“The psychology of Ghanians, when it comes to governance or politics generally, has been influenced by our history,” notes Baffour Agyeman-Duah, an expert on governance.” While the aim is to construct “a stable democratic government, guided by the principles of good governance,” the route has been uneven. As he finishes speaking, scene cuts from his face to a close-up of a butcher at work: whomp goes his cleaver, splitting red meat. It’s a striking early image in Jarreth and Kenneth Merz’s An African Election, suggesting the high stakes during Ghana’s 2008 presidential elections. Currently at the Quad Cinema, the documentary considers that election (when Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling New Patriotic Party ran against John Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress), history (the legacy of colonial rule, the decades of increasing corruption), and also points toward a kind of future, that is, the ways that elections have become—more and more, there and elsewhere (say, the US), contests over who can be loudest or least honest while appealing to broad bases. A smart, lively film—beautifully enhanced by a terrific percussive soundtrack—An African Election reveals how entrenched layers of trouble remain, despite and because of the cheering throngs, the advances in media technologies, the hopes for change. As journalist Kwesi Pratt puts it, “None of the parties is offering a paradigm shift. All of the parties will be doing the same thing, but some promise to do it better than the others.” How familiar does that sound?
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Council House Movie Star is the up-coming screen and gallery debut of Gale Force, the drag persona of contemporary dance maker, performer and writer Mark Edward. This is Edward’s collaboration with award-winning filmmaker Rosa Fong (British Film Institute New Director’s award, Arts Council Black Arts Award and as Associate Producer: Best Feature at the Outfest Fusion Festival LA 2006, 2nd Prize Audience Award at Madrid International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival 2006 for feature film Cut Sleeve Boys) and award-winner Dr Mark Fremaux.
Gale Force’s plans are to be represented in all her glory in 3D and HD. She is nothing if not up-to-date; the original inspiration (in her own words) of the North of England ‘WAG’ culture, beloved of the British tabloids. Victoria Beckham had better watch out. Council House Movie Star will be premiered in Liverpool in 2012 and after that enjoy a national tour of galleries, cinemas, clubs – any venue that will have it if truth be told! Gale ain’t fussy! She will also provide interventionist and guerrilla art pieces (she can be very high-brow!) wherever they are needed. These will be documented and then reborn in major art galleries in Liverpool and Manchester as recreations of Gale’s multi-faceted, colourful life and encounters with her public. Move aside Tracey Emin and your ‘[Unmade] Bed’ (1998)! Gale’s installation will recreate her entire bed-sit apartment (beat that!) as well as her uninsured bling and her family relationships, as a single mum on welfare – with her kids and her ‘Anti’ Christy. If you’re really lucky Gale will appear in person at the gallery.
Pray The Devil Back to Hell traces the Women’s Peace Initiative’s evolution, recounted by founders and active members. These include Leymah Gbowee, who helps to bring together women of diverse backgrounds and faiths, whose stories are conveyed here in thoughtful interviews and sometimes harrowing footage drawn from the many years of Liberia’s civil war. In 1989, Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) assassinated Liberian dictator Samuel Doe and took over the government; warring factions varied in name and number. By 2002, the sides were using similar tactics—a group of warlords who called themselves LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) and Taylor’s private army (ironically titled “The Anti-Terrorist Unit”) were using similar tactics to compel citizens into compliance: kidnapping children to drug and deploy as soldiers, looting villages, raping women, and marauding over the countryside, as lawless and brutal as their victims were quietly resilient. Gbowee says her inspiration came in a dream: “Someone was actually telling me to get the women of the church together,” she remembers, “to pray for peace.” When she did, more and more women began coming to meetings, including Asatu Bah Kenneth, Assistant Director of the Liberian National Police. Thrilled by the women’s energy and dedication, she spoke passionately, and identified herself upfront as “the only Muslim in the church,” and was immediately accepted (“They said ‘Oh hallelujah,’ they were so happy that I was there”). This would be a coalition of women, all with one goal, peace.
“I’m not scared to face my creator,” says Paco Larrañaga. “I have a big space there, I’m sure.” Here on earth, though, he’s less certain. Interviewed in the New Bilibid Prison in the Philippines, Larrañaga wears an orange jumpsuit and peers awkwardly into the video camera’s wide lens. “It’s just so unfair, getting that lethal injection without me giving a fight,” he says. “I was not given a fair fight. I was not given a chance to defend myself.” Give Up Tomorrow—which screens 15 November at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with director Michael Collins and producer Marty Syjuco—begins partway through Larrañaga’s ordeal, then cuts back in time, as the filmmakers interview not only him and his family members, but also police officers and other officials who brought the case. When plainclothes policemen came to his door at school, he was afraid they were criminals come to kidnap him, his sister Mimi remembers: the scene is illustrated by a set of ominous animated silhouettes, setting up the surreal events to follow.
“At the heart of apartheid is the division of the land.” This opening title card for Promised Land introduces its focus. In 1994, South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) initiated a process of reconciliation. The government promised to reallocate ownership of a third of the nation’s land within 10 years. As Yoruba Richen’s Promised Land reveals, this plan was in trouble from its inception. By looking at two particular land disputes—claims made by the 9,000-member Mekgareng community and 1,000 descendants of Abram Molamu—this smart, subtly complex documentary shows essential complications in the process. These include the government’s assumption (or best hope) that changes might be wrought based on a “willing seller, willing buyer” model. In fact, most white owners are unwilling and many black buyers have been ill-prepared, their legal claims unrecorded (owing to decades of oppression, abuse, and exploitation) and their claims still stuck in a kind of first gear, grinding. The trouble is, land is never just land: it is a measure of citizenship, a means to civil rights and self-identity; it is multiply meaningful, across generations and immediately, an emblem of economic and mythic status, political and emotional well-being.
Promised Land screens at Maysles Cinema at 7pm on 14 November, part of “Doc Watchers Presents,” curated by Hellura Lyle. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Yoruba Richen.
See PopMatters’ review.