Welcome to Sodom (2018)

My week themed around African cinema has focused on films by African filmmakers dealing with their own history, political issues and lives, whether in Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad or Mauritania (and, in my previous themed week of Arab-language cinema, in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia as well). However, when looking at cinema about Africa it’s impossible to avoid Western voices. Even in many of the films that I’ve looked at, most notably La Femme au couteau (1969), the coloniser is an unseen but powerfully abusive presence throughout. Therefore, it’s worth pointing out that this documentary about Ghana is by two Austrian filmmakers, and while the subject may be on an environmental catastrophe largely wrought by Western demand for consumer electronics, it also perhaps betrays a certain way of looking at Africa, which you can also sometimes perceive in films by auteurs like Claire Denis, who frequently deals with Black and African bodies, given her upbringing in colonial Africa, or Bertrand Tavernier in Coup de torchon (1981).


This documentary is filmed in Agbogbloshie, an area of Ghana’s capital Accra where electronic waste is dumped and recycled by an itinerant community which has sprung up around this former swamp land. There are some rather thin statistics that start and end the film (translated indifferently into English), which hint at Western complicity in this very literally dirty business, but most of what we see is just the tangible sense of this lived reality. The sense I get of what the filmmakers are trying to do is the kind of epic cinema of fallen humanity as in, say, Herzog’s Lektionen in Finsternis (Lessons of Darkness, 1992), for this film really privileges the visuals over any kind of contextualising or historical research. And like Herzog’s film, this Austrian film could also be critiqued for its white European gaze on a treacherous African hellscape, but when dealing with Africa on film the European gaze becomes inevitable to deal with at times.

That the area, nicknamed “Sodom” by its inhabitants, is polluted is evident in every frame, and the many fires which are set to strip valuable copper wiring of their plastic must account for much of the health risks. We also hear from a number of people (I’m not clear if they are the voices of the people themselves, or of actors, as they are overlaid on the soundtrack), but the stories are more than just your standard ones of people living in poverty: these are people who have chosen for various reasons to come here, and who despite the horrific reality of life have found value in living and working there. We hear from a gay Jewish man who has fled his native Liberia and is living on the margins to escape persecution, from a boy who resists the identity he was assigned as birth, and prefers the manual labour of the men in the camp. We see plenty of the women too, many of whom are engaged in cooking for the camp, or transporting packs of water in chilled buckets on their heads, which are used by the men tending the fires to keep themselves and their wires cool.

It’s a very tactile film that goes big on the senses — and there’s some rather catchy hip hop music being produced by inhabitants of the area too, which breaks up the action a little — but don’t expect to learn too much about why this area exists or what’s being done to mitigate its evident environmental dangers. This is a cautionary tale intended to make us think about our own use of consumer electronics and where they ultimately end up.

Film posterCREDITS
Directors Christian Krönes and Florian Weigensamer; Writers Roland Schrotthofer and Weigensamer; Cinematographer Christian Kermer; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha Dochouse), London, Sunday 17 March 2019.

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Amour Fou (2014)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 February 2015


© Coproduction Office

This Austrian film, set in the early-19th century, is a curious one. It unfolds in a very deliberately paced way, with a series of largely unmoving tableaux compositions with centred groupings of actors, brightly lit in brightly coloured, meticulously tidy rooms. The line delivery resists any overt melodrama while the actors tend to remain still in the centre of the frame, so outwardly this all suggests the formal rigour of, say, a Straub/Huillet film. One might easily assume that nothing happens — as a story about a real life love affair with a tragic denouement, there’s very little of the kind of hand-wringing content you might expect. (I’d go so far as to say this represents some canny anti-Valentine’s Day programming, coming out so soon before that particular festival.) But between the married Henriette Vogel (Birte Schnöink) and the doomy romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist (Christian Friedel), the film conveys plenty of emotion, through its focus on the minutiae of the exchanges between them. Meanwhile there are vast changes taking place in the very social fabric of everyday existence, as the effects of the French Revolution filter through, and Henriette’s husband is tasked with levying taxes on the now newly-emancipated populace of the Austrian empire (much to the chagrin of the aristocracy, one of whom is seen bewailing this invidious novelty). What particularly sets the film apart, though, is its wry take on the figure of Kleist, a self-involved fantasist so wrapped up in his own death-fixated romantic ideals that he seems uncomprehending that the women he meets should not want to join him in death’s loving embrace. He’s a figure more of laughable pretension, and it’s Henriette who seems the more clear-minded despite her terminal diagnosis. As a period costume drama, it certainly bucks the usual dramatic signifiers, but emerges no less clear-sighted for all that.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Jessica Hausner | Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht | Starring Birte Schnöink, Christian Friedel | Length 96 minutes