In 1961, over the summer before starting to teach in Browning, Montana, I read and reread “Out of Africa” by Isak Dinesen, sometimes reading it out loud to a tape recorder with selected music in the background. That was before the movie, so I wasn’t playing the clarinet solo from the sound track of the movie. To me, Africa equaled Montana, an Africa I could reach without a passport, with Blackfeet instead of Masai. That idea persists. The Blackfeet reservation is about the same size as the Serengeti.
So I’m delighted to acquire a new movie for my complex of Africa stories. This one is “Nowhere in Africa,” a German film made in 2001 with a young woman, Caroline Link, directing. The plot is not a lot different from the Anglo-centered “Flame Trees of Thika,” but the “vibe” is quite different. Added to the frontier theme is the complex of relationships among different races and religions and the constant shadow of the Jews in Germany. This little father/mother/daughter set has HAD to emigrate to save their lives: it’s not a matter of getting rich or seeking adventure. In particular, the mother is opposed to Africa (unlike Hayley Mills’ character) because she is a “clinger” who puts down roots where she is. By the end of the movie, she is uprooted again, unwilling to go back to Germany, but attached to her husband who wants to go. The father is not heroic but there is a grizzled old-timer who knows the big picture (one of my favorite types!), and the little girl soon finds a champion in the cook, Owuor played by Sidede Onyulo. It is THIS man who gives the key to this particular film. Tall, slender, strong -- I don’t know what tribe Onyulo is -- with an exuberant grin and good English -- says that the Americans make spectacular films that are not particularly deep, but the Germans are able to recognize and show the spiritual depth that in truth characterizes African life. For once, he says, he was not asked to give a paper-thin portrait of a Masai with a spear.
The disc of explanation, which includes an interview with Stephanie Zweig, who is the real-life writer whose memoir is the story, equivalent to Elspeth Huxley, is invaluable in extending one’s understanding of the movie. I would recommend watching the movie, then the extra information, then the movie again. Evidently the memoir was harder on the mother, who remained spoiled and rather childish even after several years of running the farm by herself while her husband was interned and then in the British army. In the movie she is capable of growth. I loved the scene in which she wears a couture evening gown -- which she stupidly bought with money meant for a refrigerator -- to a dusty and bloody indigenous ceremony, showing that she has recognized the importance of -- shall we say “liturgy.”
The relationship between the two parents is complex, erotic, and beautifully enacted by the two stage-trained actors. The two actresses who play the daughter are also wonderful in that straightforward and adaptable way that healthy children can be. Caroline Link is known for her ability to work with children, which is especially clear with the black children. All of them are unique, colorful and intriguing, but esp. the boy who is Regina’s best friend. Owuor, though, is her stay and her comfort in that wonderfully accepting way that has been nearly destroyed in our own culture, contaminated by obsession with sexual perversion. When Regina needs comforting, she folds herself into bed alongside Owuor with the same innocence as when she nestles between her two parents at an age contemporary Americans would find shocking.
Perhaps this same straightforwardness is what makes the ceremonials so convincing, though Sidede Onyulo suggests that much is attributable to shooting in actual remote Kenya rather than South Africa. Everyone speaks their own language with subtitles as necessary. (Another beauty of the DVD is that one can choose one’s nationality.) Onyulo says this is particularly helpful for Kenyans who tire of bad Swahili. The producer, surprisingly, mentions “Dances with Wolves” as a model.
Zweig says that one of the two books they had on the frontier was “Out of Africa” which she read and reread. Dinesen was Danish in an Anglo community. Huxley was Anglo in the same Nairobi community, though a different part of it. “White Mischief” is the same community again, and the same people as Dinesen knew but from QUITE a different point of view. (This is the one the guys like! Very wicked.) I’ve ordered “I Dreamed of Africa” and I suppose I’ll have to watch “Blood Diamonds.” Forget “Shaft in Africa.” Forget the Pointer Sisters, Ernest, Bulldog Drummond (!!), Queen Latifa or Obama (!!!) in Africa. But I’m curious about Peter Beard’s scrapbooks (nonfiction). He’s the photographer, character and (I gather) bounder who posed with his legs seemingly swallowed by a ‘gator. I ordered “Faraw! Mother of the Dunes” and “Sia, le reve du python” -- both indigenous -- as well as the new version of “King Solomon’s Mines.” (Oh, how I loved that moment in the old one when Deborah Kerr -- so much fun to pull the hairpins out of her old-maid hairdos! -- has changed into khaki safari clothes and Stewart Granger has to knock a huge tarantula off her skirt! Maybe I’ll order “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” but Hemingway’s Africa is not mine. No one seems to have filmed H. Rider Haggard's “She,” which surprises me. Netflix is as useful as an index as it is as a source, something like Amazon.
But I think what I’m really after is a kind of movie that is also made about Australia or Western China, a grasslands story on the frontier told through the eyes of a child. “Little House on the Prairie” maybe. (An IMDB commenter suggests “Whale Rider.”) But we still don’t have a really excellent version of this archetype on the northern prairie in the rainshadow of the Rockies -- still a bit of a frontier. Something to think about. The small daughter of a fossil hunter trying to survive a summer on Egg Mountain? A girl reunited with her estranged father who is clumsily running a ranch on the High Line? Or is that a grandfather with a black foreman? I’d better order “An Unfinished Life.” Been meaning to anyway because I like Mark Spragg as a person and as a writer. Never met the wife and collaborator.
I wonder what such a story would be like if it were told through the eyes of a Blackfeet version of Owour: patient, spiritual, and protective of little girls as well as all other creatures. Not a warrior, but a cook, a nurturer. I suppose I’d have to fight the publisher so I wouldn’t have to include recipes for Tanka Bars.