Filed under: Correspondence
Following is a letter I wrote to a good friend and colleague in Brazil.
From: Jeremy Xido
Date: September 28, 2007 11:39:53 AM EDT
To: Graziela Moretto
Subject: film angola-portugal
I have been researching some on the internet and waiting for some books that I ordered to arrive. I have also been in touch with people in Portugal about setting up meeting for when i am there in October.
At the moment the very basic idea is something like this:
4 story-lines that interweave.
1) A handful of old Portuguese men that fought in the Colonial Wars in Africa as commandos and now meet in Lisbon talking about the old days and the new ones. I am taking this basic idea from what I read about a book from Antonio Lobo Antunes calles Fado Alexandrino. And perhaps from Lobo Antunes’ life itself – he was a doctor in Angola before and during the war. I haven’t read the book yet. I am waiting for it to come in the mail. Below is more information about his book, him and the commando units. (I will see if I can meet Lobo Antunes when I am there in October…)
2) Young woman or maybe a brother and sister from Angola that came to Lisbon in the 90s fleeing the civil war. Arrived without parents. Somehow I have in my head that she goes back to Angola. We follow her back. But I am not sure about this. I want to interview people when I am there to find out what stories actually exist. I am thinking about going to the neighborhood Cova da Moura on the outskirts of Lisbon. I think there are lots of hairdressers there. I included links to photos and articles below.
3) Two journalists. One Brazilian and one North American or European. My thought about them is that they covered Angola during the civil war. Maybe had an affair. Haven’t seen each other for a long time. Both are back covering different stories. The North America is covering the Chinese businesses rebuilding the country. The Brazilian is running a media campaign against AIDS and HIV on the state television channel Nação Coragem (article about it below). I think the American has stayed in Africa over the years traveling to different conflict zones and the Brazilian has been back in Brazil – This being her first time back in a long time. Maybe the American has HIV. Not sure about this though. May be too much…
4) A chinese business man. Maybe someone running a construction site. Working in a construction site. Or someone dealing directly with the Oil business. (long NYTimes article below as PDF file – the sort of thing the American Journalist would write actually).
This is all a lot of territory and it might make more sense to just focus on one or two of the stories. I am not sure yet. I am fascinated how they all exist at the same time and sort of bump up against each other in time and space. And how they might effect one another. I will read the novels and history books that are in the mail and when i get to Portugal, I will start to interview people and see how the stories develop or what i find out….
when you get a chance, let me know what you think.
Filed under: Correspondence
And following is the letter I wrote to Transforma to describe what I want to do for this APAP project:
Subject: residency, angola and the bottom of my heart
Date: November 25, 2007 10:00:10 PM GMT+01:00
Hi Tiago, Luis and Renata,
Many hugs from the east river in new york. my desk looks out over it. I see the sun you send from portugal every morning…i guess i am actually looking at you right now – if only my eyes were that good.
It is difficult for me to communicate at the moment because I had a medical emergency and lost the hearing in my “good” ear. I am pretty much deaf right now after surgery on wednesday, but am guardedly hopeful that it will come back. I will know more in a week. Now I am home resting, taking drugs and being taken care of by family and friends.
Because of this, I can’t talk on the phone or over skype (i can instant message, though).
So I thought I would write an email about what i am thinking about for coming to Portugal to work in the Spring and to see what possibilities there are to organize the time well – in advance – so that i can actually do the best and most enjoyable work possible.
This is what i would like to do:
– write a feature film script
– document the process of investigating and writing it
I see 3 primary parts to writing the script:
– research in Portugal / Lisbon
– research in Angola
So basically what I would do in Portugal is research – go to african clubs, meet people, interview on camera, collect stories, music, images, experiences. I am interested in Angolan immigration – back and forth. White angolans, black portuguese and vice versa. Also white portuguese who were in the commandos, for example. Salazar’s boys. Maybe a coffee with Antonio Lobos Antunes if possible or others that I don’t know about. I have a couple of ideas for story lines for an eventual script that would travel from Lisbon to Angola along the Benguela Railway. But this is all in my head from things I have read and am interested in. Actual experiences are key. And this is what I think I can do there.
Then the second part of the residency, I would like to write and put the ideas together and see how far I get on the script with the idea of shooting a feature film over the next year and a half. Whatever I document of my experiences and research could also be shown in some other format in Torres Vedras. Whether as performance/ presentation or installation or something else. Depending on what makes sense with whatever I have. Or maybe it is possible to have some sort of dialogue with institutions or universities or groups in Lisbon who are interested in immigration and africa and art…?
So then the other part of the work is in Angola (the crazy dream part – I’ve always wanted to go to africa!). I know that this plan is separate from the residency. I have been trying to figure out alternate ways of funding a month long trip to Angola to travel and film along the Benguela Railway. I wrote a proposal and sent it to a magazine that funds reports from abroad that are within their interests. They are interested in the railway, it’s history and the fact that the Chinese are reconstructing it. Important theme for scared Americans right at the end of the empire. I will talk with the magazine – called GOOD Magazine – in a couple of weeks and see how serious they might be about funding a trip. In the meantime, I want to look for other possible funding sources. I have a contact with TV3 in Barcelona and we’ll see what he says. And I will look for other sources here – like ITVS which funds international documentary projects. But I wanted to ask you guys about thoughts there in Portugal. Below I have a couple of sources that I thought might be possible, but I really don’t know. I also know that Transforma doesn’t do film productions, and that the scope of the project idea is very wide, but i figure, what the hell. as they say in english “nothing ventured, nothing gained” or “it can’t hurt to ask”
(I think to go to angola, i really just need the costs for a flight. living and travel expenses. someone to work with there who knows the country. I think I can shoot with my camera and microphones. (i will have to brush up on my portuguese…))
– The other foundation that Tiago told me about – the one run buy a guy married to the daughter of ANGOLA’S PRESIDENT
– Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
Em 2007 prosseguirá o apoio à realização de filmes de carácter experimental sobre temas de arte, privilegiando-se os projectos propostos por jovens cineastas, em início de carreira. Poderão, também, ser contemplados pedidos apresentados por outros autores, desde que os projectos se inscrevam na mesma linha de carácter inovador e experimental e não envolvam orçamentos onerosos. Manter-se-á igualmente, em casos especiais, o apoio à divulgação do cinema português no estrangeiro.
Subsídios para projectos teatrais e pluridisciplinares apresentados por criadores profissionais de idade não superior a 35 anos. Só se podem candidatar criadores que não tenham realizado mais do que cinco encenações profissionais.
PROGRAMA GULBENKIAN CRIATIVIDADE E CRIAÇÃO ARTÍSTICA
Com o objectivo de promover a formação artística avançada de criadores-autores, a Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian criou o Programa Gulbenkian Criatividade e Criação Artística. O programa decorre no Centro de Arte Moderna até 2008. Em 2007 estão previstas as segundas edições dos Cursos de Encenação de Teatro, Encenação de Ópera e Realização de Cinema. Para mais informações cliquehttp://www.programacriatividade.gulbenkian.pt
Ok guys, great talking with you.
I hope you have survived TransformaB
and all the financial tally for APAP V
and all the other crazy things you are up to
I also want to thank you from the bottom of my heart how much attention and care and help you gave me and claudia when we were there. You guys made us feel very safe and protected in a scary situation. It meant the world to both of us. I can’t overstate what that was for us. Truly extraordinary. Thank you.
Jeremy Xido / Cabula6
Filed under: Correspondence
I`m attaching both my first letter to Lindsay as well as the latest proposal to GOOD magazine which she asked me to write after our meeting last week. The recent Proposal I am sending in PDF form:
Subject: for Lindsay Utz / (Daniel Milder)
Date: October 1, 2007 3:57:12 AM GMT+02:00
Daniel Milder gave me your name and said that I should run a story idea by you.
I’m a filmmaker and theater artist from the States based in Europe over the past 7 years working with my company, Cabula6. We were recently asked to develop a new piece in Portugal focusing on Immigration. As I began to research the African migration to Portugal over the past decade an a half, I came across an extremely compelling story. Angola, just under the radar right now, is on the verge of becoming very big news around the world. China is positioned to be the economic powerhouse of this century, but the largely untold story of its global ascent is taking place right now in Africa. After decades of devastation wrought by civil wars, China is rebuilding the continent in hopes of a early grab at its potentially emense untapped oil reserves. The epicenter is Angola.
The Chinese are rebuilding the Benguela Railway that cuts through the belly of Angola. I will follow its tracks from Kuito in the center of the country to the old slave port of Benguela on the Atlantic ocean telling the stories of the people whose lives are rapidly or not so rapidly changing. Once the commercial life-line of Angola stretching 1334 km from the Congo to the Atlantic ocean, the railway was largely destroyed during the 26 year civil war – bombed, peppered with land mines, ravished and laid to waste. Now, as part of an investment deal securing oil rights and construction contracts in return for rebuilding the national infrastructure, Chinese companies have come in and the whole world is being transformed.
Parts of the country which have been cut off for years are starting to reconnect. Trade routes are beginning to reemerge. For the first time in decades there is the possibility of development and renewed life. The route from inland Angola to the coast has been central to the major economic stories of the past 500 years – from the slave trade, to the colonial copper and mineral trade, to the battles of the cold war and now to the ascendancy of China in the age of limited oil supplies.
All along the tracks are people whose lives and fates have been intimately intertwined with these global forces — from the Chinese construction workers, to the Angolans recovering from the ruinations of war to the HALO de-mining organizations clearing the way. And cutting through all of it are the once opulent trains, abandoned and bullet ridden from the war, finding their way in a remarkable reversal of fortune back onto center stage of world events.
For images and more information about the route I will take: http://www.cabula6.com/angolaINDEX.htm
Some of the possible stories along the way:
– Jose Pedrosa – Train inspector. He has worked on the railway since 1959. He has seen all the changes from the heyday of the late Portuguese empire to its decimation during the Civil War to its current rebirth.
– Tu Oingkui – The Chinese Project manager for the Sino Hydro corporation, a Shanghai based company given the contracts to rebuild the railroad as well as many construction projects along the way. The chinese workers are spending years of their lives sequestered away in construction compounds cut off from the rest of the Angolan populations.
– HALO Trust Workers – The de-mining organization has employed large numbers of de-miners to clear land mines along the railway. Their work is incredibly dangerous and seemingly interminable.
– The story of the Miss Landmine beauty pageant contestants along the Railway from the provinces of Bie, Huambo and Benguela. In May 2007, a Norwegian initiated project to bring attention to the devastating legacy of land mines throughout Angola, the Miss Landmine beauty pageant was launched. The project, featuring beauty contestants who have been disfigured by mines, will make it’s way to Angola in late 2007.
– Returning refugees – since the ceasefire agreement signed in 2002, nearly 4 million displaced persons are returning back to towns and villages that have been ravished by the 27 year war.
– The trains themselves and all the people who ride them or work on them.
thank you very much.
p.s. for more information about my work, please look at the Cabula6 website. As for samples of film work, please look at the Crime : Europa project at: http://cabula6.com/crimeINDEX.htm . These are a series of 6 films commissioned by the European Union in 2006 following the public reception of 6 local criminal cases around Europe. I would suggest looking at the Berlin and Italian films.
Filed under: Correspondence
February 1, 2008
Ok, I am involved in the great artistic hustle. It’s a raunchy dance that has me on airplanes and sending emails and smiling left and right, writing proposals and praying at night that someone will think it is worth paying me enough money to live off to follow through on these projects i want to do. Who will pay me to go to Angola? How do I convince them? What part of them – whoever they are with money – do I appeal to? How do I cast the project in the proper light so that they think it is about something that interests them? It’s a hustle, man.
I’m here in Salzburg, Austria waiting to hear back from GOOD magazine about an updated proposal I sent them a couple of days ago. Before I left New York to come here, I met with Lindsay Utz, the woman at GOOD magazine responsible for running their web-video presence.
So the game is this. I have to figure out what’s interesting for GOOD magazine. What kinds of things they think will interest their readership and then re-draw my proposals in line with what they think they want to present to the world. The americans don’t give a shit about the Portuguese or the Cold War or Land Mines or Poor Africans or the Angolan Basketball team winning the Afrobasket tournament and going to the 2008 Olympics. The Americans care about CHINA. About the Chinese usurping our role in the world. We care about them getting the oil, teaching everyone Mandarin, and calling in our 1.4 trillion dollars in debt and sending us once and all to the poor house where all the other poor people in the world will gang up on us and kick our ass in retribution for putting them where they are in the first place.
GOOD magazine wants to represent a particular vision of themselves as Americans. They want to be the america that’s in their 20s. That is socially conscious yet economically successful. They want to be GOOD americans. Smart. Hip. Successful and on the pulse of the times. On the cutting edge. They want to have a presence on the Web, Newsstands and movie theaters. And if I want them to cough up the money to send me to Angola, then I have to be the person on the ground who can deliver them the raw material to fashion this image of themselves back to themselves and their readership. I have to do that particular hustle, boogie-woogie, shimmy that’s going to make me look like the guy they’ve been looking for although they didn’t know it. I have to write a proposal that catches them.
Now if I were hustling a Portuguese source to get me to Angola, I’d have to come at it from a slightly different perspective. Or if I were to be hustling the Angolans or the Chinese or Bill Gates or the National Endowment of the Arts or the European Union or APAP. I’d have to take a different tact. Now this is very Detroit, as I see it. Basically you want to do something (in this case go to Angola to see what it is like up close and compare it to the junk in my head and report back to colleagues, friends and audiences in Europe and the States and be loved for how good and inspiring and eye opening and whatever my work is) and to do it, you have to appeal to powers greater than thou and say what they want to hear. I want someone to send me to Angola. Who the fuck knows what I will really do there. But I have to pretend to know. So I hustle up this source and that source and wait to see if I turned them on or not.
So here I am waiting. In Salzburg, to see if anyone has been properly excited. Here I am waiting to get in a position to actually do some real work.
Filed under: Correspondence
I wanted to add a little bit to what i wrote before. some things that have been going through my head…
December 16, 2007
Right now I am on a train traveling from New York to Seattle and am somewhere in the middle of North Dakota…I think. The landscape here is a bit how I imagine the moon to look, only here it’s covered in snow with the very occasional rusted tractor and shivering horse. Poor horse. Or maybe when I imagine Westerns, this is what I imagine. That’s more accurate, actually. Mean men on these poor horses arriving to reek havoc on white farmers that arrived in the wake of the Native American purges. All the people way back when who showed up with their plows after the Indians were chased off or killed. The white farmers then prayed for rain…which never really came.
This place is part and parcel of the North American colonial history that everyone in the States seems to not know or maybe just not care about. Not really. It’s a landscape belonging squarely within the vast plains of our American amnesia. That’s all I can think as we barrel through here on the train – the double decker Amtrak “Empire Builder” – that stretches from Chicago to Seattle. It’s a two day trip. Three from New York. With all this time and the rocking back and forth, it’s as if my mind is being jiggled. Burps of memory and old school lessons come up like acid reflux. As far as I remember…
Back then there was this thing called “manifest destiny” – basically a kissing cousin to what George W. Bush calls his right to “preemptive strikes” – a precept which allows the States to wallop anyone they want whenever they want to take whatever they want. I guess I’m showing my personal leanings here, but as far as I can tell Manifest Destiny was some cockamamy notion concocted by criminals running the new United States way back when that justified them taking over the continent, moving west, regardless of who or what was there. There’s a Bob Dylan song called “God on our side” or maybe that’s just the refrain. Aaron Neville sang a version of it. That’s all about “Manifest Destiny” Just like that Schoolhouse Rock cartoon called “Elbow Room.”
MD was a curious blend of faith in pre-ordained destiny, the “gifts of providence”, and the legacy of a protestant work ethic that required people to work hard to make that destiny a reality here and now on earth. Come hell or high water. And it had distinct religious overtones. The notion was that God somehow had chosen the new Americans to take over and by actually doing it, the Americans were doing “God’s will”. Part of that will was for them to spread their form of government – which had been elevated to an almost religious status in and of itself. The American Constitution is basically a quasi religious document in popular American culture…
The journalist John L. O’Sullivan popularized the phrase “Manifest Destiny” in 1845 when he wrote it was “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions” and later when talking about the annexation of Oregon / Northwest territories from the British, Russian and French claims to the region, he wrote “And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”
This of course had some serious ramifications for the people who happened to be there already, standing in the way of the European Americans like O’Sullivan and their date with destiny (not to mention their “multiplying millions” and “federated self-government.”) To me it sounds a hell of a lot like, “spreading democracy.” In the 1830s congress had already passed the “Indian Removal Act” and the Georgia Cherokees were relocated to Oklahoma in what’s referred to as The Trail of Tears. And then just south of here in South Dakota was the Wounded Knee massacre from 1890 in which US troops killed a number of Lakota Sioux.
Hurtling through the countryside on this train, though, you’d never think of this. Hell, living in Manhattan, New York, you’d never think that the island was named for the Manna Hatta indians who used to live there. Outside of Detroit is the city of Pontiac – also the name of one of General Motor’s most popular line of cars. Pontiac was the name of an Ottawa/Ojibwa Chief – some even say he was a Miami. Dakota is a Sioux language. But you never really think about these things – like, where are they now? What happened to them? Where’s this name from? Living in America, I feel like most people don’t think about anything – not this stuff, anyway.
I guess it’s not that different from being in Europe and having no clue that the majority of your architecture and wealth comes from the former colonies. Iberia’s gold straight out of the mines of latin america. The money which built all of Gaudi’s modernist treasures in Barcelona coming directly from the Catalans that worked catching run-away slaves in the Cuban sugar trade. Slaves that came mostly from Angola. All of Belgium’s wealth from the rubber plants of the Congo. Merry ol’ England, a product of the triangle slave trade.
As far as I can tell our Manifest Destiny has distinctly European origins. The seeds of the phrase anyway. The mad colonial push that began 500 or 600 years ago, propelled by the wicked marriage of economic greed and religious fervor backed by military force. Old school “good cop, bad cop” – the military comes in and slaps you around a bit, steals whatever you have on you and then the missionaries come in with the soft approach, whisper niceties in your ear, promise salvation and get you to capitulate to their will peacefully. One way or the other, the Europeans took the whole rape and pillage thing to a new level only to be outdone by the United States of America in the late 20th and early 21st century. I mean, Attila the Hun had nothing on Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush.
So I’m sitting here reading a book by Karl Maier, an American journalist, called “Angola: Promises and Lies”. And as I head west looking out the window thinking about my own colonial legacy, it puts somewhat into relief what I am reading here about Angola and the Portuguese. What does it mean that after 500 years of occupation, the Portuguese left Angola with a 90 percent illiteracy rate and phenomenal social discord? How and why did the country explode into a 27 year civil war with South Africa, Cuba, Zaire, The United States, China and the Soviet Union all with their hands in the pot? And now what is China up to? Securing oil rights and 70% of all reconstruction contracts for Chinese companies in return for several billions of dollars in loans – to be paid back in barrels of oil. The reports I read say there’s tons of construction going on but no education of Angolans to be able to take over their own country. There are even Chinese farmers moving in and buying up Angolan farm land. State of the art hospitals have been built and all the manuals for the various machines are in Mandarin.
Angola exists in my mind, perhaps not unlike Karl May’s America. It is an imagined space pieced together by news reports, google earth maps, blogs, photographs, history books, songs, interviews and hearsay. I am wondering what the paradigms are on which I construct my image of the place, the people and the way of life. Karl May was in prison when he started to write about Winnetou the “wise Chief of the Apaches.” Old Shatterhand was “his white blood brother” and the narrator / alter ego of May himself. Oh – and the Indians were sort of noble savages set upon by bad white people.
Apparently May was suffering from multiple personality disorder and began to steal things. He lost his post as a school teacher and was eventually incarcerated. His America, I’d guess was a sort of a mental lurch into freedom and possibility to channel his imagination and personalities.
So what’s my Angola? How influenced am I by the popular colonial narrative of “the dark continent” – obsessed with the darkness, mystery, death, dying, war, famine, and cannibalism all set off by deep mysticism, animist religions, the music and dancing, the big animals, the laughing children and a sense of things being “more real” there? There are all these things in my head, I’m sure, that have just as much to do with Angola itself as Karl May’s America had to do with this North Dakota I’m passing through. That is – very very very little.
My projections on and extractions from this imagined country in my head probably have more to do with me, my situation, my psychological and cultural make-up than anything to do with the actual physical place at 12º 30′ South of the Equator and 18º 30′ East of Greenwich that’s just under twice the size of Texas and full of 12,263,596 people and 6 – 20 million land mines. It’s hard not to ask if documentaries have more to do with the people making them than with the subjects they are made about. Or at least if the documentary investigation existing between it’s maker and it’s subject is best thought of as a documentation of that particular encounter.
In New York and Brazil, I’ve played Capoeira Angola for over 10 years. (Probably even longer by this point). Mestre Vicente Ferreira Pastinha in Salzvador Bahia coined the phrase “Capoeira Angola” to differentiate the style from the popular form developed by Mestre Bimba called Capoeira Regional – the one they use these days to make Nokia and Yamaha commercials. Mestre Pastinha wanted to refocus the practice onto it’s African roots in lieu of the local Brazilian context that Bimba favored. Of course, no one really knows where Capoeira comes from other than a mix of various influences including the various cultures of African Slaves, local Native Brazilians, and European settlers all squeezed through the filter of slavery and colonization. Mestre Pastinha focused on a dance he thought came from the port of Benguela in Angola called N’golo of “The dance of the Zebras” which was developed into a foot-fighting technique. Mestre Pastinha and followers believed that Capoeria – the name of the fighting form of N’golo – was used by africans and Afro-brazilians to “maintain themselves spiritually and physically under the harsh circumstances of slavery and plantation life.” Mestre João Grande in New York – a student of Pastinha and my Mestre – always focussed on intelligence, cunning, humor, dance and surprise as a way of confronting forces stronger than you. Mestre Morães, a student of João Grande, and another teacher of mine in Salvador de Bahia talks about “movimento só” – pure movement as being the aim of Capoeira Angola – maximizing your own movement while minimizing the movement of whomever you are playing with. Basically you keep flowing. A deep resistance to being incarcerated or enslaved.
I don’t think any of the old Mestres made it to Angola any more than Karl May made it to the American West. (May did make it as far as Buffalo, NY and Pastinha and João Grande did make it to Dakar, Senegal). But again, I think Africa provided a mental freedom. A mythology that was brought by forbearers or ancestors that ghosted the present day. That existed in rhythms and movements and stories and speech patterns. Like up in Detroit, where I am from. But like in Detroit, I always think that the documentation of Africa that exists in Capoeira Angola, has more to do with Salvador de Bahia than the port of Benguela. Or at least it has to do with the encounter of a place living the legacy of Slavery with the imaginative space before slavery.
So here i am chugging along through North Dakota, thinking about this place quadruple removed from anywhere I am, and still there is something there that tugs at me. Or some part of me. I wonder what it is.
So renata, you suggested that we have talks with people from angola living in lisbon and we record these meetings and use them for the reports back to helmut and APAP. seems like a fine idea to me, but I’m not in lisbon until may. so i will just have these open conversations with myself/you in the meantime and use these as a way to report the development.
Filed under: Correspondence
December 1, 2007
New York City
It started snowing here in New York this morning. I’m watching the little flakes scurry by my window and lay a uniform white blanket over the rooftops. The shale gray river seems to have stop flowing and is just sitting there rippling as if it’s caught a chill. Everything is quiet and still. And of all places, I’m thinking about Angola. I can’t imagine being anywhere further from there right now.
Last week I read Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s book, Creole, which starts with a boat landing in Luanda. “Hurled onto the beach, wet and humiliated, I was immediately assaulted by the alarming sensation of having left the real world behind me. I breathed in the hot, humid Angolan air, aware of the the sweet scents of fruit and sugar-cane, and gradually began to recognize another smell, something subtler, more melancholy, not unlike the smell of death and decay.”
Out my window ambulances and fire engines are careening below on the street. Just as I’m writing, the sound swells, passes and dissipates and it is all quiet again, snowing. A helicopter passes… gone.
I’ve been trying to finagle a way to get to Angola. It’s as if I’ve been caught by a bug that won’t let me go. A soft obsession that began innocuously enough with an offer by the Transforma arts center in Torres Vedras to come to Portugal and develop, as I understood it, a new piece dealing with immigration in some way. And my mind immediately drifted towards Africa. I thought about riding the subways in Lisbon when I was working there last time and seeing so many Africans and Portuguese of African descent. Somehow it was very different than other places in Europe that I know, and definitely different than the States or even than Brazil. The African community felt different. I don’t exactly know how to articulate this feeling about just how it seemed different to me – it just did. Somehow more “African”, more directly connected to this other place. A place I’ve never been – sub-Saharan Africa – but always wanted to go. I suddenly feel stupid: That’s like saying I always wanted to go to Asia or America or the Moon. A vast expanse of land, cultures and imagination. I know in my mind that it is a make-believe place that doesn’t exist linguistically or politically or ethnically or anything. And just by calling it “a place” as if there is some overriding unity that makes it one thing tips my hand and reveals my ignorance. But maybe this is what I’m drawn to more than anything: that which I don’t know. Casting light on my own ignorance. Shining knowledge into the recesses of my brain. Learning more about who I am.
Somehow, I feel like so much of my story growing up in Detroit comes down to what happened “there” in Africa. I was the only white kid in my neighborhood and all my friends and their families were the sons and daughters and grand children and great grand children of former African Slaves. They all came up to the North between 1910 and 1930. The boll weevil infestation of Cotton in the South killed the post slavery work, the Ku Klux Klan was on the rampage, World War I and the immigration Act of 1924 basically stopped European Immigration into the States, the industrial boom and war industries needed labor, and then the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 hit in which Louisiana blew up the levees to divert the flood waters of the Mississippi river from the rich neighborhoods of New Orleans to the poor neighborhoods – predominantly black. And all these things were happening at the same time that my great grandfather was freed from a Siberian Work camp and moved to Detroit from Kolosvar, Transylvania to work in one of Henry Ford’s factories. In 1922. Just before the immigration act.
By the time I was born, Detroit was 80 – 85 percent black. Half of my neighborhood belonged to the Nation of Islam (founded in 1930 by W.D. Fard and popularized in later years by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X). They mostly called me a “white devil” which tended to put a damper on our friendships although it didn’t seem to keep us from playing basketball together. My best friends were Baptists mostly or African Methodist Episcopalians. I’d go to church with them sometimes just for the music and to jump up and down.
When I was growing up people in school would say things like, “black is beautiful” and “back to africa.” When you asked them where in Africa, most people couldn’t say. It probably wasn’t that different than when some Jews end the Passover Seder with the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem.” It was more of an expression of deep longing for an imagined belonging outside of time and place than for actually going to a real city called Jerusalem. Or perhaps it’s a reconfiguration of the past as a projection into an imagined future. Anything to leap the untenable and unsustainable psychic pressures of the belligerent present.
Where I come from, who actually knew anything about the real “Africa”? Hell, those who didn’t fast for Ramadan or celebrate Christmas lit candles for a week as part of the “pan-african” celebration of Kwanzaa. And that holiday was created in 1966 in California by a guy named Ron Karenga. Where I’m from, Africa is a made-up place to escape from the unbearable realities of a racist society.
However, when the few African Americans did go back to the real Africa, they didn’t go to Angola. They went to Freetown, Sierra Leone and eventually created Liberia. The British slave trade moved mostly from West Africa to the British Colonies in North America by way of the West Indies. And from there the Slaves made their way to the plantation belt in the American South. So if there was any place to go back to, West Africa seemed like it would be a good bet. Although when I look at maps of the trade routes, I see arrows moving from Cabinda, Luanda and Benguela not only to Salvador de Bahia and Rio de Janiero in Brasil, but also up to the Caribbean. Some of them must have ended up in the plantations as well. Probably even made it somewhere along the Mississippi River or eventually to New Orleans to the St Bernard Parish. At least their descendants did. And if they did, they would have gotten caught in the flood, been beaten by the Ku Klux Klan, had their jobs ravaged by the boll weevil and at some point would decide to find a job up in Detroit, just like my grandad. Why not? It’s possible.
If my family could have wandered for over 2000 years from Mesopotamia to Judea to Egypt to Babylon to the Iberian Peninsula to the Ottoman Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Detroit, what’s to say my friend Vanny’s ancestors didn’t come from what’s now Huambo in Angola? From there to Benguela was one of the primary Slave routes of Southern Africa for hundreds of years. The Ovimbundu kingdom struck a deal with the Portuguese to catch people from rival groups and sell them as Slaves. Those people made the trip to Benguela on the Atlantic Ocean where they were shackled together in the hold of a slave ship for the perilous voyage to the “new world.” There’s no way to trace it, of course. It’s all imaginary. But it still happened.
By chance I met Judith Matloff here in New York, an American journalist who worked as a war correspondent in Angola for a number of years covering the Civil War. She got caught in the breakdown of the first cease fire in 1989. She was supposed to be there covering the first elections since the fighting started in 1975 – after already having 14 years of war that the Portuguese call the “Colonial Wars” and the Angolans call the “War of Liberation”. It’s crazy when you think that when the fighting stopped in 2002, the country had been at war for nearly 41 consecutive years with only a brief hiatus. In a country where the median age is 17.9 and life expectancy is 37.6 you have nearly no one left who could remember a time when there wasn’t a war. And that’s not to mention the 500 years of the triangle slave trade….
My soft obsession with the country has been growing over the past months. I read Judith’s book about her time and experiences and then picked up Ryszard Kapucinski’s “Another Day of Life” about the tense transition to independence on November 11 1975. (My fourth birthday – the year I moved to Detroit with my parents from California.) Ricardo from Transforma gave me a copy of the Hip Hip soundtrack “É Dreda Ser Angolano” which I can’t stop listening to. It’s awesome. I put my headphones on every time I hop on the subway. Judith gave me the singer Waldemar Bastos’ contact in Portugal and also here in New York (he usually stays with David Byrne when he’s here). I read another book “empire in africa” by David Birmingham, an Englishman who has spent his professional life focussed on the politics of Lusophone africa. I’ve been trying to get ahold of Agualusa’s latest novel and have tons of contacts with Immigrants, Retornados, Portuguese of Angolan descent – black and white – for when I finally get back to Portugal. Both Ricardo and Rogerio Nuno Costa want to put me in touch with the popular Portuguese band Terrekota. And I’ve been voraciously reading newspaper articles from around the world about what’s going on in Angola right now. About the Chinese who are rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and securing rights to crude oil.
Somehow all of this has got me scheming about how to actually get to Angola. I wrote a proposal to shoot a documentary film along the Benguela Railway (http://cabula6.com/ANGOLA/BENGUELA%20RAILWAY%20PITCHsmall.pdf) and have been pitching it to different organizations. The most promising possibility at the moment is a magazine here in the States called “Good Magazine”. In addition to publishing a printed journal, they pay for filmmakers to travel around the world and do reports on different subjects. They liked my pitch and we have a meeting set up for the beginning of January to see if they’ll fund it. Basically I just want to get to Angola. To transform whatever my imagination can conjure up here overlooking the East River in New York to something concrete and rooted in lived experience. As I’m reading and talking to people and listening to music the project that I want to do for Transforma is starting to take form in my mind.
I want to write a feature film script. It will follow several stories of people whose lives are wrapped up with Angola. From Angolans who grew up in Portugal and have to return for some reason, to ex-commandos who fought for the Portuguese in the colonial wars, to an American and Brazilian journalist covering a story along the Benguela Railway to a Chinese construction worker or farmer who has moved to Angola to work. I see this project, writing a script, as demanding me to research in a deep way. For Transforma, I would like to document this research. My travels. Conversations with people. The music and dances. Things I am reading. And find a form that is appropriate for Transforma while allowing me to write the script.
This is where I am right now. I’ll check back in again in a little while as things progress and my thoughts and questions deepen. As I have more concrete experiences.