Sunday, November 22, 2009


Cairo International Film Festival is the kind of film festival that I like, the kind where you can watch a lot of cutting-edge films- cheap. While many other film festivals concentrate on traipsing in some Holly Woodstars for a photo-op, while sending you to one end of town for this film, another side of town for that, Cairo concentrates its films on just three central venues running simultaneously and continuously, some films playing at multiple venues at different times, so you don’t miss much unless you want to. I’m good for two feature films a day- and that’s what they are, the idea of ‘art film’ or anything less than ninety minutes relegated to the catch-all ‘experimental’ dust-bin somewhere else, as if God invented moving pictures to go on big-ass spools or nothing at all. Tell it to YouTube. Most Indian films don’t even run over two hours anymore, so pervasive is the Hollywood format, India being the country most represented here, in addition to the Arab countries combined. Except for ‘Amelia’ and ‘The Soloist’ Hollywood is not represented at all, and ‘Amelia’ is Indian-born Mira Nair’s film. Jim Jarmush’s latest film ‘The Limits of Control’ is here, but he’s hardly Hollywood. The only thing missing is festivity (‘festival’ right?), which only comes from large crowds in a centralized location… but good price will suffice. Literature is sparse, so I have no idea who won what.

Okay, in Hollywood fashion, I’ll cut to the chase scene- expect more ‘Slumdogs,’ and expect them to be made by real live Indians, not British interpreters. They’re prolific, and they’re good. Some are regional, but most come from the Bollywood system, which itself is in a process of change. The ubiquitous song-and-dance number is rapidly becoming an MTV-style number to the point that the whole film almost becomes an extension of that. Thus it’s as if in Hollywood, instead of MTV becoming advertising trailers for feature films, feature films themselves are becoming collections of MTV-style dance numbers. Some films overdo this dangerously, such as ‘Summer 2007’, a film with an important message that almost gets lost in all the glitz and glissade. That message is about the serial suicides of farmers, particularly in Maharashtra state of India, coincidentally (or not?) the state of which Mumbai (Bombay) itself is the capital. It’s a problem elsewhere in India also, and is a phenomenon without precedent in my study of world history. These deaths occur as a result of the crushing poverty and debt of the rural agricultural population, a kind of slavery to which there is only one way out apparently.

‘Summer 2007’ could be considered a ‘masala’ film I suppose, and you gotta’ love any film that opens with a dealer-like joint-smoking scene, then follows the rich-kid medical students to their classroom, where our hero immediately shows off his Alpha-male behavior and ‘party hearty’ attitude toward life. ‘Easy Rider’ does ‘Scrubs’ maybe, or ‘Animal House’? That and more as the hero ruffles political feathers by running for class president as a joke, then volunteers (with his friends) for rural service to escape the political problems and to get a posting close to the resorts of Goa. Instead they land in a whirl of rural politics and almost get killed in the process, instead finding that their own inherited wealth comes from the same degenerate system of corruption and exploitation as the disgusting one they’ve stumbled upon, one that leads to land expropriation and worse, mass suicides. The film ultimately fails by trying to accomplish too much, running almost two and a half hours and interrupting the narrative flow with repeated MTV-style filler. Re-edit the film and you’ve got a powerful film and Hollywood contender there. ‘The Damned Rain’ deals with the same problem more directly and from the farmer’s point of view, the endlessly downward spiral of poverty and debt from which there is no escape except death.

Many of the Indian films deal with these and other social problems, including the Muslim/Hindu social divide of ‘Gulabi Talkies’, a nice film that plods along a little too slow for its own good. ‘The Man beyond the Bridge’ tells a touching tale of unlikely love and social rejection when a man falls in love with a mentally challenged woman, good story. ‘Haat the Weekly Bazaar’ deals with polygamy and the local Rajasthani practice of parading a woman through town naked if she cannot afford to pay compensation to her husband for a divorce of her choosing, though nothing is expected of the husband, even when he has multiple wives. There are more fundamental issues at stake here, also. The line that “the only independent woman is a prostitute” in Indian society says more than many tome-length treatises on either side of the political fence ever could. You can’t help but cheer at the end when all the town’s women strip down to bras to show solidarity with their beleaguered colleague. Lord help us males when women finally realize it only takes one male to fertilize a hundred females, and that the rest of us are little more than dead weight, our legendary muscles useless in a high-tech society. The Dash Riprock-style penniless consort of our heroine is great comic relief here, too. But all these movies deal with the psychological suffocation and economic exploitation of village society, particularly in India, but it could apply elsewhere, also. Unfortunately very few of these movies show that city life is hardly the easy solution.

The film ‘New York’ follows the Indian diaspora overseas, and attempts to tackle the terrorism issue. It tells the tale of an all-American Indian Muslim who is mistakenly jailed after 9-11, and who subsequently becomes a terrorist as a result. As realistic as that part of the premiss is, the part where the FBI frames his long-lost best friend in order to enlist him to spy on the suspected terrorist is pushing it. And while anti-terrorist actions and rhetoric have certainly unwittingly created many terrorists in the process- a worthy message btw- to reduce our villain’s actions to one of revenge on the FBI to restore his dignity is a bit of an over-simplification of a complex issue. Dignity is certainly an issue I’m sure, but I imagine most ‘terrorists’ think a whole lot more about Israel than they do the FBI. Thus for all its pretensions and Hollywood-style savvy, its high concept fails by the very flaws in that concept.

The film that scores big on my list, though, is a non-Bollywood-style film called ‘Kanchivaram’, a ‘Communist film’ in which a silk-weaver is persecuted for trying to better living conditions for his fellow weavers at the same time that he himself is resorting to thievery to keep a boastful promise that he never should have made in the first place. Director S. Priyadarshan creates moody Bunuelian images that manage to be both lush and stark at the same time, all in a context that conjures up the best of Italian neo-realism, a tale of remembrance, as the main character returns home on parole to deal with his daughter’s sudden paralysis. I couldn’t give away the ending if I wanted to. You wouldn’t ‘get it.’ The one musical number in the film hypnotically re-inforces, rather than distracts from, the narrative flow. Catch it if you can.

Cairo International Film Festival had more than Indian films of course, but those were what caught my attention the most, as remaining faithful to their native realities while striving for universality in their narratives. The Arab films I saw were of mixed quality, ‘Pomegranates and Myrrh’ maybe the best, a very realistic ‘terrorism’ film about Palestinians whose land is in the process of being expropriated for new settlements by Israelis, and whose heir apparent is jailed for assault in the process. But the secondary theme is one of my favorites, i.e. love in the ruins. ‘Season of the Machouichi’ is a period piece about wrestlers fighting for the hand of a woman, the style going back even further than the 1900’s setting, exaggerated and stagey. ‘Casanegra’ goes into the dark seamy underbelly of Casablanca, but almost goes too far, depicting a place far more sinister than anything I can remember, almost ‘Mean Streets’ in its rudeness and barbarity, but significant shock value for an Arab Muslim film about an Arab Muslim place to an Arab Muslim audience, more like a Mexico to Europe’s US than a member of the Islamic Brotherhood.

Beside the Arab and Indian films, there were an assortment of other nationalities, particularly East European and East Asian. The one that stands out to me is ‘Twilight Dancing’ by Joshua Tong, a film with absolutely no dialogue that attempts to tell a story, through pictures, of an old man and a young attractive deaf girl with a problematic life. Parallels to ‘The Bow’ are obvious and likewise the meaning is as elusive as the images are attractive. Whether he succeeds or not is an open question, but the movie is certainly worth watching. Considering that Tong’s own written explanations reveal things that I couldn’t surmise visually, I’d say let’s keep language for the time being, uh huh.

It’s a whole new world out there, cinematically speaking. The golden age of Hollywood indie films has been supplanted by indie films from the rest of the world. Hollywood is left with its action movies, high-tech thrillers, and high-budget epics. Unfortunately these aren’t always the best movies. But it’ll survive. Meanwhile let’s feast on what the rest of the world has to offer. It’s a big world out there. Go see it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

NATIVE SPIRIT FESTIVAL- Beliefs Are for Sale, the Inca Returns, and a Local Dine’ Girl Shows Her Stuff

If combination is the essence of creativity, then it’s also key to enjoyment of it, the more incongruous the better. It’s interesting to see a ‘Native’ event in London, not exactly a crossroads of ‘native’ activity (except for a few homeless Druids). In this case the ‘native’ in question are the world’s native peoples, with the accent on Native American, both North and South American, thus making the Native Spirit Film Festival an effectively bilingual English/Spanish language event. That is not surprising, considering that it is heavily supported, if not outright presented, by Tumi UK, which is primarily a world music company. This was not a musical event, though, and if there was a focus, then it was political. The event is also affiliated with Amnesty International.

Unfortunately I didn’t arrive until the next-to-last day of the festival, so I missed much of it. But there were films about Maoris and Endoros, Igorots and Saamis, Inuits and Evenkis, and that’s just the NON-Native American groups represented. The Native American groups shown ran the gamut from Mapuche Chileno to Bolivian Aymara to Peruvian Q’ero to Brazilian Karaja’ to Mexican Zapotec and Yaqui to American Dine’, Cree, Ojibwe and Shoshone. Most of these are documentaries, frequently by people outside the tribal groups themselves, though always sympathetic. They typically detail the struggles to adjust and adapt, sometimes in unwilling submission, oftentimes in defiant resistance. In all cases the results are similar, culture clash. Other prominent themes detail the efforts to retain and revive dying traditions, often in death throes after only a few generations of clash with the dominant European culture.

A notable exception to the documentary objective treatment of natives and their struggle was a narrative reenactment of a historical episode, “In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman” by Camille Manybeads Tso, a 14-year-old Dine’ (Navajo) girl in Flagstaff, Arizona. Started as a class project, the twenty-seven minute narrative is a semi-autobiographical piece that documents a young Dine’ woman’s struggle to survive during the Long Walk in the 1860’s from Arizona to New Mexico, as told from the point-of-view of the filmmaker’s great- great- great- great­- grandmother. In other words Yellow Woman’s great-granddaughter is recounting the story told by her great-grandmother to her own granddaughter (or something like that; I lost count of the ‘greats’). This was a hard time for the home team and many died along the way, while a few brave souls hid out and survived clandestinely in Arizona.

It’s still a hard time for many on the ‘rez’ and in town and this is the other story, that of a new generation coming up with one hand being dealt to them, another being theirs to play. Camille plays hers skillfully, writing and directing a story that needs to be told. Whatever it lacks in professional chops, it more than makes up for with teen spirit. The chops will evolve with time. This story is not to be confused with the Keresan Yellow Woman story of Laguna Pueblo by Leslie Marmon Silko, though it may indeed ‘follow in the footsteps’ of it and her success. This one’s even got a killer soundtrack, including songs by Radmilla Cody and Blackfire.

One of the best films was “Q’ero: In Search of the Last Incas” by Zadoc Nava and produced by Tumi UK’s founder Mo Fini. Though listed as a 2008 film, apparently it was actually made in 1993 and details the search for- and revelations of- this remote group of Quechua-speaking natives. It seems that since then much has changed and ‘Q’ero Tours’ are now standard tourist fare, with all the good and bad that that entails. But of the films I saw my favorite was probably ‘Spirits for Sale’ by Folke Johansson, documenting the use of ‘Native American wisdom’… by non-Natives for non-Natives. This is a touchy subject, and even touchier after the sweat-lodge deaths in Sedona, AZ a few weeks ago, but you can’t help but get a little chuckle from watching sweat-lodges being erected in Scandinavia while their own Lapp/Saami populations are as marginalized and ignored as natives ever were and are in America. ‘Sauna’ is a Saami word and its original use and intent is almost exactly the same as that of Native Americans (hint hint). Aside from any religious implications, it doesn’t take a modern genius to realize that many bacteria and viruses are not going to survive the heat of saunas, or fever. The irony of course is that at the same time they’re being marginalized, natives are still being exploited and even glorified en absentia. The other side of the coin is that non-Natives are an important part of many native communities and vice-versa, and progressive peoples on both sides can easily see beyond false divisions and false inclusions. Nietzsche of course said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but then he said a lot of stuff.

Native Spirit Festival was NOT an academic event, and that might be the festival’s weak point, the fact that some dubious science was presented, only lightly supported by evidence, e.g. the claim that Native Americans numbered some 120 million souls at the time of conquest, a number much larger than any evidence can really support, “compared to only 80 million Europeans,” as if reproductive success carried the same weight for cultural evolution as it does for biological. Another speaker claimed that Aymara culture was the base for Inca culture, news to me, probably them, too, not to mention that Evo’s election to the Bolivian presidency signals a “return of the Inca(s), as foretold in prophecy.” But this is a ‘Native Spirit’ festival, not ‘native science,’ so not a biggie. The spirit was good. Certainly there’s always a bit of ‘wannabe’ attitude in anything like this, whether it’s ‘wannabe’ Indian, or Spanish-speaker, or Aboriginal, or filmmaker, or primitive or intellectual or journalist or whatever, but that’s given; otherwise none of us would be there.

The only real problem with the Native Spirit Festival that I can see is that it needs more publicity… and attendees. I only knew about it because they sent an advert to to my e-mail inbox, and for a town the size of London, you should be able to expect more than a couple hundred viewers. I don’t think it even made the daily Metro ‘zine. To be sure these are not Holly-docs with a crew of dozens flying in and setting up camp and catering for a cast of hundreds… but that’s the beauty of it. Many of the people involved would not let even a Nat Geo crew come in and have their way… then leave. These are films made by people intimately involved with their subjects. Show ‘em some love. Irony is cool and juxtaposition sublime, but love is what makes the old heart tick.

Monday, November 09, 2009

TOTO LA MOMPOSINA’s “La Bodega”- the Missing Link?

I’ve always wondered at the musical concept “Afro-Latino,” usually expressed as “Afro-Cuban” with no ensuing explanation, as though the meaning were obvious, even though there is little or no documentation of this. Presumably the existence of a full range of drums and percussions indicates an African origin to most ‘Latino’ music, the hows and whys and wherefors interpolated to fill in the gaps. They may very well be right, of course, but almost no weight is given to Native traditions, which also have strong drumming traditions. Just because few indigenous people are left, at least with their original disease-susceptible DNA, does not mean that they didn’t play an important role in the early mix of cultures, nor that they didn’t survive in a more vigorous hybrid with imported Africans, a fact which IS documented, though the extent of it subject to speculation. Cuba is NOT majority African, and is in fact one of the least African of Caribbean islands, most of which tend toward reggae, or even gospel (yep) in their musical tastes. Go figure.

As Toto herself would say on her new album “La Bodega,” these are “Cosas pa’ pensar” (‘things to think about’). Of course history is purely academic, but identity is not. Much of what we enjoy comes from the meaning and identity it has for us, whether punk or hiphop or salsa or rock or classical. Toto ‘La Momposina’ offers an interesting glimpse into the history of Latino music, hers being an archaic style which has generally been superseded by more modern forms for modern listeners. Thus it offers an interesting glimpse into the past. Toto acknowledges Native contributions up-front, also, and though Colombia was hardly the locus of the ‘high’ Quechua-speaking cultures of the Andes, it was a mix-and-mingle area for those and the locally advanced Chibcha and the Caribbean island cultures and even an Amazonian culture which has yet to be well documented. Colombia’s choppy terrain and diverse regions has allowed much of those cultures to survive in one form or another.

The original musical format is flute and drum as in song #2 ‘Margarita’ and grows in complexity from that starting point. In Toto’s case that means brass, and Toto uses much of that. The album leads off with it on “Manita Uribe” and never strays far. Guitars have no place here, not as a lead instrument anyway. Toto loves traditions and stays close to them. She also loves her country, too, a common theme throughout her work, as in the third song “Sueno Espanol” (‘Spanish Dream’), “Soy Latinamericana… de mi tierra no me voy olvidar,” (‘I’m a Latina; I won’t forget my land’). In “Yo Me Llamo Cumbia” (‘My Name Is Cumbia’) the theme gets extrapolated into a hierarchy of belonging, the local cumbia acting in the role of first person- “soy la cumbia, soy Colombiana… soy Barranquillera… soy de aqui, donde naci’” (‘I’m cumbia, I’m Colombian… I’m from Barranquilla… I’m from here, where I was born’).

She loves her times as much as her place, the old times and traditions, wasting no words about her feelings for those who have usurped them. “Recuerda los Tiempos viejos… cosas van cambiando…no hay tierra para cultivar… no hay tobacco ni para fumar… la riqueza se han llevado” (‘remember the old days… things now changing… no land to cultivate… not even tobacco to smoke… the wealth has all been carried off’) she sings in ‘Cosas pa’ Pensar’. But beyond the time and the place and the right or the wrong there is an air of unreality to it all, or rather the magical reality of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, also native to the area, she singing about “jardines de mis Amores” (‘gardens of my loves’) in ‘Duena de los Jardines’ (‘owner of the gardens’), which sounds like a title right out of his oeuvre.

Like vallenato, another archaic Colombian style, Toto’s songs don’t even sound like they should be coming through microphones and speakers, much less iPods and laptops. You should be listening in the evening’s first cool breeze in a hot sultry jungle town, sitting on the porch and sipping a drink while the band plays and the lights come on one by one around town. This is music that carries its world with it, setting up camp and staying a while, until its time to move on. It WOULD be nice to see what some big-city producers and mixers would do with the raw material, though, but I guess we’ll have to wait for that. That’s “La Bodega” by Toto La Momposina. Check it out.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

MUMIY TROLL’s “Paradise Ahead”- New EP, Live in SD

If you were a Russian, what would you do after seventy years of stifling Communist domination? Probably the same thing you’d do if you were a western European after fifteen hundred years of Catholic domination, you’d go a little bit crazy. That’s only natural. Still it’s nice to know that the sworn enemy we were once facing down and squaring off with in a little game called ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ are in fact not only nice people, but… know how to party. The challenge is to channel all that newly unleashed energy into something creative… like Mumiy Troll. Now if you’re thinking that this is Gogol Bordello II, well… not exactly. These guys party, but not exactly like that. Whereas Gogol Bordello is essentially an act, an updated ‘village people’ if you will, this is legitimate rock-and-roll (Gogol B’s Eugene Hutz is a good actor btw; check out ‘Everything is Illuminated’). Eugene will get over his bitterness at not heading up a Putumayo ‘Russian Wedding Album.’ That’s a joke, and if you don’t ‘get it,’ then read his MySpace rant.

Mumiy Troll is the real thing, though, good ol’ fashioned R&R, Russian style. Appropriately enough, they’re from Vladivostok, surrounded on one side by China and the other side by… a view of Sarah Palin’s house, maybe? They’ve worked the clubs, too, not unusual at all to see their flyers decorating the light posts all over East Europe, especially in the CIS, where everybody still speaks Russian. Now, after years of working the old Warsaw Pact, they’re ready to take on the States, and they’ve got a new English-language EP to facilitate it. It’s called ‘Paradise Ahead’ and is full of their trademark eccentric rock. Beyond the silliness, though, lies some good story-telling and imagery, much of it documenting the hilarious horror of the Cold War, at least in metaphor if not in fact. The song ‘Nuclear Station’ is a good example of this, a metaphor for millenial love and romance- “It’s a whole new sensation, in our nuclear station. Only I know the secret to melt two hearts… chain reaction.”

Remember the Russian submarine incident? Listen to ‘Smog,’ i.e. smoke, “cold and dark underwater, I’m feeling drunk, it’s getting hotter… once more chance to kiss my sweet baby daughter.” They can also get semi-philosophical, as in ‘Mothers and Daughters’ about the futility of war and human plans in general- “go through this world in peace, where oceans rage and roar, lighting darkness with our dreams, we still can’t see the shore.” And of course sometimes they can be just plain silly, as in ‘Polar Bear’-“… you polar bear, me Eskimo.” The title song probably sums it up best- “you gotta’ like it… this planet is fun, yeah.”

The live show is even better. I saw them do a one-hour set last night at The Casbah in San Diego and it was… f***ing great. They opened with ‘Nuclear Station’ alternating in Russian and English, and took it from there. Most of the set, in fact, was in Russian, and if that seems strange, you have to consider that the entire Russian ex-pat community (under 40) was probably there. How do I know that? Did I check ID’s? No, but the fact that the audience could sing along to nearly every song was a clue, that and the fact that they presented the band with flowers. That’s not normal. There were plenty of blondes and their green-card husbands in the crowd, too, some with word bubbles over their heads reading, “What the fu…” Real live Russian girls! How often do you get that at your local club?

Frontman Ilya Lagutenko, in addition to being a good vocalist, is a natural-born showman, though more of the cutesy cuddly silly kind than one of Gogol’s dead souls re-born (imagine Dana carvey fronting a band). The band is no-nonsense, though, kicking ass at speeds sometimes approaching warp. I was afraid someone might lose it (his mind, that is). It was impossible to sit still, and surveillance footage showed that even Hardie K’s feet both left the floor simultaneously more than once, and that doesn’t happen every day, I’m tellin’ you, son… Alas, it all ended too soon, and without an encore, boo hoo. I intended to stay up and watch them on Craig Ferguson for that, but… you know, zzzzzz…… Forget the PR rap about the ‘Russian Rolling Stones.’ I’d say… maybe… Talking Heads? Check ‘em out.

search world music

Custom Search