Thursday, September 22, 2005

Nowhere in Africa (Link, 2001)

What is the most critical element in defining a human being? Is it race? Gender? Nationality? Religion? Family? Friendships? In times of severe crisis, what do we look to in order to give us strength and purpose? This is the driving question at the heart of Caroline Link’s impressive drama, Nowhere in Africa – a film that beat out such competition as Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without a Past and Zhang Yimou’s Hero in order to win the Academy Award for best Foreign Language film. Indeed, Link’s film has much that the Academy has traditionally found attractive, such as a sweeping epic scope, gorgeous cinematography capturing exotic landscapes, and a war-time setting in which the protagonists strive to overcome adversity. However, unlike typical Oscar fare, Nowhere in Africa has wonderfully complex and specific characters, an exploration of patriotism that does not plunge into cheap slogans and an honest, insightful analysis of the problematic nature of human love.

Nowhere in Africa follows a German Jewish couple and their young daughter as they leave their homeland in the face of Hitler’s rise to power and relocate to a Kenyan farm. Early on, it is clear that Jettel, the mother (Juliane Köhler), is not exactly prepared for the life that awaits her, as it is revealed that she has packed up the family’s fine china and spent most of their remaining deutschmarks on an expensive evening gown. Young Regina (Lea Kurka) proves much more adaptable, quickly befriending the natives and acclimating to the local customs. Despite being the victim of racial persecution in her native country, Jettel is adamant in insisting that her daughter not behave like a “negro.” Through the occasional letter and international radio broadcast, the family is able to stay updated on the horrifying political events dramatically transforming their homeland and the devastating impact on family and friends that were left behind. The father, Walter (Merab Ninidze), even gets a brief taste of the far-reaching ramifications of World War II’s outbreak when he is separated from his family and placed in a British internment camp.

Throughout all of this, the family’s cohesion begins to slowly dissolve. Without the binding force of a familiar routine or environment, the impact of African life isolates father, mother and daughter and drives each of them on a desperate path to reclaim their personal identity. Walter realizes that his nationality is a fundamental part of who he is and, despite Germany’s state of turmoil, he has a need to return to the land that will always be there, though governments come and go. Despite her early resistance to remaining in Kenya, Jettel finds her identity in the care and maintenance of the farm. She is driven to maintain stability -- to nurture -- even though her definition of family has been twisted about and altered. Regina (who in a delightful cinematic moment ages in the blink of an eye) is a different case altogether. Having spent many of her formative years in Kenya, she has a greater attachment to the land and people than her parents, especially family friend, Owuor (Sidede Onyulo). Though she has received formal education from an educational institution led by a rather detestable British headmaster, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, she also reveals the spirit of Africa that resides within her by rejecting that conditioning and climbing a tree like a Kenyan would. These are characters that cannot possibly be defined by a particular type. They are complex personalities created by extremely unusual circumstances. Link knows these characters with all of her heart and presents them to the viewer with remarkable clarity and confidence.

Once the family has discovered themselves, will they rediscover each other? Or will they drift apart, hopelessly changed by their years in exile? Again, the answer is anything but simple. Nowhere in Africa is a film that pleases on a number of different levels, engaging in its narrative and captivating in its visuals. It is insightful, unpredictable and often very sexy. Link, who is still relatively young at 41 years of age, establishes herself as a director of considerable skill, sensitivity and intelligence. Nowhere in Africa is a work that revisits a time in history that has been endlessly examined in countless films, books and plays and yet manages to offer an experience that is fresh and vital.



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