Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Nowhere in Africa

‘New Moon,’ the next film in the ‘Twilight’ series of the teen romance involving vampires and werewolves, and of course, a mainstream heroine, releases in a few months' time. The film will be a blockbuster, no doubt about it. However, what I am thinking about, is how the film is going to portray the Native American community, which plays a major role in the plotline. They are the ones who turn into werewolves. A marginal community turns even more marginal. How the mainstream Hollywood is going to handle it?
Very badly, if my hunch is right. Hollywood has always been fascinated by alien cultures — from Tarzan to the Safari movies, from ‘The Treasure of Sierra Madre’ ‘Dances With Wolves’ to ‘Out of Africa.’
Africa especially has been a fascinating subject for Hollywood. It’s the heart of darkness, a land of unexpected adventures. And, it’s always, always seen from the point of view of an outsider, the mainstream. Even when the film is set in Africa, for example, Maryl Streep-Robert Redford starrer ‘Out of Africa’, the continent and its people is relegated to mere props, nothing else. Same is the case with most Hollywood movies involving Native Americans. There are no attempts to understand the minority community; they are there to highlight the story of the mainstream protagonist. Even a genuinely sympathetic film like ‘Dance with Wolves,’ the focus is only the character portrayed by Kevin Costner. Even when he takes a wife, it’s an European raised by the native, not a native herself. To an extend, ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ tells the story of the Native Americans in a realistic manner. Here again, Hawkeye is an European adopted by the Indians.
That’s the reason why a talent like Adam Beach does not get enough work. He was, however, used to full potential in Clint Eastwood’s epic ‘The Flags of Our Father.’
It’s therefore a different feeling altogether when you come across a film that give the minority community equal importance, makes it part of the larger story, like the German movie, Nowhere in Africa (2001). Directed by Caroline Link and based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Stefanie Zweig, the film, which was awarded 2002 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, tells the story of a Jewish family that emigrates to Kenya during World War II to escape the Nazis and run a farm.
Most films tell you a story, and ask you to observe the actions from a distance. However, there are a few of them which invite you to be a part of the action. Before long, you start caring about the characters on screen and want to know what happens next; you want them to make the right decision. You want them to be happy. Nowhere in Africa is one such film.
But, what is most fascinating about the film is how the country Africa, Kenya, to be specific is used in the context of a Jewish family from Germany. There are several binaries at work here: black and white, minority and mainstream, insider and outsider...
The Redlich family is a minority in Germany, that’s why they came to settle down in Kenya. But here, being white, they are now bwana. It is especially more acute in relation to Jettel’s behaviour towards the Masai cook Owuor. As the story progresses, Jettel comes in terms with Owuor’s presence and even comes to respect it.
The tagline of the film reads, sometimes home is where you least expect it. It becomes especially true in case of Jettel, who in the beginning hates being in Africa and when it’s time to leave, she is not willing to go.
For young Regina, who narrates the story, the bridging of the cultural divide comes easily. From Day One, she feels at home in Africa. This is the only home she knows, and takes the diversity of the situation for granted. She does not find it difficult to make friends with the local children even if there is nothing common between them; only childhood innocence...

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