Memory as Source of Conflicts in Film Reality Depiction

in 39th Toronto International Film Festival

by Télesphore Mba Bizo

“Crack a joke about somebody’s mother” as you are about to hit them! It affects their brain, causes confusion and destabilizes the opponent. Hongi is given this piece of advice by the custodian of the forbidden “Dead Lands”, in Toa Fraser’s New Zealandic film The Dead Lands. The teenager is out to challenge the killer of his father and his tribe. The initiative is rather triggered by others. It is a call for revenge from elderly women who survived clan cleansing. There begins the memory issue. The young orphan is just in need of food and drink for ordinary survival in the bush. He is still “Tabula Raza” — a sort of blank sheet with a naive mindset, ready to welcome any content. But the world around him starts filling in the blank sheet even againts his will. He is now assigned to be a man. In other words, he has to become an individual with a loaded mind. Encouraged by the women folk, the teenage warrior then sets out to reconquer the lost prestige. This quest for honour results in the hero making himself a prisoner of tribal(istic) memory. Here, “the best is always mine or ours”. The others are good for death. At this level, any Black African film critic has to pause. History sometimes reveals evil hierarchies. Some are said to be superior. Others have it that they are inferior. But the day that we remember that we were all born equal, as the Universal Declaration reads, war ensues. The Hutu and Tutsi genocide started on the same groundsas described in Hotel Rwanda.The civil war among fellow compatriots in the same nation accounted for over one million deaths in 100 days. The tragedy that hit this country of the Great Lakes region can be evidenced ever where else across Black Africa in case an evil superiority complex is nurtured.

A Movie For Film Schools

For sure, the plotin The Dead Lands is not breaking new grounds. Its commercial revenge format isimported from China to New-Zealand with some difference, though, thanks to both geographical and cultural proximities. Apart from the peace message, the film attracts attention for the excellent camera work. All scenes are virtually out-doorsvery much like inauthorial African cinema. At times, the human being, running across mountains and valleys, is seen as a tiny distant element of the cosmos. He is exposed to all sorts of catastrophies, and ill-fates. His life or death here depends on superior beings. In the animistic “Dead Lands”, survival is linked to dialogues with the ancestors. Whitchcraft then becomes a well grounded religion as depicted in the film. The dead have a say over the individual’s day-to-day existence in pre-colonial times. The sole difference from the South African Shaka Zulu is the absence of drums, and that all characters are White in The Dead Lands. Nakedness is the same.People use tree bark fibres with ropes to cover their private parts in a Tarzan-like environment. The other coincidence is that elderly women hold the secret of afterlife as they go consulting ancestors for advice.

The beauty of the cinematography also caught the attention of critics in Susanne Bier’s A Second Chance (En chance til). Actually, the technical aspects of this work of art par excellence can be tought in film schools. Nothing was left to chance regarding location and shooting. The camera is positioned in between the railways. The directoris focussing on the trouble ofa boy, using close shots to transfer sadness. His family is falling apart. He is unable to read music during the rehearsals of the American Boys Choir. Yet, his talent for singing is undoubted. This son is also the child that no one would like to have at home. He throws stones at windows, insults adults, beats his mates.

Violence as Substitution of Parental Protection

Here the memory issue is raisedonce again. Susanne Bier does it in a subtle manner. Pictures of the boy’s mother are pasted all over the rehearsal room. Other choir group members are unfair to him. The mother happens to be the embodiment of shame. The boy finds it hard to associate with the ridiculous woman as none would like such a portrayal of their mother, especially when allegations challenging her integrity are found to be true. So, the boy’s reaction is the one of the street fighter that he is due to parental neglect.

The boys also becomes a prisoner of his memory. The love for his mother turns him into an impostor. He fights to secure her good image. The blows that he gives attempt to substitute the absence of parental protection. This is blatant hatred against the outside world. In Hal Hartley’s Ned Rifle, it is rather hatred against the father. He is an alcoholic womanizer, incarnating human failure. The wife is dumped and finds herself in prison. The son, another “memory addicted fellow”, blames the sad case on his father. The film discloses the lesson that church is not peace. Religion can be harmful as christianity sometimes turns into silencing in-born violence. There are times when believers do not listen to God. Or, God is reduced to their tiny memory. Actually, on the one hand, the son has the Bible. On the other, he seizes the gun. He assigns himself to kill, using bullets of anger. Yet, he spends nights and days praying. The same Bible-Gun contradiction occupies post-colonial African cinema. Indeed, the missionaries introduced the Bible. Actually, they were paving the way for colonial masters to settle a few years later. The Good versus Evil opposition in Ned Rifle is captured by the costume designer. Clothes are Black or White in most cases. They merge both the church goer and would-be murderer now identified in one single person. But is the killing really effective? The talent of the director lies in those intricacies.

Existence By Birth Taking Precedence over Existence by Descent

Women are also victims to obsessive memory, especially memory of love. Christian Petzold’s Phoenix celebrates post-war romantic revival in Germany. The heroine has survived the Holocaust. The director escapes the beaten track, that is allowing the heroine to travel to Tel-Aviv in Israel. The off-screen side of the camera has it that it is the promised land for Jews. But the sole memory that counts in her mind is Germany and the husband whobetrayed her and wanted her dead in order to inherit her wealth. The woman identifies with Germany rather than Israel. The situation is unprecedented for an African film critic who has always considered Germany to be the country where existence by blood or descent prevails over existence by birth. Germany is champ de ruines. But she prefers it. The film does a good job at disclosing human greed. The counter-heroine cannot be awarethat she is falling into a trap as she hides behind a mask. A war wound on her face has compelled her to undergo aesthetical surgery. She is now a lady with dual identity: both a pre-war being, and post-conflict consciousness. It is the addition of those two time-frames that generates the truth. As such, the husband is short-sighted in the field of ruins called Germany.

Charming Closing Scenes

The magic in Phoenix is unveiled in the closing scene, as in Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind. Its ending affects father-daughter ties. The reasoning that a father has to survive on his own holds. But survival is a nightmare in post-industrial America where identity has been lost. Life in shelters for homeless people is just unbearable. Answering quite a bunch of questions is a prerequisite for daily food. No memory, no dish. That describes the fate of individuals suffering abject poverty in rather powerful America. Yet the director subtly conveys that for homeless people life is better on the street. Shelters are more dehumanizing. Time Out of Mind is a movie about lack of awareness. Phoenix, The Dead Lands, A Second Chance, and Ned Rifle all showcase excess awareness. In both cases, the human being lacks genuine joy.

Edited by Yael Shuv