Can poetry be fuel for a spaceship? One man, Robert Saint-Rose, from the Caribbean island of Martinique believed so. The inspiring documentary film, Zetwal, which means “stars,” or “twinkl” from the film, in creole, follows the journey of the Caribbean folk hero who builds a spaceship in 1974 on a mission to be the first Frenchman in space and tried to power it with the words of poet Aime Cesaire.
Directed by Gilles Elie-Dit-Cosaque, Maysles Institute, screened the film on Monday, which was presented by curator Adrienne Edwards. Before the showing was the premiere of animator Evan Turk‘s film, Roots (click link to watch). His film, with wood grain-styled digital animation and Madou Djembe‘s drumming, shows the transatlantic connection between coffins and burial ritual in West Africa and enslaved Africans in New York. The film was inspired by his visit to the African Burial Ground in Manhattan, New York.
Opening with a french version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” in Zetwal (Twinkl), family, friends, politicians, scientists and intellectuals, in addition to old video footage, speak about the aspirations of Saint-Rose, Martinique in the ’70s and the influence of AIme Cesaire on the island. During the 1970s, Martinique was in a time of economic hardship and Saint-Rose’s viewing of the 1969 American space travel to the moon sparked an idea to build his own ship as a means of escape. Using car parts he began to form his diamond-shaped spacecraft, but it was not until a French teacher introduced him to Aime Cesaire’s revolutionary book, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, that it became a passion for him.
Cesaire, who was also from Martinique, resonated not only with Saint-Rose, but with the entire island in the 20th
century as a visionary poet, a member of the Progressive party and an influential politician. Saint-Rose’s decsion to use poetry as his fuel also demonstrated the magical transformative power and energy of language and the mind; that they can be used as forces and weapons against oppressive forces. It is one of the reasons Saint-Rose himself is tracked by the police. It is a documentary, yet the film is speculative in nature, capturing the essence of myth and folktale as well as infusing the artistic, social, cultural and political. Zetwal speaks to the larger story of the continuous struggle of people of the African diaspora to escape the effects of slavery and colonialism. Although Saint-Rose “disappeared,” it is a nice to wonder whether he made it to outer space in his poetry-powered ship.
Here are some important people and works that Adrienne mentioned in the discussion afterwards:
Edouard Glissant’s The Poetics of Relation
Works of Suzanne Cesaire (Aime’s wife and one of the major thinkers for the Creolite movement)
James Arnold’s work on Cesaire
Poet Derek Walcott