“In order to see we must have the strength to produce what we want to see.”
Daniele del Guidice
I rushed to the library on Saturday afternoon, after cleaning the house, to pick up Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City. (I don’t know why I should have to explain why I got it from the library, but, you see, I’ve been on a book-buying spree for the last couple of...years. A lot of money spent and not enough time spent reading. I feel the need to confess. Photographic evidence on the left.) Anyhow, with the cleaning done and most of the house not looking like The Cave of the Collyer Brothers, I sat down with black tea and hummus and began flipping pages and dreaming of Asmara.
For those of you who haven’t been weighing a trip to Eritrea, even an armchair trip, here’s the story: when the Italians occupied most of the Horn of Africa, in the 1930s, the colonial government allowed modernist architects to run wild in Asmara, and consequently the city is full of classic streamline deco buildings. A backwater during the forty or so years it was occupied by Ethiopia, Asmara was spared the ravages of post-colonial “rebuilding” visited on some capital cities. By the time Eritrea won its war for independence, in 1993, the new rulers recognized its architecture as classic and were canny enough to see it as a potential tourist draw.
Anyhow, here’s how I begin dreaming of a new city, a city new to me, especially an odd and hidden gem like Asmara: through a lens.
I’m not picturing a historical drama, although a city full of intact vintage buildings makes a great location for one. Nor do I have in mind a Fernando Meirelles drama, jittery camerawork and social conscience, colors washed out or saturated, set in this morning’s third world. What I imagine is the city of the past as city of the future. Blade Runner is usually cited as the source of this aesthetic – art deco plus hovercars – but it really goes at least as far back as Alphaville. Jean Luc Godard wrote the manual on making the future with no money and well-chosen locations; in this case, contemporary buildings imbued with a suffocating atmosphere of clunky spy cameras and omniscient punchcard computers. But what really turns Paris into the City of Dreadful Night is the night itself. (Thank you, Raoul Coutard.) The fleabag where Akim Tamiroff’s fallen angel Henry Dickson wheezes his last breath is as convincing a part of the oppressive future as the glass and chrome luxury hotel where Lemmy Caution checks in as “Ivan Johnson”, correspondent for Figaro-Pravda.
If seeing a city this way means distancing yourself from the lives of its citizens who are too busy struggling for rent money to care that their building originally housed Alfa Romeo workers, mea culpa. The first faces I see are white, probably American or European expats, fleeing unemployment and student debt to start over in a distant city. (Cue the dirigible broadcast advertisements for Blade Runner’s off-world colonies.)
Some of Asmara’s most beautiful buildings are movie theaters: the Roma, the Odeon, the Impero; imperial palaces all. (Still, is anyone moving to Asmara to produce or screen a film? Expatriate film production? This is the best my unconscious can come up with? The cinematic imagination has an unfortunate taste for its own tail.) Also, my fantasy may have an imperialist tinge – no American or European community in the third world is completely untainted – but what better place to rediscover or reinvent a film language with no native tongue?
Before I go any further, let me note that I’m not proposing this as a venture (though it’s not a bad idea, once I remind myself that the Eritreans are not doubt way ahead of me) but rather trying setting up a sharp backdrop for the murkier images of Asmara that were flooding my head when I’d barely opened the book.
Murky like noir. Sometimes it seems any non-comedy film set in a crowded city is noir. Noir colors my story like spilled ink, and I don’t even have a story yet. All I have is the capital of a new country, a country with barely a history, but with such a density of well-preserved ordinary buildings (gas stations, cinemas, grocery stores, proletarian apartments) that it seems like a place frozen in a past that doesn’t even exist in books. It’s no wonder a place like this begs to be populated with Blade Runner’s juxtaposition of Spanish-language movie theaters and storefront genetic engineering workshops, replicants indistinguishable from humans and cymbal-banging mechanical monkeys.
We read the past by rewriting it.