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Tribal Rituals on Sand Dunes Alexander Abela’s Makibefo as a Transcultural Appropriation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Introduction

In the long tradition of adapting Shakespeare to film, filmmakers have frequently transposed the plays’ original settings to different places in time and space. Examples include various films which were part of the 1990s Shakespeare on film ‘revival’, like Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (1995), Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996), and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) (Cartelli and Rowe 12).

Filmmakers may intentionally apply such changes not merely to spice up their interpretations through the use of a more “exotic” background but rather to place particular emphasis on certain topics. Luhrmann references the L.A. riots of 1992 in Romeo + Juliet, while Ralph Fiennes alludes to the Yugoslav wars in his version of Coriolanus (2011). To this end, the displaying of specific (cultural) details serves the purpose of authenticating the setting. It also serves as a means of alienation, especially when contrasted to Shakespearean dialogue, as in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000), set in 21st century corporate New York.

Outside the larger canon of English-language adaptations to which these films belong, there have been numerous efforts by international filmmakers to recreate Shakespeare’s plays through the integration of original “native” content far beyond changing the setting. Just like contemporary authors of transcultural literary adaptations, they “rework [...] Shakespearean plotlines and characters in line with, and in response to, their own local settings” (Sandten 41). While still recalling the play, these films use “other verbal registers, […] narrative strategies and […] emotional contours” (Burnett 4) to transport their meanings. Consequently, Shakespeare screen adaptations “have become part of almost any cultural repertoire”, notably also outside the former British territories (Berensmeyer 19). An early example of this trend is Akira Kurosawa’s Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood (1957), which is set in 14th-16th century Japan and integrates elements of the traditional Noh Theater in scene and character design (see Savas).

Transcultural adaptations of literary works regularly involve acts of cultural appropriation, broadly defined as “the use of a culture’s symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture” (Rogers 474). Such use can range from the exploitation of cultural elements, for example by way of commodification, to processes of transculturation that allow for the creation of hybrid forms from multiple cultures (ibid. 477). In a postcolonial context, transculturation refers to the transformation of culture through the impact of different historical legacies (Rodríguez 116), which leads to “the consequent creation of new cultural phenomena” (Ortiz 103).

In this article, I will present Alexander Abela’s feature film Makibefo (1999), a screen version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth shot entirely at the south tip of Madagascar, as a genuine case of transcultural adaptation. Based on the concept of transculturation, my analysis of Abela’s adaptation will elaborate both on the cultural appropriation processes involved in its production and the resulting transcultural quality of the final film. A special focus will be on Abela’s quasi-ethnographic approach, his collaboration with the indigenous Antandroy tribe, and their creation of hybrid cultural elements. In doing so, I will argue that the resulting work is both Shakespeare and Antandroy in a transcultural sense, while also indicating possible areas of conflict regarding the director’s agency.

Following brief overviews of transcultural appropriation theory and of Macbeth’s adaptation history, I will introduce the two parties involved in the making of Makibefo, Alexander Abela and the Antandroy tribe. After a brief characterization of the film, I will present the major adaptation choices, which I am going to analyze for their transculturality, with a focus on the influence of Antandroy tradition and the way Abela integrates it in his work. To this purpose, I will also draw on literature from anthropology and related disciplines.

Transcultural Appropriation

The term “transculturation” was originally introduced by Cuban theorist Fernando Ortiz in 1940 in his book Cuban Counterpoint (orig. Contrapunteo Cubano del Tabaco y el Azúcar). He used it to describe “the process of transition from one culture to another” which “necessarily involves the loss or uprooting of a previous culture, which could be defined as a deculturation. In addition, it carries the idea of the consequent creation of new cultural phenomena, which could be called neoculturation.” (Ortiz 102-103)

In postcolonial theory, the concept of transculturation involves the creation of new forms of expression from heretofore different cultural contexts and resources through processes of hybridization (Hepp 28). These take place through cultural encounters in what Homi K. Bhabha calls “the Third Space”, i.e., an area in which “the meaning and symbols of culture have no primordial unity or fixity” so that “even the same signs can be appropriated, translated, rehistoricized and read anew” (Bhabha 37). Such processes can be subsumed under Richard A. Rogers’s broad definition of cultural appropriation cited above. Rogers develops a framework containing four concepts of appropriation: cultural exchange, cultural dominance, cultural exploitation, and transculturation. The first category is seen as a theoretical “ideal” of reciprocal exchange between cultures with symmetrical power, whereas the second and third categories are based on asymmetries of power expressed through exchanges between a dominant and a subordinated culture, which can be easily related to (post)colonial contexts (Rogers 477-478). Cultural dominance refers to the unidirectional imposition of elements of a dominant culture onto a subordinated, possibly colonized culture (ibid. 479). Cultural exploitation involves the appropriative use of elements of a subordinated culture by a dominant culture as a mere resource (ibid. 486). In contrast, while acknowledging issues of power, the concept of transculturation “involves cultural elements created through appropriations from and by multiple cultures such that identification of a single originating culture is problematic” (ibid. 491). Transculturation thus creates cultural hybrids, which, according to James Lull, can be explained through the dynamics of indigenization, meaning that “imported cultural elements take on local features as the cultural hybrids develop” (Lull 244).

In order to evaluate the transcultural quality of Makibefo, it is necessary to examine the appropriation processes between (non-indigenous) Western culture, represented by Shakespeare’s play and the registers of filmmaking, and the indigenous culture of the Antandroy people, including the conditions of their realization.

Macbeth and its cinematic offspring

Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth was probably first performed in 1606 at King James I’s court and later published in the First Folio in 1623 (“Dates and Sources”). Set in medieval Scotland, the play dramatizes the effects of unchecked political ambition furthered by supernatural forces and ranks among his most famous plays. Not surprisingly, Macbeth has been adapted for the screen multiple times since the early 20th century (Rothwell 346-348). There are several English-language adaptations, the most prominent ones directed by Orson Welles (1948), Ken Hughes (Joe MacBeth, 1955), Roman Polanski (1971), William Reilly (Men of Respect, 1990), Billy Morrissette (Scotland, PA, 2001), Geoffrey Wright (2006) and, most recently, by Justin Kurzel (2015).

Moreover, the dark, political material of Macbeth has long appealed to non-Anglophone filmmakers from all over the world. Besides Kurosawa’s famous Throne of Blood and Abela’s Makibefo, there are various international adaptations from Finland (Pauli Pentti, 1987; Bo Landin and Alex Scherpf, 2004), Germany (Klaus Knoesel’s Rave Macbeth, 2001), Brazil (Vinicius Coimbra’s A Floresta Que Se Move, 2015), Venezuela (Leonardo Henríquez’s Sangrador, 2000), India (Mohan Koda’s Yellamma, 1999; Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, 2003), and Yemen (Michael Roes’s Someone is Sleeping in My Pain, 2002). This incomplete account already indicates the extent to which Shakespeare’s political allegory possesses relevance for distinct cultural, national and geographical groupings (Burnett 164). By adapting the play into localized imaginaries, filmmakers transform, translate and rehistoricize its material in a truly transcultural sense. Maqbool, for example, reimagines Macbeth as a struggle for power within today’s hierarchy of organized crime in Mumbai. Bhardwaj also relates the play to the recurrent tempests of religiously generated animosity in the Indian subcontinent (Mondal 1).

For his transcultural screen adaptation of Macbeth, Alexander Abela adopted a very different artistic approach strongly tied to his chosen location that I will discuss below.

Alexander Abela’s Makibefo

Alexander Abela is a British-born filmmaker of multi-ethnic origin1 born in 1965. Having studied physics and oceanography, the passionate free diver started a career as a screenwriter, director, cinematographer and producer (“Alexander Abela”). His first two feature films, Makibefo (1999) and Souli (2004), are both adaptations of Shakespearean plays, Macbeth and Othello, respectively, and were both shot in Madagascar.

Just before shooting Makibefo, a documentary project of Abela’s had been rejected by a British television company, partly due to his lack of experience. At once frustrated and eager to finally realize his début, he strove for total independence and, consequently, decided to break away from the conventions of contemporary filmmaking. Instead, Abela chose to employ his limited resources through an experimental approach, “to work under similar conditions as those of the early silent film period and concentrate entirely on the language of pictures” (“Makibefo”). He set himself the challenge to capture the essence of Macbeth through filmic imagery rather than through the play’s dialogue, guided by stylistic and (trans-)cultural principles. These included the closely related ideas of shooting in a remote desert region with a bare natural landscape and of making the film entirely with local people relatively unaffected by modernity (Costantini-Cornède) which, together, might resonate with Shakespeare’s original Scottish setting. As Abela states in an interview published in the film’s DVD booklet, he originally intended to shoot in the Sahara Desert among the Tuaregs but was forced to change his plans when they rose against the governments of Niger and Mali. Eventually, he found the same qualities he sought in the Antandroy (“people of the thorns”) tribespeople of Madagascar. Apparently guided by idealistic notions, Abela describes them as warriors, proud and nomadic, living in a desert region, far from everything (“Makibefo”). With little preparation, minimal equipment, and a film crew consisting of only himself and sound engineer Jeppe Jungersen (“Réunion film festival”), Abela went to the southern tip of the island where he shot the film in and around the village of Faux-Cap, an isolated community of Antandroy fishermen.

Abela’s auteur-like personal agency (Burnett 23-24) also involved an ethnographic approach to filmmaking to achieve a desired level of authenticity. This is underlined by a self-referential title card that appears after the final credits and displays a somewhat romanticized conception of people and location to the audience:


The Antandroy people of Madagascar who played the characters and helped in the making of this film are an ancient tribe with a true sense of pride, honour and tradition. A poor people in what is already a poor country, they have few possessions and little knowledge of the outside world. As simple fishermen, they live off the ocean that crashes against their unchanging shoreline and take one day at a time. The majority of the actors have never seen a television, let alone a film, and have never acted before in their lives. (Makibefo)


From the beginning, Abela chose a collaborative approach to his film by involving the Antandroy not only as actors but also as (co-)screenwriters, musicians, and crew members. At the same time, he had to deal with the challenges that another one of his principles presented: the language barrier, deemed necessary to allow for a reimagination of Shakespeare’s story through the local people (Costantini-Cornède). With the help of a French-speaking village official, Abela managed to explain his project, and later familiarized the Antandroy with filmmaking by using simple means like Polaroids to illustrate camera basics (“Makibefo”). The plot of Macbeth was similarly described through visual means like drawings, cartoons, gestures, and mimes, enabling the Antandroy to retell the story in their own words, using their local dialect of Malagasy. From a more critical point of view, such an approach may be blamed for imposing foreign cultural concepts, theater and film, onto an indigenous culture characterized by oral tradition. Moreover, Abela was acting from a position of economic power, namely his ability to pay the villagers for their support, and he admits that money was their initial motivation. In exchange for their contribution to the film, the villagers received a salary equivalent to their regular income from fishing. Regarding their poverty, Abela concedes that the sum was relatively meager, but he was worried that a higher remuneration might disrupt the economic equilibrium of the village (“Makibefo”). Two years later, Abela returned to show the finished film to the enthusiastic villagers (Costantini-Cornède), and upon his next visit brought them nets, hooks, and three pirogues as additional remuneration after the release of the film. This was less than planned (“Makibefo”), but Makibefo had not been a commercial success: besides several festival screenings, the film only enjoyed a short theatrical run in France (2001) and never achieved a wide international release (Burnett 26), despite mostly positive reviews.2

As Burnett (48) notes, Abela’s reciprocal approach accords to recommended fieldwork practices of ethnographic filmmaking as outlined by the anthropologist and acclaimed filmmaker Timothy Asch, who principally advocates royalty arrangements while also warning of “the effect that money can have on people who live in small, subsistence-based communities. […] Payment of royalties is a thorny moral question, but it is one that ethnographic filmmakers must consider.” (Asch 48)

Besides such practical considerations, Abela was sensitive enough to encourage the villagers to develop their own version of Macbeth based on their understanding of the story, without knowing the exact outcome. The following appropriation of Shakespeare’s narrative was heavily informed by Antandroy tradition. In the filmmaking process, Abela further increased the level of hybridity by using rehistorized elements and an ethnographic perspective, as will be discussed in the section on directorial choices.

From Macbeth to Makibefo

Abela’s aforementioned principles and his choices of subject, people and location framed the more specific adaptation choices with which he and his collaborators realized the visual and auditory details in Shakespeare’s source text. Using the categories outlined in Bomnüter (51), they include decisions about style, characters and actors, plot structure and scenes, setting and set decoration, dialogue, sound and music plus main topics and motifs.

Style

The style of the film reflects Abela’s idea of returning to the origins of cinema. Employing his sparse equipment to advantage, he borrows liberally from silent film tradition by shooting in high-contrast black and white, combined with limited camera movements and long takes. He also makes use of day-for-night scenes, for example when Makibefo/Macbeth (Martin Zia) is looking for his wife on the beach after her suicide. Dialogue is reduced, especially when compared to Shakespeare’s text, and title cards are presented at the end of the film. Furthermore, the device of a storyteller who introduces the film and connects its sequences emulates the expository and dialogical intertitles of silent films. At the same time, Abela’s seemingly old-fashioned cinematography, together with the historicized set dressing, contributes to the illusion of showing “authentic” events in a pre-modern society in some “pristine” precolonial past (Burnett 27). This perspective is reinforced by his use of characteristic features of ethnographic film, defined as “a practice of documentary film and of visual anthropology […], involving use of the film camera as a research tool in documenting whole, or definable parts of, cultures with methodological awareness and precision” (Kuhn and Westwell 143).

The film is marked by a semi-documentary look throughout, especially as it captures elements from the Antandroy’s everyday life in close detail while employing an anthropological gaze on habits and rituals, such as the warriors’ dance at Danikany’s/Duncan’s burial ceremony (see Figure 1). Abela cunningly combines such authentication techniques with other filmic registers for greater narrative effect: on the visual and aural level through mobile framing, extra-diegetic sound effects and continuous editing techniques; and on the plot level through the interventions of the storyteller. Moreover, Abela openly cites Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Apocalypse Now (1979) in his parallel montage of Bakoua’s/Banquo’s murder (III.3) and the ritual slaughter of a zebu ox.

Tribal Rituals on Sand Dunes Alexander Abela’s Makibefo as a Transcultural Appropriation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth Udo Bomnüter, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Warriors dancing at Danikany’s burial (Makibefo).

Characters and Actors

The ensemble of characters in Makibefo was significantly altered from the play, presumably to simplify and adapt it to the conditions of a tribal society, which Abela would have learned from the Antandroy villagers. Besides changes in the main characters, some minor characters were removed from the plot, some were added or extended. The list of removed characters includes Siward and Young Siward, Macbeth’s servant Seyton, the Doctor, Banquo’s son Fleance and most of the other Scottish Thanes like Ross and Angus. The role of the traitor Kidoure/Cawdor has been extended by showing his pursuit through Makibefo and Bakoua, who also escort him to Danikany, and his killing at the hands of Malikomy/Malcolm. Newly invented characters are the wives of Kidoure and Danikany. Valy Kidoure/Lady Cawdor is shown pleading mercy and later publicly lamenting her husband’s murder. Valy Danikany/Lady Duncan, at her husband’s side, contributes mainly to the visual representation of positive rulership before Makibefo’s usurpation of the throne. Another new character is the storyteller, played by the only professional actor in the cast, Gilbert Laumord, a foreigner from Guadeloupe. He takes over not only the chorus’s function by introducing the play, but also the role of an authorial narrator who speaks for the other characters and explains their actions. Still, he consistently remains outside the story, in contrast to the other characters, all played by Antandroy villagers without previous acting experience. They seem to have been cast by type, with such lucky coincidences as the actors playing the two leading roles of Makibefo and Valy Makibefo/Lady Macbeth (Noeliny Dety) being married in real life, too (Costantini-Cornède). The names of the characters were mostly retained from the play but slightly adapted to the local language.3

Another important change lies in the transformation of the Three Witches and their entourage into the central character of the Witch Doctor. He represents a traditional Malagasy healer, an ombiasy, who not only possesses expert knowledge of herbal medicine but who can also act as a diviner and sometimes as a sorcerer. In Antandroy tradition, an ombiasy is in contact with the spirit world of the raza (ancestors), which enables him to heal tromba (spirit possessions) as well as to inflict and remove gris-gris (curses) (Lyon and Hardesty 291-292).

Plot structure and scenes

Altogether, the basic plot of Makibefo stays relatively close to the events of Shakespeare’s play, including Makibefo and Bakoua overcoming Kidoure, the prophecies of the witch doctor, Danikany’s visiting Makibefo and being murdered at night, Makibefo’s usurpation of the throne, the killing of Bakoua and the visitation of his ghost, the flight of Makidofy/Macduff and the murder of his family, Valy Makibefo’s madness, the return of Malikomy and Makidofy with other warriors and, ultimately, Makibefo’s death in combat. Yet, there are various changes in other places. Several scenes were dropped completely, such as the meeting between Macduff, Ross, and the Old Man in front of Macbeth’s castle (II.4), Hecate’s meeting with the witches (III.5) or the gathering of Malcolm, Macduff and Ross outside of King Edward’s palace in England (IV.3), where Macduff learns of the slaughter of his family. Instead, Makidofy is forced to watch their murder from the boat in which he is fleeing, thus increasing the dramatic effect.

Additions include the introduction and the epilogue as delivered by the storyteller, who also repeatedly interrupts the plot to comment and explain. The establishing shot shows him sitting on a white beach amidst several sculpted funerary poles (aloalo), clearly visualizing the translocation of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” to the sandy beaches of the Androy region (see Figure 2). Further additions are the pursuit of Kidoure, his escort and the tending of his wounds through Makibefo, exemplifying the latter’s “milk of human kindness” (I.5.16). Also added is Kidoure’s trial in which his wife begs Danikany for mercy. Danikany decides to ban him; however, Makidofy kills Kidoure in a fit of anger.

Tribal Rituals on Sand Dunes Alexander Abela’s Makibefo as a Transcultural Appropriation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth Udo Bomnüter, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: The storyteller at the shore (Makibefo).

The burial ceremony of Danikany (see Figure 1) is another addition that can clearly be attributed to the villagers’ narrative. In Antandroy society, funerals play an important part in defining and confirming a community’s social organization. They are equally meaningful for maintaining relations between the living and the ancestors of the clan. The sacrifice of cattle depicted in the film4 is an essential component of the funerary rites (Heland and Folke 259). As part of the ceremony, the film also shows a ritual war dance that entails a confrontation between Bakoua and Makibefo: when Makibefo shies away from Bakoua’s wrestling challenge (ringa), the latter defeats a warrior from Makibefo’s retinue and leaves, while Makibefo wrestles down a bystanding warrior. The storyteller comments on this, speaking for Makibefo and drawing upon Act III, scene 1 (l. 48-54) of the play: “Our fears in Banquo stick deep. […] There is none but he whose being I do fear.” Thus, Bakoua’s superior qualities as a warrior increase his status and motivate Makibefo to have him murdered, replacing the prophecy regarding Banquo’s descendants, which is not included in the film.

Other scenes were altered, sometimes simplified, frequently also to incorporate Antandroy traditions. A prominent example is Makibefo’s first encounter with the witch doctor, together with Bakoua. Instead of foretelling Makibefo his new title Thane of Cawdor, which would be meaningless in a tribal society, he foretells Kidoure’s death. And instead of prophesizing that he will become king, the witch doctor puts a headband on Makibefo on which he paints the royal sign. The headband is later presented to Valy Makibefo in place of the play’s letter, as literacy would be unlikely in a pre-modern society. In his second encounter with the witch doctor, Makibefo is advised to beware of Makidofy and that “none of woman born shall harm” him (IV.1.80-81). The Birnam Wood prophecy is left out, probably not only because of the difficulty to find something like a forest in the barren landscape of Faux-Cap but also because the Antandroy consider certain forests sacred places. Being linked to the burial ceremonies, they are protected by taboo (Heland and Folke 258).

Several more scenes, including the ones directly before and after the regicide (II.1-2), were abbreviated and condensed, making for a brief running time of 73 minutes. Instead of the descriptive dialogue, the murder is (partly) shown, just like in Welles’s and Polanski’s adaptations. Here, however, it is not Makibefo but his wife who approaches the dormant Danikany with the dagger. This emphasizes Valy Makibefo’s ambition to see her husband as the ruler. Then, however, Makibefo takes the dagger from her hand and stabs the king.

Towards the end, the plot is further accelerated, leaving out the somewhat lengthy back and forth between locations and warring parties so that the final confrontation on the shore comes quickly. This makes sense because, in the film, all events occur in the limited space of one clan’s territory, which in Antandroy tradition is defined through the location of one’s ancestral burial grounds (Heland and Folke 258-259). Instead of the united armies of the English and the Scottish rebels (V.7-8), Makibefo, deserted by all his men, faces eleven warriors landing on the beach. Among them are Malikomy and Makidofy, who finally kills the usurper with his spear.

Setting and set decoration

By translocating the plot to the Androy region, Abela fittingly substitutes the barren dunes of southern Madagascar for the barren Scottish heath. The villagers’ input further enabled him to create a convincing illusion of a pre-modern Antandroy society by accurately depicting details of everyday life. His rehistorization shows us dwellings, clothes, weapons and food representing a status quo of ca. fifty years ago (Rosenthal 116). The houses in the village and the clothing of their inhabitants look exactly like Antandroy homes and people did when the explorer Olive Murray Chapman journeyed the area in the late 1930s (see Figures 3a and 3b).

Tribal Rituals on Sand Dunes Alexander Abela’s Makibefo as a Transcultural Appropriation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth Udo Bomnüter, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3a: Antandroy dwelling in 1939 (Chapman). Image courtesy Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

Tribal Rituals on Sand Dunes Alexander Abela’s Makibefo as a Transcultural Appropriation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth Udo Bomnüter, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3b: Antandroy dwelling in Makibefo (1999).

The actors’ costumes precisely conform to Linton’s 1928 description of traditional clothing:


Clothing consisted of a loin cloth for men and a knee-length kilt for women. (..) Both sexes wore the lamba, a large oblong blanket or shawl made from two or more strips of cloth sewn together (375). […] on the coast the men often wear a skirt instead of a loin cloth (384).


Most costumes look very similar, with one significant exception. Valy Makibefo’s lamba is the only one that, instead of featuring an abstract or plain design, features motifs that represent European, more specifically French royalty: a (French) crown, a (French) Renaissance castle,5 and the Fleur-de-Lis. These motifs not only signify her aspiration for a better life and her wish to overcome the traditional, patrilineal kinship system of Antandroy society but they also reference Madagascar’s colonial past under the French regime, which only ended in 1960.

Furthermore, the characters are seen carrying and using their traditional weapon, the silver-tipped spear (lefona) that is still present today (Emoff 57; Lebigre 169). In addition, one of Bakoua’s murderers employs a cowhide sling to bring him down, which used to be a popular weapon in southern Madagascar (Linton 386), and they proceed to kill him with a spear. Swords have not been in use among the Antandroy, therefore Makidofy instead spears Makibefo in their final confrontation.

The witch doctor’s practices likewise depict local customs accurately. As he is telling Makibefo’s fortune, he uses seeds that he lays out in an intricate pattern (tsikidy) while he is in a kind of trance, in which he can communicate with the raza.


Once the raza entered the semi-conscious mind of the ombiasa, small black and white seeds (tsikidy) [are] used for communication. Two to three seeds are placed in columns from north to south to represent aspects of a person’s life that were affected by illness, unhappiness, or regret. (Lyon and Hardesty 291)


Other traditional set elements are portrayed in similar detail. For example, the characters in Makibefo are consuming traditional food (rice, fruits and vegetables, beef) from common bowls using their fingers and wooden spoons, and they drink from clay bottles and calabashes, as in the festivity on their triumph over Kidoure. Later, the boat Malidofy rides in is a typical lakana (outrigger canoe) used by the fishermen, a small fleet of which also carries him back with Malikomy and his men for the final confrontation. The recurring images of the storyteller sitting on the shore amidst carved aloalo poles are a rarity insofar as they see Abela discard ethnographic exactness6 to achieve a greater visual effect, as aloalo would be traditionally standing only at the sites of stone tombs (Ottino 601).

A set detail from outside the world of the Antandroy is the book from which the storyteller seemingly cites as he narrates and comments on the plot. A large volume in folio format with a dark, battered binding, possibly the First Folio washed ashore (Hinz), it seems like a foreign object in the film. Signifying the transport of Shakespeare’s universal myth to the island in writing, it complements and possibly competes with the prevalent oral culture in southern Madagascar (Berensmeyer 20).

Dialogue

Apart from the storyteller, the actors consistently deliver their dialogue in the local Malagasy dialect. The storyteller speaks English with a French accent, thus adding one more cultural reference to Madagascar’s colonial past (Gerhards 185). Functioning as the chorus, he introduces the plot with a short, portentous oral summary of the story, ending with “This is a tale of damnation.” Then he opens the book. Throughout the film, he reads excerpts from the play’s dialogue, sometimes simplified, diegetically as a narrator and commentator or by providing voiceover for central characters. Like a ventriloquist, he speaks for other characters and appropriates their lines, thus revealing the characters’ dependence on him (Hinz) while reconnecting their words to the play text. In total, he interrupts the film’s action seventeen times.

The Antandroy actors have sparse and relatively little dialogue as Abela replaces words with images and displays explicit situations, symbols, gestures and actions to relate the plot. The play’s dialogue is thus severely cut. The Malagasy dialogue is subtitled in English. However, Abela admitted in an interview that the subtitles are not exact translations of the actors’ words but closer to what he was asking them to say (Burnett 42), thereby furthering hybridization between the play’s text and the Antandroys’ own narrative. At the same time, such use of subtitles may constitute a form of ventriloquism (see McKee 1), as Abela is speaking for the villagers instead of letting them speak for themselves through faithful translation. Following Burnett’s line of argument, however, this interpretative subtitling decision cannot be fully held against the director as Abela’s original intention had been to forego subtitles and to focus on imagery instead. Eventually, some form of translation, and thus re-articulation, became necessary to enable an international audience’s reception of the plot (Burnett 42).

Furthermore, Abela chose not to subtitle the various songs on the film’s soundtrack, which form the opening and closing score and accompany festivities and rituals. This decision underlines his sensitive approach as it protects an essential part of the oral narrative from being similarly rearticulated in a simplified, possibly patronizing way (Hinz).

Sound and music

The soundtrack of the film contributes strongly to the characterization of Antandroy culture. It features songs, dirges and chants that are typical examples of oral tradition which, in the film, express the social function of making music and singing in tribal societies (Hinz). Oral performances relate important truths and information and pass them on from one generation to another (Emezue).

The two songs that frame the film, Olo ty tadidy (“We will remember a man”) and Angalatsiky (“He stole from us”)7 are essentially retellings of the central plot of Makibefo. Both were composed, played and sung by Bien Rasoanan Teinana, who also played Malikomy, and another local, Donald (“Makibefo”). The first song reappears several times and becomes a musical theme that is connected to the “breathing” motif that I will discuss in the next paragraph. Both songs display several stylistic features of oral tradition, such as parallelism, rhythmical structure, heavy patterning and the use of ideophones. Parallelism is achieved through repetition, refrain and formulaic expressions (Hinz; Emezue), here provided in an antiphonal form featuring regular interplays between solo and chorus verses. They are accompanied by traditional musical instruments like flutes, seashells and drums, just like the other songs that are diegetically performed at the victory celebration and the burial ceremony.

The sound effects, in turn, support the narrative structure of the film. Repeatedly, the soundtrack complements the action on the screen, as when the pursuit of Kidoure is underlaid with amplified rhythmic breathing, together with the pounding sound of drums like a heart beating. Later in this sequence, we hear Makibefo dig his spear into the sand before he audibly forces it into his enemy’s body. Here as with most other violent acts in the film, the actual deed is not shown but related by sound, prominently so at the killings of Danikany and Bakoua. While the murder of Bakoua/Banquo (III.3) is narrated in a visually compelling parallel montage that cross-cuts to the ritual slaughter of a zebu ox, we see the animal being butchered while Bakoua is defeated and repeatedly stabbed with a spear. The moment of Bakoua’s death is not directly shown, and the sound of the bovine’s agonized breathing stands in for his last breath. Only the death of Makibefo is presented both visually and aurally. Through this unity, the film emphasizes the moment when the traditional order is reestablished by exterminating the threat he represents. The rhythmic breathing, which also accompanies these final moments, stops at this point.

Other instances of such complementary sound effects are drum rhythms or the crashing of waves. Sound is also presented as the more reliable source of information (Hinz) when Makibefo and Bakoua encounter the witch doctor. When Bakoua threatens the ombiasy after the prophecy, he transforms into a black snake, quickly winding away to a hissing sound. Later, when Makibefo visits him a second time, the witch doctor halts him with his hand. Again, we hear the sound of a hissing snake which reveals the dual nature of the supposed healer, hinting at his connection to an evil spirit (bilo). In Antandroy tradition, bilo spirits have the power to possess people and are sometimes associated with animals such as snakes (Sharp 141).

Central topics and motifs

Key topics of Shakespeare’s play are translated, appropriated and hybridized in the film by building on the previously discussed adaptation choices, often touching on postcolonial issues. The central topic is political ambition, which leads Macbeth and his wife to challenge an existing social and political order. This unchecked ambition causes murder and civil war until the balance is restored through their deaths. By depicting Macbeth as a counterexample, the play also addresses the issue of good rulership, which is reinstated with Malcolm’s return.

The film takes up these topics by mirroring the basic plotline. However, in the beginning, the storyteller immediately qualifies the notion of Danikany as a good ruler: “Their king was a noble king, who gave his people peace and harmony. […] Though the king was merciful, he was also weak.” Later, Malikomy’s character is also put into question when we see him kill Kidoure in a rage right after his father, the “weak” king, has changed the death sentence into banishment. Through compromising the legitimate dynasty’s qualities, the film seems to legitimize Makibefo’s claim to power as he is described as “good and true” by the storyteller.

In the Antandroy’s patrilineal society, however, such a claim seems unthinkable. Since community, social order and territory are clearly defined by ancestral law (Heland and Folke 259), Makibefo’s ambitions are running counter to clan tradition. His deeds, the insidious murders of Bakoua and Makidofy’s family, further alienate him from his community. Added to this are the events at the coronation banquet (III.4), when Banquo’s/Bakoua’s ghost appears to haunt Macbeth/Makibefo. Given the crucial importance of funerals in Antandroy society, denying somebody a proper burial will surely entail misfortune (Heland and Folke 259). Bakoua, who had to suffer a disgraceful death and was left to rot at the beach, comes back with bleached skin and distorted eyes, a living corpse (agatsy) (Somda), and frightens Makibefo out of his wits (see Figure 4).

Tribal Rituals on Sand Dunes Alexander Abela’s Makibefo as a Transcultural Appropriation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth Udo Bomnüter, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Bakoua’s ghost at the banquet (Makibefo).

Eventually, the remaining clanspeople decide to break their allegiance and flee the ancestral territory. This is properly visualized through the depopulation of the village: in the beginning, we see Danikany and his queen harmoniously seated in front of their residence amidst other clan members; later, Makibefo and his queen are sitting in the same spot, ruling over a village devoid of inhabitants, which is emphasized by accompanying shots of an abandoned ox cart and empty houses. Such images easily relate to postcolonial topics like flight, migration and return. The latter is expressed through Malikomy’s coming back to his ancestral territory from across the ocean to restore the traditional community (Burnett 38).

The originator of these movements, Makibefo, has been misguided by supernatural influences, though, even more so than in the play. It is the witch doctor who urges him to change his particular destiny (vintana) and aspire to rulership, irrespective of his benign nature that is indicated by his caring for Kidoure and his feelings of guilt before and after the regicide. He is further pushed by his ambitious wife, who tries three times to paint the royal sign onto his forehead before he finally accepts it. Unlike in the play, it is she who grasps the dagger before Makibefo takes over. Further on, when Valy Makibefo starts to act strangely, she is not simply overcome by guilt and consequently losing her mind. The film provides an alternative explanation for her actions. Valy Makibefo shows evident signs of being possessed by a bad spirit (tromba), traditionally more common among women than among men. Bad tromba are said to be malevolent, unpredictable and to cause their host to become very sick (Lyon and Hardesty 292). It is quite conceivable that the ombiasy has also conjured up the tromba that possesses her in order to orchestrate Makibefo’s downfall. Beyond such ethnographic details, the narrated societal processes, i.e., disequilibrium, social unrest, de- and reterritorialization, carry a deeper meaning when they are read as a reflection of “Madagascar’s earlier history of conversion and conquest” (Burnett 40) through Western traders and missionaries and the ensuing fight for independence.

Being the island’s connection to the outside world, the ocean becomes a central motif in Makibefo. It illustrates the natural way of life in a coastal community, highlighted in images of people washing and fishing, as well as bleached whalebones in the dunes. Many scenes are shot in close proximity to the beach, most prominently Bakoua’s death and Makibefo’s defeat. The sea is the place where Valy Makibefo commits suicide by drowning, leaving only her lamba behind. It offers the only possible escape route for Malikomy and later for Makidofy, who then return together from beyond the ocean. The motif is introduced with the narrator sitting on the beach, the same place where he also concludes his epilogue.

While Abela’s personal experience as an oceanographer and free diver may certainly have contributed to these aesthetic choices, local tradition has also helped shape the adaptation - especially given that the Antandroy have a particularly strong relation to the ocean. According to one myth of origin, the zebu cattle arrived swimming and first set their hoofs on the shores of Androy (Heland and Folke 260). However, in general, the Antandroy fear the sea (Nykvist and Heland), which lends an even more frightening aspect to Valy Makibefo drowning herself.

Concluding remarks

There are many more instances where Antandroy tradition has significantly contributed to the narrative. The result is astonishing, both as a unique work of art and as a model case of transcultural adaptation. As Macbeth becomes Makibefo, it is turned into an Antandroy tale told with authenticity and richness in detail, which could never have been achieved without the active participation of the indigenous community.

When Abela initiated his Madagascan film adaptation of Macbeth, with little resources available, the outcome was still unforeseeable. Pursuing an experimental approach, he began a creative collaboration with the Antandroy villagers. In the process, he guided them through filmmaking and to discovering and appropriating the Shakespearean material while maintaining his own auteurial stylistic vision. In some respects, however, this approach is prone to more controversial readings. As I have indicated, it involved both idealistic notions of life in a precolonial warrior tribe and the initial imposing of foreign cultural concepts and techniques on an indigenous community. When applying concepts of ethnographic film, however, Abela refrained from mere stereotyping. Instead of exploiting or misappropriating indigenous culture, his début film expertly fuses Western and Antandroy tradition.

In their entirety, the presented social structure, everyday life, ancestral ceremonies and rituals, fighting, clothes, dialogue, dance and music, even supernatural elements create a semblance of a pre-modern society, albeit in a slightly dehistoricized, timeless way. There are very few occasions where Abela makes aesthetic choices that prioritize visual impact over authentic representation, as with the displaced aloalo. Core elements of the play are read anew through congruous translations, such as the witch doctor replacing the weird sisters, the threat from Bakoua’s warrior skills replacing the threat from his descendants’ prophesized fortune, and the beach standing in for the heath. Yet by introducing the outside character of the storyteller, Abela time and again relates his audience back to Shakespeare’s play.

His Makibefo is thus a cultural hybrid, informed by the nature of its production, representing both Shakespeare and Antandroy. Its transcultural qualities exemplify the concept of the Bard’s universal adaptability, which accords to the director’s aspiration of capturing the essence of Macbeth and rendering it universal through his images (“Makibefo”). Additionally, the film’s links to postcolonial issues also allow for more contemporary political interpretations. Anne-Marie Costantini-Cornède reports of a 2002 screening of Makibefo in Paris followed by a discussion, in which audience members of Madagascan origin and national experts hinted at parallels to the political situation in Madagascar at the time.8

Endnotes

1  Abela’s father’s family hails from the Lebanon and Malta, and his mother’s family from Greece, Italy and Syria (Burnett 25).

2  One example is the Variety review of an L.A. festival screening in 2003: “In the wide universe of Shakespearean adaptations, few are more distinctive […]. Abela’s pic emerges as an entirely fresh response to Shakespeare that should attract both fans of the Bard and B&W cinema. Stripped down thesping and filming are exceptional.” (Koehler) The film received similar praise from the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles as a “premier film minimaliste, adaptation lumineuse et épurée de Macbeth […] Graphiquement parfait” (Ostria). Still, one French movie critic reprimanded the film because the actors lack any affinity with the “imposed” story (Barlet).

3  Costantini-Cornède recounts a semantic coincidence pointed out by Abela: the name Makibefo can also mean “shrewd ape” in Malagasy, consisting of the words “maki” for ape and “befo” for shrewd, cunning or even evil.

4  The actual reason for slaughtering the zebu ox is revealed in another title card at the end: “The zebu in the film was sacrificed in our honour according to the customs of the Antandroy people and was distributed to the families involved in the making of Makibefo.”

5  The printed motif is clearly neither a “coliseum” (Burnett 30) nor a Venetian “palazzo” (Berensmeyer 20).

6  Contrary to Goy-Blanquet’s critique of “ostensible ethnicity” (para. 2), other traditional details are meticulously (re)created and put in context, as has been illustrated in my section on directorial choices.

7  Translations of both songs are provided in the film’s DVD booklet.

8  The presidential election of 2001 resulted in a dispute, which led to months of public strikes and mass protests and pushed the island to the brink of civil war (see Madagascar Presidential Elections).

Filmography

Makibefo (1999) Dir. Alexander Abela. Scoville Film, 2008.

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