Masai: The Rain Warriors (2005) – Kenya / French

This is the debut feature film of nature documentary filmmaker Pascal Plisson and is notable for its use of an entirely Masai cast. The language is Maa. Set in a Masai village on the savanna, the area is crippled with drought. In the beginning there is a narration by a female member of the group, speaking of the death of a great warrior who had gone off to hunt a lion whose death the people were sure would bring rain. When news of the warrior’s demise reaches the village, a younger group of warriors sets off across the savanna to kill the lion. Scenes of the small band of men running through the golden grass are truly beautiful and the acting of the hunters has the ring of authenticity. At a watering hole they are accosted by a band of Turkana warriors and sustain some injuries. They keep going and find the lion. The leader of the group is killed while he is killing the lion. They return to the village with the head of the lion and the rains soon follow. In an epilog we see the female narrator, who was the girl who waited for the dead warrior; now she is an old woman and venerated by her tribe.

Out of Africa  (1985)

Based on the book by Isak Dinesen, this is the most popular of the movies about colonial Nairobi. Her fine plantation house is a major tourist attraction outside of Nairobi. Meryl Streep plays Karen Blixen, who wrote under the name of Isak Dinesen, and Robert Redford plays her fair-haired love interest.  Set on a plantation in Kenya beginning in 1913, this is a film about colonial life in Africa at the beginning of the 20th century.  Baroness Karen von Blixen, who has come into possession of a coffee plantation in British held Kenya, is the personification of European civilization. Title-h_2She brings a fine sensibility to her home life on the boundaries of the wild, measuring out her life in cups of tea.  She has arranged for a husband who is a bit of a bounder, and is slowly incubating a relationship with an adventurer named Denys Finch Hatton (Redford).  Karen is a paragon of repression, provocatively aloof even with those closest to her and a firm mistress to the native Africans under her protection.  She is also an early feminist.  When her husband calls for supplies to aid in a skirmish he is conducting against German counterclaimants to this land, Karen leads a caravan across a perilous wilderness to re-provision him.  There is a memorable moment when they encounter a group of Masai hunters who approach them head on and then jog right by, evoking a deep memory of human ancestry.  It is interesting to observe the novelty of the automobile and the airplane (c. 1920s) in this ever-renewing Eden of human origins.  When her husband proves unfaithful, Karen endures a bad bout with syphilis, requiring her to return to Denmark.  She is back in Kenya by New Years and there is a remarkable scene at a posh party where various issues of the colonialists and the indigenous people are brought to the surface.  When she resumes her stewardship of the plantation, she allows her relationship with Redford to slowly mature.  They go on safari and play Mozart on a phonograph for the baboons.  He moves to the plantation but stays there rarely.  They begin to act as if they are married; that is, they quarrel over betrayed expectations.  Karen says, “When the gods want to punish you they answer your prayers.”  He acquires a biplane and takes her for a ride, like Superman and Lois, over the savannas of Kenya.  In the end, the plantation burns, and Finch Hatton is killed in a plane crash.  His funeral is held on a rise overlooking the savannas.  Karen is forced to leave Kenya for home, where she will write a book on her experience (published in 1934).  She is leaving an Africa that the whites had taken as their own in order to save it from the people whose home it was.  The Europeans brought their illusion of superiority and tried to impose it on a population that did not live by their rules, except by force.  Karen tried to start a school to teach the tribal children to read.  Redford asked her how she knew that given a chance these children would love Dickens.  When a chief came to her house to protest the school, Karen patiently explained that the ability to read would bring great good for his people.  The chief replied, “The English can read, what good has it done them?”  She could not let go of the idea that she owned them; she wanted to own Finch Hatton too.

This is a superb film not for depicting the arrogant beauty of its featured characters, or the subdued racism of its narrative, or the courage of its measured and discursive pace, but for the grandeur of its landscapes.  The African reality dwarfs the colonists who love and fight on its soil and will one day come to understand that such a place, and such a people, cannot be possessed.  For those with further curiosity about Dinesen’s work, one of her best-known stories was filmed as Babette’s Feast. It won Best Foreign Film at the 1987 Academy Awards.

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