Indigenous Cultures, Film, and the 21st Century

(Congress of International Federation of Film Archives, Pretoria, April 12, 2011)

There is a serious cultural and spiritual crisis in the modern world. The origin of this crisis is in the West; from the West, it is spreading outside the body of the West to the East, to Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America, to the Caribbean and Pacific Islands.

Film makers of the Third World can play a crucially important role in solving this cultural and spiritual crisis, not only in the Third World, but in the West itself. The great African leaders, such as Nkrumah and Senghor, emphasized the great positive role that independent Africa would play in enriching the spirit and personality of men and women in the West. Nkrumah spoke of the “African Personality” as a potentially rejuvenating force in world history. Senghor stated the matter thus in 1959:

The problem which we, Africans in 1959, are set is how to integrate African values into the world of 1959. It is not a case of reviving the past so as to live on in an African museum. It is a case of animating this world, here and now, with the values that come from our past.” (Senghor: Prose and Poetry, edited by John Reed and Olive Wake, London, Heinemann, 1976, p. 78)

I emphasize my thesis that Film makers of the Third World can play a role of the first and greatest importance in re-ordering and regenerating the spirit, mind, and personality of the peoples of the West. At its height as the dominant force in contemporary world history of the time, Western scholars took it for granted that the peoples of all the nations of the world outside the West are preoccupied with the desire to become carbon copies of the West; and that the peoples of the Third World desire, above all, to have their personalities reshaped and remolded so that they are carbon copies of the Western personality. Indeed, anthropology and other social science textbooks of the time referred to social change in the Third World, particularly in Africa and Asia, as “Westernization.”

American film makers played a leading role in this “celebration” of the triumph of Western culture, particularly of its most powerful and intoxicating model, the USA.

However, this was one side of the coin. As the world is round, and as the truth is also round, the other side of the truth began to emerge, the truth of the meaninglessness of life, of alienation, of the lonely individual, of existentialism, of deep depression, of brutality and cruelty to the human spirit and to physical life itself. We did not see much of the “celebration” of Western culture and the Western personality in films from Italy, Sweden, France, especially, and from England, as much as we saw in films from the USA. Do you remember “Last Year in Marienbad”? We began to see portraits of the cultural and spiritual crisis of the West. In the Third World, in Africa especially, the crisis is that of underdevelopment, of poverty, of misery and diseases.

African film makers have not been equal to the challenge of Nkrumah and Senghor. Third World film makers have yet to be equal to the challenge of showing the way to the solution of the deep cultural and spiritual crisis of Humankind in our time —of the deep crisis in the West as well as in the Third World itself. Yes, the West in the 20th century became the most powerful force in molding and shaping the personalities of the rising classes in the Third World. In the 21st century, the Third World must become the most powerful force in molding and shaping the personality of Humankind. Film must play a preeminent role in this process.

My thesis is that the theme of this Conference, Indigenous Cultures and Film, provides the basis for the first and great role that the Third World can and must play in rejuvenating and reviving the Human Spirit –via the medium of film. Let us look at this problem a little closer.

The crisis began in the West with the rise and triumph of the capitalist economy, which brought about industrialization and what is called modernization. There are two key historical processes which brought about this cultural and spiritual crisis in the West:

1.     The destruction of the Rural Commune, of communal land, of Traditional culture, which was rooted in the traditional rural community, and

2.     The conquest of all social life by money; the dilution and pollution of all human relations by the money factor; the deep negative influence of money considerations in the most precious spheres of human life, such as men-women relations, family relations, the production and distribution of art, music and literature, religion, and the whole issue of brotherhood and sisterhood among all human beings in society and on earth, the issue of human solidarity.

The important point here is that the destruction of the Rural Commune, of the rural community, and of Tradition rooted in the rural community, the elimination of the influence and role of rural people in molding and shaping modern culture and modern personalities, brought about a discontinuity in the making of the human personality in the cities and towns. There was a disappearance of the Past, of Tradition as a fertile basis for the construction of the new Human Personality.

Nothing from rural culture, nothing from the Past of Human culture, nothing from Tradition came into the city, school books, newspapers, television, magazines and films, as bricks and material for the construction of the new personality. The working class, the middle class, and the ruling class was bare of rural culture, was bare of the Past of Human culture, was bare of Tradition rooted in rural life. There was a gigantic vacuum in the spiritual and mental life of the working classes, middle classes, and ruling classes resident in cities.

Without the Past in your soul and mind, there is no meaning in your soul and mind. Hence the meaninglessness of life, the “Waste Land” of T. S. Eliot and the Existentialists, and the situation in which everyone is a “Stranger”, in Albert Camus’ sense, and feels a stranger to everyone; and the latent hostilities and grudges lodged deep in the personality of many people in modern society; the feeling of Human Solidarity with all members of society, with all Humankind, is gone. The human individual is “thrown into nothingness”, in Heidegger’s phrase and philosophy, which gave birth to Sartre’s Existentialism.

What is the basis for the hope that film makers of the Third World can play a pre-eminent role in rejuvenating and reviving the Human Spirit in the West as well as in the Third World itself? Why am I saying that the theme of this Conference, Indigenous Cultures and Film, should be the foundation for the solution of the cultural and spiritual crisis of the West, as well as of the crisis of underdevelopment in the Third World?

Capitalism, which first arose in the West, which began by planting its roots in the countryside, thereby reducing the peasantry to a tiny minority of society, has not succeeded in transforming Third World societies into capitalist societies. By and large, the vast majority of the population of most Third World countries live in rural areas, and they are not capitalist farmers. Most rural people in Africa, even in South Africa and Zimbabwe, live on Communal lands. The African Commune is still alive in Africa, as well as structures of Traditional Leadership and Authority.

Even though poverty and misery are rampant in rural areas of Africa and India, for example, as well as Latin America and many parts of Asia, capitalism has not triumphed in the rural areas of the Third World. Collective modes of life, and the collective consciousness, still characterize social and community life. This is the life of the vast majority of members of society. Disraeli, describing the England of his time, stated that there are “two nations” in England, the nation of the poor, and the nation of the well-off.

We can say that there are “two nations” in every Third World country, the nation of city people, and the nation of the countryside. The people of the countryside form the vast majority; the people of the countryside actually define the real life and real essence of each Third World nation. The people of the cities constitute a minority of society; their life is a superficial, in a sense foreign, layer, resting on the real life and real essence of Third World nations, the countryside.

Both the city and the countryside are underdeveloped: there is no way no way you can call Delhi, Mexico City, Harare, Johannesburg, and other cities of the Third World, developed areas, just as there is no way you can call rural India, rural Mexico, rural Zimbabwe, and rural South Africa developed areas. Both the city and the countryside are characterized by underdevelopment. Che Guevara gave us a classical picture and definition of underdevelopment.

“What is underdevelopment? A dwarf with an enormous head and a swollen chest is `underdeveloped,’ inasmuch as his weak legs or short arms do not match the rest of his anatomy. He is the product of an abnormal formation that distorted his development. That is really what we are –we, who are politely referred to as `underdeveloped’…” (Che Guevara, Che Guevara Speaks, New York, Merit Publishers, 1967, p. 31)

Our gigantic problem as media workers, as film makers, as intellectuals, as ideologists, is that we are emotionally and mentally attached to the cities in which we live, to this artificial layer; we are emotionally and mentally attached to the sick cities of the Third World, or to the sick cities of the First World; dreams and inspiration rooted in the sick cities of the Third World and of the First World largely become the starting point in our minds and emotions as creators of art, music, dance, film and literature.

A writer, a film maker, an artist, a journalist, must identify in his soul and mind with a community, a social class, and Humankind, particularly the community, the social class, and the sector of Humankind which experiences most torment and suffering. This is what we call the Commitment of the artist, of the film maker, of the journalist, of the singer and writer. If the individual creator is talented, with that sensitivity and Commitment in his soul and mind, then that person shall create great works of art, great films, great music, and great journalism.

Tolstoy’s greatness as an artist, as a writer, arose intimately from his sensitivity and Commitment to the Serfs and peasants of Russia during his time. The condition of the serfs and peasants affected the entire spectrum of life in Russia during his time. It affected the entire spectrum of his emotions and thought. This was the source of the fuel for Tolstoy’s journey as an artist.

What I am saying is that as a film maker of the Third World, link yourself spiritually and mentally with the vast majority of society, the people of the countryside and the working class and poor of the cities whose roots are in the countryside. Be sensitive to the connection between the torment and suffering of the people of the countryside and the entire spectrum of the life of society and individuals you seek to depict and portray in your films. Delve into those connections. The conditions of the life of ordinary people in the countryside of the Third World, and of the working class and poor of the cities, should become the fuel for your journey as a film maker, no matter what you seek to portray and depict. Then your work, your film, shall have a moral content.

I am emphatically not saying that film makers should only make films about the people of the countryside of the Third World nations in which they are located, just as no one told Tolstoy what to write about in his works. What came out in his novels and stories is what was in his soul, just as what came out of Paul Robeson’s voice and songs is what was in his soul. The artist, film maker, or writer is, first, an individual with joys and pains, torments, experiences, struggles, dilemmas and inner concerns. But the individual did not fashion himself/herself; the individual comes out of a particular group, community, class, race, or culture. He or she absorbs the joys and pains, torments, experiences, struggles, dilemmas and inner concerns, of that group, community, class, race, or culture. These groups, communities, classes, races, and cultures in society and the world are in interaction; often the relations between them are not that pleasant; they are not equal.  The artist, the film maker, absorbs the spirit and mind of the influential people and community around her or around him. Under certain circumstances, when all hopes of altering the oppressive life conditions for the better have died, and oppressive and hopelessness seem triumphant, the individual film maker, artist, and journalist may create escapist works of dream life not found in real life, of dream life in space, or of Cinderella young women and men, and of glamour life of men and women not found in real life; or the film maker, artist, or journalist may create works which focus on the degeneration of the human spirit, on degenerated emotions and degenerated sexual life.     

It has been said that where decay is greatest, there the desire for regeneration runs deepest (Georg Lukacs). The desire for regeneration is deep among ordinary people in the developed world; the desire for regeneration also runs deepest among ordinary people in the Third World -but the vast majority of tormented, suffering people in the Third World are in the countryside. In fact, the misery and suffering and poverty of the countryside are migrating to the cities; a large percentage of the poor and miserable in the peripheries of Third World cities and towns are people from the countryside. There lies the great challenge of Third World artists, writers, journalists, and film makers –creating great works of art, films, and journalism out of the totality of this complex reality.

While the material culture and material life of ordinary people in the countryside, cities, and towns of the Third World have broken down, and are breaking down, the roots of the spiritual culture and spiritual life of ordinary people of the Third World go back to the time and epochs before the breakdown of material culture and material life.

Material life changes first, but spiritual life and the spiritual formulation of life survives and lingers long after the material environment has changed and disappeared. The film maker must catch on to that spiritual life and spiritual formulation of life still visible and traceable in the contemporary life of the Third World. That spiritual formulation of life still has a collective nature; it is still humanistic in nature; it is still generous in nature; it still says `I am my brother’s and my sister’s keeper’.

 

The peoples of the Third World had their own economic thought; their own philosophical thought; their own child psychology and general psychology; their own science; their own medicine; their own political philosophy; their own knowledge of psychiatry; their own science of architecture; their own art, music, dance, sculpture; their own deep and profound knowledge of nature and ecology; their own botany and biology; their own agricultural science; their own eloquence and love of language as art; their own literature; their own religions and theologies. The roots of this vast knowledge and spiritual life can still be found among many individuals in the countryside. Film maker, catch on to that, and let that be the foundation of your work!

Te greatest expressions of the human soul and personality came from the countryside, and were decisively influenced by the material and spiritual creations of the people of the countryside. The great Russian writer, Maxim Gorki, stressed that the folklore of ordinary people in the pre-industrial world was actually the foundation of the greatest artistic creations of Humankind. The same applies to the great world religions:

“It is only through the tremendous force of the collective that one can account for the unsurpassed and profound beauty of myth and epos, a beauty that is grounded in perfect harmony of idea and form…Only when an entire people though thought as one man was it possible to create such sweeping concepts and superb symbols as Prometheus, Satan, Hercules, Svyatogor, Ilya, Mikula and hundreds of other gigantic generalizations of a people’s experience of life. The power of collective creativity is best borne out by the fact that in the course of centuries individual creativity has been unable to bring forth anything equal to the Iliad or the Kalevalo, and also by the fact that individual genius has not produced a single symbolical figure whose roots do not derive from folk creativity, or a single world type previously non-existent in folk tales or in legends. (Gorki, Maxim, On Literature, Moscow, Progress Publishers, pp. 72-73)

The West destroyed all this knowledge and spiritual formulation of life as it destroyed the Commune, communal land, the rural community, and tradition rooted in rural life. The “Waste Land”, “the meaninglessness of life”, “the Stranger”, racism, and various holocausts took the place of what was destroyed. I know many people shall find plenty to disagree with in this presentation. What I am saying is that you should incorporate those disagreements in your films. Let there be a genuine, deep, artistic dialogue in your films about the true meaning of East and West; about the true meaning of the relationship between Africa and the West; between Africa and India; between Africa and Europe; between Africa and Asia; between Africa and the Americas, between Africa and the Middle East.

The essence of humanism is largely, and still, in the memory of ordinary people of the Third World. Film makers shall make a gigantic contribution to the regeneration and rejuvenation of Humankind by linking their souls and minds with the countryside and ordinary people in the cities of the Third World. That is the vastness and crucial importance of the theme of this conference: Indigenous Cultures and Film.

 

 

 

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About Professor Herbert W. Vilakazi

Professor Herbert Vilakazi was born at Nongoma, KwaZulu/Natal, South Africa. He received his tertiary education at Columbia University, and at the New School For Social Research, both in New York City, USA. He has taught sociology and other social sciences at various tertiary institutions in and around New York City (City College of City University, Essex County College in Newark, Livingstone College, and State University of New York). He has also taught at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University), University of the Witwatersrand, University of Cape Town, and University of Zululand. He served as Deputy-Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission from 1998 to 2004. He has also served as Special Advisor to the Premier of KwaZulu/Natal (2005-2007). He is Chairperson of Vilakazi Development Strategies.
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