Tuesday 9 July 2019

On Language Learning and the Many Meanings of a Quenelle

There are always different ways to learn a foreign language, and sometimes quite interesting ways of developing a deeper cultural understanding of a place than watching online tutorials or sitting in lecture halls.
Take French, for example. I have retained a very small amount of French from secondary school, which I have expanded slightly through a combination of personal study and multiple visits to France itself.
However, things like slang terms, colloquialisms, and often uniquely French insults, can often remain closed off to the student and tourist alike, so other sources must be found to develop a deeper understanding of the culture and sub-cultures of the country you are getting to know.
You might be able to deduce a few of these from perusing the pages of satirical newspapers and magazines like Charlie Hebdo or l'Echo des Savanes. Of course, mass movements can be a tremendous education too. The content of banners and placards must be short and punchy, which also makes them easier to key into an online translation website. The current Gilets Jaunes are no exception.
For example, in one video posted online I noticed a protestor with the words "Macron la sens-tu la quenelle?" written on the back of his yellow vest. Online translation tools can help with most of this sentence, but offer no alternative or explanation for that last word.
Roughly, it means something like "Macron do you feel the quenelle?"


With the abundance of information available on the Internet it is not hard to work out that a quenelle is a dish consisting primarily of elongated fish balls.
It gets better. Or worse, depending on your appetite.
Some people have likened the shape of the quenelle to that of a suppository, which explains the phrase "glisser une quenelle" (which means something like "to slide the quenelle").
To top things off, around 2005 the controversial comedian and political activist Dieudonne used the word to popularise a hand gesture some people see as a kind of inverted Nazi salute which has become quite popular in France as a gesture of protest, solidarity etc. Others argue that it is primarily an "up yours" (a British term) to the establishment, although I am still trying to understand if the accusations of racism are genuine or part of a smear campaign similar to the one currently engulfing the British Labour Party. Anti-semitism is real and needs to be challenged, but it would be foolish to ignore the weaponisation of anti-semitism in recent years as a tool to smear those who dare to criticise atrocities committed by the state of Israel.
Islamophobia in France is of course built on the foundations of that countries' unresolved colonial history, particularly in relation to those countries like Algeria that fought bitter struggles against their colonial masters.
Dieudonne, the son of a French mother and father from Cameroon, whose comedy in the 1990s had been defined by a sharp anti-racist sensibility, was an early victim of the extreme political situation in the early years of the War on Terror.
In a style that could be seen as somewhat quintessentially French, when faced with prosecution for alleged anti-semitism, and many of his performances banned, Dieudonne refused to back down or compromise the provocative nature of his comedy. Today he is a vocal supporter of the Gilets Jaunes, and any passing foray into French language social media channels (like his own) that are supportive of the movement reveals just how prevalent the term "quenelle" has become as a kind of rallying cry for its supporters.
I wanted to share these thoughts in relation to my own language learning because such linguistic terms as these will likely be completely lost on people who only follow English language coverage of the Yellow Vests.
It would seem that sometimes learning a foreign language really does promote greater inter-cultural understanding.

Monday 18 March 2019

An Introduction to Venezuelan Cinema

In attempting to write an article about the recent history of Venezuelan Cinema one thing that becomes apparent very early on is just how difficult it is to find Venezuelan films translated for the English-speaking market. 
Location is one reason. Like film-makers from other parts of the Global South, Latin American film-makers often struggle to reach western, and especially English-speaking, audiences. 
Politics may be another. The last few years has seen Venezuela subject to quite severe economic sanctions imposed by its rich neighbour to the north, so this would undoubtedly affect the countries' film distribution.
By way of an introduction, I will try to provide here a very brief overview of what I see as some of the highlights of Venezuelan cinema over the last three or four decades. I hope that this gives film buffs in the west a better understanding of Venezuelan film-making not just before the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, but before the uprisings of the early 1990s, right up until the present day Maduro years of collapsing oil prices, economic sanctions and allegations of internal mismanagement.

El cine soy yo (The Moving Picture Man) (dir. Luis Armando Roche; 1977)

This drama starring Juliet Berto was Venezuela's entry into the 10th Moscow International Film Festival. It tells the story of a moving man who becomes a film projectionist, and who shares his movies from a van disguised as a red whale!

Bolivar, a Tropical Symphony (dir. Diego Risquez; 1981)

This art house film from painter and film-maker Risquez became the first Super 8 film to be selected for the Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. It could be loosely described as a biographical drama. It forms part of the directors' ambitious 'American Trilogy' which took as its subject the history and mythology of Latin America.
You can view a clip here:

Orinoko, New World (dir. Diego Risquez; 1984)

Part of the same trilogy, this anthropological drama uses simple sounds, devoid of any dialogue, to recreate what the Americas would have been like before Spanish colonialism. We see indigenous people engaged in activities such as art and fishing, celebrating rituals, dances and local indigenous beliefs. 
You can watch a short clip here:

Amerika, Terra Incognita (dir. Diego Risquez; 1988)

This is the final part of the directors' art house trilogy, although I can find almost nothing about it online.

La Casa de Agua (The House of Water) (dir. Jacobo Penzo; 1983)

This was the Venezuelan entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, although like Terra Incognita I have been unable to find detailed information about it.

Oriana (dir. Fina Torres; 1985)

Set in a hacienda or ranch, this drama tells the story of a lady named Maria, who returns to the house where she spent time as a child in order to uncover the secrets of her aunt, the Oriana of the title, who has left the property to her in her will. 
This film won the Camera d'Or Prize at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival, and if you are lucky enough to own an American region DVD player you should be able to buy a copy online.

Jericho (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 1991)

This historical drama is set during the early 16th century. It concerns a priest named Santiago who joins a Spanish expedition in order to bring Christianity to the natives. Once there the expedition discover there is fierce resistance from the native peoples, and the entire expedition is murdered, with the priest being the only person spared. Santiago initially attempts to continue his mission of religious conversion before he decides to join the natives in their own way of life...until another expedition of Spaniards arrive.

Amanecio de Golpe (The Coup Awakened) (dir. Carlos Azpurua; 1998)
Historical drama about the 1992 attempted coup (the last one conducted by leftist elements in Venezuela, subsequent attempts having come from the right-wing opposition). The film was produced with international support from film companies in Canada, Cuba and Spain, which appears to be a not uncommon feature of Latin American film finance, and perhaps one reason why, after Chavez finally won power democratically in 1998 he set about creating the Ville del Cine film studios and Amazonia Films distribution company, launched in 2006 as a means of promoting local film-makers.
You can watch the trailer (again, in Spanish) here:

Punto y Raya (A Dot and A Line) (dir. Elia Schneider; 2004)
Taking its name from the anti-war song by Soledad Bravo, this action drama starring Edgar Ramirez is about Cheito, a street-wise Venezuelan conscript, who is thrown together with Pedro, a straight-arrow volunteer in the Colombian army, when the latter deserts his company and the other survives an ambush. They survive guerrillas, drug producers, corrupt narcotics officers, not to mention each other, as they make their way through the jungle. From being enemies they become allies, and finally friends, although their loyalties are tested along the way by women and politics. 
This film was a joint production with production companies in Chile, Spain and Uruguay, and won four international awards including the Special Jury Prize at Havana. It is also available on European region DVD!

Secuestro Express (Express Kidnapping) (dir. Jonathan Jakubowicz; 2005)

This crime drama is one of the few Venezuelan films to be picked up for distribution in the Anglophone world. It was made by a Venezuelan expat who lives in Los Angeles.

El Caracazo (dir. Roman Chalbaud; 2005)

This historical drama, which recounts the uprisings of 1989 and their violent suppression, walked away with awards at film festivals in Havana and Trieste.

Mi Vida por Sharon, o que te pasa a ti? (dir. Carlos Azpurua; 2006)

In a departure from earlier films like Amanecio de Golpe, this comedy concerns the attempts of Carlitos Lopez to recover a stolen car named Sharon, even if it risks his relationships with his ex-wife, girlfriend and family. 
Here is a clip:

Postales de Leningrado (dir. Mariana Rondon; 2007)
This is an award-winning coming of age drama about kids growing up in the left-wing insurgency of 1960s Venezuela. The director loosely based it on her own experiences as the daughter of FALN guerrillas. You can also find it on DVD. Yayyy!

La Clase (dir. Jose Antonio Varela; 2007)
This romantic drama from Ville de Cine is based on the novel by Farruco Sesto, which contrasts the different ways of life of different social classes in Venezuela. The film walked away with awards from the Merida and Malaga film festivals. You can view the trailer here:

El Enemigo (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 2008)
Drama, in which two people from very different worlds are brought together in the corridors of a Caracas hospital. Here's the trailer:

Macuro (dir. Hernan Jabes; 2008)
Drama. Sadly this is another film I can find almost no information about online in English. Anyone who has seen it is welcome to leave a brief review in the comments section of this article.

Zamora: Tierra y hombres libres (dir. Roman Chalbaud; 2009)
Historical drama about Ezequiel Zamora, who led a struggle in Venezuela during the late nineteenth century for land rights, a key factor in the entrenched inequalities of the nation at that time.
Here's the trailer:

Libertador Morales (dir. Efterpi Charalambidis; 2009)
Comedy-drama about a motorcycle taxi driver who assumes the alter ego El Justiciero in order to fight the criminal gangs in Caracas.
Here's the trailer:

Taita Boves (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 2010)
Historical drama. From the directors' summary on IMDB: “TAITA BOVES chronicles a thirst for revenge that devastated a country. It tells the true story of Jose Tomás Boves, a cruel man who became a legend during the Venezuelan War of Independence, the most violent in the Americas. He went from seafarer to pirate, horse smuggler to prosperous merchant, prisoner to military chief. Spanish by birth, he spearheaded a grass roots troop of slaves, mulattoes, Indians and mestizos that crushed Simón Bolívar and his patriot army. Respectfully referred to as "Taita" by them, he fought for the underprivileged and the poorest of the poor, and curtailed three centuries of order in this colonial region. This film is about his passions and power, his loves and misadventures, and a bloody saga that rocked Venezuela.”
Here's the trailer (in Spanish):

Habana Eva (dir. Fina Torres; 2010)
This romantic comedy from the director of Oriana was filmed in Havana, and walked away with an award at the New York International Latino Film Festival.

Dias de poder (Days of Power) (dir. Roman Chalbaud; 2011)
Drama concerning Caracas society during the 1960s, times of struggle and change. After the fall of the Perezjimenist dictatorship, Fernando Quintero, a revolutionary leader, ascends to power in the new administration, thus betraying his ideals to become an accomplice to the repression that he had previously fought. His son Efraín, holding to his old convictions, generates contradictions that make him an active adversary of the government and of his own father, leading to a tormented and instructive end.

Azul y no tan rosa (Blue and Not So Pink, released in the US as: My Straight Son) (dir. Miguel Ferrari; 2012)
A joint-production with Spain, this became the first Venezuelan film to win the Goya Award for Best Spanish Language Foreign Film.

Tiempos de Dictadura Tiempos de Marcos Perez Jimenez (dir. Carlos Oteyza; 2012)
Documentary about both the human rights abuses and infrastructure development of the twentieth century Venezuelan dictator.

Piedra, Papelo, Tijera (Rock, Paper, Scissors) (dir. Hernan Jabes; 2012)
Drama, in which a mistaken kidnapping sets in motion a delicate chain of tragic events.

Azu: Alma de princesa (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 2013)
Adventure drama, set in 1780. A group of slaves flee from a sugarcane plantation, looking for a cumbe. They are pursued by Don Manuel Aguirre, an obsessed landowner who has fixed his eyes on Azú, the beautiful slave who has an ancestral destiny. This story combines action, mysticism and the struggle for freedom and dignity in an environment filled with magic and the richness of the jungle.
Here's the trailer (in Spanish):

Bolivar, Man of Difficulties (dir. Luis Alberto Lamata; 2013)
Biographical drama starring Roque Valero, focusing on the period in Simon Bolivar's life (from May 1815 until 1816) when he was exiled in Jamaica. The film, produced in collaboration with other international film companies including Cuba's ICAIC studio, explores the experience of the human being behind the heroic myth of the Latin American independence hero.

Desde Alla (From Afar) (dir. Lorenzo Vigas; 2015)
Armando, a wealthy middle-aged man, becomes involved with Elder, a young man from a street gang.

El Amparo (dir. Rober Calzadilla; 2016)
Historical drama, made as a Venezuelan-Colombian joint production, which won awards in Sydney and Sao Paulo. At the end of the 80's, by the creeks of the Arauca river, near the Colombian-Venezuelan border, two men survived the brutality of a shooting in which 14 of their mates were killed. They claimed to be mere fishermen, but the Venezuelan army accused them to be guerrilla fighters, intimidating them in every possible way and even attempting to remove them from the cell where they were guarded by a policeman. Their neighbours prevented their transfer, but the pressure they faced to give in and submit the official version was overwhelming.
Here's the trailer (with English subtitles):

La Planta Insolente (dir. Roman Chalbaud; 2017)
Historical drama. The film rescues, in an hour and forty minutes, the historic moment when Cipriano Castro, then president of Venezuela, proclaimed: "The insolent plant of the foreigner has profaned the sacred soil of the country!", at a time when the coasts of the country were invaded by imperial forces in 1902.

La Familia (dir. Gustavo Rondon Cordova; 2017)

Social realist drama, produced with Chilean and Norwegian assistance, set in the barrios of Caracas about a father and his son.

This article aims to give a brief overview of some of the highlights of Venezuelan cinema from the 1970s up until the present day. It is by no means exhaustive, and I hope to be able to write more extensively about this subject as I learn more. 

It often seems that when Venezuelan popular culture like film is discussed at all in English language media it is often seen through the somewhat distorted lens of western mainstream media, which of course all too frequently reflect the unquestioned political biases of the dominant culture. 
Anyone reading this who wants to see more articles in English about Venezuelan films from a more independent perspective, and thinks there are any important films I have missed out from this list is welcome to leave a comment below. 

Sunday 27 January 2019

The Popular Music of Venezuela

El Cantor del Pueblo (The People's Singer)

By pushing the sun,
the dawn gets closer.
- 'Sombrero Azul' by Ali Primera

Ali Primera was born on October 31 1942, in the small coastal town of Coro, Falcon State, in the north of Venezuela. During his tragically short lifetime he became one of the leading lights of the Venezuelan Nueva Cancion ("new song"), a movement that inspired musicians across Latin America during the 1960s, 70s and into the 80s, by combining both the instruments and rhythms of traditional indigenous folk music of the region with the politically-engaged themes of North American protest singers like Dylan and Seeger.
The songs of Primera were a cry of condemnation against exploitation and repression, which at that time was afflicting the hemisphere in the form of a seemingly endless cycle of CIA-backed military dictatorships, under which an extreme form of capitalism was unleashed upon the countries of south and central America and the Caribbean. But his songs were also a celebration of popular resistance.
He first began to write songs as a student in the 1960s, when he studied at the Central University of Venezuela, initially as a hobby. It was only when his songs 'Humanidad' and 'No basta rezar' were presented at the Festival of Protest Songs in 1967 to some success that he found himself propelled into the spotlight and began to take songwriting more seriously.
Even the most moderate progressives in Latin America at this time were liable to be targeted for disappearance, so with little to lose and potentially a world to gain, Primera accepted a scholarship from the Communist Party of Venezuela to continue his studies in Europe - Romania, to be precise -  where he lived and studied between 1969 and 1973. His first album Gente de mi tierra was recorded in Germany around this time. More albums were soon to follow, and he returned to South America a star.
Sadly, on February 16 1985 he became involved in a fatal car accident on the Autopista Valle-Coche in Caracas. He was just 42.
The album he had been working on at the time of his untimely death had only 4 songs completed, so his brother, the musician Jose Montecano, stepped in to record the remaining songs. They included familiar themes of social justice and peace, alongside what was for Primera new musical styles like 'gaita' - a musical form native to Zulia state, to the west of Lake Maracaibo. The resulting LP Por si no lo sabia (If you didn't know) was a success, even receiving some television promotion, which had eluded Primera during his lifetime.
It is possible to find a little video footage of Primera's performances online, notably from the 1983 Concert for Peace in Nicaragua. It was here that he performed his song 'Sombrero Azul', a message of solidarity to the people of El Salvador, which I quoted a part of at the start of this piece.
Today, a monument to Primera stands in Caujarao, close to the town of his birth in Falcon state. It was unveiled in 2005 by the new socialist Bolivarian government, which declared the music of Ali Primera a national heritage.

Soledad Bravo

Born in the Spanish town of Logrono, La Rioja on January 1 1943 and raised in Venezuela, Soledad Bravo has been one of the other great leading lights of the Venezuelan Nueva Cancion. Although equally proficient at singing traditional folk melodies as she has been at pop songs, Bravo made her greatest impact as a protest singer. Billboard declared that "her voice is an exceptional instrument," and the Madrid-based newspaper Diario described how "her voice captivates you, the range is so wide and its strength is amazing."
Bravo's left-wing political convictions seem natural when we consider that her father was a Spanish republican during the civil war of 1936-39. The family left Spain (then under fascist dictatorship) and emigrated to Venezuela when Soledad was just seven, and it was here that she attended school, and where she first began singing with a group. 
She continued to sing while studying at the Central University of Venezuela. Shortly after her graduation in 1967, Bravo was hired to perform daily on the morning television show 'Buenos Dias', which she appeared on for many years. 
Her debut album, Soledad Bravo Canta, released in 1968, included her interpretation of the Cuban troubadour Carlos Puebla's tribute to the recently murdered Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Che Guevera, 'Hasta Siempre.' 
The title comes from Guevara's well-known saying “Hasta la victoria siempre!” (“Until victory, always!”) and was the first and best known of many cover versions over the years.

Between 1969 and 1976, Bravo focused on popularising both the traditional and radical protest songs of Latin America, releasing three commercially successful albums - Soledad (1969), Soledad Bravo Vol. 3 (1970) and Soledad Bravo Vol. 4 (1973) - touring throughout other Latin American countries like Peru, Argentina, Chile and Mexico. 
Politically engaged folk music has always been a way of preserving and disseminating stories of popular struggle, of the successes and failures of popular movements, and just as British musicians like Ewan MacColl and Chumbawumba have sought out and recorded their own versions of traditional ballads and anthems of revolutionary movements of the British radical past, so too have the musicians of Latin America. Her 1972 double-album, En Vivo, featured songs of the Spanish Civil war, and she also released Cantos de la Nueva Trova Cubana in 1974, Nueva Trova being the Cuban version of the Nueva Cancion which was initiated after the revolution by artists like Carlos Puebla. 
When Bravo was invited to perform in Spain an appearance on Spanish television, in which she was accompanied by flamenco guitarist Manolo Sanlucar, helped bring her national recognition in that country. 
During the four years that she remained in Spain she recorded several albums, including one with Spanish poet Rafael Alberti in 1977, and a collection of songs of the Spanish Jews, Cantos Sefardies (1980), that received a Grand Prix Du Disque award in France. 
From Spain she next traveled to New York, USA, where she adopted a more tropical repertoire, working with salsa musician Willie Colon on the album Caribe (1982). Four years later, she recorded a self-titled album with accompaniment by Eddie Gomez, Airto Moreira, Paquito D'Rivera, Jorge Dalto, Ray Barreto, Yomo Toro and Spyro Gyra.”

Folk music can often be seen as sombre, despite moments of stunning tenderness and sweet simplicity, such as we hear in a peace song like 'Punto y Raya' (Dots and Lines), a song of such gentle subversiveness against war you almost don't notice it at first (especially if Spanish is not your first language). But we must not forget that the Venezuelan musical scene has always been quite broad and diverse. If, for example, you just want to get down in a mosh pit then the energetic ska beats of Desorden Publico may be more to your taste.

In contrast to the Nueva Cancion folk singers like Primera and Bravo, the group Los Amigos Invisibles sound like music from another era, which of course they are. Much like the "Bolivarian Revolution" they emerged during the 1990s, and English-speakers may find their humorous lyrics and cheeky music videos more reminiscent of bands like Madness (from the UK) or the B-52s (from the US).

It is anyone's guess how the country's present challenges will impact its cultural output. If the US-installed President takes root, then a lifting of the economic sanctions that have been strangling the economy for the last few years could make it easier for Venezuelans to export their culture to the world once more. If the international support the Maduro government has received enables it to resist foreign interference, it is anyone's guess what music such resistance could inspire.

Hopefully this briefest of overviews of some of the shining lights of Venezuelan popular music over the last half century shows that, where Venezuela is concerned, any outcome will likely inspire music with a unique richness and variety.