Your Perfect Post-G8 Film Rental
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.