Karmen Gei: Political Sex Icon

The Hollywood film industry helps create a lexicon of concepts and images used to define a woman’s sexual power. In America, this multibillion dollar industry encourages the use of exercise, makeup, and breast augmentation to transcend human limitations (e.g. temporality and corporeality) and empower the self. It deifies a female protagonist who relies on her sexuality and good looks to obtain the accoutrements of success. This “uber-woman” is an easy character to detect. She can be identified by many, if not all, of the following characteristics: long hair, a thin or physically fit body, shapely legs, round breasts, clear skin, a sway in her hips, and an overt sexual energy. Mainstream American cinematic narratives use this sexual icon as a simple source of visual pleasure. In Joe Ramaka’s film Karmen Gei, the sexual icon is portrayed in another manner. Karmen, the protagonist of the film, uses her sexual power to obtain not only personal pleasure, but to stimulate cultural subversion and to incite political dissent. Each sexual and romantic relationship Karmen engages is an example of a pursuit of Karmen’s personal desire and an act of political rebellion.

The earliest relationship we encounter is with the prison warden Angelique. Karmen is imprisoned in a women’s penitentiary and, in the first scene, she dances seductively in the center of a drum circle. She wears a large black cloak and exposes a blood red garter at the top of her thigh. The prison warden, Angelique, is the object of Karmen’s gaze. At first the warden resists Karmen’s advances but Angelique is quickly entranced by Karmen’s magnetism. By seducing the warden, Karmen fulfills two of her personal requirements: her desire to satiate her sexual impulse and her longing to obtain her freedom. In the following scene the two women lie in bed engaged in a passionate tryst. Over time, Angelique falls in love with Karmen and Karmen is given her freedom. The women’s romantic relationship is the politically subversive element. Merimée’s classic Carmen is transformed from heterosexual to bisexual as Karmen finds her true love in the body of Angelique. The other prisoners exclaim from their cells that men and women must beware now that Karmen is free.

Her second love begins as soon as she leaves the prison. We are invited into a wedding celebration of a politician’s daughter and the soldier Lamine. Karmen appears as a ceremonial dancer and immediately begins to seduce the groom. Karmen undulates her body as she approaches the couple. Lamine is mesmerized by Karmen and is smitten the moment she throws a red trimmed scarf at him. During the dance, Karmen confronts the bride and lures her into a lover’s competition. As she pushes the bride to the ground, Karmen renounces the corrupt political party, and is arrested for her contempt. The bride’s father is insulted by Lamine’s lack of action strips him of his political authority and throws him in jail. That night Karmen breaks Lamine out, entices him into her bed, and is again personally satiated in the arms of a lover. The appropriation and adulteration of Lamine is an indicator of Karmen’s ability to seize political control. Lamine is obsessed with Karmen and will do anything to be near her. She uses the opportunity to sleep with him, induct him into her band of thieves, and make him disrespect, steal from, and kill the politicians he once worked for. Karmen uses her sexuality to disrupt the smooth machinations of this political system and in this way, admonishes the corrupt Senegalese government.

The third relationship she has is with Massigi. After breaking Lamine out of jail, Karmen returns to her mother’s bar to rest. Massigi immediately comes into the establishment to serenade her with songs of love and devotion. Karmen, who is upstairs in the midst of love making, comes down, glistening with sweat, and wearing a loosely fitted red garment. When Massigi is near her, Karmen is no longer a sexual vixen but full of joy and child-like happiness. In one scene, the pair strolls down the beach together and laughs lightheartedly as they walk. The moment tragedy strikes, she goes to him for comfort, stability, and mending. He is the stability to balance her freedom. When the police come to Karmen’s mother’s bar to look for Lamine, Massigi sublimates their efforts to search the premises by politicizing the situation. Massigi’s love for Karmen compels him to protect her interest with his words. He reprimands the government officials for their lack of respect for Karmen’s mother and insults them for disregarding tradition. Massigi helps to harbor a fugitive; this is the power of Karmen’s love.

Although the film uses a powerful strategy of coupling sexual power and political dissent, it ends with Karmen crippled and destroyed by the power that made her thrive. At the end of the story, all of the symbols of her sexual authority lose their potency. The first incident is the death of her true love, Angelique. Angelique realizes that she will never have Karmen and commits suicide by drowning. Because of her love for Angelique, Karmen becomes reclusive and soon recognizes her inability to completely love Massigi. Although unable to love him, she maintains her relationship with Massigi and in the final sequence of scenes, she walks through the local market with him. As she walks, she has a terrible premonition and begins to run from a faceless danger. She runs to the theater house where she is confronted by death and murdered by her obsessive lover, Lamine. Employing the classic narrative conclusion of the femme fatale, who is inevitably punished for her sexual liberty, Karmen is murdered by a man who had professed his undying love for her. The song “Karmen” sang throughout the film, which references the inability to tame an untamable bird, proves to be true. The untamable bird in this situation are both love and sex whose power coupled destroy her.

Although Karmen falls to her death, we are left with a unique symbol of sexuality. Ramaka represents Karmen as a sexually and politically vibrant woman who has the ability to fuse political action and an idealized, sexualized body. This strategy, where real issues are challenged and discussed using mainstream media techniques, allows for a wider audience to appreciate and understand the necessity of a social awareness and a political voice.

Women and Cinema at ZIFF

Close Up On Bintou by Burkinabe director, Fanta Regina Nacro, has an immense power to keep you glued to the screen. Its well-crafted story is not only entertaining but informative as well. The film portrays the self-elevation, against all odds, of a downtrodden housewife, Bintou, whose only wish is to earn enough money to educate her daughter. The film highlights her frustration with her situation and her husband’s derision at her decision to enter into business, both of which propel her towards triumph. It is a moving film that captures the plight of many women in Africa, and does so in a way that neither paints women as pure victims nor men as categorical tyrants. During the last edition of FESPACO, Africa’s biennial premier film festival held earlier this year in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the film was awarded a Special Jury Prize.

Over 30 films highlighting women issues were screened during the festival and the response was impressive. The festival provided a real and dynamic space for women to display their artistic work and to raise and discuss their concerns and issues; they turned up in big numbers. Besides screening of films made by women, there were workshops and discussions that sought to establish the visibility of women in cinema, media and the arts. The Zanzibar Film Festival short feature films competition had a total of ten films and Bintou’s tale was the clear forerunner. However, Bintou‘s closest challenger was expected to come from five other short films dubbed the Mama Africa series and produced by M-Net of South Africa, Zimmedia of Zimbabwe and WinStar and ITVS from the United States of America. Mama Africa, a series that was quite popular during the festival, collects for the first time, the beauty, humor, fury, frustration and the spirituality of African womanhood around the continent. Each story is radically different, vibrating with the beat of different countries and cultures of the directors involved in the production of these films.

From the rich Arabic tradition of Tunisia, Mama Africa heads south through an arid Sahelian village, across the basketball courts of Nigeria, via the open spaces of Zimbabwe, to the violent urban sprawl of South Africa. Although diverse in approach, the whole collection is united by a common thread of understanding of what it means to be a woman in Africa. Mama Africa presents an understanding of this world told in motion picture by six remarkable African women filmmakers. The films in the series are One Evening in July from Tunisia directed by Raja Amani, Riches from Zimbabwe directed by Ingrid Sinclair, Close Up on Bintou from Burkina Faso directed by Fanta Regina Nacro, Hang Time from Nigeria that was directed by Ngozi Onwurah, Uno’s World from Namibia directed by Bridget Pickering and Raya from South Africa that was directed by Zulfa Otto-Sallies.

All these films are a veritable testament to the new wave expression of African women filmmakers. “Women were previously depicted as weak characters in the storylines but this is gradually changing as more take up the challenge found in motion picture,” observed Gaston Kabore, an acclaimed Burkinabe film director, producer and writer, who was the chief guest during the Zanzibar Festival.

“Many women filmmakers have attempted to reverse the previously held notions of a weaker and subservient woman,” noted Letebele Masemola-Jones, the program’s production director with African Broadcasting Network. “Characters, especially those in movies written by women, are portrayed in a positive light. Films are not only meant to entertain, but inform, and for women filmmakers this latter purpose is very important.”

While some women filmmakers have made films that were inspired by real life events, others have been made from great literary works of art written by women and fiction informed by the social, economic, religious and political activities. A Female Cabby in Siddi Bel-Abbes from Algeria is a remarkable social commentary that touches on the lives of many women in the continent. In the story, Soumicha, a mother of three children, has to earn a living after the death of her husband who had been the solo breadwinner. She becomes the only woman taxi driver in the city of Siddi Bel-Abbes. As the story develops, we see her working conditions in a job normally reserved for men, in a city where violence rages. Soumicha takes us around the city, introduces us to the many contradictory aspects of this society and acquaints us in the course of her travels with other women who, like herself, are struggling for more freedom.

Riches, one of the movies in Mama Africa series, was inspired by the writer Bessie Head. It follows the flight of a coloured teacher, Molly McBride and her son Peter, from apartheid South Africa to an isolated school in Zimbabwe. She finds life tough and the villagers hostile and conservative. Molly’s clash with the hypocritical headmaster leaves her jobless and in despair, but a simple gesture of friendship from one of the poorest members of the community inspires her to fight back and claim her place within her new society.

Women’s issues take precedent in works by women filmmakers, but they have not shied away from tackling other thematic concerns. “Women filmmakers are sensitive to certain things around us that gain prominence when articulated using this methodology,” noted Kabore. “This kind of sensitivity is necessary in our industry that is growing and trying to find its own identity. We need to bring our own sensitivity to our own stories and women have shown that they have that capability.” The industry is struggling and there are many obstacles that compound film production in Africa. “The question of insufficient funds is a perennial one for African filmmakers and it is more pronounced where women filmmakers are concerned,” added Kabore. “Most have ended up doing projects that are sponsored by Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and international bodies where they don’t have a lot of control in the films.”

The forerunners in the industry have helped set up local and international bodies to help solve the problem of funding. The International Women in Film, Women of the Sun, Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe and others, have been set up to support women filmmakers to raise funds and encourage more women to join the industry at various levels. They also help in the networking, lobbying and organizing forums that will assist women’s participation in the art of telling their own stories. Other organizations like the National Film & Video Fund of South Africa help filmmakers from marginalized groups realize their dreams. These organizations have helped make films that would otherwise never have been made, but industry experts feel that more needs to be done by our various governments to help women filmmakers realize their true potential. However, if the quality and quantity of films made by women being showcased at ZIFF is any indication, things look bright for the future of women’s storytelling on celluloid.

Report: The World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

The UN World Conference on Race (WCAR) held August 31-September 8 in Durban, South Africa, has been sidelined in the media by occlusive coverage of the September 11th World Trade Center attack. Few of WCAR’s many critics have linked the horrific attack with the dissension over the Middle East that was fomented at Durban. But few observers have drawn the connection that should be made between the anti-racism conference and the World Trade Center attack.

Ironically, it was President Bush, clearly not a fan of the conference, who came closest to making the connection between the two events. In his address on terrorism before a joint session of Congress, Mr. Bush asked “every nation to join [in the] fight of all who believe in pluralism, tolerance and freedom…” Basically, his appeal was a restatement of the objective of the conference to “reaffirm principles of…international cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights…”

Terrorism is a political derivative of racism and related intolerances. This was acknowledged in paragraph 18 of the NGO declaration that states, “racism…and related intolerance are the basis of gross violations of human rights and hate crimes.” Pity that our nation (and the world) should be so immediately awakened to the tragedy of isolationism just the days after the conference ended.

From the start, some grand purpose appeared to be in progress at Durban. The officious opening ceremony of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance–even the name implied a certain munificence and scope—set a tone. As the procession, led by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, South African President Thabo Mbeki, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, filed into the hall of Durban’s International Convention Center (ICC), thousands of delegates from more than 150 countries stood in reverence. Some applauded as El Jefe, Cuban President Fidel Castro walked pass. Yasser Arafat, Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila were also among the sixteen heads of state in the impressive entourage.

In his opening remarks, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declared, “If we leave here without agreement, we shall give comfort to the worst elements in every society.” That theme was repeated by Cuban President Castro who warned that if the conference did not succeed, “what lies before us can only be worse than what we have left behind.”

But it was host President Thabo Mbeki whose remarks presaged the contentious negotiations soon to follow. He said, “There are many in our common world who suffer indignity and humiliation because they are not white…. These are a people who know what it means to be the victim of rabid racism and racial discrimination. Nobody ever chose to be a slave, to be colonised, to be racially oppressed. The impulses of the time caused these crimes to be committed by human beings against others.”

In a world where race remains a deeply divisive force, it came as no surprise that a world conference against racism would generate vigorous and even virulent political debate. But as awful as the strife observed in Durban was the inflammatory venom put out by some mainstream media regarding conference proceedings.

At one point, UN Commissioner Mary Robinson told delegates, “The press wants us to fail”. And so it seemed. On August 17, the NY Times editorialized in a piece titled “A mean spirited UN conference”. Later, NY Times columnist Bob Herbert thrashed the WCAR in a commentary of his called, “In America; Doomed to Irrelevance”. The negative tone struck in the NY Times was reprised in the London Daily Telegraph’s September 4 article, “A hateful Conference”.

In the weeks and days leading up to the conference, the US threatened to boycott dominated American press coverage. After deciding to send a low ranking delegation to Durban, Secretary of State Colin Powell summoned them back to Washington two days later. The precipitous withdrawal was said to be in response to “hateful” anti-Israeli language in conference documents. However, some EU delegates suggested  the fear of massive reparations claims by African Americans that prompted the recall of the American delegation. This view was shared by the African and African Descendents Caucus at the NGO Forum. In its statement issued September 4, one day after the walkout, the caucus charged that the US had “rationalized its opposition to even a discussion of reparations by unfairly linking it to the demands of the Palestinian people that the national oppression and racial discrimination visited upon them by the State of Israel be condemned.”

As the host nation, South Africa wanted the conference to succeed, but not every South African favored the idea of hosting the notable event. Some white South Africans had been alienated by a national anti-racism conference held in South Africa the year before and were skeptical of having another race conference. On the opening day of WCAR, a coalition of South African grass roots activists, squatters, workers, and students calling themselves the Durban Forum staged a mega demonstration, more than 10,000 strong, to protest the failure of the conference and to address South Africa’s own economic discrimination issues.

Simultaneously, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) held a 2-day general strike condemning the ANC Government’s moves to privatise. Despite spirited protests in the streets of the beautiful port city, thousands of delegates made their way to Durban. Into the thick of the highly-charged political milieu, they continued to arrive, not knowing exactly what to expect of the historic endeavor. Some of the attendees were true believers, some were merely hopefuls, while others were skeptics and a bit cynical of what really could be achieved. There were also those that questioned whether democratic South Africa was materially equipped to handle the logistics of such a mammoth event.

WCAR, the main intergovernmental conference, drew over 2,500 delegates from 163 nations. The sophisticated gathering of governmental delegates—mostly men (and a few women) in suits–was singularly impressive in its uniformity. But there was one Canadian delegate who arrived in the full regalia of traditional attire, topped with a very large, beautifully multi-coloured feather headdress. Hundreds of media paparazzi were also on hand and ubiquitous security personnel.

Across the street at Kingsmead Stadium, the NGO Forum (August 28-September 1) was anything but uniformed. That parallel event of more than 7,000 delegates from 150 nations was a funky grassroots affair. On the grounds of the cricket field one could see the Dalits (“Untouchables”) from India connecting with dreadlocked Rastafarians from Jamaica. Blacks from the Americas and across the continent traded experiences with dozens of ethnic minorities including indigent Polynesians, Sri Lankan Tamils and the Buraku people of Japan. The Kurds from Turkey, the Romas (“Gypsies”), the Osu and Oru people of Nigeria, Tibetan monks, British Muslims, Eskimos, American Indians and the indigenous peoples of Canada all came together. The diversity of participation was one of the high points of being there.

As expected, the hundreds of African Americans at Durban were a strong vocal presence. Professor Manning Marable, Chair of Columbia University’s Department of African American Studies, caused a stir when he presented theories on “whiteness”, connecting it conceptually with property and theft. It was the African Americans who led the push for reparations for the victims of slavery. The African and African Descendants Caucus and the December 12th Coalition were among the African American organizations that lobbied assiduously to have reparations included in the intergovernmental document. Several African American Congressmen, members of the Black Leadership Forum, denounced the US Government for dodging the reparations issue.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade and colonialism dominated negotiations in the latter days of the conference. Those discussions caused great dissention. And at one point it was feared that WCAR, like two previous UN race conferences in 1978 and 1983, would collapse before reaching closure. When the US and Israeli delegations pulled out, some US diplomats expected the Europeans to follow suit. However, the EU delegates did not leave, choosing to stay in Durban to protect their interests. Some German officials reportedly criticized the US for pulling out and even the British called the US decision “a pity”. At the outset, the Europeans were split on the issue of colonial responsibility. Britain and Spain were very concerned about legal liabilities. Both adamantly opposed apologizing for their role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. On the other hand, the Germans and the French were willing to issue some form of formal apology for their role in the slave trade, as well as their involvement in colonialism .

There was also a range of views among the African states regarding the slavery debate. Namibia demanded an explicit apology from states that benefited from slavery and colonialism. And Namibian delegates as well as the African Americans and some African leaders were in favor of some form of reparations. But other African leaders, including President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal were not in favor of reparations, and instead pushed for trade benefits and foreign aid. In order to avert a deadlock, South African delegates moved away from insistence upon an explicit apology. In lieu of reparations for slavery victims and descendants, the South African leaders sought debt relief and foreign aid without strings for colonized African nations.

It took an extra day to reach agreement on an intergovernmental document. Finally, on the eighth day, a compromise was reached, calling upon signatories to acknowledge “that slavery is a crime against humanity and should always have been so” and express an apology in the form of an “acknowledgment for the wrongs of slavery” and offering economic assistance to Africa. By confining the conception of “slavery as a crime against humanity “ to the present and not dealing with its criminality in the past, legal liabilities were apparently avoided. Also, in theft agreement the idea of reparations was not connected to the slave trade.

The final WCAR declaration and plan of action was adopted by 163 nations. But critics charge that the document was watered down and failed to bring attention to many causes emphasized at the conference. While the cause of the Romas was addressed in the document, other groups including the Barakumin minority of Japan, the Osu of Nigeria and minorities from Senegal and Mauritania were excluded. Conference president Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma expressed regret that other concerns like the issue of India’s Dalits were excluded.

President Mbeki summed up the results. He said, “None of us achieved everything we wanted, but we have stated a historical process which provides us with a solid foundation to continue the struggle for a better world for all.”

By comparison, the NGO declaration went further than the intergovernmental document on many of the important issues raised in Durban. On the issue of slavery and colonial responsibility, the NGO document was direct and unequivocal. It clearly stated, “We demand that the United States, Canada, and those European and Arab nations that participated in and benefited from the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade, the Trans-Indian Ocean Slave Trade, slavery and the colonization of Africa [as well as] the United Nations… shall Ensure that all nations, groups and their members who are the victims of crimes against humanity based on race, colour, caste, descent, ethnicity or indigenous or national origin are provided reparations… (including)… Restitution…encompassing the unconditional return of land… Monetary compensation that will repair the victims, including Africa, Africans and African descendants, by closing the economic gap created by these crimes…”

However UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson refused to recommend the final NGO document to the intergovernmental forum because of the language used regarding Israel. NGO Forum President Moshe More contextualized Robinson’s response, by saying “Only three paragraphs (418, 419 & 420) were a bit problematic… Those are the three paragraphs that the High Commissioner for Human Rights referred to, the paragraphs that she had a problem with… But I think the High Commissioner respected also that the document itself was a reflection of the voices of the victims…”

As an African American filmmaker, I personally had a very visceral response to the conference. Gathered in Durban were the minds, hearts and bodies of more than 10,000 individuals assembled for the express purpose of eradicating racism. Just as expressed in the NGO declaration, this assemblage embodied “the richness of the diversity of cultures, languages, religions and peoples in the world and the potential within this diversity to create a world free of racism, racial discrimination, genocide, slavery, xenophobia and related intolerance…. “ That was the image I saw at dinnertime each day in the conference dining hall.

The conference also worked for me on a philosophical level. It confirmed the existence of racism at a time when so many are in denial and it affirmed the fact that as long as racism persists in society, we are all its victims—both those upon whom racism is perpetrated as well as the perpetrators. As noted in the NGO declaration, “racism is an ideological construct” that bestows one race with social and political power over another. That kind of racial superiority or privilege ultimately becomes a crutch that denies to its possessor the rewards of his own efforts.

A Canadian Youth Summit delegate and reporter for the Young Peoples Press made an observation about a conference billboard she saw which read: “YOU’RE Not A Racist, Right?” The young reporter said every conference backpacker she met remembered that quote. And so did I. Ultimately, Durban was a clarion call to arms in the fight against racism, racial discrimination, genocide, slavery, xenophobia and related intolerance. It provided us all with yet another opportunity to expand the limits of our humanity by confronting ourselves when it comes to racism. As suggested by that billboard, each one must submit to his own scrutiny in this regard. The consequences of not doing so could be deadly.