I went to see a Polish movie recently at the ICA. It was called “Beyond Words” and at first sight it dealt with an issue close to my heart: a father-and-son relationship. Yet, as I thought about the feature and peeled the layers off it after I left the Institute of Contemporary Arts, I realised that there was an overarching theme: immigrants and how they see their host country. And how their host country sees them, which is just as important. Mirrors do talk back.
Michael is a successful Polish-born lawyer. Yet for all his perfect-sounding German that makes him blend in easily in 21st-century Berlin, he is still looking for a real identity. This identity conundrum is further complicated when a man, claiming to be his father, turns up out of the blue. The two of them spend some days together trying to work out trust-related issues. Michael’s father, a Polish bohemian with very unorthodox ideas about life in general, brings chaos into his son’s otherwise orderly life. Whilst at the beginning we see resistance from Michael to this onslaught, little by little he begins to relent and finally surrenders to the only link he has to his native Poland. At the same time there is another narrative going on. One which is just as important as the father-son puzzle. This subplot involves Michael and his employer and friend, German-born Franz. Asked by the latter to defend an African poet applying for asylum, Michael refuses on the grounds that the case is a lost one. In reality, it is Michael’s prejudices against the African man that stop him from taking his case on. In an ironic and sad twist, Franz reveals a hitherto hidden side of him. He doesn’t see Michael as an equal. Just like Michael doesn’t see the African man as an equal.
The film made me question my “Cubanness”. After 20-plus years in the UK, how much of Cuba is there still in me and how much of Britain has filtered through and settled in? As soon as I got home I scanned my new place for signs of “Cubanness”. Other than music and books, all I could find was a Cuban flag on the side of a jar of Cuban honey, kindly gifted to me by my friend D. For some strange reason I also suddenly recalled some lines from Paul Muldoon’s poem “Cuba”, in which he never mentions my country, but does allude to Kennedy, “nearly an Irishman/So he’s not much better than ourselves”.
This question of identity and belonging, to me, was the main theme in “Beyond Words”. The (almost) demand on an immigrant to conform to a pre-established concept of authenticity. This concept can be laid down either by the immigrant themselves, or the host country, or both, following a centuries-old unwritten agreement whereby we do not deviate from our pre-assigned roles. Yet, what happens when we do? This is exactly what makes Michael’s father run away from his son when the latter cracks a well-known Polish joke. The words are Polish and so is the wisecrack but the man telling them… what is he? Michael’s father is not the only person estranged from something or someone. Michael himself is estranged from his culture. I don’t think I have reached that point yet, nor do I think I ever will, but certain attitudes do set me apart from what would normally be labelled “Cuban culture”. And yet, isn’t there an incongruity in that very term? For what is culture but an ever-shifting, always-forward-looking phenomenon? Am I to be only salsa, sun and sand? Who decided that?
Later on as I fell asleep the last image that flashed in my mind was that of a pebble thrown with intent and purpose by a child across a lake. The stone left a choreography of uniformly-shaped outward-fanning ripples.
|Who are you? Who am I?|