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Monday, February 2, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Nowhere In Africa

* * * *
Best Foreign Language Film, 2002

Direcotr: Caroline Link
Starring: Juliane Kohler, Merab Ninidze

I’ve only been able to see two of Caroline Link’s films – this one and Beyond Silence - but those two have been more than enough to make her one of my favorite filmmakers. Both films involve young girls coming of age who find themselves divided from their parents both in the normal, generational way, and by particular circumstances. In Beyond Silence the girl is a musician with two deaf parents; in Nowhere In Africa the girl sees her family’s move from Germany to Kenya as an adventure rather than displacement by the Nazi menace. Both films are incredibly effective and well-realized.

The story is told largely from the point-of-view of the daughter, Regina (played by Lea Kurka as a child and Karoline Eckertz as a teen), whose childhood memories of Germany are few. She’s aware, in a vague sense, that her family encountered the growing hostility of the state towards Jews, but the family packed up and fled before ugly epithets turned to violence and so her experience of discrimination isn’t burned into her memory and doesn’t define her actions. The same cannot necessarily be said of her parents, Walter (Merab Ninidze) and Jettle (Julianne Kohler), who understand not only the prejudice they face in Germany as Jews, but also the prejudice they face abroad as Germans. Shortly after Jettle and Regina arrive in Kenya (where they rejoin Walter, who had left months earlier to find a place for them to settle) the family is placed in an internment camp by the British, who fear that they are perhaps spies for Germany.

Their time in the camps (Walter is placed in a men’s camp that actually looks like an internment camp; Jettle and Regina are sent to a women’s camp which is actually a fancy hotel) is brief and they’re given management of a farm thanks in large part to the shine a British officer takes to Jettle. At the farm they meet Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), who becomes their cook and a great friend to Regina, much to Jettle’s dismay. One of the film’s strengths is the arc the character of Jettle follows as she grows and changes during her time in Kenya. Despite having experienced prejudice and discrimination at home, Jettle nonetheless espouses racist ideas in Kenya until a fed-up Walter finally exclaims that they left Germany to escape those kinds of attitudes. This facet of her character is important because the idea that you can at once be a victim and a proponent of the same thing is so rarely explored in films and it gives a lot of depth and realism to the story. When she first arrives in Kenya, she tells Walter that it’s beautiful but insists that they can’t live there. “People do,” Walter says to which she shrugs and replies, “Africans.” However, when the time comes that Walter wants them to return to Germany, Jettle is unwilling to move, not just because they’ve established a home, but because of the way that she’s changed through the experience of living there. Not only has she learned that difference shouldn’t automatically equal fear, she’s also matured from a spoiled princess relying on her looks to get what she wants to an independent woman who has proved herself capable of managing a farm on her own while Walter was away, fighting with the British. This is a character that is pretty intolerable at the beginning, but ends up being very compelling and naturally displaces Regina as the centre of the story.

Though the relationship between Walter and Regina is always pretty solid, the relationships between Jettle and Regina and Jettle and Walter are often fraught. Regina is aware of her mother’s infidelity with the British officer and at one point uses it as a weapon to hurt her. It’s significant, I think, that this occurs when Regina is a teenager because it implies that not only is she resentful on behalf of her father, but also that she has a growing awareness that being a woman can make her place in the world precarious and so she lashes out at her mother out of fear that she may one day find herself in the same position Jettle did, where her indiscretion had more to do with bartering than lust. For his part, Walter seems aware that Jettle hasn’t been faithful, though there’s a great deal of ambiguity about what he knows and what he thinks. Did Regina tell him what she saw, or do the comments he makes stem from a more general feeling of emasculation regarding the situation? He’s ostensibly the provider of the family but it’s Jettle who gets them out of the camp and placed on the farm and, eventually, it’s Jettle who runs it. It may be that he knows she was unfaithful, but it may also be that he simply resents her growing independence and control and is acting out against it the only way he can.

The film is, obviously, very layered and explores the situation from a variety of angles. In the final analysis, the story - which is based on a memoir by Stefanie Zweig - is about three people learning who they are and discovering how to reconcile themselves to each other to become a family, which I suppose it what makes it so powerful. It's very each to sink into this film and care about these people. From a visual stanpoint, it's stunning, capturing the landscape in all its beauty and essentially making the land itself one of the characters. It's a beautiful movie in every sense.

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