Taken from FILMINK (April 15, 2006)
FRANTI WALKS THE LINE
“Stop playing that guitar!” the soldier continues. “I’ll stop playing if you take your finger off the trigger!” the musician responds with a smile...
by Hugh Schlesinger
Still fresh from his last performance at Folsom Prison (the first concert at that institution since Johnny Cash’s legendary visit) six foot six Michael Franti stood alone, towering above the stage in a relatively sedate high school auditorium about one and a half hours north of his native San Francisco. The hip hop ‘ragamaster’ of funk and roll, sauntered out from behind the curtain to make his first California film screening debut- which served as a springboard to launch his newest creative project; the unveiling of a somewhat discordant anti-war documentary entitled I Know I Am Not Alone. Upon the conclusion of the screening, Franti facilitated a Q & A’s session and solo acoustic performance that got the crowd gyrating to his barefoot stomping rap lyric style beat. The dread headed poster child for peace plans to facilitate a similar format for future shows slated to hit Arizona, New York, Colorado and Canada after leaving the Golden State in February.
The crowd of ageing Northern Californian hippies was actually not the first group of fans on the west coast to see his politically charged musical piece, as many of the community’s children had the opportunity to see it beforehand when Franti previewed the film to the entire student body of Anally High School earlier that day. During the introduction to the film it was revealed that Spearhead’s charismatic frontman was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reception from the students as was outlined by a parent who disclosed that her daughter remarked it was the “best day of school in her life!”.
No stranger to political activism, Michael Franti, who originally started out playing a strict style of contemporary hip hop, has transgressed somewhat as of late into a more mixed musical genre that includes overtones of roots reggae, folk and world music. Franti has been involved in a number of pro-democratic, environmental and human rights issues over the years, including a number of free concerts and benefits as well as the annual Power To The Peaceful concert, which he helps organise judiciously.
In March of 2003, Franti began reflecting upon the implications of the US Government’s ‘Shock and Awe’ campaign while meditating in the ‘corpse pose’ on the floor during a yoga class. Later, when asked on where he would go if he could go anywhere in the world, as a reflex, Michael told a friend “Bagdad” which served as the impetus for his travelling to the middle east, visiting Iraq, Israel and the occupied regions of Palestine later that same year.
The film’s goal “documenting the details of the human cost of war” turned out to be the cornerstone of his first cinematic venture, and stands to shred the imaginary boundary that exists between the performer, film, his music and direct action. The ninety minute piece, which is sometimes raw and primitive in terms of its editing and technical aspects, more than makes up for any lack of industry standards through its compelling use of interviews, impromptu jam sessions and face to face confrontations among potentially explosive adversaries, in an attempt to bridge the philosophic, political, religious and linguistic barriers of nationalistic foes. With a “No Enemy” sticker on his guitar case, Franti tightens his grip and leads all would be viewers “inna drive by style” throughout the meandering course of the film, by paying tribute to taxi drivers, teachers, soldiers, doctors, merchants, craftspeople and artists alike, on a wild ride through the streets of war torn cities and villages across the Middle East.
Among the film’s merits are the way in which it exposes the increased lack of security and weaponry, the rising levels of unemployment and costs of food and medicine, and the every day chaos that plagues the majority of citizens living in the region who feel they have no say, opportunity or control in the outcome of the war. “If the decision making process is being controlled by the rich and powerful here and in America, what incentive is there for us to participate in the rebuilding of Iraq?” asks an Iraqi woman. With scores of homeless children and elderly living among the rubble, polluted conditions, or on the wrong side of the occupied wall, the images are as captivating and insightful as anything we have seen since Michael Moore’s academy award winning Fahrenheit 9/11.
Overall, I know I Am Not Alone dispels the notion that the “War on Terror” is indeed winnable without first attempting to win the good will of the people with whom we intend to liberate. “Wouldn’t Americans defend the states [if someone attacked them?]” quips an Iraqi dissident at a local Bagdad café, who has suffered shrapnel wounds and declares that “Even if they cut off my hands I will [protest and] write with my feet and my teeth… How dare they call us Terrorists?”
Franti’s film records with amazing emotional candor, his eye-opening hospital visits to amputated explosion victims, underground recording studios and independent radio station, as well as a bereaved mothers support group and a number of private gatherings inside the homes of Christians, Muslims and Jews. In addition to many unique performances, the film chronicles a particularly tense solo performance for American GI servicemen, which according to Franti, was among “the hardest shows in my life.” Along the way the film interjects insightful quotes and statistics from a variety of credible sources including the Washington Post, citing that “the war is costing the US one billion dollars per week” and “more than 100,000 people died in the first seventeen months in Iraq.” The segment on Iraq concludes with a quote from US Army General Tommy Frank, stating that “we don’t do body counts.”
The situation is not much better in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as Franti briefly outlines the modern history of tension since the end of WWII. The film provides a short synopsis of UN resolution 181 and the creation of Israel, Palestine and the International Zones in 1948, and the resulting “Six Day War” in 1964. According to Franti, “out of 4.2 million people living in Palestine, 1.4 live in Gaza alone,” and that “the wall [between Israel and Palestine] which some branches of the Israeli Government have declared illegal to construct, is moving forward nonetheless, at a cost of 1.5 billion US dollars” when it is all said and done. Furthermore, Franti revealed that the dissection of citizens from their historic and current agricultural lands is creating an irreversible dilemma as more and more Jewish settlers occupy the Gaza territory with the help of the Israeli government’s leadership, intent upon making colonisation permanent. 60% live in poverty, earning wages of about two US dollars per day.
Perhaps the climax of the film occurs when the now infamous dashiki wearing singer-songwriter, aided with only his acoustic guitar, escorts a young Palestinian youth intent on speaking with Israeli Defense Soldiers toward the disputed “Green Line” for an attempted mediation session at a reinforced gate. “Ya know, when I was in Bagdad the other day…” Franti blurts out to an Israeli soldier. The soldier responds, visibly confused, laughing “What are you some kind of psycho?” Clearly, Franti has made up his mind to create his own campaign of “shock and awe.”
“Stop playing that guitar!” the soldier continues. “I’ll stop playing if you take your finger off the trigger!” the musician responds with a smile. It is that kind of overt risk-taking and sincerity that exudes out of Franti’s personality, and spills over blatantly into his art. Michael has always come across as authentic and sincere, by attempting to bring awareness to serious issues that range from AIDS to the death penalty, but now the gallant entertainer seems even more grounded and mature, having shared his experiences and stories with cohorts and sympathizers around the world.
Before “rocking out” with his fans in the auditorium, Franti divulged his plans to make a second film on the massive number of crises taking place in Africa with a partner, former Black Panther member Geronimo Pratt, starting in Tanzania next year. (Pratt successfully defeated the FBI in a wrongful imprisonment case, and is among the few plaintiffs who have successfully accomplished this ardent task.)
With this kind of social justice agenda, it appears that Franti is intent upon bringing about the kind of revolutionary change touted by others, like U2’s Bono, but he does so with a political fervour that hasn’t been felt since perhaps the passing of Zionist legend Bob Marley, who incidentally Franti cites as high among his influences. According to Michael, “Revolution never comes with a warning.” Even Marley’s former producer, Chris Blackwell has been quoted as saying with regard to Franti that “[He] is the most important artist recording and touring today who has yet to reach the mass audience. The subjects he sings about are totally genuine and derived from personal experiences.”
Franti entertained several poignant questions and responded calmly to a heckler in the crowd, who demanded a general strike of corporate America immediately. “I hear you man, there’s a lot of ways of going about stuff, look at how nature creates change with deliberate effort and with time. We need to plant seeds and create sustainable lives that allow us to create change with time.” With a nod to congressman Kucinich’s idea to create a “Department of Peace,” Michael’s film concluded with a statement about the fact that he “isn’t on anyone’s side…only the peacemakers,” whatever country they come from. It appears among the masses of followers to this musical and filmmaking pied-piper are an increasing number of suitors and believers, both in the US and abroad. United together, their voices are encouraging. Let the conflict resolution begin!
More information regarding the film and Spearhead can be found at http://www.spearheadvibrations.com/ or http://www.iknowiamnotalone.com/.
All things going well, I Am Not Alone should be released in Australian cinemas in April by Aztec International.