the Kingdom from slave raiders.
Within the Kingdom of Kotengbi, Soraya (Akofa E. Asiedu) and Dume (Godwin Kotey) are in love but Dume is a poor hunter and cannot afford the Bride Price that Soraya’s uncle Yohannes demands. From the start of the film, we meet the seer, Alaka, who has predicted that Dume will be the father of kings and Soraya will bear princes.
After saving her from being wiped for raising a false alarm about slave raiders, Prince Wenambe falls in love with Soraya and desires to marry her. Prince Wenambe is jealous of Dume and has him killed. Soraya, already pregnant with Dume’s son, is forced to marry Prince Wenambe. Prince Wenambe is driven to depression by Soraya’s indifference to him and the fact that his plan to protect his village has backfired now that Mansa Musa is enslaving his people.
I really enjoyed watching a historical drama written by Africans for Africans. It offers insights into the dynamics of the slave trade and resistance to the slave trade in West Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. We often do not discuss this aspect of our history and so I commend Djansi for taking the risk of exploring this subject matter.
The film, shot on a mini 35mm camera, was technically at a higher standard than is usually seen in Ghanaian films, bringing it closer to the level of cinematography seen in Francophone West African Art House films. The acting was excellent, although I felt that well-known Ghanaian actress Akofa Asiedu, who also co-produced the film, was miscast as the character of Soraya really should have been younger to make it believable that the Crown Prince would desire her from among all the possible women who he could marry.
There were also some serious historical anachronisms that troubled me. The opening narration clearly sets the story in the time before Christopher Columbus, during the reign of Mansa Musa, however, in one scene, Soraya’s mother is making cassava to eat, and even talks about cassava with Dume. But cassava is indigenous to Brazil and was only introduced to Africa by Portuguese traders, obviously after 1492. I also wonder if Djansi has made the common mistake of thinking that the Ghana Empire had anything to do with the present-day country Ghana-it doesn’t. The Ghana Empire was located in what is present-day South-Eastern Mauritania and Western Mali. The Ghana Empire had also fallen before the rise of the Mali Empire which actually contained the remains of the Ghana Empire.
I Sing of a Well Website
I Sing of a Well Trailer available online
BBC The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms: Ancient Ghana (article available online)
BBC The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms: Mali (article available online)
Film: The Harder They Come (1972)
Director: Perry Henzell
Starring: Jimmy Cliff
The Harder They Come, directed by White Jamaican Perry Henzell, is the first film made by Jamaicans for Jamaicans. Up until this film was made, Jamaica had been a popular film location because of its beautiful beaches and lush tropical forests, however, much like the country’s tourism industry, the films did not depict the harsh realities of Jamaican life. The Harder They Come is a grim portrait of a brazen criminal you just wants to be famous.
Ivanhoe Martin, played by Black Jamaican reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, arrives in Kingston from the countryside after his grandmother’s death. He has brought along several possessions, including a mango for his mother but all are stolen and he arrives at his mother’s shack with nothing but the little money remaining from the sale of his grandmother’s house. His mother, who is devastated by the news that her mother has died and she wasn’t able to attend the funeral, tells Ivan that he must return to the countryside because if he stays in the city he’ll just become a criminal. He also informs him that he can’t stay with her. He leaves her shack but as he is walking out the door she asks if he has brought a mango and he tells her that the mangos didn’t grow well in the countryside that season.
Ivan tries to find work but he has no skills and there is no shortage of labour in the city. But he persists. He gets work from “The Preacher”, who his mother has refered him to. He also develops an interest in Elsa, who he sees singing in the church choir. She is the ward of the Preacher. Ivan joins the choir just to get close to Elsa. At one point in the film, we see images of choir-singing at a revival juxtaposed to images of Elsa and Ivan naked on the beach. Elsa is seduced by Ivan and eventually leaves her home with the preacher to live with him. But she soon realizes that Ivan isn’t at all serious and seems to expect her to find work to support them while he goes and tries to become famous by making a record. Ivan pursues record producer Hilton, who agrees to record Ivan’s song “The Harder They Come”.
There is a Chinese Jamaican character in the film who works closely with Hilton producing records. This character reminded me that one of the leading record producers in Jamaica in the 1960s was Leslie Kong, who was the first Jamaican producer to get international hits. He started his career as a record producer after meeting Jimmy Cliff, who was singing a song outside of Kong’s family’s record shop/restaurant/ice cream parlour in the hopes that Kong would record him. This inspired Kong to launch his own record label, Beverly’s. He recorded Cliff’s song “Dearest Beverly”, thus also launching Cliff’s musical career. Kong recorded with the likes of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Desmond Dekker. He died young of a heart attack in 1971, allegedly due to a “curse” cast on him by Bunny Livingston of The Wailers because of a dispute over the release of the album, The Best of the Wailers. Kong died about a week after the album was released.
Hilton tells Ivan that he will distribute the recording and get it played by DJs but Ivan must sign over his rights and he will only receive $20 for the recording. Ivan refuses as he believes that he deserves much more money. Ivan tries to get his song played by DJs at clubs and at the radio stations but all refuse as they have agreements with Hilton only to play recordings he gives them. Disheartened, Ivan agrees to sign away his rights and only receive $20 just so that he can get his record played but Hilton takes revenge but telling DJs not to play it too much because he thinks Ivan is a trouble maker.
Ivan gets into the ganga (marijuana) trade with the help of his friend Pedro as there isn’t other work for him to do. But Ivan soon realizes that people like him and Pedro are just low-level dealers and are not making the real money. But at one point, to avoid getting caught by the police, Ivan kills a police officer. During this scene, we see a flashback to an earlier scene in the film when Ivan gets whipped for having slashed the face of a man who stole his bike. We realize that Ivan is afraid of receiving more corporal punishment so he kills the police officer. Ivan goes into hiding but he is ratted on by his friend Jose Smith. Ivan is able to escape from the police who are after him, killing most of them. Ivan then goes on a spree through the city, robbing people, stealing cars, and at one point demanding that a photographer take pictures of him at gun point. He wants to send one of the pictures to the local newspaper to be published. He seems proud that he has achieved fame because of his ability to avoid getting caught by the police. Hilton starts getting Ivan’s record played now that he’s a famous criminal and it becomes a hit.
The police decide to force the local people living in the slum who are surviving off the ganga trade to give Ivan up. They stop the ganga trade so no one is able to make any money. People in the slum begin to suffer, including Pedro’s son, Rupert, who Elsa has grown close to. Elsa decides to turn Ivan in so that the trade can start-up again.
Ivan is supposed to escape to Cuba by boat but he is unable to swim out to the boat in time and is left on the beach. He decides to go down in a blaze of glory in a shoot-out with the police.
The Impact of The Harder They Come
The Harder They Come inspired a novel of the same name by Michael Thelwell. The novel follows Ivan but develops the plot further; including giving the reader a portrait of what Ivan’s life was like back in the countryside before he came to the city.
The film brought reggae music to an international audience and although the film was not well-distributed, its soundtrack was, paving the way for the success of Jamaican musicians like Bob Marley. The film is referenced in the legendary British Punk band The Clash’s song The Guns of Brixton, a song with has obvious reggae influences. From the song:
You see, he feels like Ivan
Born under the Brixton sun
His game is called survivin’
At the end of the harder they come
I didn’t really like the character of Ivan at all. He frankly has no admirable qualities, other than blind determination. But this didn’t stop me from enjoying the film. The “realness” of the film is what captured my attention, as well as all the small moments that make up a portrait of slum life in Jamaica. From Ivan’s mother asking, so sadly, if he brought a mango for her from the countryside, to an elderly drunk laughing at Ivan when he sees him running the streets with a gun and only his underwear on, you can tell that this is a film meant to resonate with people in Jamaica. Its gaze isn’t from outsiders looking in but for insiders finally having a chance to see themselves on-screen. One of the most brilliant moments of the film is at the end, during Ivan’s final shoot-out with the police on the beach, we shift from seeing the shoot-out to seeing an audience of Jamaican movie-watchers laughing with excitement at the image of Ivan on-screen confronting the police. We had seen a similar audience, equally as excited, watching a shoot-out in a spagetti(Italian-made films copying the style of American Westerns) starring Franco Nero earlier in the film. It is as if Henzell is trying to say “We have our one anti-heroes, our own outlaws to watch, admire, and be entertained by. We don’t need to consume the stories of others. We have our own stories.” That said, is this really an image these people should be looking up to? As Julianne Burton observes:
The action of the final scene reverts to the massacred sob and the cheering crowds at the Rialto. Jose’s contemptuous dictum that the hero can’t die until the last reel rings in Ivan’s ears an he faces his own posse. Amidst the indistinguishable shouts of the audience, one cry—“Ivan”—stands out because it was absent from the original scene. Whether it is an indication of Ivan’s mythification of his own death in order to face it, or a cry from the masses of his downtrodden countrymen/women who (either, at that moment or long after his death) hail him an a hero, is not a crucial distinction. In both cases his is revealed to be a hollow heroism.
The Harder They Come by Michael Dare (article available online)
The Harder They Come: Cultural colonialism and the American dream by Julianne Burton (essay available online)
Interview (2001) with Peter Henzell available online
The Harder They Come Musical Website
While scouring the cheap DVD bin at my local Giant Tiger, I struck gold. I found one of my all-time favourite films, Flirting (1991). It was only $2! Flirting is definitely one of my “Top 5 Desert Island Films”. I’ve loved it since the first time it played on Canadian Cable when I was about twelve or thirteen.
So, why did an Australian Film set in 1965 at a Boarding School speak to me so deeply as a tween?
Starring: Noah Taylor, Thandie Newton, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts
Written and Directed by John Duigan
Flirting is the sequel to Australian writer and director John Duigan’s 1987 film The Year My Voice Broke (a film I also adore). It is narrated by the central character of both films Danny Embling (Noah Taylor). Danny has been sent away to boarding school in New South Wales by his parents in the hopes he won’t become a delinquent after the events that occurred in The Year My Voice Broke. At boarding school, 17 year old Danny is the butt of jokes because of his stutter and long nose (for which he is nicknamed “Bird”). He describes life in Boarding School as follows:
One thing about boarding school, 24 hours a day you’re surrounded. Either you abandoned yourself and became a herd animal or you dug a cave deep into your head and skulked inside, peering through your eye sockets.
His only friend is Gilbert, who likes to smoke a pipe and is hardly any more popular than Danny himself. Danny looks down on his fellow classmates as imbeciles and oafs and prefers to read Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. But, as he is a teenage boy, he does long for female companionship and takes as much pleasure as the other boys at any opportunity given to see the girls from Cirencester Ladies’ College, the girls’ boarding school on the opposite side of the lake.
At a rugby match, Danny’s clever remark that he is only interested in rugby from an anthropological viewpoint because it’s a mating ritual catches the attention of Thandiwe Adjewa, played by the amazing Black British actress Thandie Newton, who has just arrived from school in England. Her father, a Ugandan, is lecturing at university in Canberra. Thandiwe has befriended Melissa and Janet (played by Naomi Watts) but she also sees herself as “above” her fellow students and has to put up with their racism which includes taunts about bananas and Ugandans being only able to compete in the Zoo Olympics. At a debate between the two schools in which Danny, despite his stutter, is able to deliver an eloquent speech on how rugby exemplifies the epitome of human endeavour and Thandiwe throws the debate by quoting the song Tutti Fruitti Au Rutti, the two finally get a chance to speak and Thandiwe invites Danny to the Boarders’ Dance.
Danny ends up not being able to attend the dance because his headmaster thinks his hair is too long. Thandiwe breaks the rules by going to look for him and the two sneak away to his dormitory. Thandiwe explains that although her father is Ugandan, her mother, who is deceased, was Kenyan and had an English mother. After finding a copy of an English translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Intimacy and Other Stories on his bed, Thandiwe tells Danny that she met Sartre in Paris.
Danny: What did you say to Sartre?
Thandiwe: I suggested marriage was a doomed institution.
Danny: What did he say?
Thandiwe: He agreed most people marry to please their parents or society.
Danny: Not keen on marriage yourself?
Thandiwe: I see so many terrible ones. People just stop communicating. My father and stepmother are brilliant communicators. They hardly ever talk to each other these days, except in public. Anyway, I doubt I’ll ever find anyone complex enough to keep me interested. I lose interest in people. I imagine they’re far more fascinating than they are. So I’m always disappointed.
Danny: Hard Life.
It’s clear that Thandiwe and Danny are well matched as they both think that are too smart for their surroundings. Thandiwe kisses Danny and demands that he write her. Thandiwe is punished by the headmistress for leaving the dance without permission and is given chores by the prefect, Nicola Radcliffe, played by Nicole Kidman. Soon after, Thandiwe’s letter to Danny is taken by Burke, one of Danny’s constant tormentors and the school’s boxing champion, and is read allowed to his classmates. In the letter, Thandiwe writes: “I’m told your nickname is Bird. Well I like long noses it means your well-endowed-with brains of course”. Word of the letter spreads and Thandiwe ends up getting teased about it. She doesn’t believe Danny when he calls her, pretending to be her father and putting on an “African” accent, and tells her that the letter was stolen. She refuses to partner with him when the two schools work together to put on a school musical. Danny is determined to win Thandiwe back and fains illness in order to take a boat across the lake and find Thandiwe at her school. While at dance class, Nicola Radcliffe explains to Thandiwe that the letter really was stolen. Thandiwe regrets not trusting Danny. By this time, Danny has gotten into the school by climbing into the dormintory window of some of the College’s younger students. They help him find Thandiwe and the two are reunited.
In a fascinating scene which is accompanied by a montage of “African” images from the 40s, 50s and 60s in print and on film, Danny reflects about his knowledge of where Thandiwe comes from:
When I started thinking about Africa I realized that the only images I knew were from old annuals, Tarzan comics and Hollywood movies. Cannibals with bones through their noses, lions tearing the throats out of antelopes, and a lot of wondrous, moving words like Limpopo, Zambezi, Mombasa, Tanganyika.
As Danny and Thandiwe’s relationship grows, he gets to learn about Africa from Thandiwe’s perspective, although he doesn’t really take it all in. He reflects:
Thandiwe started telling me about Africa as she knew it. How her mother was killed during the Mau Mau period in Kenya. How her father wrote books about African nationalism and the problems created as the colonial government scrambled to get out. There had been terrible times for the last few years: The Belgian Congo, Zanzibar, Angola, Kenya, places I’d barely heard of. Often, I never really heard what she said. I’d be staring at her legs. They were very comforting ‘cause sometimes there would be little bruises or marks around her ankles from the elastics in her socks. That’s how come I knew she was real.
While getting ready to perform the musical, the boys discover that they can see the girls getting changed and Burke decides to take a picture. Danny attacks Burke and their fight is broken up by their prefect who proposes that they instead box each other later in the week. Danny and Burke end up boxing and of course Danny is beaten severely. At one point, after sustaining hard blows to the head by Burke, Danny hallucinates that he can see Jean-Paul Sartre in the crowd of students watching the fight. Gilbert and Thandiwe take Danny to the school’s infirmary.
After the performance of the musical, Danny introduces his parents to Thandiwe and her parents. Danny’s mother is obviously shocked and unsettled to be meeting Africans but his father is quite charmed by Milton Adjewa, Thandiwe’s father. Danny and Thandiwe meet later that night and make out in an amusing and awkward scene. Things seem to be going so well for the young couple but the political crisis building in Uganda leads Thandiwe’s parents to return to the country. Thandiwe fears that her father, who has written about government corruption in the country might be a target as he has many enemies. She is right and soon after her father’s return, he is arrested. Thandiwe feels he must return to the country in order to look after her younger brother and sister as her stepmother might also be arrested. Lying about her true departure date, Thandiwe leaves the school a day early in order to spend the night in a motel with Danny. The two get a chance to make love but soon after they are caught by school officials.
Because of his indiscretion, Danny is expelled from St. Albans and returns home to work in his father’s pub. Thandiwe regularly writes him letters from Uganda. In the letters, Danny learns about the deteriorating situation in Uganda, an army general named Idi Amin, and of Thandiwe’s father’s execution. Then the letters stop.
People have speculated that John Duigan’s Danny Embling films are autobiographical. This is not the case, as Duigan explained in a 1996 interview:
To some extent. I used that character to describe my evolving sensibilities on various things, but it’s not strictly speaking autobiographical, except in the most rudimentary way. His background is completely different from mine. The boarding school experience is very similar. I tend to give the characters certain experiences I had but I give them a lot I didn’t and a lot I would have liked to have had. Like meeting Thandie Newton at the sister school. It’s a liberating form of oblique autobiography because you can do anything.
I really love the main theme The Lark Ascending, a composition by English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams for violin and orchestra which Duigan uses in both Flirting and The Year My Voice Broke. According to John Duigan, he chose this theme because he thought it reflected Danny’s adolescent yearning.
I watched Flirting during a very dark and troubling time in my life. I had dropped out of junior high and was spending my days watching TV, listening to Ottawa’s Classic Rock Station Chez 106 (This is how I became a fan of Led Zeppelin) and wondering why I was such a freak. I would eventually return to high school but have to withdraw and receive visiting teachers because my social anxiety and depression made attending regular school unbearable. Ever since I can remember, I had felt like an outsider, a misfit and I couldn’t relate to children my age. At the beginning of the film, when Danny talks about digging a cave in his head and skulking inside, I felt that he was describing what I had been doing my whole life. I longed to find someone who would understand and appreciate me. I wanted to fall in love and do pretty much what other teenagers wanted to do when they were in love. But my prospects seemed so slim. The film Flirting gave me hope that I could find love with someone as awkward and intellectually precocious as myself.
Thandie Newton, who was only 16 when she starred in Flirting, began a romantic relationship with John Duigan, who was 39 at the time. She has described the relationship, which lasted for six years, as “traumatic”. In a 2006 interview she stated: “Sexual abuse is shaming. I was in a relationship with a much older person and in retrospect, although it was legal because I was 16, I was coerced.” In a 2009 interview she stated: “I was 16. I didn’t tell my parents about it (the relationship) but really young people who are vulnerable have to be looked out for. I’ve just been out to South Africa to Oprah’s Leadership Academy. I looked at the 16-year-old girls there. How can it possibly be right to start a serious relationship with someone that age when you are so much older? I’ve been through a lot of therapy so I sort of know why people do things now.” Despite this rather disturbing revelation, I still love Flirting, even if some parts of it now seem a bit pervy in light of Newton’s relationship with Duigan.
If my older wiser self could speak to my younger lonelier miserable self, I would tell her that “it gets better” and that friendship is really what you should be looking for. For lonely loners who are too smart for their own good, friendship can be far harder to find and maintain than romance. I was able to get into a romantic relationship at 17 with a 25 year old before I had any real friends. This was disastrous and pretty traumatic. But soon after, I made two of my dearest friends, who I’m proud to say are still in my life after all these years. So, for all you lovely lonely losers out there like I was, watch Flirting, it’s a film made for us, but make good friends before you go out trying to find love.
Interesting Trivia: Flirting won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Film. The film ranked #46 on Entertainment Weekly’s The Best 50 High School Movies and The Guardian included Flirting in its list of the Five Best Boarding School Movies. John Duigan would go on to direct Thandie Newton in The Journey of August King (1995) and The Leading Man (1996) starring Jon Bon Jovi.
American Trailer for Flirting available online
Interview (1996) with John Duigan available online
Interview (2006) with Thandie Newton available online
Interview (2009) with Thandie Newton available online
Entertainment Weekly’s The Best 50 High School Movies gallery available online
Top of the Class: The Five Best Boarding School Movies 2009 article in The Guardian available online
A List of other great Australian Coming of Age Films courtesy of Queensland Gallery of Modern Art available online
Film: The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)
Director: Ralph Nelson
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, and Rutger Hauer
I often go searching for DVDs at my local Giant Tiger. This is not just because DVDs are so cheap there. It is actually because I have found some of the strangest, rarest, and most fascinating films there. My entire collection of Sidney Poitier Films have been purchased from Giant Tiger.
The Wilby Conspiracy is probably one of the most unexpected roles I have seen Sidney Poiter play and one of the real gems I have discovered at Giant Tiger. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, it’s something of a comedy in the British 60s style which is both farcical and cheeky in its use of sexual titilation. When I say that it is an unexpected role for Sidney Poitier, I guess what I mean to say is that for about the first hour or so of the film I was thinking-“Why is Sidney Poitier, such a distinguished actor, in this piece of fluff?” The Wilby Conspiracy is sort of a sexy South African version of “The Defiant Ones” set in South Africa. But, The Wilby Conspiracy is actually one of the first Hollywood films to speak firmly against Apartheid in South Africa and watching the film must have been something of an education for American and British viewers as it truly brings home the injustices of the apartheid regime. It is also directed by Ralph Nelson, who had previously directed Poitier inLilies of the Field (1963), a role for which Poitier won an Academy Award for Best Actor, becoming the first Black person to do so. So, by the end of the film, I understood by Sidney Poitier took the role.
In The Wilby Conspiracy, Poitier plays Shack Twala, a Black South African dissident who has been in jail on Robben Island for ten years. We first meet him in a courtroom in Cape Town where his young and attractive White South African lawyer is trying to appeal for his release based on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Miraculously, the court agrees. This is the begining of The Wilby Conspiracy.
Twala’s lawyer, Rina van Niekirk, is so excited by her victory that she invites Twala to come with her and her English boyfriend Keogh, played by a young and dashing Michael Caine, to go back to her office to drink champagne. Twala agrees, although it is apparent that for a Black South African dissident who has just been released after ten years in prison he can’t be as carefree as his young White lawyer. On their way to Rina’s office their car is stopped at a barricade and Twala is ordered out by the police because he doesn’t have a pass card.
In 1952, the Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act was enacted. This misleadingly-named law required all Africans to carry identification booklets with their names, addresses, fingerprints, and other information. Africans were frequently stopped and harassed for their passes. From 1948-1973, over ten million Africans were arrested because their passes were “not in order”. Burning pass books became a common form of protest to the apartheid regime by Black South Africans.
Although Rina tries to explain to the police that Shack doesn’t have a pass because he has just been release from prison, the police arrest Shack and put him in handcuffs. Rina insists that they do not and ends up being punched by one of the officers. Keogh comes to her defence and he and Shack end up seriously beating up the police officers. Rina knows that both Keogh and Shack are facing arrest for assaulting police officers. Their only option is to get out of Cape Town. Shack proposes that he and Keogh make their way to Johannesburg where Shack has a friend who can get them across the border to Botswana. Keogh reluctantly goes along with Shack.
Shack and Keogh’s misadventures on the way to Johannesburg are reminiscent of the film The Defient Ones which stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as two escaped prisoners who must work together in spite of their mutual prejudice to survive. But Caine and Poitier never achieve the level of cameraderie that Curtis and Poitier did, making this part of the film not as enjoyable as it could have been. Along the way, it becomes clear that Shack and Keogh are being followed by a South African Secret Police Officer named Horn. But why are they being followed? Why don’t the police just arrest them when they have the chance?
Shack and Keogh reach Johannesburg and must find Mukkerjee in the Indian district. Mukkerjee is a dentist and member of the same Black Congress that Shack is involved with. Shack gave Mukkerjee diamonds to hide. These diamonds are meant for Wilby Xaba, who is a leader of the Black Congress living in exile in Botswana and trying to collect money for weapons to lead an armed resistance to apartheid. But Mukkerjee no longer has the diamonds as he put them in a sink hole so they would not be found by the police. Mukkerjee’s assistant, Persis Ray, knows about Mukkerjee’s work with the Black Congress but doesn’t approve. She ends up killing Mukkerjee in order to get the diamonds for herself but in the end is killed by Keogh and Shack. Keogh and Shack retrieve the diamonds and get a plane ride out of South Africa on Rita’s estranged husband’s private jet. They are followed by Horn. We soon realize that the only reason that Shack was released from prison was in order to lead the South African Secret Police to Wilby Xaba’s location in Botswana so that they could arrest him. That’s The Wilby Conspiracy.
Wilby Xaba is played by Joe de Graft. It would be interesting to know how many people who saw the film in 1975 recognized him. Joe de Graft is a prominent Ghanaian playwright. He was a student and later a teacher at Ghana’s renowned Mfantsipim School. At the time of the film, he was living in Kenya and working at the University of Nairobi on a UNESCO appointment. He contributed greatly to Kenya’s theatre scene. He passed away a few years after the making of this film in 1978.
The Wilby Conspiracy is based on a novel by British Writer Peter Driscoll, known for writing thrillers set in foreign locales. According to Professor Mary-Kay Gamal Orlandi, the film version of Shack Twala’s character is more heroic than his literary counterpart. She writes:
Just how pointed Shack’s portrayal is in the film can be seen by comparing it to the novel. There Shack escapes from Robben Island through a secret police deal; he is forty years old, decrepit and scared. He and Keogh are thrown together by chance when Keogh takes pity on him; it is Keogh who arranges the flight, retrieves the diamonds, everything; Shack is killed by Horn during the retrieval of the diamonds. Rewriting this role and casting Sidney Poitier in it shows the filmmakers’ determination to present a strong, intelligent, politically educated African working for the liberation of his country.
The very fact that the film’s screenwriters had to rewrite the story in order to create a more noble Black character shows their own committment to both the anti-apartheid struggle as well as creating strong and positive roles for Black actors. Keogh is not allowed to be the White Knight Saviour in the film and it is only by the end of the film, after everything that he and Shack have experienced, that he takes a determined political stand. I appreciated this as it was more realistic. Shack Twala has no choice but to resist and fight on against all odds. Keogh is just trying to get back to his normal cushy life. The screenwriters also developped more interesting female characters than those in the original novel. As Orlani states:
The women’s roles, too, are strong ones. In the novel Rina is simply Keogh’s mistress; in the film (played by Prunella Gee) she is an idealistic lawyer, a bit naive in her assumption that the United Nations Code on Human Rights will be accepted by a South African court. (It is, but apparently this is part of the plot to get Wilby.) Her strength is physical as well as intellectual and moral: she stands up to and pays the price of a humiliating body-search. When she and the men are running through the veldt to catch the plane, she does not collapse and get carried, like so many heroines. The other woman in the film, Mukkerjee’s dental assistant Persis, tries to convince the others to divide the diamonds. She cares nothing for the struggle; she has bourgeois ambitions to get to London, “where a girl like me has a decent chance.” When the diamonds have been retrieved, she asks Mukkerjee, “You are determined to give the diamonds to those black terrorists?” Mukkerjee replies, “Those black terrorists are the only hope for South Africa. If the emerging nations of the Third World are to obliterate terrorism and racism…” “I don’t give a damn about the emerging nations!” breaks in Persis and shoots Mukkerjee in an attempt to steal the diamonds. Her character is overdrawn and melodramatic, but she is certainly more than an ornament or sex object.
Both of the female characters in the film are used for sex appeal, however their roles are quite complex and interesting. Rina is the only White South African character who we are supposed to like in the film. She is trying to fight for justice in her homeland which puts her own freedom and safety in peril. The predicament of the White South African with a conscience during apartheid was a tough one. During the 1970s more and more White South Africans became involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Those who became activists risked imprisonment and many had to go into exile. The apartheid system was built to keep each racial community away from each other. Although Whites were meant to be the benefactors of this, they were also not supposed to cross the boundaries. Rina is a rebel not only in her resistance to the apartheid regime but also in her romantic relationships. She is seeing Keogh but she is in the process of getting divorced from her abusive rich playboy husband Blane, played by a young and strapping Rutger Hauer. Rina has to use Blane’s plane in order to get Keogh and Shack out of South Africa to Wilby in Botswana. This means Blane has to pilot it. She has to use sexual favours in order to get his help; however she also blackmails him by saying that she will tell his father, who is an ardent racist, that Blane has been having sex with Black women in Mozambique. Sex and marriage between Blacks and Whites was outlawed officially in 1950 under the apartheid regime. This law also classified South Africans into three racial categories: Whites, Coloreds (mixed race peoples and Asians) and natives (Black Africans).
Interracial sex takes place between an Indian and a Black South African in the film. Shack Twala has been in prison for 10 years and it becomes apparent that he is desperate to have sex. In a strange scence, Shack forces Persis into his hiding place. It is clear he wants to have sex with her but he doesn’t communicate this to her with words. The two exchange looks until it becomes clear that Persis is game and then the two have sex. I think this could be the first time a Black man and a South Asian woman have engaged in sex on film…making Mira Nair’s steamy Mississipi Masala, starring Denzel Washington, the second time. Sex between Indians and Blacks was also forbidden under apartheid law, and generally the two communities did not socially mix apart from business transactions. Even in terms of resistance to apartheid, South Asians and Black South African relations were strained. Persis’ character, played by the gorgeous 1965 Miss India Universe Persis Khambatta who is best known for her role as Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, is the most enigmatic in the film. She seems to have nothing but contempt for Blacks and yet she has sex with one. She expresses that she feels trapped in the Indian district of Johannesburg. With Persis’ character, one can see that although the South Asian communities of South Africa were definitely at an advantage in comparison to Black South Africans, they were also ghettoized and trapped. Persis sees her way out by betraying Mukkerjee and stealing the diamonds as opposed to working in solidarity with Black South Africans like Shack. Like Rina, she is rebelling against the conformity of the society she lives in, but only for her own benefit. The dilemma of which side to support plagued both South Asian and Coloured politics throughout the apartheid regime, and was particularly frustration for Indian South African activists like Fatima Meer, who wrote the first authorised biography of Nelson Mandela.
The supreme villain of the film, Horn, is also not a conventional bad guy. He is intelligent and seems to have real conviction about what he is doing. He is comparable to the character Nic Vos that Tim Robbins plays in the filmCatch a Fire. Nic Vos is meant to be an amalgam of several real-life South African secret police officers. Both express a deep concern that the activists of the anti-apartheid movement are communists and being supported by communist countries (which was actually the case-The film Catch a Fire was written by Shawn Slovo, who is the daughter of noted anti-apartheid activists Ruth First and Joe Slovo, who were leaders of the South African Communist Party). Considering that this is the time of the Cold War, these concerns seem quite understandable. However, unlike Vos, Horn is also a racist and deeply against racial mixing. Again, when one understands how deep-seated this thinking was and is still among Afrikaners, to the point where many believe that to be true Christians they must remain racially pure, one sees that racist ideologies are not simply a matter of ignorance or stupidity, as we too often try to dismiss them today. The determination and intelligence of Horn’s character is what makes him so frightening and what makes Michael Caine’s actions at the end of the film seem almost unavoidable. As Orlani writes:
The character of Horn is crucial to the film’s success, not only because it is superbly acted by Nicol Williamson but because it avoids easy judgments of him as just a baddie. Historical and ideological reasons, not individual moral ones, are suggested for his positions and behavior. He is an Afrikaner, probably a farmer’s son. His racism is not a sign or a result of his being evil. It is an article of belief and his actions proceed naturally from it. When (in disguise) he approaches Keogh on the road to Johannesburg, Keogh pretends to be a commercial traveler. “Ladies’ underwear?” says Horn. “I’d hate for your kaffir to handle the merchandise.” When Horn comes to threaten Keogh and Rina, he finds them taking a bath together, “I’m surprised your friend Shack’s not in the bath with you — he’s shared your plates and sheets, hasn’t he?” He says to Keogh with genuine puzzlement, “It hurts me to see an intelligent educated white man so against his own people.” He regards antagonism between the races, as the natural state: to Mukkerjee, “Stick to what you Indians know best — cheating the blacks.
The only character that I would probably want to take the screenwriters to task on is that of Mukkerjee. He seems to be written as a stereotypical Indian, who is rather nervous, feeble, and mousy. He is Shack’s main ally yet there seems to be no cameraderie between them. More should have been invested in trying to demonstrate why Shack would trust Mukkerjee with the diamonds. As it is portrayed in the film Shack doesn’t seem to like Mukkerjee and Mukkerjee seems afraid of Shack. I would have preferred to see Mukkerjee as a stronger and cleverer character who has a genuinely strong connection with Shack based on common values and convictions. Orlani writes about Mukherjee as follows:
Mukkerjee, by contrast, is a rather comic character. Short, middle-aged, nervously smiling, he is terrified when Horn invades his office to search for Shack, naive in his idealism and no match for Persis’ determination. On the other hand, his depiction makes the important point that a revolution is not made up exclusively of handsome heroes. When Keogh finds out who Shack’s contact in Johannesburg is, he says incredulously, “A politically committed Indian dentist?” setting Shack up for another good answer: “We have all colors, even yours.”
That said, the film is definitely promoting a message of solidarity between differing racial and class groups. Collective efforts are the most succesful in the film as opposed to individual efforts. As Orlandi writes:
The film clearly promotes unity, not separatism, as the way of change for South Africa. The characters in the film can be seen as representative of their various classes and races — blacks, Indians, whites, working-class, lower-middle class, and bourgeoisie — working together. More important, there are several scenes in which the individual stars are upstaged by group efforts. When Shack and Keogh stop in the village, men and women push over a hut to hide the car, children rub out the tire tracks with their feet. As the two fugitives eat and recuperate, they are surrounded by smiling faces while music plays in the background.
The most dramatic scene depicting the power of the people is when Horn’s helicopter is brought down by several of the villagers Wilby has been working with. They then tear the machine apart. The most striking point the film makes is that violent resistance to apartheid is necessary. At the end, Horn says that he won’t stop hunting down the likes of Shack and Wilby. Keogh says that he knows this and then proceeds to shoot Horn dead. Keogh has gone from being a disinterested and disengaged English visitor to a violent militant. It is important to remember that Nelson Mandela, now one of the world’s most beloved political figures, was the head of the African National Congress’s military wing and was considered a terrorist by the apartheid regime. One man’s terrorist is often another man’s freedom fighter. However, this opens up many questions about the ethical use of violence in contexts of resistance and revolution. These are of course questions that a film like The Wilby Conspiracy doesn’t have the capacity to answer.
The Wilby Conspiracy was filmed in Kenya. Michael Caine wrote about the experience in his autobiography. He was surprised that no one recognized him as a celebrity; however everyone recognized Sidney Poitier. Poitier got the best tables in restaurants and was even invited to meet the then President of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta. The film could not have been filmed in South Africa for obvious reasons. Sidney Poitier, along with other American entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr., Arthur Miller, and Nina Simone signed the We Say No To Apartheid Pledge in 1965. Poitier was well aware about the apartheid regime as it had effected the distribution of his films in South Africa. Several of his films were outright banned, for other films Poitier was edited out of interracial scences. As America was trying to integrate, South Africa was enforcing segration. The casting of Poitier in The Wilby Conspiracy must have brought home to American audiences the similarity between the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle for integration and civil rights in the United States.
The Wilby Conspiracy is a fun ride with a political conscience. I recommend that you check it out.
The Wilby Conspiracy: Action for the sake of politics by Mary-Kay Gamel Orlandi (film review available online)
The Wilby Conspirarcy New York Times Film Review available online
Introduction to Apartheid: Lesson Plan for Middle Schools available online
I couldn’t resist seeing the latest incarnation of The Karate Kid starring the progeny of Will Smith and Jada Pickett Smith, Jaden Smith, and China’s Number One Internationally Recognized Action Hero Jackie Chan.
But I wonder why it was called The Karate Kid? Did the film’s producers really worry that people wouldn’t go to see the film if there was no brand recognition? Didn’t they think that the adorable Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, and a theme song by every tween’s favourite Canadian Heartthrob Justin Bieber would be enough to get people to the box office? Unlike when the original Karate Kid starring Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio came out in 1984, your average North American knows a thing or two about Asian Martial Arts. For example, your average North American viewer knows that what Jackie Chan ends up teaching Jaden Smith isn’t karate, it’s kung-fu. So why not call the film The Kung-Fu Kid? Actually, the film is called The Kung Fu Kid in the People’s Republic of China!
The film begins with Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) preparing to leave his apartment with his mother (Taraji Henson). We learn that his father is dead and his mother has been transferred to Beijing, China by the Auto Factory she works for. Dre isn’t happy to leave his Black neighbourhood in Detroit for China, where he thinks everything is old.
There is a great scene on the plane ride to China when Dre’s mom forces him to greet a fellow passenger who looks East Asian in Mandarin Chinese. The passenger replies in perfect American English that he comes from Detroit.
On his first day in Beijing, Dre has to go looking for his new apartment’s handyman, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) because the hot water isn’t working (it actually is working, it’s just not automatic due to an energy-saving switch). Dre’s first meeting with Mr. Han doesn’t go well as Mr. Han ignores him and instead picks up a dead fly with his chopsticks and then continues to eat noodles with said chopsticks-Gross.
Dre is befriended by another expat White kid who takes him to the local park to play Basketball with the local Chinese kids. Dre isn’t good at Basketball (Way to Challenge Black Stereotypes!). Instead, he decides to chat up an adorable Chinese girl named Mai Ying who is sitting on a park bench practicing her violin. She immediately takes a liking to him and asks to touch his hair (Oh, the universal request when anyone not used to Black people meets a Black person-They want to touch our hair!!!) But Cheng, whose family I close to Mei Ying’s family, doesn’t take Dre’s fraternizing with Mei Ying well. There is really no reason for this kid’s beef with Dre given other than that maybe he himself has a crush on Mei Ying but that’s not developed. Cheng and his friends continue to bully Dre at school and terrorize him whenever they see him.
After rescuing Dre from a brutal attack by Cheng and his gang, Mr. Han decides to help Dre by approaching the boys’ Kung-Fu teacher. Mr. Han believes that any genuine Kung-Fu teacher would be horrified to learn that his students were starting fights and ganging up on defenseless kids. But after watching the boys’ Kung-Fu teacher, Master Li, in action, it becomes clear that he won’t be of any help because his whole predatory “no mercy” approach to teaching Kung-Fu is actually why his students are such bullies. In order to get himself and Dre out of Master Li’s class without getting themselves beaten up, Mr. Han promises to register Dre in the upcoming Kung-Fu Tournament. In return, Master Li forbids his students from attacking Dre, until the tournament. Mr. Han then promises to teach Dre Kung-Fu.
Jackie Chan is a really fun actor to watch and early on in the film we are intrigued by the quiet and slovenly maintenance man who seems to know Kung-Fu so well but is so sad. What’s his story? We will learn that Mr. Han comes from a remote Chinese village in the Wudang Mountains where the teaching of the ancient art of Kung-Fu goes way back and people can harness their chi to manipulate cobras-Say What? Hopefully, people watching this film will know that this is a “fantasy” aspect of the film. Far too often, North American films about the Chinese and Martial Arts tend to not differentiate well between fantasy and reality, The Karate Kid (2010) is unfortunately no exception. Kung-Fu is mixed up with “magic” as is practical Chinese Medicine which Mr. Han uses to heal Dre’s wounds twice in the film, the second time with totally unrealistic results. More on the side of realism, we learn that Mr. Han has a drinking problem and lost his wife and child in a car accident in which he was the driver. Having the Mr. Han character be a broken man who ends up finding himself again through his mentorship of the fatherless Dre brings the story to a level higher than a just a vehicle to make Jaden Smith a big star (remember this film is co-produced by his parents!).
Dre’s relationship with Mei Ying is sweet to watch and as a product of a mixed race relationship myself I always love to see young mixed race love on screen (and Black/Asian hook ups are too few and far between in films for youth audiences) but this romance is a bit troubling considering their ages (Dre is supposed to be 12). Am I a prude to be freaked out by 12 year olds kissing and doing sexy dances to a Chinese Dance Dance Revolution version of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face? I think not and Simon Abrams from Slant Magazine agrees with me.
Needless to say, Dre ends up winning the tournament, overcoming a deliberate injury to his leg through the miracles of Mr. Han’s Chinese Medicine. Cheng is beaten by Dre but instead of being a sore loser ends up pledging his allegiance to Mr. Han and is soon followed by other students of Master Li. And all is right with the world.
All in all it was a pretty entertaining film, although I really do feel an opportunity was missed to do a remake of the song “Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting” to go along with the film.
The Karate Kid (2010) and The Karate Kid (1984)
Watching The Karate Kid (2010) helped me to really appreciate The Karate Kid (1984).
The differences between the films point to the superiority of the original film’s message.
A Fatherless Boy Moves to a New Town
Karate Kid (2010) Dre, an African American 12 year old, moves from Detroit, Michigan to Beijing, China with his mother.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel, an Italian American high school senior, moves from Newark, New Jersey to Los Angeles, California with his mother
The Fatherless Boy Gets Beaten Up by Really Mean Guys
Karate Kid (2010) Dre becomes a target of Cheng and his kung fu student friends because he befriends Mei Ying, who Cheng knows but isn’t romantically involved with and doesn’t seem to have any romantic interest in.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel becomes a target of a karate student after coming on to his girlfriend.
The Asian Maintenance Man Comes to the Rescue
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han, the Chinese maintenance man at Dre’s apartment, rescues Dre when he is attacked by Cheng and his friends.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi, the Okinawan maintenance man at Daniel’s apartment, rescues Daniel when he is attacked by the Karate student whose girlfriend he came on to.
The Asian Maintenance Man Tries to Enlist the Help of the Bullies Martial Arts Teacher
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han takes Dre to the Kung Fu School where Cheng and his friends are students. Mr. Han believes that any true Kung Fu Teacher would not stand for his students bullying a defenseless person. But Mr. Han realizes that Master Li is himself a bully who is teaching his students to have no mercy. No reason is given for why Master Li is such a nasty dude. In order to get out of the Kung Fu school in one piece, Mr. Han agrees to register Dre in the upcoming Kung Fu tournament. Master Li promises to make his students leave Dre alone in the meantime. Mr. Han promises to teach Dre kung fu.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel to the Karate dojo where his bullies are students. Mr. Miyagi believes that any true Karate teacher would not stand for his students bullying a defenseless person. But Mr. Miyagi realizes that the teacher at the Karate dojo, an ex-Special Forces Vietnam Veteran, is himself a bully who is teaching his students to have no mercy. Being that the teacher is an ex-Special Forces Vietnam Veteran and generally speaking American sentiment in the 1980s was that the Vietnam War was totally unnecessary and brutal, his military background goes to explain why he’s such a nasty guy. In order to get out of the Karate dojo in one piece, Mr. Miyagi agrees to register Daniel in the upcoming Karate tournament. The teacher of the Karate dojo promises to make his students leave Daniel alone in the meantime. Mr. Miyagi promises to teach Daniel karate.
Simple Chores Equal Mad Martial Arts Skills
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han makes Dre repeat the steps of putting his coat on, taking it off, and hanging it up over several days. This frustrates Dre because he doesn’t see how this has anything to do with kung fu. But one of the things we know about Dre from the beginning is that he always leaves his coat on the floor, much to his mother’s chagrin, so it’s probably for the best that he gets in the habit of hanging his coat up. Mr. Han finally reveals to Dre that that movements involved in picking up his coat, putting it on, and hanging it up are key kung fu defensive and strike techniques.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi makes Daniel do household chores, like waxing a car (the now classic “Wax on, Wax off!”). This frustrates Daniel because he doesn’t see how this has anything to do with karate. Mr. Han finally reveals to Daniel that that movements involved in picking up his coat, putting it on, and hanging it up are key karate defensive techniques.
The Teacher and the Origins of the Martial Art
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han takes Dre to his village in the WuDang Mountains and visits an ancient Kung Fu monastery where Dre gets to drink mystical Kung Fu-powering giving water and watch a woman manipulate a cobra by harnessing her chi. Ya right….
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel about karate’s origins in Okinawa, a island of Japan where Mr. Miyagi comes from….a lot more realistic.
Why the Teacher is so Sad
Karate Kid (2010) Dre discovers that Mr. Han lost his family in a car accident. While arguing with his wife, Mr. Han lost control of the car and it crashed killing his wife and young son. This is why Mr. Han is so depressed and withdrawn.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel discovers that Mr. Miyagi lost his wife in childbirth while she was interned by the American government in an internment camp during World War II. Mr. Miyagi was away fighting the Germans in the American Army in an attempt to prove his loyalty to the United States. Mr. Miyagi’s tragedy opens Daniel’s eyes to a shameful part of American history, the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II. In this way, The Karate Kid is not only a film about an underdog who overcomes through martial arts. It’s an attempt at honouring the history and heritage of Japanese Americans, a community which has been an underdog in the United States. Japanese American actor Pat Morita was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Mr. Miyagi.
The Karate Kid (2010) and racism against Blacks in China
I found it problematic that the film never broaches the issue of Chinese anti-Black racism. Frankly, racism seems to be a better reason behind Cheng’s animosity towards Dre than the total lack of a good reason the film provides us.
There are two common Chinese racial slurs for Black people: Black Devil (hei gui) and Black Chimpazee (hei xingxing). I have the misfortune of being called both in my life time. I’ve even experienced not being allowed to visit some of my Chinese friends’ homes because I was a Black person. Although the awareness of difference between Chinese and Blacks doesn’t go beyond curiosity about hair in the film it is a serious problem in real life, no matter how many sequels to Rush Hour Jackie Chan might make with Chris Tucker.
While watching the film, I wondered what Dre’s mom was going to do about her hair while in China (that weave could only last for so long!). If you are Black and in China there is hope…African Hair Salons. There are actually a lot of Africans in China, particularly in Guangzhou. The area where they live is often referred to as “Chocolate City“. Some have come as students, others as small-scale entrepreneurs. Even Barack Obama’s half brother lives in China and recently wrote a novel entitled Nairobi to Shenzhen.
But being present doesn’t mean being liked…actually it often leads to the opposite. The most violent outbreak of Chinese anti-Black racism was the infamous Nanjing anti-African protests which were ironically the lead up to 1989 the Tiananmen Square Demonstrations for Human Rights.
The Nanjing Anti-African Riots began on December 24, 1988. According to the Wikipedia Page for The Nanjing Anti-African Protests:
On December 24, 1988 two male African students were entering their campus at Hehai University in Nanjing with two Chinese women. The occasion was a Christmas Eve party. A quarrel between one of the Africans and a Chinese security guard, who had suspected that the women the African students tried to bring into the campus were prostitutes and refused their entry, led to a brawl between the African and Chinese students on the campus which lasted till the morning, leaving 13 students injured. 300 Chinese students, spurred by false rumors that a Chinese man had been killed by the Africans, broke into and set about destroying the Africans’ dormitories, shouting slogans such as “Kill the black devils!” After the police had dispersed the Chinese students, many Africans fled to the railway station in order to gain safety at various African embassies in Beijing. The authorities prevented the Africans from boarding the trains so as to question those involved in the brawl. Soon their numbers increased to 140, as other African and non-African foreign students, fearing violence, arrived at the station asking to be allowed to go to Beijing.
By this time, Chinese students from HoHai University had joined up with students from other Nanjing universities to make up a 3000-strong demonstration that called on government officials to prosecute the African students and reform the system which gave foreigners more rights than the Chinese. On the evening of December 26, the marchers converged on the railway station while holding banners calling for human rights and political reform. Chinese police managed to isolate the non-Chinese students from the marchers and moved them to a military guest house outside Nanjing. The protests were declared illegal, and riot police were brought in from surrounding provinces to pacify the demonstrators, which took several more days.
The course of the Nanjing protests went from anti-African sentiment to banners proclaiming Human Rights. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 came 4 months after the anti-African protests in Nanjing and some elements of the Nanjing protests were still evident, such as banners proclaiming “Stop Taking Advantage of Chinese Women”.
Mira Sorvino, who starred opposite China’s other Internationally Recognized Action Hero, Chow Yun Phat in The Replacement Killers, studied Mandarin and for her Honours Thesis at Harvard wrote “Anti-Africanism in China: An Investigation into Chinese Attitudes towards Black Students in the People’s Republic of China” which won the Harvard Hoopes Prize.
The Karate Kid (2010) Website
The Nanjing Anti-African Protests Wikipedia Page
Big trouble in China’s Chocolate City, August 1 2009, The Toronto Star
Beijing police round up and beat African expats The Guardian Sept. 26 2007
China Racial Unrest Moves to Beijing: Students Protest Alleged Attack on Woman by African, January 3, 1989, Associated Press
Lena Baker was the first and only woman every killed by electric chair in the state of Georgia. She was executed in 1945. Sixty years later she was pardoned.
The film Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story by Ralph Wilcox is more than a biopic about an African-American woman who, like so many others, was a victim of the racism of the American Justice System, but it is also a harsh reminder that although there may be a Black President, America still has a terrible legacy of racism to overcome.
The film chronicles the life and unjust death of Lena Baker from her childhood picking cotton in the early 1900s to her death by electric chair for murdering her employer.
Lena Baker is played by actress Tichina Arnold. Arnold is best known for her comedic roles in shows like Everybody Hates Chris but she is excellent as Lena, a woman who has many demons to face. The filmmakers do not sugarcoat Lena Baker’s life. She is an alcoholic who once was a prostitute and did time in prison. She had three children who were mostly raised by her long-suffering mother.
When Lena seems about to turn her life around she is bullied by Eugene Knight to look after his father, Ernest, who has injured his leg. She is reluctant because Ernest Knight has the reputation of being violent but at this time in Georgia it is difficult for Blacks to refuse the demands of Whites. The film depicts Lena’s relationship with Knight with all the shades of grey that there probably were. Ernest Knight is an alcoholic and in his company Lena returns to alcoholism. They develop a sexual relationship and Lena often stays with him for months on end without being able to return to her mother’s home. When Lena is able to return, Knight repeatedly forces her back to his home. He even at one point takes her to Florida. Because sexual relationships between Blacks and Whites were illegal at this time in the State of Georgia, Knight’s son eventually intervenes to get Lena away from his father, however he blames Lena for the relationship and beats her severely but doesn’t take any measures to hold his father responsible for the affair. The film shows that this is all unfolding with the full knowledge of the town’s sheriff who also holds Lena responsible for the relationship and does nothing to protect her or prevent Knight from repeatedly kidnapping her. Finally, when Lena again attempts to flee from Knight, he threatens to kill her with a gun and in the struggle that ensues she shoots him.
Lena made no attempt to cover up what happened. She went straight to the town’s coroner and told him what she had done. She then told the town’s sheriff. Although Lena claimed self-defence, she was convicted of Capital Murder by an all-White, all-Male jury (hardly a jury of her peers). The film portrays her lawyer as incompetent and racist as he has no interest in listening to her suggestions for her defence. After a 60-Day reprieve, Baker was denied clemency and was executed. Her last words before her execution were as follows:
What I done, I done in self defence, or I would have been killed myself. I have done nothing against anyone. I am ready to meet my God.
In 2001, Lena Baker’s family, led by her grandnephew Roosevelt Curry, requested a pardon from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. She was granted an unconditional pardon. The Board did not find Lena Baker innocent of the crime but suggested that a verdict of voluntary manslaughter would have been more appropriate under the circumstances.
Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story is hardly an easy film to watch but I recommend it for anyone who is trying to educate students about the ways in which racial segregation in the American South perpetuated the economic and sexual exploitation of African American women.
The Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story Website