Thursday, March 29, 2007

La Vie est belle

1987, Zaïre/France/Belgium, directed by Benoît Lamy and Mweze Ngangura

A major hit in many African countries when it was released - it is one of the few African films to be widely distributed on the continent - La Vie est belle is in many ways an old-fashioned rags-to-riches story with resonances that go far beyond its country and continent of origin, telling the tale of an aspiring musician (Papa Wemba, already a huge music star in Zaïre, and with a growing international reputation) who sets out from his home in the provinces for the bright lights of Kinshasa. The film's main concern isn't with plot (even Shakespeare might have balked at all the coincidences, not to mention the deus ex machina resolution), but rather with creating an authentic impression of Kinshasa life (though circumstances force the filmmakers to be oblique in their criticisms, given that Mobutu's state was among the financial sponsors).

The film's gentle comic style - not to mention the unsurprisingly fine soundtrack - masks what is ultimately a very pointed commentary on the almost complete lack of state assistance, which compels the entire population into an attitude of trying to get by, using and abusing connections in the manner demonstrated by those at the highest levels. In some ways, the force of this commentary is all the greater for its expression in such seemingly benign terms, a force that emerges after the fact, once the glow of the finale has faded.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

2006, Ireland/UK/Germany/France/Spain, directed by Ken Loach

The Wind that Shakes the Barley is one of the high points in Ken Loach's lengthy and busy career, stretching back to his 1960s television work, and it's also one of the strongest films dealing with the period of Irish independence and Civil War (here, 1920-1922). Like Loach's previous Land and Freedom, about the Spanish Civil War, the film blends narrative and political discussion, with the characters intermittently conducting debates about the future of Ireland; Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty find intelligent ways to integrate these segments with the rest of the action, so that they feel as though they are contributing to the narrative development rather than stopping the film in its tracks. They also contribute greatly to the growing sense that nothing in this bitter conflict is black and white, while also serving as starting points for more contemporary debates.

While the resonances with the conflict in Iraq (and, even more so, that in Israel-Palestine) are unmistakable, Loach doesn't lose sight of the fact that his story is first and foremost about Ireland, and he vividly illustrates, including for younger Irish viewers, the bitter divisions that poisoned Irish political life for decades after independence (the film helps to explain, for those who came of age in the post-Civil War political era, the rancour that characterised relations between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two main southern political parties).

As always with Loach, his one Achilles' heel is the depiction of the oppressors; he's almost incapable of creating rounded British characters, whether it be the sadistic squaddies who harass elderly Irish women, or the plummy lord around whose manor several key sequences are set; whereas the rest of the film is filled with shades of grey, here Loach hammers home his point more forcefully than is necessary. By contrast, his treatment of the Irish characters is richly nuanced, and he does a particularly fine job of illustrating the stomach-churning conflicts of loyalty that the period created, literally turning brother against brother; even the apparently heroic characters are desperately and deeply compromised by the decisions their circumstances seem to impose.

Cillian Murphy does some of his best screen work to date here; his journey from fresh-faced, idealistic student to shattered guerrilla is especially wrenching, and he has notable support from Padraic Delaney, who plays his brother, Liam Cunningham as a Dublin trade-unionist, and Orla Fitzgerald in an outstanding turn as one of the few women on the front lines. Loach also has a fine eye for the smaller parts, mixing many inexperienced faces with a few old hands and building a rich portrait of a very specific time and place.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Lumumba

2000, France/Belgium/Germany/Haiti, directed by Raoul Peck

Although it appears to be a conventional biopic on the surface, Raoul Peck's Lumumba is ultimately no more an objective portrait than his previous documentary on same subject, and functions, like that earlier work, as an examination of Peck's own relationship with his subject. The film opens with a re-creation of the possible circumstances surrounding Lumumba's death (circumstances not too far from the reality, if subsequent admissions from the Belgian government are reliable), and then moves backward, joining Lumumba as he arrives in Congo's capital city, still called, in the pre-independence period, Léopoldville. His political development is over almost in a flash: he goes from selling beer to having a key role in the independence negotiations in a manner that elides almost all of the details of his rise to prominence (which in some ways calls into question the degree to which Lumumba enjoyed popular support).

The film's primary interest is in Lumumba's brief period in power, his few months as prime minister in 1960, during which the idealism of the pre-independence period collides with the (sometimes brutal) realities of governing the vast area of the Congo, riven by regional rivalries as well as by outside influences (the film alludes to the involvement of Belgium, the Soviet Union and the US - while the UN is invoked in terms that portray it as both malign and welcome). There's a great poignancy to Peck's nuanced portrait of Lumumba, as if the director himself is also confronted with the reality that even a hero of the independence period has shades of grey; he doesn't shy away from Lumumba's occasional intransigence, nor from the fact that he, along with other leaders, was ill-prepared for the scale of the task ahead. Peck has no interest in hagiography, and the Lumumba that emerges from his film is a complex man, magnetic but also overburdened, toppled by circumstances in which almost no-one, save for Lumumba himself, remained loyal to the people of Congo.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

L'Ami y'a bon

2004, France, directed by Rachid Bouchareb

Rachid Bouchareb's short film serves as a fascinating complement to Ousmane Sembène's Camp de Thiaroye, telling the story of the including, crucially, their exploitation at every turn by the colonial authorities, who attempted to dispense with the African soldiers as soon as they had proved their worth in European campaigns. The film uses beautifully etched animated imagery, and almost no words, to succinctly narrate the reality of one soldier's experience, and the brutal shattering of his illusions about his relationship and worth to France. The black and white imagery - with occasional flashes of colour - has a remarkable power, and functions as a strikingly effective method of transmitting the misery and violence of the soldiers' existence (at times, it reminded me of Rolf de Heer's The Tracker, which also turns to drawings to convey the worst excesses of another colonial experience).

Credit where it is due: L'Ami y'a bon is available online at Tadrart Films, while I wouldn't have discovered it in the first place had it not been for acquarello's wonderful site on "landmark world cinema."

Delwende

2005, Burkina Faso/France/Switzerland, directed by S. Pierre Yaméogo

S. Pierre Yaméogo's Delwende is in some sense a return to the source, the rich vein of Burkinabé cinema centered on the village. However, like Cheick Oumar Sissoko's Malian film Finzan, it is a harsh critique of the way that village life treats the weak, and particularly women. The story centers on two women, one forced to marry against her will, the other - her mother - denounced as a witch as the villagers attempt to find a scapegoat for a meningitis epidemic sweeping the countryside (the villagers, with the exception of one easily dismissed character, are oblivious to the radio reports on the sickness).

The older woman is cast out of her village, and forced, eventually, to the streets of Ouagadougou and ultimately a refuge for women who have been similarly denounced, though the refuge itself is a tragic place, and Yaméogo underlines the women's terrible fate in documenting the hangar-like institution with almost brutal candour. When she hears the news the daughter, Pougbila, embarks on a quest to find her mother and confront the village. In telling Pougbila's story Yaméogo creates an authentically magnetic heroine, whose energy is compelling, and whose strength of belief is a powerful weapon; there's a magnificent shot that tracks her arrival into Ouagadougou, walking alongside a herd of cattle but focused absolutely on her own mission.

Dark Habits

1983, Spain, directed by Pedro Almodóvar (original title: Entre tinieblas)

There's a scattershot quality to Dark Habits that is characteristic of Pedro Almodóvar's early films, his targets wide and his satire broad, and his plotting somewhat haphazard. However, his sense of the absurd and his unapologetic demolition of sacred cows are infectious for most of the film's running length, while the film jumps so quickly from one scene to the next that there's little time to reflect on the lack of connective tissue. There's also a powerful sense that the director is simply celebrating the freedom that came after the death of Franco; although that event was eight years in the past when Dark Habits was made, there's no doubt that his legacy continued to cast a long shadow.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a young woman who takes refuge in a convent after the death of her boyfriend from a drug overdose - only to discover that the nuns are participating in far more illicit activities than the average citizen on the outside. Almodóvar revels in taking the church down a peg or twenty, but also argues in favour of a benevolent God, who finds greatness in the imperfections and human failings celebrated by the director. He also celebrates a wonderful collection of actresses, perhaps most especially Chus Lampreave and Carmen Maura as two of the more eccentric inhabitants of the convent.

Floating Weeds

1959, Japan, directed by Yazujiro Ozu

A remake of his own 1934 A Story of Floating Weeds, Floating Weeds preserves, almost to the letter, the storyline of the earlier film, and as such provides a fascinating opportunity to contrast Ozu's directorial choices after the passage of 25 years. Of course, the film illustrates not just Ozu's own evolution but the transformation of the industry in which he worked: the most obvious manifestation of this is the move to colour (Ozu was already behind the times in persisting with silent film in 1934; that choice was impossible in 1959). Storytelling conventions have also changed, and the snappy rhythm of the 1930s is replaced here by a somewhat statelier pace, and much additional local colour, announced in the very first scene; the main storyline is not introduced for some time, whereas the original film has almost no extraneous action. However, the director's predeliction for low angles, sometimes just inches above the tatami mat, is unchanged, although in one key scene of confrontation, beautifully shot in the rain, Ozu chooses somewhat higher angles than on the first occasion.

There's an additional poignancy in the knowledge that after the war the Kabuki acting troupe's time has passed by almost entirely; the competition is ever more low-rent, as they attempt to keep pace with strip shows and the like. There's also an edge to the portrait of the troupe that is missing from the first film, which is often more broadly comic; for someone so closely associated with the acting milieu, Ozu's portrait of that world is strikingly unaffectionate, and he uses much of the additional running time to add material that casts the actors in a less than glorious light.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A Story of Floating Weeds

1934, Japan, directed by Yasujiro Ozu

One of Yasujiro Ozu's final silent films, A Story of Floating Weeds is a poignant and often rather pointed story of familial loss that showcases the director's emerging personal style. His penchant for low camera angles - whether filming standing, sitting or prone actors - is given full rein (almost to the point of self-parody), and creates a very distinct and disconcerting relationship with the action (at one point, he places his actors on a railway embankment with the camera below, so that we see the action almost from below ground level). Ozu also makes beautiful use of frames within frames, employing the square angles of Japanese rooms to great effect - though the most stunning sequence in the film takes place outdoors, the protagonists sheltering from the rain under two opposing verandas.

Like many 1930s films, from across the globe, the story is told with great economy; a surprising amount of action is compressed into the film's 84 minutes, and the director uses visual cues to supply information in succinct fashion, swiftly moving the narrative forward. The focus of the story is on the return of a travelling actor to the town where his son lives (the son, though, has no idea who his father is), and there's a melancholy air over all of the interactions between father and son, a sense that their relationship cannot overcome notions of honour that the father has used to justify his absence. There's a bitterness in the growing sense that the father's entire world is outmoded: his troupe can barely survive in modernizing Japan, and there's a vivid sequence, shot against a backdrop of telegraph wires, that underlines the contrast between tradition and the changing pre-war world.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Lumumba: la mort du prophète

1992, France/Switzerland, directed by Raoul Peck

The title of Raoul Peck's documentary film announces the fact that it does not attempt to provide an objective portrait of its subject (the film is certainly not a reliable primer on the Congo c. 1960-1962 without other complements), but functions rather as a personal memoir on the meaning of Lumumba's brief time in power, and also as a reflection on what it is like to be close to historical events. More controversially, Peck indicts present-day Belgium and Belgians, whose prosperity is, in ways visible and invisible, inextricably linked with the history of its huge African colony.

Peck's filmmaking strategies recall both Jean-Marie Teno and David Achkar, both of whom blend a variety of sources - newsreels, interviews, poetry, home movies - to powerful effect; Peck combines Teno's broader polemical thrust with Achkar's evocation of a very personal series of events (Peck spent much of his childhood in Congo, where his parents worked, though he himself did not arrive from Haiti until after Lumumba's death). The film's main weakness is the paucity of African testimonies to balance the sometimes unreliable - and almost always tendentious - Europeans who are interviewed; while the lack of equilibrium is partly a function of Peck's decision (for reasons of personal safety) not to travel to Kinshasa, little use is made of the overseas Congolese community.

The Lives of Others

2006, Germany, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (original title: Das Leben der anderen)
Although Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's first feature reveals him to be a confident and sometimes compelling filmmaker, Das Leben der anderen succeeds much better as an evocation of the increasingly bizarre world of East Germany in the 1980s than it does as a human drama. Von Donnersmarck's sense of the absurdity of the state security apparatus is well-drawn and convincing, but there's an odd lack of emotional involvement with his main characters, despite the dramatic circumstances in which they find themselves, and the voyeuristic position in which the audience is cast. There's also an almost unforgivably insulting ending which implies that the director is, as much as anything, auditioning for Hollywood, wrapping things up with a brief coda that places altogether more faith in humanity than 40 years of the German Democratic Republic might have taught.

However, even where the emotional frisson is lacking, the film functions as an incisive examination of one of the key reasons behind the demise of the East German state, that is, a suffocating paranoia that could not be sustained as everyone turned on everyone else. Von Donnersmarck is also blessed with numerous fine performances, including particularly Ulrich Mühe as the sympathetic Stasi agent at the heart of the story, and Sebastian Koch as the object of his surveillance, while Charly Hübner, as Mühe's somewhat roly-poly assistant, supplies an splendidly authentic Berlin accent for those interested in the peculiarities of German.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Camp de Thiaroye

1987, Senegal/Tunisia/Algeria, directed by Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow

Typically ambitious, Ousmane Sembène's Camp de Thiaroye focuses on a transit camp for demobbed members of the French West African regiments - the tirailleurs sénégalais - in late 1944, where hundreds of men await their final payments and permission to leave for their villages. The film is a work of fiction, but many of the details are drawn from the realities of regimental life (and, perhaps, the many films set in army barracks and prison camps: there are definite genre parallels), while the concluding sequences are based on an actual incident, though Sembène and his co-writer and co-director have taken substantial - and sometimes troubling - liberties with the historical record.

Though the soldiers in the camp have fought for the liberation of France - with some of the (mostly out-and-out racist) French officers assuming this demonstrates loyalty to the French state - their experiences are paradoxically the spur for independent thought, whether by a more politically-minded intellectual NCO, or by the enlisted men, who come to the conclusion that one corpse is about the same as another (the picture of harmonious inter-ethnic relations in the tirailleurs, though, stretches credibility at times, as does the portrayal of the NCO's friendship with a black US army sergeant). Sembène succeeds in giving a powerful sense of the importance of the wartime generation in later independence efforts, while there's also trenchant commentary on the French political scene of 1944 - and the divisions (including, particularly, the fear of communism) that would sweep France shortly thereafter - but historical simplifications and inaccuracies dog the film, making it less nuanced than most of the director's work.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Women with Open Eyes

1994, Togo, directed by Anne-Laure Folly

Monday, March 05, 2007

Finzan

1989, Mali, directed by Cheick Oumar Sissoko

Cheick Oumar Sissoko's second film is centered on the idea of rebellion, in many different guises, whether against outmoded traditions, oppressive authority, or the simple rebellion of the young against the old. Although the film concerns itself repeatedly with politics, and particularly the relationship of villages to the apparently predatory Malian state (with criticisms made in courageously pointed terms), the primary focus is on issues surrounding the treatment of women - first the problem of forced marriage (and remarriage) and then, in the final thirty minutes, the divisive issue of female circumcision. Sissoko makes a blunt analogy - repeated through the film - implying that the traditional views of women reduce them to mere livestock; at one point a woman is trussed up like a goat and thrown on top of a truck.

The film's narrative construction is filled with digressions and non sequiturs, that approximates, more obviously than most films from Africa, the rhythms and storytelling patterns of the oral tradition, while some of the characters have the vivid outlines of folk tale caricature (this is heightened by the fact that several of the actors employ an exaggerated style drawn from traditional Koteba theatre; the most obvious cinematic parallel might be with the buffoonish characters seen in Japanese samurai films, also based on the theatre). Aesthetically, the film is also notable for the almost complete lack of close-up shots, which, in Sissoko's telling, is designed to distinguish the film from the excessive American focus on the individual over the community; it might be seen as a contradictory choice given the fact that many of the individuals in the film have suffered from the adherence of the community to outmoded tradition.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Kinky Boots

2005, UK/US, directed by Julian Jarrold

Another entry in the cycle of regional comedies that have been a staple feature of British cinema over the past ten years (though this one, unlike better-known examples such as The Full Monty, is a rare Midlands comedy), Kinky Boots is, on the surface, a tale of colliding moral values, namely the chaos caused by drag queen Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor) when she descends on a shoe factory in sleepy Northampton to assist the owner with his efforts to move into a new market in the hopes of saving the family business. Deep down, though, it's a lament for an England that is fast disappearing; on the negative side, this means that the film does a pretty poor job of acknowledging the country's already changed social fabric (Northampton is remarkably mono-ethnic, while it's hard to believe that a flamboyant drag queen could really cause such disruption in this day and age), but the account of the disappearance of whole swathes of economic life is heartfelt.

Even if the film can't quite match the poignancy of Brassed Off, the sense of disappearing skills and craft is deeply affecting; one of the film's strongest moments comes when George, a factory stalwart, cuts through the distractions surrounding Lola to focus simply on the problem at hand, designing a boot for men; that his knowledge will simply be lost to future generations is the one thing unequivocally worth lamenting. Ejiofor provides the best reason of all to see the film: he's been among Britain's busier young actors since his breakthrough role in 2002's Dirty Pretty Things, appearing in films and television on both sides of the Atlantic, and his performance as both Lola and her alter ego Simon is vibrant, un-self-conscious and, at times, surprisingly moving.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Keïta! L'héritage du griot

1995, Burkina Faso, directed by Dani Kouyaté

The key dilemma at the heart of director Dani Kouyaté's first feature - a theme that recurs in many films from Africa - is the confrontation between tradition and modernity; here he explores more specifically how the two notions manifest themselves in the education of a young boy, torn between the obligations of his standard schooling and the beguiling tales spun by his family's griot, who travels from the country to the city to tell young Mabo the legend from which his name is derived. It's a clever idea that also allows the director to stage several sections from that legend, the Sundjata epic that recounts the adventures of Sundjata Keita, founder of the Mali Empire in the 13th century; Kouyaté solves the problems of staging mythical epics on a shoestring creatively and often very humorously.

The griot himself is played by Kouyaté's own father Sotigui Kouyaté with great charisma, and there's a powerful sense in which father and son are engaged in their own process of transmission of shared heritage. Like other Burkinabè filmmakers, particularly Gaston Kaboré, they are also interested in the ways in which the past can shed light on the present and future, and the path navigated by Mabo, whose Western-style education is complemented by a strong awareness of his roots, is notably optimistic in resolving the tradition/modernity confrontation.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Selbe: One Among Many

1983, Senegal/Germany, directed by Safi Faye

A short documentary made as part of a series about women in Africa, Selbe: One Among Many focuses on the titular character to represent the realities of women's lives in rural Senegal in the early 1980s (a particularly difficult period, with a serious and extended drought affecting the country). Selbe's husband, like many others from her village, has left in search of work, given that there is almost no income to be derived from agriculture, particularly outside the minimal growing season. In addition to a numbing routine of chores, many of them physically exhausting in themselves, Selbe makes ends meet through an endlessly creative series of stratagems, whether making pottery, selling cigarettes, catching fish and so forth.

Faye's criticism of the Senegalese government, which does nothing to help these peasants, is unspoken but clear; the population is left absolutely to its own devices, and while many women respond with resilience most of the men are simply beaten down by the destruction of their traditional social and economic roles. The film's main weakness is a National Geographic-style voiceover that often seems rather patronising (especially in the English version; in the original, Faye herself delivers the commentary, underlining her roots as an ethnologist), while it's not always clear whether the events shown onscreen are being observed or staged for the camera, or even what time period is covered.

Index

List of all movies

Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States