Some happy news from Africa
HAVANA TIMES — On December 3, after months of waiting and intense anticipation, the premiere of Emma Christopher’s documentary They Are We took place in the Havana residence of the British Ambassador.
Havana Times readers have been able to follow the story narrated by the documentary through previous articles on the work of Christopher and photographer Sergio Leyva and my interview with Alfredo Duquesne and Elvira Fumero, the film’s Cuban protagonists.
More recently, they also read of Reunion, a photo exhibition with pieces by Sergio Leyva and sculptures by Alfredo Duquesne held in Havana’s Casa de Africa.
Seeing the film, I got a sense of the distance that separates a story one hears or reads from a story one sees with one’s own eyes. I could try to describe the way in which Elvira takes part in the daily chores of the women in the African village, her humbleness and sincere desire to learn from them, but my description would invariably fall short of capturing the reality of it. One has to see her, hear the way in which she says she must return to the village because she didn’t get to carry a pitcher on her head.
Seeing a story that is both familiar and new to one is a strange feeling. I had heard Leyva’s description of how the people of Mukpangumba, Sierre Leone had welcomed the Cubans from the town of Perico, Matanzas when they arrived at the village. I had even seen photos of the encounter. Nothing, however, compares to the emotions I felt on seeing it unfold on the screen.
I hadn’t had a chance to meet Humberto Casanova, a direct descendant of Florinda Diago, and her grandson Yandrys Izquierdo. They were unable to attend the premiere because they were busy working in the Ganga Longoba Aftican folklore group.
I had seen their faces in Sergio Leyva’s photographs, but I had yet to know of their experiences during the trip. This may explain why one of the parts of the film I enjoyed the most was when Yandrys taught village children to play baseball and the four Cubans staged a traditional Ganga Longoba performance for the locals.
To our Western eyes, Mukpanguma may look like a precarious place. A different filmmaker may perhaps have concentrated on the absence of drinking water and electricity. Throughout my life, I have seen Africa as a decimated and pillaged continent torn by civil wars.
Cubans relationship to Africa has been that of the do-gooders who deploy international aid in the form of soldiers, doctors and engineers to the continent. Africa is all that, true, but it is also a land of rich and varied cultures, of people who have been able to overcome all manner of tragedies. Sergio Leyva and Alfredo Duquesne described the inhabitants of Mukangumba as super-people.
The thing I appreciate the most about Christopher’s work, evident to me since our first conversation, is her intention of showing a face of Africa different than the one divulged by the media, of telling a hopeful and happy story. “Happy Africa,” were her words when she spoke with our editor Circles Robinson and I following the film’s premiere, “happy news Africa.”
The Are We will be screened at the San Diego Black Film Festival in January and the Sierra Leone Film Festival. The director was unable to submit it in time for screening at the 35th Havana Film Festival – perhaps we will be treated to it at next year’s festival.
Beyond the recognition it may or may not achieve, the film has staged beautiful moments (all of them captured by the camera), of which I have only offered a foretaste.
During our conversation with Emma Christopher, we learned that, when she traveled to the African village with her editor Joana Montero in order to synchronize the subtitles, she sang a number of songs she had learned by heart, having had to hear them repeatedly during editing.
A villager travelling with them gave her a startled look, surprised at seeing a young white woman singing local songs. In the end, as they did with the Cubans from Perico, the people of Mukpangumba gave her an African name – “Lumbeh”, meaning “she who stays with us.”
I would have paid to see the faces of villagers while watching the documentary. Christopher tells us many had never seen a television before, that they don’t even have mirrors in the village, and that it was very strange for them to see themselves on a screen.
The film not only captures beautiful moments, it also prompts questions, such as: when will the history of Africa begin to be taught at Cuban schools, not from the perspective of Cuban internationalism, but that of the diversity of cultures that exist on this continent, the civilizations of those who were brought to the Americas as slaves?
We could ask ourselves the same question about our own continent: when will Cuban schools begin to teach the history of the Americas, which as important as that of Greece, Rome and Egypt?
Though They Are We will not be shown at this year’s Havana Film Festival, I don’t believe Cubans should wait a whole year to see it. It’s duration (an hour and ten minutes) makes it apt for a television screening. There are more than enough channels and spaces on Cuban television where it could be shown for audiences around the country.