Thursday, July 26, 2007

ALL THE CULTURAL SENSITIVITY OF INTERRACIAL PORN

FILM

The white masai is only interested in the first half of its title
Consider: in 1986, Swiss clothes designer Corinne Hoffman travelled to Kenya with her boyfriend, became fascinated by a Masai man and returned to live with him. The marriage eventually soured and she left husband Lketinga for good, returning to Switzerland with their daughter. Later, she wrote a book about her experience as a “White Masai” that became a huge bestseller in Germany and beyond.

Is this: a) European colonialism meets Jerry Springer? b) A cross-cultural romance ripe for commercial exploitation? c) International child abduction?The answer, from the evidence of The White Masai, is d) all of the above.

In the movie adaptation, Carola (Nina Hoss) is entranced by a man in traditional dress while in Mombasa with her boyfriend. She remains to track him down. The man, Lemalian (Jacky Ido), is a Masai warrior who lives in the savannah of the Samburu game reserve, where the community herds goats.The story, unfolding as dully as a connect-the-plot-points picture on a kids’ menu, is always being sucked towards a black hole, that massive incomprehensibility of why this woman would do this.

The White Masai wants to explain Carola’s obsession as soft-lit romance (straining, swelling music; lovers run to each other in slo-mo) and African adventure/travelogue, but it can’t hide a darker answer: sexual exoticism, bordering on racist fetish. Remember Leni Riefenstahl? The notorious Nazi-era director of Olympia and Triumph of the Will later lived with and photographed Sudan’s Nuba people, particularly wrestlers. As Susan Sontag noted, those photos, like the films, composed a fascist take on the body—as a beautifully cruel monument to the power of innate, superior strength—within the frame of an anthropological study.

The film is all about physical fascination. It starts with bodies on a beach. When Carola tracks down Lemalian, they go to a room and have sex without a word. Carola gazes at naked Masai men bathing. Carola and Lemalian stare at each other. And in a scene shot like interracial porn, the superior white woman has the black man make love to her properly.Carola’s told that women are treated as second to the goats, but Lemalian’s often shown talking to other women in the tribe. We don’t know who they are and what they’re saying, though, since their dialogue isn’t subtitled, which here only makes the Masai seem more puzzling and shadowy, while our struggling white protagonist is all the more heroic and reliable.

Except Carola asserts herself in a thoughtlessly stubborn, outsider way. She never bothers to be strong within the culture in which she’s a visible minority of one. She rarely adapts or defers to this very different and welcoming people. The White Masai is interested in the White part of its title, but not the Masai culture, family and beliefs unless they upset Carola. They’re just not important enough on their own.

Carola leaves after Lemalian has another fit of jealousy, but the film never suggests his paranoia may have been influenced by the drug khat (as was perhaps the case with Lketinga). Both Carola’s and Hofmann’s departure essentially involve child abduction—removing a daughter from her father and community. So much for bridging two very different cultures.
But it’s only Hofmann’s version, her point of view that matters, and it’s made her millions, with two subsequent books and now this film. The White Masai can try to hide its racist superiority and colonialism behind a love-dumb façade, but why should Hofmann profit any more from her skull-numbing naïveté? When Paris Hilton sells a kazillion copies of her jailhouse memoir, In A Cell Without My Cell, that will be crime enough.

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