Loves, I haven’t written in a while. I know. There you are, sitting around waiting patiently, in quiet desperation, for me to tell you what to read. And here I am, barely able to make it through a page before I have to get up out of my chair and rush with great urgency to feed, rock, hug, wipe, play with, or find something for one of my kids. Here’s my advice–if you would like to spend the rest of your days in uninterrupted reading, do not have children. If you can deal with going through the same paragraph over and over and over again, by all means, reproduce. And for godsake, get a spiffy bookmark and use it with the gusto of a drowning man grabbing a life preserver.
Loves, it’s the end of 2017. That’s right. We did it! (as my toddler says). We walked through this year and we came out
unscathed. But we’re still here, we’re still fighting the power, and if you (like me) are someone who has dedicated yourself to words and reading them, and sometimes even stringing them together, you (like me) think that reading and writing (ENGAGING WITH THOUGHTS) are the most important activities, probably now a bit more so than usual. So let’s keep doing it. And by it I mean this. And by this I mean THINKING. A thing that is done primarily through words.
And with that, my reading life…
The sun is shining, the snow has melted, and Blue Metropolis just announced their 2016 program. Spring has come to Montreal!
For those not familiar, Blue Met is the annual literary festival of the Blue Metropolis Foundation, which has been bringing people together in Montreal since 1997 to promote reading, writing, and education, focusing on a diverse range of authors and creators from Canada and around the world. While they spotlight Canadian authors, with five languages represented, the scope is undoubtedly international.
Blue Met’s commitment to linguistic and cultural diversity is seen foremost in the literary prizes they bestow. The Grand Prix littéraire is often given to a major Canadian writer – names like Margaret Atwood and Dany Laferrière – but also to international writers like Amitav Ghosh and Maryse Condé. This year’s winner is Anne Carson, which is very exciting particularly given the rarity of her public appearances.
The Mots Pour Changer/Words to Change Prize is presented to an author whose work particularly espouses intercultural understanding, and this year’s winner is Abdourahman Waberi, best known for his novel Les Etats-Unis d’Afrique. I’m perhaps most excited about seeing the winner of the Premio Metropolis Azul, Valeria Luiselli, author of the everyone’s-talking-about-it novel The Story of My Teeth.
This year’s First Nations Literary Prize goes to Thomas King, a Canadian author of Greek and Cherokee descent. And finally, the festival has instituted this year the Literary Diversity Prize for a First Publication, to be given to an “écrivain issu de l’immigration” (which is the French turn of phrase for “immigrant writer”) who lives in Montreal, and this year it will be the Ghayas Hacham for his novel Play Boys.
In Sigal Samuel’s recent novel The Mystics of Mile End everyone is looking for a message. There’s the Meyer family, with David interpreting the vague murmurs of his erratic heart; his son Lev deciphering the flower caught in his teacher’s bicycle; and his daughter Samara seeking keys to climb the Tree of Life in order to fulfill her Kabbalistic journey. Lev and Samara’s childhood friend Alex listens to everything from stars to dishwashers in the attempt to intercept messages from extraterrestrial life. And Mr. Katz hooks up a series of tin can telephones in his old oak tree presumably in order to receive messages from God.
What drives this novel is not necessarily religious crisis, but rather a crisis of interpretation. No one is stricken with lack of faith per se, that ever-present theme of Protestantism. (Even budding astronomer Alex, an atheist, is portrayed as a most unshakable believer in life beyond planet Earth.) Instead, they employ their faith in God, logic, intellectual discovery, scientific instruments, etc., to decode symbols they encounter. The question is not “Is there a God?” but rather, can we ever reliably interpret the messages we receive? Follow-up question, do those messages ever lead to some understanding of what lies beyond us?
It is interesting the way stories about art are told.
In fact, I will just wallow in my obtuseness for a moment and say that, while I like to look at pretty things (and sometimes not-so-pretty-but-sort-of-interesting things), the stories are what interest me the most. My tendency at exhibits is to ogle the writing on the wall rather than the art itself.
And I really wish that the writing on the wall was written for people like me. Some kind of discernible plot. Stronger narrative voice (because obviously a curator is a form of narrator). Etc.
That describes my general train of thought while browsing the current exhibit at Montreal’s Musée des Beaux Arts: “Colours of Jazz” featuring works of the Beaver Hall Group.
Directed by Dieudo Hammadi, Atalaku is set during the latest elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Here’s a quick timeline:
1960: Patrice Lumumba becomes the first Prime Minister of the newly independent Republic of Congo (the one that becomes the DRC, not the other one). He is deposed by the president, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, and then eventually placed under house arrest with the military leader Joseph Mobutu (remember him – this is the one Bob Dylan wrote a song about – it’s called “Leopard Skin PillBox Hat” …right…)
1961: Lumumba is brutally assassinated, (there’s a fantastic film about it directed by Raoul Peck if you’re interesting…) and Mobutu beginshis assent into power.
1965-1997: Mobutu (monsieur coup d’etat himself) is in power and becomes the archetype of many African dictatorships to follow…
1996: Laurent Kabila leads Tutsi factions against Hutus in Eastern DRC – thus begins the First Congo War.
1997: Laurent Kabila comes to power after the invasions of the DRC (then Zaire) by Rwanda, defeats Mobutu’s forces. This ends with First Congo War, but we have another one…
1998: Second Congo War, which lasts until 2003 (officially). This involves several nations and effectively rips the enter of Africa apart.
2001: Joseph Kabila succeeds his father in office after the latter’s assassination.
2006: First free elections in 46 years. Kabila wins. (Which is a lot like more of the same thing…)
2011: Another multi-party election…
Confession: I am basically posting this for good form, because it is a documentary that I saw, and thus feel obligated to include it in the series. (Plus, duh, I like bragging about all these awesome films I’m seeing. Aren’t you tempted to move to Montreal now so you can watch great documentaries and go to jazz festivals and, oh man, just wait ’til you see the book festival coverage I’m going to throw your way…they’re doing a spotlight on Haitian authors this year…I know, right?)
Alexandra Sicotte-Lévesque directed this film, which is confusingly titled “A jamais, pour toujours” in French and “The Longest Kiss” in English. The latter refers to a pronouncement that the Nile River joins (sort of?) Sudan to the newly created South Sudan, in a long goodbye kiss. Which is beautiful. The narration that went along with the film (we never have any idea who is speaking it) is a wonderful poetic reflection on the history of Sudan’s conflicts and the recent secession of South Sudan. Another beautiful thing: the cinematography. The webpage description (and I’m endlessly fascinated by these) describes the film as a “an essential look at an often misunderstood and tragically ignored country.” I would say that for all of the random media flashes we get that loudly proclaim the “genocide” and “chaos” and “cautious optimism” and “tribal clashes” and many other things that you typically hear about African countries in the news, it is, indeed, necessary to stop for a minute and see an intelligent exploration of how people are going about their daily lives in current Sudan and South Sudan. Yes, people are killed, and violence disrupts an entire country, but there are people who live as well. And that seems to be the goal of this film – to show that people continue to live.
Focusing on foreign aid (before and after the earthquake), the slave trade and colonialism, and vodou in Haiti, this documentary provides a far-reaching scope of a complex society. If there is one flaw the film suffered from it was the ambitious attempt to cover everything. How can you not try to cover everything when you’re talking about a place that has a history of being so egregiously misunderstood? That misunderstanding was also a focal point of the film, and it seemed as though an appropriate subtitle would have been, “Everything you don’t know about Haiti and by the way we have a lot more than earthquake damage and vodou here but, indeed, we do have a lot of those things as well” or something like this. It was very much a film that knew its audience.
One particularly well done aspect of the film was the wide range of interviews conducted. From vodou priests/priestesses, to Haitian sociologues/economistes, to young kids living in the bad part of town, to the jaded American aid workers (including Sean Penn?), to the cynical but wise (drunken?) fonctionnaire (that guy is everywhere, what is it with that guy?), to historian Laurent Dubois (‘heck yes!’ for those of you who work on Caribbean history). And this is one of the things that they are all both demonstrating and saying, which is (to paraphrase) : “There are an infinite number of viewpoints in/on Haiti – some of them better than others.” And they create a fully-formed, comprehensible picture of current Haiti and how it got there.
This was my first screening so far of the Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal and I can safely say that it was fantastic way to start.
First, a word on the festival:
Since 1998, the RIDM has been bringing filmmakers from Quebec, and from around the world, to the city of Montreal for about a ten-day span to expose their work to eager audiences and also to hold small workshops. While this is my first year attending the RIDM, one of the first things you notice is the collective atmosphere.
Before the beginning of the film, the large audience was greeted by a representative, first apologizing for the director’s absence (apparently this film is in the process of becoming almost unmanageably popular and she was needed elsewhere but was really sad not to make it), and secondly inviting us all to a party. Apparently partying and hanging out with the directors is a big part of the overall experience. Hey, I’m all for that.
Another quick, coup-d’oeil observation is the fantastic selection. While there is an emphasis on Quebecois and Canadian directors, it is truly a worldwide collection of documentaries. Now, obviously, I’m going to hit all the Caribbean and African films so stay tuned.
A pretty big sell for me is that, thanks to funding from the National Film Board of Canada (by the way, USA, what the crap, you don’t have a national film board? This is amazing! Dude, in Canada, the government will FUND your intelligent social commentary in the form of film. Do you even, like, … Canada, do you get how awesome it is to BE YOU???) … okay, like I was saying, thanks to the NFB, students and seniors can attend all matinees for free, y’all. Free. Amazing…