Exploring the world through global cinema

Posts tagged “Africa

I Never Thought I’d Live To Be A Hundred

The Republic of the Congo, often confused for its much larger, but equally war-torn neighbour.

This week, World On Film visits the African state of Congo. Ah, but which Congo? This was the difficulty I faced when searching for visual material recently. Even the Internet Movie DataBase incorrectly lists many films as being made in ‘Congo’ when they in fact mean the Democratic Republic of Congo. The much larger DRC after all is Africa’s second-largest country and like North Korea, tends to be the greater source of conflict and instability than its near neighbour. But what of the Republic of Congo, the much smaller ex-French colony lying just to the West? It shares a similar history: stripped of its mineral wealth by foreign powers for over a century, racked by waves of civil war and home-grown dictatorships since achieving its independence, and leaving a near-destitute population shell-shocked by the worst depravities of man and facing a bleak future due to lack of infrastructure. For both Congo republics, the story is a shared one, the plights of their people struck by the same destruction.

In the end, however, I did come across one very positive short film showing the efforts made by at least one small organization to give today’s youth in the Republic of the Congo reasons to live for tomorrow.

The Flux Mothers

(2008) Produced by Jacob Foko

“I would like to have a life like every other girl. I want to be intelligent, read, write. I want to have a better life like them. That’s all.”

Holistic approach: In ‘The Flux Mothers’, we see a program designed not only to give Congolese women much-needed job training, but a well-rounded education for a sustainable future.

The DRC is typically referred to as the ‘rape capital of the world’, yet many young women in the Republic of the Congo have also had to face firsthand this most long-term destructive example of social breakdown. Impregnated as young as 12, they now find themselves saddled with children they do not necessarily want nor can afford to provide for. However, rape is not always the catalyst: in an environment without social welfare, affordable education or job prospects, many women will look to men as a means of survival, only to find themselves dumped when impregnated. Destitution and complete lack of self-worth are compounded in rape victims by mental trauma, especially in a strongly patriarchal culture.

“For both Congo republics, the story is a shared one, the plights of their people struck by the same destruction.”

The Flux Mothers introduces us to a Dr. Ann Collet Tafaro, the driving force behind humanitarian aid organization, Urgences d’Afrique, a program designed to train young Congolese woman such as described above in the art of welding, thus giving them a practical skill in high demand across the region. However, practical skills are only part of the equation, since women who register for the program are also given free language and literacy classes, health-care training, and psychological counselling. Tafaro ultimately understands that in Congo’s war-ravaged environment, any attempt at humanitarian aid must go far further than simple job-training. It must also heal the mind and rebuild an individual’s identity from the ground up.

The film also shows that like all humanitarian aid efforts, there are massive holes in the program due to lack of funding – no safety equipment, poor medical facilities, and a paucity of raw materials that any average shop class would stock. Just as the Congolese must make do with the little they have, so Tafaro and her students must do likewise.

Above all, I found The Flux Mothers to be very inspiring, and given that it was made four years prior to this post, it would be interesting to see how much the program has progressed. In the meantime, the film-maker himself has uploaded the film to Vimeo, which means I can present it below. It was produced through an organization called Global Humanitarian Photojournalists, with the aim of attracting donations for Tafaro’s program.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/22004375″>The Flux Mothers</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/jacobfoko”>Jacob Foko</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>f

*****

The Opaqueness of Sustainability

The kitchen-sink approach to documentary film-making.

Sometimes, getting visual material to watch for a particular country can turn up some truly bizarre results.

Several years ago, I came to hear a few tracks off a new album I mistakenly believed to be the work of the late Donna Summer. It was an obvious mistake: after all, the album was credited to a ‘Donna Summer’ and given the title ‘This Needs To Be Your Style’, which seemed to fit – was not Donna Summer a woman of great style? Then there was the ‘music’ on the album itself, a motley assemblage of aural cacophony that even Bjork would only think fit to record after six months of heavy acid usage, occasionally interspersed with twisted samples of familiar tracks by the disco queen herself.

What I did not know was that ‘This Needs To Be Your Style’ was in fact the work of ‘Donna Summer’, aka British electronic and breakcore obsessive, Jason Forrester, who adopted Summer’s name for stage purposes. I mean, it’s obviously really, isn’t it? It didn’t help. Knowing the real intent of the album did not somehow magically reassemble the mad mix into something coherent – which for all I know is what breakcore exists in the first place.

Many years later and not long after the real Donna Summer released what would be her latest – and last – album, I found myself given the dubious pleasure of editing bid proposals by various organizations hoping to secure international conferences. It could be an interesting job in theory, but for the fact that I quickly discovered that none of the bidding hopefuls knew the first thing about how to sell their host city as the site of a potential global congress. Thus would the Power Point presentations and PDFs be a soul-destroying kitchen-sink collection of random facts interesting to no-one and of dubious connection to the main thrust of the proposal’s argument, which itself was only optionally present.  Perhaps the authors felt that to assault their audience with a barrage of facts and figures would beat them into stupefied submission, if not baffled silence, causing them to cave in completely.

Occasional bursts of clarity get the need for wholesale sustainable development in Congo across.

“Sometimes, getting visual material to watch for a particular country can turn up some truly bizarre results.”

So, then, we see that context is everything, but your ignorance of that context does not always mean your hosts know what they’re talking about. Which brings me to this Congo-focussed oddity.

SOPI Architects, an architecture/urban planning firm based in the UK and Cote D’Ivoire, once put together a proposal for achieving sustainable development in Brazzaville and beyond. Following what has to be the longest company ident in history, we see a curious mish-mash of a film that centers around showing us a long text-based feasibility study that seems ultimately to conclude that what the Republic of the Congo needs more than anything are more attractive buildings. Well, you would expect an architecture firm to say that. The problem, however, is that the other 98% of the video (8% of which worships the ident) does not really build up an argument in this direction, preferring instead to take the scattershot approach of throwing in facts and figures about the country’s development problems across the board.

At least I assume that’s the case, given that the text is too small to read, and not on screen long enough to read in any case. It appears for all the world as if someone has filmed the pages of a book, more to show you what each page looks like rather than an effort to help you read it. There is also the apparent assertion that you are fluent in both English and French, given the randomly-inserted talking head video clips predominantly in French despite the English text, and not subtitled. The footage is also a strange collection, at one point a long self-congratulatory sermon from no less than the nation’s president, Denis Sassou Ngouesso on forest preservation to clips of flood victims complaining – and quite rightly – about the ease with which their villages are frequently underwater.

Like ‘This Needs To Be Your Style’, it’s all over the place. One could argue that I may have failed to grasp the finer subtleties of the argument – maintaining forests + shoring up river banks = build more duplex apartments – but I remain skeptical on this point. At any rate, if you would like to make sense of the presentation, you can watch it below.

*****

Next Time

“The island’s seemingly impenetrable mass of opaque green palm trees and tooth-jagged mountain ranges easily suggest the untamed exotic Javan wilderness far from Batavia’s comparative civility of more than half a century ago”

World On Film visits the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, looking at examples of their use in storytelling – typically as a stand-in location for somewhere else. You can see a trailer for one of these examples below. We also take a good look at the archipelago as it truly is, and I can already say it’s convinced me to go there someday. That’s next time.

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It’s Cold Outside Of Your Heart

Last time on World On Film, we visited the impoverished and war-torn Central African Republic to experience the other side of life. In this edition, we move just over the northern border into the impoverished and war-torn nation of Chad, where pride, jealousy and social obligation have produced

A Screaming Man

(2010) Written & Directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

“Our problem is that we put our destiny in God’s hands.”

Love and pride come to blows in the thoughtful Chadian drama, ‘A Screaming Man’.

Like the Central African Republic, Chad was once part of French Equatorial Africa, and its colonial legacy lives on – in this film most notably in the language and uneven presence of modern technology. Like CAR, sections of Chad suffer from civil unrest, with rebel factions frequently staging uprisings and battling the government for control of the country. In A Screaming Man, I was reminded very much of the Bangladeshi historical drama The Clay Bird, which I reviewed here some time earlier. Both focus upon a family living far from the conflict, which is something only seen or heard via TV and radio. Life carries on as per normal until the war finally comes their way, with the film ultimately showing the different ways in which the common man either copes or turns a blind eye to it.

Chadian-born film-maker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has probably seen this scenario play out for real far too many times for his liking across the years, understanding that war isn’t something most people seek out, but try very hard to avoid until they have no choice but to face it. It would also explain why A Screaming Man, released in 2010, does not specify which of the nation’s many conflicts forms the backdrop of the story: it happens so often that it doesn’t matter. Indirectly however, we can determine a present-day setting from the aforementioned technology (cassette players and modern cars), as well as the more recent changes in Africa’s social make-up. This latter element brings us to the plot.

Central to the story is Adam, one-time national swimming champion and now, in his sixties, fiercely-proud of his job as senior pool attendant for an affluent local hotel. In close orbit are his loving wife and his son Abdel, who works at the hotel as his assistant. The happy equilibrium is upset when the hotel’s new owners downsize the staff and Adam is replaced by his son, who, no less in need of regular employment, has secretly campaigned behind his father’s back for his position. A humiliated Adam, forced to accept a low-paying job as hotel gatekeeper and continually pestered by the pushy town chief to make financial contributions toward the war effort, has his son drafted to the front lines in lieu of payment. Only then does the far-away civil war suddenly become real and Adam realise the consequences of his wounded pride.

For Adam and his family, the civil war is just something that happens on television, and so not to be taken too seriously.

Late last year, I happened to catch an interesting BBC documentary entitled ‘The Chinese Are Coming’, which looked at the growing influence of China’s new affluent class across Africa. Inevitably, reactions by the locals are mixed: some cite the new employment opportunities they can take advantage of thanks to Chinese investment, others see their homeland rapidly being bought up by foreigners whose profits are not shared with the indigenous population. Obviously the truth of all this depends upon each particular situation. In A Screaming Man, it is a Chinese businesswoman who takes over the hotel and begins economising. Haroun, showing a restrained observational approach to the subject matter, is careful not to demonise her, balancing her cold, yet logical book-balancing with a warmth for hard-working and loyal employees. In a sense, this is the Chinese ‘invasion’ of Africa (and those inverted commas are there for a reason) in a nutshell: obviously, the new global investors are driven by commercial interests, but even the most sympathetic Chinese employer will have to upturn lives in order to balance the books, eg, the sacking in the film of the hotel chef, whose health deteriorates soon after. Historically, it’s a state of affairs the natives have all seen before. Once upon a time, Ms. Wang would have been French, and the story played out along broadly similar lines. (Actress Heling Li is, for the record, Franco-Chinese).

“A key element of Haroun’s approach to storytelling is silence and knowing when to use it.”

Importantly, although her actions have far-reaching consequences for the central characters, setting off a chain of events that lead ultimately to misery, A Screaming Man is really about the way in which others choose to react to them. It is Adam, whose intense pride wreaks havoc with his family when punctured, who can be said to cause the most and longest-lasting damage. In almost every shot of the film, it is Adam, terrified of change and singularly unable to cope with it, who has the most power to affect the world around him. And yet paralysed by hubris and his narrow-minded outlook, he is simultaneously the most helpless, able only to operate within the framework of the world he has created for himself.

Lives are turned upside-down by Africa’s new investors looking to balance their books, but ‘A Screaming Man’ is not a warning that ‘The Chinese Are Coming’.

A key element of Haroun’s approach to storytelling is silence and knowing when to use it – a trait completely absent in Hollywood because of the self-fulling prophetic belief that the idiots in the audience will become insecure if people aren’t flapping their gums. This is what makes ‘reality’ television all the more laughable: we know from our own real-world experiences that many of our fears and desires go unspoken, either because we can’t bring ourselves to articulate them or because the right moment to do so never seems to come. And yet we have so allowed ourselves to be deluded by our favourite broadcasters that the opposite is true, that we may therefore look at something like A Screaming Man, where characters undergo turmoil but keep silent, as disjointed and ‘art-house’ – the latter used as a pejorative.

It is precisely because our central character, whose actions affect the those in the story we are to care most about, spends so much of his time quietly seething and feeling sorry for himself, that tension is created. Credit for this brilliantly-understated performance must go to actor Youssof Djaoro, whom Mahamet-Saleh Haroun first placed in the spotlight in his award-winning 2006 drama, Daratt. In Adam, Djaoro expertly-creates an essentially well-meaning ex-sports star unable to see past himself when recognition for his talents is denied him. Because the story takes place in Chad, I can’t help but ponder over the consequences of lashing out at the world in a relatively safe country such as those most readers are familiar with versus doing so in a land where one act of irrational behaviour can have truly dire consequences. If you’re having trouble understanding what it must be like to live in such an environment, this particular contrast must surely be one key example.

All talk and smiles until life doesn’t go his way: Youssof Djaoro expertly conveys Adam’s wounded pride with little more than a look, speaking volumes of the turmoil within.

There are also far more accessible ways of doing this elsewhere in the story, such as when the war arrives in the town and the locals are forced to flee. However, it is more important that Adam sees this complete social breakdown than the viewer: only then can he interpret the war in his homeland as being more than some annoying tax on his income or as a form of macabre entertainment on the television while he relaxes in his wife’s company after a day’s work. How easy to send his son off to war when it is little more than a vicarious idea presented by others. The reappearance of the town chief later in the story, when these same realities have silenced his demands of patriotism from others, is very telling. Haroun’s message, born of direct personal experience, is clear: heroics are for people in no danger of being shot at.

“Haroun’s message, born of direct personal experience, is clear: heroics are for people in no danger of being shot at.”

Where clarity falls a little flat for me however, is the ending. To tell its story, A Screaming Man has a fairly pedestrian pace in order to develop the character and inner workings of its central protagonist – and also simply because this is how fast life would move in what is essentially a mundane world until it is forced to be otherwise. Yet there is a rising conflict building toward a high point – in other words, the classical story structure – which, without spoiling the details, seems simply to end abruptly. I interpret this as Haroun’s ongoing attempt at unfettered realism: that real life is typically not a place of endings and closure. If this was his intention, he would be right, but as a viewer, I nonetheless find A Screaming Man ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. It doesn’t undo all the storytelling that precedes it, but does colour the overall experience. And this is a valid criticism of some art-house cinema.

Realisation and regret, but is it too late?

On a far less important note, I also was disappointed with presence of stunt-casting in the film, in the form of Abdel’s girlfriend Djénéba Koné, whose character and real-world alter ego share exactly the same name. The only member of the cast to get this treatment, Koné was an up-and-coming singer/actress who is given the opportunity to show both talents in this film, and for me at least, neither activity justified breaking the fourth wall just to provide her with a variety showcase. It seems even more unfortunate in light of Koné’s tragic death in a car accident last December, and perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to see one of her better-suited performances one day.

Tragedy is ultimately in-keeping with the film itself – we should remember that A Screaming Man was borne of the fact that many other Chadians have died pointlessly and many more will continue to do so. Sometimes that pointlessness can be more easily avoided if we can manage to keep our own self-importance in check – such is the message of A Screaming Man, an imperfect, but laudably honest commentary on human nature by a film-maker whose observations go beyond the turbulence in his home country to each and every one of us.

*****

Next Time

Chile 1973: the country is torn apart by a civil war fuelled by class and ideological differences. In the midst of the ongoing conflict, two boys find friendship despite their wildly-differing backgrounds. Inevitably drawn into the madness all around them, it can only be a matter of time before their two worlds will pull them apart. The compelling historical-drama Machuca next, on World On Film. See a trailer below (apologies for the lack of English subtitles).


The Other Side Of Life

A bit of a gear-change this time around, as cinema is not really high on the agenda for the country featured. Nonetheless, there is plenty to watch – and a lot to think about.

Unless you’re deaf or know someone who is, it’s reasonable not to give much thought toward those who are – what options they have in life, the extra lengths they have to go to in order to compensate, and how they are treated by others. Still, we might think, society does offer support: the deaf are taught sign language and how to lip-read, the partially-deaf qualify for hearing aids, and it’s not as if being deaf prevents you from finding work. And quite rightly.

Still, imagine a place where the deaf are ignored simply because they can’t hear; where they are given no education and no job prospects, left to do absolutely nothing from the day they are born until death comes to claim them.

Unfortunately, there are places in the world where some don’t have to imagine this scenario.

Deaf In The Central African Republic

That video was put together by the Central African Republic Humanitarian and Development Partnership Team, a non-profit organization working to coordinate the various entities trying to improve life in the country. Help was supplied by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

Now it would be easy to be highly critical of this lesser-known African state for what the video shows – that CAR society cares little for the weak and infirm. However, context is everything and we need to zoom out a little.

“Imagine a place where the deaf are ignored simply because they can’t hear”

The Central African Republic is one of the poorest nations on the planet, with the International Monetary Fund placing it 178th out of 183 in 2011 in terms of GDP. Part of a former French colony, the CAR has a population of approximately 4.5 million who have suffered at the hands of foreign and domestic oppressors for as long as they can remember. A hundred years ago, they were slave labourers to their French overlords and, following the country’s independence in 1960, abused repeatedly by home-grown dictators fighting each other for control of their fate (- one even declaring himself their emperor). Military rule is still quite recent, with fair elections taking place for the first time only in 2005, yet this is seen as a hollow victory.

Although the land is rich in natural resources and suitable for agriculture, a near-total lack of infrastructure and a complete absence of government subsidies has meant there is no way to make a living  from either. In other words, it isn’t just schoolteachers going unpaid. And, inevitably, the rampant poverty has led to social instability, extortion, and violence exacerbating the problem still further, with a government powerless to stop those seeking to profit by it.

Under The Gun

Produced by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Consequently, the Central African Republic is entirely dependent upon humanitarian aid for its survival, hence the need for the HDPT and their efforts to coordinate that aid. This is particularly the case in the north, where the terrorism is strongest. Even there, however, aid groups try to provide children with education. In the previous video, teachers expressed their frustrations at the temporary nature of any schools established, particularly in the bush. UNICEF, on the other hand, is more upbeat.

Produced by the HPDT and UNICEF.

Starting Point

The focus in this entry has been primarily on education, but for more videos on a range of issues relating to development in the Central African Republic, please visit HPDT’s official youtube page. For more on what HPDT does and background information on the CAR, their homepage (see above) is a good place to start.

“A hundred years ago, they were slave labourers to their French overlords and, following the country’s independence in 1960, abused repeatedly by home-grown dictators fighting each other for control of their fate”

If you’re reading this blog, you’ve likely enjoyed a comprehensive education, and yet if you’re like me, you probably have many complaints about its rote-based, corporate-driven nature. Sometimes it’s good to remember that it could be a whole lot worse.

Related Viewing – CAR and African Cinema

The Silence of the Forest

Amazingly, the CAR does have the beginnings of a film industry, with Le silence de la forêt the first full-length feature produced in 2003. Shot on location, the multinational film tells the story of an well-educated CAR native deciding to throw in his job and free the local pigmy tribe of their oppression by the ‘tall people’. However, they are inflexible to change and unable to see the benefits his urbanised knowledge and expertise will bring them. Based on the novel by Marcel Beaulieu, The Silence of the Forest can currently only be seen at film festivals and has received mostly positive reviews – including that from California Newsreel.

White Material

World On Film has explored the poverty-fuelled social upheaval of a former French African colony before, in Claire Denis’s discomfiting drama, White Material. “While White Material’s plot is entirely fictional, it recreates a world the younger Denis knew all too well: civil unrest, poverty-fuelled extremism, and anger at the nation’s French overlords. The scenario applies to any annexed African state, and Denis deliberately paints her narrative in broad brush strokes, with locations remaining unnamed and specific real-world examples of conflict vague. Click here to read the full review.

The Burundi Film Center

The CAR isn’t the only central African state with a budding film industry and more importantly, a similarly troubled history. Last year, World On Film discovered how one NGO is helping to empower the people of Burundi to tell their stories. “In 2007, a group of international film-makers set up the Burundi Film Center, a non-profit initiative designed to provide interested young Burundians with an opportunity to realise their cinematic dreams. The nation, emerging from the throes of civil war, cross-border conflict and poverty, was seen as having reached a turning point where the population could at last begin to express their cultures, celebrate their differences and realise their creativity.” Click here to read the full story.

Next Time

A country torn apart by war. Living just outside the danger zone, one man is determined not to let the real-world interfere with his own private paradise, until he loses his job and his self-worth. Only then does the war come close to home – but has he caused the conflict himself? Humanity and hubris in the thought-provoking Chadian film, A Screaming Man, next time on World On Film. You can see a trailer below.


Lost In A Lost World

This week, World On Film visits Cameroon for an unusual commentary on the madness of war. Though filmed in the central African state, its message applies to the continent as a whole, where the locals are in perpetual conflict and their former European overlords are simply:

White Material

(2009) Written by Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye, & Lucie Borleteau           Directed by Claire Denis

“I’ve nowhere else to go. I won’t give up.”

Isabelle Huppert stars in ‘White Material’, a film that explores what happens when fighting is all one has left.

(You can find a trailer for this film at the bottom of the previous post.)

French film-maker Clare Denis has firsthand experience with the realities of African colonialism, having lived in Cameroon where the film was shot, as well as Burkina Faso*, Senegal, and Somalia during the period when her father was a civil servant in these former French dependencies. As such, while White Material’s plot is entirely fictional, it recreates a world the younger Denis knew all too well: civil unrest, poverty-fuelled extremism, and anger at the nation’s French overlords. The scenario applies to any annexed African state, and Denis deliberately paints her narrative in broad brush strokes, with locations remaining unnamed and specific real-world examples of conflict vague. While this approach achieves varying levels of success, the blurred geographical borders are appropriate to the story since its principal characters inhabit the murky waters of reality, and one is never entirely sure if they too know where they are.

*World On Film previously visited Burkina Faso via Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s acclaimed social commentary, Moolaadé. To read the review, click here.

Chief among them is White Material’s most interesting and most frustrating main character, Maria Vial, in charge of the family’s coffee plantation and determined to keep it operational despite the escalating chaos. France has abandoned the colony, the French army has withdrawn, and even Maria’s ex-husband Andre realises the writing is on the wall. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the business is a lost cause and their continued presence in the country puts their lives at risk, Maria refuses to acknowledge any of this and remains determined to maintain the status quo.

One thing that became strongly apparent to me after viewing the film is that no description of its plot really underscores how atmospheric and disturbing it is. Perhaps this has much to do with the way it lays its emotional cards on the table, yet keeps people guessing right to the end: you know it can only end in tragedy, but precisely how is difficult to gauge. This is further heightened by Denis’s choice of a non-linear narrative, which makes it clear from the opening scenes that the situation is out of control. We begin with a desperate Maria seemingly stranded in the middle of nowhere and forced to hide from an adolescent rebel militia, after which a series of flashbacks show life on the plantation already collapsing. Long-term employees have fled as gangs of child soldiers sweep through the towns and local government is more concerned about its own immediate survival.

“One thing that became strongly apparent to me after viewing the film is that no description of its plot really underscores how atmospheric and disturbing it is.”

Though shot in Cameroon, the social breakdown that occurs following the collapse of colonial rule could apply equally to many an African state and beyond.

Ironically, that same disjointed narrative, compelling the viewer to assemble the story, also undermines its impact. It takes the non-linear approach too far, to the point where it felt as though I were arranging a tile puzzle. It’s hard to maintain a buildup of drama under such circumstances, and felt as though it were being done simply for the sake of artistic complexity. One of the difficulties created, for example, is in placing the actions of the White Material’s many secondary characters, from plantation workers to the many participants of the civil war, in the scheme of things. Ironically, where it works far better is in jumping around the actions of the principal character: the fact that it doesn’t matter where we meet her in the story says a lot for her state of mind.

It would be all too easy to sum up the film’s scenario as simply ‘the madness of war’ – as an excuse for character motivations and the moral vacuum many of them inhabit. Yet, madness is indeed key to interpreting much of White Material’s core message. Possibly the hardest thing for the viewer to accept is Maria’s behaviour, oblivious to the truth and even her own family’s disintegration. If the line were drawn between indomitable spirit and steadfast denial, it is clear that she crossed it long before we met her. The motivation of such a person is borne of even greater instability than the ravaged country in which she chooses to ignore: its collapse is as nothing compared to what the terrified individual must endure if they should ever face themselves, the ongoing denial ultimately robbing them of their sanity.

Unfortunately, Denis chooses to avoid exploring the wider causes behind the conflict itself. In White Material, it seems to be sufficient simply to indicate that white landowners are rich and the black locals are poor, and they’re not happy about it. This, however, is insufficient comment to justify ten-year-old children taking up arms and murdering strangers for money, or indeed a major civil war. Nor are the Vials – the plantation’s owners and only Caucasian characters in the film – seen to mistreat the locals in a manner deserving of such uprising. The result is simply a simplistic painting of the colonial landscape – events happen simply because they are the sort of events that happen in such places. Stereotypes are reinforced and explanations are thin on the ground – ironic, given that this is a film spearheaded by someone who would know the underlying mechanisms of the conflict all too well.

“It would be all too easy to sum up the film’s scenario as simply ‘the madness of war’ – as an excuse for character motivations and the moral vacuum many of them inhabit. Yet, madness is indeed key to interpreting much of White Material’s core message.”

While many characters have descended into madness by the opening credits, the unraveling of others and the key moments that cause their breakdown, form part of the on-screen drama.

Taken instead as a discourse on the human psyche, White Material fares far better. It is brought to life by an extremely good cast headlined by Isabelle Huppert. So much of the film’s impact centres around the complex lead character and our struggle to understand her motivations that it is not an exaggeration to say that Huppert is responsible for much of its successes. Marie’s blind determination and hyperactivity masking a deep well of fear is precisely what I have encountered in real-world sufferers of the condition, and if anything, Huppert could have taken it even further.

In contrast, Nicholas Duvauchelle memorably portrays the unbridled descent of Manuel, the son. Here is also a complex character, whose long introduction off-screen as a frequently-mentioned source of trouble, lulls us into a false sense of security as to his true nature – a further extension of his mother’s neglect of the world about her.

Ultimately, it is the brightly-coloured painting of that colonial world that Denis wishes to create. The deeper politics of the clash between the cultures and the reasons underpinning the drama that ensues does not interest her in favour of the image the various elements create together. I’ve used words like ‘commentary’ and ‘discourse’ when in reality, ‘snapshot’ or ‘portrait’ would be more apt. However, the detached rationalisation is compensated for by the emotionally-charged interplay. A ‘beguiling ambiguity’, as one reviewer of Denis’s similarly-themed debut film Chocolat, sums up the endeavour extremely well: come in search of understanding and you will be disappointed, yet you will not walk away unaffected. Perhaps this in itself is the message, but I can imagine many viewers still yearning for more at credits roll.

*****

Next Time

What happens when a film festival stops being an event for the people and becomes simply a profit-driven vanity exercise for the wealthy elite? In 2011, I returned to the Busan International Film Festival, and found it almost impossible to see anything. I’ll be explaining why I may never attend one of Asia’s biggest celebrations of cinema ever again, and what to expect if you do. That’s next time, on World On Film.


Limelight

The Burundi Film Center allows aspiring young locals to express their cinematic talents for the first time. Above: 'Kivumvu: Basket Boy'.

In 2007, a group of international film-makers set up the Burundi Film Center, a non-profit initiative designed to provide interested young Burundians with an opportunity to realise their cinematic dreams. The nation, emerging from the throes of civil war, cross-border conflict and poverty, was seen as having reached a turning point where the population could at last begin to express their cultures, celebrate their differences and realise their creativity. Trained in the art of film-making by the international volunteers, the participants could give Burundi a voice on the world stage. Under the mandate “Inspire, Educate, Entertain”, a selection process yielded 5 potential scripts that went into production during the summer of 2007, the end result being 5 short films that today have been played at film festivals across the globe and are also available online. I had the opportunity to catch them recently and considering their amateur origins, found them quite enjoyable. While the young film-makers are of course helped by the volunteers with everything from art direction to script editing, the works clearly bear their marks, telling the stories they want to be seen.

Covering a broad range of topics guaranteed universal appeal from AIDS to refugees, the shorts films have something for everyone and hopefully mark the beginning of greater projects down the road. Indeed, the BFC is still active today and working to give Burundi a bona fide film industry. I think it’s a great endeavour – tempering the world-weary cynic and suggesting there may be hope for humanity after all. Below are short reviews and synopses of the first five films:

Bigger Plans

Moma is a young man who dreams of becoming an architect, saving every penny of his day job to enroll at the local university. However, his impoverished family desperately needs money to buy a house of their own, presenting Moma with a difficult choice. A solid human drama, Bigger Plans ably demonstrates the talent of these new film-makers, its script well-plotted and evenly-paced for the 11-minutes of running time and boasting an engaging story of universal appeal. Landry Nshimye has a definite screen presence as the industrious lead while Kareem Bakundukize gives a convincing natural performance as his friend Zozo. The sets are also quite expressive, with Moma’s dilapidated house for example clearly conveying the family’s predicament and the tough decision set before him. All in all, a very solid first effort.

Nothing’s The Same

The trauma of physical abuse is explored in 'Nothing's The Same'.

Shot in just one day, Nothing’s The Same tells the story of Anémone, a young Christian girl about to marry having her ordered world violently turned upside-down by a life-changing traumatic incident. Coming in at just under 11 minutes, the film has much to convey in that time, dealing as it does with two major social issues and the way in which those affected by them have to deal with the cold realities they bring. The principal cast therefore have a complex sea of emotions created by the predicament that befalls their characters, and although it proves something of a challenge, they get the message across. Ginette Mahoro as Anémone has clear acting potential and a very expressive face that will hopefully be seen again in the future. Produced at breakneck speed by the sound of things, Nothing’s The Same is nonetheless an excellent effort considering the high goals the production set itself. The short also benefits greatly from its strong use of exterior filming, giving the viewer a snapshot of everyday life in Burundi. The music too is well-chosen, dramatically changing in character following the major plot conflict. Clearly, a great deal of thought went into this work beforehand.

“Covering a broad range of topics guaranteed universal appeal from AIDS to refugees, the shorts films have something for everyone and hopefully mark the beginning of greater projects down the road.”

Reveal Yourself

In Reveal Yourself, a chance encounter between a Burundian woman and a Congolese refugee on the outskirts of Bujumbura, the nation’s capital, bridges the wide gap between these two disparate groups leading to new-found understanding and possibly more besides. Writer/director Ginette Mahoro (star of Nothing’s The Same) opts for visual rather than dialogue-driven storytelling for the most part, letting the city’s war-impoverished evacuees paint their own picture – the destitute denizens of the streets we see on screen being the genuine article. With the refugees typically ignored by the local population, Reveal Yourself shows how easily acts of humanity may bring the two sides together. Although I found the ending rather abrupt, causing the overall short to feel more like a scene from something larger rather than a film unto itself, Mahoro’s subject matter is compelling, her visuals evocative, and her choice of leads well-founded, with Linda Kamuntu and co-star (whose name I can’t find anywhere) building some nice chemistry in the short time they are together on screen.

Abuse

A young woman must fend off unwanted attention in the tellingly-titled 'Abuse'.

Aline, a university student from the countryside, finds herself the unwanted centre of attention when she comes to stay with her friend’s family in Bujumbura. As the title suggests, Abuse tackles one of society’s most damaging social problems, with the cast competently realising the power play, fear and reasons for its recurrence. Carrying the ambitiousness of Nothing’s The Same, it did feel as though 10 minutes was rather rushed for the subject matter, something that needed time and a build-up of tension to really be effective. However, given the limited time and resources available to the production crew, Abuse is a valiant effort, coherent, well-structured and evenly-paced, with a conclusion viewers should find satisfactory.

Kivumvu: Basket Boy

Tired of being relentlessly teased by his peers for his unusual name, Kivumvu determines to find out its origin, discovering the difficulties surrounding his birth in the process. Every entry in the BFC series has been entertaining, though for me, Kivumvu is the cream of the crop. Possibly the richest of the five productions, it boasts a large cast, flashback sequences and a number of locations all used to good effect. Abdul Karim Bakundukize gives a stand-out performance as the boy’s father, frustrated by the high fees the hospital demands for assisting in the birth of his new son. The film’s commentary on the local health care system favouring the haves over the have-nots is certainly something viewers worldwide will have no trouble sympathising with, the parents’ unique solution for which is sure to raise a smile. Jeremie Hakashimana’s soundtrack is also wonderfully-evocative, helping along the pace of unfolding drama nicely. An excellent effort for all involved.

*****

Next Time

This brings us to the end of the ‘B’ series. As with last time, this means a few weeks’ break from the main run of reviews and a chance to delve into other topics of interest in the world of cinema. Next week however will not seem terribly different, as I recently had the chance to see Bedevilled, a memorable South Korean thriller-horror first released in 2010, and couldn’t help writing down my thoughts. There is an English-language trailer, but I thought it was dreadful, and doesn’t do the film any favours. Therefore, below you can find the original Korean trailer, in which the visuals will give you a good enough idea of the story.

 


Sooner Or Later

This week, worlds collide and traditions are called into question in the West African nation of Burkina Faso as one woman decides to take a stand against a long-practiced and frequently fatal custom.

Moolaadé

(2004) Written & Directed by Ousmane Sembene

“Any other mother would have done what I did.”

A group of children plea for sanctuary from the dangers of an old tradition in Moolaade.

In veteran African film-maker Ousmane Sembene’s final feature, the viewer is transported to a remote village in Burkina Faso, where one woman has dared to stand against the long-held local tradition of ‘purification’, the euphemistic term for circumcision in prepubescent girls. Giving sanctuary to a group of children due to undergo the often fatal rite of passage, and with seemingly the entire village against her, the woman’s only recourse is to enact the moolaadé, or ‘magical protection’, which none dare oppose. Then her troubles really begin. While the film’s anti-circumcision stance will certainly be preaching mainly to the choir and its construction fairly conventional both in terms of storytelling and production, Moolaadé’s subject matter cannot fail to strike a chord in the viewer, dramatically bringing to life a controversial custom that still affects the lives of many today.

Burkina Faso is not the only country where the practice continues (nor is it a practice exclusive to some Western African nations), however a 2006 study by the World Health Organization found that approximately 72.5% of Burkinabé girls and women were circumcised, making the Senegalese director’s choice of location a highly valid one. In the film, the ‘purification’, carried out by an elite group of women in the tribe – importantly underscoring that proponents of the tradition are not wholly defined by gender – is seen to be highly traumatic and physically damaging to the victim, and frequently fatal.

The practice of female circumcision is commonplace in Burkina Faso, where the story is set.

The term ‘purification’ speaks volumes of the perception of females and sexuality held by those in favour of the custom. Other arguments supporting the practice as expressed in Moolaadé speak of a long-held tradition traveling so far back into the mists of time that no-one seems able to explain the actual reason for it, and finally, that it is a requirement of Islam. Certainly there will be many Muslims who will take issue with this, and Sembene makes a point of showing Burkina Faso’s complex cultural potpourri. On top of its indigenous animist roots, the society also shows traces of its French colonial past, as well as being a melting pot of many religions, the lines between which are heavily blurred. Add to this the increasing influence of modern technology and it is not hard to comprehend how beliefs have played a steady game of Chinese Whispers.

Indeed technology is seen as the greatest threat of all to the preservation of the strongly patriarchal society, with the village serving as a microcosmic stand-in for many cultures the world over. With the dreaded radio spewing forth subversive ideas from distant (and not-so-distant) lands, the local women find themselves increasingly able to articulate a ‘worrying’ desire for independence and opposition to values never-before challenged. A perhaps inevitable scene reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451 comes in answer to this rebellion, though in a wonderful display of irony, the most celebrated man in the village is the only one to have swapped the illiberal world of the tribe for the free market corridors of corporate France. Those responsible for challenging the status quo fight their corner in the flickering shadows of burning torches, mob rule and genuine fear. Not all, however, are so easily cowed into submission.

Moolaadé’s subject matter cannot fail to strike a chord in the viewer, dramatically bringing to life a controversial custom that still affects the lives of many today.”

When subversive ideas from the outside world threaten the old ways, the lines of communication are quickly cut.

The family at the epicentre of the drama are no less a microcosm of their own. The product of a polygynous arrangement, the head of the house is a moderate Muslim with three wives, under pressure by his contemporaries, particularly his brother, to reign in his ‘troublesome’ spouses. Traumatised by the loss of her children to the purification, Collé Ardo, the second wife, is determined that her remaining daughter will survive, even if condemned as a ‘bilakoro’ (unpurified woman), her marriage prospects will be limited. Again, Sembene is keen to demonstrate that within the confines of the patriarchal world as terrified by female sexuality as it is celebrated, male dominance is not as clear-cut as it at first appears – something that is perhaps harder to accept by a foreign audience. Within this world, women are celebrated as the bringers of life, yet only on male terms defined by a religious fear of their femininity. Only now, when the winds of change are sweeping through such societies is that fear more obviously manifest. Tellingly, it is a fear shared by some women and not by all men.

Moolaadé has an excellent and believable cast to bring this turbulent society to life, from star Fatimouta Coulibaly as the brave Collé Ardo, to Ousmane Konaté, playing her husband’s unpleasant and hardline brother, Amath. Joseph Traoré, as the victorious homecoming son Doucouré, skillfully depicts the mild-mannered success story increasingly caught between the values of two very different worlds, and special mention goes to Lala Drabo, who, though only in a supporting role, conveys the raw anguish of loss caused by the purification.

A young woman desperate to belong struggles to understand why her mother dares to be different.

For all this Moolaadé is constructed in a fairly simple and conventional way. The narrative is robbed of complexity by the strong stance against female circumcision by its writer, as opposed to simply telling the story and letting the viewers decide. Instead, the protagonists and the villains are clearly drawn, and, sympathetic to the cause, the viewer takes no journey through the story – they have already arrived from the outset. How the film is perceived in nations where female circumcision is common would presumably be an entirely different matter, and it would be interesting to find out if it has altered any viewpoints.

The foreign viewer will also pay more attention to the cultural depictions of the colorful appearance of Burkinabé culture, of its tribal nature, its sounds, and the different behaviour of its people. It is as much a window into another world as it is a commentary on the struggle against a dangerous custom. This though is brought to the film by its overseas audience: its director does not go out of his way to highlight the culture as a spectacle in its own right. It perhaps does not matter therefore that on the production side, Moolaadé is not an adventurous foray into film-making.  While I would have preferred a less-biased and therefore more confident approach, it is not as if I didn’t go into the film with a firm view on the subject of female circumcision myself. Taking a stand on the issue is ultimately, what Moolaadé is all about.

For this reason above all, I highly recommend the film, and of course, foreign viewers like myself will also discover one of the multi-layered cultures of Western Africa within of which it is such an ingrained part. Although not a cinematic masterpiece, Moolaadé is a very moving and very human drama that I hope will continue to get its point across in places where that message needs to be heard most.

*****

Next Time

World On Film travels to rural Burma where three young boys, enchanted by the prettiest girl in the village, discover the true meaning of love and life in the Buddhist-themed tale, Pyu Pyu.


In The Lap Of The Gods

This week, Coke bottles, clumsy scientists, crazy rebels and credulous natives in the most famous African film of all time discussed in a review masquerading as an analysis pretending to be a review. Er…yes.

The Gods Must Be Crazy

(1980) Written & Directed by Jamie Uys

(You’ll find a trailer at the end of the previous post)

“One day, something fell from the sky. Xi had never seen anything like this in his life. It looked like water, but it was harder than anything else in the world. He wondered why the gods had sent this thing down to the earth.”

When worlds collide: the clash of civilisations with 'hilarious' consequences in 'The Gods Must Be Crazy'.

When a carelessly-tossed Coke bottle is discovered by an isolated tribe of San (Kalahari Bushmen) one day, it quickly disrupts their peacefully-balanced community, introducing the concepts of possession and greed. With their community falling apart, elder member Xi decides to return the evil object to the gods from whence it came. However, the gods are not particularly concerned, having problems of their own.

In 1980, two South African film companies released what would become the continent’s most successful film ever. 31 years later, the record has still not been broken, despite the rise of the Nigerian film industry, whose output is second only to Hollywood. The lighthearted tale of the stereotypical African tribesman, free of the trappings of ‘civilisation’ and his subsequent encounter with it in the form of white scientists and schoolteachers, along with warring political factions and colourfully-dressed agrarian villagers ever-ready for song, ticked all the boxes for the global audience. Here was the gentle image of Africa, without the darker realities of racial slaughter, rampant poverty, or the fact that the land mass actually comprised many countries and cultures, casually reinforced through smiling natives, slapstick and Johannesburg’s answer to Hugh Grant.

Sandra Prinsloo stars as Kate, love interest and bringer of enlightenment to the natives of Botswana.

For the general theatergoer, either uninterested by the film’s quiet cementing of their preconceptions or simply unconcerned by it, The Gods Must Be Crazy was a wonderfully exotic comedy adventure, filled with warmth and old-school humour reminiscent of Hollywood’s silent clowns – thanks in large part to the many sped-up film sequences. The more critical viewer, however, saw the lament of the White Man’s Burden all throughout: the poor, yet content Batswana villagers in need of a white woman to educate them, Aryans depicted as gods by primitive tribes people, while those of African descent who did attempt to recreate Western civilization reproduced only instability and civil war. Worst of all was the depiction of the San, or Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana, who, since this was after all ‘Darkest Africa’, lived in total ignorance of the age of industrialisation. Not that this was a problem for them, we are informed by the casually authoritarian narrator during the opening scenes, since the Bushmen lived in their own, perfectly-balanced Eden-like desert paradise. The carelessly-tossed Coke bottle symbolised the disease of Western consumerism, forcing the happy natives to learn the concept of possession, greed and jealousy: having not been inoculated against such viruses, they spiral rapidly downward into misery until one brave and incorruptible Bushman takes it upon himself to venture into the world of the gods and put everything back the way it was.

Ultimately, both points of view are correct, with extremists on both sides missing the point. The Gods Must Be Crazy is, I feel, an intentionally light-hearted comedy, informed by neither the self-righteous nor the ignorant points of view imposed upon it by the rest of the world. It was produced by two South African film companies (CAT Productions and Mimosa) and informed by a very South African perspective of their nearby neighbours. That the film-makers may have had a very patriarchal view of the African native races is an easy conclusion to reach as it is to cry ‘apartheid’ by those who never lived through it. It is inevitable that the chief protagonists will be white, since the film is made by white people for white people. Is Hollywood, Bollywood, Media Asia or indeed Nollywood any different? Note also during the Johannesburg sequences early on the way in which Kate (played by Sandra Prinsloo) and her fellow office workers of both races are seen to work on equal terms. Interesting side note: Sandra Prinsloo would seriously test proponents of apartheid when in 1985 she played a white woman seducing a black man in the play Miss Julie, causing much of the audience to walk out. For these people, The Gods Must Be Crazy would certainly reaffirm their viewpoints, yet if the film’s producers shared these views, it is unlikely the sequence I mention earlier would be present – nor the overall warmth of the piece. Such prejudice does not produce feel-good films.

“Here was the gentle image of Africa, without the darker realities of racial slaughter, rampant poverty, or the fact that the land mass actually comprised many countries and cultures, casually reinforced through smiling natives, slapstick and Johannesburg’s answer to Hugh Grant.”

Attempts at 'civilisation' by the locals are seen as chaotic and unstable...with 'hilarious' consequences.

Another point I think is overlooked is the obvious one: The Gods Must Be Crazy is a film, not a documentary. That its opening narration does not help this fact is something I will return to later. Either way, the film follows the same formula that one would find in Hollywood to achieve the same ends: romance, adventure, and silliness. Everyone present is a caricature: Marius Weyers predates Jeff Goldblum’s bumbling, yet capable scientist by a decade while Michael Thys as M’Budi is the archetypal sidekick – dismissed, put-upon, but ultimately wise, funny, and existing entirely to elevate the hero. Prinsloo’s Kate is the heroine-by-numbers – young, blonde, attractive, sexy, motherly, and above all, straight. The credits are not allowed to roll until the two end up in each other’s arms – the previously irritating stupidity of the lead male having been reinterpreted as cute by the female.  The villain is no less two-dimensional. Sam Boga (Louw Verwey) may be a political revolutionary, but his chosen lifestyle and belief systems are never intended to be explored. His villainy cannot extend beyond gruffness and peaceably kidnapping children who are never in danger of physical violence beyond that of a mandatory hiking trip. He exists to be vanquished five minutes before the leads profess their undying love. At no point is any of this meant to be an educational discourse on political instability in Botswana. If the action had taken place in Idaho, it is unlikely the matter would even have been brought into question.

Then of course there is the true star of the film, the symbol of everything good and indeed everything wrong with it: the Bushman himself. N!xau the performer is the genuine article – an actual descendant of the San tribe, or ‘Bushmen’ as they were called previously, which is now considered derogatory. Interested parties may wish to check out the special follow-up feature on the DVD release, where one of its biggest fans journeys to Namibia, where N!xau resided, and discovers how the San really live. Far from the isolated paradise depicted in the film, the San eke out a poor life of subsistence, while the introduction of technology to the area has been readily-embraced, particularly by the young, rather than feared. N!xau was however, every bit the hunter that Xi was, no less unconcerned by wealth, and no less likeable. His personality secured him the role, though he knew better than anyone that he was being called upon to re-enact a world that may never have existed. The fantasy holds together on the strength of his performance, more being than acting. It is a performance, however, and no-one involved is unaware of the fact. That the San would be depicted in a Southern African film is hardly exotic: they are the indigenous natives of the region.

Slapstick and overcranked film sequences provide much of the production's humour and helping to distract from any political statements that may unwittingly hove into view.

When all these elements are pulled together, The Gods Must Be Crazy cannot help but be a feel-good comedy. The formula guarantees its success. Admittedly, the slapstick humour only works on children, and I would like to think we have all become a little more sophisticated in the decades since.

The trouble with all this is that films do strongly imprint our perceptions of the world – along of course with television, Twitter, and advertising. Information, whether correct or incorrect, weaves its way into our subconscious and takes root when packaged in an attractive, believable form. Crocodile Dundee, in many ways the Australian counterpart to The Gods Must Be Crazy, still quickly comes to mind when generations of Americans think of the world Down Under. The easy-going, knife-wielding larrikin inhabited by Paul Hogan is no less a caricature than N!xau, the film no less a fantasy image of Australia. Far fewer critics accuse Crocodile Dundee of attempting to undermine the Australian character, clearly recognising it for what it is. There was no public outcry bemoaning the Hugh Grant oeuvre for reinforcing the American perception of the British as bumbling, uptight and inept, nor against The Serpent And The Rainbow for suggesting that all Haitians practice voodoo. Yet the imprinting is no less powerful, particularly among the youth, where the Third World image of Africa makes The Gods Must Be Crazy all too believable.

In this world, only the white man can be the scientist, only the white woman the educator, the latter of whom is shown to literally leave the ‘civilised’ world in order to step into this role, where the natives are the untamed Other. Yet despite this role, only the actions and desires of these two people are shown to be of any real import. The natives are simply part of the backdrop against which this entirely Western romance-comedy takes place, existing only to provide the means for their coming together.

“Information, whether correct or incorrect, weaves its way into our subconscious and takes root when packaged in an attractive, believable form.”

N!xau stars as Xi, the San (Bushman) trapped in a world he cannot understand.

The native Africans essentially fall into two camps, both of which are deemed to be lower than their white masters. The villagers are poor, yet happy: educating them is seen as a duty of those more fortunate, but we don’t have to feel sorry for that they toil the fields as they don’t yearn to better themselves or desire equality. Indeed, the film goes to great pains – particularly through the initial narrative – to point out that Western civilisation is not especially desirable, that it bears the price of advanced development. And yet only the products of this civilisation are able to solve the problems faced in the ensuing drama, which leads to the second category: ineptitude.

The Sam Boga subplot involves the revolutionary-on-the-run sending his followers to assassinate the local heads of government for reasons not widely explored. The plan fails, with his soldiers shooting the wrong targets and hiding in a banana plantation after having stirred up the hornets’ nest. A good deal of this ineptitude is heightened by the sped-up film sequences and the fact that machine guns rain bullets yet rarely strike their target. In the end, both the revolutionaries and the public officials are unable to stop the other without the assistance of the real masters of the land, the message clearly telegraphed that they are only playing at civilisation.

Unwitting star N!xau, shortly before his death, watching 'The Gods Must Be Crazy' for the first time in 'Return To Nyae Nyae', a special 'Where Are They Now?'-type feature on the DVD release.

The San, meanwhile, occupy the role of the ‘noble savage’, and here, the narration steps into play to reinforce this image. Like the disclaimer at the beginning of a Dan Brown novel, it misleadingly attempts to establish its credentials as gospel. There is every indication from this masquerade that we are watching a documentary as the melifluous tones of Paddy O’Byrne permeate the moving image and control our perceptions of the harsh wilderness on screen. Our host suggests, in his comforting authoritarian voice that clad in animal skins, able to produce food from a seemingly barren desert and of course, innocently happy, the San are our living ancestors who have somehow retained a primitive wisdom we, the builders of the future, have lost. It serves the dual purpose of satisfying that yearning animal desire for natural simplicity, while at the same time assuaging any guilt we may feel over the fact that here is a people living in complete poverty – the ever-smiling and good-natured Xi cannot help but give us a warm feeling of satisfaction that we needn’t do a thing about his complete lack of modernity. Were the film to journey to the real Botswana or Namibia, as our DVD documentarian did years later, the overwhelming guilt would only spoil the good mood.

This, in a way, brings us back where we started by reminding us that The Gods Must Be Crazy is little more than exaggerated fiction. It is too ridiculous to be taken seriously on a conscious level, yet too pervasive in its reinforcing of stereotypes not to be convincing on a subconscious level. I struggle to believe that it is anything more than a feel-good farce, intended as a comedy best-suited to lovers of slapstick and disposable cinema, but its implications are subtle to those not paying attention, ie – most film-goers. If it is guilty of racial profiling, however, then so is every film studio in Hollywood and beyond. Of course, we are pre-conditioned not to tar them with the same brush.

*****

Next Time

A window into the lives of Rio de Janeiro’s shanty towns, the gangs that rule them and the spectre of hopelessness hanging over the lives of the people who live there in the Brazilian drama City Of Men. Click below to view a trailer:


Back On The Bottom Line

This week: romance. And stupidity. Probably leaning more towards the stupidity.

This week, romance in Benin as World On Film explores the straight-to-video Nollywood ‘classic’, Abeni, which until now, I had happily forgotten all about. We also discover the signature work of amateur English film-makers Wild Herb, who, despite being very visibly strapped for cash, manage to achieve what the BBC seemed utterly incapable of last December: a literary adaptation that actually used the book as its reference point.

Before we dive in, I’d just like to quickly mention that I have learned slightly more about WordPress in the last week and have added a search function to the blog – well, several actually, until I can figure out which are more useful. Scroll to the bottom of the main page to see how you can more easily access past entries, and I hope those widgets make life easier.

And now, brace yourselves for the entirely unnecessary existence of:

Abeni

(2006) Written by Yinka Ogun & François Okioh; Directed by Tunde Kelani

Abeni and Akanni are childhood sweethearts, happy until a fight separates them for seemingly forever, which is about how long this film feels like.

“You want to destroy my plans? I’ll deal with you mercilessly!”

Abeni and Akanni, two childhood sweethearts in Nigeria, are separated forever when an embarrassing incident at Abeni’s 10th birthday party convinces her boyfriend’s father to relocate the family to Benin and a new life. A chance meeting brings the two together many years later and they waste little time in picking up where they left off. The possibility of marriage however is threatened by Abeni’s father, who hasn’t forgotten the sins of the past and vows to stop the union at all costs.

Abeni was a film I decided to watch purely because I hadn’t seen Beninois cinema. Technically, I still haven’t, for although it is a Benin-Nigeria co-production, Abeni is more accurately a product of the unstoppable Nollywood juggernaut. Nonetheless, much of the story is set and filmed in Benin, which gave me some insight into a country of which I know little. Due to the nature of the storyline, one even gains an idea of the incredible disparity of wealth in both locations, and, if the film reports correctly, a certain cultural prejudice between the two states.

Happy reunion, but the parents have other ideas - not, unfortunately, on how to improve the script.

And yet by analysing these background themes, I feel myself elevating Abeni’s discourse far higher than it deserves, for beneath the colourful splendour of these West African nations lies an incredibly average romance tale of the type that Nollywood, Bollywood, and indeed those masters of formulaic rubbish in Hollywood churn out on a regular basis like supermarket-brand crackers because they know this tired and worn-out dime-store mediocrity sells. The foreign viewer may find themselves distracted by the different cultural presentation of the formula, but dross does not lose its pallor simply for wearing a different-shaped hat. A continual desire to get up and make cups of tea throughout the duration despite a lack of thirst may also indicate how little my body was willing to cooperate with the screening.

“A continual desire to get up and make cups of tea throughout the duration despite a lack of thirst may indicate how little my body was willing to cooperate with the screening.”

"Look how much they're paying me to make this crap!" Kareem Odepoju as the villainous Baba Wande.

Certainly, the cultural landscape in which the conflict operated went some way towards making the story interesting, dealing as it does with a massive generation gap wherein arranged marriage is acceptable to the elders, while their Westernised descendants struggle for personal choice. Intermingled with this are the designs of wealthy families more concerned with empire-building than individual happiness. Handled in a considered, intelligent way, these themes would make for a good story and one that doubtless rings true with anyone who has ever had to face disapproving potential in-laws. However, Abeni is clearly another pre-packaged entry on the production line in which if one takes even a single step backward to view the larger picture, they will find many similar such offerings.

Conflict arising from the plot elements mentioned is never built up with any real seriousness that would give it meaning and the ending doesn’t even bother to follow through with the resolution that is employed. I found myself wondering as the credits rolled if perhaps my copy of the film had a scene missing. Alas, it merely seems to be an example of cheap melodrama on the part of a director who presumably can’t be bothered anymore. Add to this a bizarrely-inappropriate soundtrack, which in its levity, sends the exact same message – that and the fact that it seems to be more about shoehorning in the popular chart entry of the moment. Indeed, upon closer inspection, one finds the name Abdel Hakim Amzat in the credits not only as star beau Akanni, but also as head honcho of the music department and as a producer. The priorities of this vanity project are abundantly clear.

A dig at American culture, comic relief, or a rare acting opportunity for the mentally-handicapped?

It may come as no surprise then that much of the characterisation is stereotypical in form and annoyingly realised on screen as a result. While the two leads are probably best-served and peroxide shiny for the youth market, the script divests the antagonists of all but two dimensions – not that the others can boast a multitude of depth, either. Kareem Odepoju plays Abeni’s father with a disregard for subtlety that reminds me of why pantomime is so awful, while Ayo Badmus as Ogogu, the paternally-approved rival for Abeni’s affections, clearly felt the best way to depict his character’s reckless behavior was to enact mental instability. Ogogu, we learn, was sent by his wealthy parents to the U.S, presumably so he could study how to be a cretin – an interesting snapshot into Nigerian perceptions of American culture that would be amusing if Ogogu weren’t so expertly irritating.

Quite a shame therefore that Abeni fails to be an interesting snapshot into any of the leitmotifs presented, though the Nollywood fan might perhaps argue that this would be like expecting to find the qualities of Perrier in grey water. It is ultimately little more than a hackneyed star vehicle for its leads – the filmic equivalent of a Happy Meal – no different to that one sees in Western cinema with monotonous regularity, but with that audience, the chimera of ‘ethnic’ unconventionality.

*****

The Crown

(2008) Based on ‘A Warning To The Curious’ by M.R. James         Adapted & Directed by Jim Elliot

A would-be archaeologist hunting for an ancient crown in East Anglia finds more than he bargained for in this adaptation of the M.R. James classic tale.

Wild Herb Films are a small amateur group of film-makers operating out of England who, thanks to the powers of the internet, have been able to make their productions available to the world. As has been readily apparent in recent posts, my Christmas involves the watching of ghost stories, preferably those based on the works of the old masters. The Crown is based upon M.R. James’s celebrate tale, ‘A Warning To The Curious’, which was dramatized by the BBC back in 1972. One of my major criticisms of Aunty’s recent adaptation of Whistle And I’ll Come To You was that the producers, locked in the self-referential world of the television industry, could only see the merit in using the Jonathan Miller screenplay as their source material. This sort of short-sighted arrogance is precisely what we don’t need when it comes to bringing the classics to screens either small or big. So it was very pleasing to see that The Crown, for all its modifications to the text, had clearly used the original printed word as its inspiration, not some previous director’s work.

The plot centres around a young, amateur archaeologist by the name of Paxton in search of the last surviving crown of East Anglia, which is said to protect the land against invasion. Paxton is victorious in his quest, but discovers that the crown is protected by forces not of this world that have no intention of letting him succeed.

The Crown, for all its modifications to the text, had clearly used the original printed word as its inspiration, not some previous director’s work.”

Victory...or damnation?

To be sure, there are a number of departures from the short story, such as setting it in the modern day, and the climax is wholly different. However, much of this seems purely down to budgetary constraint than the irritating belief that one can ‘improve’ upon classic literature – or that the audience actually wants them to – and so as something of a purist, I can cut them some slack. It would, for example, require a massive wardrobe and props budget to recreate the 1920s. I do think that the climax could have been faithfully recreated without too much expenditure, but again, one gets the impression that for whatever reason, it wasn’t a viable option. Although the lack of funding is glaringly obvious during indoor scenes, the external shoots where Paxton is searching for the crown and encounters its guardian fare far better, with one pursuit scene very faithful to the original. The film, coming in at around 45 minutes, is largely a two-hander, the acting not being especially stellar, although fortunately, the best performance comes from the cast member playing Paxton, whom we see the most. While Lawrence Gordon-Clarke, director of the BBC effort, hasn’t too much to worry about, Euros Lyn and Neil Cross, instigators of the new Whistle, could learn a thing or two about literary fidelity.

You can watch or the download the production for yourself here, where it is available in 3 parts.

*****

Up Next

World On Film encountered homophobia in the Bahamas, locals dancing through the streets in sailor suits in Barbados, and now Bermuda beckons. To say however that Bermuda has a thriving film industry would be a complete and utter lie, and therefore a certain amount of creativity had to be employed to make possible my efforts to include the country. For now, let’s just say it involves tourism and turtles and you can find out next time precisely how I once again had to stretch my own criteria to breaking point. Until then.

 

A scene from next week's film, but what is it?


Laughing At The Rain

Sophie Ward gets dubiously Transatlantic in the generally-enjoyable adaptation of Clive Barker's 'Book Of Blood'.

“The dead have highways, running through the wasteland behind our lives, bearing an endless traffic of departed souls. They can be heard in the broken places of our world, through cracks made out of cruelty, violence, and depravity. They have sign posts, these highways, and crossroads and intersections. And it is at these intersections where the dead mingle, and sometimes spill over into our world.”

Aside from Sophie Ward’s bizarre American accent and the somewhat slow pacing, Clive Barker’s Book Of Blood is a different spin on the haunted house genre, and certainly ‘blood’ is not a word thrown in for abstract symbolism. Although it’s adapted from the novel of the same name, only segments of the original have been translated to screen. I’m still not quite sure why it took so long to get through those 90 minutes with such an intriguing storyline: a man on the run, his entire body covered with strange writing literally carved into his flesh supposedly by the spirits of the dead. And that’s only the beginning, in a tale where Clive Barker takes pains to avoid the stereotypes one might expect, and the confluence between the afterlife and the land of the living leaves an indelible (pun intended) effect on the psyche.

This week, World On Film reaches the country of Angola with the short film:

Momentos de Gloria, aka ‘Moments Of Glory’

(2008) Directed by Antonio Duarted

“I believe the government should invest more in good quality cellulite.”

The realities of everyday life in modern Angola are depicted with wry humour.

Moments Of Glory is an interesting series of vignettes depicting life in modern Angola, with the country’s many conflicts, from the recent civil war to rampant street crime forming the story lines to each segment. However, the subjects are handled with a degree of humour and irony, the brief 10-minute anthology itself presented within a comic-book framework, introduced by transitional animation, a la Stephen King’s ‘Creepshow’, and driven along by a jaunty soundtrack. The offsetting of the serious social issues by ironic humour is certainly an accessible way of delving into their darker ramifications, and with a running time of only 10 minutes, is probably a good way of creating something memorable. Each subject is deserving of dramatic commentary, but when you live with such fear and uncertainty every day, finding the humorous side is not only healthy, it’s essential.

“The offsetting of the serious social issues by ironic humour is certainly an accessible way of delving into their darker ramifications”

A comic-book framework is used to bring the unrelated story vignettes together.

This I also found desirable, since Moments Of Glory is my first Angolan film, and humour is an excellent way into a culture, with the subtle rather than overt approach washing over the end result with a good dose of maturity. Writer and producer Ze Du dos Santos is very much aware of the film’s brevity, paring each script down to its essentials, with director Antonio Duarted overseeing some good camera work and acting to match. I didn’t always see a connection between each segment, nor did I really understand the message of the final part (the Aldous Huxley-informed triumph of superficiality?), but this lack of coherence may well be due to my lack of knowledge on all things Angolan. However, with this sort of talent on display, and with the Angolan film industry fairly spartan at present, I hope the void will be filled before long. Moments Of Glory is certainly a promising entrée.

*****

In This Place I Call Home

Not forgotten: The picturesque Aland Islands.

Although the scope of this project is to try and cover film from every corner of the globe, inevitably, some autonomous regions simply don’t have a film industry. The Åland Islands, for example, the attractive Finnish archipelago of 6,000 islands and skerries populated by Swedish-speaking natives, are not a repository of cinema. Indeed, the once Westernmost frontier of the former Russian Empire is far more concerned with shipping than anything else, given that seafaring vessels are the lifeblood of its economy.

“The Åland Islands are not a repository of cinema.” [But very nice-looking.]

It would be a shame to ignore them altogether though, so while there’s no film review, I did come across a 30-minute video that serves as a good introduction to the place. Hardly Scorsese in its renderings, the video is a labour of love for one of the locals, and not a bad unsolicited promotion for an enthusiastic amateur more at home making clay animals. I certainly wouldn’t mind living there – anyone in Aland interested in employing a freelance film reviewer? To view the film for yourself, here is the direct link – http://www.aland.ax/filmeng.pbs

Elsewhere in Film (Yet More Compensation)

“Time travel. It’ll turn your brain into spaghetti if you let it. Best not to think about it. Best just to get on with the job in hand. Which is destroying the enemy before they’re even born and have a chance to threaten us.”

Three sci-fi nerds enjoying a drink at their local pub one evening find that time travel is far more entertaining in theory then in practice when the building becomes the focal point of a temporal paradox. But if three decades of watching Doctor Who hasn’t prepared them for the real thing, then nothing will.

Back to the future: three unlikely heroes get to grips with the vagaries of time travel.

Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel sounds like one of those hip documentaries attempting to popularise science, a la Iain Stewart, but as the description implies, it’s a British comedy film that came out last year to little fanfare. This however has more to do with the obvious low budget involved (clearly ensnaring any serious attempts at marketing in its low orbit) rather than the quality of the work itself – the 83 minutes of running time being another giveaway. That said, for the script as written, FAQ doesn’t outstay its welcome. Obviously attempting the same tongue-in-cheek approach to its chosen subject as the highly successful Shaun Of The Dead, the film probably doesn’t try quite as hard, and lacks the same dramatic punch and comedic absurdity of that worthy precursor. That said however, writer Jamie Mathieson is careful to weave his temporal paradoxes together, clearly putting the time and effort into it that the mastermind behind Triangle (of which I wrote a couple of weeks ago) decided wasn’t too terribly important.

Add to this the wry British humour of FAQ warmly brought to life through the film’s three leads, Chris O’Dowd, Marc Wootton, and Dean Lennox Kelly, names I didn’t recognise despite having seen Kelly in both Doctor Who and Being Human. Likewise guest star Anna Faris, whom I should have recognised in the excellent study of displacement in a foreign culture that was Lost In Translation.

Everyday life doesn't quite bear comparison to boldly going where no-one has gone before.

Ultimately, it is these two factors which make FAQ worth watching. It doesn’t try to reinvent sci-fi or push forward a new discourse on time travel, but rather simply attempts to have fun with it, and for the most part, succeeds. I hesitate to say that there’s a strong Bill & Ted element to the story, but don’t let that put you off- the delivery of this plotline is handled quite differently. I will contradict my earlier point slightly though by saying that as a long-time science fiction fan myself captivated by the idea of exploring different points in history, FAQ did make me realise it wouldn’t be quite as glamorous in reality – especially if you mess things up and try correct the mistake. Although if scientist and writer Stephen Baxter is correct, and the grandfather paradox wouldn’t actually happen due to the weblike structure of time (as opposed to it being a single straight line you can travel up and down like a highway), that’s the least of your problems. If you’re interested, read his 1995 sequel to The Time Machine, entitled The Time Ships, to explore the concept in question – a book I heartily recommend anyway.

And that stretching noise you hear is the tangent I appear to be going off on.

Up Next

My apologies for the short foreign film reviews over the last couple of weeks. These were written in the distant days before the blog was little more than a passing thought. Next time, however, I have far more to say about Hooked, the rather painful first feature-length offering from independent film-makers Tropical Films (Antigua) – which also tells you where in the world we will be visiting. ‘Painful’, you ask? Just you watch the trailer:


When Reason Sleeps

You are reading World On Film, the blog that each week explores the world through cinema. Before I get started on this week’s entry, I thought I’d take a moment to mention a couple of other films I’ve enjoyed this week. First up, Christopher Nolan’s new action thriller, Inception. It unfortunately stars Leonardo di Caprio, but don’t let that put you off Nolan’s take on the power of suggestion and an entertaining rollercoaster ride through the world of dreams. To the sci-fi fan, it explores concepts that are nothing new: controlling people’s minds by implanting ideas, questioning whether life is an elaborate dream or we are yet to wake up from what we perceive is reality, but fans of Nolan’s work shouldn’t be disappointed by the execution, with solid performances all round. If like me you’re into sci-fi, check out Moon, a 2009 low-budget space mystery that combines elements of Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey to create a truly gut-wrenching and thought-provoking tale, elements of which may come true in the not-too-distant future. After being less than impressed by his performance as Zaphod Beeblebrox in 2005 remake of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, I didn’t think Sam Rockwell had it in him to headline a film, but he does and it’s worth checking out.

Sam Rockwell in 2009's 'Moon' - worth a look.

All of which is not really within this blog’s remit, so moving closer to home now, as it were, if a film dealing with events leading up to the Bangladesh civil war appeals, The Clay Bird does just that. I’ll be covering it in this very blog when World On Film reaches Bangladesh, which I expect will be…er…I’ll get back to you on that. Right now though, we’re off to Algeria for the excellent 2002 drama, Rachida. Last week, I posted the trailer. If you missed it, you can watch it right here (I can’t get the embed code to work properly for some reason).

Rachida

Written and directed by Yasmina Bachir.

“It’s post-traumatic psychosis. The whole country suffers from it. Don’t you think I’m afraid?”

Part of World On Film‘s raison d’etre, so to speak, is to explore the world through a medium I enjoy and it’s great when a film inspires me to learn more about its country of origin, shining a light into the many gaps in my global awareness.  Prior to watching Rachida, I knew very little about Algeria other than the fact it was a former French colony and one long-suffering from civil conflict. The latter point is something of an understatement, for Rachida examines the effects of the Algerian Civil War on the lives of its citizens and the impact the ongoing terrorism had on both their lives and psyches. If only to better appreciate the story, I quickly found myself googling this dark and recent chapter in the country’s history. Although still ensuing in some parts of Algeria today, the war principally ran between 1991 and 2002 and was sparked by the rising popularity of the Islamic Salvation Front party (FIS). Fearing they would be overthrown, the incumbent National Liberation Front cancelled the nation’s forthcoming elections and declared the opposing party illegal. The country came under military rule and in response to the banning and arrest of many FIS party members, Islamist guerrillas took up arms and engaged in a prolonged battle with the government and all who supported it. Forming into several groups, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) rampaged through the towns, initially targeting only the authorities, but many soon turned their attention to the civilian population. Over a span of 11 years, upwards of 200 000 lives were lost. It has been alleged that some of the killings were conducted by government agencies, who then publicly blamed the Islamists for the deaths.

Moments of transition: Rachida is drawn into the conflict, never to be the same again.

Ibtissem Djouadi as the title character gives a strong lead performance.

 

A day in the life: citizens face death at any moment.

This then forms the backdrop of the film, set somewhere within that time frame. Rachida is a young female school teacher in Algiers, for whom life is good: she has a stable and fulfilling job, a happy home life and a steady boyfriend. The peace is shattered one day when she is confronted and subsequently shot by a former pupil, now a member of a GIA splinter group intent on delivering a very explosive message to the government. Sent into a country town with her family in order to recover from her ordeal, Rachida finds that while physical wounds may heal quickly, psychological wounds are ever-lasting. And with the town held captive by continual and random guerrilla attacks, any chance of a true recovery is dashed.

“Rachida examines the effects of the Algerian Civil War on the lives of its citizens and the impact the ongoing terrorism had on both their lives and psyches”

I do think this is the kind of film for which you need a basic historical background in order to truly appreciate the magnitude of the conflict, yet it’s important to note that Rachida’s primary themes are not the political underpinnings of the war, and the film assumes the viewer already knows the details. It is essentially a study in the effects of terrorism, both the life-changing impact of a single incident of terror, and life under the ongoing presence of fear and death. The town becomes Algeria in miniature, with families losing loved ones, abductions and the constant pall of uncertainty over whether ‘they’, as the characters frequently describe the militants, are coming. ‘They’ the oppressors, rather than ‘they’ the religious fundamentalists or political insurgents, with the dialogue often asking of the viewer the root cause of the growing madness.

“Where was all this hate buried? This cruelty, this barbarity? These hearts deserted by all humanity.”

A rare moment of peace amidst the chaos.

However, it doesn't last long.

The scarring effects of terrorism, never to be undone.

… … … … … … … … … … … … … For the most part, however, the focus is on the impact of terror itself, with Rachida herself an allegory for the national character – an ordinary person trying to live an ordinary life, but being beaten down by fear. However, unlike many of the townspeople for whom fear has cowed into silence, Rachida’s anger gives her a strength even she isn’t aware of: an anger to ask the questions others feel there is little point in debating. In every group, there is always one person who stands up to the madness, not borne of heroics, but because they cannot do otherwise – it’s simply who they are. Ultimately, the film offers a ray of hope in the encroaching darkness that the human spirit is not always crushed.

“In every group, there is always one person who stands up to the madness, not borne of heroics, but because they cannot do otherwise – it’s simply who they are.

As the first Algerian film I have seen, I found Rachida to be a very strong offering indeed, generally well-structured and well-paced, with a cast of actors whose performances at no time failed to convince. Ibtissem Djouadi, as the title character, is excellently cast and capable of a great range of emotion – her eyes a window into her alter-ego’s troubled soul. There were times when I felt the narrative wasn’t sure who its subject was: the film often spends time being a character study on its lead, which results in a very effective personal drama depicting the effects of war on the human psyche, but at other times seems to veer off on tangents with the lives of unconnected secondary characters, attempting to be a sort of ‘ensemble narrative’ – a village under siege trying to survive. Both approaches are equally valid and worth exploring, but I felt they were not properly integrated. It suggested the producers felt that their initial approach wasn’t strong enough to sustain a feature-length effort and the scope needed to be widened.

However, this does not mar the principal aims of the film’s discourse and I have no difficulty whatsoever in recommending Rachida. As an insight into the Algerian conflict, it is very human, as a drama, it is very compelling, and as a film, it is quite effectively done.

*******

Next on World On Film: Madness of a different kind. A self-confessed idiot drifts aimlessly through life until he meets the girl of his dreams, for whom he will stop at nothing to obtain. But if this is a Catalonian film, what does it have to do with the principality of Andorra? Find out when I review Amor Idiota. An unsubtitled trailer can be viewed below. Be advised: adult content.