“Fresh from the West”: Marxism, Commodity Fetishism and Naficy’s Chronotopes of Life in Exile in Granaky-Quaye’s Beento
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This essay reads Nancy Mac Granaky-Quaye’s 2008 film Beento through Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism and Hamid Naficy’s work on diasporan and exilic cinema in Accented Cinema to explore how the main character trades commodities as an exercise in resisting his opponent’s staunch nationalism.
The scene is a late afternoon in East Germany, circa 1963. Young sweethearts Sam Owusu and Katharina Ebert have abandoned their university campus for the day and are trekking homewards. Sam places his arm around his lover’s shoulders and exclaims, “We always have sunshine. Ghana is a blessed country.” Ghana is Sam’s homeland, and Accra, its capital city, is where his family currently resides. Sam brags to Katharina that, “When I return to Accra someday, they will all be waiting at the airport, ‘Dr. Owusu is coming back, a real Beento’"; a “Beento,” Sam explains, is “a successful man who has been to Germany.” Gazing at the grey clouds above, Sam dreamingly drifts back to memories of Ghana; he longs for his family’s “kenkey, palm wine, and fresh sardines.” As he vocalizes these imaginings of home, Katharina stops dead in her tracks and drops a bombshell: “It is not so easy Sammy . . . I am pregnant.” So unfolds the climactic scene in Nancy Mac Granaky-Quaye’s 2008 film Beento.
In this critical scene in Beento, Sam references his native “kenkey, palm wine, and fresh sardines” to Katharina because they soothe his feelings of loneliness in East Germany. Long stricken with nostalgia, Sam has been procuring such foodstuffs from a Ghanaian aunt in capitalist West Germany and smuggling them back with him to the communist East, along with several Western items. While Sam retains the sardines, he trades the rest of the goods with his university classmates. The present discussion suggests that Sam’s peripatetic lifestyle as a collector and dealer of goods is not just aimed at easing his longings for home. He purposely traffics the merchandise to transgress the restriction of international trade in East Germany, and this in turn somehow buffers him from the horrors of his marginalization as an African in the communist country. Of all the merchandise Sam imports, Sam engages the Titus sardines most vehemently in his resistance against marginalization in Germany, and in his subsequent quest to protect his unborn child by Katharina. Sam’s enterprise in Beento is redolent with Marxist motifs, including Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, and with what film scholar Hamid Naficy calls “chronotopes of life in exile.”
The Context of Beento
Nancy Mac Granaky-Quaye is a filmmaker based in Germany. Born to a German mother and a Ghanaian father, her Beento is semi-biographical; her father was once a student in Germany during the 1960s. Granaky-Quaye began making films in 2006 when she graduated from Köln Film School in Cologne, Germany. Since then, she has shot over seven films, most of which revolve around the lives of those who have overcome hardships. Her first film, Constanze (2006), was about a teenage girl in a small German town who must push through her timidity to develop herself as an artist. Gehenlassen (2006) is a short film about a woman who loses her son in an accident and learns to accept the loss. Her film Real Life: Deutschland (2009) is a 40-minute documentary about everyday racism and discrimination resisted by black youth in Germany. Beento is her fifth film.
Beento is a 24-minute film that is set during the era of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), also known as East Germany. During this period, 1949-1990, the East German government invited students from around the world to study in their local universities. Floods of students, from Ghana and Mozambique to Cuba and Vietnam, arrived in East Germany to avail themselves of the education offered by the new communist state. Unfortunately, many of these students ran into tremendous social difficulties. At the time, East Germany was shunned by many in the international community as a mere satellite of the Soviet Union, and this incited a desire among certain East Germans to establish their own national and cultural identity apart from both the Eastern Bloc and the West; this, to some of them, meant ostracizing those who were not native to East Germany, including the foreign students. These students suffered much trauma at the expense of nationalists who wished at all costs to parade themselves to the world as a proud and successful communist republic.
In creating Beento, Quaye says she consulted “old DEFA-Movies from the former GDR [and] went to the Stasi Archive and watched documentaries about student life in the former GDR. I spoke to contemporary witnesses and, what is most important, to my father, who was a guest student from Ghana himself. He told me a lot about his life in Dresden at that time.” She added that bringing Beento into being was a colossal task due to resistance from potential sponsors: “Sometimes, producers and other gatekeepers think Afro-inspired movies are too special. They don’t want to take any risks. I hope that this attitude will change for the better. We cannot ignore that the percentage of migrants and their descendants has increased. Their stories are getting more and more relevant and can attract many viewers, too. Besides, we should stop seeing only stereotypes.” It is this endeavor to counter stereotypes and to tell the stories of marginalized peoples that is the driving force of Beento.
In Beento, the Titus sardines that form the central symbol in the narrative are produced by Unimer Group. Unimer Group is a multinational company based in Morocco that buys and sells canned food. It manufactures and distributes meat and vegetables, including, “Sardines and mackerels, tomato concentrate, capers, apricots, olives, jams, vinegar, peppers and other canned products.”  It produces 60,000 tons of mackerel and sardines a year, which means over 250 million cans annually. These go to over 20 countries worldwide, from Japan to South Africa, from Canada to Ukraine. Their products can be seen lining the shelves of supermarkets in large cities such as London, Paris, and Lagos.
Across Africa, Unimer Group’s Titus sardines is one of the company’s most popular products. They are often showcased in local television commercials, featuring clients feasting on Titus with bread, with rice, and various other staple carbohydrates. In such commercials, these consumers enthusiastically testify to the “[p]ower of Titus”: One consumer claims that, “The aroma of Titus with noodles restores my appetite anytime I lose it”; another professes that, “As a medical student, I hardly have time to go to the cafeteria. . . It’s Titus sardines with noodles for me. Titus sardines forever!” A third consumer attributes to Titus the success of his marriage proposal: “I will never forget that day I met Agnes at Bar Beach, Titus with Jollof rice . . . That was the day she said ‘Yes!’” One commercial claims that Titus provides “help and support” and the “courage to face all challenges.” Titus helps one “aspire to happiness” and “to dream about a better life,” “to share a wonderful moment” and “to believe in our potential"; these sardines, which “have been feeding us for over a hundred years, offer us the strength for a better living. Life is better with Titus.”
Such exaggerated enthusiasm for commodities such as Titus was the bane of communist nations in the 1960s, including East Germany. To deter their local constituents from privileging foreign items over their local ones, the government initiated heavy regulation of the buying and selling of merchandise by multinational companies. Karl Marx’s conceptualization of bourgeois interests and international trade explains the impetus behind such policies:
The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionaries, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.
To obviate against such deterioration of their local economy through dependence on foreign markets, the government of East Germany sought to orient their citizens towards that which their nation could produce, and away from foreign industries.
As a result of this trading policy, East Germany and the Federal Republic of Germany in the West, became two distinct worlds. The Federal Republic’s open trade policy diversified commodities in all areas of their society, from schools and hospitals, to supermarkets and department stores. In the East, on the other hand, hardly any such competition existed; stores were typically stocked with the few commodities that were domestically manufactured, and this trend was especially true in the auto industry. The Trabant, nicknamed “Trabi,” a miniature plastic automobile that was locally manufactured and offered to families at affordable costs, was the only car widely bought and sold in East Germany. All other cars were either forbidden or priced far outside the affordability of the common folk.
The disparities between East and West Germany did not end there. According to many observers, the long-term impact of this regulation of the Eastern market, and other related aspects of East German life, was the emergence of a police state. To preserve a “fair” market under communist standards, amongst other agendas, the government arranged heavy surveillance of individuals who visited East Germany from the West, and their East German contacts were also heavily monitored. When such visitors arrived, they were often alarmed by the state of the East’s infrastructure under communism. One visitor testified that East Germany, “Was very gray, crumbling — the only color you saw was communist red, and nothing was spontaneous. Everything was controlled.” Another witness described it as, “Drab, run down appearance, with a monotony unrelieved by anything gay or sprightly. The communist influence seems to impose this dull appearance.... Because of their nature they probably do not do much to raise the citizens’ spirits.” According to Eli Rubin, “From the eastern side of the border, the success of the West German con-sumer society was visible in three main ways: the advertisements on the sides of buildings and on billboards and vehicles; the clothing worn by people walking near the wall; and the number and quality of cars on the streets. The East, by comparison, seemed gray, barren and backward. Even Soviet officials complained about the severe deficiencies of consumer culture in East Germany, especially in East Berlin, and realized the need for something to counter the bustling, modern street scenes of West Berlin.”
Such observers also often noted the paradox that, while the East German government strived to build a model communist nation, many East Germans were covertly more bourgeois in spirit than the West, and the West Germans likewise seemed to emulate a proletariat lifestyle: “This officially was a farmers and workers state, a ‘proletarian state’ they called themselves, but people actually . . . had this yearning to become bourgeois. Much different than from the Western State... at the time we had hippies.” During this period, the German Democratic Republic became so dislodged from its original ideals that it became the ridicule of many of its opponents. Commodities, such as the Trabi, which initially were a symbol of East German progress, now became “a symbol of the technological and social backwardness of the East German state.”
In Beento, this strict monitoring of trade and the policing of visitors from the West by the East German government is reflected in the social alienation and policing of Sam as a foreigner. But each time Sam is ostracized, he resists his ill-treatment by acquiring foreign merchandise as a gesture of rebellion. Whereas the Titus sardines appear later in the film to demonstrate how Sam deploys the merchandise to resists his marginalization, in the first few scenes of the film, Sam’s contraband cigarettes from West Germany takes on a similar role. His dealings in the cigarettes and sardines counter Marxism in both instances, and this anti-Marxist challenge to his marginalization are charted by what Hamid Naficy calls “chronotopes of life in exile,” a key feature of accented cinema.
“Chronotopes of Life in Exile,” and Cigarettes as Commodity Fetishism in Beento
In his book, Accented Cinema (2001), Hamid Naficy defines accented films as those, typically outside of Hollywood, or the mainstream, which capture the lives of immigrants. “If the dominant cinema is considered universal and without accent, the films that diasporic and exilic subjects make are accented. . .the accent emanates not so much from the accented speech of the diegetic characters as from the displacement of the filmmakers and their artisanal production modes.’’ These films’ “accents” are those unique features that differentiate them from the mainstream films, such as “subject matters and themes that involve journeying, historicity, identity, and displacement; dysphoric, euphoric, nostalgic, synaesthetic, liminal, and politicized structures of feeling... and inscription of the biographical, social and cinematic (dis)location of the filmmakers.” Beento mostly exudes accented cinema in its depiction of space-time, or “chronotopes of life in exile,” as Naficy would call it. This “chronotope” feature of the film is present from the beginning of the narrative to the end.
At the beginning of Beento, Sam and Katharina are posing for a picture in front of Sam’s car in the middle of a city street. Sam seems nervous. He dusts off his shirt, adjusts his belt, and looks up at the camera. Katharina appears equally uneasy. She glances at the ground beneath her feet, shuffles a few steps towards Sam, and leans slightly away from him. There is absolutely no dialogue between the two throughout this scene. Yet, as the click of the camera resounds, the resulting photograph speaks volumes. Whereas the previous image was in color, this photograph is black and white, except for the brilliant red of Sam’s car in the frame. This jarring contrast of the dullness of Sam and Katharina’s surroundings and the brightness the red car suggests the city landscapes that typified East Germany. One gets the sense that the unease expressed by Sam and Katharina as they posed for the photograph has something to do with the climate of the time.
This is confirmed in the very next scene, at a party which the couple attend in Sam’s dormitory. In a dimly lit hall, three students gather amid dozens of other dancing and drinking attendees to secretly discuss John F. Kennedy’s recent “I am a Berliner” speech, in which the American president identified the Berlin wall as a symbol of the evils of communism. Sam’s Ghanaian roommate, Matthew, overlooks JFK’s ethics and focuses instead on JFK’s professed affinity with Berlin: “[Is JFK a] East or West Berliner?” he asks. As a foreigner in East Germany, the deeply entrenched nationalist culture of the communist state has made Matthew cynical. It is futile to discuss the ethics of the wall because, for Matthew, this barrier has long stood not only for the inexorable division between the communist East and the capitalist West, but also for the long-disregarded separation between Black and White, or the African-German divide, which has been an overwhelming burden to him and Sam in East Germany.
Matthew’s cynicism about East Germany accompanies the cut from Sam and Katharina on the drab streets of East Germany to the dormitory full of jovial exchange students. The sequence of events is a typical feature of accented cinema that serves to communicate Sam’s sense of marginalization through what Naficy terms “chronotopes of life in exile.” Naficy delineates this chronotope, or time-space, by comparing it to the psychological condition, agoraphobia. According to Naficy, just like, “Agoraphobes withdraw to ‘safe zones,’ confining themselves to their place of residence or sometimes to a single room or even to bed.... They prefer dark places and, when they venture outside, tend to wear dark glasses,” a similar dynamic can be found in the life of the exiles in the scenes of the accented film. “These phobic chronotopes and paranoid structures take the form in accented films of closed mise-en-scène and filmic style and a receding structure of feelings. Small, dingy and overcrowded immigrant apartments, prison cells, hotel rooms, buses, tunnels, and confining symbolic spaces such as the suitcase are favored.” In accented films, such closed spaces “serve the comforting and critical functions of embodying the exiles’ protest against the hostile social conditions in which they find themselves.”
The party in Sam’s dormitory reflects such a chronotope, not only because Matthew protests his experiences of hostility in East Germany, but also because the tension in the previous scene on the street between Sam and Katharina, which suggests the surveillance of the police state of East Germany and the gaze of East Germans, is followed by the relaxed posture of Sam and Katharina at the party. Sam himself wears sunglasses in the previous scene on the street, just like an agoraphobe, while he does without these glasses at the party in the next scene. The dimly lit hall, the close-ups of Sam, Matthew, and Katharina, as well as the film’s blurring of the other members of the party also reflects Naficy’s observation that such chronotopes of exile life are “intensified by a dark lighting scheme that limits sight, by barriers in the shot that impede vision, and by tight shot composition, immobile framing, and a stationary camera.” These two first scenes of Beento thus serve to suggest the marginalization of Sam, which he will later resist through commodity fetishism.
In the Titus commercials by the Unimer Group, the advertised notion that, “Life is better with Titus” is redolent with what Marx termed “the fetishism of commodities.” Marx argued that, in a capitalist market economy, all merchandise bought and sold inevitably takes on a life of its own, becoming imbued with qualities that it does not truly possess, so that individuals who encounter it end up regarding the items as powerful entities: “to find an analogy we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world, the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor.” In other words, by revering commodities, present day men take after their ancestors who perceived stone statues or wooden idols as their source of power to win wars, produce crops, and eradicate diseases; like the ancients, such men view their objects as charting their life course independent of their own agency, overlooking that it is their labor power or creativity behind these objects, and not the objects in themselves that order their lives.
Marx terms man’s predilection to transfer their power into objects that then lord over them “alienation.” When a worker ceases to observe the object that they make as the result of their own creative power, the worker, in a sense, alienates their own self. This self-reflexive process transpires ad infinitum. Under the capitalist system of exploitation, the more the worker produces — i.e. the more they divest their creative power into the object — the more it gains power over them. This is how capitalism transforms individuals into cogs in its machine. Where the worker convinces themselves of their progress owing to accrued wealth, this too is a sham: “The less you are, the more you have — the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life — the greater is the store of your estranged being.” This exploitative economic system has disastrous consequences not only for the worker, but for the society at large. In capitalist societies “all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labor.”
To counter his marginalization when he meets Katharina's parents for the first time, Sam acts in a manner that breaches the injunction against commodity fetishism prescribed by Marx. In the Ebert’s living room, Katharina’s parents barely return his greetings, and instead stare at him, mouths agape, visibly shocked that he is African. Meanwhile, the non-diegetic song, “Jugend Erwach” (“Rise Up, Youth”) plays with increasing intensity. This East German nationalist tune encourages the youth to build a strong communist nation: to pave the way for “Peace, Freedom, and Justice,” and, “for a better future, we will construct our homeland.” Such lyrics, which appeal to the spirit of brotherhood amongst East Germans, are typically the driving force of their ostracization of foreigners such as Sam. The song thus amplifies the violence of this encounter between Sam and Katharina’s family.
Sam’s method of endurance throughout his ordeal in the Ebert home is to endear himself to Katharina’s father. Sam scoots over to Mr. Ebert and offers him a cigarette. Mr. Ebert is at first uninterested, but Sam discloses that the cigarettes are “fresh from the West,” and Mr. Ebert grabs the cigarette from Sam and lights it up. One puff on the cigarette, and Katharina’s father swiftly becomes at ease for the first time in the scene. He even nods at Sam in approval, as if to welcome him to the family, to which Sam sighs in relief. This shift in Mr. Ebert’s temperament is noteworthy: like many East Germans of the time who allegedly harbored a secret wish to be bourgeois, Katharina’s father suddenly wants to fraternize with the Westernized Sam, who he now associates with bourgeois luxury, unlike the stereotypes he had previously held of Sam.
While Mr. Ebert begins to take a liking to Sam, Katharina’s mother continues to disapprove of him. Observing that Sam has forged a rapport with her husband, she “accidentally” spills hot coffee on Sam’s lap. Mrs. Ebert evidently means to reprimand Sam, albeit covertly, for encroaching into her family circle. Yet, Sam remains calm, and merely heads for the lavatory to wash the coffee stains off his trousers. When he returns, Sam ostentatiously raises his hands and announces, “The coffee is gone” (“Der Kaffee ist raus”). The German word, “raus” literally means “out,” or “get out.” Thus, Sam is not just referring to the stains that were on his clothing. He is analogizing himself with the coffee, and slyly voicing Mrs. Ebert’s secret wish, that he gets out of her family.
In Beento, Sam’s activities in the Ebert household, particularly his offering of cigarettes (and subsequently other Western goods) to Katharina’s father amounts to a parody of Marx’s commodity fetishism. Whereas Marx’s commodity fetishism alienates the worker, in this scene, Mr. Ebert’s fetishism of Western commodities bails Sam out of his social alienation. Another difference between the two forms of fetishism is that Marx’s worker drains themselves of their life force in relation to their commodity, whereas Sam seems to be invigorated by his trading of the commodity. Not only does he defy Mrs. Ebert with his tongue-in-cheek comment about the coffee stain, he even offers to import more cigarettes for Mr. Ebert.
“Chronotopes of Life in Exile,” and the Titus Sardines as Commodity Fetish in Beento
After meeting the Eberts, Sam travels to West Germany to procure his Titus Sardines, along with other Western goods. On his way back to the East, he is detained at the border. A border patrolman orders him out of his car and instructs him to open his trunk. The camera then cuts to the huge box of Titus sardines, about 100 cans in total. The patrolman commands him to open them all. As Sam exasperatingly opens each of the cans, a parallel between Sam and the sardines suddenly emerges. The sardines in the red sardine can, and Sam in his red car suggests that the sardines are an instantiation of Sam. In the same way the Titus sardines constitute contraband in East Berlin, so is Sam tacitly unwelcome in their country.
When Sam returns to his dormitory, the box of opened sardine cans is dilapidated, which signifies the crumbling of Sam’s own spirit after such ill treatment at the border. To make matters worse, as he walks towards his room, he comes upon the Hausmeister, or dorm caretaker, Mr. Paschulke, a staunch nationalist. In the same way the border patrolman had detained Sam as he drove into East Germany from the West, the Hausmeister intercepts Sam as he makes his way through the halls of the dorm. Mr. Paschulke yells, “What is that smell?” as if referring to Sam, but then he points to the Titus sardines and condemns them as “Western goods.” He orders Sam to immediately remove the box from the premises. As in the former scene at the border, Sam and the fish are symbolically equated as Western contraband.
At this moment in Beento, the dormitory in which Sam once found solace serves a new function. It is no longer Sam’s cocoon from the hostility of the outside world, but the very source of this hostility. This is another hallmark of accented film. Naficy says that in accented films, agoraphobia increasingly turns into claustrophobia, so that the small spaces to which the agoraphobes escape no longer provide comfort. “The representation of life in exile and diaspora . . . tends to stress claustrophobia and temporality, and it is cathected to sites of confinement and control and to narratives of panic and pursuit.” This is what takes place in Beento. Just like the accented film, Farewell Stranger (Tevfik Baser, 1991), where “as the social climate becomes more intolerant.... The sense of panic and claustrophobia gradually builds up,” Sam’s maltreatment, first in the Ebert household, then at the border, and now in the dorm, supplants Sam’s earlier agoraphobia on the streets of East Germany with a sense of claustrophobia.
In the heat of his confrontation with Paschulke, Sam clicks his heels in soldierly fashion and exclaims, “Jawohl Genosse. Es lebe die internationale Solidarität (“Sir, yes, sir. Long live the international solidarity”). His use of the German term, “Jawohl” is deliberate. Jawohl is associated with the German military and is usually stated as an affirmative answer to a command from one’s superior. Among civilians, it is usually used to express sarcasm at anyone who demands more than their interlocutor is willing to deliver. Sam uses the word here to mock Paschulke’s determination to enforce his nation’s draconian trade policies.
This exchange between Paschulke and Sam not only suggests Sam’s growing claustrophobia, it begins to parody Marx’s characterization of capitalist consumers versus people who live under communism. Marx terms the human being under communism the “species man” and the human being under capitalism the “civil man.” The civil man is devoted to the powers that dominate him. In this state of submission, capital, along with the State, becomes his god, under whom he works and trades.
Species men, on the other hand, produce their own means of subsistence that in turn produce their material life. To the species man, “Labour, life activity, productive life, now appear to man only as means for the satisfaction of a need, the need to maintain physical existence.... In the type of life activity resides the whole character of a species, its species-character; and free, conscious activity is the species-character of human beings.” This natural state of fruition helps the species man to promote the best of themselves. While the civil man inevitably degrades himself by kowtowing to higher authority and channeling his efforts towards their goals, the species man substantiates his existence by affirming his own way of being, saving himself from ruin.
In Beento, the dormitory confrontation between Paschulke and Sam illustrates Marx’s theory of the species and civil man with a twist. Paradoxically, Paschulke, who extols communism, is emblematic of the civil man who defers to the State and disregards his fellow man, whereas Sam, who rejects communism, is emblematic of the species man who embraces autonomy and fights to protect his psyche. Such irony, where the alleged communist is evocative of the fettered worker, while the capitalist resembles Marx’s liberated proletarian, is the recurring theme of this film, aimed at reflecting the social climate of East Germany in which many East Germans secretly desired to follow the lead of their capitalist counterparts, while many West Germans modeled themselves after communist working class men. The rest of the narrative continues to amplify this paradox of Marxism in the German Democratic Republic as illustrated by Sam’s interaction with East Germans.
In Sam’s dormitory, Katharina—present during the confrontation between Paschulke and Sam—realizes the gravity of Sam’s anti-communist gesture. In the subsequent scene, as Sam is feasting from the open sardine cans in the privacy of his room. Katharina asks him, “Why do you do that?” This question is aimed not only at Sam’s eating of the sardines, but also at his actions earlier in the hallway. Sam retorts, “If not, they will become rotten.” In other words, in the same way he eats the fish so they do not go to waste, he must resist such mistreatment by the likes of Paschulke, so he will not go to waste, so that he will not become psychologically wrecked. Katharina earlier on had remarked to Sam that he reeked of fish, equating Sam with the sardines. She is not far removed in spirit from the likes of Paschulke; neither can understand Sam.
In Beento, East Germans such as Paschulke not only fail to be species men owing to their marginalization of Sam, they also fall short of this ideal because their actions precipitate the collapse of Sam’s family. This disintegration, usually attributed to life under capitalism, in which the exchange of commodities weakens the family unit, occurs in Beento after Katharina discloses her pregnancy to Sam during their homeward trek from the university. After their stroll, the two retreat to Sam’s dorm room where he notices that his box of Titus sardine cans is missing. Intuitively realizing who took it, he storms towards the Hausmeister’s office, where he finds Paschulke eating his sardines. Sam immediately lunges at Paschulke in anger, and the stunned Hausmeister retaliates by threatening Sam: “next time, you’ll be sitting on a plane to Ghana. No more studying at our expenses!” Before he leaves Paschulke’s office, Sam retrieves his stolen sardines and bites into them, symbolically taking back his power, extricating himself from the abusive grip of Paschulke. This gesture, which is a reiteration of his eating of the sardines in his room to preserve his psyche, demonstrates Sam’s growth. He no longer offers his aggressors merchandise to endear himself to them.
Back in his dormitory room, Sam reflects on his ordeal with Mrs. Ebert, the border patrolman, and Paschulke; he decides that starting a family in the German Democratic Republic is unwise. He beseeches Katharina to flee with him to West Germany for the sake of their unborn baby, but Katharina rejects this suggestion. The couple end up separating. One day, realizing that she misses Sam, Katharina returns to his dorm room. But, to her dismay, Sam has moved out. He has travelled to the West. When she asks Sam’s roommate, Matthew, if Sam left a note, Matthew can only hang his head in sadness; he somberly clutches two Titus sardine cans in his hands, and he gently slaps them together in grief.
Sam’s abandoning of the Titus cans in East Germany further suggests the agoraphobia-claustrophobia dynamic that Naficy associates with accented cinema’s “chronotopes of life in exile.” Sam had long salvaged his Titus Sardines as what Naficy describes as a “phobic partner,” associated with agoraphobes, to soothe his feelings of unease. But now, he no longer needs them because his agoraphobia has turned into claustrophobia; he has to flee the space altogether. As Matthew’s clanging of Sam’s prized sardine cans echoes throughout the room, it renders audible Sam’s anguish. Indeed, in the closing shot of the film, Sam is driving towards the West, gazing at the road ahead of him with tear-filled eyes.
Marx theorized that the capitalist system is inherently exploitative, and that, owing to this pitfall, it will inevitably meet its end. Once the worker fully confronts the wretchedness of their condition, a revolution will spring up, which will prepare the soil for a humane economic system. In Beento, however, it is communism that fails Sam, and not capitalism. It is communism that proves itself inhumane: Sam’s abusers’ dogmatic zeal to elevate their nation state precipitates actions and attitudes that severely traumatize Sam to the extent that they trigger the dissolution of Sam’s family.
The film thus calls into question the promises of communism. It illustrates that, in such cases where mass capitalist exploitation is eradicated, marginalization of immigrants and other peoples still maintains a foothold. This is the resounding message that looms over the narrative. Each time Sam journeys over the border to fetch the merchandise, he attempts to push back against his marginalization, and against the notion that communism is a utopian system. In his mind, communism is a sham, and, although capitalism has its flaws, the advertised capitalist notion that ,“Life is better with Titus” rings true to him.
Temitope Abisoye Noah is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Department of German. Some of her research interests include Black Film, African American History, Nietzsche Studies, and Marxism.
Besides Beento, Granaky-Quaye is perhaps best known for this documentary. In the documentary, the youth create a theatre play based on their own experiences. Through rehearsals and personal interviews, they share their experiences of marginalization in Germany. After emotional rehearsals, the play “Real life: Deutschland” is finally staged.
Beento was screened at various festivals and cultural centers across Germany. A distribution company called W-Film also distributed Beento until 2017. Today, the film can be purchased from the director herself at www.quaye.de
Jen Martens, “Interview with Nancy Mac Granaky-Quaye,” Frolicious, 25 August 2015:http://www.frolicious.de/2015/08/25/african-diaspora-cinema-2015-in-cologne-with-nancy-mac-granaky-quaye/ Accessed March 02, 2018.
The lack of funding for these films also exacerbates the dearth of films about marginalized peoples. Independent filmmakers such as Haile Gerima, for instance, have resorted to campaigns such as IndieGoGo to garner the resources necessary to create his films, but still struggles to get his projects running, unlike his Hollywood counterparts.
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“UNIMER GROUP English.” YouTube. October 19, 2017. Accessed March 02, 2018. https://youtu.be/DBCSaGW4wU4
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