Sunday, 13 July 2008

Zio Tom / Farewell Uncle Tom

In this challenging mondo / documentary hybrid two Italian filmmakers, Jacopetti and Prosperi, travel from the present day to around about 1850 to investigate the history of slavery, presenting a kaleidoscopic portrait of the instution and its role in the southern USA through reconstructions of real personages, places, incidents and testimony that show the contradictory scientific, religious and other discourses offered by white southerners in defence of the indefensible.

The I am Cuba style opening to Zio Tom

Thus, to identify one recurring motif, the black could be denied human rights and dignities if he or she were understood as an animal rather than a human, but this then raised questions over what it meant for the white man to be sexually attracted to the black woman, implying that he were engaging in a kind of bestiality.

Existing in two somewhat distinct 'official' forms, Farewell Uncle Tom / Zio Tom is unsurprisingly a difficult film to watch and to attempt to write about given its content and, more unusually, production history.

Like the earlier Africa Addio, to which it was intended as an anti-racist response to refute the allegations that had been made against the filmmakers – allegations which that film's discourses support to some degree, insofar as the argument seems to be that Africa was not yet ready to be given its freedom by the hastily retreating colonial powers, comparing them at one point to parents who had abandoned their unruly child – it is a film that cannot fail to evoke a strong response in the viewer, where emotional and visceral reactions constantly threaten to overwhelm the ability to take a more detached view.

Much as with the previous film, Prosperi and Jacopetti come across as misguided, with their film becoming what it sought to expose through the very process of taking a documentary style approach.

The biggest single problem is that, in order to convey the scale of the slave enterprise and have access to enough compliant blacks who could be subjected to the same degradations as their great-grandparents, they made the proverbial deal with the devil in the form of Haitain dictator Papa Doc Duvalier.

Two images from the slave ship, suggesting the sheer scale of the film and the enterprise of slavery

While the hundreds of extras in the Haitian sequences – others were shot in the US, in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi – were probably not slaves in the strict sense, we might well wonder how far their own lives were significantly better and whether they were really in a position to give free and informed consent to their participation in the film in full knowledge of what would be required of them.

Say what you like about Prosperi and Jacopetti, they knew how to compose an image

Indeed, in some instances like the silver and gold painted pre-pubescent 'twins' included in a reconstruction of a camp specialising in slaves for sexual and breeding purposes – some white men apparently developing a taste for pairs of black children for pederastic sex – it's entirely possible that the filmmakers' dubious show-and-tell reconstructions would actually be deemed illegal today.

The 'twins' and the pederast slaver

The freakshow continues the General, a midget black slaver, and an extra special slave who “has three”

The same slave resists the camera eye, putting his hands up to block our gaze

At the surface level the Italian and English language versions of the film play quite differently.

Some material is unique to one version or the other, like the Erzebet Bathory like sadist who only shows up in Zio Tom and the slave church with its synchretic voodoo-style reinterpretation of Christianity in Farewell Uncle Tom.

Other scenes play in slightly different ways, with the race scientist Samuel Cartwright only being named and contexualised via voice-over introduction in the English version which runs a bit longer than its Italian counterpart.

In the English version an educated slave expresses his false consciousness in identifying with his master while also inadvertently making the Marxist sounding statement that “Workers are not free and never will be”

At other points the same footage is used in different places. For example, in Farewell Uncle Tom the image of a helicopter flying over a plantation introduces the filmmakers arrival in the past and the south, whereas in Zio Tom it appears at the end to signals their and our departure.

Even the musical cues differ, with the English version making use of a more varied range and tending more towards mickey mousing, as when a mammy's waddle up the stairs is accompanied by a ponderous elephant like theme, whereas the Italian sticks largely to variations on the main catchy march theme.

Most of these changes are not particularly significant in terms of meaning however, with the quantity of unpleasantness still much the same, being sufficient for the casual viewer not to need to subject themselves to both films and to quell the need for an ultimate “atrocity exhibition” type edit that incoporates each and every scene in its entirety.

The biggest difference between the longer Italian version, at 136 minutes, and the shorter English one, at 123 minutes, is that the former begins with a contemporary prologue and cuts back and forth between past and present on a number of occasions throughout the narrative whereas the latter begins and stays in the past until the final present-day sequence it shares with the Italian version.

Taken as a whole I would probably say that linear English version is the more coherent, insofar as it really helps us to understand the climactic sequence, while the Italian version's juxtapositions of past and present are more problematic if thought-provoking.

The filmmakers point in the Italian version through this seems to be that the more things change the more they stay the same. This emerges as a critical notion when it highlights ingrained racism in the dominant white society of 1960s America – white and black as two nations, separate and unequal – but is decidedly awkward when it tends to deny his black counterpart a voice with which to counter the same 19th century slave stereotypes, incorporating him mainly through unrepresentative footage of riots and carnivals that makes him alternately threatening / dangerous and simple minded / harmless.

Yes, whites are in the carnival footage as well, but 'we,' the implied white audience, 'know' they are like us, as individuals as well as representatives of types: watching the preceding material we probably do not identify with a slave trader like Mr Schultz but with anti-slavery figure like William Makepeace Thackeray or Harriet Beecher Stowe, even as we notice the historically bounded limitations of their discourses.

Thackeray's criticism of slavery is based on its inefficiency, that five servants in the Englishman gentleman's home perform the same work as 30 in his southern counterpart's and without the same overheads, while Beecher Stowe voices her belief that the black is inherently inferior even as she has the idea of writing Uncle Tom's Cabin.

This said, the inclusion in the Italian version of different political figures responses to Martin Luther King's assassination, such as Leroy Jones saying that he was an Uncle Tom figure and advocating violent revolution and Eldridge Cleaver the need for continuing his work, do illustrate contrasting and sometimes contradictory perspectives in the 1971 present.

Indeed, they prove dishearteningly prescient in prefiguring the love / hate speech and juxtaposition of quotations from King and (early) Malcolm X in Do the Right Thing, nearly 20 years later. The fundamental questions remain the same:

What is the right thing?

Forgiving and forgetting?

Forgiving but not forgetting?

Seeking reparation?

Seeking revenge?

Both versions of the film are stunningly constructed, making a strong case that Prosperi and Jacopetti as one filmmaking entity that traditional auteurism, with its focus on heroic figure of the individual director, needs to come to terms with.

The admixture of classical, realist, impressionistic, surrealistic and expressionistic techniques within the mise en scène as and when appropriate; the skilful match cuts and montage editing; the memorable and evocative music: are all are spot on to the extent that watching only one version of the film, you would be hard placed to to find anything that looked or sounded out of place or which could be imagined as being otherwise.

Jacopetti and Prosperi once more remind us of their and the camera's presence

Indeed, given that all this and the filmmakers constant voice-off interventions and interjections – one tending to be questioning and the other knowing – along with the very anachronism of their presence constantly make us aware that we are watching a film, perhaps the only way in which a criticism based on form rather than content might make sense is through the relative conventionalism of Farewell Uncle Tom / Zio Tom's sound-image relationships.

Music is always employed conventionally in an emphathetic / anti-empathetic manner, while contrasts between the word and image are resolved in favour of the latter giving the lie to the former in an image centric fashion, as when the slave transporter tells the buyer that his ship is clean while beneath deck cockroaches and rats add to the misery of his cargo.

Had the filmmakers not done this and created a greater distance between sound and image, one wonders what left-wing critics would have said on being presented with a film that could lay some claim to formal and political radicalism, albeit with a decidedly ambiguous, quite possibly 'wrong' politics.

Black rage, white fear

Zabriskie Point

Yet again this is also one of the things that is most refreshing about the film. Rather than preaching to us and pretending the know the solution, Prosperi and Jacopetti present the facts of the intractable problem of slavery and its racist legacies, leaving it up to us to draw conclusions on the way forward.

A good example of this is the casual question to Cartwright of whether he is Jewish, to which he replies in the affirmative. It is not a singling out of one group over another, in that the filmmakers also making comparable points about Protestant and Catholic southerners elsewhere – e.g. having received a papal edict that they were no longer to own slaves, one group of Louisiana Jesuits sold rather than freed theirs – but rather a point of detail that allows a point about later racist pseudo-science to also be made. What Cartwright does here in his attempts to prove that the black is not a human is really little different to the Nazi's subsequent attempts to demonstrate that the Jew was similarly other less than a century later: the oppression and dehumanisation stay the same, even if the identity of the victimisers and their victims changes.

In this regard it is apparent that, whatever their faults, Jacopetti and Prosperi's films do express a consistent worldview, even if it often amounts to little more than cynicism and a despairing, even nihilistic cry: “we are all fucked, more or less.”

For all its contradictions, Farewell Uncle Tom / Zio Tom emerges as Prosperi and Jacopetti's masterpiece and an absolutely vital piece of cinema whose power to shock and to provoke a response – in my case, this piece of writing – has not been diminished one bit.

The black man assumes control of the camera and its power to objectify

And of the world, or at least a microcosmic metaphoric representation of it in a child's beachball

Indeed, I would be tempted to place the final ten minutes of the film, a slow motion eruption of spectacular violence to acid rock freak out somewhat reminiscent of Zabriskie Point's finale, in which we witness a black man entertain fantasies of killing his white oppressors – or random stupid people on the beach; take your pick – whilst quietly reading William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner, amongst the finest moments of the Italian cinema of this period. It is at the same level of accomplishment as the Ecstasy of Gold and Truel sequences in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly or the opening quarter-hour of Suspiria, the kind of thing that remains burnt into your memory long afterwards and which can be endlessly watched and thought through.

Something else to think about in relation to the film, galleries of racist caricatures and imagery:

1 comment:

raphael araujo said...

Very nice post. Talking about Zabriskie Point... Would like to see a review!!! Should you cover this kind of avant garde cinema here?
sorry my poor english, kind regards,