Monday, July 11, 2005

Your Perfect Post-G8 Film Rental

One of the best movies I saw in all of 2004, and easily one of the most extraordinary documentaries I have ever watched, was Flora M'mbugu-Schelling's 1992 film These Hands. Africa and its struggling economies have recently received an uncharacteristic boost in the attention of global media, but now that the G-8 conference and the Live 8 panoply have both come and gone, I can't help but wonder how long this well-intentioned media campaign will survive. If you're trying to keep learning, keep considering, keep caring about African poverty, no document has ever made a more lasting impression on me than this one did.

Combining the class consciousness of Harlan County U.S.A. with the expressive minimalism of Night and Fog, These Hands is a 45-minute movie that lacks any whiff of exposition for the first 35 of those minutes. All you are watching are huddles of women sitting or crouching in the open sun, orbiting rubble-piles of fist-sized stones and using tiny hammers and chisels to break them down into smaller and smaller shards. This, ladies and gents, is how construction-grade gravel is produced. M'mbugu-Schelling, the film's German-Tanzanian director, doesn't resort to any aestheticizing tricks, and she doesn't intrude any leering overseer or flagrant abuse into the scene. She needn't: the pure fact of this hard form of labor speaks for itself. These Hands is weirdly fascinating—the montage suggests, quite rightly, the tedium of the work, but it's smartly edited to prevent that tedium from dulling our own sensitivity or our intellectual responses to what we are watching. But what are we watching? Again, the spectacle is so foreign and yet so self-evident that it compels our rapt attention, but we can't help wondering about contexts and backgrounds.

With 10 or 15 minutes to spare, These Hands drops a pretty big bomb, as one of the toiling women puts down her hammer and begins a remarkably jubilant dance on top of the stone pile. Her fellow workers begin clapping hands and singing along with her gyrations, and this continues, uninterrupted, for several beats. No one comes to bother the women; nothing further explains this sudden swerve in tone. Eventually, having gotten whatever it was out of their system, the dancer and the singers resume their tasks. A quick worker's meal is had. The work continues, and the end of the day draws nearer.

At the literal last minute, These Hands rolls its first expository captions. These women, it turns out, are self-employed; this is not a labor farm or a rock plantation, per se. The quarrying they perform by hand pays roughly $6/week, and this salary, like the autonomous working conditions, counts as an enticing extravagance to workers, many of them refugees, who would be hard-pressed to find any better deal. In fact, the film implies, for Tanzanian women and Mozambiquean refugees this deal is pretty good. Could there be a more heartbreaking truth, and could it be delivered with more rigor, less sentiment, greater clarity than These Hands achieves? The yakkety-yakking and back-patting of the G-8 crowd suddenly comes into focus, as does, miraculously, an entire economic order—perhaps the hardest thing in the world to evoke within an image, but Flora M'mbugu-Schelling does it.

If you're curious to see These Hands, and I hope you are, you'll definitely want to visit the absolutely priceless trove of African and African-American film and video art at California Newsreel. I've got a leg up because my university library and the progressive library in my town both carry several titles apiece, but consider ordering some copies for yourself, your school, or your organization. (On a much more chipper but still politically illuminating note, Djibril Diop Mambéty's The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun is an absolute charmer.)

African movies, like African hunger, African poverty, African medicine, African politics, African genocides, and African everything, get next to no attention in this country; when they do, the scale of the continent's crises is rendered so vast that you wonder where to even start. Here is a place to start. Here, here, and here are places to continue.

Photo © 1992 California Newsreel. Though this still from the film has been rendered in black & white, the film itself is in color.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only African film I've ever seen is Souleymane Cisse's Yeelen, which I highly recommend. I checked it out from the Chicago Public Library, which had their entire African film collection filed under "documentary." I was going to say "amusingly," but then I realized that I, with my glaring ignorance of African film, should probably not spend too much time criticizing the library for theirs. Thanks for this post!

12:38 AM, July 12, 2005  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I agree that Yeelen is quite something. If you were into that, two great places to go next are Ousmane Sembène's Xala and Djibril Diop Mambéty's Hyenas, two viciously intelligent and also very funny political allegories from Senegal. It might help with Hyenas if you know and like the Friedrich Dürrenmatt play The Visit on which the film is based, but it's not a necessary background by any means.

Also very interesting is Faces of Women by Désiré Écaré, from the Côte d'Ivoire, but that one's not available on DVD yet, as far as I know.

1:11 AM, July 12, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out Abouna. It's from Chad, and it's astounding.

2:11 AM, July 12, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since you are such a fan of Flora M'mbugu Schelling's work I suggest you watch Shida and Matatizo

7:57 PM, November 30, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. I loved the minimalist quality of the movie. She never tells us how to think, feel or react.

Have you seen The Architect of Mud? 1999 by Caterina Borelli. It is interesting!

7:29 PM, May 09, 2007  

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