They Are We is a breezy uplifting African saga
Directed by Emma Christopher. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable.
When was the last time you heard good news from Africa? If it’s not disease, you only get word of war, poverty, or corruption. In reality, there’s a lot more going on in what used to be called the Dark Continent, but in the West, acknowledging that Africa has anything positive to offer brings up certain feelings about, you know, that whole slavery thing.
That’s exactly what brought roughly—very roughly—a million West Africans to Cuba, where most captives, working on sugar plantations and the like, had a life expectancy of seven years. Some, however, survived long enough to pass on tribal songs and dances to their offspring. Which is how people in a remote part of that benighted island came to identify themselves as Gangá-Longobá—black Cubans, most with family ties, who celebrate each December, employing rituals reenacted over a 200-year period.
Australian historian Emma Christopher filmed one of these festivals and took the footage to Sierra Leone, where numerous rural folks found the material more than familiar. Amazingly, they began pointing to one isolated village, upriver from the Atlantic coast, where a few elders still spoke the Gangá language. Even more remarkably, since the Cubans had little idea what the lyrics meant, the words still made sense, and could be translated for them.
On a follow-up trip almost two years after the project began, Christopher was able to take four of the Cubans to Sierra Leone for a kind of family reunion in almost idyllic conditions, sans electrical convenience but with a lot of good feeling for everyday life. Mostly shot by Cuban cinematographer Javier Labrador Deulofeu, the film is a riot of gorgeous colours and joyous sounds, plus some very clever graphics. Some of Christopher’s narration is slightly overwritten, and the cross-cutting sometimes wearies, but at 77 minutes, They Are We (as one of the Africans declares of the Cubans) is a breezily uplifting saga of people who did much, much more than just survive.