An analysis to accompany S01E05 by Dr Zahra Tavassoli Zea
One of the most little studied facts about Cahiers du cinéma is that its most famous critics witnessed the emergence of national cinemas in the 1950s with a striking degree of scepticism. French New Wave directors such as Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette were quite disturbed to see the outpouring of support and enthusiasm from the leftist press and intellectuals towards the multiplication of fiction films and documentaries from “small nations” (i.e. Third World, freshly decolonised, non-American, non-Western European countries). As Marco Grosoli recalls in his pioneering book on the “Schérer School”, Rohmer and his followers admired non-Hollywood films provided that their narrative and aesthetic forms preserved a universal reach and did not solely focused on displaying the idiosyncrasy and particularisms of their folkloric tales and customs (Grosoli 2018, 266). In relation to one of the first Greek films that gained international recognition, A Girl in Black (1956), Rohmer was not overly impressed by the way in which Michael Cacoyannis painted his characters, who lacked the depth of an internal and thereby classical contradiction: didn’t the Ancient Greeks taught us that “drama characters cannot be neither entirely guilty, nor entirely innocent”? (267).
Knowing the basics of classical Greek theatre and its revival through 17th -century French classicism has been, for many Europeans — including myself — a means to evaluate the levels of innovation and modes of self-expression which aim to supplant this western-centric (ergo universal) story-telling structure. In times which many define as one of “cultural revolution”, where racial, cultural, gender and sexual diversity is defended, celebrated and increasingly included in the domains of education, politics, arts and entertainment industries of the western world, it is quite obvious that Eric Rohmer’s opinion would be denounced, if not punished, for not complying with the predominant uncritical approval of “everything” coming from a non-white, non-wealthy, non-Western European country. I for one believe that the principle at the core of such attitude is morally misguided, if not racist in itself, since all artists, regardless of their origin, deserve a fair, objective and therefore critical assessment (just like any other “white” individual – whatever that means to the “métis” population of Central America).
As suggested during my conversation with Dr Ann-Marie Fleming, Honduras is a nation that found its independence after centuries of genocides, slavery, uprooting and neglect on behalf of its European and North American intruders. The colonisation created a composite and pluriethnic community which was taught, by the Spaniards themselves, to behave according to a Eurocentric racial hierarchy, which, to put it bluntly, was mainly based on a very wide palette of lighter and darker skin tones, since the majority of the population was already racially mixed. Typically, a Honduran family unit is composed of siblings who, despite coming from the same biological parents, possess markedly different physical features (one is blacker, the other is whiter), all resulting from genetic fluctuations within an ancestral line that is already ethnically complex. However, this does not amount to say that racial segregation is not experienced by the Honduran population — quite the contrary, sadly.
The Garífunas, the community descending from the African slaves brought to Honduras by the colonisers more than 500 years ago, not only survived the inhumane treatment given to Indigenous people, but their African origins and identity were flagrantly excluded from the narrative surrounding the Spanish and Indigenous foundations at the heart of our country’s national culture. As documented by Helen Umaña, old official documents show that Hondurans, via the influence of the Spanish, negated or made invisible the impact of African spiritual beliefs and rituals on the construction and development of Honduras’ national identity (Umaña 2017, 167-168). Given the centuries of oppression, discrimination and ostracism, the continuous existence of the Garífuna’s ancestral heritage is all the more prodigious and worth honouring and celebrating. And this is exactly what Laura Bermúdez does in Negra Soy (Black I am, 2017).
For her first non-commissioned short, Bermúdez pays tribute to her own African foremothers whose legacy she tries to rehabilitate, after centuries of being silenced, disregarded and overlooked in her own mother’s home country, Brazil, as well as in her father’s land, Honduras. While Bermúdez remains silent behind the camera, her touching portrayal of three generations of Garífuna women is interwoven with extracts of her own chosen poem by Victoria Santa Cruz, “Negra soy”, which affirms, claims and gracefully declares, through repetition, her pride in the acknowledgement, ownership and full embrace of her blackness: “Negra, negra, negra, ¿y qué? ¡Si soy negra! Negra soy.” The strong matriarchal system of the “garínagu” people — too often related to the fathers’ abandonment of their responsibilities and notorious absence — is also represented through spontaneous interviews and moments of sharing with the local families of Punta Gorda, in the Honduran island of Roatán. Both Santa Cruz’s poem and the lyrics of the traditional song (which is performed in its own Garífuna language) coincide with the life stories, struggles and aspirations of Bermúdez’s female figures: the grandmother, the mother and the daughter.
Without giving names or details on the affiliation of her three main characters, Bermúdez carefully sails between local specificities (through, for instance, shots of hands grating coconut, fishing boats, fish being fried, mural art, clothes drying in the sun) and universalism (via aesthetics strategies like wide angle shots, low angle shots, slow motion, backlighting shots, traveling shots and close-ups). To Rohmer’s delight, she ensures the universal reach of her film through contemplative samples of the extraordinary natural environment she had at her disposal, and musically, by reconnecting with the spiritual dimension of the land. Hearing the melody of the seashell horn and the palpitations of the Garífuna drum in the middle of this chaotic year has the effect of the divine announcement of a new world order. Her rhythmic montage, which alternates between a quiet, reverential observation and a more active search for poetic associations by breaking down spatial continuity, proves that Bermúdez does not separate her scientific work, as a documentary filmmaker, with her own soul-searching process. And it is precisely in this very quest of her own identity, through the exterior expression of the Garífuna women’s contemporary reality, that lies the inner conflict, and as such, the tragic beauty of Laura Bermúdez, as a new Honduran author.
Everything in the natural surrounding of the Garífuna community connotes freedom: the joyful colours, the endless ocean, the straightforward contact with fished food and the cut open coconut water. As we listen to the women, Bermúdez reminds the spectator of the invisible ropes that, after hundreds of generations, continue to obstruct the Garífuna women’s acquisition of independence and right of choice in determining their own destiny. By addressing this oscillation between happiness and hard work, between emancipation and obligations, Bermúdez elevates her heroines to the level of classical goddesses, who inspire respect, hope and admiration, with a hint of fear — because, like Greek deities, the Garífunas are here to stay.
Grosoli, M. (2018). Eric Rohmer’s Film Theory (1948-1953): From ‘Ecole Schérer’ to ‘Politique des Auteurs’. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Umaña, H. (2017). Literatura y tradición oral de los pueblos originarios y afrohondureños. Tegucigalpa: Editorial Universitaria/Centro de Arte y Cultural UNAH.