White Material (France-Cameroon, 2009)

On the road to nowhere

On the road to nowhere

In White Material director Claire Denis revisits the territory of Chocolat (France-W.Germany-Cameroon, 1988), her first feature, and focuses of the final days of Maria Vial’s (Isabelle Huppert) coffee plantation. The unnamed African country, where the film is set, is in chaos as French peace keeping troops pull out, urging Vial to do the same, and a ‘children’s army’ is closing in on the plantation. So far so typical, in that if focuses on the ‘white’ experience in the colonial landscape, however Denis, who co-wrote the film with Marie N’Diaye, is not sympathetic to Vial, despite the fact that, compared to her feckless husband (Christophe Lambert) and borderline psychotic son, she is admirable in how she never gives up trying to save ‘her’ plantation. The ‘her’ is significant, as one African character says, she produces third rate coffee beans that an African would never drink and, as a colonialist, the land can never be ‘hers’.

Vial argues that she can’t leave the plantation because it is her home but the film suggests that she doesn’t really belong there; Vial’s pale complexion is at odds with the heat of the land. When she shows the workers she’s hired where to sleep, we are shown a hovel whereas she lives in European luxury. The ‘white material’ of the title refers to western goods which have no practical value in Africa; when Vial’s son invites the child soldiers onto the plantation they glut themselves on sweets. Vial, too, is ‘white material’.

Huppert, as usual, is superb in the lead as she impassively, and indomitably, tries to save the plantation which is not even hers. Her husband, with the collusion of her father, is selling it to pay off his debts to a local major. Denis’ ‘second cinema’, that is, art-cinema, style is elliptical letting the audience fill in the gaps. The flashback narrative requires work from the audience that is rewarded in a telling portrait of post-colonial Africa.

Blood of the Condor (Yawar Mallku, Bolivia, 1969)

Blood money

Blood money

The 1960s were a decade of revolution; not least in cinema. Jorge Sanjines’ (as part of the Ukamau collective) The Blood of the Condor – he co-wrote and directed – is one of those rare films: it actually had a direct social impact as it led to the American backed Peace Corps being expelled from Bolivia. It was also a significant contribution to Third Cinema, an attempt to make films about the Third World in a non-western way.

Sanjines’ film was about, and for, the peasant Indians of Bolivia and was designed to be watched, and discussed in, communities without cinemas. Hence Sanjines thought he could afford to have a complex narrative structure, which interpolates flashbacks with the present quest of blood needed to save the village leader, Ignacio. Those who presented the movie could explain what was happening and so avoid any confusion amongst the peasants who were not used to complex film language. Despite this, the peasants weren’t sure about what was happening and Sanjines didn’t repeat such narrative complexity again. He realised that he’d fallen into the trap of imposing an unsuitable form upon the group he was trying to help.

Ignacio is initially presented as a drunkard, wife-beater, angry that she hasn’t produced more children. Hardly the way a western film is likely to present a heroic figure. After the credit sequence, which states the film includes the peasants of Kaata, Ignacio, and a few others, are marched away and shot by men under orders of the local police chief. Paulina, Ignacio’s wife, gets her husband to his brother, Sixto, in the city; however, in order to save him they must find blood or money to pay for a transfusion. The film then intercuts why Igancio was shot with Sixto’s quest for blood and money.

We discover that the Progress Corps, a thinly disguised Peace Corps, are actually sterilizing the Indian women, when performing operations, without permission; an attempt at genocide. When Ignacio finds out he declares that the same will be done to the Americans. Although Ignacio is a fictional character, and it appears the Sanjines was using sterilisation as a metaphor for the destruction of indigenous culture, the Bolivian government, after trying to ban the film under pressure from the Americans, eventually expelled the Corps.

Although Sanjines, and his collective, ‘failed’ formally with their narrative structure, they did succeed, in other formal ways, in communicating in a non western way. For example, the use of the long shot to emphasise the collective aspect of village life rather than the individualism of the close up. Given the Ukamau group’s academic training, it isn’t surprising that they too had been inculcated in the western way of filmmaking. Another way, apart from the subject matter, Blood of the Condor was undoubtedly revolutionary is in its ‘call for action’; as Sanjines stated:

“The work of revolutionary cinema must not limit itself to denouncing, or to the appeal for reflection; it must be a summons for action.” (quoted in Gabriel’s Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation, incidentally this seminal book is available here).

The final shot of the film is of upraised rifles, which are freeze-framed; an undoubted call to arms against the imperialist aggressors. These are not just identified as the Americans, middle class Bolivians too, the descendants of colonialists, are in Sanjines’ sights as they define themselves against the Other of the Indians so they can feel more like the First World westerners. At one point, Sixto is forced to wait at a country club in the hope he will be given blood for his brother; however, the doctor is too full of his own importance to be bothered with Indians.

In 2005 Evo Morales was elected President of Bolivia, the first indigenous person to gain such elevated office in Bolivia. It would be nice to think that films of  Third Cinema sowed the seeds for such advancement. However, as the multinational corporations, and hedge funds, extend their tentacles everywhere they can screw some profit, maybe it’s time for a Fourth Cinema. This would take on the values of Third Cinema and use them to hold up a mirror to the whole capitalist world so we can see how economic and ecological disaster is on our doorstep.

PS the whole film is available, subtitled in English, on YouTube. It looks like a videotape TV recording but the quality’s fine.

21st July: the post was updated to correct the statement that the Peace Corps did actually sterilise Indians.

Northwest Frontier (UK, 1959)

Recalcitrant female will be brought to heel

Recalcitrant female will be brought to heel

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this attempt by Rank to break into the American market (known there as Flame Over India), although the action sequences are relatively tame there is some crackling dialogue, particular from Lauren Bacall (above). Frank Nugent, who wrote the screenplay for The Searchers, is one of the writers and this ‘India in the days of Empire’ set film can certainly be considered a western; the plot’s not a million miles away from that of Stagecoach (1939). Captain Scott (Kenneth More) has to bring a Maharajah prince to safety of face the wrath of Moslems (the term used in the film).

Although, unsurprisingly, the film validates the civilising power of the British Empire, post-Suez Britain knew its place, even if it wouldn’t admit, which might be why the journalist (Herbert Lom) is given many anti-Empire lines. From a 21st century perspective these arguments seem eminently sensible, and no doubt where present as an anti-imperialist discourse at the time the film was made; however, the journalist turns out to be a murderous Moslem thus the film discredits his views.

More’s Scott is of the entirely unflappable variety that is more laughable than admirable now. Indeed, to an extent, the film mocks him, and the British. Bacall’s character notes that the British don’t do anything until they have a cup of tea and by then it’s too late. Bacall, and such lines, no doubt, was part of the film’s intended appeal to the American market; I wonder how the British understood the sentiment at the time. Bacall also speaks her mind: she apologises for doing so but says ‘That’s what I think it’s for.’ Another way the British are (slightly) criticised is through the reference, in the introductory voice over, albeit indirectly, to the fact that Partition was responsible for causing violence. An arms dealer, also on the ‘stagecoach’ (actually a train), comes in for much criticism and is last seen being asked, by an army general, for his new weapons.

Whilst there’s lots of ‘gung ho’ ‘boy’s own’ stuff, room is given for the aftermath of a massacre: there are consequences to the adventure. The British film industry can no longer afford to make such action pictures, apart from Bond; definitely a case of things were different in the old days.

Shun Li and the Poet (Io sono Li, Italy-France, 2011)

Effortlessly lachrymose

Effortlessly lachrymose

Documentary filmmaker, Andre Segre, chose a ‘slice of life’ narrative for his first feature and an affecting on it is. Li Shun (Zhao Tao) is working in Italy, paying off the snakeheads who organised her passage, and hoping that her eight year old son can join her. Zhao is a Jia Zhangke regular (see Still Life) and is quite brilliant in this submissive role whilst conveying her inner steel. My work life at the moment is pretty abysmal, however the fortitude of migrant workers renders me pathetic. She forms a friendship with a much older, sympathetic fisherman, another emigre, albeit one who’s resided in Italy for 30 years; played by prominent Croat actor, Rade Sherbedzia. I was slightly uneasy that a cliched romance between an old man and younger woman would develop, however Segre, who also scripted the film, is too adept for that.

Apart from the performances, what stands out in the film is the cinematography by Luca Bigazzi (a character from The Godfather?). The setting is near Venice, we do have one sojourn into that most photogenic of  cities, and the sea and lagoons of north east Italy look superbly melancholic, especially when the Dolomites, seemingly miraculously, appear in the background.

Three Monkeys (Üç maymun, Turkey-France-Italy, 2008)

Strife is in the air

Strife is in the air

Nuri Blige Ceylan is one of the most interesting directors around; this is no secret, of course, as his latest film Winter Sleep won this year’s Palme d’Or. It’s taken me a while to warm to him; I eventually ‘twigged’ with Once Upon a Time in AnatoliaWhich is great as it means I’ve got a lot of catching up to do with what is, in essence, an ‘old school’ art house film director. Three Monkeys concerns the fall out of a politician bribing his driver to take the ‘rap’ for car accident. As the image above suggests, there’s trouble in the air.

Ceylan, who also scripted with Ercan Kesal, is a master of ellipsis and pregnant pauses allowing the spectator to fill in the gaps. It isn’t ‘obscure’, as the narrative unfolds, all is revealed but there are moments when you’re not sure what the conclusion of the last scene was. Such ambiguity, of course, is rife in life.

He’s also a master of composition and is very patient in waiting for the right weather conditions to illustrate the melodramatic emotions of his characters (or he also controls the elements). He favours the long take and, unusually, action in extreme long shot even for intimate scenes. This loses something on the small screen but then he is making films to be seen in the cinema.

The cast are excellent, especially Hatice Aslan as the driver’s wife.

Ju Dou (China-Japan, 1990)

Doomed

Doomed

Spoiler alert!

Ju Dou is an exemplary melodrama that uses its setting, a small-scale dye-works, and filters, to create an ‘excessive’ colour scheme that’s perfect for the overwrought narrative of sexual betrayal. Jinshan, the brutal owner of the works, buys a third wife, Ju Dou (Gong Li), after beating two previous ones to death in anger over ‘their’ inability to produce a male heir; it is he, in fact, that is impotent. His adopted nephew, Tianqing (Li Baotian), is sympathetic to her plight and she seduces him and produces a boy that Jinshan thinks is his. The child, Tianbai, grows up to be monstrous and kills both his ‘fathers’; one accidentally.

Zhang Yimou’s direction, partly no doubt due to Chinese censorship (it was still banned for two years), shoots the sex indirectly: the first time Ju Dou and Tianqing copulate an enormous cloth, dyed deep red, unravels from its position into what looks like a bloody mess on the floor.  Ju Dou had claimed to be ‘pure’ just before so, presumably, Jinshan is a bit confused when he thinks the child is his.

Obviously there are specifically Chinese elements in the melodrama such as the funeral ritual for Jinshan where Ju Dou and Tianqing have to try and prevent the coffin reaching the burial grounds 49 times. Propriety demands that the two be separated afterwards and so over the following years they can only see each other in secret. ‘Propriety’ doesn’t quite explain the situation as Confucian tradition would demand their death if they were found out. In western melodrama ostracism is often the highest price paid for breaking social mores, as in All That Heaven Allows (US, 1955).

Confucian values are highly patriarchal and the film is a critique on their continued prevalence in modern China. At the end the film steps into gothic horror as the boy Tianbai has committed the ultimate sin under Confucianism in committing patricide (twice in fact) and Ju Dou burns down the dye-works. The film ends with a freeze frame of her engulfed in flames.

Unfortunately the only copy I could get hold of, a DVD via Lovefilm, reminded me of watching much-used 16mm films at university. It was heavily scratched in places and although the colour isn’t too bad, I’m sure that the palette could have been better. It’s strange that one of the mosts feted of Chinese directors, Zhang was responsible for the Beijing Olympic ceremony, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, should not have a decent DVD available in this country.

Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate, USSR, 1959)

Living on the edge

Living on the edge

Grigoriy Chukhray’s (he co-wrote and directed) war film was made during the Russian Thaw, the Khrushchev years before Brezhnev re-froze culture, and was remarkable for the fact that it showed that World War II hadn’t been personally won by Stalin. Instead, Chukhray focused on ordinary people’s stories as a young man, played by Vladimir Ivashov, tries to get home, on a couple days leave, to fix his mum’s roof. The Private is an accidental hero, he destroyed two tanks when in a desperate situation, hence he is given a few days to go home. After the opening sequence there’s little fighting in the film; it’s more a picaresque narrative where he, warm heartedly, encounters soldiers and civilians. Central to the narrative is his meeting with Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko) and the pair fall for each other.

So far so sentimental and I was afraid it might be too saccharine for my tastes as everybody, at the start, seems to be good. However, Chukhray, a veteran of Stalingrad, isn’t interested in painting a socialist realist scene (where things are as they should be rather than how they are) and we encounter the less admirable traits of humanity. The Private, though, retains his goodness and Ivashov’s performance shines with convincing naiveté. His relationship with Shura is beautifully developed and the moment, when they part, is brilliantly edited with her face superimposed on the passing landscape and his thoughts given to us in the voice over. This isn’t a spoiler, we learn that the young man is doomed from the start.

Chukhray, despite the Thaw, struggled to get the film made because, his critics on the artistic committee that had to pass the script, argued it was too frivolous a way to represent that giant sacrifices people made to win the war. However, as the Cannes Special jury recognised in 1959, it’s its humanism that makes it a great war film. It is noticeable, however, that all the authority figures are benevolent; an unlikely fact so probably a compromise that Chukhray had to make to ensure the film got made. This isn’t a Soviet issue, Hollywood films rarely question authority either in a meaningful way.

 

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