Wednesday, March 08, 2006

International Women's Day + Review: Heading South + Project Runway + Black French TV Anchor

Indian women rallyToday is (was) International Women's Day.

Across the globe, women and their male allies are staging (staged) marches and rallies to commemorate this day of aware whose origins go back more than a century. The first National Women's Day, in conjunction with a declaration by the Socialist Party in America, occurred on February 28, 1909. According to the United Nations:

International Women's Day (8 March) is an occasion marked by women's groups around the world. This date is also commemorated at the United Nations and is designated in many countries as a national holiday. When women on all continents, often divided by national boundaries and by ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences, come together to celebrate their Day, they can look back to a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development.

International Women's Day is the story of ordinary women as makers of history; it is rooted in the centuries-old struggle of women to participate in society on an equal footing with men. In ancient Greece, Lysistrata initiated a sexual strike against men in order to end war; during the French Revolution, Parisian women calling for "liberty, equality, fraternity" marched on Versailles to demand women's suffrage.

The idea of an International Women's Day first arose at the turn of the century, which in the industrialized world was a period of expansion and turbulence, booming population growth and radical ideologies.

The International Women's Day website is full of information, global messages and useful links.

International Women's Day in pictures (from the BBC site).


Here are some notes on a film I caught part of tonight, Laurent Cantet's 2005 feature Heading South [Vers le sud] (photo at left, © Haut et Court) which was a feature in the European Union Film Festival that's playing in Chicago. (I say "caught part of" because, having had to attend a 4-5 pm meeting in Evanston, I took the El to avoid rush-hour traffic, and it slowed to a crawl once we approached Lincoln Park, and...)

There are foreign films that could be made in the US, and ones that couldn't. Heading South falls in the former category. I say this mainly because of the subject matter, which is sex tourism, and in particular because of several of the film's chief characters, who are three older White women from North America who go to the Caribbean looking not only for love, but for sexual gratification. So maybe I should qualify my previous statement by saying that I cannot imagine a White American filmmaker, not even the most progressive ones, making this sort of film in 2006, and I'm not convinced that a Black American filmmaker could have gotten financing to do it. It's also telling that Frenchman Cantet chose to make the chief characters American and Canadian, and not French White women, and that he set it during the Baby Doc Duvalier period of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even still, it's not inconceivable that another French (or European) director might make a similar film about European women--and there are films already that address European male sex tourism.

The film, which is based on three stories by Haitian-Canadian author Dany Lafèrriere (author of How to Make Love to a Negro without Really Trying and The Aroma of Coffee), focuses on the triangle that develops between two White women who are visiting a seaside resort in Haiti, Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), a single, haughty 55-year-old British professor of French at Wellesley College; and middle-aged, divorced Brenda (Karen Young) from Savannah, Georgia; and trickster-gigolo Legba (Ménothy César), a reed-thin, handsome young Haitian man who makes love to the women for financial gain but also draws love, against their will, out of them as well. The third member of the trio of North American women is Sue (Louise Portal), a sweet and soft-spoken factory worker from Montréal who's more laid back than either of the two Americans, and has found the affection and companionship she cannot find in Canada with a fisherman named Neptune (Wilfried Paul).

I thought Cantet tackled the complexity of the exchanges--psychological, emotional, political, social, economic--honestly and successfully. He doesn't shy away from showing the middle-aged White (First World) women, who openly admit to not being wanted in their own societies because of their ages, being the objects of desire and subjects of their own self-authored narratives of desirability involving young, poor Black (Third World) men, for a price. Neither Ellen, who rules the roost at the resort hotel and styles herself at peace with the nature of her relationship with Legba and above jealousy, nor Brenda, a younger sad-sack who encounted Legba three years prior and whose desperation and desire for him has only intensified in the interim, are what they at first appear.

Nor is Legba one-dimensional either; Cantet shows us that he is after something beyond money or even a US passport. He wants something much more difficult to attain, that will remain elusive, that most of his fellow Haitians also crave, which is freedom from the political and economic oppression that, ironically, is insuring the social order that ensures the presence of the resort guests. Legba's carefree attitude masks much more turbulent feelings beneath, which events externalize with tragic results, and actor César, who won an award at the Venice Film Festival, does a wonderful job in pulling this off. The 61-year-old and Rampling, who has turned in a series of very fine performances as a sexually active and aware older woman in recent years, in films such as Under the Sand and Swimming Pool, is also superb; she has a way of utilizing her eyes and jaw muscles to convey the breaking of something beneath the façade of her ageing but still striking face. The White women's blindness to the true suffering around them and their self-absorption in their romantic fantasies--which also moved me because of how utterly believable they were--play out in a dramatic moment that is one of the highlights of the film.

Throughout the movie Cantet portrays with deft touches the larger context of the US-supported dictatorship and its effects on Legba and the other Haitians. One way he does this is through the character of Albert (Lys Ambroise), who represents the dignified, hardworking, sovereign yet battered spirit of the Haitians. In a vocalized meditation, Albert lets us know that his family fought against the Americans during the 1915 occupation, and that his father and grandfather had the same low (racist) opinion of Whites that some Whites have of Blacks. He wonders what they'd think about him serving White people as he does for his job. He reserves his strongest venom--and here, though I agreed in part with his critique, I also felt that Cantet was using him as a proxy for French disdain for the US--for America's economic and military imperialism, which he notes has something that trumps than arms: dollars. These dollars have turned "everything they touch into garbage," which leads him to pronounce that "this entire country [Haiti] is rotten." (I am quoting this from memory, so it may be slightly off.) Yet Albert didn't seem oblivious to the role of Haitians themselves, showing his own disdain towards the gigolo Legba, or incapable of empathizing in Ellen's pain and sense of loss.

In terms of criticisms, one thing really stood out, and that was the technique of direct address to the camera, which Cantet might have avoided through other storytelling devices. It just didn't work for me, at least in this viewing. I also was curious to know more about the young Haitian woman in the limo and her relation to Legba. I think I just may have missed the intro bits of the film where this was sketched out. Young and Portal were less convincing at times than the other two leads, but perhaps that was just because I felt more aware of Young's acting than Cesar's or Rampling's. (I also kept remembering her in her role as an FBI agent on The Sopranos. Talk about a scenario that seemed both light years away and also a very believable backstory for Agent Sanseverino...)

I really want to see the film again, to catch what I missed and to see if it comes off as fresh the second time around. It also got me thinking about some of the posts on the Monaga blog, and how Anthony Montgomery has more than once counseled a few lovestruck visitors to DR to add a dose of self-awareness and skepticism to the romances that have developed out of the fast and intense relationships they've formed with the stunning bugarrones. (This applies, of course, to similar scenarios anywhere.) As Rampling and Young demonstrate in this movie, in a direct analogy to what Anthony writes about, and which critics of sex tourism have pointed out, one can easily confuse sex with love--or passionate sex with a thoughtful young lover--with love. Young's character notes that even her friend, Sue, looks at her as if she's crazy or there's something wrong with her, just as her husband and Americans in general had all her life; what she most prizes about Legba is how he "looked at [her]," as if she were normal, which is another way of saying lovely, loveable, desirable. This little bit of courtliness from a beautiful stranger is enough to inspire feelings of love, not only on film, but as we know, in the real world...but I won't say any more, because the film is worth seeing to find out how things turn out.


I can't believe Bravo TV's Project Runway's second season is over, but it's over. This is the one winter TV show not on PBS that I tried not to miss. As someone who loved to sew, look at patterns and draw outfitted figures as a child, as a longtime follower of certain aspects fashion industry (though I have hardly a fashionable bone in my body, and have been known to throw on mismatched socks, clashing belts and shoes, misbuttoned shirts, unbloused sweaters, and floodwater pants on certain mornings when I'm trying to get out of the house), and as someone who appreciates watching talented people display valuable and valued skills (and sometimes turn into attack dogs when under the pressure of competition), I loved this show.

I thought this season was even better than the previous one, though the designer-finalist's this year were less original. Santino Rice's (pictured below, Bravo), Daniel Vosovic's and Chloe Dao's final runway offerings (one of the best is pictured at right) hardly approached the truly visionary designs of Kara Saun (whom I'd hoped would win) or last year's winner, Jay McCarroll.

A few thoughts:

Santino Rice Although I didn't think Chloe's heavy-fabric, almost 80s-ish designs were the most interesting, I wasn't disappointed that she won. It was good to see a woman win this time, especially an Asian-American (Laotian-American) woman. Chloe has a sharp sense of tailoring and great business savvy, so if she can update and New York-ize her aesthetic, she could have a strong career.

Daniel Vosovic's designs were, as I told C., so elegant, and perhaps he should have won, but it appeared his age and lack of experience (he's a recent FIT graduate) worked against him. He does have great talent, though, and if he sticks with it, which seems likely, he'll go far.

I got a better sense, over the last few shows, of why Santino Rice was so outrageous; it must have been very tough growing with a Black mother and White father in St. Charles, Missouri (it's the racist county just north of St. Louis and one of the larger city-counties in the St. Louis metro area), in addition to being interested in fashion and non-traditional-for-the-Heartland pursuits. But even accounting for the fact that that he's a damaged homeboy doesn't make him any easier to bear.

Santino has publicly declared himself a bisexual person, but I wondered if he ever claims his Blackness, or whether he employed the "mixed"/"biracial" self-identifications or considered himself beyond race. (Under at least a few views, isn't he, despite his outward appearance, as much an "African American" as Barack Obama or Halle Berry?) If he'd won, would he have been fêted as the new reality-show-created celebrity African-American bi designer?

  • Michael Kors's designs have yet to impress me--why again is he so famous?
  • Nina Garcia looked so sad at the end
  • Heidi Klum is way too full of herself
I figured I'd gotten over the fashion bug when Elsa Klensch's CNN show "Style" ended years ago--go figure!


RoselmackAccording to the BBC, France, the land of "liberté, égalité and fraternité" as well as racial and ethnic strife (comme tout le monde), will have its first person of color to serve as TV anchor when Harry Roselmack (at left) a Martinican native, takes over the 8pm broadcast on TF1 this upcoming July. Roselmack is currently a presenter on i-Tele, and previously worked as a journalist for Radio France.

His hiring represents a response in part to a prior call by French President and hack extraordinaire Jacques Chirac, for more journalists of color on TV as a response to the riots that started in the Parisian banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois and later spread to metropolitan areas across France. Of course, Chirac was previously known for his conservative rhetoric while Prime Minister, and has done very little to address the political, economic and cultural marginalization of the French Muslim population, or of French people, Muslim or not, of sub-Saharan African ancestry. Real political and social change still needs to occur in France.

Thus Roselmack's selection is a groundbreaking step, but it shouldn't be reduced to mere tokenism or window-dressing. For the bands of desperate young brown-skinned French people named Muhammad and Drissa and Cheikh and Lamine, there must be more and better educational and employment opportunities, the architecture of state-sanctioned racism, under the guise of race-and-ethnic-neutral policies must be dismantled, and more community-engaged French people of color must assume positions of leadership at all levels of the society. Félicitations, M. Roselmack, mais j'éspère que vous ne soyez que le premier pas!


  1. thanks for this wonderful variety of black diasporic information--as usual its much appreciated!

  2. Thanks for checking it out, Frank. BTW, the photos were of East Rogers Park.