I'm old enough to remember large Neilson-provided maps of the world hanging in classrooms, a time when history curriculum and geography were primarily confined to North America, and sometimes more intensely local. How I disliked the literal and figuratively provincial history of maritime sailing ships, how they were built and the prestige they brought. Aboriginals were largely absent, and if mentioned at all, their proper tribal names were misspelled in accordance with English imprint. By implication if not actual words, areas studied became significant only after colonialism and arrival of the white man to convert, exploit or "civilize," though never presented quite that way, of course.
Sadly, colonial powers and modern-day corporations were/are not alone in pillaging Africa. Their own leaders have too often been predatory and brutal. This March 19, 2014 news article may interest; it's on a just-released report on the "maladministration, corruption and inefficiencies" that conscripted R246 million South African tax dollars [$25.4 million Canadian] to build an opulent home for South Africa's President Jacob Zuma.
Here's a powerful piece on it as well, though more from a philisophical, ethical perspective. Details aside, the principles and issues raised apply equally to us in Canada, and to all democracies. It's fittingly titled, "The end of innocence, enter the period of consequences."
The Interpreter is about a corrupt leader of a fictional African state -- one of their own -- and about those who oppose him and his regime. It involves the United Nations, a body whose noble principles and purpose often fail in execution, and those who serve it, directly and indirectly. As with all good stories, it weaves public and personal together, effectively and powerfully. Though fiction, it draws from reality. It shocks, informs, teaches, sensitizes, engages and entertains. It's complex and brave, both about politics and matters of the heart.
Dr. (PhD in education) Edmond Zuwanie (played by Earl Cameron) is President of the fictional Republic of Matobo, Africa. Once hailed as his country's savior, he's devolved into a brutal, corrupt dictator accused of ethnic cleansing. At the United Nations, France is proposing a Security Council resolution to refer Dr. Zuwanie to the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide.
Nicole Kidman gives her finest performance, in my opinion, as Silvia Broome, an interpreter at the United Nations. Sean Penn is equally impressive as Tobin Keller, one of a team from Foreign Dignitary Protection (branch of the U.S. Secret Service) assigned to cover Dr. Zuwanie's arrival and UN appearance.
Dr. Zuwanie has been given permission to address the UN General Assembly and returns to New York after a twenty-three year absence. His purpose is to announce reforms which he hopes will squelch the pending ICC resolution against him.
In an instance of art imitating life, as we in the real world watch Russia invade Ukraine and occupy and annex Crimea, I was struck by these 2005 words in the opening scenes. They're spoken by an interpreter translating words of a UN delegate:
We are presently in the throes of a great transition in humankind's affairs. Modern technology is altering our world in ways that would have been impossible to fathom when the United Nations Charter was signed. Peace, security and freedom are not finite commodities like land, oil, or gold which one state can acquire at another's expense.
|UN Security Council - Wikimedia Commons|
|UN General Assembly - Wikimedia Commons|
Director Sydney Pollack obtained first-ever permission, after initial refusal, to film at the United Nations once then Secretary General Kofi Annan was personally assured "the text and sub-text of the film would speak to the broader goals of the United Nations." The UN scenes are wonderful. They depict its architectural beauty, its grandeur, its powerful purpose and significance. Pollack said he liked the General Assembly best for "its scale, emotion and theatricality." Filming in the Security Council chamber was daunting since the Security Council can call a meeting on 3-hours notice, 24/7/365. Overall cinematography is stunning, and Darius Khondji, Director of Photography, said he included and considered the building a principal character. Aerial views of New York are breathtaking.
Above all, this is a great story, suspenseful, affecting, brilliantly told. It has multiple layers and storylines, and though fictional, it reflects actual geopolitical issues. I write this after my third viewing over several years, and though I knew the story on subsequent occasions, I loved each equally. That won't be true for others, so I'll reveal no more of the plot here. The film and first-time viewers deserve that.
Couple of points. The film depicts backdoor UN manoeuvering by powerful countries; dispelling simplistic, idealistic concepts some of us may hold about what happens at the UN, and it makes brief, but powerful statements on class and race in snippets of dialogue: "Can she cook?" was a female Keller colleague's retort, a put-down response to a listing of Silvia's extensive education; and "black or white?" was a question asked by Dr. Zuwanie's white Dutch mercenary security chief.
Beyond complex story, so well told it never confuses, is a component I've never seen elsewhere, a simple, yet heart-grabbing depiction of human grief and grieving that's as real as it is rare. Those of us who've lost mates will recognize it and relate. Through the Silvia character, who has strong connection to Matobo and speaks its Ku dialect, we learn aspects of that culture's profound relationship with death and loss. ("Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.")
The story of two driven, secretive, haunted characters - UN interpreter Silvia and security chief Keller - who initially grate on each other; then slowly, gradually develop tenuous trust and eventually a unique bond, is as special and memorable as the film itself. They're maturely written characters, beautifully interpreted by Kidman and Penn.
|Durban, South Africa - Wikipedia Commons|
August 2, 2014 Postscript
Helen Epstein, author of "The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa," and a former development consultant in Uganda for two decades, has written an opinion piece on Africa for The New York Times.
In a powerful, engaging manner, she summarizes conditions, politics and corruption and emphasizes the need for justice -- how responsibility for its promotion and adherence has been abdicated by the West -- and is now critically necessary.
"Africa's Slide Toward Disaster" is a welcome and urgent call to action.