In this edition of World On Film, we follow a young man caught between two worlds and who goes in search of his roots all the way to Cape Verde, where he happily discovers that he has –
Cabo Verde Inside
(2009) Written & Produced by Alexander Schnoor
“What does it mean to be Cape Verdean? Being a good dancer? To not stress one’s self out?”
I’ve long believed that people don’t give nearly enough thought to the way in which their inner yearning for identity shapes their every interaction with the world around them. In a sense, the narcissist is the most honest of human beings – they consciously assert that everything within their world is ultimately about themselves and proceed through life with that premise as the lens through which everything is viewed. The narcissist only becomes a figure of dislike when they interact with someone who doesn’t share their parochial assertions – someone who is consequently offended because the former does not validate their own sense of self-worth, like a rhinoceros unconcerned by the existence of an ant.
Yet we are all narcissists at heart by design: we anthropomorphise the world around us and find nothing more fascinating than the actions of our own species and how we feel in relation to those actions. Reality is entirely shaped by how we focus upon those elements of the world that validate who we are, and consequently blind us to everything else beyond. Only through social evolution have most of us learned to internalise our selfishness through recognition that our survival works better as a group, which means acknowledging the needs of others. Read political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s most well-known book, ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, and see the way in which his proposition that democracy is the final evolution of society must first be understood in terms of thymos, the Greek word loosely translated as ‘self-identity’. Even beneath the sexual drive, argues Fukuyama, is the base need of the individual to have their sense of being recognised and agreed upon by everyone they meet. We befriend those who do and find reasons to dislike those who do not for reasons that are not necessarily connected with our underlying discomfort with them.
The quest for the self, however, is not undertaken on a level playing field. With much of it defined by race and nationality, there will always be a disconnect and a good degree of soul-searching among those who do not fall into such simple categories. Hence the common practice by people whose identities are more complex because they may be migrants, or the children of migrants, raised in one society, but strongly informed by the ethnicity and culture of another – a society of which they may have no direct experience. At a certain point of their development comes the yearning to visit the land of their ancestors, typically justified as a spiritual journey. More telling however is when their reason is given as a need to “find themselves” and we see the true root cause.
“The quest for the self is not undertaken on a level playing field. With much of it defined by race and nationality, there will always be a disconnect and a good degree of soul-searching among those who do not fall into such simple categories.”
The time spent in the ancestral homeland is frequently an ambivalent success: on the one hand, the individual feels the joy of finally being able to connect with the other half of themselves, nothing less than the validation of an identity not understood by the locals back home. Though largely experiential, the adventure seems to nevertheless answer questions never consciously made yet obvious – all pointing back to the two fundamental questions we all have of existence – Who am I? and What do I want? Yet it is also a honeymoon period: stay too long and the reality of the homeland punctures the elation, creating an internal conflict. From here, the person may be unable to reconcile their ancestry with the values instilled by those with which they were raised or find them more compatible with those back home. Here then, is the point when they really have to decide who they are.
Alexander Schnoor, half-German, half Cape Verdean, decided to identify his own inner yearnings back in 2009 when, armed with a video camera and a creditable skill for film-making, he set off for his ancestral homeland for the very first time hoping to answer the question, What does it mean to be Cape Verdean?
To the viewer’s benefit, Schnoor is just as committed to creating a narrative build-up to his quest as he is in finding himself. Cabo Verde Inside begins in Schnoor’s hometown of Hamburg, Germany, and spends time both framing the voyage to come and the process by which it took place. Schnoor doesn’t simply hop on a plane to Boa Vista, but first explores the Cape Verdean influence closer to home. Economic hardships on the islands back in the 1970s resulted in a mass exodus from the islands, with the result today that more Cape Verdeans live abroad than do within its 10 islands. Thus Schnoor searches for answers first in the local expat community before moving on to Maastricht where he meets a Creole woman of similar ancestry. The latter goes on to suggest that diaspora and racial mixing are the underlying reasons for the Cape Verdean easygoing amiability. The sentiment is oft-repeated by others throughout the film and unsurprisingly, is much to Schnoor’s liking.
It is through this perception filter that Cape Verde is presented. From the quiet, agrarian-based communities of Sao Vicente and Sao Nicolau to the comparatively bustling main settlement of Santiago, the island nation is the very model of a developing world Eden. Locals almost uniformly speak of their social stability while reaffirming its mixed racial demographic and tolerance as the root cause, with one interviewee even suggesting that Cape Verdeans are the model for the future of humanity.
“To the viewer’s benefit, Schnoor is just as committed to creating a narrative build-up to his quest as he is in finding himself.”
And the islands themselves are fascinating and beautiful. Geographically, Cape Verde is a kind of North Atlantic Hawaii, formed by the same shifting hotspot volcanic activity. The mountains are jagged and dramatic, the beaches long stretches of shimmering sand, and the waters a rich azure blue. Couple this with the island chain’s isolated character and you have the textbook resort getaway for the rich and the appearance at least of a Brigadoon-like simplicity. In addition, Schnoor clearly has an eye for visuals and better still, a good understanding of editing, and thus turns out a appealing video postcard of his trip that never feels overlong.
The problem with the film for me then is that Schnoor, who spends only two weeks in Cape Verde, is very much in the ‘honeymoon’ phase of discovery. He is brought into the island community via his own relatives who are happy to meet him, neighbouring farmers welcome him and everywhere the joie de vivre directed his way is what you would expect of someone who went up to the locals and said “Tell me why you think Cape Verdeans are so awesome!”
Cabo Verde Inside is, in short, a paean to a people living in Shangri-La because the film-maker is at a point in his own personal development where he needs them to be doing so. We are viewing not so much what is actually there, but the happiness of Schnoor’s psyche made manifest in rose-tinted brilliance as long-held desires within him finally connect with the one-and-only people who can mirror their need.
The real Cape Verde, long a Portuguese colony with a turbulent history, is never explored. Even the economic hardships mentioned above go without mention – the locals just seem to have left because they’re open, highly-adaptable people who can live anywhere. The roughly 20% who live below the poverty line are presumably content to make do on land with few natural resources.
It isn’t that I don’t believe Cape Verdeans are warm, welcoming and happy. They have a reputation for being just that. Even the Wikipedia entry makes this point. They live in a warm climate, the population is low thanks to the mass exodus so everyone has the space to be comfortable, and life is uncomplicated. I just didn’t learn a great deal about them in this film. The population is low because people within living memory were starving following the collapse of the slave trade and the withdrawal of the Portuguese colonial masters. People have the space to be comfortable because most of them left. Life is uncomplicated because Cape Verde has been neglected for the last 40 years and again because most of the population left. What does it mean to be Cape Verdean? Living almost anywhere else.
“Cabo Verde Inside is, in short, a paean to a people living in Shangri-La because the film-maker is at a point in his own personal development where he needs them to be doing so.”
All of which is ultimately demanding too much from Schnoor, when by now, we understand precisely where he was in his life while making the film and why it couldn’t be anything less than Disneyfied. Meet anyone of mixed origins who has grown up in one place and later visited their ethnic birthplace and ask them how things were those first two weeks. Very likely this will be their experience. Had Schnoor left Germany behind and actually relocated to his ancestral homeland, what might he have to say of it today? The title itself is explicit enough – it is not ‘Inside Cabo Verde’, but Schnoor finding Cabo Verde Inside. I’m glad he had such a positive experience, but I’ll have to look elsewhere to discover Cabo Verde For Real.
But enough from me. You can watch the whole thing free and legally for yourself right here:
“The Cayman Islands are famed not only for being a popular tropical getaway, but as an especially popular tax haven for off-shore banking. Nonetheless, the damage to Paradise has been done, the Western world have destroyed the local society by raising it to a level of modernity that benefits only those who colonized it and who now leave the resulting cultural mish-mash to its own, poorer ends. Or, at least, this is how writer/director Frank E. Flowers sees the Cayman plight.”
Paradise lost in the 2004 melodrama Haven, up next on World On Film. To see a trailer, click below.