Plot: "Tales, tales, nothing but a tale," says one of the master storytellers at the beginning of this winsome and deceptively easygoing documentary. "It's not me telling lies, but the people of long ago--and that's how they heard it as well."
Angano...Angano...Tales from Madagascar ("Angano" means "story") showcases the living culture of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, who have weathered, since formal independence in 1960, a neocolonialist regime, an autarchic leftist government, and economic hard times that interweave with ecological depradation. The stories are told through the voices of several master storytellers, both men and women.
What initially appears a quaint recapturing of folklore gradually asserts itself as a powerful statement about a vital tradition, no backwater throwback but an aggressive confrontation with the folkways and ideologies of powerful industrial societies that these people recognize and challenge. As one historian meticulously explains near the end, the French mission civilisatrice was among other things an attempt to supersede and supplant Malagasy culture; but "oral history is our history."
Oral history, told through fantastic and witty tales, is also the present, not just of cultural premises but also lived experience. One woman recalls her childhood encounter with frightening spirits who inhabit not only folktales but apparently also the local river, from whence they snatched her laundry. As storytellers recount ancient myths, the camera wanders across the landscape of daily life, showing us the connection between, say, the story of how rice came to the Malagasy and rice planting today.
The tales themselves have a pungency and charm that gives special zest to the discovery of this complex culture. The origin of rice begins with a boy so lazy that he "waits for god to feed him." (Fortunately for him, he marries the right woman.) The origin of the custom of sacrificing zebu from their cattle herds is also a cautionary tale of greed and lack of deference. Perhaps the most astonishing sequence is one that highlights a custom that may be unique to the Malagasy, of unburying their family dead during an annual festival, where they celebrate the ancestors' part in the living family and then rewrap them tenderly and rebury them. Infused with folk memory, celebrated with lively song, and conducted in a raucous festival mood, the festival makes a New Orleans funeral march look tame. It also illuminates the importance of the Malagasy sense of place, one where one lives on in the lives of one's descendants.
The film thus celebrates Malagasy culture, elevating folklore to its proper place as part of the fabric of daily ideology, and reframing the importance of oral tradition. It thus has a more-than-Malagasy message as well, by focusing on the role of myth in culture, no matter how it is transmitted.Background on director/film: The film was co-directed by a husband and wife team, Cesar Paes and Marie-Clemence Blanc Paes. He is Brazilian; she was born in Madagascar to a Malagasy mother and French father. "We didn't want to come to the project with a Western 'Look what we can bring to this country' approach," Paes told a French magazine. "Our approach was more to say, 'What can countries like Madagasar, Brazil or others tell us?"
The lessons are many, as Don Consentino explains in California Newsreel's catalog for the Library of African Cinema. The professor of African folklore and mythology at the University of California at Los Angeles believes that Angano...Angano "may well be called one of the first 'postmodern' films on folklore and mythology," as it "makes visible the necessary fictions from which we construct our sense of the real. It reveals the ever shifting, perhaps illusory, boundaries between reality and myth."
Film production context: Madagascar has no film production history, and this work was executed as a personal project with financial resources outside the country. Madagascar, an island off the coast of Mozambique, originally drew its population both from Africa and Asia, and the island has always been in the crosscurrents of international trade. Its current drastic ecological crisis stems from stripping of mountain forests for tropical plantations, a practice that became general during French colonial rule starting at the beginning of the century. Independence in 1960 also precipitated internal political turmoil; the falling price of tropical forests has not been kind to the already indebted Madagascar economy in recent years.
Importance: Its inclusion in the Library of African Cinema provides the first opportunity Americans have to see this film. Folklorists, historians and students of the quest for cultural autonomy will all find its showcasing of oral history interesting.Further reading:
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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