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Americas Media Initiative and the new documentary: “Freddy Ilanga: Che’s Swahili Translator” dir. by Katrin Hansing

By Paul Ryer, Ethnographic film Add comments

I have recently been introduced to the Americas Media Initiative (AMI) – Cuba Media Project and have been particularly impressed with the documentaries they are distributing, from TV Serrana and elsewhere, for quite reasonable fees.  Indeed, fellow ethnographers and observers of contemporary Cuban culture, recent documentaries from rural and eastern Cuba such as Un Puente sobre el Rio (dir. Rigoberto Jiménez, 2009, 30 min) and on controversial topics, such as Raza (dir. Eric Corvalán Pellé, 2008, 35 min.) and Zona de Silencio (Karel Ducasse, 2007, 40 min.) on the topic of censorship, are absolutely worth watching, and since they are subtitled, great classroom resources as well.

And so it was with surprise that I recently received an announcement from A.M.I. on the release of the documentary, Freddy Ilanga: Che’s Swahili Translator, directed by anthropologist Katrin Hansing.  Have not yet been able to screen this myself, so here is A.M.I.’s description of the film:

In April 1965, Freddy Ilanga, a fifteen-year-old Congolese youth, became Che Guevara’s personal Swahili teacher and translator during the latter’s secret mission in the Congo to train anti-Mobutu rebels. After seven intense months by Che Guevara’s side, the Cuban authorities sent Freddy to Cuba. During his early years, Freddy thought that his stay in Cuba would be temporary. However, 40 years passed, during which time he lost all contact with his family and homeland. That is until 2003, when he received an unexpected phone call from Bukavu, his home town. His family had finally found him…

Che’s Swahili Translator is a documentary about Freddy Ilanga, an African man whose life was abruptly transformed through a chance encounter with one of the great icons of the 20th Century, and which has predominantly been determined by the power struggles of the Cold War and the Cuban Revolution. It is a story about migration and displacement and the high human costs of exile and family separation.

UPDATE: I have just been able to see Hansing’s film, and found it interesting.  While the initial framing has a lot to do with the politics which brought Ilanga to Cuba, it soon becomes a documentary of dislocation–even after 40 years, Freddy never discovered why he was sent to Havana!–and of the trauma of separation from family.  Interestingly, Freddy Ilanga describes the consequences of being rediscovered by his African family as also painful.  In any case, the film tells a ubiquitously Cuban story of migration and separation, albeit in reverse, with Cuba as the receivingrather than sending society. 

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