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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Death in Africa, Death in Kansas
by Donald Levit

Literary theory speaks of "intentional fallacy," the concept that an author is not necessarily the best judge of meaning and accomplishment in his or her own writing. The term, however, has wider implication and surely might be applied as well to another stripe of auteur, the creator of a film. Such is the case with White Hotel, written, directed, produced and photographed by Dianne Griffin and Tobi Solvang.

Frustrated with the restraints of independent filmmaking on the West Coast, these two very young ladies decided to go to Eritrea, a Pennsylvania-sized African nation on the Red Sea, there to document the work carried out by an American-sponsored HIV research team. Only coincidentally had they even heard about the country, in the heart of the highest HIV incidence in Africa, and, equally unplanned, they arrive at the conclusion of a brutal thirty-year war against Addis Ababa and on the eve of a referendum and eventual independence on May 24, 1993.

Many of the women's difficulties in realizing the project are understandably not their fault -- prior government approval from Asmara notwithstanding, Health Department officials were often uninformed, overwhelmed or simply unhelpful, and conditions in the backward, poor, male-dominated society were not favorable for two idealistic Western women. Nevertheless, it does seem as though Griffin and Solvang had not done enough homework, really had no realistic plan of action and, in spite of their going everywhere in the country, were finally unprepared and unable to order and fully digest what they would see.

This said, however, the film is successful and moving, for it functions on two distinct but related levels, one loosely planned and centering on the social and individual ravages of this modern plague, the other, equally affecting, almost unconscious and focused on the two young women, their relationship with each other and also with their inner selves, their families and love. These two disparate themes are united by a sense of the individual -- in this case, mostly women -- of her place as well in a social order, and of her final transience and helpless mortality.

One feels the filmmakers' bewilderment in the face of the unfaceable conditions they have naÔvely chosen to document. Much to their credit, they openly record their own hesitations and discover their vulnerability and innocence. Initially and at least in theory, they approach East Africa's AIDS pandemic from a female (not feminist) point of view, for it is true that more women (and newborn children) than men are infected; that women are restricted in status and choice -- arranged marriages at fifteen, prostitution or, less likely, housemaid work; that in this drug-free society in which homosexuality is rare, men frequent bar girls and refuse to use condoms either with such women or at home; and that risky, painful female circumcision is widely practiced by primitive traditional medicine-men or -women. (Along with widespread rape by the continent's hordes of soldiers, such conditions are borne out by any number of studies, prompting Helen Epstein to affirm that in Africa "abuse of women by poor, frustrated, angry men has been a factor in making HIV as widespread as it is.")

But while trying to overcome the logistical difficulties of documenting the very different problems of the country's pitifully ill-prepared medical infrastructure, Griffin and Solvang find themselves unraveling, and it is a virtue that their camera and microphone do not shy from recording this, as well.

In making this trip, Griffin consciously missed the funeral of her father. But throughout the film, surrounded by these other, massive deaths 8,000 miles from Kansas, she is haunted by this alcoholic, sometimes violent man whom "I hated . . . but on the other hand I really loved."

Withdrawn, a non-drinker, she worries about (and is jealous of) her outgoing, Norwegian-speaking (surprisingly, a language spoken by a fair number in Eritrea) companion, who is having a fling with their local driver. Tobi, for her part, comes to resent the other's "numbering her concerns, which were getting on [my] nerves." In a moment of passion, she has unsafe sex -- "How could I have been so stupid!" -- and both women share additional worries about epidemic TB, malaria, eye-eating parasites, gonorrhea.

In a brief coda at a U.S. clinic a year afterwards, the filmmakers' personal health concerns are laid to rest. Yet their Conradian journey has been only in part to Africa, for they have also gone within themselves, have faced up to death and responsibility and, during the physical and emotional voyage, have matured and come out all the stronger for it.

Whether inadvertent or not, the quasi-amateurish quality of White Hotel is in sync with what emerges as the dual but related themes. Often not brightly focused, with camera shots that wander unprofessionally and a soundtrack mix of soulful Africa and the West, the film seems a variety of home video, naÔve in technique and assumption. Yet - importantly -- these very qualities impart a feeling of immediacy: no glib, bright-colored professionalism masks the naked catastrophe, chaos, despair and hope. Unrehearsed interviews, with hesitant translations, alternate with handheld pans of stacked wartime skulls or fly-flecked dying women and babies; bleak beautiful landscapes from moving vehicles vie with filthy streets and pastel buildings; doctors calmly discuss unacceptable conditions, then a medicine-woman describes three types of female circumcision; illiterate people vote a color-coded card for independence. People die, are born, come to terms with, or are resigned like animals to, life and death, family and love, pain and celebration.

Griffin and Solvang deserve high marks for dealing most honestly, and incidentally effectively, with these very basics of the human condition, in East Africa and in their own hearts.

(Released by Sub Rosa Studios; not rated by MPAA.)

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