Exploring the world through global cinema

Posts tagged “human rights

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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Consequences

A couple of documentaries go under the spotlight on this week’s trip to Side-step City. Up first:

The Town That Was

(2007) Directed by Chris Perkel & Georgia Roland

Once a major hub in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal industry, little remains of the town of Centralia. Long-since demolished houses leave behind little sign of habitation, while below, a fire rages on.

Recently, I had the chance to see this evocatively-titled documentary that had sat on my Must Watch list for several years, concerning the fate of a most unconventional ghost town. Part-inspiration for the game/Hollywood flick Silent Hill, Centralia, Pennsylvania, was once a thriving community until deadly subterranean fires forced all but a handful of stubborn long-term residents to evacuate. Established in the early 1840s, it was a key player in the region’s massive coal mining industry and its core reason for being until alternative forms of energy took hold and the practice became unprofitable in the 1960s. Early the same decade, the local council hired a team to clear away the local landfill. Somehow, no-one stopped to think that the usual practice of burn-off might not be such a good idea given the locale and in 1962, the fire found the coal seam of the disused mine and has been burning ever since. Indeed, it’s believed that it will be some centuries before it finally dissipates.

Centralia was a proud and tight-knit community, but when the citizens began to succumb to the toxic gases erupting from every fissure in the ground and children began to fall down sinkholes, relocation became highly-desirable. The local government assisted by buying back houses, officially declaring Centralia ‘eminent domain’, which meant that anyone still remaining no longer owned their property and reduced to the level of squatters.

“Somehow, no-one stopped to think that the usual practice of burn-off might not be such a good idea.”

Proud Centralian and long-time holdout, John Lokitis Jr. stands in front of the smoky wasteland. Much of the documentary focuses upon his lone efforts to keep the town's bare skeleton going.

By the time of The Town That Was in 2007 only 11 residents remained, and they attempted unsuccessfully to sue the government over the eminent domain claim. Through a series of interviews, location and archive footage, the documentary shows how the once thriving town came to be in such a sorry state. With wisps of smoke wafting around its near-empty streets and driveways leading to empty housing estates, Centralia is every bit the modern-day ghost town. Principal interviewee Jon Lokitis Jr. is the most colourful character. When not at work in a job some two hours drive away, Lokitis stubbornly refuses to let the town release its last gasp. When he’s not moving council grass and repainting peeling park benches, he’s erecting fairy lights on the telephone poles in time for Christmas. It’s a dedication taken to extremes that can only cause his ‘traitorous’ ex-neighbours, now comfortably residing in nearby boroughs, to speculate on his mental wellbeing – his claims that the poisonous inferno literally eating the ground beneath his fate is in no way dangerous earning particular disbelief. The prevalence of this uncompromising resident does make the film rather one-sided, although from an entertainment perspective, it’s not hard to understand why. Even the current IMDB synopsis for this entry describes it first and foremost as “a portrait of Jon Lokitis Jr.”

Things have moved on a bit since 2007, and not for the better. However, since I can happily tell you that the film is freely (and legally) available to view online, I’ll let you discover the final chapter via Google for yourselves. For now, sit back and enjoy the sad tale of The Town That Was. View the official trailer below for a taster, then go here and watch the whole thing. Note: in order to bring it to you for free, the site has placed sponsored advertising at the beginning and mid-point of the film, and spooling through will result in it restarting from the beginning, so be prepared to sit through the film in one setting – definitely worth it, I think.

Google Earth enthusiasts might also be interested to know that Centralia’s main roads are available on Street View, allowing you to see what’s left. Get in now before they update their source photos – there may be nothing left next time!

On a side note, I was amused to discover there are no less than 12 places in the U.S. called ‘Centralia’. Sure, it’s a bit classier than ‘Gobbler’s Knob’, or the equally imagery-inducing ‘Whiskey Dick Hill’, but it’s not that special.

*****

College Conspiracy

(2011) National Inflation Association

College textbooks are given minor updates every year, forcing every new batch of students to purchase the latest copy - according to the NIA, just one of the many scams colleges maintain in order to induce profit.

College – the biggest scam in U.S history. So say the National Inflation Association, a non-profit organisation dedicated, according to their official site, “to preparing Americans for hyperinflation and helping Americans not only survive, but prosper in the upcoming hyperinflationary crisis”. Society is paying for an unnecessary overemphasis on college education – and in turn, an overemphasis on specific fields of study, such as law – and the bubble is about to burst. Aspirations of wealth and success have become synonymous with a tertiary education, but the playing field remains level when everyone has a degree.

Except that now, they also have a massive college debt for qualifications that thanks to seriously increased competition, did not yield the career of choice and condemns them to spend the rest of their lives paying for it. Once the province of the banks, college loans are now provided by state funds – funds that a soaring educated class of underemployed wage earners cannot hope to repay. Who then but the tax payers to foot the bill and a state forced to print more currency leading to a vicious cycle of hyperinflation? Meanwhile, a rising population demands ever more from agriculture, yet no-one is interested any longer in making a career in it, thanks to dreams of an urban high life as a high-paid doctor or lawyer.

“Society is paying for an unnecessary overemphasis on college education – and in turn, an overemphasis on specific fields of study, such as law – and the bubble is about to burst.”

'College Conspiracy' argues that an overemphasis on university education has flooded the job market, effectively rendering college degrees worthless.

Such is the premise of College Conspiracy, an urgent call to all Americans to wake themselves up from the myth of college education and the inevitability of debt slavery, and to the alternative paths to success, a vast arena of industry necessary to the continued survival of our world, from farming to all forms of local business.

Whichever side of the debate one may find themselves on, the documentary cannot fail to provoke a response. Though U.S-centric, College Conspiracy’s arguments apply just as easily to tertiary education in most of the world, whether it’s simply the high price of a university degree to its ever-diminishing value as means of gaining a leg-up on the career ladder. It has become an unchallenged mandatory path to success and, rather like the Confucian exams of old East Asia, the divider for class, opportunity, and respect, an attitude which continues to define that region of the world.

This however is a telling point: for many, a college education is essential, not simply for those who have a clear career path in mind, but even for those simply seeking a standard office job. It is precisely because society regards it as mandatory that simply having a degree is required even to open the most average of doors. It therefore would have been nice for College Conpiracy to have devoted more time to illustrating further the alternative paths to not only wealth and success but general and basic financial security beyond university. Also, the diminishing agriculture sector, while massively important, should not be the only example – the message shouldn’t be interpreted simply as “Lawyers suck! Your tractor needs you!”

Self-made professionals can occupy a whole raft of industries, which is the intended conclusion, just not adequately explored. Whatever the field (excuse the pun), the NIA’s underlying point for students is that as their country slides ever further into recession, the last thing the world needs are more solicitors searching for loopholes in property laws and instead a new generation of citizens armed with skills from which we can all benefit, and that for those who develop their talents with such skills, the rewards are there. Until all sectors of society, especially employers accept this however, it’s a bit much to simply expect youths looking to secure a future to turn their backs on university. Many are well-aware of the farce tertiary education has become and the debts they will accumulate, but don’t feel they have much choice in the matter. The underlying message of the film is not invalidated, but it will take more than simple awareness of the problem to rectify it, and a commitment on the part of those with the power to effect change. Nonetheless, awareness is the first step and interested parties can watch College Conspiracy for free via here, courtesy of NIA’s official youtube page:

*****


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.


Blown By The Wind

'I've Seen Films' gives aspiring film-makers worldwide a voice and a platform for their talents.

World On Film spends the week in Belarus via two documentaries that focus upon the human struggle both in miniature and on a national level. First up:

The I’ve Seen Films International Film Festival is an annual event started by Rutger Hauer with the aim, we are told on the official site, “of promoting and uniting filmmakers, offering them new exposure and fresh and innovative platforms of visibility, where filmmakers are able to face each other on the common ground of the film language.”

An opportunity for independent film-makers worldwide, the beauty of it for the rest of us is that their entries can be viewed online for free. Although I often try to stick to films from each country’s major studios (where possible), here was an opportunity for something really contemporary. From Belarus:

Team or A Toast To Clean Friday or Brigade or Maundy Friday

Director: Sergei Katier

I’ve Seen Films International Film Festival 2010 entry

Type: Documentary

Website outline: They have different small-scale businesses and every Friday they meet in the bath-house. (View the film by searching for it via the link above.)

Although 'Team' is a snapshot of its central characters' lives, camaraderie is by far the main element.

Over a brief 22 minutes, director Sergei Katier brings us into the lives of 14 Belarusian small businessmen who live life to the full. As doctors, real estate agents, builders and bakers, their everyday exploits follow different paths, but they are united in their ambition to achieve greater heights of success and their passion for fun. That they are a close-knit group of friends who like nothing better than each other’s company is most evident in their weekly trips to a banya, or Russian-style bathhouse. There, the problems of life, work and politics melt away like the snow outside the building’s steam-covered walls.

With so many elements of a successful film in place, Team should be a clear winner, but it fails to be the sum of its parts. Production-wise, Katier is a skilled film-maker. Shots are varied and sequences are treated with different filters (some obviously on computer) and lighting to avoid visual stagnation, and the director is keenly aware of his short runtime. Clearly, plenty of effort has been spent in the editing suite to make sure that the best footage is used to good effect and treated to look its best. It has to be said though that certain editing choices muddy the story’s clarity and focus, leading me to wonder if my judgement is affected by my cultural leanings or if the problem is simply one of post-production.

“With so many elements of a successful film in place, Team should be a clear winner, but it fails to be the sum of its parts.”

Work hard, play hard: the men throw themselves into every aspect of their lives.

The human struggle is far and away the strongest element of the documentary, as we learn of the difficulties faced by each members of the group. Alexander, the head of a local hospital, faces a constant battle with chronic underfunding and state bureaucracy. Where many others in the medical profession have succumbed to the near-impossible conditions, Alexander manages to find comfort whenever a sick child is restored to health. Volodya, rather enigmatically described as an ‘oligarch’, attempts to run an alcohol firm despite the fact that alcohol production is heavily controlled by the state. Vitaly, meanwhile, struggles to maintain a bakery despite very obvious ill-health. Simply following the group’s various struggles and successes would have made a strong tale and an inspiring battle for ordinary survival.

Unfortunately, Katier seems far more interested in their downtime, particularly at said bathhouse. Ironically, even one of the members themselves emphasizes that although highly enjoyable, it’s only a small part of their week. It’s fairly clear that everyone looks upon the banya as a rewarding rest at the end of a long week, but the skewed focus gives the impression that each of these middle-aged men spend most of their time in a small heated room naked and slapping each other with branches. Admittedly, disrobed male bonding is a strong facet of many cultures and the fact that I find watching14 men dive-bombing each other in a swimming pool vaguely discomfiting probably says more about me than them. I still think however, that this is more a misguided choice of post-production: that these men enjoy each other’s company and gain strength from their bonding is overemphasized. More time spent showing the rest of their week would better justify the downtime sequences and make for a better film.

Friends and family forge close ties for the group.

Perhaps the best example of how this affects the build-up of genuine drama comes toward the end, where, after 20 minutes spent relating to the viewer how close and strong is the group’s friendship, a personal tragedy strikes that should shake them to their foundations. Yet two minutes later, the clothes are off and the champagne corks are popped. It also doesn’t help that we barely come to know the character thus afflicted, so that his fate lacks the emotional resonance it should have had. To an extent, the problem would have been mitigated by a longer running time, allowing each of the main players’ stories to have developed. However, I can’t help feeling that the director would simply have viewed this as an opportunity for more steam and sauna, which is the last thing Team needs.

“The skewed focus gives the impression that each of these middle-aged men spend most of their time in a small heated room naked and slapping each other with branches.”

Which brings me to the subtitles. I normally don’t comment on subtitles as different releases of cinema see different translations and therefore it isn’t a fair critique of the original film-maker. However, as an ICFilm entry, the producers had to supply their own English dialogue and were in this case responsible for their quality, and Team suffers from both stilted and occasionally incoherent subtitling. For example, when asked to comment on the successes of a recent bowling tournament, a character is heard to say, “Could be better, agitation let us down.” Meanwhile when explaining hospital bureaucracy, Alexander imparts that “There are a lot of regulative documents.

Strength of will gives way to human frailty, even for these men.

Having worked in the t.v post-production industry myself, I can appreciate how hard it is to not only translate between two distinct languages, not to mention cultures. However, proper assessment and appreciation of the film hinges upon being able to properly understand what is being said without having to process every line for its meaning. Plus, simply getting the gist of a line will do nothing for characterization.

However, Team should still be judged principally on its non-English merits. It will be interesting to see how it fares at ICF 2010, but for me, it offers much while falling short of all that it could have been: a tale of triumph over adversity by good friends. Had more emphasis been placed on that adversity and the way in which each businessman faced it before leaping and giggling into the local spa, Team would have been a far stronger effort. Sergei Katier knows that a good film is all about people. Yet in this outing, he has forgotten that taking those people on a journey is the real story.

Belarus Unmasked

Long-serving Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenko.

Kalinovski Square is a 2007 documentary looking at the mass protests in October Square, Minsk, following the 2006 re-election of long-time president Alexander Lukashenko. In power since 1994, the incumbent won a massive 80% of the votes according to state authorities, a declaration challenged by thousands of angry locals who called for his resignation. Police were called in and eventually removed everyone present.

Once described as one of the “six outposts of tyranny” by Condoleeza Rice, Belarus has a ‘Soviet’-style state-controlled economy, with freedom of speech severely limited if it dares stray from the party line. Kalinovski Square combines official video footage with secretly-filmed scenes of suppression and dissension among citizens, and the cult of personality surrounding Lukashenko himself, somewhat on par with that of Hugo Chavez.

However, the eye-opening documentary is memorable not only for what it reveals, but also for Yury Khashchavatski’s darkly humorous script, where irony and sarcasm very nearly melt the screen.

“[Lukashenko] has been troubled by enemies for many years. These troubles, penetrating his delicate psyche, generate problems that cannot be examined civilly – he has to sink his teeth into them. That distracts from the most important thing – thoughts about the happiness of the people. After all, he confesses that he is always thinking about it. Yes! Great idea! After all, it really is that simple. The president will take office for the third time (or, even better, forever) and nation-wide happiness shall come!”

“The eye-opening documentary is memorable not only for what it reveals, but also for Yury Khashchavatski’s darkly humorous script, where irony and sarcasm very nearly melt the screen.”

Protesters fill the square decrying the election a farce.

The humour of course is not to draw a veil over the Lukashenko stranglehold of Belarus, rather, it erupts from the sheer madness of the situation, which to the film-makers is so overt and the hallmarks of a dictatorship so blatant, that one can only laugh at the insanity of it. Director Sergey Isakov strikes a good balance between irony, storytelling and reportage. Victims of police brutality and suppression are interviewed, but so are ordinary citizens who were not part of the October Square mélange, and the cameras even travel to the countryside to document the opinions of the villagers, whose world seems not to have changed in a century despite the promise of progress. The action also shifts to official parliamentary sessions, where the president’s attack dogs deal swiftly with any challenging candidates, of which there were several in 2006 – they too give their version of events.

Highly-recommended, Kalinovski Square should be seen by anyone who lives in a society where the scales of justice could at any time be tipped in favour of a small ruling elite, ie – everyone on the planet Earth. It’s free to watch, and can be seen below:

*****

Next Time

A murder victim. A police suspect protesting his innocence. A pact between 5 friends. Lust and betrayal. All are present when World On Film returns next time to discover the truth behind the Belgian thriller, Loft. An unsubtitled trailer will give you the idea below: