ERC Film Festival Failed at Race Debate
by Rakesh Rampertab

Politics in Guyana has taken a new the form of art. The ongoing National Film Festival organized by the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC), with the help of the UNDP and other foreign bodies, is a tricky situation in which film is being used to, as they would have it, get to know what ordinary people think about race relations. The act of using film itself is commendable, as is the effort to get the otherwise invisible citizen talking. But this is where the virtues end and the suspicions begin.

Peace of Mind
The very titles ought to raise eyebrows; Peace of Mind, Dance Can Do All That, and Just a Little Red Dot. Each seems harmless, but I would not trust any. Take, for example, Peace of Mind, which is a documentary on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but which focuses on a few teenagers from both sides and their perspectives; they express, investigate and where possible, attempt to reconcile insecurities. The film culminates when a Palestinian teenage girl agrees and visits a male Jewish teenager's town which, historically, was once the home of her grandparents. They would have been expelled from it. She visits Israel proper, prays on old Palestinian soil, and returns to her refugee camp - taking a jar of the old soil as consolation, a gift to her people.

But this movie is a sham, despite the efforts of a few children, half of whose reality is best expressed by one Palestinian child who says she finds life is a prison whenever she sees an Israeli soldier pass by. Peace of Mind risks misleading more than advising; not because it is a short film, but because it's a terribly created movie about a terribly unresolved conflict. In fact, the abrupt but wilful editing of the frames by the film director forces upon one, the intended impression that reconciliation is possible as long as we fade or erase the violence (which has always and which continues to define this problem) into the background.

ERC poster outside Grove Primary School, Grove,
East Bank Demerera, in August, 2005.

Interestingly, the president himself has often made reference to this conflict as an example of a worst case scenario. Yet, here we have it being showcased. Would Iraq be our next example? I am appalled that the UNDP, knowing the multitudes of variables (e.g., Hamas, Sharon's policy of assassination, the ultra Jews, etc.) affecting this conflict, would use the Palestinian-Israeli case for conflict-resolution education. And, whatever are the virtues of the ERC and however noble are the gestures of foreign bodies, a teenager with a glass of soil living in a refugee camp is not a proper catalyst to get us talking.

Another Brick in the Wall
The ERC says that people would be discussing these films. Who exactly would be talking and what would be said that is not already popular knowledge? This is not to say that talking is bad, but here is the trick. Guyana has no film culture that engages in film discussion. Where there has been no concern for the arts by state governments, the ERC and the PPP administration are now imagining into being, a reality that does not exist and, additionally, making people feel that the issue is not the movies themselves (so never mind nobody is a film fan), but getting the people to open their mouths. Yet, instead of ample discussions, there would be legitimate dogma from the ERC, espousing the "awee a one" mantra of the government. There would be less talking by the public, and more dictation from the facilitators and NDC volunteers on site.

Instead of social cohesion, there would be social disruption because politics cannot dictate terms through art mediums - as it would here. And although politics has taken a new face, it has not assumed a new voice or a new ear. Honest, insightful, fearless public critique is not common in a political climate like ours. Surely the ERC knows this. And knowing this, surely it ought not to expect its film festival to grow overnight into anything but indiscrete propaganda (unless miracles happen). I say this not out of hopelessness, but because I witnessed one NDC volunteer being reluctant to acknowledge the Indianness of an Indian woman who turned up for one film show. This Indian sister, who is a Muslim, wore a Kemara (Hijab). She made the point that if she removed it, she would be seen as an Indian. The volunteer refused, saying she would only be a "Guyanese." The Indian part, apparently, does not exist, even if this woman was born in the UK. And this, sadly, is why I feel the film festival is, "all and all just another brick in the wall" (Pink Floyd).

Awrite versus Alright and Difrent versus Different

I was reliably told that the ERC is an independent body. But the word "independent" in Guyana is very untrustworthy. I, aptly, believe there is an echo in Freedom House whenever the ERC speaks. This is evident in the theme chosen for the film festival; "We Diferent...Its Awrite."

There are many oddities here. First, if we are "difrent" why then is this government insisting on their "awee a one" slogan? It is appalling that the ERC and government saw it fit to import ghetto lingo ("awrite") from the US that is associated with young Black hip-hop culture, into a national theme. Are they trying to appease the Black community? Further, it is embarrassing that while some are trying to teach children to spell correctly and speak properly, this film festival is encouraging them to misspell ("Difrent" instead of different) and misspeak ("Awrite" instead of alright). Altogether, this theme is an indication of the propaganda this festival could easily become to symbolize.

The Cool Dot
In a rotting state, hardly anything is sacred under chokehold politics. Traditional cultural customs are taken for granted and sometimes given new meanings to be fashionable. Some people are on TV clamoring elaborately user-friendly words like "tolerance" and "cohesion" but what do these amount to? Is tolerance being taught at the expense of trivializing certain people's cultural codes? How could the Hindi bindi be "just" a "cool dot" so easily and be acceptable to the UNDP? If the bindi is truly "just a little red dot," then is the crucifix "just" a little half-naked man on two pieces of wood?

To use the ERC's language, nothing is "awrite" about this. This is exactly how cultural motifs are stolen or disfigured. I remind the ERC and its donor support cast that Nazi Germany, wanting a symbol to represent their race supremacy philosophy, abducted an ancient Hindu (Vedic) symbol of spiritual strength, reshaped it slightly, and called it a swastika. This is how easy (and dangerous) it is to erode old cultural meanings when we attempt to change definitions haphazardly.

Editor, there is nothing "festive" about race relations. And one is tempted to suggest that more could be gathered about race relations by walking through Non Pariel or Coldingen where homes have been abandoned because of race crimes. Perhaps we need the festival, but not more than an independent ERC, and for the truth to be recognized. For example, if the president says there is no ethnic violence in Guyana (only political violence), then why stir race-relations debates? Has he forgotten that his "dialogue" with the PNCR was a product of ethnic street violence? It is this doublespeak that is clogging up the truth about our race relations.

[Editor's Note: Published in Stabroek News and Kaieteur News, August 30, 2005 while the film festival was on. The film festival failed miserably despite the ERC saying that it would have people's tongues wagging etc.]

September 2005
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