How Cheap are the Poor of Africa?

picThe Constant Gardener sheds some light on the unauthorized drug trails on poor Africa’s victims. But its focus on romance lets the darkness loom large on predators.

The Constant Gardener is primarily a White love story set in Africa; it has a very serious and often angry premise for the romance: cheap trials of big pharmaceutical companies wherein African population is being used as guinea pigs. The lead woman Tessa skeptically notes on an occasion, “no drug company ever does something for nothing”. She was then witnessing a TB checking conducted freely with an HIV testing at a hugely populated African slum in Kenya.

Tessa is wife of British diplomat Justin Quayle, who takes her to Kenya soon after their wedding. She is a committed activist campaigning for the welfare and health of the poor folks and gradually discovers unauthorized drug trials secretly done by big pharmaceutical companies. She is shocked at the grotesque inhumanity of large-scale trials the drug companies have been cheaply conducting in Africa, that too without the knowledge and consent of the patients; she started documenting it and sending reports. And eventually gets killed.

Her humble, self-effacing, horticulture-hobbyist husband Quayle was totally ignorant of her secret anti-drug activism. She didn’t let him know, according to her colleague, for his safety and protection. For Quayle, after her completely unanticipated murder in a remote marshland on her way to a jobsite, it was more than a shock to discover what his wife had been secretly doing. He slowly gets into the dark areas of tough men chasing anyone till death unless one lets them make endless profit. He realizes how could have his wife faced them and fought to death. It’s a gigantic network of inhuman profits in which big companies, aid agencies and even his own office, the British High Commission have complicity. “This is how the world f**ks Africa”, says a source to Quayle. A common justification is “we are not killing them who are even otherwise dying”. So is Africa a safe haven for big guns for all sorts of testing, trials, research, AIDS, aids, relief, war, rape and eventually filmmaking. “Yes, this is how the world f**ks Africa.”

The once-shy diplomat Quayle is now repeatedly warned not to step into his wife’s footsteps, by friends, colleagues as well as stiff foes. He receives incriminating notes, which clearly asks him to “stop now or get what your wife got”. He refuses. When a friend says, “go home and live”, Quayle’s response is “I don’t have a home, Tessa was my home”. Fine, it’s beautiful. But the problem is there are millions of human beings in Africa who don’t have a home both in the literal and spiritual sense. They are a disposable population for whom none on earth probably has sensitively lasting concerns.

The film does shed some light on the dark reality of unethical and inhuman drug trials. But, it is sad to note that the complex politics of the issue gets jeopardized thanks to the emphasis on romance, the loss and gloom of Quayle and the tragedy of Tessa. The millions of Africans, who are deprived of their right to live and love and be informed of the kind of drugs they are being fed, seem to have been assembled to form a shallow background, the much photographed ever-enthralling visually rich Africa. The film of course has its moments of anger and protest. Different characters emerge here and there and question this and that. But it fails to dissect the issue of drug companies and dare addressing it. Sad and protestable. 

_41232908_gardener416In spite of its flaws, the film has its touchingly meaningful moments. At Tessa’s burial in Kenya, a few fellowmen brings concrete to fill in her grave and an emotionally moved Quayle objects, “Tessa expressed a wish to be buried in African soil, not in bloody concrete. Nothing grows on concrete.” After her delivery at an African hospital, when Tessa returns home with Quayle, she demands him to stop their car and drop a poor African family – consisting of a boy, his mother and the newly born – to their village 40 kms away, to where they have to walk otherwise. She had befriended the family at her ward. There is an argument in the car, as her husband says, “we can’t involve in their lives. Be reasonable, there are millions of people outside, and that’s why agencies are here.” And Tessa quite reasonably replies, “but these are the three people we can help”. But she fails, as her compassion lacked reason. But Quayle, long after her death, must have realized that they could have helped that poor family.

One can easily and effectively help the needy ones around. The basic principle of being in a crisis situation is to involve, not to wait for orders, but to obey your conscience, which most of the social workers don’t do. There is a remorseful deja vu in which Quayle emotionally fights with the pilot of an aid-relief plane – yes, in vein – to get an African orphan girl boarded. They were all fleeing from a tough attack by tribal warlords who apparently want to plunder the food sacks just released from planes by the World Food Program. Quayle tries to bribe and embarrasses the pilot who insists that the plane is meant for aid workers and he can’t make an exception for one child when thousands are there outside. Quayle shouts, “this is the one we can help, here”.  But rules are rules. The pilot refuses and takes off whereas the poor girl – only God knows how – would make her way to the refugee camp, where no eyes wait for her.

The film ends gloomily, as Quayle also gets killed at the same place where his wife lost her life. By the same killers. Still it rekindles hope, that there are people who care for others. And at least there is love. But the film could have allocated a little more space to the real victims of the drug trials. At least, to expose their victimhood, suffering, humanity, for not everyone makes a film on this subject.

Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, who earlier directed City of God in 2002, has made this movie based on the novel by John le Carre. Technically, this is a commendable work. The subtle, restrained performance of Ralph Fiennes as Quayle is at times charming, and Tessa is memorably played by Rachel Weisz. The African vocal and folk percussions on the soundtrack are soothing and the camera work excellent. However, this is not recommended for family viewing as it shows sexual nudity.

[This was first appeared in]

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