The world’s fourth largest island, a country famed for its beauty, its wildlife and a series of animated films about zoo animals making their way there, “has an image problem” a UNICEF official says in the early moments of the documentary “Madagasikara.”
Those popular images, of lemurs and striking landscapes, greenery and baobab trees, aren’t the real Madagascar. The truth about the place is that without any civil war, drought or other obvious external threat, it has plunged from impoverished to dire.
The real Madagascar, the natives, non-governmental aid workers and activists in “Madagasikara” declare, is more Dickensian than Dreamworks.
People are so poor that a generation is growing up physically and intellectually stunted, a byproduct of starvation.
The government was no picnic before 2002, but then a local oligarch seized the presidency after an election he lost, and proceeded to loot the place. When he schemed to sell off half the arable land to South Korean interests, in 2009 the people marched, in spite of massacres by government troops, and chased him away. American sanctions under the Obama Administration cut off aid and embargoed international help.
The aid is trickling back, but poverty seems endemic without a lot of help.
Cam Cowan’s film profiles several Malagasy women, and through them lays out the dire circumstances of the place, the source of some of its problems and the search for solutions.
Lin is in her early 40s when we meet her, raising her six children and a grandchild on almost nothing. The occasional bit of laundry work might give them a couple of cups of rice on a given day. It may come off as judgmental of Cowan to let her name the babies she lost (one is buried under the front stoop) and mention that she had each child with a different man.
Her desperation is visited much earlier in life when we meet Deborah, a former sex worker who is about 16 when we meet her. She weeps recalling how she had to take up this work at 12, how she often wouldn’t get paid or would be beaten by men or their enraged wives. She wanted to study the law, but had a child at 13 and is doing what she can to get them beyond subsistence and into a better situation.
Can she do that without a man?
And we meet 32 year-old Tina as she brings her toddler with her to the quarry where she, like her parents before her, makes gravel by hand.
“The stones are our bread of life,” she sighs, worrying that even this grinding, starvation-wage work will disappear.
Father Pedro Opeka (the island is largely Catholic) complains that the poverty rate has gone from about 30% when he got there in 1970, and rose steadily until 2009, when it spiked and reached as high as 90%.
Punishing the people by cutting off aid when it is the crooks looking to finish looting the land of everything of value, as elected officials, who have demolished democracy and rendered the island an Indian Ocean version of Haiti is almost genocidal, several argue.
Seeing “Madagasikara” in the middle of a pandemic, where elected American officials are using cold calculus about who gets to live and who gets to die, with a government referring to its people as “human capital,” and openly corrupt officials seemingly set on looting the national patrimony before everyone catches on, is sobering. This is what a “one-percent” oligarchy’s end game looks like. Yes, it can happen anywhere the rich grab power and impose their priorities on the rest of us.
The tiny glimmers of hope that “Madagasikara” offers — people with so little can be impacted by even the slightest charity — can’t obscure either the humanitarian catastrophe being visited on one of the most gorgeous lands on Earth, or the cautionary nature of showing what a malevolent and illegitimate government can do to create that.
MPAA Rating: unrated, disturbing subject matter, child sex worker content
Cast: Lin, Deborah, Tina, Father Pedro Opeka
Credits: Directed by Cam Cowan. A Global Digital release.
Running time: 1:24