Comoros: Kwassa Kwassa

(2015; director: Tuan Andrew Nguyen; writer: Tuan Andrew Nguyen/SUPERFLEX; language: Comoronian; production of Denmark and Vietnam)

Comprising a series of islands in the Indian Ocean, between Mozambique and Madagascar, Comoros is one of the smallest (and poorest) African nations. It is also a country I despaired of ever finding a film from. Diaspora film-makers such as Hachimiya Ahamada (Ashes of Dreams, The Ylang-Ylang Residence) and Ouméma Mamadali (Baco) have pioneered film-making in the country, but these are difficult to find (especially with English subtitles) now that their debut on the festival circuit is past. So when I saw Kwassa Kwassa listed in my local film festival, I thought – well, close enough. Kwassa Kwassa fails almost all the criteria I have for this blog: it’s a short film (19 mins), a documentary, and produced entirely by foreigners – helmed by Vietnamese director Nguyen and Danish art collective SUPERFLEX. And yet I include it here because it is perhaps the only film I will ever get to see that is filmed in and about Comoros.

The film opens with a boat alone in a blue sea, and a voice that says (in Comoronian): “you will listen to our voice, our voice will take you to the edge of Europe, and beyond. Two islands, same people, one European, and one not…”

‘Kwassa kwassa’ is the local word for the small open fishing boats used to ferry passengers from the Union of Comoros islands to Mayotte, a French territory in the Comoros archipelago and the farthest outpost of the European Union. The journey from Anjouan (where the film takes place) to Mayotte is only 70km, and yet this span of sea is the border between Africa and Europe, and (according to the film, at least) between penury and wealth, between despair and a future. Although only a short journey between two Comoronian islands, it is a journey forbidden by migration law and thus fraught with danger. The film states that more than 10,000 people have died trying to cross.

Against this background, the film focuses on the Anjouan-based makers of the kwassa kwassa boats. Exquisitely detailed montages of the boat-building process are overlaid with narration (by Soumette Ahmed – a local, one hopes?) detailing the geopolitical situation (historical and present), the dangers faced on the crossing and the reasons for attempting it, as well as ruminating on the mythical and incongruous nature of borders, nations, and Europe itself.

An art-film at heart, Kwassa Kwassa is beautifully shot. Detailed close-ups and snappy editing render the messy labour of manually crafting the fiberglass vessels into a work of art, simultaneously showing up the boat-makers’ craft and helping the viewer to experience the process on a tactile level. I was captivated. Also stunning are the aerial shots of Anjouan and the surrounding ocean, both visually effective and a testament to the artistic potential of drone-based camerawork. The clear turquoise of the Indian Ocean as it nears the shore, the glittering indigo of the deep open sea, and the run-down concrete bunkers of the settlement on Anjouan, studded with green explosions of palms.

However, I was less taken with how the film delivered its political and philosophical content – a desperately relevant challenge to conceptions of what and who is ‘Europe’ and the material violence necessary to uphold the demarcation between European and Other. But I felt that the film, in exploring the short and deadly journey between ‘African’ Anjouan and ‘European’ Mayotte, got that message across vividly without the slightly hammy disembodied whisper of the narrator pointing this out, or recounting the myth of Zeus and Europa (the point that Europa herself was an immigrant carried across the Mediterranean was also made, perhaps better, in Elfriede Jelinek’s The Supplicants).

For me, the comparison with the myth was a distraction, and served to focus the film on Europe and its aura of hope and security, bolstered further by the narrator’s description of Mayotte as “a sleeping beauty surrounded by thorns”. Both of these metaphors draw on a European fabular lexicon and make Mayotte out to be a prize, without dwelling on the stories and contexts of Anjouans who are willing to risk everything to claim it. For the film-makers, apparently, kwassa kwassa are not merely a literal means of conducting a dangerous and life-altering journey, they are also symbols of “a carrier of dreams of reaching a better life on the other shore”.

I would have preferred a little less symbol and a bit more detail about the lives of the non-Europeans – the Comoronians and others (the film shows a Vietnamese family also making the journey in the kwassa kwassa), and perhaps the legacies of colonialism and imperialism that have prompted them to take to the boats. Hints are dropped: there have apparently been 20+ coups in Comoros since independence from the French (many, according to the film, orchestrated by the French government); and poverty and injustice – “you can’t eat identity, but identity will always eat you, like the ocean”.

Nor do we get much insight into the motivations of the passeurs – those who ‘traffick’ the emigrants to Mayotte. Are they exploiting their desperate passengers, or are their charges fair compensation for the risks involved? If they have the capability to take themselves to Mayotte, why don’t they remain? And what indeed happens to those passengers that make it to Mayotte? I understand that as a short art film these details might have distracted from the concentrated motifs and parable that the film is going for, but I can’t help wondering if a film more grounded in the lives of the people it depicts would have provided more nuance and insight.

Despite these qualms the film is still powerful, partly through its shared intelligibility with the horrors currently unfolding on the shores of mainland Europe – a comparison the film makes overtly. Effective also is the stunning cinematography, and the contrast between the beauty of the Indian Ocean and its deadly potential. But really, the power is in the harrowing journey the passengers must undergo, and the film wisely gives its last few minutes over to this. The emigrants board the boat and it sets off. The only sound is the waves, the passengers are silent, intent. And then we see the boat alone, white and bullet shaped, on a dark blue sea.

In conclusion, though visually stunning, philosophically it’s an elevated and unsubtle film, with a European focus and little detail about the lives of everyday Comorians.  However, as an example of the incongruous violence that colonialism and current inequalities entail it is a powerful film, and one that makes me want to learn more about what leads a country to divide itself so harshly.

Antarctica: The Great White Silence

(1924; dir: Herbert Ponting; language: English)

The Great White Silence was originally filmed (and later edited together) by photographer Herbert Ponting as a record of Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. It’s an absolutely jaw-dropping film, and as soon as I saw it I knew it was one for the blog. Of course one could argue that the film is technically British, and that Antarctica isn’t a country, but the point of the project I set myself isn’t to be overly pedantic, but rather to gain insight into landscapes and ways of being beyond what I would normally be exposed to. From this perspective, it feels counter to the spirit of the project to exclude a film that is so totally an evocation of place and how its (temporary) human and (indigenous) animal inhabitants live simply because the large continent it depicts happens to be one of the few places on Earth that isn’t really a country. It also has in common with several of the films previously reviewed that it’s a damn good film and ought to be more widely viewed.

The Great White Silence

Scott’s tragic expedition looms large in the consciousness of New Zealanders, close as we are to that icy continent (indeed, it was from our shores that Scott’s icebreaker the Terra Nova set out). Thus, as an account of Scott’s expedition, The Great White Silence didn’t offer any narrative surprises. All the familiar elements were there: the spirit of adventure as Scott and his crew race to the South Pole, only to find themselves beaten by the Amundsen-led Norwegians; the self-sacrifice of Oates immortalised in a poignant and understated one-liner; and the devastating irony of Scott and his remaining companions’ eventual demise only a short trek from the supplies that would have saved them.

While the historical narrative itself is stirring stuff, the magic of the film is how much it adds to the familiar story. It’s both chilling and fascinating to see Scott and fellow expedition members in real time, their personalities, physicality, and interaction with their formiddable environment made real in a way that written accounts unavoidably fall short of. The viewer sees them preparing for their journey across the interior, handling their animals, playing football on the ice, and demonstrating their survival strategies. Somehow actually seeing those bundled-up people, in the middle of the endless icy expanse, makes it easier to understand the true extent of Antarctica’s inhospitality and the desperate, even idiotic nature of the endeavour.

It’s genuinely amazing that such a historical artefact as this film exists, and is accessible even today thanks to the British Film Institute’s careful preservation and excellent restoration. The moving images it contains would have been the first recorded in the Antarctic interior, and are astounding in terms of the practical difficulties involved in creating them but also in terms of their quality. I’ve seen March of the Pengiuns, and although made almost 100 years previously the Great White Silence is the better film. It is a testament to Ponting as a cinematographer, to both his artistic eye and his willingness to stand around forever in unimaginably cold temperatures in order to get the shots he wanted. Even if one weren’t interested in Scott or the history around him, the film would be well worth a watch simply for its haunting and achingly beautiful images – the drama of looming icebergs the size of cities, the unearthly patterns of young ice forming on the ocean, the volcanoes of Ross Island spewing ash, the hills of Aotearoa/New Zealand (the last green land Scott ever saw) fading into a misty dusk. These are highlighted by Ponting’s tints, preseved by the BFI, and aimed at evoking the experience of light and colour in that white expanse rather than precise verisimilitude.

The film is evidence of Ponting’s creative  and innovative approach to filming challenges. Never shy of turning the camera on himself, he is sensitive to viewer interest in the process of capturing the images. Just as I was marvell ing at the footage of the ship’s iron-clad hull carving through the pack ice and wondering ‘how did he film that?’, Ponting answers with a shot of himself tied to some kind of wooden spar sticking out from the side of the ship. Knowing that he would not be accompanying Scott’s smaller team to the Pole, Ponting also shot simulations of the Pole Team’s progress across the interior, which he was then able to put to poignant use once the tragic results of the expedition eventuated.

I liked too that the film wasn’t all pomp and tragic glory, even if those aspects are integral to the Scott narrative. Ponting’s humour shines through in the intercut title cards, as does his interest in animals. Not only do the expedition’s dogs and ponies feature as characters, but the habits of Weddell seals, orcas, skuas and Adélie penguins make up a significant portion of the film – an understandable decision given that Ponting’s film was the first cinematic documentation of these species. Although a friend of mine maintains that the film suffers from an excess of penguins, I tend to disagree. Ponting’s friendly, over-anthropomorphising, and close attention to the animals makes these sections feel like a 1920s David Attenborough documentary – cute and gently entertaining.

It must be said that the film is to some extent a product of its time, in a sense that goes beyond the genial narration through title cards. Scott’s expedition has been much mythologised, perhaps part because of its tragic conclusion, but the span of nearly a century also allows for a critical distance to the narrative presented in the film. Rather than accepting Scott and his crew as heroes who died for King and Country and the Good of Science, I couldn’t help but see the whole mission to be the first to the Pole as an exercise in senseless nationalism and suspect colonialism. Scientific expeditions in all honour, but was the chance to bag the Pole really worth the deaths of those men? According to the film the answer is presumably yes, but watching it I couldn’t shake the feeling that these football-playing self-sacrificing British gentlemen were hideously lost and never really should have been there, in an environment to which they were so ill-suited and had no place in. The fact that the expedition took along a cat mascot called ‘N****r’ seems a perfect symbol of the wrongness of that period’s British attitudes to exploration and ‘new’ horizons.

No account of the BFI’s release of the film would be complete without a mention of Simon Fisher Turner’s impeccable soundtrack. Turner’s modern contribution blends spare and subtle tones with eerie sound samples, perfectly complimenting the moody drama and hostility of the landscape. This is occasionally interrupted by more upbeat period music, including a recording of one of the gramophone records actually brought on the expedition. This dedication to mood and setting is surpassed only by the inclusion of silence recorded in Scott’s hut on Antarctica (which stands to this day).

Although praised by the King at the time, Ponting’s film did not achieve the success it deserved. The BFI’s re-release as part of the centenary of Scott’s expedition is a chance to remedy that. It’s an amazing film as a historical text, but it’s also enough of a good film to captivate modern audiences. Part epic drama, part cute animal documentary, part art film, part study in the weird extremes to which nationalism and the spirit of adventure can take a person, this film has a lot going on and a lot going for it. And unlike March of the Penguins, I felt like it really gave me a sense of what it might be like to visit Antarctica.

Special thanks to my dear friend Hayden who told me about this film. Read his review here, and check out the rest of his blog where he reviews all kinds of weird and wonderful films.

Belize: Three Kings of Belize

(2007; dir: Katia Paradis; language: English, with some songs in Garifuna; alternative title: Trois Rois)

Three Kings of Belize is a documentary by Katia Paradis, who describes herself as a citizen of both Canada and Belize. The film lovingly depicts the daily life and music of three aged Belize men who are all renowned local musicians. Paul Nabor is a fisherman, guitarist and Garifuna composer, who self-avowedly loves the guitar he has been playing for 53 years more than any of the women who have come and gone in his life. Florencio Mess is a Mayan harp player who lives off the land in his small village and makes traditional violins, guitars and harps. Wilfred Peters, MBE (after playing for the Queen of England), plays Creole accordion and is still travelling with his music around Central and North America.

To explain why I chose this film, allow to digress a little… I have been endeavouring thus far in the project to find fictional feature-length films directed by locals and filmed on location. The reasons for the latter criteria are fairly obvious, but my preference for fictional and feature-length films perhaps warrants some explanation. Basically, one of the reasons I started this project was because I realised that most of the stories I was being told by the films I watched were from the US or the UK, and that even if they were set in other countries it was still Americans or Brits that were making most of the decisions. I am and always have been a believer in the power of stories to expand people’s horizons, reveal insights into oneself and others, and establish empathy. This is not to say that documentaries cannot do these things, nor that they don’t tell stories, but for me personally I find fiction often does these things better – it somehow allows me to ‘be’ or ‘feel’ another person in a way that non-fiction doesn’t. Furthermore, who has the power to tell their stories is a political issue; I have seen several documentaries made by locals of countries other than the US and Western Europe, often depicting the oppression of the local population, but astonishingly few fictional feature films from these places. There could be several reasons for this discrepancy – it would probably look different if I had more disposable time and income to attend film festivals, for instance – but for me it also says something about a tendency for the cultures I live in to be more comfortable watching/funding/distributing a studied foreign population, and preferably a suffering one, than making space for their stories. The former perhaps making it easier to objectify them or distance oneself from them, rather than actually having to be them. In any case, I wanted to seek out fictional feature-length films where possible.

This didn’t turn out to be so easy in the case of Belize. Belize is a small country, both geographically and demographically (current population is a little over 300,000), and has only been independent from Britain since 1981, so there wasn’t a whole lot of locally-produced films to choose from. I found one, Stranded N Dangriga, whose trailer made it look so awful (think along the lines of an Adam Sandler or Eddie Murphy vehicle) that I didn’t think I could bring myself to sit through it – a cop out perhaps. In the end I decided that Three Kings of Belize, while a documentary, and while funded and produced by Canadians, was at least directed by a citizen of Belize and intimately connected to the evolving cultures of Belize. And it was in all likelihood more to my taste.

So, onto the review! The film is essentially a slow, sensitive and non-intrusive portrait of the three men as they discuss their music and careers, perform at home or in public, talk about their lives and their philosophies, and go about their daily tasks. Director Paradis lets them and their music do the talking, occasionally cutting away to shots of the men’s surroundings – everything from long shots of achingly blue seascapes to close ups on the flora and fauna of Belize. Where the panoramic shots of Azerbaijan’s countryside in the previously reviewed Buta felt in some ways like egregious tourist-bait, in Three Kings of Belize the combination of these shots with the grounded love the three musicians expressed for their land established instead a powerful sense of place and the strength it can provide. It reminded me of a concept from my home country, tūrangawaewae, which is often translated from Māori as “a place to stand”: “Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home,” (source: Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of Aotearoa New Zealand). Without claiming interpretative power over this concept, it seemed to me that Belize was tūrangawaewae for the three musicians, and that the film did a good job of expressing this to the viewer. While some might find the sleepy pace of the film a little slow, I think it was integral to allowing these older guys present themselves and their place in their own time and manner. It was also perfect viewing for the stickily-hot lazy Saturday morning when I watched it.

What gives the film poignancy, and lifts it beyond just being an exposition of some great tunes and three characterful old dudes, are the men’s ruminations on their old age and the changes in both music and Belize society. In different ways all three discuss their attempts to make a career out of music, highlighting music as a form of labour (rather than only a passion) and the decreasing value placed on their music. This is partly to do with a decline in the popularity of their respective genres – “some people say my band is an old people’s band… but I go places they don’t go!” – but also to do with changes in the way music is produced and consumed. Nabor, who has composed so many songs that he now doesn’t remember most of them until he hears someone else playing one, muses sadly that people now want to hear music from cassettes rather than directly from him – a distancing that he isn’t in favour of. One striking scene shows Peters gamely dancing along at his 75th birthday party to a modern song whose lyrics seem to consist of “shake it”; the contrast between old and young can’t be more distinct.

Furthermore, although each of the three men are renowned musicians, none of them are materially well-off. Peters, the more urban of the three, still travels internationally and performs at festivals with his accordion, but complains of having a “big name, small pocket”. Nabor and Mess live quiet rural lives where they are more or less self-sufficient. Mess shows off his organic gardening, and Nabor in his simple bush cabin fishes doggedly for his supper despite his old age. Again, this seems connected to their perspectives on Belize. The country is ‘modernizing’, and according to Mess many Belizeans are seeking unattractive jobs in order to buy things in the store – something he sees as redundant when those with knowledge can live off the land.

But perhaps more importantly the film highlights the important labour that these musicians conduct – preserving and enriching, as well as exporting, Belizean cultural forms. And labour it is – the musicians have devoted their lives to, and in some cases sacrificed their health for, their music. Whether one sees the commercialisation of music as a good thing or prefer a time when it had intrinsic value rewarded by gifts of money and food (as both Mess and Nabor experienced in their youth), I challenge anybody to watch this film and not mourn the fact that their labour is no longer valued to the extent it is due. However, the film does finish on a note of hope in this regard. Towards the end of a film Peters is greeted on the street by an avid young female fan, and the final scene shows two of the musicians making music together while small children join in on a chorus with the words “they must have a band at my funeral”.

As can be inferred from this post, Three Kings of Belize provided a wealth of impressions of Belize in terms of its gorgeous rural seascapes, flora and fauna, as well as lively urban milieux. I also learned about some of the social changes taking place in the country, and a lot about three fantastic local music traditions. One thing I would like to have learned more about was women in Belize; although directed by a woman, this film – like many of the others reviewed here – was dominated by men’s voices. One of the musicians fondly recalls his wife, who was “given to him” by her father. She was 13 at the time, and he was in his 20s, and their first child was born before she turned 14. While the musician recounts this as a romantic story, I couldn’t help wondering how his child-bride experienced it, something the viewer never got to know. Neither do we hear from the woman who appears in the film cooking for Peters – his wife? – or any of the women whom Nabor has prioritised his guitar over.