Dreams of Shahrazad: Personalizing the Arab Spring through the art of storytelling.

South african filmmaker Francois Verster is no stranger to social consciousness. His most recent project “Dream of Shahrazad” follows the lives of various individuals in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey as they come to terms with the events we’ve come to know as the Arab Spring through the art of story telling.

Shahrazad becomes omnipresent in this film through various incarnations. We meet an impassioned Turkish conductor running a two week rehearsal program for a youth philharmonic orchestra’s performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade suite. He uses the orchestra as extended metaphor for democratic participation, reminding the students of their role as agents for change. An Egyptian theatre troupe uses traditional storytelling methods to bring to life the testimonies of mothers who lost their sons on the January 25th revolution. A visual artist with a lifelong obsession with the 1001 nights finds himself re-inspired to create and share his art through a new friendship with a Shahrazad-esque storyteller and a young Lebanese actress begins to heal from the effects the horrifying images of war she witnessed during the political instability in her country and emerges a popular internet activist.

Heavily inspired by the 1001 nights, the documentary is sectioned into four “books”: Once upon a time, Story of change, After the battle and The future of the Sultan of Shahriyar. It becomes a loom, weaving together different stories to form the rich tapestry that is the middle-eastern story telling tradition. Verster applies Shahrazad’s cunning story telling philosophy, never ending stories and starting new ones each night, to his cinematography. He cuts between frames of protest footage, beautiful paintings, silhouette animation and a kaleidoscopic collection of engaging artists as they use their work to rebuild their various nation’s moral though the power of narrative. The eye behind the camera is always silent – it graciously accepts its role as observer presenting us with images free of personal commentary hence allowing us to determine their meaning for ourselves.

The value of a voice is put into focus, drawing allusion to post-colonial studies pioneer Gayatri Spivak’s notable essay “Can the subaltern speak?”. Echoing Aimé Césaire, another influential african intellectual, a potential solution is presented to the members of the youth philharmonic orchestra urging them to  “channel all [their] ambition, all [their] rebellion, into [their] songs” and “let [their] voice and songs be the weapon of those without a voice.” The authenticity of this voice is also put into question. One of the troupes actors makes an interesting observation on the americanization mainstream acting in the country; after witnessing protesters’ raw yet eloquently expression of emotion in Tahir square and reflecting on their acting’s current form, he notes sadly: “we can neither express ourselves nor the society we live in”. Thus the troupe’s desire to create a new form of theatre that embodies Egyptian culture.

None of the film’s subjects are introduced by name – the stories they carry take the foreground. We have grown used to Arab world as object, it is always spoken off in most media outlets. In this documentary it speaks to us for itself. Verster entertains a wide array of interesting issues. Chief among those is the transformative power of storytelling. It allows all the artists to take pain and loss and turn it into harmony. Bound by shared trauma, the inhabitants of these nations now posses a new kind of consciousness: war brings the need to be reminded that one is alive, that they matter so they speak to ears now that are more open to listening because they too need the strength these tales carry, if not a sense of recognition and understanding in the other.

Originally published on Dynamic Africa for the Encounters 2015 documentary festival.

Metamorphosis

Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” chronicles the life of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who wakes up one day transformed into a hideous giant bug. His ability to verbally communicate with others is gone and we witness the deterioration of his family’s relationship with him.

Samsa, having been the primary bread winner for the family pre-transformation, has now become obsolete in his home. His family first takes care of him out of duty but as the story progresses it is clear they no longer see the humanity in him and begin to treat him like vermin. His room is literally turned into the house dumpster and the consideration that used to go into his care-taking becomes non existent. The foreshadowing of Samsa’s ultimate demise is probably this particularly tragic scene where he gets stoned into oblivion with apples by his father, the latter thinking Samsa was endangering his wife.

What makes the story more poignant is that we see all these events unfold through Samsa’s point of view. It is ironic that Samsa has the most human characterization. He is considerate, kind and empathetic to the plight of his family, while they, in return, grow cold and distant when they realize he is now useless to them. To be fair, they’ve been through a change of epic proportions but they become rather callous about the whole affair in no time.

The novella is a fine commentary on the value of a person in our modern day capitalist society. It resonates with the idea that we are all replaceable gears in this giant machine and the moment we outlive our usefulness we don’t matter anymore.

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People: A Broken Pencil review

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People, Joe Ollmann, 242 pages, Conundrum Press, http://www.conundrumpress.com, $20.00

With his new collection of graphic short stories, Hamilton based cartoonist Joe Ollmann returns with his peculiar brand of dark humour and biting cynicism. Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People is anything but; we are thrown into a world where the boredom of living is replaced by the horror of living. Do not expect any heroes or knights in shining armour, just a ragtag collection of men and women struggling past their fair share of existential angst and, even if only for a short while, rising above it. 

You sense a bit of Ollmann in all his characters. His penchant for self-deprecation and self-reflection is made apparent in his short introduction, presented in the same style as his stories. His illustrations are rather rough and cartoony, quite fitting considering his rather capital A Absurd (think Camus) plots.

Loyal fans will recognize some of these tales from his older short story collections Chewing on Tinfoil and This Will End in Tears. His newest additions, “Johnny Pinetop” and “Otherwise, Arachis Hypogaea”, are just as representative his rather bleak vision of the human experience. The first follows Gary Bunet, less than mediocre cleft-lipped ventriloquist. The second depicts the life of Devi, a young southeast asian girl with a deathly allergy to peanuts.

These characters do not invite us to pity them. On the contrary, their acute self awareness reveals a sense of stubborn perseverance in the face unending trials and tribulations. They may be broken but they survive, a somewhat hopeful message in the midst of all this darkness.

Scorched

“Scorched” , a play by Montreal based writer Wajdi Mouawad tells the story of twins Janine and Simon, as they try to uncover the truth behind their mother’s years long silence.

I read the English version – the original, “Incendie”, is in French. It’s always interesting to see how the translator manages to capture the essence of a story in a different language especially in the case of this play where the power of words, whether spoken or written, is a particularly prominent theme . It is a story of love and war, the bonds of family and truth, no matter how dark. From broken promises to wills with odysseyan instructions, the play is unapologetic, earnest and surprisingly refreshing considering its heavy subject matter.

The narrative is almost dreamlike – time is fluid in this world with scenes happening simultaneously in the past and the present, its language poetic with an ending worthy of a Mexican soap opera sans the melodrama. Expect a few tears. “Scorched” is the second of four in Mouawad’s dramatic quarter set.

A few memorable quotes:

” I’m not the one who’s crying, your whole life is pouring down your cheeks”

“Take your youth and any possible happiness and leave the village. You are the bloom of this valley, Nawal. You are its sensuality and its smell. Take them with you and tear yourself away from here, the way we tear ourselves away from our mother’s womb.”

“There is nothing here for us. I get up in the morning and people say, “Sawda, there’s the sky,” but no one has anything to say about the sky. […] People show me the world but the world is mute. And life goes by and everything is murky. I saw the letters you engraved and I thought: that is a woman’s name. As if the stone had become transparent. One word and everything lights up.”

“Janine, Let me hear her silence.”

Running The Whale’s Back: A Broken Pencil review

Running The Whale’s Back, Andrew Atkinson and Mark Harris, 303 pages, Goose Lane editions, http://www.gooselane.com, $19.95

Editors Andrew Atkinson and Mark harris have accomplished a great feat with this anthology. It often is hard to discuss issues of faith without sounding overly preachy or cynical but “Running The Whale’s Back” does just that. This collection of short stories and novel excerpts puts a mirror to Atlantic Canada, reflecting the life of its inhabitants as they navigate – sometimes literally – through their lives.

A common man buries two frozen travellers while a nun refuses to perform funeral rites. A baby is miraculously found by the river banks while another drowns in one. This idea of duality is a running theme in the anthology and reflected in its structure. The sacred seems ever present, perhaps in part due to the almost god like force of nature and the religious legacy left by the early settlers in these small communities.

While most stories are more realistic in nature one stands out in particular. “My husband’s jump”, a ski jumper who takes off never lands. In one of the anthology’s weaker pieces, “Doves”, the narrator’s inner monologue is punctuated with culturally inaccurate images that slightly detracts from the story.

Despite this small hiccup what we have here is a strong body of work whose subject matter is relevant in a society where the role religion is constantly in question. The writers do not shy away from the raw and the gritty. Nothing is black and white and we are invited to explore this greyness through diverse and unique voices.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes

Think Pakistani Catch-22. To call “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” that however, would be to ignore the unique stand alone piece of fiction that it is. Ali Shigri, A young soldier in General Zia era’s Pakistan army seeks answers and retribution for his father’s apparent suicide. Satirical criticism of the military state, this novel is not only hilarious but a rather interesting and beautifully written study on the army world and its idiosyncrasies.