Abderrahmane Sissako’s La Vie Sur Terra (Life is on Earth): Prompting Us to Re-think “Displacement”
Trained as a filmmaker at University of Moscow, Sissako, so far has made three feature films—Heremakhonon (Waiting for Happiness), La Vie Sur Terra (Life on Earth) and Bamako.
Let me confess something—honestly, I am not too fond of the term “displacement.” To begin with, it’s too damn broad. Secondly, like all over-used theoretical jargons, it has become slightly boring to someone like me, who has been trying to make it in the American academia for the last six years. My fellow academics from the vast vast world of Third World cultural studies, try to tell me, we are all supposedly displaced. We, the “diasporic intellectuals.” We, who have willingly left home in search of greener pastures, or, in other words, upward social mobility.
My friend Khadijatou , for example. Khadija, as we call her, is from Senegal and like me, is trying to survive in the Texan capital as an international student. And just like me, she is trying to sell herself as a “post-colonial Third World feminist,” specializing in Third World women’s writings. So, one evening, as we sat in our hole-in-the-wall coffee-shop, Khadija told me, “Girlll, guess what, it’s damn hard to survive as trans-national, like we are doing.” Really? I am not so sure! I express my doubt to Khadija. Khadija, who is otherwise quite a reticent person, gets excited. “What the heck are you saying, girl? We are all trans-nationals, we are all displaced!” And in order to prove her point, Khadija, takes out a book and begins to read from it, “Culture as a strategy of survival is both transnational and translational. It is transnational because contemporary postcolonial discourses are rooted in specific histories of cultural displacement, whether they are the middle passage of slavery and indenture, the voyage out of the civilizing mission, the fraught accommodation of Third World migration to the West after the Second World War, or the traffic of economic and political refugees within and outside the Third World.
Culture is translational because such spatial histories of displacement — now accompanied by the territorial ambitions of global media technologies — make the question of how culture signifies, or what is signified by culture,a rather complex issue.” Khadija concludes her reading with an expression of triumph and shutting down the book, says to me, “That was Stephen Greenblatt speaking. What do you think, eh? He is a fucking big name.” That he is. Although, I am more than pretty sure that not many people outside of the American academic Shakespeare Studies would know or care to know who the heck is Mr. Greenblatt. But he is a big name for us, the small-time academics . Besides, what Greenblatt is saying in his specialized academic English is not that uncommon or out of place either. Listen carefully and you will hear its many resonances in more popular cultural forums.
So, I wonder, how come does slavery, indentured labour and my coming to Austin, all become one big “displacement” all of a sudden? But before I could say much else, Khadija dragged me out of the cafe to her place. “You need to see this film, Nandini—La Vie Sur Terra…are you familiar with Abderrahmane Sissako? He is a filmmaker from Mauritiana…you need to see this one, then.” Supposedly, Sissako’s film will tell me a lot about displacement, about being trans-national, post-colonial…whatever whatever. I followed Khadija and I must say, without a whole lot of expectations. I watched the film with Khadija that night, and this is my very scattered attempt to write down my impressions about the film…and, also a little bit about the idea of displacement, especially as it relates to the film.
The Filmmaker and the Critics
Before Khadijatou told me about Sissako, I had no idea who he was. So, I am assuming, excuse me, dear readers, most of my readers wouldn’t either. While that ignorance does reveal a very specific and significant element of global film-history and our perceptions of that history, or even complex kinds of displacements, I will not get into that here. Instead, I will get into my understandings of the film La Vie Sur Terra (Life is on Earth) proper after providing a brief biography of Sissako.
Abderrahmane Sissako was born in Kiffa, Mauritania in 1961, but grew up in Mali. Trained as a filmmaker at University of Moscow, Sissako, so far has made three feature films—Heremakhonon (Waiting for Happiness), La Vie Sur Terra (Life on Earth) and Bamako. Often times, he is clubbed, along with Sembene Ousmane and Cheikh Oumar Sissoko, as one of the contemporary proponents of an African “social realist cinema,” which, amongst other things, claims, that African cinema, should be essentially committed to “African society, African people, African culture” and attempt to “speak back” to the problematic representations of Africa in Hollywood and other colonialist modes of representation. But then, this specific claim has also produced several critiques and has prompted many to ask how we are to perceive the function of film itself. For example, Kenneth Harrow, an American critic, whose recent book African Cinema: From the Political to the Postmodern has gained lots of critical acclaim, both from fellow critics and other filmmakers, writes that, “To begin, there is no history to represent, to correct, in film. There is only authority that represents itself, and in its power represents its images and narrative as authoritative, as authorized, as official, or worse still, as real.” Implicit in Harrow’s statement is the view that films, like all other forms of cultural productions, are constructed narratives themselves. And since they are always constructed, films, like other forms of cultural narratives, cannot be looked upon as “corrective.” Indeed, Harrow’s assertions are based upon a claim that African cinema “displace” itself from any declared ideological responsibility whatsoever. In that sense, films, according to Harrow, can merely represent one version of that history, which is then open to interpretation, critique and de-construction. In other words, films are primarily modes of representations and must be looked upon as such.
On the surface, Harrow’s claim appears to be covering the same ground as the Sissako’s retort itself that, “A film has no necessity.” That sentence, extracted from its specific context, indeed makes us stop and step back for a while. How do we make sense of the supposed non-importance of films, especially when it is made by a filmmaker? However, a closer look into the transcript of Sissako’s interview with reveals certain underlying complexities. In that interview Sissako frankly tells Kwame Anthony Appiah, the interviewer, that,
Well, I do not really feel that I have things to say. I do not think such or such movie absolutely needs to be made. A film has no necessity. As long as it does not exist, it does not need to be made. Art is not the truth. I do not think creation has a mission to tell the truth. I am very aware that we live in an unjust world not engaged in finding the truth. I am aware that one can be totally destitute, and yet it is in that state of destitution that one finds human dignity, fundamental values. Today, something else is being imposed. So, I portray people nobody else would portray, but my intention is not to give them a voice, not to speak up for them, but to convince myself of the necessary frailty of human life.
Like Harrow, Sissako begins from a premise which would appear to be a de-familiarization of the claims made by the classic African social realist filmmakers—that African cinema should engage in a conscious “correction of past misrepresentation of history.” Yet, when Sissako talks about finding “human dignity, fundamental values” amongst people in destitution, he is posing an ethical-political arguments which does not always sit very well with Harrow’s implicit claim that films are representations and only representations and can be made sense only through a de-construction of the authorial intent which engages with that act of representation. In a way then, the question that intrigues me vis-à-vis Sissako’s film La Vie Sur Terra is that, how does Sissako theorize and negotiate the relationship between African material realities and the representational apparatuses which the film as a cultural form endows him with. And indeed, that negotiation entails that Sissako as a filmmaker and La Vie Sur Terra as a film-text attempt to deal with multiple levels and histories of displacement, in one way or the other, but in a way that’s more complex than pointed out by Khadijatou’s Stephen Greenblatt.
La Vie Sur Terra begins with expansive shots of the interiors of a departmental store in France—rows and rows of glittering commodities, stacks of mouth-watering cheese, beautiful shoppers trying on gorgeous hats and so on. A characteristic late-capitalis space, one might say. Sissako’s camera almost works as a mirror or even a tour-guide. One which takes the viewer through a visual tour of the museum of commodities. But then, one also begins to wonder where did all the raw materials for these commodities come from. Who made them anyway. And, one begins to feel commodities have a history too—a place of origin, a process of transformation through someone’s labor. One also begins to wonder how can we locate this museum of commodities within the complex structures of the world-system. What Sissako’s film reveals, in that context is that, these commodities are embedded essentially within multiple histories of economic violence and material displacements. It is specifically those histories that, for Sissako, bind Africa and Europe together.
Specifically, at that point, we see a shot of the filmmaker himself. The insertion of his own image against the backdrop of an European-French departmental store becomes an important narrative strategy, which not only allows Sissako to complicate further the inter-connectedness between his African homeland and the late-capitalist West European world, but also opens up important vantage points through which he can play with the narrative conventions of the African social realist school . To begin with, it allows him to reveal to his spectators the space he himself occupies. He is, himself, after all, like a lot of us. A Third-World elite in search of mobility. An assertion that is exacerbated by the image of the filmmaker’s hands clutching the white teddy bear. The filmmaker or the so-called Third World intellectual, thus, gets implicated within the structures of global-capitalism in a conspicuous way. He, too, is a consumer. A fact that also makes him complacent with the history of material displacement in Africa in some way or the other.
And as if to drive home that point, the camera shifts to a leafless tree in the film-maker’s native village in Mali. A close-up of its leafless branches. An image which when thought of in contrast to the luxurious expanse of the departmental store, strikes us immediately. The leaflessness of the tree, thus, almost becomes an embodiment of the general impoverishment of Africa, the after-effects of the colonial drainage of wealth, which has left Africa exhausted and bereft of its essential life-resources. It’s also not impossible to read the barren tree as a symbol of the neo-colonial African present. In fact, one can also think of a complex history of continuation in there. The tree thus begins to embody that complex history of over-lapping colonialism and neo-colonialism. One might even say, implicit within that image of the tree are multiple layers of that history of economic violence, which, for Africa, also suggests a history of a long series of displacements. Material displacement of bodies and people from the continent as forced labor, displacement of material wealth and the displacement of the continent itself from the global power-grid. Simultaneously, such a sequence also establishes Sissako’s political impulse. He is not so much interested in claiming a “post-modern” present for Africa, as he is to show what that so-called “post-modern” has unfolded for the continent. More specifically, La Vie Sur Terra is specifically bent upon de-stabilizing the popular notion that is often times held within the global public spheres that we all live in a post-modern, trans-national world. Rather, Sissako’s project is to locate gaps within that meta-narrative, which, ironically and interestingly enough, has come to replace the modernist teleological narratives of progress, in-spite of post-modernism’s repeated claims of dis-mantling grand narratives of any sort.
Here, without letting go of that analysis, I will say that, Sissako, by no means, is interested in creating an uni-directional trauma narrative, which reads and interprets Africa primarily as a continent of poverty, sickness and mute, helpless dependence. For example, just as the camera concentrates on the leaflessness of the tree, it also focuses on the branches of the tree for a long time, zooms in and out repeatedly and then provides the spectator with an intriguing close-up of the uppermost branches. In a way, then, the spectator becomes conscious not only of the state of leaflessness, but also of the tree’s concrete existence, its many branches spread in different directions. For Sissako, then, survival is never just survival, it is also full of possibilities, if not a form of agency in itself, It is, then, I will argue, within this dialectic between colonial trauma, histories of displacement, survival and heterogeneity that Sissako places the continent of Africa generally and more specifically, his own native village, the return to which forms the core of his filmic narrative.
In a letter to his father, with which the film opens, the filmmaker explains that he is coming back to film Sokolo, his native village. Especially since it is 2000, the end of a millennium and beginning of another. However, the film-maker’s letter also informs us that, he himself is convinced that the year 2000 “will bring no improvements.” As I listen to Sissako’s voice imposed upon the visuals of his ageing father reading his son’s letter, I begin to think, why is it that the year 2000 is so very important to Sissako himself. From when did the world begin to have one single calendar? How and why? Are there other different ways of measuring time in Sissako’s native village, Mali and the continent of Africa? There must be. Then, how it is that all of them have been displaced by one form of measuring and understanding time, days, months and years? In a way, for me, Sissako’s film is an attempt to negotiate with that question. Or something similar.
As we listen to Sissako’s voice-over juxtaposed over certain images—the expansive paddy-fields, the boy chasing away the birds, the sun over a rural agricultural landscape, and then , in the very next shot, an image of a truck piercing through the semi-arid desert landscape, we begin to think, what’s going on in here. For me, it becomes difficult to ignore the two simultaneous but obvious references here—the pre-valence of the so-called “primitive,” “traditional” modes of production and a out-of-the-place modernity, as symbolized by the truck. In fact, one can even argue that there is something viciously violent about the way in which the truck pierces through the filmic landscape, in obvious discord to the previous shots of the boy, the birds and the paddy-fields. Indeed, I will say, this is one of the central themes with which Sissako is pre-occupied in this film—the violence of modernity in Africa and the ways in which it produces multiple forms of displacement within the textures of everyday life. But one also has to concede that the truck has not totally re-placed or dis-placed whatever was there before. Then? Here, I would say, that Sissako’s understanding of an African modernism is far more complex. He takes into account the ways of life that have been displaced, but there are ways in which he also wants to see the complexities of the co-existence. In a way, then, Sissako is far more interested in seeing what that co-existence displaces, rather than constructing an unilinear narrative of the “modern” replacing/dis-placing the “traditional.”
For one thing, neither the paddy-fields, the birds, the boy and the sun, nor the beaten down truck invoke in us the images of a glittery, affluent, colorful post-modernism which the year 2000 was supposed to solidify. Sissako’s film, then, becomes, in certain ways a treatise on where can we locate Africa within the current debates on globalization : it tells us that Africa no doubt has been interpellated within the structures of modernity, but on different terms than Europe or North American nations. That is, Africa has not been the beneficiary of the economic-cultural apparatuses of the capitalist modernity in the way Europe has been. For example, think of the following sequence from the film. A young boy drives a donkey cart straight towards the camera. And at the back of the cart, a tin oil drum has been precariously balanced. The cart jumps up and down through the rough village roads, and the tin drum jumps along with it. As spectators, we begin to expect the drum to fall off at any moment. And very soon enough, it does. The boy stops the cart, walks down, puts the drum back and resumes his journey. For me, this scene, more than anything else in the film, sums up Sissako’s political understanding of Africa’s location within the global economic and political structures. Or, in other words, his understanding of many forms of displacement that accompany colonial or neo-colonial violence.
The oil drum, here, functions as a symbol of Africa’s coming in contact with capitalism, and there is no way one can imagine an African life outside and beyond the circulation of global capital. But at the same time, the tin drum can only sit uncomfortably within an African landscape, it keeps toppling down and one needs to spend additional human labor to keep in place and continue the journey. And almost simultaneously, the space of discomfort accorded to the drum, invites the spectators to reflect on what are the things that this drum has displaced—specific modes of production, foodways, cultural expressions and so on. Thus, in Sissako’s film, the tin drum becomes the symbol of a dysfunctional capitalism, instruments of production unevenly developed, which, by no means, can address the imperatives of an African reality in a sustainable way. The tin drum, then, one might argue, becomes the symbol of the development of “under-development” in Africa . In a La Vie Sur Terra becomes a filmic exploration of the theoretical work done by such social scientists and historians as Andre Gunder Frank and Walter Rodney. As Gunder-Frank writes in his essay “The Development of Under-Development” that,
It is also widely believed that the contemporary underdevelopment of a country can be understood as the product or reflection solely of its own economic, political, social, and cultural characteristics or structure. Yet historical research demonstrates that contemporary underdevelopment is in large part the historical product of past and continuing economic and other relations between the satellite underdeveloped and the now developed metropolitan countries. Furthermore, these relations are an essential part of the structure and development of the capitalist system on a world scale as a whole.
Such a view closely corresponds to the one Sissako expresses within the film, and interestingly enough, the clear articulation of such a political philosophy, also leads us to think of the state of under-development itself as a form of displacement, which, not only decimates an existing form of life, society and culture, but also destroys the possibilities of a viable future
So, basically, I have to disagree with Greenblatt, my friend Khadijatou and possibly a lot of others. All displacements are not the same. Yes, if we go by the strict dictionary definition, any act of moving around connotes a certain kind of displacement. Yet, all processes of moving around are not violent, coerced or involuntary. Sissako’s film, hopefully, communicates to us that complexity, in ways that this essay does not have space to explicate successfully. But hopefully, what it has communicated is that, that the violence of displacement, material, economic and historic, is often dispersed within the structures of our everyday lives in complicated ways. And Sissako’s film attempts to capture that in complex and myriad ways.
(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)
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