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They Are We (2013) - Black Film Maker International Film Festival 2015

Sunday 26 July 2015, by Coco Green

As a black American living in London nothing grates on me like being asked where my parents, grandparents or great-grandparents are from. This is the inevitable follow-up question which accompanies the initial enquiry into where I’m from, to which I reply "California". It’s not the fact of being asked that grates on me—I get it, I’m a foreigner. Added to which I was also raised in what was, at the time, a white suburb, and new black arrivals from acceptable black places like Oakland or East Palo Alto were also curious as to how I could actually be from their new residence. What grates is the fact that if I responded Jamaica, Nigeria or some other acceptable black country to the first or second line of questioning, the conversation would end. But for me, the questioning will drag on until I either shout, “You know, the Transatlantic Slave Trade that brought Africans to the Americas?! Yeah, they’re my ancestors." Or if I get an investigator that, in their surprise, admits that they thought I was from some Caribbean island or another, I’ll retort, “Same slave ship, different stop.” There’s an uncomfortable silence after that.

But there shouldn’t be. However, in addition to the silence and shame around being descended from slaves, there’s also ignorance about the social worlds which people were seized from. We don’t know which cultural traditions can be traced to West Africa, added to which there’s the challenge of knowing which ethnic group, in which region, from what time developed these traditions, to name but a few unanswered questions. In They Are We, anthropologist and filmmaker Emma Christopher uses the medium of film to trace the origins of different cultural and spiritual practices. Christopher screens footage of the Ganga-Longoba, a central Cuban ethnic group, performing celebratory dances, songs and ceremonies in villages across Sierra Leone in order to draw on the residents’ sophisticated knowledge of regional and ethnic dialects and dances and learn where in Sierra Leone they originated. This practice turns out to be successful and Christopher finds the source of these traditions: Mukpangumba. The Ganga-Longoba then travel to Mukpangumba, likely the home of the African slave who brought these traditions to Cuba, to meet the residents, and find that only a few who have any awareness of these practices.

But don’t be fooled, They Are We depicts more than an African-Cuban reunion story. Its significance lies in the power of reclaiming lost customs and its relation to the ongoing work of African historiography and diasporic histories in the Americas. Admittedly the first part of the film is boring; watching Christopher travel makes the film slow. But hang in there. Once the Cubans learn that their customs originate in Mukpangumba, their excitement makes you excited and their trip to Mukpangumba does not disappoint. Leaving the film with friends we all agreed that this could be done for so many groups in the Americas, people who so often imagine a ’Motherland’ which, however meaningful in the social imagination, is absent of life and history, for people who have forgotten that slavery did not erase all cultural remnants of these places. And for Sierra Leoneans, who do not place slavery at the beginning of their histories, coming to know these traditions, even when some have been erased through colonialism, makes their relationship to their ancestors that much more powerful.

Dir. Emma Christopher, 2013

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