Shakespearean Soundscapes: Music – Voices – Noises – Silence

Shakespearean Ventriloquisms: Sound, Sight, and Spectacular Exoticism in Makibefo

by Philipp Hinz

Makibefo, the feature film debut by Alexander Abela,[1] documents the collaborative effort of an English filmmaker and a group of tribal fisher(men) from the southern coast of Madagascar, the Antandroy, as they set about interpreting Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Previous to this project the actors of this film had little knowledge of the medium and had never heard of the play before. Sound in Makibefo takes up a central role in that it is used both to characterize the culture in which it plays as well as to provide the structure of the entire narrative. The film thus includes a number of songs in its soundtrack which show features reminiscent of oral traditions, highlighting the social function music and singing has within this ‘tribal’ society. Moreover, the film’s aural scenery constructs its protagonists and their bodies quite independently of the actual visual images – and on a number of occasions, actions which appear not to be representable visually will be included in the soundtrack instead. Through such aural scenery, Makibefo seems to be defying the common cinematic practice according to which film sound works to reassert the audience that the world is the same as it looks, thereby masking the heterogeneity of the cinematic spectacle and covering up, as Rick Altman has emphasized, “sound film’s fundamental lie: the implication that the sound is produced by the image when in fact it remains independent from it.[2]Lip-sync language participates here in the construction of the ostensible subjectivity of an on-screen character, on the presumption that “speech which belongs to the individual, defines and expresses his or her individuality, and distinguishes the individual from the world.”[3] However, when such a link is severed, the silenced body is in imminent danger of losing its identity. Although Makibefo displays such an obvious interest in its soundscape, the film’s aurally constructed figures remain conspicuously silent. Instead, the film’s spectators are guided through the movie by a narrator figure who through his repeated interventions occupies his protagonists’ every line. Speaking in place of the characters of the film, this ventriloquist projects his (and the audiences’) expectations onto the quieted images of the Malagasy actors. Such impressions are moreover emphasized by the film’s coarse-grained black-and-white images, reminiscent of documentary and early ethnographic film. Here the sight of the film’s aestheticized bodies are on the brink of becoming a site of exotic speculations, denying its objects a voice and a history of their own and locking them – and potentially the actors themselves too – in a far distant past.

Sound

Right from the opening sequence of the film in which we first encounter Makibefo (Macbeth) a vivid juxtaposition between a series of blurred images and an evocative sound is created. Thus, before we actually see any clear pictures, let alone one of the film’s main protagonist, the spectators in the cinema already hear the sound of a deep breath being exhaled out of the darkness of the blank screen. Against such indefinite images, the amplified rhythmic breathing becomes our centre of focus, guiding us towards the man we finally can identify as the ‘source’ of the sound we have been listening to. As the sequence unfolds, the audience hears Makibefo dig his spear into the sandy ground before he forces it into the body of his first victim, Kidoure (Cawdor). We then hear his victim exhale a last gasp of breath. In each instance sound clearly precedes the visual. Apart from the final image of the moribund Makibefo, the spectators generally are detained from witnessing such violent acts and the film’s dying bodies are concealed from our view and remain off-screen. As an audience we consequently have to rely on sound to imagine the action instead. One of the most captivating sequences of the entire film is the murder of Bakoua (Banquo), an elaborate parallel montage, documenting how a zebu ox is sacrificed and slaughtered to celebrate Makibefo’s accession to the power. While the ox is selected from a small herd and led out of the enclosure, the film cuts to another scene where we see Bakoua wandering along the beach on his own. Meanwhile, returning to the previous scene, the animal is forced to the ground, laid on its back and bound. Finally, after much manoeuvring, a knife is produced and the animal’s throat cut and slit open: Blood spurts forth and is collected in a metal bowl. Throughout we hear the animal breathing heavily. Bakoua has to endure a similar treatment. After being intercepted and seized by Makibefo’s henchmen, his murder is shown in almost the same terms as the slaughtering of the zebu ox. He, likewise, is forced to the ground, bleeding after being hit by a slingshot. He is then wrenched onto his knees. Finally, Bakoua is stabbed repeatedly with a spear and killed. Unlike the bloody slaughtering of the animal, where we see the lethal cut of the throat, the audience does not get to see the human body being lacerated. Instead, the audience has to rely on the sound mimetically representing the action. In this sequence, the sound is separated from its (original) body as the soundtrack transgresses the boundary of its respective image, both becoming almost indistinguishable and forming one single unit. And when we see Bakoua lying on his belly, snorting into the sand, the sound we hear, it seems, is that of the bovine. Similarly, when the long shot of Bakoua lying in the distance at the feet of his assassins fades into black, thus ending this spectacle, the last the audience hears is the sound of the dying ox. The film’s opening sequence, likewise, merges the breathing of the two men, Cawdor and Makibefo, to form a symbolic link between the villain and his victims. Thus the film fashions Makibefo through its aural motifs of life, and of sudden violent death, qualities that then are amalgamated in the body we then see on the screen. Such an aural motif is subsequently transformed into the aspirated beat of the film’s musical theme. As the film progresses, these re-emerge at points of crisis, which in turn are marked as instances of violence inflicted by Makibefo. And most notably, these motifs will announce not just the death of each of his victims, but also the tyrant’s own end.

Sound not only constructs the film’s bodies and announces their presence, but is also presented as being the more reliable source of information. When Makibefo and Bakoua meet the witch doctor – the film’s rendering of the Shakespearean weird sisters – for the first time, he appears suddenly, as if out of thin air. The noise of the stormy wind and the surging billows grows and suddenly vanishes, leaving behind only the ticking sound of burning wood. After the witch doctor has made his prophecy, he is attacked by Bakoua, only to transform magically into a snake speeding away. When Makibefo later decides to meet the soothsayer for a second time, this event will be echoed. Here Makibefo approaches the man sitting on the ground rather belligerently. The witch doctor interrupts Makibefo and holds up his hand towards him. The sound which we then hear, and connect to the witch doctor, is the sound of a hissing snake, revealing his other nature. Sound highlights the bodilessness of the witch doctor, thus placing him outside of rational logic. If sound is normally connected to a body, then this ‘body’ proves not merely to be uncertain, but actually a rather fragile ‘materialisation’ and literally an ‘imagination’ of the mind. Secondly, the example suggests that in the world of the film eyes may well be fooled, whereas sound may not so easily be diverted from ‘the’ truth.

But although the film places such prominence on its sound to establish the presence of its protagonists, these remain at the same time conspicuously silent. Instead, the film introduces a narrator figure who takes it upon himself to comment on the action and ‘read out’ the Shakespearean text. All this has serious consequences, for it is through the narrator’s ventriloquism that the characters of the film – and similarly the Malagasy actors we may have to assume – are denied their own voice. All their lines, which might have been used to present some form of internalization, are appropriated by the narrator, revealing the characters’ dependency on him. Compared to such a dominating voice then, the lines the actors speak themselves become somewhat secondary. If sound constructs the film’s bodies and their imaginations, then it is the narrator’s language which appears to have the power to conjure them.

The film introduces its narrator figure, sitting upon the beach, in a prologue in which he presents an oral outline of the central narrative. Only then does he pick up a rather tattered looking book from which he starts to read. One gets the impression that it could be the First Folio which has been washed onto the beach. But the text is heavily re-worked. One of the most notable features of Makibefo’s textual quotations from Shakespeare’s work concerns the way the film folds and conflates various voices into a single one. But due to this process it becomes impossible to distinguish individual voices, which seem to coalesce into the voice of the narrator. Overall, Makibefo displays seventeen different occasions in which the narrator intervenes into the action of the film, mouthing the English Shakespearean text in place of the Malagasy actors. Mostly the audience hears the narrator’s voice from the off, shortly after which his image will also intervene as he subjugates the screen visually, and we then see him reading out from the folio. The first time we hear / see the narrator reading to us in this way, it is a fragment from the scene in which Macbeth and Banquo meet the three witches for the first time:

Third Witch:       All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!

Banquo: Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear
Things that do sound so fair? (1.3.48–50)[4]

But the lines we hear being read out are not identical with those printed and edited dramatic texts we are accustomed to, with their clearly identifiable voices. What we hear instead is a seemingly single and unified voice, exclaiming and asking at the same time: “Hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter! Why do you start and seem to fear things that do sound so fair?” It becomes virtually impossible, through the diction of the narrator, who seems to refrain from voice modulations, gestures or facial expressions, to distinguish between the different dramatic voices. By conflating the lines and thereby merging the voice(s) of the witch(es) with that of Banquo, independent lines and subjectivities represented in and through them are similarly fused. At the same time the images of the film do not help in connecting a (single) body with the text of the soundtrack: No(-)body on the screen, within the diegesis of the central narrative, seems to stand out as an obvious and willing speaker of those lines. But without a body to connect the words to, the disengaged text becomes a mere comment on the images and the action of the diegesis. It thus becomes a precarious task to place an individual subjectivity upon the characters on the screen: They are bereft of an identity, having so often a foreign voice and therefore a disturbingly imperfect ‘subjectivity’ projected upon them against which they cannot defend themselves.

If the narrator may be considered to be denying his creations a voice of their own, it is important to note that he, on the contrary, profits greatly from ‘their’ words. This is not only due to the way he reveals the on-screen figures and their language to be his creation. More importantly, he even appropriates ‘their’ language to illustrate his own state of mind. After Makibefo has discovered the shawl of Valy Makibefo (Lady Macbeth), the chieftain is staged as mourning over his wife’s death, as he walks across the beach. At the same time we can hear the voice of the narrator reciting: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time, / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.” (5.5.18–22). The scene then changes and the narrator appears on the screen. But this time we can hear his on-screen voice – although his lips do not move – reciting the lines which Macbeth would normally carry on with: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” (5.5.23–27). While previously the narrator’s off-voice comments had distanced the text decisively from the narrative’s characters, here the same technique actually enhances the connection between the narrator’s voice and his own body, as the words must be considered to be internal(ized) thoughts and not just a recitation of an external text. It thus appears as if the narrator may be the only figure in the film actually allowed a voice of his own.

Sight

 

Makibefo highlights the physical presence of its silenced bodies. The film stages Madagascar as a barren and deserted land where no secret may be kept for very long, as a place where it is impossible to keep away from sight. For instance, secrets, throughout the film, literally have to be clothed by wrapping them in linen, thus sealing them off from public view. The human body, on the contrary, is constantly exposed to the camera and to the spectators’ view. And the camera takes full advantage in exploring the protagonists’ bodies. In extreme close-up shots the camera focuses on their hands, feet and faces. It is through such images that the history of cinema actually catches up with Alexander Abela’s film, as they strongly evoke memories of (early) ethnographic film. In her study The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle, Fatimah Tobing Rony has demonstrated how from a historic perspective the cinematic apparatus became a place at which anthropology and cinema intersected in their common objective to re-create the temporally and spatially ‘Other’ and lay claim to their scientifically ‘objective’ representation.[5] As Rony emphasizes, such ethnographic projects tended to depict their ‘exotic’ objects of investigation “as people who until only too recently were categorized by science as Savages and Primitive, of an earlier evolutionary stage in the overall history of humankind: people without history, without writing, without civilization, without technology, without archives. In other words, people considered ‘ethnographiable’”.[6] Especially at the turn of the last century anthropology aimed at documenting the ‘West’s’ own past in the ‘uncivilized Other’: Early silent ethnographic film turned its focus onto the ‘exotic’ body and its movements, thereby reducing such to a mere visible spectacle. Moreover, indigenous dance (and rituals of which these dances were part of) attracted the anthropologists’ special attention, both because of the body’s constant motion and because of the ‘nonrationality’ these images were thought to epitomize.[7] Notably, Makibefo places most of its key scenes precisely around such dances and other kinds of (ritualistic) ceremonies, like the sacrifice of the zebu ox, as well as symbolically charged artefacts. Rituals are the preeminent devices which drive the film’s narrative, and they mark, produce and express change quite in the way Victor Turner has described:

For there is undoubtable transformative capacity in a well-performed ritual, implying an ingress of power into the initial situation […]. The experience of subjective and inter-subjective flow in ritual performance, whatever its sociobiological or personalogical concomitants may be, often convinces performers that the ritual situation is indeed informed with powers both transcendental and immanent.[8]

Thus, when the king bestows Makibefo with a small herd of zebu oxen in recognition of his services, this event is marked by a celebration outside of Makibefo’s home and the film stages the congregation as singing together, while one member of the community is shown to be dancing to the tune in front of them. Duncan’s own funeral becomes a similar site of ritualized obsequies. While his dead body is laid in state, the camera looks through the open door at his former subjects assembled in line in the yard. Focussing on the bodies dancing and moving to the musical beat, the camera shows feet stamping on the sandy ground and the clapping hands of the men and women in close-up shots. All along we can see and hear a group of girls singing. The ‘dance’ finally culminates in a ritualized wrestling contest between Banquo and one of Makibefo’s men.

At the dawn of the last century Arnold van Gennep declared: “Among semicivilized peoples such acts [like birth, death or marriage] are enveloped in ceremonies, since to the semicivilized mind no act is entirely free of the sacred.”[9] The truly civilized, on the contrary it appears may have no need for ceremonies or rituals. When Makibefo stages the culture within which it plays with a precise regard for the ceremonies and rites of that – we have to ask, fictional? – society, there is an imminent danger that precisely such received ideas about the backward ‘Other’ are dangerously reaffirmed by the film, allowing the Western spectator to watch it quietly assured of his own cultural superiority:

En dépit de ces conditions de production, le film ne dégage pas une impression de pauvreté. Au contraire, c’est une splendeur plastique, une pantomime incarnée aux dialogues restreints, où des corps noirs émaciés, mais aussi d’une dignité inouïe, s’inscrivent magiquement sur la page blanche des dunes de sable qui constituent l’habitat de ces pêcheurs d’un autre âge.[10]

This generally favourable review of Makibefo by Vincent Ostria, published in the popular French magazine Les Inrockuptibles, does not merely indulge in the actors’ silent bodily presence, in the “physical splendour” of “graceful black bodies”, which “inscribe themselves onto the white sand dunes”, but rather equates the Antandroy actors’ bodies with those of the film characters, while simultaneously positioning both as the historical ‘Other’. Thus, the film’s “fishermen from another age” are reduced to mere aestheticized bodies, whose history and whose story are of secondary importance. In addition, the quotation illustrates how such historical and cultural differences are constructed in a metaphysical terminology, when the review calls the act of inscription “magical”. Thus, a dichotomy is replicated which places the actors of Makibefo (characterized as ‘physical’, ‘metaphysical’ and ‘archaic’) in opposition to a ‘Western’ self-conception, regarding itself consequently as ‘modern’, ‘secular’ and ‘intellectual’. As Graham Huggan has noted, it is precisely such “exoticist rhetoric of fetishised otherness and sympathetic identification [which] masks the inequality of the power relations” inherent in the discourses of exoticism.[11] In Vincent Ostria’s review – as well as possibly in the film itself – we can trace two dominant modes of orientalist / exoticist perspective on the cultural ‘Other’, as they for instance have been expressed by Huggan and Edward Said. First, as Huggan writes, there is a tendency in exoticist discourse to regard the cultural ‘Other’ merely in aesthetic terms, a process in which “marginality is deprived of its subversive implications by being rerouted into safe assertions of a fetishised cultural difference.”[12] The film’s, as well as the reviewer’s, focus on the aestheticized bodies and the eschewal of contemporary political and social conflicts means that the film to some extent has to answer to such charges.[13] Secondly, the review places the film’s protagonists in a perpetually distant past, reminiscent of Said’s description of Orientalism’s tendency to fix the Orient “in time and place for the West.”[14] As a consequence, the history of the ‘Other’ becomes a mere venture point for ‘Western’ speculations, a process in the course of which such an object of speculation is denied its own history and development. It is exactly such kind of criticism which is expressed in a review published in the journal Africultures: “Jouant un Macbeth et d’une histoire qui n’est pas la leur.”[15]

Notwithstanding such criticism, it is crucial to note that Makibefo actually quietly appropriates the ‘Western’ (hi)story reenacted in the film into its own corpus of Antandroy aural / oral traditions. For it is through sound that the film actually creates a vision of community and a history, which may exist independently of the ‘Western’ observer and which may thereby overcome the mere visual aesthetic. But the film’s soundtrack does not surrender itself wilfully, mustering considerable resistance against being transcribed and translated. Opposing the written text read out by the narrator figure the film thus presents two songs, one of which is the repeatedly re-appearing musical theme which takes up the ‘aspirating motif’ I mentioned in the initial part of my investigations. But although produced primarily for a European audience, the fact that there aren’t any subtitles for the film’s lyrics means that the songs remain obscure to its ‘Western’ spectators. These songs display a number of features typical of oral traditions and oral poetry, such as formulas, repetition, rhythmical structure and heavy pattering, retelling the central plot and the themes of Makibefo / Macbeth in another kind of ritual. Moreover, the songs highlight their communal function in their interplay between predominantly regular chorus lines and alternating solo ‘verse’ lines, inviting their ‘audience’ to participate and join in with the refrain. Jan Vansina once characterized oral traditions as being documents of the present and embodied messages from the past at the same time, emphasizing that “traditions must always be understood as reflecting both past and present in a single breath.”[16] If the cinematic images appeared to deny its objects of inquiry such a history, it is through sound and oral traditions that the temporal gap may be bridged, just as the unrevealed Antandroy text itself suggests:

ah, tianao matiha eny / isika moa re petry taly io
(If you like to follow it to the end, / We will remember that story together.)


Notes

[1]  Makibefo (Great Britain 2000, Malagasy and English, 73 minutes, black & white, 35 mm 1:1.66). Director, producer, script and cinematography: Alexander Abela. Production company: Blue Eye Films. Sound: Jeppe Jungerson. Original music: Bien Rasoanan Tenaina. Editing: Douglas Bryson. Cast: Martin [Zia] (Makibefo), Noeliny [Dety] (Valy Makibefo), Gilbert Laumord (The narrator), Randina Arthur (Bakoua), Jean-Félix (Danikany), Boniface (Kidoure), Jean-Noël (Makidofy), Bien Rasoanan Tenaina (Malikomy), Victor [Raobelina] (The witch doctor).

[2]  Rick Altman, “Introduction”, Yale French Studies 60, Cinema/Sound (1980), 3–15, p. 6. See also Rick Altman, “Moving Lips: Cinema as Ventriloquism”, Yale French Studies 60, Cinema/Sound (1980), 67–79.

[3]  Mary Anne Doane, “Ideology and the Practice of Sound Editing and Mixing”, in Theresa de Lauretis, Stephen Heath, eds., The Cinematic Apparatus (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1980), 47–60, p. 52.

[4]  William Shakespeare, The Norton Shakespeare, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York: Norton, 1997).

[5]  Fatimah Tobing Rony, The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), p. 9.

[6]  Ibid., p. 7.

[7]  Ibid., p. 65.

[8]  Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, (New York: PAJ Publications, 1982), p. 79–80.

[9]  Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, trans. by Monika B. Vizedom, Gabrielle L. Caffee (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 3.

[10] Vincent Ostria, “Shakespeare respire”, Les Inrockuptibles 309 (2001).

[11] Graham Huggan, The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 14.

[12] Ibid., p. 24.

[13] It is worth noting that the film reminds us explicitly in its final credits about the fact that Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. But although we are told that the (male) actors of the film are predominantly fishermen, the film itself remains notably silent about the livelihood on which the film’s characters depend.

[14] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 108.

[15] Olivier Barlet, “Makibefo”, Africultures 41 (2001), 104. My emphasis.

[16] Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, (London: James Currey, 1985), p. xii.


Zusammenfassung

Dieser Aufsatz untersucht den essayistischen Film Makibefo, der die Aneignung des Macbeth-Stoffs durch einen englischen Filmemacher und einer Gruppe von madagassischen Fischern dokumentiert. Obgleich der Film einen deutlichen Fokus auf die Integration dieses Mythos in die mündlich tradierte Geschichte der madagassischen Kultur setzt, gerät er zugleich in die Gefahr, dass durch seine eigenen Bilder eben jenes Projekt einer Aneignung unterlaufen wird.