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Good people with cameras

A can of worms is opened at the 54th London Film Festival

It is a sign of our times, the digital revolution, that well-meaning men and women are riding out from the west, their saddlebags filled with cameras and good intentions. They bring back stories of good deeds – some of which screen at the 54th London Film Festival. But what should we make of this year’s goodies?

Each one teach one

Let’s start with Edward (played by Tom Hiddleston), the central character in Joanna Hogg’s second feature Archipelago who, in the director’s words, “carries the guilt of his parents on his shoulders”. In his late twenties he has decided to leave a City career for a year in Africa as a volunteer educating young people about sexual health, to help slow the spread of AIDS. There is redemption to be had, he hopes, if the life of just one thirteen-year-old can be saved.

Edward’s notion is met with utter incomprehension by his loving family who have arranged a good-bye weekend in a cottage on a lovely Scilly island including hired cook and painting teacher. But Edward’s father somehow doesn’t make it, and there is a wicked enjoyment in watching the family self-destruct as sister Cynthia (outstanding: Lydia Leonard) takes potshots at her brother’s belated ‘gap-year’.

Edward, like so many of us, is torn over the dilemma: How to lead the Good Life? Berthold Brecht dialectically explored the double-meaning of this phrase in his 1943 play The Good Person of Szechwan. German has only the one word which happily in English divides neatly into two: to live a good life and to live well.

Edward and his family undoubtedly live well but arguably not good lives, despite him taking to helping the embarrassed cook with washing the dishes and making his own breakfast. Can Edward make a difference, if not at home, then in Africa?

Cardboard and mattresses

French film directors Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye are just back from Africa. In 2004 the former ad man and his well-travelled photojournalist companion, “were both sick of what we were doing” and headed out to the chaotic capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, to produce television documentaries on ghetto life, Congolese music and female boxers. They went native, living with their subjects, sleeping on cardboard from time to time. Commendably, they learned to speak Lingala.

In this process they encountered an energetic group of polio-inflicted street musicians on an array of picturesque makeshift tricycles called Staff Benda Bilili (Beyond Appearances), who lost no time in appointing them their “producers”. Being good chaps, Barret and de la Tullaye attempted to put together Staff Benda Bilili’s debut album ‘Trés Trés Fort’, filming the up and downs of what turned out to be four years of setbacks, often on a biblical scale, as they went along.

At some point in the process, 600 hours of film footage later, they realised that they had a potentially major ‘triumph over adversity’ film on their hands. And what a film! The Q & A with the film directors at this year’s London Film Festival was one long ovation, as people basked not just in the rags-to-riches afterglow of a triumphant musical odyssey, but in a perfect meeting of human skills. “Were they grateful to you?” one avid film-goer wanted to know, and was promptly misunderstood: “Of course we were grateful – they made our reputations!” came the director’s reply.

And vice versa. Absent in the picture but present on the soundtrack the directors’ hands in shaping Staff Benda Bilili’s success is never more invaluable than when the film-makers arrange for a shégué they have come across, a kid working the streets to keep his variously afflicted family afloat, to audition with them.

Roger Landu is a musical genius, another Stradivari. He invented a one-string guitar by sticking a wooden bow into a tin can: when he plays, it is like an angel plugging the very strings of your soul. There are intriguing parallels with Edward’s family life, starting with his mother’s total incomprehension of this young man’s ambition: she still doesn’t know the name of his instrument on the eve of his stardom. But we will be hearing much more from the satongé and its young master who during the course of the film, as his fellow-musicians say, has “become a man”- have no doubt about it!

Recording the album propelled the film’s subjects to World Music stardom with a hugely successful tour through Europe, and one scheduled for the UK next year. The two French directors have done ‘good’. And the members of the Staff Benda Bilili now live ‘well’ or at least sleep much better than before, having swapped card boards on street corners for their shared dream: a mattress under a roof.

Distance and proximity

Another Edward-character is at the heart of Lucy Walker’s Waste Land. This time very much on screen, it is Brooklyn-based and (in his own words) “best-ever-selling Brazilian artist”, Vik Muniz, who decides to extend his recent social art projects in Sao Paolo and Rio’s favelas. Over three years, the camera chronicles the creation of a new Muniz art series in the world's largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

Vik Muniz photographs an eclectic band of catadores - or self-designated pickers of recyclable materials in poses of classic images such as J. L. David's ‘The Death of Marat’, J. F. Millet's ‘The Sower’, P. Picasso's ‘Women Ironing’ or Il Guercino's ‘Atlas’. These pictures are then projected on a much larger scale onto a studio floor where the catadores recreate their very own portraits out of garbage.

Once posed the images are re-photographed and printed about 50x40 inches in size, to be sold in galleries and auctions for upward of $50,000 each. Art lovers with a social conscience can buy such doubly-translated ‘Garbage Portraits’ without having to smell the raw material, feeling doubly good for knowing that a big chunk of the purchase price goes to the Association of Garbage Workers of Jardim Gramacho.

If these somewhat cynical calculations of the art market leave you with a sour taste it may be because you are looking at it from too far away. One of the often-cited beautiful little observations of Vik Muniz is that people in galleries tend to continuously shift their position back and forth in front of the art works, exploring the material and the idea in turn. Lucy Walker’s film plays with “these levels of proximity and distance”.

Looking at the garbage dump first on Google Earth then from a helicopter and finally on eye-level, filmmaker and artist can’t help but get involved as the catadores begin to take to the Beuyssian idea that everybody, including themselves, is an artist and dread the idea of going back to their regular lives. In a revealing moment Vik and his wife start to argue on-camera about whether the project is hurting the catadores by taking them out of their environment and then, when it’s over, expecting them to return to the dump.

Vik Muniz has a simple answer: If you were to ask any of the catadores whether they would rather live with this short extraordinary experience than without it, their answer would be for including it. It remains an academic debate. The catadores are never actually asked. And then, fortuitously, it turns out that not one of them has to return to his or her former life: ‘Their’ art proves to be a success.

Triumph over Adversity

In The Good Person of Szechwan, Brecht’s argument is that it is impossible to live a good life in this world i.e. to lead a moral life as well as to live well, (i.e. in material comfort). Do Benda Bilili and Waste Land prove him wrong?

These films suggest that it is possible for westerners like Edward to live with the creature comforts, the artistic opportunities and global mobility that residence in the global north affords, while doing whatever they like doing best to help those less fortunate in the global south. Maybe the playwright of The Good Person of Szechwan, transfixed by the ‘idea’, his political convictions, just remained too distant to the grit of actual experience, of poverty, and of immediate goodness.

With the viewing experience a few days behind me, I feel the same distance closing in and the familiar questions begin to nag around western missionary zeal in the face of 'systemic' violence. I’m more aware than I was at the time of the successful manipulation of my emotions and empathy. I feel bad for feeling good, suspicious of the artfully triggered cathartic experience that these films offer. To even the hypothetical score, I tell myself, I would like to see at the next London Film Festival a film made by a Bolivian featuring a Mozambican artist creating music with the residents of a North England community depressed by de-industrialisation…

There is, of course, no ultimate answer to the can of worms opened here. Brecht, too, left it to the audience to figure out how a good person can possibly come to a good end in a world that, in essence, is not good. For those of us guilt-ridden like Edward, proximity seems to be the best solution. For those of us dreading the smell of the material, the purchase of a CD, a cinema or concert ticket, or even a work of art, depending on the size of your heart and wallet, could well do the trick.

About the author

Michael Dominski is a film maker. His most recent film, Erwin&Elmire, is a light-hearted comic opera in late Rococco style with music by Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and libretto by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.


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