Notes on ‘Notes for an African Orestes’
Initially this project was going to use Pasolini’s Notes for an African Orestes as source material. MOTUS has decided not to proceed with this. Instead we will use Pasolini’s theatre script Pylades. I am relieved at this decision. Although I think it would have made an interesting project, the African Orestes material is far too problematic to be dealt with in the time and context we have to work in. MOTUS will travel to Africa in the summer of 2016 to explore that project further on their own. I include my pre-production notes below for the record.
Like many significant figures in the arts, Pier Paolo Pasolini is a complex individual. His first film, released in 1954, was the subject of an anti obscenity case brought against him by the Italian government. An outspoken anti-fascist and pro-communist, Pasolini identified as a leftist but once railed against leftist student protesters in favor of the working-class police. In the 1950s he was a staunch Catholic and openly queer. He would eventually die under suspicious circumstances in what is considered by some to be “delegated suicide” and by others an assassination.
Pasolini’s film and theatre works are often insightful, boundary-pushing and certainly significant in the history of the 20th century. They are also as complex, contradictory and problematic as the man himself. So while recognizing the significant scope and impact of Pasolini on western culture, it’s worth also recognizing that Pasolini’s Orestes is hopelessly racist.
It’s an open question if Pasolini himself realized this at the time. The most unsettling moments of the film are the inclusion of “archive footage of the Biafran war,” which Pasolini ham-handedly narrates as “metaphorical images of the war between the Greeks and Trojans.” It seems the author means this as a valorization, but for me it’s incredibly difficult to see explicit footage of massacre and not want to to understand why these actual humans were killed before casting them as “metaphor.”
End to end the film is full of cringe-worthy “analysis” of the “state of Africa” and broad categorization of people into “these ones” and “that ones.”
To Pasolini’s credit, the film stands as a recording of failure: this is not the African Orestes, but “Notes for…” a film which is never made, and a project which is never finished. Pasolini seems doubtful, and is careful to include interviews in which he, frankly, looks like an idiot in the face of a very patient and incredibly polite audience of “african students” at a university in Rome. The author himself appears only as a disembodied hand, and while it’s painfully embarrassing to watch the discomfort of the audience in these sequences, it is by far the best part of the entire film.
Meanwhile, Pasolini’s fascination with classical communism and the divide between the classes leads him to reflect on at least one element which remains interesting today: the involvement of China in African development. Pasolini casts the TanzanianUniversity of Dar es Salaam as the “Temple of Apollo.” Approaching the campus, Pasolini describes the architecture of the university as “immediately display[ing] disquieting signs of resembling typical Anglo-Saxon neocapitalist universities.” The campus is “typical” but represents “all the contradictions” as evidenced by this plaque above the college bookshop:
The bookshop was built by the hands of communism, but sells almost exclusively texts in English which to Pasolini represent “the neocapitalist, Anglo-Saxon alternative.”
As with most of his observations in this film, Pasolini notes the interesting facts on the ground but misses the complexity in his haste to translate them into his own narrative. The role of China is deeply complex and significant in several African nations today as its brings it’s own brand of state-directed capitalism to bear on contemporary markets. For starters, China’s involvement in Africa is all business: China sees the nations of Africa as potential market share and seeks to form business partnerships, an approach which contrasts sharply with the more typical Western approach to “Africa” (always taken in plural) as either a resource to be plundered or orphan to be cared for. For more on this, see Dr. Alexandra Thorer’s 2015 dissertation “Made by China: the Transformation of an African City / A visual exploration of the Light Rail Transit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.”
While I enjoy many of Pasolini’s works I am disinclined to rescue Notes. It seems a fools errand and ultimately not particularly productive, and yet still it stands as a useful document for seeing how little has changed in terms of the way the West approaches an entire continent as if it were both a single place and a storytelling metaphor.
I end with a more startling contemporary narrative from 2014 that interweaves history, metaphor, the classics and contemporary academia. M. D. Usher’s account of teaching Pasolini’s film in Malawi at a classics based university during the Arab Spring uprising:
“In august 2010 and in the first months of 2011, I followed in Pasolini’s footsteps to do some “fieldwork” in the region where he shot his film. I went to Malawi, a sliver of a country just south of Tanzania, because, uniquely to the region, it has a Classics Department. I taught a seminar on the Oresteia for the Department of Classics at Chancellor College, the flagship of the University of Malawi, in Zomba, the old colonial capital. My purpose was to see whether Pasolini’s Aeschylean vision for Africa still rang true one generation on.”
From “An African Oresteia: Field Notes on Pasolini’s Appunti per un’ Orestiade Africana,” Arion, A Journal of Humanities and the Classics22.1 (2014) 111-149