The past is transformative. Our experiences are what makes us, whether in terms of a people (Dadiwonisi) or the individual (Our Father, the Devil). Read below on two films from the Atlanta Film Festival that revolve around personal identity.
Dadiwonisi (We Will Speak)
For many, the Trail of Tears marks the beginning and end of their knowledge about American Indians. This five year period casts a dark shadow over hundreds and thousands of years of Cherokee history that is more or less unknown to anyone minus the Cherokee tribe and historians. The Cherokee culture and language have become endangered, even within Cherokee families who have all but assimilated to American culture and language.
It wasn’t just the Trail of Tears that marginalized the Cherokee and Indian tribes. Dating from before America’s independence from Great Britain, American Indian boarding schools were established to educate American Indian children on American culture and language while extinguishing the connection to their own people. Children were forcibly taken to these schools and away from their families. A fierce proponent to these boarding schools was Civil War General Richard Henry Pratt who viewed education as a means to civilization. “Kill the Indian, save the man” he is famous for stating. What has resulted due to these schools and the American Indian Wars was that very few Cherokee knew the Cherokee language, and Cherokee parents would not teach the language to their children as an attempt to protect them from genocide.
What became realized by the Cherokee people is that their language was in danger of becoming extinct. Durbin Feeling, an American Indian Vietnam veteran, began work on restoring the Cherokee language through writing the primary Cherokee-English dictionary. Feeling’s efforts in spreading the Cherokee language have made him the most important man in Cherokee history following Sequoyah, who created the Cherokee syllabary and enabled the Cherokee to read and write in their previously spoken-only language. What has occurred in decades since Feeling’s publication of the Cherokee-English dictionary is a revitalization of the Cherokee language through the dedicated efforts of teachers and leaders such as Schon Duncan, co-director of this film. Additionally, the Cherokee have identified the need for new media to be created for the Cherokee people, demonstrated through songs recorded in the Cherokee language and visual artist Keli Gonzales’ work in redefining what Cherokee art can be, refuting stereotypes of her people portrayed in American and European depictions of Cherokee.
Through the work of Cherokee cultural leaders, today the Durban Feeling Language Center has been opened and there are classrooms full of Cherokee children being taught the language and history of their people. Dadiwonisi (We Will Speak) captures a period of hope for the Cherokee people through documenting the initiatives that have led to a rebirth of Cherokee language and culture.
Our Father, the Devil
Our Father, the Devil was created as part of the Biennale College Cinema initiative, a program that grants 150,000 Euro to a select few filmmakers each year with the finished films premiering at the Venice International Film Festival. Director Ellie Foumbi was born in Cameroon and attended the Columbia University School of Arts where she received her MFA in directing. The idea for Our Father, the Devil was first conceived while Foumbi was at university, and has since become her feature filmmaking debut.
Our Father, the Devil takes place in the south of France in a small mountain town. Marie (Babetida Sadjo) is an African refugee who works for a retirement home. Her life is comfortable, she has friends, and she lives in a home with beautiful mountain top views. But when a new priest, Father Patrick (Souleymane Sy Savané), speaks at the retirement home, her life is thrown into disarray. She recognizes him. And he’s about the worst possible person for her to encounter. When she grew up in Africa, he was the warlord who slaughtered her family, known then as Sogo. Marie experiences a panic attack upon seeing him speak, and she decides to seek revenge and kidnap him. The scars on her body come into focus as we now know how she was hurt, and while her wounds may have healed, she certainly has not.
Our Father, the Devil is concerned with trauma, trauma so severe that it is impossible to fully recover from. We see the pain on Marie’s face that Sogo had inflicted, and Marie’s closed-off nature becomes explainable. Our Father, the Devil is Bergman-esque in its tone with weighty concepts of justice and forgiveness, and Foumbi is ambitious for telling this story as her first film. Assisted by tremendous performances from Sadjo and Savané, Foumbi demonstrates strength in directing her actors as well as in using light and shadows to tell a story. Her approach to storytelling here is very measured, and is just as much visual storytelling as it is dramatic. Though Our Father, the Devil does show at times that it is a first-time feature, there’s obvious talent on display, and I look forward to seeing what stories Ellie Foumbi tells next.
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