This summer, away from the spotlight glare of the Edinburgh Festival, London has nevertheless been treated to its own share of culture, presented with an ambitious programme of events at London’s Floating Cinema. Their quaint canal boat has toured the Capital’s extensive and often underappreciated man-made network of waterways delivering a series of performances, talks, workshops and screenings from all over the world.
Last weekend, as the boat continued to work its way Westwards along the Grand Union Canal, Paddington Basin played host to the latest stage in the Floating Cinema’s tour, which delivered its cargo from the East in a flurry of Czech and Slovak documentaries: the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, organised by London’s Czech Centre.
The phalanx of ultra-modern, high-rise flats flanking the canal, combined with an unseasonably chilly wind on Saturday night to conjure up something of an almost Mancunian atmosphere in West London as the sizeable crowd gathered on the bank of the canal, settled down on the deck-chairs provided, and sipped at their Czech lagers.
This evening’s film, projected from the Floating Cinema onto a screen on a bank of the canal, was Martin Mareček’s Solar Eclipse (2013), which follows the efforts of two Czech engineers, Milan and Tomas, travelling to a rural community in Zambia to repair solar energy equipment which has fallen into disrepair. Despite the myriad challenge to be expected, the pair initially manage to make some good progress, but ultimately come face to face with the more entrenched issues of poverty, corruption, and a shortage of local expertise.
The result was unfortunately rather predictable. The film followed an observational-documentary form which dispensed with any artistic pretensions or frills – initially promising a uniquely ironic look at life in rural, Southern Africa, unburdened by clichéd shots of sunsets, or scenes of “African” drumming. However, in sticking to this path so rigorously, Solar Eclipse somehow felt a little soulless, with the relentless focus upon the problems facing the engineers in their work, leaving no time for reflection on how their experiences were affecting them and what they were learning as human beings in such a far-flung place, and so removed from their ordinary environs.
As a result, what we were left with was another indictment of Africa, already so maligned and misrepresented by European and North American media. Certainly, no one would deny that the continent faces a number of serious problems which at times can seem intractable, but the relevance of yet another production highlighting this single-narrative of decay, and dependence of “The West” is questionable.
After all, there are so many success stories in Africa to tell. The film could just as easily have told the tale of the Nzema solar energy farm in Ghana which has created hundreds of sustainable jobs and is one of the largest sources of renewable energy in the world, but the old, hackneyed narrative won through. The film was produced with enough originality and self-awareness to have seriously challenged perceptions and provoked some interesting reassessment. However, we were left instead with the nagging feeling as the crowd dispersed into the night, unnaturally illuminated by thousands of kilowatts of energy, that this could have offered more.
Martin Mareček’s Solar Eclipse was part of the Czech and Slovak Docs Festival, organised by London’s Czech Centre (http://london.czechcentres.cz)