Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, March 3, 2014
Written by Patricia R. Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies and AFS Film Envoy
Three continents—North America, Europe, Africa—three flights, and three days of travel.
Africa—well, more exactly, Guinea—is harder to get to than Beijing.
My vaccination card secured by a rubber band in my passport verifies I have a yellow fever vaccination. Guinea requires this documentation for entry into the country.
The nurse practitioner at the Cornell University travel office insisted I take two cards. She has heard of immigration officers in Nepal , Benin, and Guinea Bisseau apprehending the vaccination forms and then selling them on the black market.
I politely share there are several countries called Guinea: Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Papua New Guinea. She knows: pointing to the Center for Disease Control site for travel to Guinea shining on her Dell computer, she cautions me about malaria, yellow fever, tetanus, diarrhea, dengue fever.
I’m in Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris for a second day. It’s 8 a.m. Ensconced with travel carts, backpacks, carry ons and earbuds dangling, everyone in this lounge stretchesout. Shoes off, hats shrouding their eyes, they sprawl across the taupe couches. Comment t’allez-vous,? I ask a two year boy staring at my Kindle.
I’m thinking: An airport that actually understands the deepest desires of travelers to stretch out and sleep. But I am nervous. Will I ever make it to Guinea?
In his Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading the Way (Brookings Institution Press, 2010), Stephen Radelet points out the staggering size of Africa, the world’s second largest continent. The continental United States fits snugly into West Africa. Most West African countries have been postcolonial for 50 years.
Africa is a complex place. It is also a place completely overdetermined and smothered by Western literary, cinematic, and missionary fantasies. Think Joseph Conrad , Heart of Darkness. Think Out of Africa. Think King Solomon’s Mines. As a corrective, think Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (Nigeria); Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (Nigeria); Tierno Monenembo ,The King of Kahel (Guinea).
It is maybe the only place in the world reduced and vacuum pressed to the generalizing, essentializing, unifying, problematic of one word: Africa, a shorthand, covering term for a western, racialized white imaginary of the vast, the unknowable, the chaotic, the undecipherable. In The Economist magazine’s view, Africa looms as the last frontier, a place rich in untapped resources to be extracted to meet the ravenous demands of globalization and rapid development.
West African countries differ significantly in terms of culture, language, economic growth, the rise of democratic and accountable institutions, environmental conditions, agriculture.stability, civil society, anti-corruption, and health. HIV/AIDs continues in epidemic proportions compared to the rest of the world.
Radelet identifies emerging and threshold countries that have featured annual income growth and declines in the percentage of citizens living in poverty. Nigeria has oil. Ghana has cocoa. Over the last 15 years, both have posted economic growth. Guinea is not on these lists.
Ibuprofen, immodium, albutorol inhalers, malarone, ambient, zyrtec, DEET, giner chews, and five small bottles of anti-bacterial cleaners bulge in Ziploc bags in my suitcase. According to our contacts at the Embassy post in Conakry, the meds are not to be trusted in Guinea due to procurement issues.
Stewart, my partner, teaches international public health. As a result of his background and my asthma, I’m always on high alert about health issues in countries where I travel, researching conditions and problems.
According to the World Health Organization, the life expectancy in Guinea, a country of 11 million, is 54. The leading causes of death in children under 5 are malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea. Access to maternal health care is limited.
The Guinea Development Foundation, a health nongovernmental organization, claims that health conditionsin Guinea are among the poorest in the world. Potable water is inaccessible. 73% of the population live in areas inaccessible to health care.
According to the BBC News country site, Guinea’s vast mineral wealth in bauxite (a key component of aluminum), iron, and diamonds, ranks it as one of the most resource rich countries in Africa. Yet its people are among the poorest, in the lowest 25% of the least developed countries. Some contend Guinea is actually one of the three poorest countries in the world. Most people live on $1 a day.
Delayed by over two hours, my Air France flight from Kennedy Airport in New York City landed in Paris Sunday afternoon. I missed the flight to Conarky by 90 minutes. Kate Amend did not even get on the flight. Her flight from Los Angeles was on time but circled Kennedy for nearly 40 minutes. Then, she discovered the flight to Paris was booked. She spend the night in New York, booked the next day.
The Air France customer service desk booked me on the next and only flight to Guinea—on Monday morning. Kate texted. Rewarding herself with a glass of wine, she wanted to confirm we were booked on the same flight to Conarky. The original plan entailed traveling together from New York City, a plan we both looked forward to so we could chat about and plan our presentations on documentary in Guinea. At least the last leg of our journey would be together. Our plane will stop first in Mauritania, then onward to Conarky. 8 hours of travel south from Paris.
The efficient and smiling Air France representative handed me vouchers for a night at the Ibis Style Hotel, with dinner and breakfast. The quest to sleep in a bed after 25 hours of airports and airplanes got me through the disorienting maze of DeGaulle to find Niveau Cinq , where the complimentary hotel buses would pick us up. I make a note in my iPhone to remember to take my Malarone, the expensive anti-malarial drug, after I eat dinner. My two and a half week prescription cost $110.
The free airport WiFi refused to load. I worried that our contacts at the US Embassy in Guinea—Emily and Kimberly—would not get news of our delay. I figured they were probably accustomed to flight delays into Conakry. I texted Kate. I asked if she might let them know our new flight plans. Jet lag and fatigue amplified my worry we would end up in the airport in Conarky with no one to expedite us through customs. We were told to not go through alone.
Kate got through to post. They would pick us up at the Conarky Airport at 6.
Now it’s time to walk to gate M46. I’ll take a shot of Kate and I, united at last. And then I ’ll board the plane to Conarky with hand sanitizers, backpack, and Kindle loaded with books on West Africa and Guinea. 8 more hours.
Saturday, February 15, 2014
Post written by Patricia R. Zimmermann, professor of screen studies and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Since the first film made in 1966, Guinea has produced 14 films.
To put this astonishing number in context, that’s the same number of films fourth year undergraduates produced in the advanced Cinema Workshop at Ithaca College last Spring.
These comparisons between heavily resourced and technologically rich film schools of the Global North and under-resourced media movements of the global south crack open a divide worth considering more deeply.
The staggering but often unconscious privilege of American film schools contrasts with the enormous capacity building and infrastructure challenges for Guinean independent media. In Guinea, media makers operate in one of the poorest countries of the world, where electrical outages ignite demonstrations and where five-star international hotels advertize their generators.
I write this sitting in Kennedy airport in the food court by Wok and Roll, gray skies creeping over the skylights in Terminal I. I have an 11 hour wait for my flight to Paris and then to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, a port on the Atlantic coast.
Due to my worries about upstate New York weather, I flew down to JFK yesterday from Syracuse. I spent the night watching the Olympics, with men’s figure skating and giant slalom.
I thought, no Africans skate those rinks or slalom those slopes. But I also spent the night reading about the history of Guinea, a country rich in bauxite, iron ore, and diamonds but with few roads to aid in export. The significance of mining--or extractive industries, as historians and the World Bank call them-- is suggested by the organization of some of the Guinean news websites: along with politics, culture, economics, opinion, many sites feature a separate category called mining. Companies from Isreal, China, and Brazil converge in Guinea in five star hotels, complaining about the maid service on Yelp sties while they spend months dealing with mineral mining.
I am traveling to Guinea as a film envoy for the US State Department’s American Film Showcase. My iPhone weather app says its 90 degrees in Conakry.
As the flight boards show delays, my anxiety about connecting to Air France to Guinea in Paris with only a 60 minute turnaround lessen a bit knowing I will be traveling with Kate Amend. Kate is the well-known , award-winning documentary film editor of the compelling and moving First Position, which chronicles young, focused ballet dancers competing for spots with the world’s top ballet companies.
The documentary will be screened in Guinea to various arts and media groups. Kate will explain how she conceives and organizes the editing process of these complex, beautiful works.I have been asked to do some presentations on the ways in which new media has moved documentary into more participatory, accessible terrains.
Kate and I represent some contrasts as well. She works as a highly respected, legendary editor of feature length documentaries. My experience is less glamorous: I am a screen studies historian and theorist who researches the intersections between new technologies, participatory practices, and documentary. Together, perhaps we show the wide ecology of documentary practices in the United States ranging from features to more modest new media projects.
The differences between gray and sun, between New York City and Conakry, between English and French (Guinea is a francophone country) do not seem as extreme as these differences in capacity, access, infrastructure, voices.
As scholar Roy Armes points out in African Filmmaking: North and South of the Sahara (Indiana, 2006), of these 14 films produced, 7 were first films. Dansogho Mohamed Camara and Cheik Doukoure (who lived in France for most of his life) are two key names in Guinean film history.
In comparison, Senegal, to the North, whose filmmakers often receive French government funding, has produced 47 films since 1964. Since 1971, Burkina Faso, the country that hosts the famous Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), has produced 40 films since 1971.
In a chart itemizing film production in the Maghreb and Subsaharan Africa since independence, Armes reveals a staggering fact: only 588 films have been produced across almost five decades.
One of the first countries in West Africa to assert its independence from France, in 1958, Guinea, a largely Muslim country also known as Guinea Conakry, was ruled by Sekou Toure, a nationalist, dictator, and a Marxist, until 1984. As film scholar Manthia Diawara, a Guinean of Malian descent, contends in his compelling critical memoir In Search of Africa, Sekou Toure brought change to Guinea, one of the poorest in the world. He prioritized education. He nationalized the arts, forming the famous Les Ballets Africains. He also incarcerated and tortured opponents in the notorious Camp Boiro in Conakry.
Toure also instituted iconoclasm, an assault against traditional icons. In Unmasking the State: Making Guinea Modern (Chicago, 2013), anthropologist Mike McGovern details the impact of the banning and burning of masks and dances on life in the forestierre region of southeastern Guinea. He points out that while Toure destroyed masks , banned dances, and prevented rite of passage rituals, his minions saved outstanding masks for display in the national museum.
The vast, almost incomprehensible differences between access to financing, production, distribution, and exhibition across the globe--whether comparing Ithaca College to Guinea, or France to Guinea, or mega-million transnational special effects Hollywood to Guinea--remind me of the absolutely urgent necessity of thinking seriously and in concrete ways about capacity building, infrastructure, exhibition, and the role of media in community. These differences also remind me to never think of where I am as the center of the world, but to think of where I work as a place connected to other places across the globe.
These sobering differences also push me to think beyond the resource-rich privileges of my own position as screen studies professor, where we faculty often complain that we do not have the latest Blu Ray,high end head sets for lectures, or best digital cameras.
About ten summers ago, a visiting delegation of Cameroonian filmmakers and journalists toured the Park School. I bumped into them picking up my mail.
I asked one of them how they were finding their trip to Ithaca. One filmmaker shared that he was completely stunned. The Park School, he claimed, had more cameras and studios and facilities than all of francophone Africa combined.