Dreaming Rivers, Martina Attille, 1988
In this essay filmmaker, programmer, curator, and DJ, Rabz Lansiquot reflects on Martina Attille’s Dreaming Rivers, exploring themes of familial connection and forgotten voices in the context of today’s society.
The boat in the harbour,
Took my sweetheart away,
My sweetheart you left me here,
Alas alas what am I to do
This West Indian French Creole folk song opens Martina (now known as Judah) Attille’s Dreaming Rivers, delivered solemnly in that perfectly imperfect way only our mothers, grandmothers and aunties can. The intertitles display the English translation for those of us who, in the words of Candian poet M. NourbeSe Phillip, have “no mother tongue, no mother to tongue, no tongue to mother”. Her oft-quoted poem ‘Discourse on the Logic of Language’ rings in my ears throughout what must be my 15thviewing of Attille’s film; the first time that my mind seems to link these two works.
This opening verse sets the pace and tone for the beautiful, melancholy exploration of loss and mourning that the film unfolds into. This mourning is not just for Miss T, the mother whose dreams, memories, thoughts, and wake we experience throughout the film, but also for her children; who have lost not only their mother but also their link to their before and before. It is for the years of Miss T’s life that were spent in the cold, the dark, the hostile ‘mother country’. It is for her home, the Caribbean, and the lost opportunity to return. The unmistakable sound of waves crashing concludes this opening section. The Middle Passage. The Empire Windrush. The Caribbean Sea.
“All beginning in water, all ending in water. Turquoise, aquamarine, deep green, deep blue, ink blue, navy, blue-black cerulean water……Water is the first thing in my memory. The sea sounded like a thousand secrets, all whispered at the same time.” Dionne Brand, A Map To The Door of No Return
Miss T is familiar to me. Any Black British person’s life has been deeply affected by these women. Those whose voices are muted, whose dreams were put on the back burner, whose impact is cast aside, and whose interiority, complexity and vitality are ignored. When Miss T’s son asks in the film “Why did you come here, mum?” I can’t help but reflect on my own grandmothers’ journeys from St Lucia and Ghana and their hopes for a better life for their children and grandchildren; all that they sacrificed, all that they lost. The melancholy mid-tone drone of Shirley Thompson’s score draws me right into that personal reflection. I’ve never asked either of them this question. It feels intrusive, ungrateful even. Perhaps that’s why Miss T’s son only asks it at her wake.
“How do we memorialize an event that is still ongoing?… how do we memorialize the everyday? How does one, in the words so often used by such institutions, ‘come to terms with’ (which usually means move past) ongoing and quotidian atrocity?” Christina Sharpe, In The Wake: On Blackness and Being
The phrase in Phillip’s poem that I keep coming back to when thinking about Dreaming Rivers is “foreign anguish”. This emerges in relation to language, especially as my own familial connection to St Lucian Creole is almost non-existent; but also in relation to the broken promises and overt violence meted out to migrants over the almost 400 years since the colonisation of the Caribbean – culminating in what the press have clumsily decided to dub ‘The Windrush Scandal’, but what I consider to simply be the system working exactly as it was built to.
Dreaming Rivers feels at once especially beautiful and particularly painful to watch in February 2020, when the beginning of this month was defined, for Black British people, by the deportation of around 50 of our kin on a blacked-out charter flight. Some of these people hadn’t been to the islands since they moved to the UK as young children, just like Miss T’s eldest daughter, who states that her mother brought her over at seven years old; some had been wrongly detained, and all have families, friends, homes and love here. The offences said to be the reason for their deportation and their being described as ‘dangerous foreign criminals’ are generally minor drug or driving offences, for which all of them have served their full and likely disproportionate prison sentences. Dreaming Rivers explores Miss T and her children’s interior anguish as it is affected by the conditions of British post-colonial migration and its psychological fallout, an aspect of the film intricately unpacked by Manthia Diawara in his text ‘The Nature of Mother in Dreaming Rivers’. These deportations, alongside the long history of events constructed to tell us that we do not belong, undermining the promises of the so-called ‘mother country’, produce such anguish in all of us who share this history. Miss T’s loss and mourning results directly from the broken promises of the 1948 British Nationality Act, the same act that has failed today’s deportees as its Hostile Environment policy tears through their communities.
Academic and writer Christina Sharpe’s In The Wake: On Blackness and Being evokes the wake. As in, “the track left on the water’s surface by a ship”; as in, what/who is left in the wake of a slave ship; as in, what is left in the wake of Transatlantic slavery?
In the context of the Caribbean diaspora, as an extension of the African Diaspora, in the country of the Hostile Environment policy and charter flight deportations, what’s left in the wake of those ships is other ships, and what’s left in the wake of those other ships is now a plane. I wonder what will be left in the wake of that plane?
I have no conclusion to this piece because there is no conclusion to this work – to Dreaming Rivers’ work in affecting viewers. To Judah’s work in supporting and inspiring new generations of filmmakers and practitioners like myself. To the work of fighting against a system that produces the loss felt by Miss T, her three children, and the violence of racist deportations. Dreaming Rivers is a work that I hope will endure beyond its representational value, as form, as content, as politics and as a work in the tradition of Sankofa. A looking back towards the future.
 M. NourbeSe Phillip, (1989) ‘Discourse on the Logic of Language’ In She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, (p. 29)
Rabz Lansiquot is a filmmaker, programmer, curator, and DJ. They work alongside Imani Robinson as the artistic and curatorial duo Languid Hands. They were a leading member of sorryyoufeeluncomfortable (SYFU) collective from its inception in 2014. Rabz was Curator In Residence at LUX Moving Image in 2019, developing a public and educational programme around Black liberatory cinema. Their first solo exhibition where did we land, an experimental visual essay exploring the use of images of anti-black. They have put together film programmes at the ICA, SQIFF, Berwick Film & Media Festival and were a programme advisor for London Film Festival’s Experimenta strand in 2019 and are on the selection committee for Sheffield Doc Fest 2020. Rabz is also training to deliver workshops in working with Super 8 and eco-processing at not.nowhere, and is a board member at City Projects.
The Independent Cinema Office commissioned this piece as part of their Second Sight film tour, exploring the legacy, methods, aesthetic strategies and histories of the UK’s Black Film Workshop Movement.