In Roman Polanski's Chinatown, one of the most memorable hard-boiled detective pastiches to turn up in the 1970s, there are two dirty secrets: John Huston has committed incest with his daughter and he has manipulated, not to say exploited, the Southern California water supply. Water is more interesting than incest—at least in this film. To a large extent, Polanski's double subject saves Chinatown from itself. The movie draws shamelessly on the conventions of 1940s cinema. Like its villain, Chinatown is incestuous. Centering the plot on a genuine political issue brings what might have been a horribly self-indulgent film into contact with social, economic, and geographical realities. The murky landscape through which Polanski's characters move gains an historical dimension: we understand that it has been shaped by the allocation of precious, limited resources.
Most American films in the seventies have not been so luckily conceived. We all know by now that art has a life of its own, that a genre or an aesthetic tradition develops as much out of its own internal logic as by reference to the external world. The point has been made brilliantly by several generations of literary theorists—Northrop Frye preeminent among them. In the film world, it has made marketing as well as aesthetic sense to breed movies from movies from movies. Mel Brooks and George Lucas can testify to that. What would these men—or the large audience that supports them—make of the modestly-budgeted films that trickle out of obscure, sometimes unreachable countries in the Third World? The question is not altogether answerable, for however fine such films may be, they are never put into commercial release on any significant scale. To see Ceddo (from Senegal) or Ramparts of Clay (from Algeria by way of France), you have to make an effort. The effort made, you may find that these films cast a good deal of light on the American film industry and its current predicament.
Chinatown surprises an audience by staging the collision of an ingrown genre with a geopolitical actuality. Put this shock into a category of its own—call it a reality-effect—and you can begin to see how third-world cinema might function for an American audience. What Polanski does in an almost overrefined way, third-world cinema can accomplish more urgently and directly. Coming down to specific examples now, the two films mentioned above generate three closely-related kinds of reality-effect: (1) The films use archaic idioms—primordial religious and epic conventions—with a kind of authenticity unavailable to American cinema just now. (2) The films set modern against heroic forms of consciousness, so creating an immediate sense of how a society struggles to define itself within the constraints of history and geography. (3) The films allow an American audience the shock of exposure to a drastically different society. I want to elaborate a little on the first two points, then consider the extraordinary effect of all three taken together.
Ceddo was made in 1977; it embroiled its director, Ousmane Sembene, in a wrangle over linguistics, religion, and free speech. The movie was banned in Senegal—it still is, so far as I know—but has won a good deal of acclaim outside its native land. Ceddo is an extraordinary work because it has something like a genuine epic feeling to it. The film is set in an indeterminate past, sometime before outside intrusions had broken up the traditional village society of Senegal. The first half is devoted largely to a series of councils among members of the ruling class in a feudal social order. Sembene dares to give his characters long speeches, and he wins his dare. Instead of dragging, the council scenes become Homeric. They let us understand, in dramatic form, the tensions that are threatening to pull this society apart. There follows a series of single combats between the kidnapper of a princess and the warriors who try to rescue her. These combats have a matter-of-factness about them that Homer again would have appreciated. The film culminates in a bid for power by the Imam, the Islamic advisor of the royal family. The Ceddo—which is to say, the common people of the village—are to be forcibly converted to Islam. This outcome is prevented by a somewhat melodramatic last-minute plot reversal. The kidnapped princess has managed to return: siding against her family, she quite simply shoots the Islamic advisor— killing him.
The conclusion is illuminating in that it emerges from an analysis of the village's economy that has been built up from bits and pieces in the course of the film. Slaves go out (through a cooperative arrangement between a French slave-trader and the ruling elite). Guns come in. Guns play a significant role in Ceddo, qualifying—for one thing—the ethos of the warrior caste: pace Star Wars, technology never permits the full survival of traditional military heroism. The abrupt assassination of the Imam thus allows the film to end on an immediately triumphant but ultimately equivocal note. The princess's action will not allow the Ceddo to return to their traditional way of life —not for long anyway. Neither Islam nor the West can be kept from making a mark on this vulnerable African society. Senegal today is eighty-percent Islamic, which may have something to do with the film's difficulties in getting released.
Ceddo was filmed in a sub-Saharan Senegalese village. Many hundreds of miles to the northeast is the Algerian village where Jean-Louis Bertucelli made Ramparts of Clay. Bertucelli, a French director, does not belong to the society which his film analyzes. This fact goes a long way towards explaining some important differences between Ceddo and Ramparts. Ceddo is alternately talky and action-packed. Sembene tells a story which is conspicuously made up, and yet the fictive quality—the sense of an artistically-shaped tale—never disrupts our sense that we are learning in a significant way about the origins and the nature of a particular society. Bertucelli, on the other hand, seems afraid to impose on his film any conspicuous patterns of artifice. Human speech is rationed—it appears mostly in a few special moments of the film. Speech is replaced by "natural" or at least non-human sounds: a creaking well, a desert wind, a single car in the desert, a helicopter above, the cry of a sheep as its throat is slit. The lack of dialogue is matched by a suppression of plot. There is in fact a story in the film: it concerns a village strike against the powerful mining company which employs practically all of the local men. The story is downplayed, however. Bertucelli is trying to create a sense of immediate contact between the society he portrays and the European/American audience for whom the film is presumably designed. We are supposed to feel as though we're right there in the village—to forget that we're seeing a film.
One can respect Bertucelli's try for a documentary flavor, yet Ramparts is finally interesting for the qualities it shares with Ceddo. As Sembene uses epic convention and emotion, so Bertucelli uses religious ritual. The extended prayers (not dialogue, not language in the usual sense) reveal the directly-felt structure of this community. The animal sacrifices are presented less as an object of study (though the film is based on an anthropological treatise) than as a practical action for the villagers to take during their time of crisis. In both Ceddo and Ramparts modernity disrupts a traditional society; in both films a woman uses technology to fight off the forces that are disrupting the village.
Bertucelli presents us with a mysterious, somewhat alienated villager—a sort of anti-heroine—who removes the bucket from the local well, thus cutting off the water supply. The soldiers who have been called in to stop the strike have to give up their effort. The village has won its battle, yet at the end the protagonist flees. Bertucelli is more explicit than Sembene about the impending doom of village society, and he is also less nostalgic for this closely-knit communal life. The young woman has used technology (this time a very traditional technology) to fend off the military action that would have forced the villagers back to work. The kind of cleverness that inspires her also alienates her from her people. She heads off into the desert, towards oblivion if you like, or towards the westernized society which she has just defeated.
Ceddo and Ramparts of Clay can use archaic idioms effectively because these idioms are an authentic part of the societies being described. The heroic debates and combats of the one film, the prayers and sacrifices of the other, give these directors a way to move between social reality and aesthetic form, art for art's sake and art as a description of the world or even an exhortation to act in it. It is difficult—is it impossible?—to achieve this sort of synthesis in a contemporary Hollywood film. For many of us, after all, reality is now felt as an intrusion—whether upon television, upon carefully-cultivated political myths, or upon any of the protections with which the modern industrial state surrounds us.
Here is where these third-world movies can serve as a useful example. Both Sembene and Bertucelli have achieved an extraordinary crisscrossing of intentions, of states of consciousness, of realities that conflict and so intrude upon one another. To a large extent this crisscrossing occurs within the films, when the traditional villagers stand against invasions from the outside world and when a woman (are women supposed to be leaders in these societies?) acts decisively and dramatically to repel the invading force. We feel a society break apart, pull together, then face an implied and perhaps inevitable transformation. The succession of shocks seems to continue in our minds long after the films are over. This long-term effect stems partly from an intrusion not within the film but between the film and the audience.
"An ethnographic film," writes David MacDougall, "may be regarded as any film which seeks to reveal one society to another."1 Ramparts by intention, Ceddo by political circumstance, have both become ethnographical films. The western audience gets the shock of feeling itself in contact with a genuine traditional society. This society intrudes upon us, just as our surrogates within the film intrude upon it. The reality in the movies is a process, not an object of imitation. It is a breaking of barriers. American movies need not be "ethnographical" but their turning in upon their own aesthetic conventions tends to prevent revelations with this particular impact. Our film tradition is the weaker for it.
1. David MacDougall, "Prospects of the Ethnographic Film," Movies and Methods, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), p. 136.