Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Le Grand blanc de Lambaréné

1995, Gabon/Cameroon/France, directed by Bassek ba Kobhio

Bassek ba Kobhio's second film, even more ambitious than his previous Sango Malo, focuses on one of the secular saints of the colonial era, the French doctor Albert Schweitzer, and offers a complex and imaginative portrait of the doctor's often contradictory attitudes towards the people in whose midst he spent the bulk of his life. The film covers the period from 1944 to Schweitzer's death in 1965, five years after Gabon's independence; the doctor was well-known internationally throughout this period, but particularly after winning the Nobel peace prize in 1952, though the film makes only limited references to his regular speaking and fund-raising trips overseas (and doesn't quite convey the considerable scale of the hospital at Lambaréné even though it was shot - beautifully - on location).

Ba Kobhio is most interested in developing a portrait that goes beyond conventional Western hagiography, and he enumerates Schweitzer's many contradictions, most obviously a deep-seated paternalism (which shades into open racism) that contrasts with moments of extraordinary tenderness; the director, as in his previous film, is also blunt about some of the contradictions of the local population, while there's a vein of trenchant commentary on some of the post-independence leaders (with Schweitzer himself capable of smart analysis). In the end, ba Kobhio is concerned to ask a series of pointed questions rather than providing simple answers, and it's an effective strategy that forces the viewer to re-evaluate preconceptions about both the colonial and post-colonial periods in Gabon (and Africa more widely). It's also a useful complement to his earlier film, casting some of the previous film's questions about education in a new and more complex light.

Le Temps du loup

2003, France/Austria/Germany, directed by Michael Haneke

Like all of Michael Haneke's films, The Time of the Wolf is something of a challenge to the viewer, though here the test isn't linked just to the visceral experiences depicted onscreen: the film also pushes at our willingness to accept a storyline which provides no answers, or even hints of answers, to our most obvious questions (as if to compound the disorientation, there's the additional visual challenge of several lengthy sequences shot in conditions so dark it's difficult to know what is going on). Opening in an apparently bucolic country setting that recalls the beginning of his previous Funny Games, the film's action quickly turns sour when it becomes clear that some catastrophic event has overtaken France - and perhaps the world.

That's about as far as the film goes in conforming to the post-apocalyptic genre, since it steadfastly refuses to provide any reasons for the events onscreen (no nuclear bomb, no 28 Days Later-style plague), and delves instead into the behaviour of a small group of refugees who have pinned their hopes on the arrival of a train that may take them to a better location. Haneke is most interested in exploring how his characters react under pressure, and their regression to a primitive and sometimes violent state occurs on the schedule that might be expected from the filmmaker; in that, it's rather more predictable than many of his other films, although he manages to sustain an atmosphere of tension throughout the running time, and there are several startling sequences that impart a nightmare quality to his vision of a society ripped asunder. Isabelle Huppert, in the lead role, seems coltish in almost all of her film appearances, but Haneke leaches that quality right out of her, and her character's descent into despair, cut off from her own children, is perhaps the strongest aspect of the film.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

La Vie sur terre

1998, Mali/Mauritania/France, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako

Barely an hour long, Abderrahmane Sissako's first fiction feature is nonetheless a powerful window on the reality of (rural) African life that also functions as a fascinating commentary on the exile's view of his home. Sissako - an exile many times over who was born in Mauritania, raised in Mali, trained in Russia and who is now resident in France - takes an assignment to tell a story of Africa on the cusp of the millennium (part of a larger project funded by the TV station Arte) and subverts it entirely by illustrating the artificial and irrelevant nature of the transition to the inhabitants of Sokolo, a small town in Mali. In Sokolo, the only thing that signals the change from December 31 to January 1 is a report on the French radio channel RFI, along with reports on the winter weather in Europe.

Sissako's film marks something of a new direction in African film: he is not as obviously concerned by the burden of social responsibility borne by some of his predecessors, although his less didactic approach builds a slow, cumulative critique, while the film, like his subsequent Heremakono, is suffused with a sense of everyday visual poetry that is often mesmerising. He intercuts scenes from the life of the village - including constant attempts to connect with the outside world through an unreliable telephone system, as well as frequent scenes from the local radio station - with voiceovers that give life to his own thoughts, and in particular his concern, as expressed in a letter to his father, whether 'What I'm learning far from you is worth what I'm forgetting of us?' The film captures in amber much of what he worries about losing, and has an immediacy and directness that are quite disarming.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


2006, Mali/US/France, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako

Although parts of Bamako recall, vividly, Abderrahmane Sissako's previous films La Vie sur terre and Heremakono in their focus on the details of daily life in Mali, the film as a whole seems almost without precedent: in a courtyard in the Malian capital, Bamako, Sissako creates an international tribunal that examines the impact of the World Bank and the IMF (in particular) on the economies of Africa, while all around the court daily life continues, and the residents of the compound pass in front of the judge. Those residents are the kind of people at the core of Sissako's past work, and his camera observes ordinary Malians with a simple, unpatronising gaze that allows us to appreciate each resident as an individual with a unique set of concerns. It's also critical to grounding a film that sometimes, of necessity, deals in larger abstractions such as the issue of debt on a continental scale, insistently returning the film to a recognisably human scale.

The film takes a clear, and highly critical, position on the role of the international monetary institutions, and the waves of testimony from ordinary people affected by 'structural adjustment' are a potent indictment of international policies - however well-intentioned they may have been, though some would contest even that assumption. Bamako doesn't provide any simple solutions, however: it's intended as a spark for debate rather than an end in itself. In the middle of the film there's a surreal sequence that involves a fictional spaghetti western, designed partly to indicate the complicity of at least some Africans in the fate of the continent, though it's an oblique reference that's not necessarily clear without being aware of the director's stated intent; similarly, the fact that the issue of corruption is addressed primarily by a defense advocate whose behaviour makes him occasionally buffoonish reduces the power of that critique.

The officers of the court are played by actual lawyers, while the witnesses are essentially portraying themselves or people of whose plight they are acutely aware (the second of the witnesses, for example, is Aminata Traoré, a former minister and political activist), and Sissako films them without interruption for the most part, allowing them to speak at length and as if the court was a real entity, with cross-examination and legal back-and-forth; while occasionally the individual sequences seem a little lengthy, the cumulative effect is powerful, while the closing arguments are mesmerizing (among other things, the film provides a fascinating insight into the French style of legal argument). While the lawyers, on both sides, have their fine arguments Sissako is also acutely concerned with those that have no voice: at the beginning of the film, an elderly man (Zegué Bamba) is shunted aside and asked to wait his turn, then returns later to deliver a heart-stopping sung lament that requires no translation. Perhaps even more poignant is the 'former teacher' - no doubt unemployed rather than retired - who comes to the witness stand and simply turns away, worn down by too many years of struggle that he's incapable of putting into words.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sango Malo

1990, Camerooon/Burkina Faso/France, directed by Bassek ba Kobhio

Bassek ba Kobhio's first film - from his own novel - is a critique of Cameroon's system of education that contrasts the outmoded approach of a headmaster educated in the traditional French style with the new ideas of a freshly-minted graduate of the teacher training college in Yaoundé. The film's title combines the two men's names, and by the end it's hard to avoid the implication that there's more continuity here than the younger man might like to think; he, too, imposes outside ideas without consulting the local population. The younger Malo's approach is based on the practical education philosophy of the Brazilian Paulo Freire, and he initially seems to be a breath of fresh air, challenging traditional thinking and authorities (it briefly seems as though the film might veer off to become a Cameroonian entry in the 'noble teacher' genre, before the director rights the ship). Ba Kobhio's treatment is even-handed, underlining that such (relatively) radical ideas were far from uniting all students at the training college, while he's careful to emphasize that the sometimes buffoonish headmaster has his redeeming qualities, and that he, too, has had to deal with the weight of local tradition.

Ultimately, the director is more interested in asking difficult questions of all sides in the debate rather than providing simplistic answers, though it's possible to read in the conclusion a sense that he favors a compromise between old and new, where a young teaching student uses a traditional French dictation exercise to spread knowledge of local conditions. That said, there's clearly a hint that some of Malo's ideas about social justice make sense to the faming population once they've had an opportunity to adapt such notions to their actual circumstances - and once they've been able to inject their own voices into the debate.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Inside Man

2006, US, directed by Spike Lee

On the surface, Inside Man, which functions to absorbing effect as a superior heist film, isn't the most profound of Spike Lee's films, but inside the form of a well-tooled Hollywood thriller many of the details are a continuation of the portrait of post-9/11 New York City that began with 25th Hour in 2002. Those details add layers of richness to an already intricate structure, and the casting directors deserve credit for assembling a fine supporting gallery that gives a sense of the diversity of the city's streets, as seen through the cross-section of society working or doing business in and near a Manhattan bank.

Lee is canny enough, though, to ensure that however diverting the support might be (and there are nice anecdotal scenes featuring, among others, a construction worker, a ribald Albanian woman, a rabbi, an aggrieved Sikh or a young Brooklynite with an unhealthy interest in video-game violence), they never upstage his excellent leads, particularly Denzel Washington and Clive Owen. Both are on top of their game, smoothly watchable, and lending conviction to what are, in many ways, standard genre roles; after four movies together, Lee also knows exactly how to use Washington's enormous reserves of charm (there's a treasurable moment, near the beginning, where the director signals just what kind of style Washington will bring to the part).

Monday, February 12, 2007

Zan Boko

1988, Burkina Faso, directed by Gaston Kaboré

Gaston Kaboré's second feature confronts traditional village in Burkina Faso with the encroaching modernity of the city, juxtaposing quite literally a rural farm compound with the luxury home of a wealthy citizen of the expanding capital city, Ouagadougou. Kaboré is a master of the 'village film' genre, well aware of the clichés of that style of filmmaking, and he cleverly sets the audience up by toying with our expectations of what is to come: the opening sequence implies a 'timeless' African setting, but the Kaboré adds, spaced a few minutes apart, a water pump, a bicycle and, finally, a pick-up truck to underline that this story is absolutely contemporary, and that traditional ways exist in parallel with a new economy.

Thematically, the film is more ambitious than his previous Wênd Kûuni, exploring issues of government corruption and the confrontation of tradition and modernity, but it shares a concern with the fundamental value of human dignity and of broader social justice, without for a moment being anything less than pragmatic about the way of the world. Although the later stages repeat a little too obviously points that have already been made with some subtlety, the film remains a potent indictment of Burkina Faso's political system. The final scenes exemplify in many ways the ideals of the young leader Thomas Sankara, assassinated in October 1987, around the time this film was being made; the abrupt ending of real political debate in the film parallels the leader's untimely death.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Wênd Kûuni

1982, Burkina Faso, directed by Gaston Kaboré

'Village films' constitute a genre of themselves with African cinema, and Burkinabé directors have made some of the most notable contributions; Idrissa Ouedraogo's films, like Yaaba, made waves internationally, while Gaston Kaboré has spent his entire career reworking and subverting the genre (his most recent film, Buud Yam, from 1997, functions as a kind of sequel to this film). Although on the surface, Wênd Kûuni appears to be a simple recreation of a pre-colonial, 'timeless' Africa, the kind of film that some critics have attacked for simply providing exotic images to the West, in truth it deconstructs and makes use of the rhythms and logic of folk tales to convey a plea for tolerance that ultimately calls into question at least some aspects of tradition.

Like Ousmane Sembène, Kaboré is particularly concerned with the treatment of women, and contrasts the experiences of two different villages dealing with issues surrounding the re-marriage of widows (or, in one case, a woman who is assumed to be a widow simply because her husband has been absent for so long). The deceptive simplicity of the treatment masks, almost until the end, the power of the indictment of the crueler consequences of tradition. Kaboré's film has a beguiling tempo, too, that draws the viewer in, pushing the story forward while capturing a sense of the rituals of daily life and social interaction that, in some cases, continue to survive.

Last Holiday

2006, US, directed by Wayne Wang

It's hardly a neglected classic, but I can't help thinking that Last Holiday didn't get its due either critically or commercially. The plot is so simple that you can guess the outcome before the film is ten minutes old, but that's really beside the point in a film which happily conforms to the necessary genre conventions and has its fun within the lines. Inside a Hollywood wish-fulfillment fantasy, there's some gentle but sustained commentary on the American political system (when a senator and a congressman see three people in one place, they immediately think they need to conform), as well as the healthcare industry, where the only rational response to the insanity of insurance companies seems to be to throw in the towel and enjoy the last few weeks while you can, which is exactly what Georgia (Queen Latifah) does when she gets a devastating diagnosis. Latifah is a tremendously charismatic presence who gets great mileage out of her character's transformation, but director Wayne Wang also gives room to the supporting characters and he has an unpatronising view of the less-well-off that shines through even in work like this.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

2006, Mexico/Spain/US, directed by Guillermo del Toro (original title: El Laberinto del Fauno)

Guillermo del Toro's strongest movie since his début, the great vampire film Cronos, Pan's Labyrinth is an absorbing mixture of brutal realism and richly developed fantasy, set in a 1944 Spain still dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War. The obvious cinematic reference point here is Victor Erice's stunning 1973 film The Spirit of the Beehive, where another young girl mediates the violence and loss that surround her through an intense fantasy life. However, in place of Erice's spare settings, which sometimes recall Western landscapes, del Toro develops a lush visual tapestry set in a vibrant forest glade. Whether we are inside the garrison where young Ofelia is brought by her mother, or in the other world where she spends much of her time, the colours and textures are deep and warm, with flickering flames providing an inviting contrast to the cold-blooded violence that takes place outside.

The film's action is often very brutal, and the viewer is rarely spared the details that result from the use of guns, hammers and, unforgettably, a small, sharp knife; as in all of his previous films, del Toro is adept at manipulating and discomfiting his viewer, with a particular focus on blood and mucus (familiar from both Cronos and Mimic). The director doesn't neglect the human side, either, with a group of strong actors: Ivana Baquero is exceptional as the young Ofelia, while Sergi López shows again his talent for oily menace as Ofelia's ruthless stepfather, and captain of the garrison. In its conclusion, the film suggests that adults, too, need to believe in alternative existences - the religious implication is pretty clear - in order to render bearable the fact that, in this world at least, terrible things can be done by despicable people.

Allah Tantou

1991, Guinea/France, directed by David Achkar

Allah Tantou (which translates as 'God's Will') is an extremely personal documentary that focuses on the director's father, a prominent diplomat in the newly independent Guinea of Sékou Touré in the 1960s whose life ended in the notorious Camp Boiro prison in 1971; the prison functions both as a literal death camp and as a metaphor for Guinea's dashed hopes.

Achkar blends archival footage and family films with dramatic re-creations of his father's imprisonment, using the diaries that the elder Achkar, a meticulous writer, kept on every spare scrap of paper he could obtain. Although it's fairly brief, at just over an hour, the final twenty minutes are a little repetitive, reiterating points already eloquently made even where they successfully evoke the sense of routinized repetition of prison life, as well as the prisoner's constantly racing thoughts. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is its use of large amounts of home movie footage, unusual for any African family of the 1960s, even at this stratum of society.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


1992, Senegal, directed by Ousmane Sembène

Guelwaar belongs at the very top of Ousmane Sembène's cinematic oeuvre - which makes it all the more extraordinary that the film is almost impossible to find - with the director making sublime use of the artistic means at his disposal (the camerawork and use of colour are especially notable) in a film that covers issues of religious tolerance, tradition versus modernity (a common theme in films from across Africa), and the politics of international aid. The many weighty themes don't for a moment get in the way of the human drama, though, with a plot that revolves around a case of mistaken identity involving two corpses - one of them that of the title character.

One of the most impressive facets of Guelwaar is the manner in which Sembène solves the challenge of marrying political points with a flowing, convincing storyline; one key scene, a flashback focused on a fiery speech, illustrates the elegance of his approach. His re-creation of the titular character, Guelwaar, is also remarkable: he is brought to life through colour-coded flashbacks (in one case uproariously funny) and, in a stunning sequence, through his widow speaking to his empty suit as it is laid out on a bed. The supporting characters are sketched in convincing detail, with Guelwaar's wife, his eldest son, and the local policeman emerging especially strongly. The policeman is notable too in that his profession is rarely seen as trustworthy, whereas here his general good sense and personal tolerance are key to calming the complex situation that emerges when a Christian man is accidentally buried in a Muslim cemetery. Sembène's eye for the details of village and city life has perhaps never been used to better effect in observing the policeman, who shows careful respect for a variety of traditions, obeying the simple rituals that lend daily life much of its rhythm and dignity.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Baby Face

1933, US, directed by Alfred E. Green

More than seventy years after it was released, Baby Face is still remarkable for its blunt attitude to sex: I can't think of many films that take the idea of sleeping one's way to the top quite so literally (and none with anything approaching the wit of the scene where the camera tracks up the length of a skyscraper towards the executive suites).

The film begins in fairly typical Depression-era territory, inside a smoky speakeasy a stone's throw away from a looming steel-plant, where even the employed seem bone-weary; Barbara Stanwyck, though, isn't willing to settle for a job in her father's shebeen and when opportunity knocks she heads for New York and a succession of progressively wealthier men. The pacing is breakneck - the entire story is told inside 75 minutes - with Stanwyck's progression a little too simple (there are coincidences aplenty, and a group of men hopelessly unable to learn from the fates of their predecessors), but the actress is at the top of her game, and absolutely convincing as a ruthlessly ambitious young woman. The opening is interesting for the friendship she shares with a young black woman (played by Theresa Harris, here getting a rare onscreen credit), though once the pair land in New York her friend is quickly condemned to domestic service. It's also worth looking out for an extremely youthful John Wayne pop up as one of the early saps on whom Stanwyck tramples; his voice is absolutely unmistakable even if his attire is an unfamiliar suit and tie.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Faat Kiné

2000, Senegal, directed by Ousmane Sembène

Notwithstanding the fact that there's an awful lot going on here - commentary on the status of women in Senegalese society, on that country's post-colonial legacy, on the backdrop of the 2000 elections - Faat Kiné has to count as something of a disappointment by Ousmane Sembène's remarkably high standards. That was my impression in 2001, and if anything that sense is heightened on repeat viewings of the film, which highlight the rather schematic plotting, and some of the less subtle aspects of Sembène's commentary on social issues (it's quite a contrast to his previous film, Guelwaar).

Some of the reviews by well-regarded critics seem to me more than a touch patronising, since they fail to engage with the film properly, heaping the kind of unalloyed but uninformative praise that Sembène himself would no doubt skewer if New York critics were of any interest to him. Unlike many of his previous films, the social commentary sometimes stops the film in its tracks, as if to say, 'now we'll talk about AIDS', for example, rather than being interwoven into the text itself. Although Sembène also makes interesting use of colour (in both locations and costumes), and has an eye for small incidents of street life that give a vivid sense of contemporary Dakar, the film isn't as aesthetically pleasing as most of his work, either; it has the flat feel of a pretty ordinary television soap at times, with several unattractive and distracting zoom shots that are a striking contrast to the smooth camera movements elsewhere in his work.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


2005, Canada/India, directed by Deepa Mehta

The title of Deepa Mehta's film functions on a great many levels, beyond the obvious literal importance of the river that plays a major role in the spiritual and material life of the Indian city where the film takes place. The river also operates as a division between rich and poor, something that the townspeople must cross order to access the Brahmin residences - and which the Brahmins see as a convenient barrier. But it also represents the slow, inexorable process of change that is happening in India at the time when the film is set, the late 1930s, with the rise to prominence of Gandhi, bringing with him radical ideas about the the caste system and the position of women in a deeply conservative society. The sense of fluid grace also extends to the limpid filmmaking itself, with a narrative that moves insistently yet serenely forward.

Deepa Mehta's use of colour and enclosed spaces evokes the Afghan film Osama, which also has thematic resonances in terms of its clear-eyed view of the treatment of women in a traditional society; Water focuses particularly on the plight of widows, often forced to withdraw from life following the death of their husbands. The film's main weakness is the rather schematic romance that develops between one of the widows and a politically engaged young man, which seems a little too simplistic given the fraught circumstances, while the references to Gandhi tend to re-affirm the outsider's view that he was the only voice for change in India. However, that shouldn't detract too much from the film's achievements, on the levels of both form and content, nor from the fine, humane performances from the many generations of actresses who play the widows, from elderly women to a child of seven.

Friday, February 02, 2007

I Want to Be a Pilot

2006, Kenya/Mexico/Spain, directed by Diego Quemada-Diez

Filmed in the huge Kibera slum in Nairobi, I Want to Be a Pilot seemed to me to be filling in the gaps left by The Constant Gardener, in which, for all that film's strengths, the shanties are still not the main focus. My impression proved more correct than I expected, since the film was made by a technician on Fernando Meirelles's film. It's an intriguing short, which weaves comments from 50 children into a kind of poem that comes back constantly to the title refrain. The young character at the centre of the film, Omondi, is invisible even in his own slum - passers-by ignore this small boy as he crouches in an alleyway - never mind in the wider world, but the film gives him a voice and a means to convey his hopes, though the child who plays Omondi looks tragically aware of the reality of his situation and of the exceedingly thin thread by which those hopes hang (the film can be seen online).


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States