While writing the T.C.O.B. article on of arts, culture and social cohesion in South Africa ( T.C.O.B.#10 .), I became conscious of ever more facets to the discussion. Points and counterpoints engendered new perceptions. New perceptions renewed the desire for discussion. But I thought it was already possible for me to affirm that South Africans had much to gain from pursuing the discussion vigorously and honestly.
Ever the optimist, I should like to take what I said a step further. I believe that Arts and Culture, because of its potential to shape perception, its transcendence of selfish interests and its primordial inseparability from human existence, is an essential part of what Mandela called the RDS – the Reconstruction and Development of the Soul.
But let me temper the optimism – if only to stop it from becoming blind – with a little polemic. The best way to do this is to reiterate the fundamentally unpleasant observations that I made in T.C.O.B.#10 :
there are strong moves to appropriate the discourse on social cohesion for partisan ends
the discourse itself is becoming detached from what South Africans actually live and experience
I concluded that these pointed to a weakening of civil society and proposed that we could buck the trend by giving Arts and Culture (A&C) a more prominent role. In my discussions with other people, however, three objections were persistently raised against my proposal:
A&C is itself detached from reality therefore has little or no influence on peoples’ behaviour
A&C is a luxury that entertains the people who can afford it, not a social or civil necessity, certainly not a priority
A&C lacks objective standards, making it susceptible to being perverted for partisan ends
I do not reject these objections out of hand. In fact, I think they are good pedestals on which to raise stronger and more interesting proposals.
So, yes, A&C is a relatively ineffective means of influencing peoples’ behaviour – marketing and propaganda share the honours here. The role of poets, playwrights, sculptures, musicians etc., however, is to find effective ways of perceiving human existence. If, in order to fulfil their role, these idiosyncratic people use methods detached from reality, they are no different from physicists, biologists, mathematicians, chemists etc. who employ theoretical abstractions as they search for effective ways to perceive the natural world. In this context, perception is rather more than a marketeer’s or propagandist’s sleight-of-hand. It is a pillar of human behaviour, and A&C is an important tool in its construction.
All over the world, A&C relies on subsidies and often fails to turn a profit. It is regularly one of the first victims of budget cuts. Now, I may be a poet, but my upbringing forbids me from passing over the bottom line in silence. Indeed, A&C is a luxury. But again, nuance is required. A&C is an indispensable luxury. It has never been absent from human society. Regardless of the stage of technological development or organisational complexity, human beings produce A&C. The San tribes of the Kalahari, despite the extreme hardship and precariousness of their existence, still found the time to grind pigments and evolve an aesthetic code in order to create their marvellous rock paintings. To dismiss A&C as an optional extra seems to me to go contrary to the wisdom of the ages. A more useful discussion would be how to make this indispensable luxury accessible to more people.
Regarding the point about objective standards, a clear distinction must be made. The appreciation of A&C may very well be subjective – like I said, we are not discussing marketing and propaganda here. But it does not follow that the production of A&C cannot have objective standards. I am not one to believe in “anything goes.” There is a difference between good A&C, bad A&C and plain charlatanism. Establishing the standards is certainly difficult. But is this task easy in any field of human activity? History is full of examples of how the so-called exact sciences have been perverted to serve partisan ends not to mention human vice. Not even the covenants of the simplest truths – religions – are exempt. Nonetheless, it seems the likelihood of such perversions diminishes when people do what they are competent in. So, going back to A&C, let’s rather ask how we can ensure it is produced by artists, not by the stooges of political and economic interest groups.
If Arts and Culture could be all the above would it not be a significant factor in the reconstruction of the soul of a nation? In other words, would it not contribute significantly to the development of individuals who understand for themselves what links them to one another?
We have to believe it’s possible.
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Roberto Duran and Ray Arcel are boxing legends, who each deserved their own respective biopics. Duran, a Panamanian professional boxer, is widely regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all-time and American boxing trainer, Arcel, trained 20 world champion boxers. Hands of Stone, the nickname Duran earned for his devastating punching power, tries to encompass their uneasy relationship and both of their stories. While ambitious, this is probably where writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz went wrong, trying to bundle two larger-than-life characters and their stories into one film.
Robert De Niro is a luminary of the sports genre, having starred in the black-and-white Scorsese classic, Raging Bull and more recently, Grudge Match. Instead of casting someone like his Grudge Match co-star Alan Arkin as Ray Arcel, the film-makers have given the big name star the duty, which he does with his usual vigour. While it's punted as a co-lead role, it was probably intended to be a supporting role to Edgar Ramirez as the cantankerous, Roberto Duran. There's some good sparring between the actors as Arcel tries to rope Duran's ego in, but you just feel they could've done more to foster the tension.
The cast is bolstered by the presence of Ana der Armas, Ruben Blades, John Turturro, Ellen Barkin and Usher Raymond, who plays Duran's main rival, Sugar Ray Leonard. The exquisite Ana der Armas lights up the screen taking on a role similar to that of Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street. Ruben Blades is the unscrupulous manager, who parades like a drug kingpin. John Turturro brings the mafia's influence while Barkin keeps De Niro honest at home in the complete antithesis of his role as Jake LaMotta.
"They came here to see a fight, now please... let me punch you!"
Having a fine cast and captivating performances gives Jakubowicz hooks to hang his story on. Unfortunately, it seems like the scope is too broad as he attempts to check as many boxes as possible whilst keeping within the confines of the sports genre. We get a view of Duran's upbringing as a poor Panamanian kid during a turbulent political time, his tempestuous relationship with Felicidad, his escalating egomania, his lack of education and some of his big boxing match ups. This is punctuated by a behind-the-scenes on Arcel's journey, his troubles with the mafia and the nature of the sport through its transition to television.
Hands of Stone should have been two biopics, but tries to coast on its 2-for-1 deal by keeping you off-balance with its frenetic pace and dynamic visuals. It's as if Jakubowicz is trying to relay Duran's very nature through the tone, delivering a fierce, exciting, hedonistic and unpredictable film. The colours, panache and vigour with which its presented keeps you locked into the action, even if the drama's a little formulaic and undercooked. The boxing matches are one of Hands of Stone's highlights, delivering raw, visceral boxing sights and sounds like never before. You feel every punch and jolt vicariously thanks to some sharp cinematography, editing and foley work.
The amazing true story may be diluted by the glut of similar pugilist dramas out there, but the excesses of fame and fortune make this biopic fascinating and drunk with power. Hands of Stone swaggers around like it owns the screen but never really gives you a reason to care for Duran, whose self-destructive tendencies make it difficult to identify with his arrogant, rags-to-riches brawler. The by-the-numbers script doesn't give us anything fresh to chew on, making this one more about style than substance. It's entertaining and has enough power to follow-through but you should probably only consider watching it if you enjoyed films like Southpaw and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Spling reviews Queen of Katwe, The Girl on the Train and The Girl in the Book as broadcast on Talking Movies, Fine Music Radio. Catch Talking Movies on Fridays at 8:20am and Saturdays at 8:15am every week on Fine Music Radio.
Queen of Katwe is a coming-of-age Disney drama about Phiona, a Ugandan girl from Katwe, who is made aware of a world of opportunity after displaying a remarkable talent for the game of chess. It's based on an ESPN magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, which has been adapted for film by William Wheeler. It's a colourful movie, accentuating Uganda's rich spectrum of colour even further through architecture, fashion and decoration. While a relatively impoverished nation, the people are exuberant and forcibly entrepreneurial, giving the culture a wonderful vitality. Perhaps these parallels with India are what inspired the choice for Mira Nair to direct.
At first it's disappointing to think that an inherently African film was awarded to an "outsider". There are many up-and-coming talents from the continent, like Philippe Lacôte (Run), who could do wonders with this kind of film. However, you can understand why Disney would want a more bankable and seasoned director to helm the project and to Nair's credit, the parallels with India make her a great choice. If Danny Boyle can be charged with directing the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire, then why shouldn't Mira Nair get a chance to wow audiences with Queen of Katwe.
Both Slumdog Millionaire and Queen of Katwe have their similarities. Instead of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, we're dealing with the age-old game of chess and instead of embracing the charms, poverty and kaleidoscope of India, we're dealing with a similar scenario in Uganda. Queen of Katwe isn't specifically striving for 'authentic' or 'gritty' like Four Corners did for Cape Town, but does enmesh these factors into the storytelling, by lacing social issues into Phonia's struggle. The visual tapestry makes it seem like an adaptation of a Coke advert, imbuing a similar upbeat spirit and trying to dilute the "African" dream and Coca-Cola imperialism into a rags-to-riches underdog tale.
"Who cares what Kasparov said, you're a Katwe fighter!"
In this climate of financial insecurity and renewed focus on gender equality, Queen of Katwe serves as a timely and empowering drama. The true story that inspired this dramatisation, gives this film more clout despite its tendency towards Disney formula. This underlying kernel of truth is further cultivated by sincere and stirring performances from David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o. Both actors bring their international class to the production and make a wonderful support for young Madina Nalwanga, whose open-faced acting is convincing, honest and refreshingly present.
Queen of Katwe is delightfully funny and touching with the chess club kids charming their way into our hearts with fish-out-of-water comedy and their flippant yet endearing attitudes. This helps create a light-heartedness to the film and instead of bemoaning poverty and pointing the finger, it demonstrates the power of encouragement in building self-esteem and confidence. It may not have a fully-fledged education to fall back on, but Phiona's natural abilities and drive are inspiring and the activation of these by her tireless mentor is heartwarming.
There are many cliches to this resilient underdog tale, but Queen of Katwe shines in spite of its Disneyfication. We live through the quality of the performances, the vibrant other-worldliness of the backdrop, the sincerity of the humour, the nuances of the direction, the naive spirit of the journey and the feel-good beauty of this wonderful true story. It may be familiar, but it bursts with goodness and will have you finger-flicking like Phiona in no time.