Native spirit

A season of films celebrates the struggles of indigenous peoples

Coming on the heels of the glamour this month of the London Film Festival, the third Native Spirit Festival, presented by Native Spirit Foundation, offered a quieter, more serious programme. Hidden away from Southbank and the buzz of Leicester Square, the programme location was divided between the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch, the 16mm Cafe in Soho, and Fitzrovia's Bolivar Hall.

The Native Spirit Festival aims "to promote cultural exchange, self-respect, social and environmental awareness" by showcasing films and performances about and by indigenous peoples from across the globe, from the Navajos to the Maoris.

The backdrop to most of the films in the programme was the struggle to control the way indigenous people's stories are told to the outside world. Also prominent were the more tangible aims of economic development, education and compensation. For example, Wiek Lenssens's Pidislan's Gold and Nicolas Defosse's La Yerbabuena: a Community in Resistance tell all-too-familiar tales of communities facing eviction from their land and grappling with pollution from industrial development. Pidislan's Gold focuses on the pollution by mining of the north Philippines pastures of the Igorot people. La Yerbabuena celebrates the peasant communities of Colima in Mexico, a town at the foot of a huge active volcano, who are resisting eviction with the aid of the Zapatistas.

Central to the preservation of a people's identity is language. Lena Ellsworth's striking documentary Ulummi is told from the point of view of young Inuit people from Nunavik and Nunavu, in the far north of Canada. Isolated not only by the harsh weather but also by the unresolved battle between Inuit tradition and the ravages of capitalism, the Inuit also suffer higher-than-average suicide rates, as well as devastating levels of alcohol and drug abuse. Decades ago, forcible re-education of Inuit children resulted in a huge decline in the use of the native Inuktitut language. Today, the teaching of Inuktitut (or lack of it) in schools is at the centre of the struggle to reconcile tradition with modernity. Many parents worry that Inuktituk will fade out in a few generations and are working to reverse the tide.

Bennie Klain's Weaving Worlds, which is focused on the Navajo, shows how hard it is to strike a balance between the preservation of an old culture and survival in a modern economy. Klain is interested in the relationship between the Navajo rug-weavers of New Mexico and Arizona and the traders who helped export their now-famous and expensive rugs (an original antique rug can fetch up to half a million dollars at auction) around the world. Are the white traders -- some of whom have even taken the trouble to learn Navajo -- helping the nation by offering Navajos a way into the global economy, as some of them claim, or are they exploiting the people by paying far less than the rugs are worth?

Although it doesn't enjoy the LFF's crowd pull or its column inches in the press, the Native Spirit Festival's mix of short films and lengthier documentaries offers an illuminating and important alternative. And it reminds us that indigenous peoples across the world continue to struggle with the legacy of five centuries of invasion and colonisation.

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis