Tuesday, February 12, 2019

NATIVE at the Berlinale

The Berlinale is extraordinary.  A documentary about a Maori woman who herself made documentaries, directed by her son as his first film, might just about squeeze into the London Film Festival in a small venue for what is perceived to be a “niche” audience.  At ORIGINS, we would put it into an intimate cinema and focus on the debate it provokes.  At the Berlinale, MERATA: HOW MUM DECOLONISED THE SCREEN was shown on a Saturday night on a gigantic IMAX screen to a packed cinema, and was followed by a long and effusive Q&A.  The indigenous film-makers continually expressed their thanks to the festival for giving them such an empowering platform, and the audiences for coming in such numbers.

But then, Berlin is a genuinely international city.  I don’t mean that it’s intercultural - it’s less diverse than London or Birmingham - I mean that it sees itself as a space engaged in the global exchange of culture, people and ideas.  Pretty much everyone speaks fluent English, which is the main language of the Festival.  Nobody resents the “Other”.  People are eager to learn and to engage with ways of living very different from their own.  As we prepare to fall off the cliff of Brexit, we should look to Berlin as an example of how we can improve ourselves as a necessarily cosmopolitan society in an intimate global space.  I hope that ORIGINS can contribute to this: the need has never felt more urgent or more extreme.

MERATA was one of two films made by emerging directors about their inspirational mothers.  The other was SHE WHO MUST BE LOVED, by indigenous Australian director Erica Glynn, about her mother Freda, who was a pioneer of indigenous media.  About half way through the film, Freda mentioned her youngest son, Warwick.  A bit later on, she mentioned that she had been briefly married to a certain Bob Thornton….   It was only at the end of the film that Warwick Thornton himself appeared, collecting an award at the Sydney Festival and saying that he owed his film-making success to his mother.  Both the films made it very clear how the close family ties in indigenous families can generate an immense cultural energy.

I was also struck by how little of the ego that characterises Western directors was present in the NATIVE presentations.  VAI, the opening feature, was directed by nine indigenous women, each presenting a ten-minute vignette, portraying a woman called Vai (meaning “water”) at different stages of her life.  They weren’t actually the same woman - she could be many ages in the same era, and moved around the islands of the Pacific - but they were like the same woman, with other people in her family always having the same name, even if their personalities were very different.  Vai, water, flows between Polynesian people and binds them together across the vast Ocean.  And, like this story of common cultures and continues regeneration, the very process of film-making suggested a community approach that puts aggressive individualism in the shade.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


I didn't write the post that normally ends the year on this blog: although, now I think about it, 2018 was an extraordinary year for Border Crossings.  We found ourselves leading two large-scale European projects, The Promised Land and More Than Words, as well as partnering in a third.  Our photographic exhibition, Pocahontas and After, was visited by more than 20,000 people during its time at Syon House in West London, and won a British Library Labs Award.  It's now on its way to St Andrews...  We offered a whole series of ORIGINS Offshoots events with some amazing partners, including the National Maritime Museum, whose new galleries opened in the autumn, featuring the sound installation that we had jointly commissioned from Tanya Tagaq.  As the year ended, we got the news that the Arts Council will fund us for the 2019 ORIGINS Festival - that's something to look forward to in June!

So - why has it taken me until January 15th even to think about taking stock of the year that has just ended?  Well, today is the date of the "Meaningful Vote" in Parliament, and there is a palpable tension in the air.  Everything we do or try to do in Britain at the moment happens in the shadow of Brexit.  Only weeks before the date when we are due to leave the EU, there is complete uncertainty as to the terms of that departure - indeed, in my more optimistic moments, it seems far from certain that it will happen at all.  Here's hoping.  From the perspective of the company, Brexit is a terrifying paradox: it has the potential to destroy us, and (if it happens) will certainly make it much more difficult to sustain our work.  On the other hand, it makes all that we are doing even more essential.

Over Christmas, I read Fintan O'Toole's brilliant analysis of Brexit: Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain.   What an extraordinary post-colonial irony that it should be an Irishman who provides the clearest insight into what we might call "the English question"!  It's the post-coloniality that is most striking in O'Toole's argument: England, he suggests, has tried to compensate for its colonial history by re-casting itself as the colonised, and for the meagre rewards of World War Two by regarding itself as defeated and invaded.  Brexit is the result of an independence movement against a colonial power that does not exist, and a defence against an invasion that has never happened and never will.

The last days of 2018 underlined his case, when a series of little boats, bearing tiny numbers of desperate refugees, attempted to cross the Channel.  Far from admiring this echo of Dunkirk (O'Toole is very good on the "Dunkirk spirit"), Sajid Javid decided that this was a "major incident", and deployed the Royal Navy.  The over-reaction is comic in its extremity - but it is also characteristic of the present moment.  "We are being invaded, we are under threat, we are the victims.  There is bound to be pain, but it's like the war: the pain is part of our heroism."  Except that the pain is entirely of our own making.

What O'Toole makes abundantly clear is that, while Remain politicians have been obsessed with dire warnings about "the economy, stupid", Leave has understood Brexit for what it truly is - a crisis in culture.  This is what I mean when I say that our work is being made more and more essential by what is happening.  What sort of a culture could accept the representation of a handful of hapless refugees as an invading force?  Only one that has completely lost its sense of reality, one that has been fed an entire bogus mythology.  Whatever happens politically in the coming weeks, the work of recreating our identity for a contemporary, intercultural, globalised space will take a long time, and is very urgent.  It is in the cultural sphere that this turmoil must be resolved.

And that is what Border Crossings does.  The Promised Land is all about the refugee question, and how culture can aid the process of integration, of building new communities in which both established and new citizens have a place.  ORIGINS, Pocahontas And After and The Great Experiment all engage with the mythologies around our colonial past, and seek to redress them through the voices of the colonised.  That's why we have to keep going, however difficult it is likely to be.

Happy New Year, everyone.