Saturday, June 03, 2006

The New Missionaries: White Film Makers

I had to leave San Francisco International Film Festival 49, (4/20-5/4), Monday evening, May 1, with about a half-hour to get to Berkeley to meet Stanley Nelson (director of “Peoples Temple,” a new documentary scheduled to air on American Experience, locally KQED, Channel 9). He had a great audience and the lobby was buzzing with comments, many people staying for the next screening, which I too had arrived for.

I asked Nelson if he’d ever thought about doing something on the Maafa, or Black Holocaust. After I explained the concept, he said he was working on a film presently about the economic consequences of the European Slave Trade.

I wonder which direction his work will take given the series: Slavery and the Making of America, and S. Pearl Sharp’s The Healing Passage, both which look at the economics of the brutal business. African faces on Confederate money along with cotton and other agrarian artifacts or tools support the claim that slavery was driven by economic advances, nothing else, despite the duplicitous counterarguments posited by missionaries to the contrary.

I stayed to watch “Iron Island” directed by Jazireh Ahani, (Iran, 2005, 90 min), I saw that it is screening in San Francisco at the about a community that lived on an abandoned oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. It begins to leak so the Captain Nemat (Ali Nasirin), almost a god there, trades their home for land. Set in the present, the film is quite interesting...lots of commentary on the absence of rights for women in Islam; girls sold to old men so they'll have less mouths to feed, fathers working off-shore returning home to the ship to pay debts, feed their families, then off to work again for months on end.

Love is not an option here, Ahmad (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh), a heart sick youth finds out…the lesson almost killing him.

Favela Rising
The film I watched in San Francisco, before heading to Berkeley was “Favela Rising,” (USA/Brazil 2005, 80 min), a great story, minus the political, economic and social reasons for a favela –- an illegal settlement in Brazil where poor people, mostly African live… a place where crime and death are more plentiful than sunshine. In the documentary we meet one of the founders of AfroReggae (in Portuguese), a former drug lord, Anderson Sá.

Interviews are mixed with cuts to police invading the Vigário Geral, Rio’s most violent slum, masked young men with high powered arms descending stairs, residents hurriedly disappearing behind closed doors as bullets ricochet off tin roofs, hit flesh or concrete.

Okay, so what’s wrong with that? Another ghetto-hero-rising-from-the-ashes flick –- real, fictional, whatever…it sells tickets, makes white folks feel beneficent, and is a great ticket to stardom for the lucky director who gets his name on the final cut.

Enter Jeff Zimbalist, whom I’d seen prior to the film screening at a free SFIFF panel discussion, entitled: “The Revolution, Now Playing: Film as a Tool for Social and Political Change.” The director said he’d wanted to make a film about an urban community and felt if he made it about a place here, in the US, American audiences might be too jaded to acknowledge something like a José Junior and Anderson Sá story. So he went to Brazil…spent three years there and now seems inoculated into a mission, the film he said, a tool for social justice and change –- a contract with ThinkFilms for a commercial release just step one in the New York Film Academy and Maine Photographic Workshops faculty member’s itinerary.

Zimbalist, co-director said he’d been interested in working on a story about a community “that worked.” He said stories where people were breaking the odds stacked against them were the kind of stories where he found himself “most activated and alive.” He found such project when film co-director, Matt Mochary called him on a phone and told him about “two leaders of a movement in the slums of Rio, ‘broken individuals infected with idealism, eager for any chance to represent themselves, to share their winning prescription.’” Zimbalist quit his job editing and teaching and went to Vigário Geral to meet José Junior and Anderson Sá.

The co-director forgot to bring a clip to show the audience Saturday afternoon at the Kabuki, but encouraged folks to attend the screening later that day and the following week, which I did.

It was a full house.

Besides Zimbalist, were other directors and writers on the panel: Annalee Newitz, Adam Werbach, and Ina Inaba, moderated by Susan Gerhart, journalist and film critic. When I asked Gerhart why no director’s of African descent were present she paused then told me she didn’t have an answer. I have this thing about being the object of discourse, yet not a participant in it!

I just couldn’t comprehend how a workshop on revolution -- revolution?! could take place without an African director anywhere in sight. Zimbalist wasn’t alone in his mining of African themes. Ian Inaba was also guilty with his film “American Blackout,” guilty in that his producer, a sister, was in the house, as well as one of the editors, a brother was also there that afternoon, yet none was invited to speak, or even acknowledged.

African Diaspora themes are such a treasure trove for folks on the outside, it feels exploitive, somewhat the way NGOs and not-for-profit organizations do, the way they litter third world terrain like liquor stores.

Wherever there is a problem in the world—Tanzania, Congo… Bayview, Fillmore, South Central LA, you name it, someone is profiting from the distress, it’s no wonder a cure hasn’t been found.

Zimbalist states somewhere in the film-notes that he and his co-director gave cameras to local Brazilian youth to shoot the scenes where gangsters were chasing opponents, or fighting with police. This was clearly the more edgy of the shots and it would have been great to meet a few of these cinematographers at the San Francisco debut to talk to them about their work, and how they navigated between art and the politics of “favela” life.

White supremacist attitudes are in the air, irrigating the land beneath our feet, so if we are products of our environment then those who dine on privilege need to check themselves when dealing with cultures which are not theirs. Nowadays “starving children” can speak for themselves.

This aside, “Favela Rising” has all the elements of a great film: compelling story, loveable protagonist, and volatile setting. Shiva, the destroyer goddess is a key element in AfroReggae, an organization which grew from the literal ashes of the favela where the story takes place.

I've seen a lot of films about favelas and the police, Brazilian prisons and the dispensable nature of Black life… a value shared by police, the outlaws and much of Brazilian society. Why is Black life valued so little? Why does the government penalize the poor for poverty?

Why favela in the first place?

Why are African people located on the outskirts of society in illegal settlements? Why is our sister Benedita da Silva seemingly a lone voice and even she now a careful politician who walks on eggshells preaching the gospel, not the revolutionary words of ancestors who resisted European domination?

“Favela Rising” answers none of these questions, yet somehow one knows Anderson and the rest of the Afro Reggae crew know the answers because they are calling on the ancestors from Bob Marley to El Hajj Malik, while sisters sing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika – the South African National Anthem. It’s a mixed bag there, as mixed as the bag we occupy in the States…AfroReggae, a Pan African movement strategy at its finest.

Anderson Sá is the perfect hero – he’s fearless, loves his people, provides leadership, and is willing to die for what he believes in. His decision to stop being an outlaw and join an organization AfroReggae Noticias (AfroReggae News), which morphed into Nucleo Comunitario de Cultura (“Cultural Community Center)…which became Grupo Cultural AfroReggae or GCAR in 1993, organizations born out of a “desire to counteract the violent drug industry and police oppression,” film notes state. GCAR believes that from the ashes of despair greatness is born is one of the films most exciting moments.

This is where the film begins, with the birth of this new cultural institution with structured facilities throughout their community.

Afro Reggae members provide the change they want to see… and because their work is providing a visible change, they have the respect of the outlaws, if not the police. Crime is down where AfroReggae offers workshops in music, capoeira, theatre, hip hop, and dance in other favelas – 700 in total throughout Brazil, not just Rio de Janerio. Afro Reggae which has a performance arm does not impose its program for social change on any other community unless invited, because what works in one favela might not be the answer in another. They liked music; another favela might want to do something else, like start a community newspaper. Since October 2001 in Parada de Lucas, a slum next to Vigário Geral, where the drug gangs have been fighting since 1983, GCAR offers basic IT/computer courses.


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