Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 22, 2013

You Don’t Need Feet to Dance; Benda Bilili

Filed under: Africa,disabled,Film,music — louisproyect @ 10:43 pm

A new film opening day in New York and one that opened last year focus on African musicians who overcome disabilities—polio in particular—to make a life for themselves. They succeed both as inspiring testimonies to the ability of the disabled to surmount steep odds as well as the irresistible charm of African music and culture.

Opening today at the Quad Cinema, Alan Govenar’s documentary “You Don’t Need Feet to Dance” is a portrait of Sidiki Conde, a 52-year-old man from Guinea, West Africa who was stricken by polio in 1975. Initially almost completely paralyzed by the virus-borne ailment largely a thing of the past in richer countries, he regained the use of his entire body above his waist through strenuous exercise so much so that he gets around in most places by walking on his hands. When he was confronted by the need to dance in an initiation rite, he satisfied the requirements by by dancing on his hands rather than his feet.

First Run Features provides some background on Sidiki’s musical accomplishments:

Sidiki ran away to Conakry, Guinea’s capital city, where he and his friends organized an orchestra of artists with disabilities recruited from the city’s streets. They toured the country, striving to change the perception of the disabled. In 1987, he became a member of the renowned dance company Merveilles D’Afrique, founded by Mohamed Komoko Sano. Sidiki became a soloist and served as rehearsal master, composing and directing the company’s repertoire. He also worked as a musician and arranger with Youssou N’Dour, Salifa Keita, Baba Maal and other popular musicians.

In 1998 Sidiki relocated to New York City where he continues his efforts as a professional musician and a trainer to the disabled, especially children. In one of the more intriguing moments of the film, you see him rehearsing with a band called Afro-Jersey that includes Terre Roche on guitar. If that name rings a bell, it is because she was one of the Roche sisters, a fabulous band that developed a cult following in the 1980s. I confess to being a member of that cult and have no regrets—something I can’t say about my membership in the Trotskyist movement.

As a kind of parallel story to Sidiki’s, this is also about the glories of life in New York. As you see Sidiki wending his way through the streets of New York, relying occasionally on the kindness of strangers, you understand that beneath its gruff exterior, there is no better place on earth to live. It is also a deep pleasure to see Sidiki taking part in African customs, going to a mosque, in other words all the things that drive Fox TV nuts. When I think about Golden Dawn terrorizing African immigrants in Athens, it makes my blood boil. If anything like this ever developed in New York, expect to see me going out to confront the fascists even though I am something of a physical coward.

Staff Benda Bilili is a Congolese band made up of disabled musicians just like Sidki Conde. In 2010 Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye made a documentary titled “Benda Bilili” (the words mean “look beyond appearances” in Linglala) that is now available as a DVD from Netflix. Additionally, you can watch the movie on Vimeo although only with French subtitles: https://vimeo.com/48679055

In addition to making music, the band campaigns around the need to bring Congo’s senseless and brutal civil wars to an end. I confess to not having seen the film but plan to watch the DVD from Netflix the first chance I get. That being said, I have heard them play on Youtube and they are terrific. Here is what David DeWitt had to say about the film in his September 29,  2011 NY Times review:

The joy is palpable when Staff Benda Bilili plays the World Music Festival in Oslo. A heart-racing energy pumps the musicians and transports the audience. The band celebrates by sipping wine with the Argentine ambassador, smoking substances in hotel rooms and reflecting on an improbably successful European tour.

The back story of these moments is uplift and then some: the core band members are middle-aged and disabled by polio, performing from wheelchairs and on crutches. Other players are teenagers of the street. All have known nights sleeping on cardboard in the urban misery of Kinshasa, Congo.

The documentary “Benda Bilili!,” in French and Lingala, captures five years in the lives of this intergenerational street band, five years in which the buskers move from practicing at the decaying Kinshasa zoo to performing for enraptured crowds on the strength of their album, “Très Très Fort,” French for “Very Very Strong” — which they are.

February 11, 2013


Filed under: disabled,Film — louisproyect @ 9:20 pm

When Brazilian director Alejandro Landes saw the headline “Paralyzed Man in Diapers Hijacks Plane to Bogota” in 2005, he was inspired to make the film “Porfirio” that is showing at the Museum of Modern Art until Thursday. (Film schedule is here.) This is the third praiseworthy film I have seen in the past couple of months that features a leading character in a wheelchair and by far the best. Considering the fact that one of them is Michael Haneke’s acclaimed “Amour”, nominated for best picture of the year in the upcoming Oscar ceremonies, it faces stiff competition. Although I thought that Haneke did good work, I would rank it only as a “show” in the wheelchair movie sweepstakes behind the ebullient “The Intouchables” that “placed”. (For more information on win, place and show, Google “horseracing”. I should add that I find the notion of awarding films on this basis rather questionable to begin with as it goes against my communist principles.)

As it turns out, the eponymous Porfirio Ramirez had more than a fleeting connection to horseracing. As a rancher and horse breeder in the southern Colombian city of Florencia, Porfirio had organized horse races for its citizens’ amusement. While one might expect Landes to focus on the ostensible high drama of the hijacking , it is not even shown in the film (Ramirez had smuggled two hand grenades in his diaper– the wheelchair’s wide berth made navigation through the metal detector check impossible.) As the victim of a policeman’s stray bullet in 1991, Porfirio was demanding indemnity from the government. After being sloughed off one too many times, he decided to take direct action. However, the hijacking ended peacefully when government representatives hoodwinked Ramirez into thinking that $43,000 had been deposited into his account back in Florencia. He was put under arrest once he got off the plane.

Instead Landes is far more interested in the daily struggle of being a paraplegic. Most of the action, such as it is, consists of Pofirio being showered, fed, clothed, and catered to by his son Lissen who loves his father but resents being an unpaid care-giver. The household gets by on the income that Porfirio receives for renting out minutes on his cell phone to neighbors even too poor to have their own, something that is ubiquitous to most denizens of the Third World. Landes holds nothing back. Early on, he shows Porfirio defecating from the back of his wheelchair and his son cleaning up after him. Despite Haneke’s reputation for defying the tastes of a conventional middle-class movie audience, he would never have dared show such a scene, especially since the man playing Porfiro Ramirez does not simulate the act but actually does it.

Not everything is so grim. Despite his disability, Porfirio is an irresistible sexual partner for his young and pleasantly plump neighbor Jasbleidy, played by Yor Jasbleidy Santos—a nonprofessional. For those who expect steamy sex scenes on the silver screen to involve people who look like the young Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, you’d be amazed at how these two distinctly ordinary people can get your blood pumping. Since the sex, like the defecation referred to earlier, happens for real rather than being simulated, its erotic quotient is raised considerably.

Porfirio’s days consist of him sitting in his wheelchair on his front porch watching the world go by. Filmed on location in the sleepy, backwater Florencia, Landes has a brilliant eye for how to make the quotidian compelling. In one scene a door-to-door “medicine” vendor approaches Porfiro with his sample case. For only 50,000 pesos, he will cure him of his disability, just as he has cured AIDS and cancer in others deemed incurable. Porfirio explains that he would be very interested in the product but unfortunately poverty prevents him from actually buying it.

In another powerful scene, Porfirio takes his wheelchair to a local repair shop to be worked on. The master mechanic is a man who is congenitally paraplegic and gets around through what looks like an improvised duck squat. Despite this, he not only is capable of the most challenging mechanical tasks but even helps lift Porfirio up from the chair to be worked on. The subject of dreams comes up as they exchange small talk. Porfirio says that he dreams about running across an open field, as free as the wind. The mechanic shrugs his shoulders and says that is natural since mobility was robbed from him in adulthood but for those like him who were born with a disability, the dreams are always based on one’s permanent condition.

As might be expected, his financial claims with the government are uppermost in Porfirio’s mind. When the public attorney handling his case refuses to return his phone calls, Porfirio wheels himself downtown to the man’s office where he confronts a steep staircase with no wheelchair ramp in sight. This affront is woven into the same blanket of neglect that forces Porfirio to finally take dramatic action.

The real surprise is that none other than Porfirio Ramirez himself plays Porfirio Ramirez. Landes not only had the audacity to make a movie about a man deemed partly crazy and completely uncharismatic in cinematic terms, but to cast the man himself in the leading role. (Jasbleidy is his actual next-door neighbor and lover but a very fine actor Jarlinsson Ramírez Reinoso plays Lissen.)

Given Landes’s decision to make a film about such a decidedly noncommercial subject and seeing how all-consuming the project became, I could not help but think that Werner Herzog might not be the last of the auteurs. It is remarkable that a young Brazilian director can take on a project in the best traditions of the European avant-garde and have such wild success. The press notes for “Porfirio” will give you some indication of the kind of unique esthetic Landes adheres to:

On the 12th of September 2005, I read a headline that lingered with me: Paralyzed Man in Diapers Hijacks Plane to Bogotá. Three months later, I found myself knocking on the door of the jailed man the press had nicknamed the “air pirate.” Porfirio grew out of my time spent with him, his chair, bed, house and family. Though I had my video sketch camera in hand on my first visit, it was of little use; I encountered a closed man. But I kept going back to visit and he thawed, revealing a mixture of bravado and dramatic flair, that, coupled with the fact he was forbidden to leave his house, captured my imagination. I began to video sketch and write but though Porfirio understood I was preparing a film, he did not suspect I would cast him as himself until days before the shoot. “Who will play me?” he kept asking me.

I moved to Florencia and lived in the places and with the people I wanted to work with for five months before shooting the first frame. During that time, I shot sketches of Porfirio, watching him move made me particularly conscious of time as well as the Catholic and Socratic notion of the body as prison to the soul. It was then that I developed the visual identity of the film: the low, frontal, still and symmetrical frame that, with a cinemascope aspect ratio pushing the horizon lines, would speak of the character and his relationship with the world around him.

The first draft of the screenplay read like a stream of consciousness, yet my time with Porfirio brought it down to its essence: the drama of a man’s character without dramatic devices. I decided never to show him the screenplay but rather I read him lines—mostly out of order—and asked him to say them back to me so I could rephrase, making the language his, not mine.

I strongly urge New Yorkers to take a trip over to MOMA to see this striking new film. Hopefully it will be booked at one of New York’s art houses down the road. If so, I will be sure to send out a head’s up.

March 24, 2009

Late Bloomer; Spinning into Butter

Filed under: disabled,Film,racism — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Although they are far apart stylistically, both “Late Bloomer” and “Spinning into Butter” deal with social pariahs. The first movie, now available from Netflix, is a low-budget Japanese shocker about a severely disabled man, played by just such a person, who becomes a serial killer. When the publicist wrote me about the DVD screener becoming available, I said “Great, send it along. It has to be better than the latest idiotic Batman movie”. The other movie is far more conventional and deals with racial incidents at Belmont, a snooty private college in Vermont. It opens at the Landmark Sunshine Theater in New York on March 27th, as well as Washington and Los Angeles. While there are major flaws in “Spinning into Butter”, I can recommend it as a serious attempt to deal with liberal racism at a school with an administration almost as boneheaded as my employers at Columbia University.

“Late Bloomer” sounds at first like it might be an updated version of Todd Browning’s “Freaks”, with its main character taking vengeance at those who have victimized him. Although there is some mayhem toward the end of the movie, with the main character Sumida (Masakiyo Sumida) tooling around in his motorized wheelchair looking for people to stab, it is-at least for me-much more interesting in those quiet moments when Sumida hangs out with friends, especially another disabled man who serves as his guru. Sumida’s dialog is limited by his reliance on a portable speech synthesizer, but every word produced by the device is riveting.

Sumida starts out as an object tended to by his well-meaning care-givers, including a young woman he begins to fall in love with. When he discovers that she is only interested in a heavy-metal rock musician who also serves as a care-giver, he types out on his synthesizer: “I am going to kill you”.

The great thing about “Late Bloomer” is that it defies classification. By making such a powerless figure a serial killer, director Go Shibata subverts our expectations. When the police come to arrest Sumida, I expected the standard dénouement in which the killer’s motivations are fully explained. By omitting such a pat conclusion, Shibata allows his character to live in our mind long after the film has ended-testimony to its power.

“Spinning into Butter” begins with an awful Warner Brothers cartoon based on the Little Black Sambo tale, which is a metaphor for Belmont’s faculty passing the blame from one person to the other. In the eyes of screenplay writer Rebecca Gilman, they create a blur like the tigers turning into butter.

The main character is Dean of Students Sarah Daniels, played capably by Sarah Jessica Parker, mostly known for her comic roles in movies like “Sex and the City”. She has come to Belmont to escape her last job in a mostly Black and rundown college in Chicago, where she had grown to hate not just the students, who she found rude and unmotivated, but Black people in general.

Daniels was hired by Belmont on the strength of her experience working with minority students, who serve mostly as window dressing there. One Black student tells the administrators that the only reason they recruited Black and Latino students was to be able to put them in photos in the college brochure. Despite her efforts to find herself in a preppy, mostly white environment, Daniels does not quite fit in at Belmont. She is patronized by the higher-up’s who perhaps harbor as much of a dislike for Jews as they do for Blacks and Latinos. Although the film does not identify her specifically as a Jew, the name Daniels has a Jewish ring and Parker herself, despite her last name, is Jewish. If I had written the script for “Spinning into Butter”, I would have brought this out but of course I only review movies, not write them.

The movie owes much to Spike Lee since it is an examination of racial tensions, but it is not from a Black perspective. The screenwriter, who adapted her own stage play, is white and made the correct decision not to attempt to speak for Black people.

The plot revolves around some hate crimes that have begun to take place on campus against an African-American student named Winston Garvey (James Reborn). The cops and the media begin to pour into the campus, much to the chagrin of the administration. They’d rather settle things through campus-wide forums on racism that inevitably involve the idiotic President and Dean of Faculty making patronizing and self-congratulatory speeches to the students. Things finally reach the boiling point and the minority students appear ready to blow the place up.

My main complaint with “Spinning into Butter” is its rather pat surprise ending, which I will of course not reveal. Up until that point, you are swept along in some fine dramatic confrontations among people who can’t seem to get beyond their racism, no matter their best intentions. In a way, the “instructive” ending goes against Gilman’s professed intention which was to start a dialog rather than provide solutions.

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