Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What I'm Watching: Sankofa

Part of my plan with this blog is not just to write about writing, but also about the films, plays, and novels that I'm taking in.

Last night I went to a film series in the town where I live. I can't remember the actual title of the series, films about the African diaspora, or something like that. I'd thought that I was going to watch Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, but I was a week off, and so instead we watched Sankofa, written and directed by Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima (released in 1993).

I've been troubled by the film all day today, for various reasons. The movie is nominally about a black fashion model who is mysteriously transported (in a dream, or spiritually?) from the ruins of a Ghanaian slave fortress in the modern day, to a life/persona of her ancestor, where she is a slave on a plantation in the West Indies.

The plot is complex, and sometimes a little disjointed, but overall the film shows the cruelty of slave life on a sugar plantation in many horrific aspects, and almost entirely focused on the black slaves, with a little time spent on a Spanish priest. The white slave owners are present, but not really characters. (Which is fine by me.)

Sankofa powerfully examines the struggle of a community of slaves to preserve their own dignity while still attempting to survive, and even more than survive, actively rebel. It also looks into the relationship between current descendants of slaves and the bondage, rape, and murder that dwells permeates their history.

Unfortunately, I found myself unable to completely latch onto this film. Though the acting, especially by the lead actress, was often fiercely raw, it also was uneven, with many of the smaller roles clearly filled by non-actors. Sometimes the dialogue felt trite, even as it dealt with intensely interesting, complex social and racial situations. And, as a viewer used to slick Hollywood films, and also as a sometime filmmaker myself, the visual elements of the film were often jarring in their lack of skill. Shots might inexplicably linger on a landscape element, or we'd see a microphone boom at the edge of the frame. The camera might pan or track at odd moments. The entire piece felt like it needed re-editing. And the story fluttered about between several different sub-plots, some of which were engaging, and others that made me keep looking at the clock.

I haven't decided if the technical elements kept me at a distance from the film just because they were bad, or if because the material is so difficult and painful that I subconsciously latched onto these distractions to keep some sense of emotional composure. Probably a combination.

Making a film about slavery in the Americas is a tough act. You want to make a movie that really gets to the heart of what it was like, the violence and despair. And at the same time, it needs to be watchable. I don't know that I've seen the film about slavery that really makes me say, "Oh, I get how this worked." Most tend to show the triumph of the spirit of the slave over the degradation of his bondage. But I'm also interested in what it did to the slave owners--how did it affect and corrupt their own humanity? And for the slaves, I don't feel I've yet gotten a sense of the continuous despair that must have been part of life.

I got a hint of it last night, when one of the slaves talked briefly about not being able to continue as a head slave for the rest of his life, that the stress of the brutality that he was required to inflict up on his own people was too great. The tough thing to remember about the enslavement of African-Americans is that it didn't just go on for a few years. When we look at a Holocaust film, it seems like the Jews were in concentration camps forever. But the first camp opened in 1933 (Dachau) and then it was all over by 1945. Slavery in the Americas lasted from 1503 to 1865. More than 350 years! I find it tough to get my head around the implications.

So, I guess Sankofa (and the task of writing about it) definitely got me thinking about all of these issues (I've been at work on an historical piece about a slave during the Civil War, so I've been in this territory before) . That seems like a decent accomplishment

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