The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein

By Gareth Evans

the-mad-songs-of-fernanda-hussein-john-gianvito.jpgThe Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, 2001

"The victors of war should never celebrate. They should always mourn."­­ ­­­­­– Lao-Tzu

Self-funded, 16 mm and six years in the making, this politically-engaged, heartfelt and pantheistic three-hour exploration of American responses to the Gulf War is effectively unique in its decision to commit this conflict to celluloid. Written and directed by John Gianvito, programmer of the Harvard Film Archive, it weaves three fictional strands alongside documentary footage, interviews and a singular concert performance to create a multi-stranded, many-layered text that is fuelled as much by (focused) anger as it is by the prerogatives of aesthetics.

The Fernanda Hussein of the title is a Hispanic-American woman (the surname comes from her Egyptian husband) whose children are victimised and worse by anti-Iraqi thugs in their New Mexico town. Unable to cope with the terrible confirmation of their disappearance, she disappears into the hills, where her nomadic chants fill the empty valleys. Meanwhile Carlos, a Chicano Gulf war veteran, returns from the Middle East, traumatised by the atrocities his unit saw and committed, also unable fully to respond to those around him and repelled by the casual racism of his community, themselves victims of ongoing prejudice. Gianvito invests the most autobiographical elements, however, in the story of the teenager Raphael, politically alienated from his parents and peers, who becomes active in the anti-war campaign, and especially with a local peace circle.

With almost all its parts played by local residents and with many appearing in their own lives (e.g the peace activists and the soldier), Mad Songs is a fine example, in the spirit of Robert Kramer and Peter Watkins' oeuvres, of a film and film-maker inhabiting their material for social as much as cinematic ends.

With its length allowing the human pulse of the stories to operate believably, with space for genuine exploration of the issues raised, Mad Songs does not default to conventional filmic models in subject or tone. It is scored to the remarkable work for Oud, written and played in commemoration of the US bombing of Baghdad's civilian Al-Amariyah shelter, by musician Naseer Shemma and first played on the site itself.

Mad Songs celebrates the survivors of a lunatic reality while not losing sight of the terrible injustices perpetrated by a government on the innocent. Unfortunately timely, it is the most eloquent expression of the feeling that such actions are 'not done in my name' to have appeared for many years; and all the more important in that at its heart is the virtually invisible decade-long suffering of the Iraqi people under sanctions.

Mad Songs will be screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January.