Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Powerful African Presence in Euro-Film Fete


By Margaretta wa Gacheru
Appeared in Daily Nation's Zuqka, Nairobi
May 25, 2012

There’s a powerful African presence reflected in the 21st European Film Festival currently running through May 27th at Alliance Francaise. No less than five of the 17 films being screened in Nairobi, Kisumu, Eldoret and Mombasa this month tell Africans’ stories mixed into multi-racial themes.

The cinematic storytellers are all Europeans coming from 15 EU countries, but the themes they address are global, often transcending national borders. For instance, they include everything from legal and illegal immigration (Black Brown White and Wall to Wall) to racial tension and bigotry (In a Better World and Sonny Boy), to love relations that transcend race, class and ethnic boundaries (Kidnappet).

And if one includes all the World War II stories that portray the plight of Jews and other racial minorities in Nazi-infested Europe, like Nicky’s Family, Sonny Boy, and Lipice, one can’t help but take note of the globalized nature of the Festival itself.

Cultural tensions among Arabs living in the Western world are also evident in films like Operation Casablanca and When We Leave. Such conflicts are fascinating to watch, especially as they certainly seem to be rooted in the realities of ordinary people’s everyday lives.

The films themselves also make one appreciate the fact that Hollywood is no longer at the cutting edge of what’s going on in the cinematic world today as far as globalization and North/South relations are concerned.

But a film like Lost in Africa (Kidnappet in Danish) also raises a number of issues which seem inevitable when it’s someone from the North making a movie about the South, specifically Kenya and more precisely Kibera, said to be the largest and most photographed slum in Africa.

In this case, it’s the Danish filmmaker Vibeke Muasya’s award-winning film that is bound to stimulate debate. There’s no doubt Ms Muasya (who was married to the Denmark-based Kenyan, Charles Kyalo Muasya, for more than 20 years) is well intentioned.

“My films are aimed at generating awareness. I make them to examine how deeply we are bonded, no matter how different we may seem,” said the filmmaker whose movie Lost in Africa has won no less than twelve international film awards since she filmed a major chunk of it in Kibera between January and March of 2010.

Moved to make the plight of AIDS orphans in Africa one of the main sub-plots of her first feature film, Vibeke finds a North/South connection in one AIDS orphan named Simon (Simon Larsen) who was one of the fortunate few to get adopted at birth and air-lifted ‘out of Africa’ to Europe where he grows up a full-fledged Danish citizen with middle-class professional parents who love him very much.

Slightly spoiled and self-centered, the eleven-year-old Simon accompanies his well-intentioned mother (Connie Nielsen), an MD, back to homeland where he immediately gets “lost” in the slum situated not far from his luxurious tourist hotel. And here is where the controversy begins.

Simon’s football gets swiped by ‘un-adopted’ AIDS orphans who he chases deep into the slum. The cinematic work by the Danish-American cameraman is awesome, but Amos (Amos Odhiambo) and his street-wise friends are mini-thieves who not only grab Simon’s ball, but also his cell phone.

Maxi-thieves headed by a nasty crook called Snake (Bernard Okoth) then proceed to steal his shirt and shoes as Simon’s survival instincts kick in. But only for a short time since there’s a crime syndicate that Simon can’t escape. It’s run by a rich ‘untouchable’ African super-crook who’s so dirty, he not only has all the cops in his pocket. He deals in drugs, guns and who knows what else. 

When Simon’s Danish mom does a series of dumb things - first, leaving her eleven year old all alone unattended for hours in a strange country, then, going on national television and announcing a Sh100,000 reward for her son’s return - the boy’s fate seems sealed. He’s kidnapped and only saved at the last minute by Amos who nearly loses (redeems) his own life to save his new-found friend.

It’s a film full of ironies, twists and insights, many of which Vibeke gained while working with John Odoli, the Kenyan founder of AIDS orphanage called Kibera Hamlets. Odoli helped the filmmaker cast the children, who were truly the stars of the film.

But as well intentioned as Vibeke may be, the salient issue remains: does her film simply reinforce ugly stereotypes about poverty, callous cruelty and never-ending futility of slum-life in the South, which, since films like Slum Dog Millionaire and even Constant Gardener, have become ‘scenic’ backdrops for films that fixate on African filth, underdevelopment and corruption.

Simon gets ‘saved’ in the end by the acrobatically-trained AIDS orphans who literally reach out and pull the boy they call ‘mzungu’ out of captivity to his freedom.  Inadvertently, Vibeke’s message seems to be that Simon’s salvation is getting on a plane and flying back to Europe.

One has to congratulate Vibeke for tackling such ambitious topics as crime syndicates in Kibera, especially ones that exploit under-age orphans who have no protector except the odd priest, occasional foreign donor or Kenyan Good Samaritan. Still, it’s difficult to escape the Eurocentric perspective however sensitized the filmmaker may be. 

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