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.

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Australia: Ten Canoes

(2006, dir: Rolf de Heer; language: Yolngu Matha, Gunwinggu, English)

Ten Canoes is beautiful, hilarious, moving and fascinating, and difficult to categorise. The multiple-award winning film is presented as a story, with lively narration by the iconic David Gulpilil, telling of a party of goose-hunters in a time before European colonisation. The young, impatient Dayindi (played by Gulpilil’s son, Jamie) covets his older brother Minygululu’s beautiful youngest wife. In a story-within-a-story, Minygululu tells Dayindi a tale from even further back in Australia’s past, in an attempt to teach the young man about the virtues of patience, and that getting your hearts desire may turn out to be more than you bargained for. What at first proves to be a simple tale grows, as they say in the film, “like a tree”, incorporating a magician, a kidnapping, and a case of mistaken identity before everything draws together again. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, with it’s beautiful cinematography, talented cast, elegant structure, and humorous camera-work.

While Australia has a sizeable film industry and there are a lot of well-regarded films to choose from, I chose Ten Canoes because it’s something I’ve been wanting to see for ages, and had finally recently bought the DVD off my dear friend Hayden (who blogs here about all kinds of weird and wonderful films from various corners of the globe). But I thought it was especially appropriate for this project as it is the first film to be filmed entirely in Aboriginal Australian languages. I watched the version with narration in English, but on the two-disc DVD set you can also choose to watch it with the narration too in Aboriginal languages (with or without English subtitles). Some people have voiced concern about the film being directed and co-written by a white Australian, a concern which is definitely worth addressing. De Heer has responded by saying “[The People of Ramingining] are telling the story, largely, and I’m the mechanism by which they can.” Certainly, the credits has a promising list of Aboriginal names (although not so much in the higher-level production roles), and the documentary DVD extras that I watched showed de Heer (and the English language) taking a decidedly backseat role, but the fact that international and even local recognition of indigenous stories comes only through the lens and privilege of a white film-maker is something worth reflecting on in itself.

For me as a viewer, this film gave some rich glimpses into the language, culture and mythology of a people all too often forgotten, marginalised or outright silenced since Australia’s brutal colonisation. Aborigines in Australia are still abused and oppressed by the Australian government as well as large numbers of other Australians that interact with them. As a showcase of their Australia, before its invasion by Europeans, this film highlights the importance of language and stories as a political force, as a means to take control over the representation of one’s surroundings and to remember what has been lost.

It was also a pleasure to have an intimate encounter with the amazing landscape of Arnhemland, and learn about the ingenious ways that its inhabitants adapted to the challenges and resources of the local environment. Australia is a huge and diverse continent in terms of geography and ecology, of which I have only seen a little in person. The film’s soaring shots over the swamplands, and elegant movement through the trees, were as satisfying to my desire for new landscapes as any travel documentary.

Finally, the film was a comforting, funny, and joyous reminder that – trite as it may sound – people are people. Sometimes I find it difficult to imagine the internal lives and thought processes of people removed from myself by time or space. What did people think and feel 1,000 years ago, or 5,000 years ago – when the premises on which society was based seem so different? What goes on in the heads of people living today in surroundings so different from mine? These questions are one of the reasons that I’m pursuing this project, as I firmly believe that one of the best ways to challenge these barriers to empathy and understanding is to listen and learn from what other people are willing to tell. Films like Ten Canoes are excellent for this purpose – although the narrator of the film makes it clear that it is his story, not ‘our’ (the viewer’s story), the viewer can nevertheless find elements of themselves in these historic/mythical characters, and vice versa. Farts are, and it appears always have been, universally hilarious. Young people are and always have been hotheaded, overeager, and blinded by sexual/romantic desire. We are and always have been concerned with what happens to our poo. Relationships and responsibility are and always have been wonderful, worrying, and complicated. (Of course these are generalisations, but that’s the point – social aspects that have been recognisable throughout human history, if not necessarily true for each and every individual.)

Shoutout: More from Australia

For those interested in more Australian films, although most with a more white Australian focus, I can recommend the following favourites: The Castle (1997, comedy), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002, drama about Australia’s stolen generation); Looking for Alibrandi (2000 teen drama); The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994, comedy-drama and pretty much a must-see); Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, gorgeous mystery drama); and The Slap (2011, drama TV miniseries). High up on my to-watch list from Australia are: Lantana (2001); The Cars That Ate Paris (1974); My Brilliant Career (1979); Shine (1996); Walkabout (1971); and Mad Max (1979, no, I haven’t seen Mad Max. I’m sorry.).