Memories Are Made of This

In all the years of Havana Glasgow Film Festival’s existence, we have concentrated on Cuban cinema, and only once shown a non-Cuban feature film, Sean Baker’s “Tangerine”. Partly because it had won top prize at Gibara International Festival (specialising in low-budget film), and partly because it was such a brilliant film. Since it’s now a fully established cult classic (and my favourite Xmas film that isn’t “Trading Places”) I think we were justified.

“Cantadoras: Musical Memories of Life and Death in Colombia” is another film of non-Cuban provenance, a Mexican film shot in Colombia, on the Caribbean coast there, which is a crucial part of its cultural DNA. The film uses the musical expression of Afro-Colombian women to trace an ancestral, multigenerational history of violence and resistance to it, from working in White-owned mines to civil war, which rural communities got caught up in. Their chants take the form of bullerengue (a cumbia-derived genre traditionally sung exclusively by women) to weave a tapestry of resistance to colonialism, the government – and, since this is Colombia – to the violence of drug gangs who’ve killed these women’s sons and brothers.

If you’ve been following the festival’s past couple of editions, you’ll be aware of how complex the colonial legacy of Cuba and the Caribbean in general is, and of the links between syncretic religion and music in Haiti and Cuba and beyond, fulfilling the conditions that the region’s greatest philosopher and poet – Edouard Glissant – would define as a ‘plantation’ society. A passage from Glissant’s “Caribbean Discourse” could perfectly illustrate the history of the pain and rebellion embodied in these women’s songs.

“[S]ince speech was forbidden, slaves camouflaged the word under the provocative intensity of the scream. No one could translate the meaning of what seemed to be nothing but a shout. It was taken to be nothing but the call of a wild animal. This is how dispossessed man organized his speech by weaving it into the apparently meaningless texture of extreme noise.

If Scotland’s most significant Afro-Caribbean artist Alberta Whittle has proposed, “What sound does the Black Atlantic make?”, this film may provide one answer.

The very term ‘Black Atlantic’ stems of course, from Paul Gilroy’s seminal book, celebrating its 30 anniversary this year, and which I can’t recommend enough. If this complex, multi layered work can be reduced to a single proposition, it may be this: “In opposition to both of these nationalist or ethnically absolute approaches, I want to develop the suggestion that cultural historians could take the Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis in their discussions of the modern world and use it to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective.”

This is an essential way to approach the complexities of race not just in the entire region, but the entire African diaspora.

However, while I’m obviously arguing against vulgar nationalism, I’m compelled to add that the conditions for this film to exist were aided by the bilateral relations between Cuba and Colombia, whereby representatives of both the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas were able to meet in the relatively neutral environment of Havana for peace talks, which laid the ground for the present situation of peace and reconciliation. Hopefully, their work will ensure that these experiences of violence remain, as suggested by the film’s title, ‘memories’.

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