Monday, April 21, 2014

Experience the third world more fully than usual; Sylvia Caminer's TANZANIA: A JOURNEY WITHIN

Stick with TANZANIA: A JOURNEY WITHIN. I say this because you may be tempted, as was I, to imagine that you've stumbled into watching yet another documentary about a first-world twit hoping to discover her or himself by visiting a third-world country. Though the movie does begin with an indication of something serious -- our heroine looks mighty sick and is headed for the hospital -- it immediately flashes back to a much earlier time, as college students Kristen Kenney and Venance Ndibalema (hereafter to be called Kris and Ven) explain why they will soon be traveling to Ven's home country of Tanzania. And then they are there, and before you can say "Don't do that," Kris is out in the streets of Dar es Salaam -- blond braids flowing, heavy-duty eye make-up in place -- dancing in front of the natives and generally making a spectacle of herself. Gheesh.

Soon after Kris uses the word "primitive" to describe the culture, to which Ven takes understandable offense. Very slowly, and probably intentionally on the part of the film's director, Sylvia Caminer (shown below), the movie, along with these two characters, begins to deepen. Soon we meet Ven's mentor, the woman who encouraged him to try to get to the United States, and then little by little, we learn of this young man's history, his family and what happened to them. Previous to this, however, we climb, along with our friends and their guides, that famous snowy mountain, Kilimanjaro, and once again, poor Kris seems hugely out of place. She wonders -- and we do, too -- whether she will survive this climb.

Then it's off to the Serengeti, where we see some wildlife, and Kris gets ecstatic and begins to sound like whatever passes for today's Valley Girl: "Shut up -- there's a giraffe!"  Kris seems to repre-sent, more than anything else, that unique need among American youth, female variety especially, to be happy and chipper at all times -- no matter how many teeth are set on edge in the process. She explains things that we don't need to know: A propos female lions protecting their kill, "It would be the same thing in my family, if someone was coming to steal our food." Well, OK.

So thank god for Ven, who turns out to be not only Kris' savior but the film's. He tells us how his mother taught him to use a knife and fork -- in a country where everyone uses his/her right hand to eat -- and we begin to see how the young man was set on the course he has followed.

The pair travels to a outlying village were we meet Ven's grandmother (above: his mother is dead, and the story of how and why adds immensely to the movie's pull).

Around the halfway point, Kris' make-up seems to lighten a good deal and then disappears all together. She, too, begins to win us over via what looks like some genuine growth and change. In the village, we spend time with the women and learn their place here. They do the work -- all of it, it seems -- and are rewarded for their trouble with the AIDS virus, which they get from their lazy, errant men.

We see HIV experienced here in a very new and disquieting way, as shown in the situation of a child suspected of having the disease (both her parents died of it) and so is shunned through-out the community. "Death is the last wedding," as one tribal saying goes. Finally Kris herself undergoes an affecting break-down as she realizes in a more profound way the enormous differ-ences between this culture and her own.

One young woman in the village, in particular (she's shown above, with Kris), wants desperately to be able to leave it and become a teacher. How difficult this turns out to be we eventually learn.

We search for the grave of Ven's mother; when we find it, the movie comes upon genuine grief, which is powerful stuff. Little wonder Kris finally admits, "I was soulless before this trip. Everything in my life was material. This is the real world." It certainly is for those who must live here.

By the time the credits roll, you'll probably want to order one of the bracelets that are mentioned in those credits, along with the charity that's been set up and that hopes to eventually stamp out malaria in the region (

Meanwhile Tanzania: A Journey Within, running 102 minutes, opens this Friday, April 25, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and on May 2 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Noho 7.  To see other playdates for the film, click here.

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