High up in the Colombian Andes, a squad of soldiers manning a remote mountain bunker mysteriously all go missing. Believing their disappearance to be the work of the enemy guerrilla, base command sends another squad to investigate. However, the new arrivals soon find themselves unwittingly re-enacting the events leading up to their predecessor’s fate and it may not be the work of enemy agents.
(2011) Written by Tania Cardenas and Jaime Osorio Marquez Directed by Jaime Osorio Marquez
(You’ll find a trailer at the bottom of last week’s post)
“Haven’t you realized it yet? There’s nobody out there! The only murderers are us, goddammit!”
The above quote may seem to give away the film’s twist, but The Squad, sitting somewhere between horror and claustrophobic thriller, is a dark tale that will keep you guessing until the end. Taken as horror, it’s a story that benefits from director Jaime Osorio Marquez’s solid understanding that invoking the paranormal effectively benefits from the ‘less is more’ approach. This is not a man interested in cheap thrills. In fact, some viewers will question whether or not there really is a paranormal element to the film, given that it flirts with, but never conclusively states, an otherworldly force behind the drama. The most obvious example, and I will try to avoid spoilers, is the soldiers’ discovery of an old woman seemingly kept prisoner by their missing comrades. Speculation turns to fear when she is accused first of being a guerrilla spy, then an unfortunate local caught up in the country’s perpetual civil war, and then a witch – in any event the source of all the misery that befalls anyone cursed with entering the bunker. Marquez walks a fine line with all three possibilities, and gives just enough circumstantial evidence to allow the viewer to conclude that any one of them might be true.
However, since The Squad is so Spartan with its horror elements, it is predominantly a thriller about claustrophobia and fear in general. The war has completely polarised both sides of the conflict, and so the only dimensions of character among the soldiers we meet range between the aggressive, bullying nationalists and the moderates forced into a military environment they have no taste for, yet they too have no sympathy for the other side. It’s probably the most important thing to understand about the citizens of any country where national service is mandatory.
Add to this a deep sense of battle-weariness that the characters seem almost to breathe out from the very first scene. Although the narrative is entirely confined to the isolated Colombian outpost, lines of dialogue make it clear that this is simply the latest in a long line of engagements with the enemy. In peacetime, we often have trouble wondering how certain people are able to commit certain acts, and in The Squad, the elastic has already been stretched a good way for everyone involved. This, we are being told, is what it means to live amidst civil war.
Then the story actually begins and, after a quietly tense sequence in which the characters survey their surroundings, the screws start to be tightened even further. In many ways, The Squad is a base-under-siege film, both figuratively and literally. Visually, Marquez could not have chosen a more perfect location: it really is a bunker high up on a mountain somewhere, where the fog is so frequent that venturing in any direction will make you hopelessly lost if you’re lucky. The weather itself is a mental and physical barrier. All of which only helps make the ‘siege’ very much the cabin fever variety, taken to new heights by human weakness and paranoia. Already convinced they are under attack by guerrilla forces that always seem to be one step ahead of them, the unraveling of self-control for each beleaguered soldier seems only a matter of time. Yet as indicated earlier, there may be other forces at work.
“In peacetime, we often have trouble wondering how certain people are able to commit certain acts, and in The Squad, the elastic has already been stretched a good way for everyone involved.”
I couldn’t help but be strongly reminded of the in-many-ways-similar Korean horror-thriller Antarctic Journal, where a group of initially optimistic team of scientists attempt to be the first Koreans to reach the South Pole. There, writer/director Yim Pil-Sung similarly tries to offer both mundane and supernatural reasons for the group’s ultimate descent into madness and murder, so much so that he almost makes two different films running concurrently, and the whole doesn’t quite come together. Marquez is clearly the more adept at weaving the seemingly real with the seemingly unreal – perhaps because his main commentary is upon the prolonged effects of war on the psyche, especially when cornered. And yet in many ways, I find Antarctic Journal the more enjoyable film for all its faults.
Perhaps The Squad is too claustrophobic. Its protagonists, seemingly doomed to begin with, make the transition from ‘bad’ to ‘worse’ rather than Antarctic Journal’s ‘good’ to ‘bad’. We are thrown into the tension almost immediately, and when characters aren’t descending into madness, they are sniping at each other or making intense declarations of family loyalty. The true protagonists of the story are helpless from the outset, dominated by their unstable, aggressive and wholly unpleasant colleagues. Add to this an ongoing barrage of tight close-ups, washed-out colour and a very confined set, and there really isn’t room to breathe in The Squad. On paper, the almost Blair Witch-like approach should work well, but you can have too much of a good thing.
And perhaps the imbalance of the supernatural and the more down-to-earth brutality of the situation is another factor. If the film is allegory for the horrors of war through the use of supernatural elements – as John Carpenter’s The Thing is allegory for Antarctica-as-blue-collar-dystopia via sci-fi elements – then it doesn’t go far enough to work as allegory. Or to put it another way, while I applaud Marquez’s carefully-judged use of the supernatural (if, again, that’s what it is – and it’s up to the viewer to decide this) for the purposes of intelligently-made horror, there’s too little of it to work as a symbol of real-world psychological fear. Equally, since The Squad is therefore mostly a real-world study of human madness, that weighty discourse is derailed somewhat by occasionally saying ‘Hey, maybe these guys are being manipulated by forces beyond their understanding.’ This is where Antarctic Journal also ultimately fails: film-makers not deciding clearly enough as to what their story is ultimately about.
Which is a shame, as there are certainly a lot of interesting ideas in The Squad and a location setting that was absolutely made for horror. Then again, if true horror is human behaviour, then those Colombian mountains have likely already told that story many times over the years. While the film lacks clarity in some areas, not even the cold blanket of the fog can enshroud the utter senselessness of a never-ending conflict that exists now only to consume man until nothing but his fear-stained face, frozen in death, remains. If the film-maker somehow lost his way slightly in getting his story across, there is a certain irony in the fact that his characters – and the real-world analogues upon which they are based – are so deep within their society’s conflict that they are fated only to disappear without trace, like the lost people of whom they came in search.
We travel to the remote island archipelago of Comoros and discover how the locals cope with the country’s massive brain-drain in its very first film, The Ylang Ylang Residence. Plus: how to turn a real-life tragedy into a cheap melodrama. Air disasters and asinine production choices in the Ethiopian farce Comoros – next time on World On Film.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
(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.”
(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.”
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.”
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.
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.
This week, civil war, persecution and dark humour as World On Film travels to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the memorable snapshot into madness:
(2005) Written & Directed by Ahmed Imamovic Co-written by Enver Puska
“We’re slaughtering each other like in the Middle Ages while abroad, they’re making computer chips. You know how much data a computer chip the size of a fingernail can contain? A million! And where are we? Persecuting each other on hills and in forests like we didn’t have anything more intelligent to do.”
It’s 1992, and the Yugoslavian Socialist Republic is collapsing into a series of brutal civil wars. As Serbian forces lay siege to Sarajevo, Serbian student Milan and his cellist Muslim boyfriend Kenan have no choice but to flee the ethnic cleansing. With Muslim citizens being executed all over Bosnia, Milan disguises Kenan as his bride-to-be, allowing them to escape to the relative safety of the countryside where Milan’s father Ljubo lives until they can obtain the necessary papers promising passage to the Netherlands. However, maintaining the deception becomes harder and harder: Milan’s best friend Lunjo quickly learns the truth and Ljubo is especially keen to marry the happy couple. Worse still, Milan is suddenly drafted into the army, leaving Kenan alone to keep up the pretence, made all the more difficult by the sex-starved Ranka, a local waitress who the whole village seems to fear.
My initial impressions of Go West were that it would primarily be a fairly damning commentary on the Yugoslav war – a harsh, but sobering drama that would leave the viewer in no doubt as to the futility of ethnic and religious hatred, and indeed war itself. Which indeed it is, but it is also a condemnation of homophobia, while at the same time, the sheer absurdity of the fleeing couple’s predicament elevates Go West’s discourse into black comedy and farce – something that writers Ahmed Imamovic and Enver Puska expertly mesh with the general message of social meltdown and the way it destroyed Bosnia and Herzegovina – without one theme compromising the other.
Horror and madness must come before absurdity of course, and there is definitely nothing to laugh at during the opening sequences, where the two protagonists carry on with their lives in Sarajevo before they are overwhelmed by the turmoil. Director Imamovic weaves genuine newsreel footage of the conflict into his specially-shot sequences of Serbian militia terrorising the locals and gunning down the Muslim population (with soldiers forcing men’s pants down in search of tell-tale circumcisions). As Milan and Kenan’s lives are quickly overturned, forcing them into flight, the audience is given a street-level snapshot of how the conflict might have been experienced firsthand.
Fuelled by such life-or-death desperation, I found myself wondering if indeed the real-life Muslim homosexuals might too have disguised themselves as married women in order to escape execution. As Kenan himself states at the beginning, “On the Balkans, it’s easier to bear if someone in the family is a murderer rather than a faggot [sic].” Under pressure from all sides, much of the tension in Go West therefore derives from we the audience wondering just how long he will be able to maintain his disguise while besieged by threats on all sides (some not necessarily malicious) to expose the truth. Actor Mario Drmac plays the would-be transvestite with great skill, giving Kenan a quiet strength, though portraying him on a knife-edge as the drama escalates. Go West is ultimately his story, showing the lengths the natives must go through in order to survive the war: humiliation, desperation, and above all, loss, leaving only courage or madness to dictate how one lives their remaining life.
“[Go West is a] black comedy and farce – something that writers Ahmed Imamovic and Enver Puska expertly mesh with the general message of social meltdown and the way it destroyed Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
The writers are also keen to point out the ridiculousness of the predicament, not only through Kenan’s constant struggle to ensure his ‘breasts’ appear convincing or the stubble from his face, but in the whole cast of villagers whose world ranges from witchcraft and superstition to the local priest more concerned with political rhetoric than the salvation of the soul. Some of the characters are obvious comic relief, while in other cases, the humour creeps up on you with the forced jollity of the inhabitants that causes events to spiral further out of control. Ljubo is perhaps the strongest example of this. Wonderfully played by veteran actor Rade Serbedzija, the one-time Texan rancher fights daily against resignation and melancholy in the face of so much loss, unable to see that his good intentions are making things harder. His son Milan, played by Tarik Filipovic, sits somewhere between the two people he cares about most: warm and all-embracing, yet feeling as though only he truly understands the sacrifices that must be made. In contrast, Ranka, in a strong performance by Mirjana Karanovic, has far baser desires, which threaten to unravel the entire social fabric. Tragically, only the viewer is ultimately able to see the lighter side of their predicament.
While I think the blend of drama and black humour hold together well, there are some aspects of the script that don’t entirely work as well as they could. The witchcraft element, for example, seems to be there simply to build up the potential threat of certain characters, yet ultimately doesn’t seem to have any other meaning beyond this. Elsewhere, the murder of certain antagonists seems out-of-character for those enacting them, and done simply to pull the writers out of a hole during the all-important climax. This may sound a little odd in a film where senseless killing would be considered inevitable, but perhaps readers will know what I mean when they watch for themselves.
Ultimately however, these elements do not cause serious damage to the film’s central premise, nor fear and madness of one of the 20th Century’s most brutal civil wars. It does not try to be universal commentary on the fall of the republic, but instead ‘zoom in’ to a snapshot of the personal tragedy and persecution of those perceived to be socially abhorrent, which of course, they were not – merely ordinary people trying to survive. It reminds me of similarly-themed Albanian film, Slogans, also a drama/black comedy exploring the absurdity borne of a society descending into madness and painting itself into a corner. In Go West however, there is a much higher body count.
This, and the many twists and turns of the plot, may cause the viewer to wonder if anyone will ultimately get out alive. In the end, Go West delivers a bittersweet conclusion and a very poignant message. Hope survives, though many will have to die first – a not incongruous ending for film with war as its subject. Definitely recommended.
British Virgin Islands
This Caribbean British outpost has yet to dazzle the world with its film-making prowess, hampered at present by the complete non-existence of a film industry and hampered still further by being far too small for such things – not even a travel documentary explaining why the late 1960s is the ideal time to visit. It has occasionally however been used as a location, and located as it is in the heart of ‘stereotypical pirate’ territory, its exotic appearance speaks of old-world adventure, though today, it is just as associated with drug trafficking and Richard Branson.
In more recent times, it was an island rich in cannibals destined to ingest a group of New York tourists in the uncelebrated 2008 horror film Holocaust Holocaust, the destination for a Geek Cruise in 2007, and in 2003, just one of the many remote hideouts chosen by Dream Chasers, people who had given up the rat race in search of a new life away from the concrete jungle. A decade ago, it was on three occasions a popular filming location for the Boob Cruise series, the focus of which would suggest the islands are today ‘virgin’ in name only.
Most fans of celluloid however will have seen something of the BVI via the 1977 blockbuster horror/thriller, The Deep, in which the sunken packet ship RMS Rhone doubles for the morphine-rich home of tiger sharks, the Goliath. Today, the Rhone, sunk two centuries earlier by a hurricane, is a popular diving site, though as far as I know, has yet to yield any treasure. I prefer Jaws myself.
Western civilization quite literally strikes the natives of the Kalahari in Botswana, causing chaos, misery and misunderstanding. The continent of Africa’s most famous film to date goes under the spotlight when World On Film examines the slapstick comedy, The Gods Must Be Crazy. To view a trailer, click below:
Welcome. Let’s jump straight into things this week with the entry for Bangladesh:
The Clay Bird
(2002) Directed by Tareque Masud
“The bird’s trapped in the body’s cage. Its feet bound by worldly chains, it tries to fly, but fails.”
‘The Clay Bird’ opens a door into Bangladesh’s fight for independence in the late 1960s when the soon-to-be nation state was a far-flung region of Pakistan, following the partitioning of India in 1947. Increasingly disenchanted with the distant central government due to racial, cultural and economic discrimination, Bangladeshis began taking to the streets in protest, demanding a general election as the springboard for autonomous rule. The election was cancelled and the Pakistani military were sent in to quell the uprising, murdering thousands and destroying population centres. A civil war ensued, eventually leading to independence in 1971. The film is set just prior to the prolonged and bloody uprising, as citizens find themselves galvanized along religious and political lines, with tempers beginning to fray. Rather than depict events at the heart of the capital, the story centres around the lives of a rural family in a remote village, bearing witness to the way in which the winds of change blew across the ordinary citizen. While the intent of this is sound, the end result is something of a mixed bag.
The plight of the family proves an effective allegory for the various Bangladeshi attitudes to the turmoil their world is in. Kazi, the father, a born-again Muslim, reflects the ultra-conservative stand that faith and discipline will unite the people under Allah, and is unable or unwilling to accept that the deeply fractured society around him faces problems that cannot be solved through prayer. Milon, his brother, a young political extremist, stands ready to fight for the nation with the unwavering confidence of the just. Ayesha, Kazi’s apolitical wife meanwhile, is interested simply in getting through the ordinary day to day struggles of life. Asma, the daughter, is too young to be constrained by the petty concerns of adults, while Anu, the young son, is propelled unwillingly by conflicting forces and ideologies he doesn’t understand. It is the nation in miniature, about to burst at the seams.
“[The family] is the nation in miniature, about to burst at the seams.”
Yet there is a somewhat meandering quality to the pacing, perhaps in part because the writer has not entirely decided upon the story he wants to tell. It could very easily simply be the story of a young boy forced to attend a madrasa (Islamic boarding school) by a father terrified his son’s mind will be polluted by non-Islamic ideas and therein be a commentary on Islamic extremism itself. Indeed, a large chunk of the film is just that: there is a very telling scene where the young Anu and his uncle watch a Hindu boat race, clearly enjoying themselves, only to be reprimanded for celebrating diversity. Kazi’s religious fervour has him at odds with the rest of his family, incapable of being the father and husband they so desperately need. The dogma strangles the family to the point of dysfunction. Equally telling is the character of Milon, whose more secular and open-minded world view is the foundation for the forthcoming nation-state. Religious dogma is equated with denial, while the activist is the realist.
Fortunately, the Islamic discourse eventually digs deeper and there is a nice scene where two of the madrasa teachers make the point that the religion spread so successfully across Bangladesh precisely because it was a peaceful ideology. Whatever one’s beliefs, there can be no denying that this sort of discourse on Islam is rarely found outside of Islamic countries. The very idea that it must be spread by force and violence is just such a question pondered with dismay by one teacher struggling to understand how religion became part of the rising civil war in the first place. That the Muslim extremists involved in acts of terrorism rivaling the invading Pakistani army might be missing the point is one of the many tragedies of that war, though it is important to remember that many factors came into play, not least cultural and economic destitution. However, director Tarique Masud does not adequately explore these factors, which if the aim is to give a snapshot of society during that time is quite remiss, suggesting that he is more interested on religious commentary. Yet the film goes beyond the madrasa, so that those set up as the main characters then disappear for long stretches like the inhabitants of a Tolkien novel. This unravels the sequences designed to build up character storylines, with the disjointed result leading to the uneven pacing. This leaves the conflicts faced by some to be either insufficiently built up or not satisfyingly followed through. Masud ultimately needed to choose one storyline and stay with it.
“There is a somewhat meandering quality to the pacing, perhaps in part because the writer has not entirely decided upon the story he wants to tell.”
Nonetheless, the cast perform with the conviction and skill necessary to draw the viewer into their characters’ worlds – when we are able. However, standouts for me include Russell Farazi as Rokon, Anu’s one true friend at the madrasa – a likeable, yet misunderstood loner, and the young Farazi is more than able to imbue the character with the complexities that reside in such a part. Soaeb Islam, meanwhile, brings to the wannabe revolutionary a warmth often without any dialogue whatsoever. Clearly, Kazi is set up to be a stiff-necked Islamic convert, giving Jayanto Chattopadhyay not a lot of range, however, this does allow for a meaningful scene at the end where the horrors of war force Kazi to face his religious convictions. And while Nurul Islam Bablu is no Marina Golhabari, he gives Anu the profound innocence that the script requires of the character.
Ultimately, ‘The Clay Bird’ is not quite the tale of Bengali struggle it purports to be, due to unfortunate scripting and editing choices that take much of the wind out of its sails as a result. However, it opened up a window into a history with which I was hitherto unfamiliar, with many thought-provoking and sometimes touching sequences that still manage to shine through – even if the sum of the parts is conspicuous by its absence.
The Memoirs Of A Self-Confessed Surrealist
(1978) Directed by Alan Yentob
“The marvellous is beautiful. Anything marvellous is beautiful. In fact, only the marvellous is beautiful.”
In 1978, jazz player, film critic, writer and lover of melting watches, George Melly, undertook a journey from his Notting Hill home to visit the Great Exhibition of Dada & Surrealist Art at the Hayward Gallery near the Thames. Along the way, he relates his long and passionate love affair of the surrealist movement and its many colourful denizens, reliving many experience of his own both surreal in encounter and Dadaesque by design.
Melly recounts how he joined the British surrealist movement after serving in the Royal Navy during World War II after discovering the book Surrealism by Herbert Reed, the paintings within revealing “a world I’d always suspected had existed, but which I didn’t know how to get into.” To him, surrealism “is the spirit of the dream, coupled with reality” – a world based firmly upon reality, but overlaid with the heightened states of imagination contributed by the participant. This is an important distinction from fantasy, where the impossible has been divorced from the everyday and celebrated. Surrealism is firmly grounded in the ordinary, but through the freedom of imagination is able to perceive it as the marvellous. Even Salvador Dali had to be an impressionist before he could depict the inner world within. The surrealists embraced convention, recognising that they could be easily dismissed if they fitted the stereotype of the artist. Those like Magritte, who were far too busy challenging perceptual reality to bother with extravagance, were more successful with this aim, while for Dali, extravagance was the point.
“Oh, Dali. What a genius you were, and what a sad clown you have become.”
‘To [Melly], surrealism “is the spirit of the dream, coupled with reality.”’
The surrealist world according to Melly is a close-knit community, a movement shared in full agreement by his members. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that Melly knew most of its primary practitioners personally, his own surreal poetry entering the canon of which notable entries lament the loss of a friend.
“When Magritte died, the stones fell to the ground, the birds divorced their leaves, the breasts became blind, the tubas extinguished their flames, the pipe remembered its role, the words looked up what they meant in the dictionary, the ham closed its eye forever, when Magritte died.” – Excerpt from “Homage to Rene Magritte”, by George Melly
Likewise, he is able to name check the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, ELT Mesens, Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst with anecdotal clarity. The poetry of Dadaist Kurt Schwitters once saved his life in a dark alley, while the simple, yet revolutionary words of Andre Breton in a conversation decades earlier helped him expect the unexpected from the ordinary. Weekly gatherings at the Barcelona Restaurant in Soho brought him into contact with violin-torturer Robert Melville, pacifist air-raid warden Roland Penrose, suspected Fifth Columnist Conroy Maddox, and anarchist bus conductor Arthur Moyes among others. Inheritors to the surrealist oeuvre are introduced, notably Monty Python, painter Patrick Hughes, blue novelist and fashion guru Molly Parkin, and British rock band The Stranglers, although surely The Stranglers were Dadaists, since as Melly says himself in description of the movement, “the beginnings of Dada were not art, but disgust.”
The long journey includes, as one might expect, plenty of visual examples of the Dada revolt and the Surrealist reinterpretation, from the paintings that still inspire wonder in the minds of many today to the buildings that were created as a result. When not heard to ‘ursonate’, Melly’s poetry parts the clouds of conventional thinking and forces all ears to see the world in-between. It is, after all, a personal journey, and for fans of the genre, a quick and entertaining celebration of everything that makes the movements so exciting and fires the flames of marvellous creativity. For the novice, it serves as an entertaining introduction to the surrealist and Dadaist movements, the key works of both, and the artists who created them. As to availability, BBC4 occasionally repeats it along with other Arena classics, otherwise look online in the usual places.
Life, death, love and anguish, as the lives of 14 Belorussian businessmen take centre-stage in the documentary Brigade, or A Toast To A Clean Friday, part of Rutger Hauer’s I’ve Seen Films short film festival.
“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.”
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”
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
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.”
… … … … … … … … … … … … … 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.