Monday, July 05, 2010

Photo © Ellen M. Blalock, used with permission.

Film Review #229: Beyond Boundaries in Ghana
Director: Ellen Blalock
Cast: Beyond Boundaries members and residents of Ghana

In the last moments of one of the most powerful sequences of Ellen Blalock’s new film, Beyond Boundaries in Ghana, two small children play on the massive white-washed ramparts of the Cape Coast slave castle in Ghana, West Africa, even dancing a bit to some music in the air, it seems, though that music has been on the soundtrack, cutting back and forth with the sound of the immensely deep ocean waves washing unceasingly over the rocks below. What has been a fairly straight-forward documentary until this sequence – the chronicle of the 2006 visit to northern Ghana by the Syracuse-based organization for cultural exchange, Beyond Boundaries, whose group stops in Cape Coast on their way back to the States – catches you unawares in something less contained, soaring well beyond the journalistic. Overlaid images that suggest recollection, dream and the presence of ghosts, dark passageways into dungeons, the reactions of these travelers once they step foot onto this actual site of the Atlantic slave trade, and glimpses of the churning, unchained ocean visible just past the gunner’s slits in the castle wall – all these combine in an intense metaphor of revelation over what this trip means and what endures long past the castle’s eventual crumbling.

After the premiere screening finished last Sunday afternoon at ArtRage Gallery, the photographer Marjory Wilkins, who had raptly occupied a front row seat, declared, "This needs to be shown in the schools! Children need to see where they come from and that they come from something!"

Blalock is a multimedia artist and this is her first feature-length film. Besides her professional photojournalism and short profile videography for the local daily Post-Standard, she is a painter, portraitist and quilt-maker of note who has exhibited in galleries and been a university-level teaching artist in residence a number of times. Coming in at just over 41 minutes, Beyond Boundaries in Ghana is a confident and winning work. Blalock edits with grace and precision, catches exactly the telling comment and moment, and shuttles with ease between narrative and metaphor.

Every four years or so Beyond Boundaries makes another trip to Bolgatanga – an abbreviated version is scheduled for later this year – the community in northern Ghana they visited first in 1994. Beyond Boundaries was founded by local activists Mardea Warner (who was born and raised in Liberia) and Aggie Lane, devoted to providing cross-cultural experiences and creating lasting partnerships with the communities they visit that support women’s health and financial independence and the idea that all children should be in school. In the beginning, says Warner, they were clear they wanted to contribute more than, say, building a school and leaving – instead, they wanted, says Warner, to “bridge the gap between all those divisions in our lives.” They have also made trips to Native American communities such as Pine Ridge out west, to Canada and to the Gullah community in the Sea Islands off the Carolinas. They hope future trips will include Puerto Rico and – Mardea Warner walked from the front of the room at ArtRage, when this film premiered last Sunday afternoon there, to a wooden door and rapped on it – “Knock on wood,” she said - “eventually to Cuba.”

But the Ghana connection has remained special, and in 2006 Blalock went along to document that trip. Fellow travelers included journalist and musician Jacque “Kofi” Thomas, speech pathologist Stephanie Cross and her daughter Alex (Cross said this was a 50th-birthday present to herself and a 13th-birthday present to Alex, who rates it in the film as far better than a more conventional present like a new iPod), special education Pre-K teacher Valeria Escoffery, and occupational therapist Barbara Flock. The group hires a van and drivers – Gordon Akon-Yamga has been their “chief navigator” since the year 2000 – and they travel and eat as Ghanaians would on a similar trip, landing first in the capital city of Accra and passing through the city of Kumasi on the 450-plus mile trip to Bolgatanga in the northern corner. It is not, deadpans Mardea Warner, your typical Club Med experience.

In Bolgatanga the group meets with partners from local organizations. CENSUDI (Center for Sustainable Development Initiatives) was created by sisters Franciska and Mary Margaret Issaka, whose work includes educational initiatives. Mary Margaret Issaka says on screen of Beyond Boundaries, “We see them as our brothers and sisters. When they came here” – this would be about 1998 – “we just melted into each other. For us, that is equally important as any resources we get from the group.”

Stella Abagre of the Single Mothers Association, which is now training 259 women to process and sell rice and provide feeding programs in schools as well as marketing the distinctively styled woven “Bolga” baskets, says, “Beyond Boundaries was the very first friends we made.”

They also visit the Sirigu Women’s Organization of Art and Pottery, geological formations, a crocodile pond, the Mole National Park and, on the way back through Kumasi, the huge open-air market, the Manhyia Palace Museum of Ashanti kings and queens, and further on, the suspension bridges through the tree-tops of Kakum National Park, before they make their detour to Cape Coast. But the sum of the trip - and the film - is more than its parts. Escoffery noted that she now experiences Africa as her home, and the musician Thomas commented, "I was not born in Africa, but Africa is born in me. Now I know people there, I have seen the land, and it's more real."

ArtRage Gallery on Hawley Avenue has been quietly building itself a solid track record for screening good film right along with exhibiting visual art and photo. Besides the film program curated there by Jeff Gorney ArtRage has hosted a number of notable premieres by local filmmakers. This one took advantage of the wonderful photo show of work by Mima Cataldo and Ruth Putter, Images of Resistance, that had had its opening reception the night before. Blalock says the film will be shown again, and she’s making DVD copies available.

A version of this review appeared in the June 17, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle and also on the Eagle Newspapers website, - click A&E.