#99: These Hands
(Tanzania/Germany, 1992; dir. Flora M'mbugu-Schelling; cin. Suleiman Kissoky)

Flora M'mbugu-Schelling's These Hands ranks easily among the most extraordinary documentaries I have ever seen. As I write this in the wake of the 2004 G8 Conference, Africa and its struggling economies have recently received an uncharacteristic boost in the attention of global media, but now that the conference and the Live 8 festivities have come and gone, I can't help but wonder how long this well-intentioned media campaign will survive. If you're trying to keep learning, keep considering, keep caring about African poverty, no document has ever made a more lasting impression on me than this one did. Combining the class consciousness of Harlan County U.S.A. with the expressive minimalism of Night and Fog, These Hands is a 45-minute movie that lacks any whiff of exposition for the first 35 of those minutes. All you are watching are huddles of women sitting or crouching in the open sun, orbiting rubble-piles of fist-sized stones and using tiny hammers and chisels to break them down into smaller and smaller shards. This, ladies and gents, is how construction-grade gravel is produced. M'mbugu-Schelling, the film's German-Tanzanian director, doesn't resort to any aestheticizing tricks, and she doesn't observe any leering overseer or flagrant acts of worker abuse into the scene. She needn't: the pure fact of this hard form of labor speaks for itself. These Hands is weirdly fascinating; the montage suggests, quite rightly, the tedium of the work, but it's smartly edited to prevent that tedium from dulling our own sensitivity or our intellectual responses to what we are watching. But what are we watching? Again, the spectacle is so foreign and opaque, despite its seeming self-evidence, that even as it compels our rapt attention, we can't help wondering about contexts and backgrounds.

With about 10 minutes to spare, These Hands drops a pretty big bomb, as one of the toiling women puts down her hammer and begins a remarkably jubilant dance on top of the stone pile. Her fellow workers begin clapping hands and singing along with her gyrations, and this continues, uninterrupted, for several beats. No one comes to bother the women; nothing further explains this sudden swerve in tone. Eventually, having gotten whatever it was out of their system, the dancer and the singers resume their tasks. A quick worker's meal is had. The work continues, and the end of the day draws nearer.

Then, at the literal last minute, These Hands rolls its first expository captions. These women, it turns out, are self-employed; this is not a labor farm or a rock plantation, per se. The quarrying they perform by hand pays roughly $6 per week, and this salary, like the autonomous working conditions, counts as an enticing extravagance to workers, many of them refugees, who would be hard-pressed to find any better deal. In fact, the film implies, for Tanzanian women and Mozambiquean expatriates, this deal is pretty good. Could there be a more heartbreaking truth, and could it be delivered with more rigor, less sentiment, greater clarity than These Hands achieves? The chatter swirling around the G-8, as often self-congratulatory as not, suddenly gives way to stark portraiture. Miraculously, an entire economic order virtually comes into focus—perhaps the hardest thing in the world to evoke within an image, but Flora M'mbugu-Schelling does it, without any devices to goad or guilt-trip the viewer. Why bother? The film is suffused with a higher consciousness about global working conditions and wealth distribution that cannot possibly go unheeded, even by the most hard-hearted capitalist or the most obliviously coddled Westerner (and I am closer to the latter than I would like to admit).

If you're curious to see These Hands, and I hope you are, you'll definitely want to visit the absolutely priceless trove of African and African-American film and video art available at California Newsreel. I've got a leg up because my university library and the public library where I live both carry several Newsreel titles, but consider ordering some copies for yourself, your school, or your organization. (On a much more chipper but still politically illuminating note, Djibril Diop Mambéty's The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun is an absolute charmer, a near-contender in this Favorites list, and a sweet, important fable that anyone of any age can enjoy and understand.) African movies, like African hunger, African poverty, African politics, African genocides, and African everything, get next to no attention in this country; when they do, the continent's crises are rendered on such a vast, barely digestible scale that you wonder where to even start making an emotional or intellectual inroad, much less a material contribution. These Hands offers a stunning place to start. Here, here, and here are places to continue.

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