Beauty and the Dogs (Aala Kaf Ifrit, Tunisia-France-Sweden-Norway-Lebanon-Qatar-Switzerland, 2017)

A fairy tale written by Kafka

Like SoniBeauty and the Dogs relies on sequence shots (scenes shot in one take) to drive the narrative and writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania brilliantly harnesses the acting talent to portray a nightmarish series of events during one night. We meet the protagonist, Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), during the credits confidently preparing for a disco but the following eight chapters (signed by intertitles) show her disintegration after she has been raped (mercifully this ‘chapter’ is omitted). The film then follows her attempts to report the crime, aided by a friendly young man she’d fancied at the disco.

Ben Hania isn’t just recreating events, which are based on a true story, but commenting upon post-revolution Tunisia, after President Ben Ali was deposed in 2011. She shows the forces of reaction remain strong as, for example, Mariam is refused treatment at a hospital without ID, which she lost during the attack. Comments are made about her (slightly) revealing dress suggesting she somehow deserved to be raped. Such sentiments are not absent in western judiciary and media so we shouldn’t feel smug about how ‘backward’ this is.

Most of the action takes place during one night, beautifully shot by Johan Holmquist (his only imdb credit!). Variety complained that ‘Ben Hania’s almost chilly mise-en-scène lessens the emotional impact of the protagonist’s truly nightmarish plight’ and the narrative was unbelievable because so much happens to the victim. I struggle to understand how, given the Al Ferjani’s incredible performance, the emotional impact can be anything other than staggering; for me, the blues of the mise en scene are perfect for the coldness of the society that allows such treatment to occur. As to the writer’s second point, that is what gives the film its Kafkaesque quality: the trauma of the rape is made worse by the difficulty in getting recourse to justice. What happens to her is screamingly unjust and thus shows the absurdity of social institutions.

Unlike Soni, where the camera’s positioning sometimes distanced us from the drama, the sequence shots serve to ‘immerse’ us in the action. This immersion is emotional as the scene plays out in real time, the lack of editing signifies a lack of manipulation as we know the action we are seeing was actually played out by the actors. However, Ben Hania’s direction isn’t just ‘follow the action’ as she carefully frames, and reframes, the composition and the steadicam movement always flows in an aesthetically pleasing way.

The film was screened at Cannes and I look forward to seeing Ben Hania, and Al Ferjani’s, next films.

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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (UK-Malawi, 2019)

Uncertain feeling

‘True life’ stories are invariably uplifting and the title gives away the film’s denouement. While that’s not a reason to avoid a film I was feeling a little uneasy about the prospect of being made to feel good about a film set in rural Africa. Was the purpose of the film to salve my western guilt about those less privileged than I?

There was no need to worry because director-star and scriptwriter Chiwetel Ejiofor has ensured that there’s enough realpolitik about, in this case, rural Malawi that the uplifting ending can’t disguise the privation suffered by the people. The film is based on the titular hero’s book and we duly get the end credits filling in what happened to William Kamkwamba next. But the journey there is truly tough as Ejiofor ensures we understand the problems of education, politics, climate change and capitalism that beset the village community. Most striking of all is the need for free education for all children.

Ejiofor plays William’s dad I wondered whether his charisma was a little too powerful for his character, the melodramatically named (and presumably actually named too), Trywell. Obviously his star wattage was essential to getting the movie made and he, creditably, even learned to speak the local language, Chichewa, though much of the film is also in English. However, he is such a fine actor, and patriarchy is so strong in the African community, that ultimately the casting worked because it made clear how hard it was for William to challenge his dad.

Ejiofor defended the decision to distribute via Netflix (see here) but his hope that it would also be seen in cinemas appears to have been dashed (apart from some festival screenings). Obviously much is lost on television when the cinematography, courtesy of Dick Pope, is widescreen. Presumably the BBC’s involvement means it won’t be too long before it appears on terrestrial television.

As Extinction Rebellion activists make their presence felt, it’s important to see the impact climate change is having on communities who live on the verge of starvation. It might give some perspective to the whingers who have been complaining about the prospect of having to change their lives or face annihilation. It seems some believe that climate catastrophe will only affect poor countries (I spoke to an American who was relaxed about the idea that Bangladesh will disappear), not understanding that there is only one ecosystem on planet Earth.

The Wound (Inexba (South Africa-Germany-Netherlands-France, 2017)

Viewing others

The screening was preceded by brief talking heads, the director John Trengrove and lead actor Nakhane Touré, giving some insight into the film. Interesting though this is, I don’t want ‘insight’ into a film just before I’m watching it; I prefer sometimes to see films with no preconceptions. I’m not sure what the point of this preface is, A Fantastic Woman had one also, because it’s not selling the film as the audience are already in place.

Whilst I’m on a moan: I understand cinemas need to show adverts and trailers for economic reasons but it’s always a relief to see the BBFC certificate as that means the marketing messages are over. Except before this film after the certificate another promo – for Selfridges – appeared. Unlikely as it may be, if any marketing person for this shop is reading: the effect of this on me is to make me think ‘fuck off’ to the company that is further delaying my pleasure of the film!

I knew nothing of The Wound before sitting down in the cinema other than it was a South African film. The number of producers in the credits indicated a heavy European involvement which is presumably why the film has managed to get distribution in the UK. It’s a good film so deserves to be seen but I’m sure there are many good films from Africa that we never get a chance to watch. The fact that The Wound won best first feature at the London Film Festival also would have helped.

Although it is an international co-production this seemed an entirely African film; it focuses on the initiation rites of the Xhosa people where boys become men after being circumcised and spending a week on a mountain tended by a carer. The portrayal seemed authentic to me and there’s an ethnographic (to an ignorant westerner) fascination at seeing a portrayal of this rite. But there’s more to the film because the protagonist, superbly played, is a closeted homosexual and so he fails to be a ‘man’ in the traditional sense. Another outsider is the ‘city boy’, a place that is defined as effeminate by the rural tradition that the ceremony derives from. At the same time, it’s clear the ‘country boys’ envy urban wealth.

There’s plenty of melodramatic conflict in the narrative and it is shot in the beautiful ‘cradle of life’ World Heritage Site. Trengrove tends to keep his camera close to the men and boys which makes for some vertiginous wobbling when they are running but there are some artful compositions to enjoy too.

Trengrove’s introduction tells us the film was controversial because of its depiction of gay Africans; homophobia is, it seems, a traditional value too. Touré stated he had to withdraw from a film because of death threats. Hence The Wound is a brave film as it confronts a taboo subject and it does it with style.

 

Update 8th May: I suspect I was mistaken that the Selfridges promo appeared after the certificate however it did appear when I was primed to watch the film so engendered a hostile reaction!

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.

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.