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African Diaspora Festival at BAM

“When pure water becomes murky, mystery is king.”

<i>Women Indies Night</i> screening and panel discussion with independent African American women filmmakers sponsored by NYWIFT. Photo courtesy of
Women Indies Night screening and panel discussion with independent African American women filmmakers sponsored by NYWIFT. Photo courtesy of

Malian filmmaker Assane Kouyaté’s Kabala explores the cultural dilemmas facing a tiny Mandé village packed away from the modern world. It is a morality tale following the travails of Hamalla, the outcast son of a village elder who courageously confronts some of the destructive beliefs and traditions practiced by his village. Exiled because he is a bastard child, Hamalla returns when Kabala is stricken with an epidemic caused by the town’s well releasing murky water. Against the advice of outsiders, the elders refuse to build another well or repair the damaged one—it would defile the spirits of their forefathers inside the well. Having engaged African modernity while working Mali’s “Land of Mines,” Hamalla returns intent on rescuing his village from itself. Conflict arises when the elders refuse Hamalla’s offer to mend the sacred well and curse his questioning any of the village’s ancient customs.

Filled with lush cinematography of the quiet Mali countryside, Kabala presents an elaborate story weaving through the complexities of African society. It recalls the films of Ousmane Sembene, whose recent Moolaade traversed similar terrain. Kabala is a psychological examination of the African relationship to societal traditions versus Western modernity, in both positive and destructive guises. In this concern it follows the tradition of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The story is sometimes told in song by Hamalla’s mother, another village reject and rumored to be a witch, lamenting the story as it unfolds. Her story is that of the village’s oppression of women—polygamy, exploitation—which the elders slowly begin to acknowledge as being a disgrace on the village.

Forced to take extreme measures to combat some of his village’s extraordinary superstitions, Hamalla pretends to be insane (in a manner reminiscent of Hamlet) so that he might be viewed as less of a threat to the elders and hence free to hatch a plan to repair the blighted well. The story is at times so melodramatic and angst filled that it resembles a West African take on an Antonioni drama—albeit with its extended shots of pensive characters pouting and emoting through the Mandé countryside instead of Rome. Astonishing religious ceremonies employing fire, animal sacrifices, chanting, drumming, and intricate masks present a cultural vigor unlike anything we are bound to experience in Western cinema.

Following the near rape of a reluctant bride and an attack on Hamalla’s mother by a morally bankrupt member of the tribe, the elders gather and acknowledge that the well’s state of disrepair must be addressed. A spirited fete of drumming and dancing ensues as the village celebrates the resolution of the drama. Or, as Joseph Conrad is quoted in the film:

"The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

Peter Bate’s Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death is a blistering documentary about the vicious reign of terror Belgian King Leopold II unleashed upon colonial Congo from 1885 to 1908. It was a tale virtually lost for many years, until the recent publication of Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost.

Bate’s film is structured as a mock trial of Leopold, stoically portrayed in powerful reenactments by an aged actor on a sound stage. The film then proceeds to an interspersing of documentary still footage shocking in its methodical rendering of the sordid, ugly tale of colonial Congo’s rapid progression from aggressively colonized land to ruthless hell of slavery and murder. The story evokes the most vicious holocausts of the 20th century. By 1920 the Congo’s population had been reduced from 20 million inhabitants to 10 million through an inexhaustible, exploitative system of terror, the sole purpose of which was the production of enormous amounts of lucrative rubber. Displaying several written text passages from diary entries by missionaries as well as from Belgium officers themselves detailing the carnage, Bate’s film also quotes extensively from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, damning the barbarity from all perspectives.

Denounced by the Belgian government as a “tendentious diatribe” that, in effect, portrays King Leopold as architect of a gulag labor camp, Congo is a devastating chronicle of evil channeled through an unquenchable lust for natural resources. Bate’s film accuses the Belgian government of failing to this day to educate its populace about King Leopold’s reign and the source of much of the nation’s wealth. The film further asserts that the continued suffering of the Congolese—through war and exploitation now at the hands of other Africans—is yet more tragedy.

Among other highlights, BAM’s African Blood: The Best of the African Diaspora Film Festival also presents Michel Ocelot’s wonderful animated fable Kirikou and the Sorceress, Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker, and a documentary about the a cappella songstress ensemble Raise Your Voice: Sweet Honey in the Rock by Stanley Nelson.

The African Diaspora Film Festival runs at BAM from February 11 through February 17.
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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2005

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