Friday, November 20, 2015

Everyone Who Is Here Is Here: The 2013 Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival

by Steve Light

Naoko Haruta, Life #133: 'Africa #3', acrylic on canvas, 43" x 67" (110cm x 170cm)

The 2nd Century Greek Neo-Platonic philosopher, Plotinus, wrote that the project of thinking, which is to say the project of philosophy, must always reflect to timiotaton (the most important). The 20th Century Russian philosopher Lev Shestov and the 20th Century French philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch were able to make this kind of substantiality, this most important, resonate at the center of supreme philosophical and ethico-philosophical adventures. Every year at the Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival this to timiotaton, this most important, can be found if not in abundance then certainly more than in any other film festival. It is to this kind of superlative declaration to which I inevitably, necessarily, and happily give myself at the conclusion each year of this festival!  Cannes, Sundance, New York, Berlin, Venice, Los Angeles...but then our epoch is one in which the film festival, like the biennale in the world of art, has become de rigeur for every city but, precisely, in the constricting context of reified globalism, prestige, self-promotion, and Capital, which is to say precisely in the context where the most important will not be found.
      War Witch or Rebelle is a short feature, written and directed by Kim Nguyen. Like Tyson Conteh and Arthur Pratt's Family at the 2010 Pan African Film Festival, Kathy Busby's My Purple Fur Coat at the 2005 festival, like Xelinda Yancy's Time Out and like Julius Amedume's The Phone Call at the 2004 festival, Ms. Nguyen's film brings us a cinematic diction of rich and sustaining vibratos. In many ways her little film could be cited as the gem of the 2013 festival just as I would cite the aforementioned short features as the gems of their years. In fact I can easily say that if the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, in a little essay, "The Most Beautiful Six Minutes in the History of Cinema" (in his book of short essays, Profanations) can cite as his example a passage in Orson Welles' never-completed film on Don Quixote, then I can well cite the concluding minute of Conteh/Pratt's nine minute short as "the most beautiful minute in the history of cinema" although there are passages, especially in the films of Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu, that could easily qualify, indeed, easily embody as supreme exemplars and actualities either the most beautiful minute or the most beautiful six minutes in the history of cinema.   
     The Eastern Congo is the setting of Nguyen's film—the Eastern Congo which hold's the world's richest supply of coltan, the mineral essential for cell phones and other electronic gadgetry. And because of this, since 1997 wars have raged on and off in the Congo and upwards of five or six million people—mark this number well—have perished in a holocaust which has yet to receive its proper name or attention or grief or cessation. And the terrible violence against women and children which has taken place has gone and continues to go much too little noticed anywhere in the world. At the center of Ms. Nguyen's film is a 14 year old Congolese girl who is pregnant and whose seizing soliloquy consists of confiding in her unborn child. Everything that we should know, everything that should seize us, everything that should move us at once aesthetically, ethically, metaphysically and concomitantly in anguish, protest, and finally in a practice that would alleviate the suffering and blight, that would put an end to the global indifference which is the other side of global theft and pillage, everything is in this short feature at once in its declaratives and in its contextual exclamations and lyricisms. Will Ms. Nguyen's film make it to other festivals?  Will it gain notice and some kind of distribution? I hope it will. But it begins here and this is precisely the supreme virtue of the Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival.
     Alvelyn Sanders’ Foot Soldiers: Class of 1964 is another marvelous and beautiful exemplar of the substantial. It is a documentary about the entering class of students at Spelman College in 1964 who gave themselves to the 1960s portion of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements ("the Civil Rights Movement" as such begins not in 1960 or in 1955 but in...1865...or in another way in 1492....) at the height and at the center of active protest in Atlanta and elsewhere. The summer of 1964 was Freedom Summer. SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee), one of the most advanced and most radical of the southern civil rights organizations, founded in April of 1960 under the suggestion and impetus of the indelible and sagacious veteran of the Black Liberation Movement, Ella Baker. Baker thought that students who had initiated sit-ins in North Carolina and in Nashville where James Lawson—the keynote speaker at the SNCC founding convention and then at the 50th anniversary convention as well—had long carried out workshops for activists in Atlanta, needed to marshal and coordinate their struggle, their movement, and to do so outside the aegis of any and all elders who might impose this or that external or authoritarian or heteronomous requirement or brake. But Freedom Summer, which from the start was met by the extremities of white supremacist violence, continued into the fall of 1964 and, thereby, Atlanta, as but one example, knew the largest upsurge of protest in its history. We know this history and this struggle in broad outlines and in the names of prominent and profoundly admirable activists, Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson, Diane Nash, Bob Moses, Fanny Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, Mary King, Casey Hayden, Bob Zellner, Dorothy Zellner, Gloria Richardson, Victoria Jackson Gray etc. (see the 2011 volume Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts of the Women of SNCC), but the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Liberation Movement, as any and all movements, were first and last and always products of those who peopled it and propelled it en masse and in all concreteness and duration. The People may exist as abstraction, an evanescent formalism, but in a movement it is precisely the realm of the most important. This film tells the story of the unsung, the unnamed—yes foot soldiers, combatants—without whom there would not have been a movement at all. This is history in the realm of the substantial, this is cinema in the realm of the essential and seizing. In every movement there are committed activists who are always relatively small in relation to the larger population, but no group of activists can ever initiate an activity of duration unless there are those who make the slogan, join, a historically determinant expression and magnitude. This film gives us all of this. We learn of the actions of a number of women who at the time were 18, 17, 16 years old. We hear their voices at the time and now in historical and biographical reflection, we hear and learn about what they did, what they have become, how they remember and how their experiences endured and grew.
     This is one more strength of the Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival—its roster of documentary excellence. I would readily declare that the subjects treated by the kinds of documentaries shown at the festival are more vital and important than at any other festival. Quickly and just to cite several examples among scores and scores of superb  films I can think of biographical films in previous years about Clora Bryant, Oscar Brown Jr., Robert Williams, and Cecil Taylor. Historical films about holocausts in Namibia and in the Congo in the opening decade of the 20th Century as well as about Sophiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg which was at the center of black South Africa's musical cultures and also a place where black and white would mingle freely, and which was suppressed, shutdown, and destroyed—razed to the ground—by the South African government in the 1950s. Work by Gloria Rolando, 1912: Breaking the Silence, which tells the story of the fight for racial justice in Cuba at the beginning of the 20th Century by Afro-Cubans and of their Partido Independiente de Color (PIC), which was suppressed in 1912 when the government massacred thousands of activists either of the PIC or affiliated with it. 
     This year's central biographical documentary was also the closing night feature, Shola Lynch's Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. Unlike the women in Foot Soldiers, Angela Davis is a celebrity and her story is known, although doubtless not to the degree it needs to be and certainly not always in the socio-political dictums and advocacies her life story seeks to uphold. I would have preferred that Foot Soldiers be given this kind of feature stage and I think its content warranted it both substantially and commercially (a festival wants to attract a larger audience by virtue of its feature events and I think Foot Soldiers could have done that if given a chance).  Nonetheless Ms. Lynch's film was salutary in bringing us the model of a life lived in relation to socio-political and liberationist commitment, reflection, and courage and all the more because the struggle against the illegal and illegitimate mass incarceration of black people in the U.S. and the massive disenfranchisement this carries not just in voting rights but most importantly in the lived rights of education, familial duration, and the generalized pursuit of a fulfilled biographical(!) and socio-intersubjective life, has long been at the center of Angela Davis' efforts and activist itinerary.
     This year one could also see the superb epic feature, Toussaint L'Ouverture, which had also been screened at the festival in 2011 and 2012. That this film has not been picked up for distribution is one more indication of the exclusionist forces at play in our social and socio-cultural orders. The Haitian revolution is far more vital in its consequences for our modernity and for the course of modern history and modern consciousness than is generally acknowledged. The propellant of the foreign policies and actions of Jefferson's presidency is precisely an understanding that this Revolution is an absolute threat to plutocracy, slavocracy, and aggrandizing accumulation.  This understanding is at the basis of France's policies which are in full display in their 1830s blockade of Haiti and in the French demand, illegitimate and vicious in every respect, for "reparations" in relation to the plantations and the country liberated from them, a demand turning the world and world-historic justice upside down, given that it is France that owed the now liberated slaves immense—total—reparation for the entirety of their centuries-long labor and for the genocidal deaths of their brethren in middle passage or thereafter, labor that had propelled and vastly enriched France in both its mercantilist and now capitalist instantiations, accumulations, and "progress". Faced with the ineluctable damage, the ineluctable threat this blockade posed, Haiti was forced to accede to these "reparations" and the gigantic monetary demand of the French. Consequently and irrevocably and permanently in debt from the start the Haitian economy and Haitian wealth and development were ever thereafter and down to this day hampered internally on the one hand and externally on the other hand given the continuous harassment by powers such as the U.S. and France. The U.S. invades Haiti in 1915 and occupies the country till 1939 and continues its interventions in our contemporary epoch.
       Subsequently and in certain respects the Berlin Conference of 1885 in which European powers "divide up" the African continent can be seen as the European powers response to the morbidities and hauntings they all felt because of the Haitian Revolution. Two generations ago the studies of C.L.R. James (see his classic The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution) and those of others in kindred agreement with James were eloquent elaborations and testimonies.  But James' study was in its time isolated, however much it achieved classical status and remains vibrant even today.  Happily in the past twenty-five years there has been an increase in historical studies and historical consciousness vis-a-vis the Haitian Revolution and its socio-historical and socio-existential significance and significations. And I can quickly cite as but several examples Jeremy Popkin's You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery, Sibylle Fischer's Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, Peter Hallward's Damning the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment, and Paul Farmer's The Uses of Haiti.     
     The Haitian Revolution has not been acknowledged enough in the centrality of its world historicity and in the ways that it has functioned as a primary spur, however subterranean in this or that instance or realm, not just in relation to global geopolitical and socio-political trajectories, but also in relation to historical and philosophical reflection. But there are signs that a fuller and more extant understanding and appreciation of the animating causalities of the Haitian Revolution within historical and historiosophical as well as within epochal consciousness is now underway. Susan Buck-Morss' recent book, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History demonstrates how the Haitian Revolution was at the center, albeit at the unacknowledged center—sign and syntax of a simultaneity of introjection, willed-forgetfullness, and  repression—of Hegel's philosophy, a philosophy which more than any other forms the prime-ultimate base of modern philosophical and historical thought. And in this vein one should also consult the Catalan-French philosopher Louis Sala-Molins' The Dark Side of the Light: Slavery and the French Enlightenment.
     Haiti is also the thematic in a sparkling film by Patricia Benoit, Stones in theSun (or Woch Nan Soley in Haitian creole). Emigration stories constitute much of the film's narrative. The arc of such stories lends itself to cinematic transversals. The secret lies in knowing how to avoid the formulaic and the ready-at-hand. In telling a story of a Haitian family that has moved to New York, Ms. Benoit has avoided the traps of prefabrication. Here the film's cinematic diction gives us life in its qualities of always coming-to-be, life in the entwinements of character and socio-intelligible action. We are with the characters and not beside them or outside of them. The verisimilitudes of existential inflection are immediate in their cinematic resonance and not merely received or displayed.
     Emigration is also the theme of another splendid and moving film, Moussa Toure's La Pirogue. Here it is a question of a group of Senegalese who set out in a small fishing boat (precisely a pirogue) for the European coast. It is a journey we increasingly see in the Mediterranean and in many other parts of the world given the ravages of globalizing and marauding Capital and the depredations of the American imperium and its neo-imperialist forays. But no matter the universalizing qualities of emigration and immigration stories, these stories and especially in their contemporary contents, contexts, origins, and details remain too little known and too little understood amongst the populations of the privileged countries. And to the degree that these stores receive attention it is too often only in fragmentary, obfuscated, and distorted forms. La Pirogue is neither fragment nor snapshot, but rather a demonstrative of existential and historical episode and essence. It is the kind of film that must be seen.
       This story of global tumult and forced and unavoidable migration is also depicted in Sudz Sutherland's, Home Again, which tells us of imprisoned deportees in Jamaica who make up a prison population larger than Jamaica's regular prison population. This narrative has special relevance for us here in the States, given the utterly condemnable deportation policy of the country during its history and increasingly in the last twenty years. And since the beginning of the present executive regime there have been more deportations than under any previous administration, albeit that this number would have been the same no matter the individual exercising executive power, given that it is the policy and cumulating policy of the class in power and not of any particular executive whether Democrat or Republican. 
     But there is a paramount truth which cannot be willed away. Humans migrate—and birds, fish, and insects too, as well as smoke, seeds, sand, etc. etc. which is to say all matter tout court whether on this planet or anywhere in the universe, a universe that itself is migrating (expanding—and now at ever greater velocity) and which has been migrating from its first moments. Should there be an open border policy globally? Migration as a totalizing phenomenon is neither an ineluctable good or bad. Doubtless, for many it exists as a necessity and is, therefore, a good or partial good in the bearing of a must-take-place else a greater calamity might occur. But migrations are not without repercussions of all kinds. Nonetheless, migrations cannot be stopped—nor should they be other than in the valence of just global transformations which would eliminate the depredations of Capital and Imperium and which would, thereby, reduce the tumult and distress and suffering that lead to migration. But an open border policy globally while clearly the most ethically and socio-existentially sound and just of policies would in the present context bring further xenophobic and fascist reactions among portions of every population. Doubtless, preliminarily, in any reflection on this question, open borders ought to be the prevailing regulative idea and goal, but—and this is what is absolutely crucial and paramount—one principle should reign supreme both as idea and as instituted policy here and now, on the spot. It is this: everyone who is here is here. I speak in this instance of the U.S., but this principle must apply everywhere. At present the Dominican Republic is in the process of carrying out deportations of Haitian Dominicans who have either been in the Dominican Republic or whose families have been in the Dominican Republic for one, two, three, and more generations. As recently as 2005 there were murderous pogroms and deportations of Haitian-Dominicans and this was but the continuation of a long history of oppression and discrimination and of which the pogroms of 1937, instigated by the right wing dictatorship of Trujillo, number among the worst. Anyone who is anywhere whether newly arrived or not must be considered as being precisely in that place and of that place. Yes, everyone who is here is here and, therefore, everyone who is here should exist on the same plane in relation to available life and socio-juridical mechanism. Doubtless, one can have a bifurcation of citizen and non-citizen although this distinction can and should be subject to reflection. Political philosophers such as Hannah Arendt and Chantal Mouffe have emphasized that this distinction carries the greater possibility of subsequent equality while the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has advanced the notion that this distinction will forever bar a subsequent egalitarian and liberationist outcome. Yet, if this distinction between citizen and non-citizen is to be maintained it must carry with it an always available and quickly traversable conduit from the latter to the former. But there should be no bifurcation or hierarchy—this is the essential meaning of the idea and principle that everyone who is here is here—at the level of universalist right and universalist socio-juridical being. Those without papers should be included in all availabilities, whether health insurance, drivers licenses, tuition diminutions, etc. etc. If, for example, a society offers universal health insurance and health care, then the undocumented population must be included for otherwise the social good in question loses its claim and status of universality. This principle must and should be applied universally in all other realms of social being. And herein lies one more of the truths of the Haitian Revolution, of the Black Liberation Struggle, of the itineraries and trajectories of the SNCC activists, of the Freedom Riders, of the participants in Freedom Summer, indeed, of the itineraries and trajectories of the Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival itself.
     Steve Light, a basketball point-guard following upon Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich, and Willie Somerset—and akin as well to Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Earl Boykins—is also a philosopher and poet.  

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