VIFF 2012: The Vancouver International Film Festival goes into Africa
Films about Africa are usually films about problems. These problems can be of external (the chaotic aftermath of colonialism), internal (structural weaknesses in traditional societies), or natural (disaster and disease) origin. Of the three, the middle group of problems is probably the hardest to make movies about. Ironically, it is precisely this set of difficulties that has attracted the most attention at this edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Thus, the havoc wreaked by civil war figures in both Daan Valhuizen’s Stories of Lakka Beach and Kim Nguyen’s Rebelle (the latter feature also tackling the heartbreaking, seemingly all but irreparable tragedy of the child soldier). Homophobia of a virulence encountered locally only among the most extreme members of the fundamentalist right is the subject of Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright’s Call Me Kuchu, while the even more widespread hysteria in regard to witchcraft (which, tragically, seems to fasten most often upon homeless waifs) adds a bitter tang to Marc-Henri Wajnberg’s Kinshasa Kids and (even more horrifically) Christine François’s The Secret of the Ant Children. As for the documentary form’s most unusual and personally engaged agent provocateur, this time out of the gate Danish director Mads Brügger buys a bogus diplomatic identity in The Ambassador and practices corruption for real in the Central African Republic.
Griot is not a film about problems. If anything, it is a film about solutions. It is also a film about music, the African resource that is most internationally admired (a force that manages to lighten even the gloom in Kinshasa Kids).
Of course, in West Africa, the griot is far more than just a musician. As first-time filmmaker Volker Goetze explained to the Georgia Straight about his uplifting nonfictional look at this tradition, “The griot was always very powerful, because there were no written newspapers, no written books. They had the power to kill someone, to kill them with words, since they knew all the family histories. If, for instance, the king didn’t fulfill his promises, then he would be badly praised, which created a certain degree of conflict. The kings needed the griots’ support even though, socially speaking, they ranked just above the caste of slaves.”
Being simultaneously poets, musicians, oral historians, praise singers, satirists and wits, the griots would seem to have much in common with the filidh, the Irish college of bards that flourished during pagan days, but this is a comparison that cannot be pushed too far. “There are similarities,” the director admitted, “but European society functioned differently.”
For one thing, the griots are both endogamous and close to 100 percent Muslim. Specific skills are passed down from one generation to the next. Musical masters without descendants must now count on their students to continue their various skills, although this is not a problem facing the star of Griot, since, as the director explained, “he has 20 brothers and sisters, so someone will continue his kora tradition.”
Griot, essentially a collaboration between the German-born, New York-based trumpeter-director and Ablaye Cissoko, one of Senegal’s most talented younger musicians as well as Goetze’s usual concert partner (they’ll be playing the Vogue together on Friday [September 28]), has been a long time a-comin’, as they say in the music world. “The idea of the film was first developed in October, 2007,” the filmmaker recalled, “and the shooting started in February, 2008. I had some experience with short films and music videos, but this was my first feature.” Getting the right technical team together took several years, and grants were often hard to come by. Still perseverance ultimately paid off.
As for the future, that’s still terra incognita. “Vancouver’s actually Griot’s premiere,” Goetze explained, “and we’re hoping that a good and established distributor will pick it up. Frankly, I’d rather have a lot of people see it than make a lot of money out of it.”
Now, there’s a non-Hollywood tradition that might be worth pursuing.