Politics in Guyana has taken a new face...in
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
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.
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
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
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.]