Monday, January 30, 2012

Dispatches from Sundance 2012: 2

Ray Taras regularly reviews world literature for the Campaign for the American Reader and has represented the site at the Sundance Film Festival since 2008.

Taras's second report from Sundance 2012 (read his first dispatch here):

The worldwide movement against apartheid launched in the 1970s constituted one of the rare instances during the Cold War of Western and Eastern bloc nations working in tandem so as to rid South Africa of white-minority rule. Fidelista Cuba and the Labour government in Britain, Brezhnev’s Russia and progressive Western states like Canada and Germany, were aligned on the same side in the struggle to end the long history of injustice and oppression of Blacks in the former British colony. The U.S. was one of a handful of countries which had political reservations about bringing down a pro-Western government in Pretoria. Its replacement might be led by the communist-influenced African National Congress.

What was an artist to do in support of the anti-apartheid struggle? In the 1980s the options seemed to be limited: the ANC was insisting on a total international boycott of cooperation with South Africa in cultural, sporting, and trade matters. By and large, this boycott was respected by musicians, many of whom took their cue from South African exiles Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela; by actors led by the South African-born Shakespearean actress Janet Suzman; by rugby and cricket teams (grudgingly); and even by universities, many of which agreed to divestment in South African business.

Into the center of this political standoff stepped a most improbable figure – the songwriter and performer Paul Simon, he of sentimental ballads that alternated with nonsensical lyrics. A White American at that, with none of the rebellious cachet of a Joan Baez, Bob Dylan or Stevie Wonder.

Under African Skies, which was shown at Sundance 2012 as one of its documentary premieres, offers a richly-textured, joyous cinematic narrative of Simon’s poorly-documented visit to South Africa in 1985 to collaborate with some of the country’s great Township musicians, like the Boyoyo Boys and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. This breech of the cultural boycott of the apartheid regime – by a seemingly politically unengaged, blasé New Yorker – is judged differently today than it was at the time. The extraordinary impact of the crossover sound heard on the album “Graceland” and on its promotional world tour represents a caesura in the emergence of world music. Oprah Winfrey calls “Graceland” her favorite album of all time. In 1992, shortly after he was released from prison, Nelson Mandela invited Simon to return to South Africa to give a concert. There were to be no hard feelings over Paul Simon’s decision.

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger has interspersed video footage from Simon’s first visit with his more recent concerts in southern Africa, including a celebrated performance in Namibia with Makeba, and also a reunion tour on the 25th anniversary of “Graceland’s” release. Interviews with Philip Glass, Harry Belafonte, David Byrne, Quincy Jones, and Paul McCartney explore the choice the musician must sometimes make between serving the interests of music and those of politics. There is unanimous agreement that Simon’s choice reflected his deep commitment to advancing a musical genre, and he comes across as a remarkably engaged man – in his music. The classical composer Glass put it best: Paul was right to avoid being less than himself for the sake of political correctness by going along with the boycott. Under African Skies is, then, exhilarating and also an intelligent, agonized reflection on the rank order of politics, ethics, creativity, and aesthetics in a humanitarian crisis.

It was another film about a musician that won one of the top awards at this year’s Festival – the World Cinema Jury Prize for best dramatic film. Violeta Went to Heaven tells the story of Violeta Parra [photo right], a Chilean Edith Piaf, as she leaves behind an impoverished rural and Indio childhood to capture the hearts of Chileans with traditional folksongs, political ballads, and a steely resolve to overcome social injustice. “Pain cannot be sung by trained singers,” is the basis for her popularity, she explains. Born in 1917, she travels to Poland in 1955 to sing at an international communist youth congress. She moves to Paris for a short time and sufficiently impresses the Louvre curator to have her visual art, primarily weaving but painting and graphic art as well, exhibited at the museum. “Creativity is a bird without a flight plan” – the reason for her artistic successes across genres though, the film subtly suggests, the force of her personality plays a part. In this string of artistic conquests, her roles as mother and spouse begin to unravel.

Accomplished Chilean film director Andrés Wood completed a degree in economics at the Catholic University in Santiago before changing course and studying at New York University’s Film School. Violeta is not a linear biography but jumps breathtakingly across the time and space inhabited by this chanteuse. For instance, we see her singing and playing for a group of Chilean aristocrats at the national museum, and as she finishes and is told that she can now go eat with the kitchen staff, Wood cuts to a scene of her singing the same song for some rapturous villagers in her rundown home.

Violeta becomes more depressed as her family life and artistic career begin to go awry. “Life is stronger than a canvas or a poem or a song,” she despairs. Neither her art nor her politics can save her: in 1967 she kills herself, though the screenplay leaves this ending out. Today she is firmly established in the Chilean cultural pantheon alongside poet Pablo Neruda and singer Victor Jara. The Sundance Jury believed that Wood’s film was an artistic achievement in capturing this bigger-than-life story.

A third film about a musician is worthy of note. Neil Young came to Park City this year, again with film director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs and three other films about the Canadian singer including Neil Young: Heart of Gold, which premiered at the 2006 Sundance Festival). But their newest collaboration, Neil Young Journeys, was shown at the Slamdance Film Festival, the rockers’, bad boys’ alternative to genteel Sundance, which is headquartered in a banged-up hotel at the top of Main Street. I couldn’t attend the reception but a friend told me Neil was unusually affable. Had he forgotten he was not at Sundance?--Ray Taras

Ray Taras is professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans where he also directed its World Literature Program until Hurricane Katrina forced its closure. Comparative literature and world cinema have been teaching and research interests of his for many years.

Read--Dispatches from Sundance 2012: 1.

--Marshal Zeringue