The Beauty of Africa: Favorite Films and Books, Part One.

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I have never been to Africa. I know of no one from Africa. I have participated and organized service projects in the interests of those suffering in Africa. What I know of Africa as an American is what’s projected on the screen as a film or documentary and in text books or novels written by the voices who represent Africa.

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Before I discuss the films and texts that highlight the issues of Africa, I wanted to focus first on the texts that portray Africa in a beautiful way. It matters not that there are holes in the plot or the screenplay is conventional. To me, I get a glimpse of the exotic topography, so diverse, so fascinating in all it’s complexities, I hope one day to visit, knowing full well that what I watch on the screen is a flawed, limited version. It’s a watering on the seed of curiosity.

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This 1996 Stephen Hopkins film called The Ghost And The Darkness was his recreation of the true saga of the man-eating lions at Tsavo that killed 130 railway workers in 1896 Kenya during a nine month period. I remember observing the stuffed pair exhibit at the Chicago Field Museum. The merit of the film is the cinematography. Hopkins shows how beautiful East Africa is. I love the chemistry of the actors. To critics it was mediocre, but audiences warmed to the charm of Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas. I fell in love with the score (Jerry Goldsmith) and cinematography (Vilmos Zsigmond), and I have wanted to visit exotic Africa ever since. It’s one of those films I can watch twenty times and still enjoy it.

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Try reading the 1917 memoir of Colonel Patterson as a historical document. It’s fascinating as a primary document illustrating the challenges facing a colonial manager of a multi-ethnic center of colonial expansion. Did you like “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell? Then you would like this memoir.

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I am drawn to non-fiction. When I first read Out of Africa (1937) by Isak Denesen, I marveled at the memoir of a Danish woman who ran a four-thousand-acre coffee plantation in the hills near Nairobi from 1914-1931. She had come to Kenya with her husband. When they separated, she stayed on to manage the farm by herself, visited frequently by her lover, the big-game hunter Denys Finch-Hatton. She is a graceful writer, who paints the African setting with a poetic sensibility. The film adaptation rendered her accounts starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford perfectly. The cinematography is the selling point of the film. Watch the scene when she transcends earthly planes from the back seat of the plane. The view is awe-inspiring. Here’s where the value of films comes through. By transporting the foreigner to the African soil, the visitor falls in love with the setting and empathy sprouts. The broadening of the mind, the turning of something foreign into a personal experience becomes a positive affectation. Aren’t these the steps of change: break down fear, instigate empathy, instill inspiration, and the people find the courage to rise up and demand change?

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One of my favorite foreign films is the German film, Nowhere in Africa (2001). There are too many layers of significance to absorb this film in one setting. Another true story, this is a Jewish tale of a family who emigrates during Nazi Germany to Kenya. It’s one of the most provocative films I’ve ever seen. The family dynamic expressed through the dialogue and superb acting is fantastic. The layers of meaning are like watching Shakespeare. From the play-within-a-play, the dark humor, the saga, the tragedy, the exaltation, the sacrifice–presented are all human emotions in this film. I highly recommend it!

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Here’s a great classic whose strength resides in the chemistry between Hollywood legends, Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. I just mentioned the other night to my best friend that I thought someone ought to remake this film and have it star Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep. Anyone else out there wondering why these two haven’t been paired before???

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During World War One, The African Queen (1952) tells the story a missionary woman who persuades an alcoholic riverboat captain to use his boat to attack an enemy warship. Their affair is suggested, but their “union” transforms them both and the African terrain is gorgeously presented. It’s one of my favorite classics.

Which African film incites in you the apprectiation of beauty? Once one gets the feeling for how beautiful Africa is, citing the novels and films with the purpose of displaying the inequities in Africa are aplenty. Upon retrospect, several of my favorite films and books seem to center around this continent. That’s for the next blog….

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