`Africa' fails to fill holes in stories it tells

Preview: As filmmakers captured the lives and journeys of people in Africa, they forgot that context is just as important as having outstanding images.

September 08, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Africa, an eight-part series on the geography and people of the continent, is a visual delight. Co-produced by PBS' Nature series and National Geographic, it fills the screen with extraordinary images and colors.

The film, which premieres tomorrow night on PBS, also has moments of great emotion in some of the stories it chooses to tell on everyday Africans moving through various life passages.

But, for all of its striking imagery and strong emotion, the series suffers from a lack of context, analysis and failure to answer simple, obvious questions that its pictures and narratives raise. The result is that after eight hours the series left me feeling frustrated as a viewer and wondering as a critic why no one in the editing process or at PBS challenged the filmmakers to fill in the contextual holes.

Television is a visual medium, but public television should be the one place where images and the visceral emotions they stir are always given enough intellectual context to make for insight and understanding. Unfortunately, that's not what happens here.

The series is divided into eight one-hour segments focusing on various geographical areas of the continent. Each hour is structured around one or two of the narratives often referred to as "people stories" - featuring people who live in the region. Most of the people in these stories are on some kind of major journey in their life. We learn about the region as we follow their paths, with narration provided by actor Joe Morton.

In tomorrow's premiere, titled "Savanna Homecoming," we watch as Alice Wangui, who owns a hair salon in Nairobi, Kenya, crosses the savanna in a public minibus given to frequent breakdowns. She travels in the last week of her pregnancy against the advice of her doctor in hopes her baby will be born in her home village. The motivation is pride in being a Kikuyu and Wangui's desire for the child to be imbued with that heritage.

The second story line involves Flora Salonik, who was born in Arusha, Tanzania. We are told she is highly educated and speaks several languages. But she married a man from the Dorobo tribe of hunters and gatherers and has lived with him the last 11 years in an isolated area of Tanzania.

Their house is made of mud and straw, and there is no running water or electricity. Worse, he goes off for months at a time to hunt and gather honey. During one of his trips, Salonik decides to journey back to Arusha and try to reconnect with the mother and sisters she has not seen in 11 years.

Among the many questions left unanswered: Was Wangui really at great risk in making the journey that late in her pregnancy, or did the crew filming her journey include medical personnel? If it didn't include such personnel, were the filmmakers acting responsibly?

As for Salonik, we are made to empathize with her isolation and loneliness, especially the lack of communication for 11 years with her family. It is blamed on the lack of telephones and mail in the Dorobo village. But then, one day, she just up and goes back to see her family, leaving her three children in the care of neighbors.

Could she have done this before during the 11 years? Were there other personal reasons for her estrangement? Did the presence of the filmmakers have something to do with her suddenly making the trip back home?

In Hour 2, there are similar questions. We have the powerhouse narrative of a 9-year-old Tuareg boy going out on his first caravan across the Sahara. It is a stunning rite of passage with life and death hanging in the balance.

But, while our emotions are stirred by pictures and narration that paint these nomads walking camels along ancient trading routes as being in a hopeless battle with more modern traders in trucks, we never find out how much a truck would cost compared to a camel, and why the Tuareg don't buy one if it is all that stands between them and possible economic extinction.

And, despite a steady drumbeat of narration about how poorly the Tuareg are doing, at the end of the hour, the boy's father says that they made lots of money on the trading journey we just witnessed and are very happy. But what a lot of money amounts to is something we are never told by the filmmakers.

Nowhere are these gaps more frustrating than in the last hour, which features the stories of two miners in South Africa's gold mines - one a 26-year-old woman on a management fast track, the other an older man expecting to be laid off any day. The key event in the young woman's life is a written test that will lead to rapid promotion. She fails it the first time, but then out of the blue is given a chance to retake it. The second chance is presented to us without explanation.

Who decided she would get a second chance? Is that unusual? Does it have something to do with her possibly being such an attractive image of a new South Africa? How did the producers meet her anyway? Did someone in government or the mine company recommend her?

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