Thoughts on Nomadic Aesthetics and the Black Independent Cinema: Traces of a Journey

I sing of a man who was not a tree but whose roots spread throughout the land
Who was not fire but who smoldered in every blaze Who was not water but quenched thirst
I sing of a man who filled up space with his presence, 'cause he was the wind.1

The nomad has been desperately searching for water. He sends his children in all directions. He waits and none returns. His obsession becomes even more violent when his wife, the mother of his children, dies. There appears to be an imbalance in the whole search. He suffers humiliation, pain and agony. It is at this time of extreme gloom that the Goddess of the Sea sends a messenger to him.

The water goddess has remained undisturbed throughout the history of life on the earth. The earth is no more than an island in her world. She has thus remained powerful. Of course, the Goddess of the Sea knows this. She is the primary principle of all existence. While the desert had retained power and authority over living things, it is only water, the maternity of life force, that can defeat it.

The messenger tells the nomad that the goddess is prepared to send one of her daughters to guide him to the secret site of the legendary spring so he will never thirst again for 1000 years. But she will thus free him from his search on one condition and one condition only: that he marry her daughter. The nomad desperately wants water but he also cherishes his freedom of movement. He has been conditioned in his way of life, from childhood, for centuries. If he marries the daughter he knows he will be human-divine and immortal, but if he refuses to marry, he will violate cosmic order. The nomad goes through a deep conflict. He cannot meet the condition of the goddess because it means his desolation.

The nomad is isolated against forces that are more powerful than he. Dejected and confused, sitting around an open fire in the evening, he gazes at the blazing flames and begins to hallucinate about the legendary spring. Suddenly, through the haze there ap­pears a woman that the nomad has not seen before. The woman stands, in darkness. Reaching into the fire, she grasps a handful of glowing embers from the ashes and throws them high into the heavens, their trail of light blazing "pathways to the stars." Ever since, moonbeams and starlight have guided nomads in the night.

On the morning of that night, with a brilliant flash of lightning, the nomad awakens and discovers he has company. A bond of spiritual harmony has been created. The nomad does not know it, but the woman is the daughter of the moon, a niece of the Goddess of the Sea. They have not been heard of since. Some said, they went to the north; others said, they went to the south; still others said, they had been taken to a far away place across the oceans.

"The sky gives witness to history," writes Brenda Marie Osbey in Ceremony for Minneconjoux. "Journey with me and see what I see."2

Crankhandles of History

Nomads belong to different cultures. They come from different periods of history.3 From different time periods, they constantly incorporate and evolve a unique variation of spiritual, artistic and cultural expression. There are as many different lifestyles and aesthetic norms in the nomadic form of social organization as there are cultures and peo­ples in the world. Nomads are known to be rooted in myth, legend and folklore. Their artistic manifestations in song and dance, ritual and performance, are affirmations of their vigorous association with the earth and its gifts. To them art has two essential fac­tors: (a) the ability to consolidate the community through ritual and performance and (b) collective participation in their dramatized, spoken and artistic forms. By their inten­sity both in communication and the immediacy of their memory, nomads reflect par excellence the lifestyle of a free people.

The impact of their art and their way of life has two important aspects:

  1. The fundamental idea that all life, experience and existence is without frontiers or boundaries.
  2. The foundational idea of not glorifying fulfillment in terms of territory or resources.

The life of sedentary or settled peoples is mostly controlled by state apparatuses, codified and written laws, and is dictated by resources which they transform and use. In nomadic thought, all human settlement, related to availability of resources, is only temporary.

Nomads reject the formation of the state because it curtails their freedom of movement; besides, the formation of the state has never been able to fulfill its promises. Nomads have thus developed a way of life, and an aesthetic attitude, which defy and critique both the settlement and art inspired by the state.

The moon is one of the great phenomena that is incorporated in nomadic cultures and that define the transient nature of their art work. The moon has interesting features: it is generous; it has maternal qualities of gentleness. It bathes the nomads after the scorching heat of the sun. The moon also has the capacity of transforming itself - it dies and it reappears every day. The undying moon that is dying. It actually never dies, and it actually dies - which is really the life cycle of human beings written large in the sky. Its reference to the life of the nomadic community is striking. They know they will die but also emerge to life. This is accomplished through ancestral logic. To the nomads all eventualities become the path - the footprints of the ancestors - upon which the trail of images, signs and "notes of music" are scattered. The instrumentality of these languages expresses free space.

The spiritual life of the nomad is much more highly developed in its co-extensive orientation than that of settled societies. In other words, there is not the same kind of exclusivity between the spiritual world and the physical world. Nor should this be mistaken for fusion between the two entities - the physical and the spiritual world coexist as separate but interdependent features of the universe.

Traveling Aesthetics

The nomadic outlook also lends itself to a different measure of qualities of artistic expression. In nomadic thought, art has three sides: it has functional, aesthetic and spiritual dimensions. One side of this triangle never rules out the others. Inextricably linked with this notion of art is the concept of reality.

1. Reality and Fantasy

In nomadic thought, "reality" is both tangible/seeable and untouchable/unseeable. What is not necessarily seeable and touchable, but which nevertheless exists, is merely an extension of known reality. Although the supreme reality is the earth, what is be­yond or absent from this reality is explored through and manipulated by a system of fantasia. This is less anchored on symmetric or tangible realities; it subscribes to an inverted reality utilizing memory and experience to recreate the ephemeral qualities of existence. First, the cosmos is experienced and recalled as a fantastic phenomenon and then transformed - inverted - into an accessible and tangible reality through art, dance and ritual.

In short, the perceived entities of reality - i.e., the moon, the stars, mountains, wind, sun or oasis - assume a highly symbolic order. Hence, the most fantastic, sophisticated poems are in fact metaphoric structures and systems of multifaceted representation. In nomadic thought, the fantastic, which is a direct extension of everyday life, merely rep­resents a heightened experience. In this kind of system, other planets or other words are no more than an exaggeration or minimalization of an otherwise known reality. This differs from Western metaphor, in which systems of fantasy are dislocated from reality and deviate from the known structure of homo sapiens.

The nomadic view is that the spiritualized entities and the realities of human existence are fused together, in an interactive creative relationship, creating a balance between the earth world and the sky world. The co-existential perceptions of these entities simultaneously evolve a symbolic world order which defies separateness, segmentation and isolation. In this instance, something is always present and absent at the same time. For the nomad, experience is not separated or segmented into categories of functions and aesthetics. In nomadic thought, what is specific (the aesthetic experience) is at the same time homogenous (i.e., it is part of an integrated experience of the mind), and vice versa. Here, aesthetic satisfaction corresponds to an aesthetic energy that the nomad consumes from physical entities that make him alive.

To nomads, art tells stories from experience and from memory. It cannot be simply one or the other; the two must coexist, as do the two worlds and two qualities of phe­nomena. Thus, their world and their aesthetics are more detailed and copious in manifesting ceaselessness, vastness and limitlessness in scale and temporal quality. These are manifest in three different ways:

Art defies closure.  Art rejects the structural model of beginning, middle and end. Art reflects a cosmic integrity in the realms of (re) presentations.

2. Temporality/spatiality

In the Western context, time assumes its own "objective" existence. It is equated with the individual and is measured according to production output. Because time is measured in production, people are invested in units of time. Time is perceived as an investment and is thus valued more than the actual actors/participants in production. Time is narrativized into discrete elements of past, present and future. What issues from this is an intellectual and artistic justification for a way of life that validates a certain philosophy, and a certain tendency in modernism.

In nomadic orientations, units of time are far more broad. Time is seen, observed and experienced as "subjective." It arises out of observed and experienced relationships between planetary bodies. The central orientation points toward a "cyclic" system wherein several time frames occur simultaneously. In this kind of conceptualization, greater store is put on the value of actors/participants in production. Time does not control people, but people tend to operate within flexible time frames. In nomadism, time is not abstracted; it is an outcome of experience - it arises from life itself.

Space exists because there are tangible phenomena which are seen and felt. But there are also objects/phenomena that are touchable and seeable that we do not see that fill up space. The conception of space is thus relative to seeing, feeling and touching. To settlers, living in close proximity, distance and space are turned into an abstraction, into a greater introspection. We thus know less about more, and nomads know more about less. For instance, they have several words for village, environment and livestock. They also have a very keen sense of vision and sound. They smell the rain before the fall; they hear and see clearly where others distort. We see water where they see only mirage.

To nomads, time and space are both subjective phenomenon, operating within the system of the local absolute. The absolute is a matter of social consensus - it does not make any difference if it is, or is not. The important aspect is that there is, or there exists, an absolute against which to measure relationships and values of things, actions, ideas and so on.

Western systems glorify the Abstract in conceptions of Time and Space. Western thought has a love-hate relationship with the Absolute. If and when it is applied, it is abstracted and takes the notion of the Absolute. Take, for instance, Leonardo's "Mona Lisa." We are told to admire the beauty of the painting for its enigmatic quality. We are told that what accounts for the painting's enduring quality is the smile. But beauty is invested in values and not in time.

In Western conceptions of the Mona Lisa, the desire to concretize and seal these values as timeless and as an Absolute is presented in a detailed and scientific manner. So much is suggested and so little revealed. That which is (ir)rational seems to necessitate the voice and expression of the many volumes written about it.

Subjective nomadic time prescribes that Mona Lisa's smile and beauty is ever shifting - OK yesterday, so so today and tomorrow who knows - it depends on circumstances of everyday feelings and experiences. To the nomadic way of thinking, Mona Lisa is tentative, incomplete, arbitrary, temporal and relative. In nomadic thought, everything is subject to aging. There is nothing timeless or enduring about beauty or aesthetics. It is, therefore, best to characterize the notion of aesthetics as transient or traveling.

Nomads in Quotations

"I'm from a nomadic society," Mahamood Issa said. "They make art, but they don't consider it as art. The two nomads meet in conversation. While one talks, the other will take a stick and design in the sands. They would be talking, I would be watching the design ... Then an hour later, they would be gone, the design would be gone, the art would be gone."4

"The more I read, the more convinced I became that nomads had been the crankhandle of history, if for no other reason than that the great monotheisms had, all of them, surfaced from the pastoral milieu..." - Bruce Chatwin 5

"Legend has it," writes John Berger, "that Pyrrhon, the founder of skepticism, was at first a painter.  Later he accompanied Alexander the Great on his voyage through Asia, gave up painting and became a philosopher, declaring that appearances and all perceptions were illusory." [emphasis added]6

"It is the women who make us live in the desert. They say the desert brings health and happiness, to them and to the children” - Sheikh, Sidi Ahmed el Beshir Hammadi of Mauritania.7

Brian Massumi, in his Foreword to A Thousand Plateaus wrote:

The "nomads" whose thought lies behind the work of Deleuze and Guattari - Lucretius, Hume, Spinoza, Nietzche, Bergson - are united by no school or direct lines of infiuence, only by their critical relation to official philosophy and its historical complicity with the state. They are also secretly linked, in Deleuze's words, by  "the critique of negativity, the cultivation of joy, the hatred of interiority, the exteriority of forces and relations, and the denunciation of power.' 8

And what did Deleuze and Guattari say?

In a totally different way, in a totally different context, Arab architecture constitutes a space that begins very near and low, placing the light and airy below and the solid and heavy above. This reversal of the laws of gravity turns lack of direction and negation of volume into constructive forces. There exists an absolute, as a local integration moving from part to part and constituting smooth space in an infinite succession of linkages and changes in direction. It is an absolute that is one with becoming itself, with process. It is the absolute of passage, which in nomad art merges with its manifestation. Here the absolute is local, precisely because place is not delimited.9

And what did Ib'n Khaldoun say?

The Desert People are closer to being good than settled peoples because they are closer to the First State and are more removed from all the evil habits that have infected the hearts of settlers.' 10

You cannot travel on the path before you have become the Path itself.
- Gautama Buddha

In a film, Memory and Future, by the Colombian filmmakers Marta Rodriguez and Jorge Silva, an Indian woman says, "I think, even if one dies, one doesn't lose its memory."

Ignatieff- Let me see if I understand this. Human beings originate on the desert plains of Africa three million years ago…
Chatwin: Yes...
Ignatieff... and they gradually acquire a set of instinctual behaviors that enable them to survive on the grasslands and vanquish their predators...
Chatwin: Yes...
Ignatieff... and as they acquire a set of instinctual nomadic patterns of behavior they also acquire a meaning system, a set of myths which are imprinted on the brain over millions of years...
Chatwin: Yes...
Ignatieff... and these are the story patterns that keep recurring even in the modern day.
Chatwin: Absolutely." 11

I wonder how people remember things who don't film, don't photograph, don't tape ... The new Bible will be an eternal magnetic tape of a Time that would have to reread itself constantly, just to know it existed. - Chris Marker in Sans Soleil

And what is the visual model for "time immemorial" - towards which everything is direction and from where everything springs?

It suits me to make pictures on celluloid ... memory pictures . . . that make stories more interesting and exciting.  With film, you are able to transpose these pictures of memory, imagination and reality, and make a [visual] story from them. It is, I think, a continuation of the oral tradition. That's how I see my work." - Merata Mita.12

Black Cinema/Traveling Cinema

In my research for an alternative aesthetics of black independent cinema, I came across no man's land - to an oasis of wilderness, to the nomads in the desert. Today, nomads in the book of travels are to be found in the Americas and in the genesis of myths which reach back to the African savannah. Whether they are the San, Nam, Barwa Bathwa of the Kalahari, the Bedouin of Arabia, the Bakhtiaris of Persia or the Somalis and Fulanis of East and West Africa, or the Eskimos and the Indians of North and South America or the Originals (Ab-origines) of Australia, all reach back to "Africa" where the first human cry was heard.

Though black people and nomads may be racially and ethnically distinct, Language, in the broadest sense, unites them. The dominant aspect of this language is symbolism, metaphor, music and performance. They are also united in the very idea of space - they are both marginalized and (de)territorialized peoples. To both, collective memory, rather than official history, is of crucial importance. To both, memory evokes mosaic images and sounds, and invades everyday existence. Both reject the idea of closure or termination, be it in their artistic manifestation or in their lifestyle, just as the nomads are synthesizers of surrounding cultures they pass through, so are the blacks. They live in the industrialized world, but they do not belong to it; they pass through. Both opt not to adopt but to adapt. They incorporate some aspects and not others. Both seem not to be governed by the idea of physical home as much as by the mythical and spiritual home that they cherish in their belief systems and carry in their cultures. Both are obsessed by the very essence of freedom.

Black filmmakers break constraints and cross borders; they are not oppositional but pro-active in their creative work. They create their own aesthetic terms in film discourse. Call them ethnobiographies, film essays, film poems, film lore or a combination thereof. They incorporate "in clear rhythm with Africa" long-term memories and heritages. Herein are some examples from the archeology of black cinema.

In the genesis of black independent cinema the very titles of the films read like vocabularies from a nomadic dictionary. Passing Through by Larry Clark, Black Exodus by Iverson White, Passion of Remembrance and Territories by Isaac Julien and Maureen Blackwood, Ashes and Embers by Haile Gerima, Patu by Merata Mita, Handsworth Songs by John Akomfrah, Bless Their Little Hearts by Billy Woodbury, Burning an Illusion by Menelik Shabazz, King Carnival by Horace Ove, Langston Hughes: The Dream Keeper by St. Clair Bourne, Pathway to the Stars by Antonio Ole, are all examples that illustrate the terminological leitmotif of nomadic cinema and the lexicon of nomadic philosophy.

Ben Cauldwell's I and I, which has its origins in African mythology, is an allegorical and metaphorical search for black identity.  Barbara McCullough's Water Ritual is an act of purification on a spiritual and mythic level. Haile Gerima's Bush Mama is a film with floating style on life in the ghettoes of Industrial America. Julie Dash's Illusion, part one of a four part series, Bridges, is on the conflicts of dual identity of the African-American.  A Different Image by Sharon Larkin is a search that traces the features of an African identity. All these films carry aspects of nomadic sensibility even if the filmmakers themselves are not aware of it. We can therefore understand why when Charles Burnett, maker of the Killer of Sheep, was asked; "How did you make this masterpiece of realism?" he replied, "I don't know, I just got raw stock and shot the film."13

From other parts of Africa and the Third World a similar tendency abounds; we have Ceddo ("The Outsiders") and Emitai ("God of Thunder or Death or God of the Sky") by Ousmane Sembene, Barravento ("The Turning Wind") by Glauber Rocha of Brazil, The Promised Land by Miguel Littin of Chile, Wend-Kuuni ("God's Child or Gift") by Gaston Kabore of Burkina Faso, Naitou ("Orphan") by Moussa Kemoko Diak­ite of the Republic of Guinea, and many others carrying aspects of traveling aesthetics.

Nor are all forms of Western filmmaking ignorant of nomadic aesthetics. Perhaps most noteworthy in this regard is Chris Marker's Sans Soleil in its sensitivity to non-western cultures and its self-acknowledged (in)ability to penetrate them.

"My personal problem was more specific: how to film the ladies of [Guinea] Bissau?" says Chris Marker, ". . . the built-in grain of indestructibility of African women ... I see her - she saw me - she knows that I see her, but just at an angle where it is still possible to act as though it was not addressed to me.14

So too, Akira Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala, allowing its identification to influence its very aesthetic form, succeeds in communicating a sense of the nomadic, not only in its story but, perhaps more importantly, in its spatial aesthetics and in its formulation of the title character's relationship to nature. As if by acknowledgement of its nomadic impulse, one striking shot of the film shows the moon and the sun in the sky at opposite ends of the screen. Perhaps nowhere else in cinema has one single image more adeptly captured the essence of nomadic sensibility.

1. The Journey Theme

In black films there is often the depiction of journeys across space or landscape. Viewed as a whole, a pattern seems to emerge around the journey theme: wandering, exile, migration and homeland. Journeys acknowledge encounters with others, with known and unknown forces, happy or horrendous. Whatever themes these films carry, or whatever the land(e)scape they traverse, these do not seem to be the important aspect. The land ceases to be mere land, and only exists as a kind of mythic wilderness.

The journey is the link(age); without it there is no film. There is no film in and of itself. A film by itself is therefore meaningless - it conveys nothing. Film exists so that the journey may exist, and vice versa. Of course, the story sets the travel from place to place. But it is not important in itself. All filmic phenomena are subordinate in importance to the voyage. And the trace is more significant than the point of contact. Film is simply a foreshadowing device with allusions to memory. One cannot film without one's shadow. Film is only the siren call of the road: this is one of the key principles of nomadism.

2. Axis and not Poles

One of the limitations of mainstream theory and criticism has been its tendency to see the cinematic movements as tied to one of two poles: dominant (Hollywood) and oppositional (reactive) cinema. Typically, Hollywood and similar practices are lumped into the former, while Third World and independent movements are associated with the latter. This is problematic because it fails to recognize what are in fact the emerging tendencies of alternative filmmaking such as those which are here described as nomadic.

Thus, even in critical writings, Hollywood has been seen as a purveyor of colonial discourse and as a betrayer of others' cultural values. Understood merely as oppositional, black independent cinema could not be seen but as a reactive cinema. However, black independent cinema's search has gone far beyond this, for it is in fact a search for a newly born cinema, one with its own discrete identity, evolving on its own axis. It must be understood as more than a reactive pole - but rather as the development of new, emergent tendencies which are more difficult to categorize in established norms. Oppositional filmmaking is, in and of itself, not an axis; rather it is one of two opposite poles. It thus has no self-identity. Its films make use of the same reference and language of exploitative cinema.

To try to define black independent cinema merely in terms of otherness is also to create merely another reactive pole. Theorists of otherness fail to take into account that otherness speaks the same language of oppositional cinema. Culture and cinema are heterogeneous and multiple and need not and cannot be fitted to a hierarchical model. To succumb to the notion of the other is to be a part of the same, to be trapped within the confined and prescribed boundaries that limit it. The other is always that which Western culture excludes in order to exploit.

Working within the debris of culture and discourse, black independent cinema moves not in between the two opposing poles but around it towards its own axis. Here the authority of the margins is born, in those blind spaces where the hierarchy of oppositions do not hold complete sway, where language confounds itself and where liberated culture resides. In those liberated spaces outside of Hollywood and oppositional cinema, a new, newly born cinema is emerging, a cinema not-yet-here but no-longer-there, a traveling cinema - nomadic cinema. It is only in open free spaces that a new cinema can both deconstruct and construct this cinema. It is only through work of nomadic sensibility that black cinema, independent, feminist, exile and Third World cinema will capture its axis. That is why an authentic black cinema cannot be but a new, newly born, post-cinema, with new realities. We are thus witnessing a time when one cinema is dying and another one is being born in its place.

We can thus understand why Glauber Rocha remarked, "If we think that Hollywood is dangerous for us, so is Sartre [as Hegel, and others], and very much so."  He added, "it's better to have a form that's badly polished but new."

Notes on Nomadic Cinema

Virtually from the beginning of cinema, with very few exceptions, the modes of genre classifications and styles have never been blended. Nomadic cinema brings an unprece­dented and unexpected jolt to cinematic reality by smashing down boundaries - between documentary, ethnographic, travelogue, experimental and narrative fiction. Nomadic cinema makes both habit and virtue of this jolt.

1. The Mask as the Screen

In nomadic thought, one wears the mask during festivities to summon the universe to existence and put the world in motion. The mask represents the Absent one. It brings the unknown to recognition, the unrepresentable to representation. The mask itself is an object, it is abstract; yet it indicates that the content is present in the abstraction - where the known becomes unknown, the identical becomes different. The unrepresentable and unknowable is always "the missing content," that the mask recovers and brings forth. The mask puts the world upside down - it is a masquerade.'15

The Screen is like the painted mask. Spectators put on the screen to sing a world into existence in movie-houses. The screen is worn at dusk, and the mask at dawn. The screen tends to distort reality and disguises meaning, while the mask de-frames the world, in inverted order, not to conceal, but to heighten and add significance. The "missing content" of the screen is "ideology," while that of the mask is "spirit." In both, there is an exchange between absent-present and between representable-unrepresentable, except that with the screen, one does not control it; "meaning" is spelled out to us; we have no contact with the screen; it does not have the social/collective aspects of the mask. There is no social boundary with the mask. Here, spectators have relation to it. Briefly, we summarize the difference as follows:


Collective memory
Long-term memory
Interactive mode
Social/collective relation
Spectator represents himself
Significance: spectator makes his/her social connection


Official history
Short-term memory
Isolative mode
Individual relation (social is myth)
Spectator does not represent himself
Meaning: spectator is given a social meaning, the world is him/her

The screen frames the world right side up. It limits its scope. It frames the world for the consolation of the turbulent viewer, who is excluded from representation. The screen, the spectacle, masks reality as a façade - the image of reality scoffs at reality itself.  The screen serves as the canvas on which the West paints its own stereotypes of others. Social/collective relations to mask and the memory behind them give beleaguered cultures a strength which outlasts the brute forces of colonial culture. Therefore, to view the screen, the spectacle, more like a mask, a ritual, is to restructure one's viewing habits, i.e., to interact more socially, both with the screen and other members of the audience.

Perhaps nowhere have we seen this more clearly in American movie houses than in the screenings of Spike Lee's film, She's Gotta Have It. Is it any wonder that the film was roundly received by viewers, despite its clearly sexist overtones? Three elements, common to nomadic aesthetics, perhaps account for this: (a) its strong sense of place (New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto); (b) its use of face-to-face address to the audience (in the tradition of oral discourse); and (c) the resulting interactive mode which is obtained both between the film and its audiences, and among audience members themselves. Thus, the viewing experience becomes more than simply a relationship to a screen - it becomes a happening, an event.

2. Aesthetics as woman

As a branch of philosophy and theory, aesthetics itself is problematized by nomadic expression.  A wandering life produces a wandering aesthetics. A traveling aesthetic requires traveling theory and criticism; yet theory and criticism are canonized, and thus become a way of fixing rather than liberating their objects. Nomadic practice thus creates havoc for such an orientation.  Intrinsic to the nomadic mode of expression is an ever-constant shifting of its form and content and the relationship among them and their audience.

In theoretical and critical writings of the past, Third Cinema has been offered as one way to contextualize such aesthetics, giving it its liberatory due. To this we wish to add that these aesthetics are in fact tied closely to the mythical figure of the woman. The nomadic epic, at its best, is thus truly a woman's epic. By this it is meant that within the context of these nomadic travels what has been emphasized are various mythic and symbolic images of maternity, referring back to the land (Mother Earth) and water (Goddess of the Sea), which provide our sustenance and existence.  Thus, the concept "female" represents that which both nurtures humankind and that which inspires and engenders aesthetic expression.

3. Towards a Poetics of Nomadic Aesthetics

Aesthetic is always outside the work; it is extra-cinematic. Its definition, its appreciation, its survivability are determined by the receiving subject, the spectator's memory, daily whims and fancies. Images in a film thus belong to the past; they represent reminiscences. However, though images belong to the past; they carry simultaneously possibilities and promises, because they also belong to the future. A nomadic cinema, then, is:

  • cinema with ritualized styles, with a theme that hovers between the reasoned action of psychological reality and the inspired action of memory and forgetting.
  • cinema of celebration rather than tension.
  • cinema with a long-ago time frame,

Along with an unbroken action, followed through in long takes.

  • cinema freed from story and linear structure.
  • cinema where sound and image vary by the movement of the wind.
  • cinema that floats over reality.
  • cinema that is able to break the logic it sets up for itself
  • cinema that defies its own progress toward closure;
  • cinema that creates a rupture of its own expressive form.
  • cinema of anxiety, of ideas and mythic place.
  • cinema produced cinematically and contextualized culturally.
  • cinema with unrushed wholeness that imparts stature and dignity.

Where the hero's welcome is, at best, tentative. Where off screen, the filmmaker berates his actors about the reasons he is making the film.
Where the subjects snap back that they are merely the script treatment.
Where black-frames interrupt process as discussions ensue.
Where the filmmaker finally walks into frame, to reflect on his ambivalence, between resolving the conflict with his actors, and to ruminate on his commitment to complete the film.

This shows how film itself becomes part of alienation in filmic discourse. But the rupture and its acknowledgement are redeeming. The stylistic rift incurred becomes a specific part of the discourse. Nomadic cinema takes into account whatever is outside of the intended idea or script. This cinema resists opting for one mode exclusively. Through the use of a transgressive style, this cinema stresses, yet minimizes, conflict. It is a cinema of emphasis, of process:

  • film that acknowledges itself conceptually.
  • film that "traces no counters and delimits no form."
  • film that is comfortable with readings that float.
  • film that "both attracts spectators and allows them no place to rest."
  • film where the prefilmic proves to be hopeful rather than accurate.
  • film that is elated at being "a particle, a sprout," an unfinished song.

Carnival of Remembrance

Along the coastline of Rio de Janeiro and Salvador in Bahia, every year, during the Summer Solstice (when the sun's eclipse is at the furthest north and south of the equator), Brazilians of African descent and others celebrate for an entire day in song, dance, ritual and carnival, in homage to Iemanjá, the Goddess of the Sea.  And when the sun sets "above the waves," and the moon awakens "above the clouds," all the celebrants face towards Africa, and in remembrance of an ancient homeland, throw flowers and gifts to the Goddess of the Sea:

Your holy spirit floats along the cresting waves of the water, as we walk out upon the sands, night time closing on the longest day of the year, and join together in small circles around the sacred boats that we shall send you, each whispering our prayers to a flower that we lay upon the boat, for Iemanjá, Holy Queen of the Sea.'16

And all the roads branch out freely into all directions, to land and to sea. There are no longer boundaries to be patrolled. We are back in the African Savanna, and into several chains of sand dunes, plains and forests. We have entered into Africa of the Africas, we are in Angola:

"I sing of a Man who was not a myth 'cause he was the land

Who was in Ebo and who did not bend in Kifagondo

but who held high the banner and he was a stout imbondo vine" 17

Here are the footprints from the not-so-ancient past. How momentous a whisper to a seed, and "prayers to a flower," can be.  Here is the mask of memory - an anthem for Traveling Cinema-drawn from a poem by the heroic nomad-warrior, Agostinho Neto:

Following the pathway to the stars along the agile curve of a gazelle's neck above the waves above the clouds on springtime's wings of camaraderie

A simple note of music an indispensable atom of harmony

a particle a sprout color in the multiple combinations of humanity

Exact and inevitable like the inevitable past of slavery within our consciousness like the present

Not abstract without color amidst colorless ideals without odor amidst the odorless rain forests of rootless trunks

But real clad in green in the fresh smell of forests after the rain in the vigor of thunder and lightning hands sustaining the germination of laughter above the fields of hope

Eyes filled with freedom ears with sound, of avid hands on drumheads in rapid and sharp rhythms of rivers Zaire deserts Kalahari mountains light made crimson by endless fires in the violated grasslands spiritual harmony of tom-tom voices in clear rhythms of Africa

This is the pathway to the stars along the agile curve of the gazelle's neck on to the harmony of the world.18


  1. A poem by the Angolan poet and militant, Arnaldo Santos. The myth that follows the poem is my own construction.
  2. Brenda Marie Osbey, Ceremony for Minneconjoux, Callaloo Poetry Series (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1983).
  3. I am thankful to Professor Mazisi Kunene, the distinguished South African poet, for an illuminating discussion on nomadic cosmology.
  4. "Ex-Somalian Exhibits 'Versatile' Art," St. Louis Post-Dispatch (October, 1987).
  5. Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines (New York: Eliza­beth Sifton Books, Viking, 1987). I am indebted to this work for its inspiration.
  6. The Storyteller, Special issue, Granta, no. 21 (Spring 1987): 18.
  7. Chatwin, The Songlines, p. 178.
  8. See no. 9.
  9. Gilles Deleuze and Fe1ix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: Uni­versity of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 494. See also Deleuze and Guattari, "Nomad Art," Art & Text (October-December 1985), 16-24. Deleuze and Guattari's works have been particularly useful and inspiring in this study.
  10. Teshome H. Gabriel
  11. Chatwin, The Songlines, p. 196. it. Granta, no. 21, pp. 29-30.
  12. Interview with Maori filmmaker Merata Mita, Framework, no. 25 June 1984): 3.
  13. Monona Wali, "The Invisible Cinema," Los AngeleS READER (February 24, 1984): 1 S –
  14. The entire text of Chris Marker's narration, "Sunless," appears in Semiotext(e), vOl. 4, no. 3 (1984).
  15. For an interesting discussion on "Art and Mas­querade," by Klaus Ottman see Art and Text,, no. 19 (October-December 1985): 47-52. See also Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981), pp. 34-35.
  16. Merlin Stone, Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), pp. 96 and 97.
  17. This is a continuation of the first poem cited by Arnaldo Santos. Incidentally, the entire poem is written in the memory of Agostinho Neto, First President of Angola. 
  18. This poem, by Agostinho Neto, is recited in the film Pathway to the Stars. The film is patterned after the poem.
Top | Home