MEMORY AND AMNESIA IN FRANCOIS WOUKOACHE'S ASIENTOS
The music of the sea is orchestrated behind the dialogue heard in a far away land. A Black man of the African Diaspora confesses his ignorance of Africa and its people to an African elder. They are somewhere in Europe perhaps Britain, France, Belgium, the country does not really matter. The anonymity of the country, in fact, suggests that it does not matter; Europe here signifies the whole of Europe and all that it represents. Separated by continents and history, the brothers meet again in a Diaspora environment as a result of a common colonial history. For these men Europe is, perhaps, the exploiter, the enslaver, a place of cultural alienation, racial discrimination and loneliness. The elder tells the young man that Europe has many pictures of Africa, but those pictures are impotent. He also admits that "over there when people have a bad experience, they don't talk about it. Serious things are left unspoken." How does one fill the empty spaces of memory with what no longer exists? The question provides the central trope and challenge of the film's director, Francois Woukoache, who creatively explores a number of filmic techniques and textual variations in this cinematic story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, Asiento.
Asiento, a title taken from the notorious license granting its holder control over the slave trade, is an exploration of collective memory, a journey in the vaults of the past locked up in the dungeons of slave castles. Woukoache excavates the artifacts of the trade and lays them out for examination on the seashores. Asiento begins where the trade in African slaves began, along the shorelines of a vast ocean that forms the scenic background of the film, while the ocean's music sustains the meditative tone of the text. Popular memory is evoked through the manipulation of sounds designed to draw the memory inward, then bring it up to the shorelines along with the visible artifacts. On/ the beach memory and artifacts meet. The African in Europe says there are no pictures there, yet Woukoache manages to discover many: slave houses, whips, branding irons, speculums, documents, bits, chains, drawings. The objects are foregrounded not simply for a museum tour perusal but for inner reflection, contemplation. It is said that the walls have ears', and Woukoache fixes his hand held camera on the slave house walls and paraphenalia as if they too are narrating a story they have heard, witnessed, and touched.
Asiento reconstructs history into a mosaic installation piece with dialogue, poetic narrative, music drawings, sport, poetry orchestrated in 6 series of dynamic montages, voice-overs, voice offs and panorama. Asiento is part documentary, part filmic poetry, part historical narrative, part personal and collective memoirs. Combined, Woukoache's multi-dimensional use of filmic techniques may be called "experimental". However, Woukoache's cinematic style has characteristics of a pioneering group of African filmmakers who are seeking new ways of constructing history using fictional forms and artistic devices, in a new genre of creative documentary. Jean Marie Teno's Ajuque Je te plumerai, the late David Achkar's Allah Tantou, and Raoul Peck's Lumumba La Morte du Prophet are creative documentaries that integrate drama, visual art, raw footage, historical documents, poetry, and "interviews into filmic murals possessing multivalent layers of meaning and possibilities of interpretation of the recent past. Woukoache's task is more difficult, for he must reconstruct a historical period that had no photographs, no films, relatively few written documents, and a conspicuous erasure in the oral tradition. As Woukoache points out. "It is a history that has not been handed down to a great extent. And so it is up to us to reinvent an image of slavery and the slave trade"(Amarger 77).
What is most fascinating is how the products of creative imagination often coincide with historical facts, as if the events of the past are already prerecorded in collective memory. Imagination, in fact, is the process of "making visible" images stored in the recesses of consciousness, and the imaginative approach supersedes expository history in that it brings dimensionality, energy, and emotional content to an otherwise lifeless discourse. In many ways/this imaginative construction of history mirrors the traditional style of history telling used by West African griots. Myth. poetry, music. mask. dance, ritual, dramatic interpretation are infused into the historical texts in order to enliven it, and hence, provide an experiential bridge between the performance and the audience; the audience. in other words, is compelled to vicariously relive the historical experience. Such is the purpose of fictional devices and forms in the explication of history. and the creative documentaries of Teno. Achkar, Peck. and Woukoache can be genealogically traced to an ancient African historiography. Woukoache re-visions the horrors of the slave trade by probing the emotional depths of his own imagination. And breaking through the boundaries )f a self-imposed amnesia that has muted African discussion of the slave trade and its aftermath. Woukoache, then, should be commended for two reasons. He dares to break the silence on a forbidden subject that few filmmakers, writers, modern or traditional historians will approach. When the subject is brought up, the blame for the trade is usually shifted to the white slave traders or to the enslaved Africans themselves. Only thieves, murderers, beggars, and outcasts were sold to the white traders; the grandparents of the enslaved Africans sold them into slavery. Blacks in the Americas forfeited their human rights and volunteered to be slaves to the whites. False myths such as these circulate as a means of anesthetizing memory to the all too painful images it harbors.
Woukoache, too, evades the question of African responsibility in the slave trade and shifts the blame to the "bloodletting slave hunt of European slavers." What he does interrogate is "the cruelty of indifference," that has left an impenetrable veil of estrangement between Africans on the continent and abroad. Woukoache attempts to remove the veil not by shattering it with a sledgehammer of implosive images but by an ever so gentle lifting with out stretched hands.
Under the penetrating gaze of the slow paced camera, the story of the trade reveals itself from both sides of the ocean as the voices speaking in the film's prologue meet at the place of their common ancestral origins. Washed up on the shores like the bones of a lost soul on the middle passage, A Black man of the Diaspora lies in a deathlike stillness on the beach. He arises as if resurrected into the Guinea paradise his ancestors in America spoke about, but he does not seem to know where he is. Pensively, he walks along the beach. Young boys playing soccer in the background do not appear to notice him. An old man, a human metaphor .of Africa's historic past, sits motionless and mute, yet he communicates with his eyes what the young man had come to hear.
Nameless and speechless, the two main characters represent symbols of the past and present, the old and the newly born, of innocence and knowledge, loss and return; the bipolarities are profuse and form the internal structure of the text. Reminiscent of the African folktale. The characters never speak to each other directly but their most intimate thoughts are revealed in series of voice-offs, interspersed between the thematic poem.
In my memories there are lagoons
They are covered with skulls
They are not covered with water-lilies
In my memory, there are lagoons
stretched out on the shore,
There are no women's loincloth
My memory is surrounded with blook
My memory is ringed with corpses
My body has to raise the weight
of so many centuries.
The subtlety and beauty of the poem evokes emotion and memory while minimalizing the terror of its imagery. Memories surrounded with blood and ringed corpses, lagoons covered skulls, are fragments of truth that sets free the soul to fly with the ancestors. Woukoache's verses display a paradoxical tension of ugliness pervaded with beauty. And this is the second reason he should be commended. He has managed to document the most brutal genocide in human history in a poignant, enrapturing language. The viewer is drawn inside the narrative to relive and contemplate its meaning. To create this effect the voices of the past and present are intentionally intoned so that the sounds reverberate inward like a rayer. Asiento, for al_ the harshness of its title and content, is
paradoxically a prayer, a meditation on slavery, on the indescribable pain and suffering of its victims and the spiritual burden of forgetting them:
For centuries, my brothers, your ancestors
have been crying out and nobody hears
They have disappeared into history
You can't believe it
You don't want to believe it
You are afraid
You swallow the scraps of your childhood
which no longer protects you
Here, the old man discloses his secrets in traces of meaning and representation of unspeakable things. The amnesia is not accidental but a self-inflicted method of forgetting what many believe is better off forgotten. "You do not want to believe it;" therefore, memo]"y erases what it does not want to see. Amnesia is a psychological vehicle for carrying a tortured soul beyond the borders of a fatal suffering; however, it becomes dangerous when its persists into oblivion.
Avi Kwei Armah, one of the few African novelists who has written about the Arab and European slave trade, offers a psychological analysis of a healer on the subject of racial amnesia In his novel, The Healers, he writes:
The events that shattered our people were not simply painful events. There were disasters. They were strange and unnatural disasters. Those who survived them could only survive in part because they found ways to forget the castrastrophe. When you're still close to past dangers that threatened to wipe you out, even remembrance pains you. Our people forget a lot of things in order
to survive... Is
Is forgetfulness natural?
It is natural, but only for a while not for all time. Forgetfulness helps the diseased cross over the time of greatest pain. It is a sort of sleep, like that brought on by herbs to help a sick man when his disease has exhausted him. In that case forgetfulness works towards health. But when the period of forgetfulness is prolonged unnaturally, then .it doesn't work towards health. It works towards death (Armah 83).
Woukoache suggest 1ike the healer Damfo, that the" forgetting" of the African holocaust has persisted too long; it has worked against health towards putrefaction and death. Prolonged amnesia deteriorates into a kind of brain death, a mindless auto destruction and animosity of one's own kind so well articulated in Fanon's Wretched of the Earth.
In taking up the subject of slavery, the filmmaker, writer, historian assumes the role of a healer of bad ideas. To extirpate the bad ideas, t)e people must first admit that they have them. Woukoache locates the problem in a truncated consciousness, the unhealing of a great psychic wound, and with the sensitive hands of a surgeon, he mends the wound together, feeds it with love and herbs and prayer so that it heals properly.
The source of that healing lies in the spiritual world. Through the music of the waves, the poems, the guitar, wind, and flute, the ancestors are invoked; they come and reveal their secrets. The elder intimates that he is an ancestor who has awakened from his amnesia and no longer fearing the past or the present, he does not hide it. The narrator becomes a mouthpiece for Woukoache's revelations and ideas. The elder is a healer, an advisor, a soothsayer. His knowledge of history has made him aware of its patterns, cycles, and signs.
You can enter history but you cannot leave it.
I watch this century as it tears itself apart
as history repeats itself and I am afraid ...
Memory of history, no matter how disastrous is an important blueprint on how to live correctly, or as the popular maxim goes, "a people who do not know their history are bound to repeat it."
That is the ancestor's fear. Racial amnesia causes a people to forget the necessary lesson that history teaches.
You have traced the routes of the slave ships
But you still do not know why the sea does
not cast these corpses up.
Some of Woukoache's verses are abstract, thought-provoking, built
around paradox and contradiction, ambiguity and nuance; they provide a fertile field for interpretion and reflection. The whole aesthetic of the film exhibits an oxymoronic irony of an incredible
ugliness couched in spiritual beauty. "But you still do not know why the sea does not cast these corpses up," is an engrossing line that implores the subjective mind's participation in unveiling its riddle. Corpses cast on the sea are, in fact, metaphors of historic revelation represented in the two characters.
The voice-offs of the "ummawali", "the son who has returned home," is narrated in a call and response alteration with the African elder.
I was naked, speechless, handed over to the invaders
I no longer exist
My body was lost in a shipwreck
I rejoined my nameless brother
crammed into history's crannies
I no longer exist
Do something for me.
The young man's voice echoes the elder's, though his story is told through the memory of a man lost during the middle passage. Should not the millions of Africans who died on the journey, at least, be remembered in prayers and libations, memorials and history books? Does the terrible dishonor of their deaths call up so much shame we deny their existence? The narrator seems to suggest this by emphasizing his namelessness and non-existence; yet it is clear that this anonymity is imposed from the outside by the millions of African descendants who have forgotten him. He does not exist because he is not remembered:
Remember the death throes of my brother,
Remember the anguish and the lies
The loneliness and the cold
The violence and the cruelty
Remember the tongues cut
out the hamstringing
The lyrical voice and rhythm of the narration breaks abruptly
from the poem to a lecture format explaining the details of the slave trade with maps, drawings, artifacts, and a carefully guided
camera tour into the very crevices of the slave house at Goree Island. The lecture tour shots closely resembles classical documentary and gives to history's voice a legitimacy supported by material data.
Nonetheless, the strength of the film lies in its high artistic quality, particularly that of the prose poem which dominates and drives the narrative. The cinematic text revolves around and accentuates the thematic poem, and in many respects, the
visual representation is subordinate to it. A filmic poem, then, is an appropriate category for Asiento since it highlights the poetry from beginning to end, and the flow of its rhythm is only interrupted for the historical exposition. The seascape, sounds, the boys playing football on the beach, even the accoutrements of the slave trade visually amplifies the literal imagery. Instead of the picture representing a thousand words, the word exudes the meaning of a thousand pictures when it is situated within the context of historic consciousness and woven into the textual fabric of a poem. Chains, corpses, slave ships, branding irons, whips, blood, are more than word-images, they are archetypal symbols that encapsulate the total tragedy of slavery in the memories of those scarred and disfigured forever by its horrors. But Woukoache sculpts these words into a soothing balm so that we forget the horrors, and instead, expose our gaping wounds unabashedly to its healing.
His manipulation of the camera complements the theme of the
narrative poem, and a\ times, he experiments with film's resilient
capacity to concretize ideas and emotions. The opening poem is voiced-off behind a small boy running against a dark, blurry, fractured background. This dynamic-cut montage represents an obfuscated, fragmented consciousness running away from itself. The next shot introduces the wise elder, the resurrected ancestor of memory who answers the cry of a tortured consciousness. Woukoache constructs a series of montages onto the narrative text, adding another level of visual clarity and interpretation. Since the characters do not speak, they evince meaning through demeanor, mimesis and gesture, or in the case of the elder, the lack of gesture. The elder's immobility signifies the irremovable monument of history; his deep, penetrating gaze observes everything and nothing simultaneously.
On the other hand, the countenance of the ummawali is one of innocence, a pensive yearning to know the unknown, see the unseen. Lying on the beach, awakening, arising, walking along the shores, all the movements are threaded together into a visual narrative. Some of his gestures are enigmatic, like when he dives headlong into the sands, or mimics a dog digging for bones, but on further reflection, they are, perhaps, metaphorical gestures of search and surrender, and a perfect transition to an abstract, panoramic, flash shot that signifies an explosion of consciousness.
As the narrative voice shifts in form, the montages follow suit. The camera's eye lingers on the walls of the slave castle searching the crevices for its secrets while detailed facts of the trade are voiced-over. The lecture style and the close-up, detailed shot are synchronized in form, though even here, he cannot resist the impulse for abstraction and interjects child like, expressionist drawings into the display of material history. As the discourse probes the past, the camera probes it's trail of artifacts into distant lands and places. The filmmaker uses the Museum of Chains, situated in Europe, to frame the narrative voice of the European who discloses her perpetration denial and guilt:
This era manufactures oblivion
We have kept ourselves at a distance
refusing to speak up for our crimes.
It is easy to believe
it didn't happen...
In this sequence, the tight pattern of narrative and visual complicity is loosened and shifted; the European tour guide take a poetic detour through the hall of chains and reveals her innermost thoughts. Chains that were placed on millions of Africans are now the chains clamped on Europe's conscience. A voice without a face, she is the disembodiment of history hiding behind the pastiches of the slaver's past her sense of superiority and guilt. Juxtaposing the chains with the narrative of the European flips the weight of spiritual consequences onto the owners of the chains.
But what about the owners of forgetting? What is it, they really want to forget?
I would like to come closer and sit down
Listen to the silence
Learn once more to watch, to see
There are many unspeakable things spoken and an underlying sub narrative left unspoken that could take up another paper or even a book. The issue of Africa’s involvement and responsibility in the slave trade is still shrouded in the silence of shame. Woukoache's verses bear no shame but acknowledges a debt owned to the millions lost, if nothing more than a priceless gesture of remembrance. It is a step, a giant step closer to reunion, to understanding and healing taken in a short but giant film. Races and nation of the world pose at the steps of the slave house in the closing scene. Woukoache's message of unity is completed; the people gather together with their torchlights moving to the shores of the beginning.
Amarger, Michel. "African Filmmakers exposed to the amnesia of the slave trade." Ecrans. 25 (First Semester, 1998):66 77.
Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Healers. London: Heinemann Books, 1978. Asiento. Dir. Francois Woukoache.1995. 52 min.