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.

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The Source (La source des femmes, Belgium-Italy-France, 2011)

Power to the women

Power to the women

The lukewarm review, from the usually reliable Philip Kemp, in Sight & Sound, caused me to overlook this powerful melodrama. Kemp notes some faults in the film, a slightly tangled narrative, but they are far outweighed by the representation of strong Muslim women fighting against patriarchy.

It stars Leïla Bekhti as a young outsider in a North African Arab village who decides to organise a love strike, inspired by Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, to get the men to do some work rather than sip tea all day. Their demand is that water be piped to the village. Aided by a formidable older woman, Leila (also the character’s name) finds all the forces of conservatism arraigned against her. However writer-director, the French based Romanian Radu Mihaileanu, is careful to draw shades of grey with some of the women opposing the strike and some men supporting; the local town council are also shown to be complicit in women’s oppression; ‘if women get water then they will want washing machines next’. ‘Radical Islam’ is also represented and it’s important the representations of ‘liberal Islam’ are circulated in the west as many people’s views of the religion are shaped by the right wing press.

The DVD I saw is 15 minutes shorter than the cinema release (according the imdb) but I’m not sure that I missed much; though I would prefer to make my own mind up. The narrative does sag a little but the vitality, and humour, of the film made it a fulfilling watch.

Xala (Senegal, 1975)

As usual, it takes a woman to talk sense

Sembene Ousmane was a remarkable filmmaker, he was responsible for the first black African film, Borom Saret (Senegal, 1963) and concluded his career with the marvellous Moolaadé (Senegal-Fr-Burkino Faso-Cameroon-Morocco-Tunisia, 2004). Xala, like Deep End, is a film I’d read about but never seen and I have to confess was slightly disappointed. Not that it isn’t an excellent film, it’s satire on post-colonial Senegal still hits the mark, but the often-wooden acting and stilted camerwork detract from the narrative. I can only imagine, judging by the director’s other work, that the direction was a result of financial constraints.

The film focuses on self-important businessmen who have simply replaced their colonialist masters after independence. They are corrupt and have western tastes, the main character El Hadji professes only to drink Evian water (see above). In contrast his daughter, framed and colour coordinated, in the above scene, with a map of Africa, speaks Wolof and she is ashamed of her father. Part of that shame is due to his habit of taking wives, he marries his third in the film; one patriarchal African tradition he is happy to follow. The women, as in Moolaadé, are shown to be extremely strong characters, much more in tune with the realities of the world than the self-aggrandising men though they are, ultimately, powerless.

It is a political film that makes its points through comedy. El Hadji is cursed, the xala, and becomes impotent and so can’t ‘service’ his young third wife. He thus goes to a witch doctor to be cured but, when his cheque bounces, the ‘marabout’ simply reinserts the curse. Sembene, on whose novel the film’s based, is suggesting that in becoming western the nation’s rulers are emasculated.

The location shooting offers some extraordinary shots, particularly of the group of beggars who eventually shame El Hadji in the finale; and the music, by Samba Diabarra Samb, is excellent. It is a shame that African film remains a rarity on British screens despite the plethora of platforms for distribution now available.

The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri, Italy-Algeria, 1966)

Urban warfare

The Battle of Algiers is an extraordinary film for a number of reasons, primarily the impartiality with which the events are portrayed and the style in which it is shot. It was made just after Algerian independence from France and focuses upon the battle for the capital city in 1957, which although a failure for the National Liberation Front (FLN) at the time, sowed the seeds for the eventual withdrawal of France.

Director Gillo Pontecorvo drew upon the Italian tradition of neo realism by using non-actors, except for the vital role of Colonel Mathieu, and location shooting. The latter was possible as the film had the cooperation of the Algerian government. Despite the fact that the government’s involvement might suggest a propaganda , nation-building, purpose for the film, Pontecorvo, and screenwriter Franco Solanas, do not portray the French as monsters.

Indeed, the even-handedness of the way each side is presented is quite remarkable; both commit atrocities and deaths on both sides are shown to be equally tragic. For example, the bombing of the  Casbah, by off duty French policemen, is followed by the equally cold blooded bombing of, amongst other places, a milk bar full of young people. Whilst it is clear that the atrocity committed by the French was answered by Algerian revenge, Pontecorvo spends more time emphasising how innocent the French victims are through a series of eyeline matches from the woman planting the bomb. The aftermath uses the same music, Bach’s B minor Mass, which also accompanied images of the dead being dragged from the rubble in the Casbah.

Ali La Pointe: he won't give in

Later, Algerian ‘freedom fighters’ rampage through town in an ambulance shooting anyone they can. This is in response to the torturing of Algerians as the paratroopers tried to track down the FLN’s leadership. Col. Mathieu is even allowed to justify the use of torture, though this is used to illustrate politicians’ hypocrisy. As he says, if you wish Algeria to remain French then it must be done. Mathieu is no cardboard villain but a compassionate, professional soldier, played with great charisma by Jean Martin (who’d lost a part because he signed a petition supporting Algerian independence). On two occasions, when French passers-by attack Algerians in hysterical revenge for killings, it is gendarmes who come to the rescue. It’s not obvious as to why the French banned the film for many years.

I should make clear that the film doesn’t condone torture; the scenes are quite horrific and the film’s viewpoint is obviously anti-colonialist. The French should not be there; there should be no reason for torture.

Unlike the neo-realists, the event portrayed is not insignificant but a decisive moment in Algeria’s fight for freedom. Also, the use of faux newsreel footage (the image was processed to look grainy) is a departure from neo realist technique. It does, however, give the film immense immediacy. I have to keep reminding myself that the film is a recreation; Paul Greengrass achieves the same effect with Bloody Sunday (UK, 2002).

The face of a killer

A final point to make, and something that has been reflected in the Arab Spring, is the vital role of women in the uprising. Three women plant the bombs that kill many and the final shot of the film is a woman, holding the national flag, who keeps coming forward despite being pushed back by French security forces.

The Battle of Algiers is one of the greatest films of the 20th century.

 

Ordinary Boys (Chico normales, Spain, 2008)

Typical lads

Typical lads

The premise of this film is fascinating: it’s set in a Moroccan village where the Madrid bombers originated and looks at the ordinary lives of its residents. It doesn’t quite work for me but there was much that was engaging.

The film attempts to look at the social context – poverty – that leads individuals to become terrorists (the film’s careful to distinguish the Madrid bombing terrorism from the Palestinian resistance which, it rightly says, is justified). Focusing on  two ‘ordinary boys’, and female Law graduate Rabia, the film portrays the lack of opportunity for the young and the rather fatalistic attitude of the older. Whilst one lad gets mixed up with a drug dealing gang, the other thinks going (illegally) to Spain will solve his problems. However we never get to see the ‘fundamentalists’ who persuaded the bombers – their meeting place has ‘closed down’. I think this is problematic but probably a function of the documentary style, the cast are non actors + locations shooting, of the film

The position of women in Muslim society is also dealt with through Rabia who rejects becoming at the ‘beck and call’ of a man and desires equality. Throughout the film she rejects wearing the hijab, saying she’ll wear it when she wants. At the film’s close she decides to do but this isn’t explained.

Although Spanish in origin Ordinary Boys is, in effect, a Moroccan film and so is a fascinating, if flawed, glimpse into another world not so far away (from the west).

Goodbye Bafana (Ger, Fr, Bel, S. Africa, It, UK, Lux, 2007)

White man's story

White man's story

Why is it that the stories about apartheid we get to see, in the UK at least, are the white man’s story? The economic racism of the film industry, of course, explains this but it does make watching films like Goodbye Bafana a slightly uncomfortable experience. The proper story is of the ANC’s struggle and this can be readily told via the character of Mandela; here we only get tantalising references to the fight against the racist regime. Mandela’s own story has been in development for years but it looks like it will get told now Clint Eastwood is attached; however, according to the internet movie database, this will focus on the post-apartheid years!

Haysbert is terrific as Mandela; how do you play a saint? Of course, no-one is a saint and Mandela, according to my partner, was far more bolshie than he’s shown here. Joseph Fiennes, an actor I’ve never warmed to, is also terrific but I’m not interested in how he regains his humanity (the film is based on the prison guard’s book whose authenticity has been doubted).

A film to see because we get an inkling about the realities of apartheid. But we don’t get to hear how, for many years, western governments supported the S.African government, or how many politicians dubbed the ANC terrorists. Does anyone know of a film that does this?

Waiting for Happiness (Mauritania-France, 2002)

Wonderfully slow-paced movie that shows the effect of globalisation on the ‘middle-of-nowhere’. Well; sort of. The outside world is only there via the radio that’s lost; the stories of the characters; and the waiting to leave. Looks beautiful too. (DVD)

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