Sunday, April 01, 2007

Bling: Planet Rock

I attended a screening of Raquel Cepeda's documentary "Bling: Planet Rock" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night. It was part of the Creatively Speaking film series curated by Michelle Materre spotlighting films that "convey a realistic universal portrayal of people of color." "Bling" recounts the experience of rappers Raekwon, Paul Wall and Tego Calderon as they travel to Sierra Leone to learn about that nation's diamond trade and the violent war that it spurred in the 90s-2001. These rappers were invited by Cepeda who was already in the process of developing this documentary exploring the broader relationships between violence and bling in the United States and war and diamonds in Sierra Leone. Cepeda's documentary hinges on the keen connection between the ostentatious buying habits of rappers and Sierra Leone's alternative narrative of violence and struggle. In other words, if American rappers are often talking about war and suffering what happens if they are brought face to face with members of a society who have been ravaged by one of the deadliest civil-wars in recent memory.

"Bling" has many elements working in its favor, not the least of which is the incredibly charasmatic Raekwon. Without the presence of his more gregarious Wu-Tang brethren Method Man or the late ODB, Raekwon, aka Raekwon the Chef, has a forum to exhibit an extroverted persona that some might find as a departure from mello Wu-Tang manner. He emerges as the lightning rod to which the camera remains fixated as the rappers make their way through Sierra Leone. Raekwon is at times silly and sullen, seemingly negligent, vulnerable and undoubtedly touched by what he witnesses.

Paul Wall and Tego Calderon operate on two different realms. Wall plays the dual role of artist and jewelry store owner. This latter career enables him to capitalize on rapper's cultish affinity for diamonds in very tangible ways that eclipse the everyman attitude he strives to relay. Calderon on the other hand is intimately connected to his African roots--declaring in one of the films more profound moments, "I didn't go to school but I did go to Africa." He does not play the part of naive actor in this film. Instead throughout the documentary Calderon maintains a conscientious demeanor that gives it a much needed bout of gravity.
Further grounding the film is the presence of former child soldier Ishmael Bael who makes his first trip back to Sierra Leone during the filming of this documentary. Bael fills in the gaps that rappers by no means could and gives Cepeda an eloquent authorial voice through which to relay the factual/historical background of life and conflict in the country. Bael receives support in this task from current residents of Sierra Leone who survived the war and who work in various rehabilative shelters serving various segments of the nation's population. These survivors range from women who were raped to the former child soldiers.

While there are still a number of issues that need further analysis, not the least of which is the plight of women survivors, and the post-war relationships between men and women, the film is a notable accomplishment for helping to bring forward the complex relationships between art and capital in these very different yet interconnected societies. It is a production well worth seeing.

As mentioned earlier the screening was part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Creatively Speaking film series curated by Michelle Materre. The series continues on April 1st 2007 with a line-up of films focusing on women directors and films homing in on the plights and stories of women in the African diaspora. A full schedule can be found here....

The Nightshift Chronicler