Wednesday, 25 May 2016

PARIS LOOKS AT LIFE AND WORK OF A FIERCE WRITER

He wrote fiery novels and essays that decried injustice and racism, and now nearly 30 years after his death, Paris is hosting a conference dedicated to the “expatriate” African-American writer James Baldwin.

The conference poster.
The May 26-28 event, titled “A Language to Dwell In”: James Baldwin, Paris, and International Visions, has attracted some 230 scholars and artists, who will examine Baldwin’s legacy and global impact.

“The most important thing for us is that this is about James Baldwin – about his life, his work and his impact on readers around the world,” says Alice Mikal Craven, a professor at the American University of Paris (AUP) and co-organizer of the conference with her colleague William Dow.

“Baldwin is an academic subject matter, but at the same time he had and continues to have a great impact on people’s lives,” Craven added in an interview at a Parisian café, close to where the writer spent some of his time during his many years in France.

The author of novels including Go Tell it on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, Baldwin was a prolific writer and activist who also produced searing essays, plays and poetry about racism and the effects of inequality.

Born in 1924 in New York, he had a tough childhood as the stepson of a harsh Harlem preacher, and he experienced racial discrimination first-hand growing up in the city.

He became a preacher himself in his teens, but then was disillusioned with religion and finally found his calling as a writer. After a difficult adolescence, during which he realized he was gay, he left the United States and moved to France in the late 1940s.

There
A 2004 postage stamp, honouring Baldwin.
 he produced internationally acclaimed literature, made friends with other expatriate or exiled writers and artists, and remained actively engaged in African Americans’ struggle for equality.

He also spent time in other cities such as Istanbul, but he returned “home” to America several times to take part in civil-rights marches. Through speeches, lectures and press interviews, he was uncompromising in his condemnation of the racial situation of the time and the hypocrisy of certain leaders.

“Paris had a big impact on his writing and on his life,” says Craven. “Paradoxically, it made him want to reject the United States but also go back and help. He was less constrained in Paris than in the United States.”

Craven – a white professor who grew up in the southern state of North Carolina – said she was 12 or 13 years old when she first read Baldwin’s books and felt supported in her own discomfort at what she saw around her.

Professor Alice Mikal Craven (photo:  M / SWAN)
“The books spoke to me because I was from the South and unhappy with things as they were, and upset at hearing from adults around me that what I was witnessing was the way things should be,” she said in the interview.

According to its stated aims, the conference “hopes to be an international point of intersection for all those interested in Baldwin’s writing, from literary and cultural critics, to political activists, poets, musicians, publishers and historians”.

The numerous presentations, from a roster of renowned experts, will take place at AUP and at other venues in the city. They include debates about Baldwin and his relationship with “Art, race and Black Power”; an examination of his short stories; a look at how his work is taught today; and how his writing ties into the “Black Lives Matter” movement – which has been sparked by cases of police killings of African Americans in the United States.

Baldwin’s writing on homosexuality, and later gay rights, will also be the subject of discussion in a panel titled “Sexuality, Homophobic Masculinity and Sexual Paradoxes,” while his links with the church will feature in “Baldwin, Religion and Black Liberation Theologies”.

Artists form a key component of the conference, which equally explores the “responsibility of the artist in contemporary society”. Here, artist-scholars and performers such as Abby Dobson, Kendra Ross, jessica Care moore and Imani Uzuri will put forward their views about their own activism through the arts.

Actress Gladys Arnaud.
Up for debate, too, is the issue of who has the right to tell whose story – a question that Baldwin perhaps transcended, with stories that reach across racial, national and gender lines.

The France-based “Collectif James Baldwin” (founded by French-Caribbean theatre director Samuel Légitimus) will stage a performance, for instance, at the iconic American Church in Paris, the site where some civil-rights marches wound up in France during the 1960s.

Gladys Arnaud, a Martinique-born actress and member of the Collectif, will read a monologue from Baldwin’s 1954 play “The Amen Corner”, and she says that the author’s work has particular significance for her both as an actor and as an individual.

“For me, James Baldwin represents tolerance,” she said in an interview. “He was a great humanist, and he helped me to realize that you shouldn’t accept things as they are but to try to understand how you can effect change, without letting yourself be overcome by anger and bitterness.”

She added that through acting in plays that Baldwin wrote, her comprehension of character complexity has also deepened, because no one is ever “fully a saint or a demon – you can be both right and wrong as a character”.

Baldwin’s legacy, she said, is the idea that we should all “accept one another, in spite of our differences”. - A.M.

See INPS news agency for another version of this article: http://www.international-press-syndicate.org/index.php/arts-culture

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

FRANCE HOSTS LONG LATIN AMERICA, CARIBBEAN 'WEEK'

For the third year in a row, France is hosting a Latin America and Caribbean Week, with the aim of highlighting historical and diplomatic links and showcasing the culture of the regions.

The Semaine de l’Amerique latine et des Caraïbes runs from May 24 to June 5 – a “false week” that comprises 13 days, according to a spokesman for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“But when you like something, you don’t count the days,” he added.

Some 300 events will take place across France, including film screenings, concerts, exhibitions, literary presentations, and workshops. Universities are playing an active role with lectures on Latin American literature and cinema for instance, while UNESCO will host a round-table discussion about the influence of Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario, who lived for some years in Paris.

“We want to draw attention to a relationship that runs very deep,” said the Ministry spokesman, who spoke on “background” and so can’t be named.

“Most people don’t know about the deep and historic links between France and this part of the world. And we want to emphasize that this is not a region that’s inaccessible or dangerous as some people might think.”

He said that another message of the week is that France would like to “welcome more students from Latin America and the Caribbean”.

A Bolivian cultural presentation during the 2015 Week.
However, some critics say that Europe is not making it easy for students from the Caribbean to apply for visas and that this is an area where the French government needs to take concrete action.

In addition, the Week could include more English-speaking Caribbean countries, according to observers, as the emphasis seems to be mostly on Latin America and the French-speaking islands.

The spokesman conceded that Anglophone countries are “less present than others”, but said that this was a result of some states being represented by “non-resident” ambassadors. “It doesn’t help,” he said, adding that he hoped people would “spread the message” so there can be greater inclusion in the future.

The number of events this year – a 50 percent increase from 2015 – shows how popular the Week has become, despite its drawbacks. “There’s a spirit of spontaneity and mobilization, with many volunteers taking part,” the spokesman told reporters. “It has exceeded our expectations.”

The Semaine was created by a French Senate resolution in 2011 and is coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development. French President François Hollande would like to see the project reach the largest possible audience, according to the Ministry spokesman.

About 45 towns will be participating over the 13 days, with involvement from the private sector, public bodies and community groups. For more information on the programme, see: http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/dossiers-pays/ameriques/evenements/article/semaine-de-l-amerique-latine-et-des-caraibes-24-05-05-06-16

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

MEXICAN FILM DISSECTS NIGHTMARE OF HEALTH CARE

By Dimitri Keramitas

A Monster with a Thousand Heads (Un Monstruo de Mil Cabezas), the Mexican film directed by Rodrigo Pla, falls in the melodramatic “mad as hell” sub-genre, which many viewers might not consider particularly original. But the movie - which has been nominated for several awards - contains relevant, intriguing elements that will touch a chord, especially among those who’ve found themselves up against medical-insurance bureaucracy.

The film's English-language poster. 
Here, social iniquity provokes the protagonist’s rage, in the tradition of Paddy Chayevsky’s films Network and The Hospital. Pla’s work is a social drama, exposing in this case the inhumanity of the health-care system in Mexico, and it’s the sort of subject that makes for powerful, brick-in-the-face filmmaking. But Monster is much more mesmerizing than that.

Partly this is because of the performance of Jana Raluy as Sonia Bonet, the wife of a seriously ill man whose treatments have been stopped by his insurance company. She sets out to find out who has authority over the matter and to force them to reverse the decision.

Sonia gets more and more desperate, but she is astonishingly persistent in the face of the impediments thrown before her. She also maintains a balance with her more human side, especially as she is accompanied throughout her search by her son Dario, a teenaged Sancho Panza constantly calling into question the Quixotic actions of his mother. Raluy’s face, attractive yet stolid, expresses the obdurate spirit of Sonia’s character.

Impressive as Sonia is, she’s ultimately no match for the Kafkaesque labyrinth she finds herself in. When she goes to the hospital to meet with her husband’s doctor he refuses to see her. She chases him down and makes him tell her the name of the insurance company official who cut off the medication. She’s somehow gotten hold of a large pistol to force the issue, but one person leads to another – everyone is responsible but no one is responsible. As in the myth of the Hydra, when you cut off one head of a corrupt system, another takes its place.

A still from A Monster with a Thousand Heads.
The director is skilful in evoking the Kafkaesque atmosphere. The film is filled with little dissonant moments (a sudden blurring of the action, jarring cuts, slightly askew angles) that add up to an off-kilter universe. When violence occurs it happens fast, erupting out of nowhere. From time to time we hear the proceeds of the heroine’s future trial (which provides some of the film’s suspense). This represents not only a teasing flash-forward but also another Kafka reference, though only as a haunting voice-over.

Although the film presumably is set in Mexico, it really takes place in an unidentifiable gray urban-scape (reminiscent of the nightmare city of John Boorman’s surreal thriller Point Blank). Everything looks washed out and drably lit. What’s also unsettling is that while we see various denizens of the creepy settings, we never see or hear the husband who is the raison d’être for the long trek of Sonia and her son. This is normal enough, as he’s supposed to be unwell, but there’s something premonitory about it as well.

Director Rodrigo Pla
It would have been interesting to see what sort of man the husband was, what sort of marriage he and Sonia had - what motivates her. Instead, what emotional texture there is in the film comes from the relationship between mother and son. Dario (serviceably played by Aguirre Boeda) seems like a typical adolescent caught up in his parents’ ordeal. Yet when things get out of hand at one moment, it is he who goes over the edge.

Still, Sonia is the real centre of this fable-like movie. She embodies a sort of female principle up against a male-dominated bureaucracy, peopled by various feckless men. It’s perhaps symbolic that she wields a large pistol to do battle with them, and not a coincidence that even the males in her family pale before her determination. Ironically, when Sonia finally confronts the shareholder at the top of the capitalist food-chain, it turns out to be a woman.

Pla’s oneiric approach shouldn’t detract from the very realistic context of his film. Health care continues to be a critical issue in many, if not most, countries. In the United States, despite President Barack Obama’s health-care reform, nightmarish experiences with the system still occur (in a country that spends more on health per capita than any other). 

Even countries with socialized medicine or national health insurance are making decisions with grave implications in the face of budgetary constraints. A Monster With a Thousand Heads shows that the distinction between calculating and killing is just a question of perspective.

Production: Buenaventura. Distribution: Memento Films (France) / Canibal Networks (Mexico) / Music Box Films (US).

Dimitri Keramitas is a legal expert and prize-winning writer based in Paris, France.