What do you do when a dream dies? Maybe it’s the end of a career, a loss of faith, a devastating fire. What happens when we “lose the plot,” when we sense that the goal that was supposed to carry us forward in life is irrevocably lost and out of reach? How then do we figure out where we are and where to go from there?
Mumin (Edward Dankwa), the orphaned boy at the heart of the new short film Native Sun (2011) [Watch here], faces a similar loss. He lives with his mother (Mary) in a rural Ghanaian village, a blurry assemblage of makuti huts and narrow paths. Just before she dies she hands him a photo of his father, who lives in Accra and whom he has never met, and tells the child to go find him. Mumin makes his way alone to the vast city and asks random strangers if they know the man in the picture, but nobody can help him. At some point he absent-mindedly puts his backpack down, and when he turns around again the bag – with the picture of his father – is gone.
What can you do in a situation like that, when your expected plot has ruptured? How do you find a story that allows your life to make sense? If anything, in Native Sun it’s music that pushes the film forward when Mumin’s search is interrupted. The film is a companion piece to the album Native Sun (2011) by Ghana-born, Brooklyn-based Blitz the Ambassador, and it’s Blitz’s music – a lush blend of hip-hop, highlife, neo-soul, Fela Kuti, desert blues, kora, and other sounds – that pulls the film forward through the grief that threatens to overwhelm it. Mumin may have lost the plot, but he’s still surrounded by the sound.
Though it gives music a central place, the film – directed by the inimitable Terence Nance – is something more than a music video; it’s more like a multimedia meditation on the contemporary possibilities of African art. The film incorporates photography, poetry, dance, and masks in addition to the beautiful images shot by director of photography Shawn Peters. The various art forms that contribute to the film are like the multiple languages – Ghanaian pidgin, Twi and English – that are given voice through the film’s sparse dialogue and haunting narration. Just as the reality of contemporary Ghana can’t be expressed in a single language, so (the film seems to say) the true story of a life can’t emerge except in the confluence of many artistic forms.
In its aesthetic affinities the film travels together with myth and ritual. There are stilt-walking pallbearers, recurring dreams, violent masked figures on horseback, and dances that give life to dictators. In that way there’s a similar feeling to Soul Boy (2010), the recent Kenyan-German film that was shot in Kibera and which also featured a young boy on a mystical quest. Yet it’s also these affinities for luminous, mysterious images that reveal the tension underlying the film’s African homecoming. As Blitz calls it out in the song “Mama Africa,” “I hated how they all tainted your image in the news/ All the stereotypical narratives describing you.” But living in the diaspora, images are his stock in trade.
As diaspora artists concerned with the tawdry images of Africa that pass for knowledge in the west, Blitz and Nance respond by creating competing images of their own. That’s a familiar dynamic. But these filmmakers are particularly interested in the way that images are made and circulated in Africa. In one of the film’s most delightful scenes, the father’s photograph – a flashy, modern shot that recalls the immaculate studio portraits of Seydou Keïta and James Barnor – comes alive to reveal the photo studio where the picture was created. The film is mindful of the ongoing debate over whether those who portray Africa have an obligation to accentuate the continent’s positives, or should openly criticize the problems that they see. But it tries to transcend the debate by understanding its African characters not just as the subjects of images, whether negative or positive, but as image-makers.
That said, while the film celebrates the many facets of African art, there’s a way in which its focus on loss and abandonment sets an awkward table on which to eat its celebratory meal. Its title recalls the classic scene in Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) where Bigger Thomas, a young African American man, uneasily watches a film that shows naked “Africans” jumping and dancing around throbbing drums. It’s a scene that expresses how derogatory images of Africa in Western culture can produce ambivalence towards the continent within the diaspora. It’s worth noting in that light that Mumin’s quest to find his father fails; the modern, polished image that he seeks can’t be found.
However, the focus on image making also illuminates how relations between Africa and its diasporas are changing. It’s significant that the film emerged from an initiative at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn, and features other Afro-diasporic artists such as Les Nubians; the film stands as a brilliant example of how artists with different biographical relationships to Africa can find common ground in the themes of home and loss. I would have found it interesting for Blitz and Nance to engage more with contemporary African filmmaking; it’s too bad that Ghanaian film and TV, with their high-energy dialogue and low production values, find no place in Native Sun’s polished monologue on African identity. But it’s hard to find fault with exclusions in such a richly layered, exuberant and deeply feeling piece of art.
You can also watch the short film Native Sun below: