Global Cinema 34: Chad – Grigris (2013)

Not ostensibly a major player in world cinema, Chad is probably the African country I’ve seen more films from, solely due to the work of Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who has carved out a distinctive an ongoing voice for himself representing the country. Works like Daratt and A Screaming Man made his name, and he’s also made work in France (with 2017’s A Season in France). His latest film was made last year, Lingui: The Sacred Bonds (set again in his native country).


Flag - ChadRepublic of Chad (جمهورية تشاد aka République du Tchad)
population 16,245,000 | capital N’Djamena (951k) | largest cities N’Djamena, Moundou (137k), Abéché (98k), Sarh (97k), Kélo (58k) | area 1,284,000 km2 | religion Islam (52%), Christianity (44%) | official language Arabic (اَلْعَرَبِيَّةُ), French (français) | major ethnicity Sara (27%), Arab (13%), Kanembu (9%) | currency Central African CFA franc (FCFA) [XAF] | internet .td

A country which stretches from the arid Saharan north, through an arid Sahel belt in the centre to fertile savannah in the south. It is indeed named after the lake which is the second-largest wetland on the continent (though may have shrunk by up to 95% between the 1960s and 1990s), itself named from a Kanuri word meaning “large expanse of water”. Some of the most important archaeological sites are located in Chad and habitation became denser from the 7th millennium BCE. As a crossroad of civlisations, the earliest known were the Sao, but the Kanem Empire took over around 800 CE and lasted the longest, though the Bagirmi and Wadai emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries, and each raided for slaves from the south. French colonial expansion took hold in the late-19th century and by 1920 they had taken it in as a colony, part of French Equatorial Africa (with what are now CAR, the Republic of Congo and Gabon). Even compared with their other colonies, modernisation was slow and education was neglected, as France treated it merely as a source of cheap labour for the cotton industry. After WW2 it became an overseas territory and had an assembly, in which the largest party was the PPT (Chadian Progressive Party), and upon independence on 11 August 1960, the leader of the PPT became the first Prime Minister, François Tombalbaye. His autocratic rule sparked a northern insurgency and civil war, with Hissène Habry taking the capital in 1979 (several years after the deposition of Tombalbaye). Libya tried to use the fragile balance of power to take control (in the so-called Toyota War), but were repelled in 1987. Habré consolidated his dictatorship but was overthrown by his deputy Idriss Déby in 1990 (both died in 2021, the former from COVID while imprisoned in Senegal for war crimes, the latter in combat while fighting an insurgency). A transitional military government under his son Mahamat Déby is currently in power.

As a country blighted by civil wars and insurgencies, as well as chronic underinvestment while a colony of France, understandably cinema has not progressed quickly in the country. The first film made there appears to have been a 1958 John Huston film, and the earliest indigenous work documentary short films made by Edouard Sailly in the 1960s. The few cinemas which existed closed down due to civil war, but some stabilisation post-1990 allowed filmmakers like Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (the country’s best-known internationally) and Issa Serge Coelo to make a name. As of 2011, there is apparently only a single cinema in the country.


Grigris (2013)

This is a stylish film from a director who has very much proved himself in his filmmaking, but it’s also one that is truly built around a riveting central performance (in this case from Souleymane Démé). The title character is a studio photographer by day (his dad’s trade) and a dancer in nightclubs by night. He loves the dancing, and even though his legs are paralysed, he makes such effective and spectacular use of them in his dance routines, but it’s a not a film about overcoming physical limitations, it’s about what happens when you need to make choices beyond your control. He falls in with some dodgy guys and ends up doing a bit of smuggling to make money and that’s when things start to unravel a bit. It all moves at a deliberate, slow pace but it’s never unclear about what’s going on or who’s motivated by what, and it all ends in a spectacular scene that I shan’t go into obviously but, well, just don’t mess with village women in Chad I guess.

Grigris (2013)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun محمد الصالح هارون; Cinematographer Antoine Héberlé; Starring Souleymane Démé, Mariam Monory; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 2 March 2021.

Global Cinema 33: Central African Republic – All Are Human (2017)

I was hoping to watch a feature from the Central African Republic, but try as I might to track something down online there really has been very little filmmaking in the country. Even this short film I’m featuring today isn’t made by native Central Africans, but it does at least deal with the country and its issues — presumably the ones which have ensured its filmmaking base has never really grown.


Central African flagCentral African Republic (République Centrafricaine)
population 4,666,000 | capital Bangui (623k) | largest cities Bangui, Bimbo (124k), Berbérati (77k), Carnot (45k), Bambari (41k) | area 622,984 km2 | religion Christianity (90%, mostly Protestant), Islam (9%) | official language French (français), Sango | major ethnicity Gbaya (33%), Banda (27%), Mandja (13%) | currency Central African CFA franc (FCFA) [XAF] | internet .cf

A landlocked country fitted in between Chad, the Sudans, the Congos and Cameroon, mostly made up of savannahs between the Sahel in the north and an equatorial forest in the south. The origin of its name is fairly self-evident, but in French colonial times, when the present borders were set, it was called Ubangi-Shari (after the two chief rivers of the country). Settlement in the territory currently encompassed by the country, however, stretches back thousands of years to the Neolithic period, and megaliths near Bouar (in the west of the country) indicate habitation dating to the mid-4th millennium BCE. However, despite the country’s poverty (lowest per capita GDP) and development (second lowest after Niger), it is rich in mineral deposits and land. Colonialist interest began with slave trading in the 16th century, and in the 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’, France seized the area in 1894. Concessions were granted to those stripping the land of its assets, and the brutality of this exploitation led to a reduction to the population by almost half in the 50 years following. The Kongo-Wara rebellion (or ‘war of the hoe handle’) attempted one of the continent’s largest interwar insurrections in 1928, but this was eventually suppressed. Independence leader Barthélemy Boganda was elected to the French National Assembly in 1946 but became disheartened and returned to found MESAN in 1950, which swept territorial elections and as first PM, Boganda declared independence in 1958. His cousin David Dacko took over after Boganda died in a plane crash, and became the first President when France granted full independence on 13 August 1960 (a date still celebrated). Col. Jean-Bédel Bokassa seized power in 1965 and named himself Emperor Bokassa I; France supported Dacko to overthrow him in 1979, but another coup took place in 1981 by Gen. André Kolingba. Struggles have pulled power back and forth in the succeeding years between his supporters and those of Ange-Félix Patassé and subsequent coups have led to a period of civil wars and unrest since 2004. The current President since 2016 is Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

Although there have been films made in the CAR, the country’s poverty and ongoing civil unrest ensure that there hasn’t been much made, and what does exist is largely documentary or short productions. The first film made there appears to have been a French ethnographic short film from 1945, and the first feature-length drama wasn’t until 2003 with La Silence de la forêt (which sadly I haven’t been able to track down).


Zo Kwe Zo (All Are Human, 2017)

The Central African Republic has a French colonial past but it hardly has a tradition of filmmaking like other former French colonies. Partly I imagine this may be down to the legacy of civil wars and violence that is inscribed in the country, and that’s what this short film by some American filmmakers is dealing with and trying to open up a dialogue about. A wave of unrest against the government in 2013 saw a variety of (Muslim) rebel groups coalescing as the Seleka seizing the capital, opposed by Christian militias, the “anti-balaka”. This short film attempts to give the impressions of a few of those players on either side and the trauma they’re dealing with. It’s hardly perfect: there’s not enough time to really eke out the themes, so it ends up seeming fairly simplistic at a narrative level, with a rather rushed denouement between the anti-balaka militiaman and a doctor who has suffered a loss. However, the technical qualities are excellent, with some beautiful cinematography and sound editing. It’s just a pity the script doesn’t quite match it.

CREDITS
Directors/Writers Andrew Ellis and Lindsay Branham; Cinematographer Ellis; Starring Bachir So, Josette Melodie Agouh; Length 21 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube streaming), Wellington, Friday 14 January 2022.

Global Cinema 32: Cape Verde – Djon África (2018)

Getting back into my Global Cinema strand, which involves me paraphrasing the Wikipedia entries for the country and cinema, along with a review of a film so apologies if that seems lazy. I am hoping it helps me learn about the world. Anyway, the country I’m covering today has always been known in English as Cape Verde, but they prefer Cabo Verde (even in English) so that’s the name I’ll use for the rest of this article. Pedro Costa has dealt with Cabo Verdeans in a number of his films, but there are also some good local films like this one (a co-production with Portugal and Brazil). I’m very worried now about my next visit, which is to the Central African Republic, but I’ll cross that bridge soon.


Flag - Cape VerdeRepublic of Cabo Verde (República de Cabo Verde aka Cape Verde)
population 484,000 | capital Praia (128k, on Santiago island) | largest cities Praia, Mindelo (70k), Santa Maria (24k), Assomada (12k), Porto Novo (9k) | area 4,033 km2 | religion Christianity (85%, mostly Catholic), none (11%) | official language Portuguese (português) with Cape Verdean Creole (kriol) also recognised | major ethnicity not officially recorded but mostly mixed ethnicity | currency Cape Verdean escudo ($) [CVE] | internet .cv

An archipelago and island country in the Atlantic Ocean, comprising 10 islands starting from 600km west of the Cap-Vert peninsula in Senegal, part of the Macaronesia ecoregion. The name comes from the peninsula which itself takes its name from the Portuguese for “green cape”, a name given to it by explorers in the mid-15th century. There was no indigenous population but first became populated by the Portuguese in the 15th century, who used it as a convenient location as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from the 16th century onwards. The earliest settlement Ribeira Grande (now called Cidade Velha) was sacked by Francis Drake amongst others, and Praia became capital in 1770. The decline in the slave trade led to an economic crisis, though ship resupplying continued to be important. Growing nationalism in the mid-20th century led to Amílcar Cabral organising the secret PAIGC for the liberation of Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde, which was followed by armed rebellion and then war in Guinea, which culminated in independence there and then in 1975 for Cabo Verde. A one-party state ceded to multi-party elections in 1991, and the country is now a stable democracy.

Cinema on the archipelago dates back to the early-20th century and naturally still has a lot of ties with Portugal. The first cinema was established in 1922 and there are now two film festivals. A number of films by Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa have been set on the island (such as Casa de lava) or amongst expatriate communities of Cabo Verdeans in Portugal, but a handful of native filmmaking efforts have been made over the years, fiction features as well as documentaries.


Djon África (2018)

This is a very thoughtful film about displacement and belonging, about the lingering effects of a colonial past on a present population, left disconnected from culture and family in profound ways. At the same time it’s a rather likeable film about a young man (Miguel Moreira) who has grown up in Portugal, who’s grifting and getting by, doing some petty thievery and with a girlfriend, but who finds himself drawn to find out something about his father. And so he travels to Cabo Verde, where his dad is from, in the hope of finding him and somehow forging some meaningful connection. His journey takes him around the islands, from the capital Praia to some small towns, and like a lot of road movies, it’s actually a voyage of self-discovery and so there are very few words I could choose to describe this that don’t make it sound like nauseating sentimental nonsense (“he finds out the real meaning of family” or “by facing up to what it means to not be from any place, he discovers where he’s actually from” or something), but actually it’s perfectly judged. It limns the divide between documentary — presenting this man in a world he’s only just discovering, which to a certain extent was the actual lived reality of the actor playing this role, and really conveying the textures of this country — alongside a fictional narrative. The scenes are scripted, and there’s also a febrile sense of the magical or the nightmarish that crops up every so often, blurring distinctions between lived reality and hallucination, and yet it still feels natural and at times improvised. For all that it’s very conscious and thoughtful about its process, though, it never sacrifices naturalism to formal rigours, and retains throughout a loping forward momentum.

Djon Africa (2018) posterCREDITS
Directors João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis; Writers Miller Guerra and Pedro Pinho; Cinematographer Vasco Viana; Starring Miguel Moreira, Isabel Cardoso; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 16 August 2019.

Global Cinema 31: Canada – Kuessipan (2019)

Having restarted this ‘Global Cinema’ thread, we’re straight into one of the largest countries in the world (by area at least), and also one of the most notable internationally in terms of film production. Some of that comes from shared resources with the USA to its south, but I think Canadian films have a very specific feeling to them, something a little bit dark and oddball. In recent years there have been more films dealing directly with issues related to First Nations and indigenous peoples, which makes for a positive change to their filmic landscape.


Flag - CanadaCanada
population 38,436,000 | capital Ottawa (1.3m) | largest cities Toronto (5.9m), Montréal (4.1m), Vancouver (2.5m), Calgary (1.4m), Ottawa | area 9,984,670 km2 | religion Christianity (67%), none (24%), Islam (3%) | official language English, French (français) | major ethnicity European (73%), Asian (18%), indigenous (5%) | currency Canadian dollar ($) [CAD] | internet .ca

Canada is the second-largest country in the world by total area, stretching from Atlantic to Pacific in North America. It has the longest bi-national land border (with the USA), stretching almost 9000 miles. Its name is now generally accepted to come from the St. Lawrence Iruquoian word kanata, meaning “settlement”, used by the native population when directing French explorer Jacques Cartier to a nearby village, and then used by him to refer to the whole area. Human habitation from Siberia began around 14,000 years ago, and the indigenous peoples remaining in Canada are First Nations, Inuit and Métis (mixed descent people considered separately from the First Nations). European colonisation wiped out indigenous populations, which declined by up to 80% (largely due to disease, but also conflict). Nevertheless the earliest contact was likely peaceful and began with the Norse, and then in 1497 the Italian seafarer John Cabot. However a number of wars were fought between indigenous and French populations in the 17th century into the 18th, eventually leaving Britain as rulers after the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Quebec was granted a degree of autonomy and the use of the French language and the Catholic faith, in order to stave off the independence movement. The initial four provinces (of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) were extended west by a series of acquisitions, and the building of railroads opened up the expanse of the country, but also the clearing of First Nations peoples into reserves. Independence came in 1931, though the country remained closely linked to the UK. National identity grew after World War II, with the Maple Leaf flag adopted in 1965 and official bilingualism in 1969. There are two houses of Parliament, the lower one (the House of Commons) and the upper (the Senate, modelled on the UK’s House of Lords).

Filmmaking in Canada stretches back to the start of cinema itself, indeed to films shot by the Lumière brothers themselves in 1896 at Niagara Falls. Nevertheless, despite this a lot of film production before WW2 was largely documentaries and propaganda, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that federal efforts to foster a feature film industry began in earnest. There were a few notable filmmakers dating back to this period (including experimental auteur Michael Snow), but it wasn’t until the 70s that Canadian cinema came to more prominence, some of which was due to notable horror films such as from Bob Clark and David Cronenberg. There’s a darker sensibility, too, to works by Claude Jutra and Denys Arcand, amongst others, that only extended in future decades. A new wave of sorts emerged in the 1980s with filmmakers like Patricia Rozema and Atom Egoyan, the latter of whom had the first Grand Prix at Cannes in 1997 with The Sweet Hereafter. A large number of US productions have also continued to use Canadian locations for their filming, blurring some of the distinctions between the two markets (and Toronto’s film festival is a major platform for a lot of Hollywood content), but it’s fair to say that in recent years there has been no shortage of Canadian film talent making waves internationally.


Kuessipan (2019)

One of the best things about watching films from around the world is being immersed in stories about people and cultures you’re not familiar with. This is a Canadian film, but this tells a Québec story, and specifically one set amongst First Nations people, the Innu, in the north-east of the province. The story is rather a timeless one, so in that sense there’s nothing new: two young women, one of whom finds herself pregnant too young and somewhat stuck in this little reservation outside Sept-Iles, and the other who has dreams of making it out, going to study in the big city (Québec City), maybe even getting a boyfriend who’s not Innu. These kinds of dreams all play out, with some familiar stakes, but it’s a story told from within the community, by actors and a writer who come from there and know the area well (although the director is not Innu). The emotional moments therefore land particularly strongly, and what initially is confusing and new (to me, as a viewer) starts to feel like a heartfelt portrait of a community.

Kuessipan (2019) posterCREDITS
Director Myriam Verreault; Writers Verreault and Naomi Fontaine (based on Fontaine’s novel); Cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni; Starring Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine, Yamie Grégoire, Étienne Galloy; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Monday 15 March 2021.

Global Cinema 30: Cameroon – Sisters in Law (2005)

It’s a fair while since I last did a ‘Global Cinema’ feature. For some reason I got a bit stuck on Cameroon and have ended up recycling an older review that I think I put up at some point, but not as its own post. Anyway, it’s a worthwhile film (like anything by Kim Longinotto) and while an indigenous production may have been more interesting, it’s not exactly a country with a widely distributed cinematic output.


Cameroonian flagRepublic of Cameroon (aka République du Cameroun)
population 26,546,000 | capital Yaoundé (1.8m) | largest cities Douala (1.9m), Yaoundé, Bafoussam (800k), Bamenda (270k), Garoua (236k) | area 475,442 km2 | religion Christianity (71%), Islam (24%) | official language English, French (français) | major ethnicity Cameroon Highlanders (31%), Equatorial Bantu (19%), Kirdi (11%), Fulani (10%) | currency Central African CFA franc (FCFA) [XAF] | internet .cm

A West-Central African country, bordered by Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic (inland) and Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic on the Congo, it opens onto the Gulf of Guinea at the Bight of Biafra (or Bonny), though most of the country sits inland. The area was first settled in the Neolithic era and its longest continuous inhabitants are the Baka (pygmies). Indigenous inhabitants of the Lake Chad region founded the Sao culture around 500 CE, leading to the Kanem then Bornu Empire. The earliest Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese in 1472, who noticed shrimps in the Wouri River and called it Rio dos Camarões, leading to the English name Cameroon. The Germans were the earliest to stake a claim in 1884, but after World War I, it was taken over by the League of Nations and split between French and much smaller British territories (the latter administered from Nigeria). France outlawed the independence party UPC in 1955, leading to a guerrilla war that eventuated in independence under Ahmadou Ahidjo in 1960, while the Southern Cameroons (under British rule) also voted for independence and joined with the formerly French state on 1 October 1961. Ahidjo stepped down in 1982 and passed power to Paul Biya who remains President (the longest-ruling non-royal world leader). A territorial dispute with Nigeria over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula was resolved in Cameroon’s favour in 2006. Separatists in the formerly British territories continue to agitate for independence as Ambazonia.

There is both French and English-language filmmaking in the country (the latter sometimes referred to as Collywood, apparently). Filmmaking didn’t really begin until independence, largely French-taught with filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Dikongué Pipa (who directed Muna Moto in 1975) and a handful of others throughout the 70s and 80s. A few cinemas were even sustained for a time, but now much exhibition tends to happen at mobile cinemas. A film festival began in 2016, though there’s still not a huge international recognition of Cameroon’s filmmaking, hence the film I’ve focused on is a collaboration with a UK documentarian.


Sisters in Law (2005)

Kim Longinotto tells another fascinating story of women in marginalised spaces fighting for rights, this time in Cameroon. There’s clearly a wider picture of a society based on ‘traditional’ values trying to change, or rather being pushed to do so by the strong women of this story (whether those bringing charges of assault, rape and the like, or those defending them or judging their cases). However the film really focuses in on these key four stories and follows them through, and it is in its way, after all the detailed accounts of abuses heard earlier, a heartening one.

Sisters in Law film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto; Cinematographer Longinotto; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 18 May 2016.

Global Cinema 29: Cambodia – First They Killed My Father (2017)

My trek around the globe now takes me to Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea), where a lot of the films which have made it to Western audiences focus on the turbulent era under Pol Pot in the 1970s. Prestige Hollywood dramas of the 1980s like The Killing Fields still define the Western understanding of the country, deepened somewhat by the films of newer auteurs like Rithy Panh. Angelina Jolie follows in this tradition with her 2017 Netflix feature film, though it certainly does showcase the country beautifully, despite the harrowing content.


Cambodian flagKingdom of Cambodia (កម្ពុជា Kămpŭchéa)
population 15,552,000 | capital Phnom Penh (2.3m) | largest cities Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (245k), Battambang (119k), Sisophon (99k), Poipet (99k) | area 181,035 km2 | religion Buddhism (97%) | official language Khmer (ភាសាខ្មែរ) | major ethnicity Khmer (97%) | currency Riel (៛) [KHR] | internet .kh

A country in the south of the Indochinese peninsula, whose name comes via French, though the Khmer name comes from Sanskrit for “country of Kamboja”, alluding to the country’s foundation myths. Evidence suggests settlement as far back as 6000 BCE, with Iron Age cultures by the 6th century BCE. The Khmer Empire grew from Indian influenced states of Funan and Chenla, established by the 9th century CE and the largest in SE Asia by the 12th century, with its capital at Angkor, the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It remained a force until the 15th century, but power in the region became divided between Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam. In the 19th century it became a protectorate of France, part of French Indochina (and briefly controlled by Japan during WW2), but the French failed to control the monarchy and it gained independence on 9 November 1953. Tension with Vietnam over control of the Mekong Delta led to Vietnam’s invasion and subsequent conflict and a coup hastened a civil war, in which the Cambodian communists (known as the Khmer Rouge) gained the upper edge, despite aggressive US bombing. Under Pol Pot, the KR modelled itself on Maoist China and led to the death of several million people, eventually toppled by a Vietnamese invasion, though formal peace didn’t come until 1991, and the monarchy was restored in 1993. There is now a constitutional monarchy, with a PM appointed by the king on the advice of an elected assembly.

Cinema didn’t begin until the 1950s, encouraged by King Sihanouk, with many films made and screened during the 1960s, until the rise of the Khmer Rouge when it virtually ceased (aside from a few propaganda films). The industry has only slowly recovered, with notable figures including the French-trained Rithy Panh, whose films focus on the KR era (and who produced the film below). Recent years have seen a rise in horror cinema, though overall the industry has stagnated and only 11 cinemas remained by 2011.


មុនដំបូងខ្មែរក្រហមសម្លាប់ប៉ារបស់ខ្ញុំ Moun dambaung Khmer Krahm samleab ba robsa khnhom (First They Killed My Father, 2017)

This is undoubtedly a very polished and well-made film. Angelina Jolie has made a number of films over the past decade or so, and has made a habit of telling less commercial stories, which I very much respect (though her masterpiece so far is By the Sea, a weird French riviera-set twisted love story starring her and Brad Pitt). This film about a young girl during the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia cleaves very closely to the girl’s point of view, including a lot of the camerawork being distinctly low angle and close to the ground. This has the benefit of avoiding the need to contextualise everything, because she herself has an imperfect understanding of the situation, but that’s also to the viewer’s detriment, because it’s unclear what exactly the issues are. Still, the young girl is a very fine actor, called on to walk through all this horrendous suffering, a witness to her country pulling itself apart — albeit somewhat prompted by the extensive covert US bombing during the Vietnam War. It manages to give a lush sense of Cambodia’s countryside at the same time as hinting at the horrors which its people endured. It may not quite reach the same heights as its producer Rithy Panh’s own films, but it’s a commendable effort all the same.

First They Killed My Father film posterCREDITS
Director Angelina Jolie; Writers Loung Ung អ៊ឹង លឿង and Jolie (based on Ung’s non-fiction book); Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheta Sveng; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 4 March 2021.

Global Cinema 28: Burundi – Nothing’s the Same (2008)

I’ve put this entry off for quite a while now, but then again there aren’t, to be fair, a huge range of Burundian films to choose from when one’s looking for something from this country. If you speak French there are one or two features online, but there are also a handful of short films from the Burundi Film Center, of which this is one.


Burundian flagRepublic of Burundi (Republika y’Uburundi)
population 11,866,000 | capital Gitega (42k) | largest cities Bujumbura (497k), Gitega, Ngozi (40k), Rumonge (36k), Cibitoke (24k) | area 27,834 km2 | religion Christianity (92%) | official language Kirundi, French (français) | major ethnicity Hutu (85%), Tutsi (14%) | currency Burundian franc (FBu) [BIF] | internet .bi

A landlocked country in the Great Rift Valley, part of the African Great Lakes region (with Lake Tanganyika along its southwestern border), its former capital is Bujumbura, now the economic capital to Gitega’s political capital. The name derives from the Kingdom of Burundi and possibly ultimately from the Ha people. This kingdom is also the earliest evidence of a state with these borders, dating to the late-16th century, with a distinction between Hutu and Tutsi not just on ethnic but also socio-cultural lines (with the Tutsi being the ruling class). The area was annexed by Germany in 1881 as part of German East Africa, and ceded to Belgium as Ruanda-Urundi after World War I. It gained its independence on 1 July 1962, instituting elections still under a constitutional monarchy. A 1966 coup deposing the king in favour of his teenage son then led to another coup later that year deposing the monarchy itself and declaring the country a republic (albeit essentially a dictatorship by Michel Micombero). A civil war and genocide in 1972 of Hutus led to another coup in 1976, then again in 1987, followed by another civil war and genocide in 1993 (this time of Tutsis). The first democratic election was in 1993 leading to a 12-year civil war, though sporadic unrest continues. The government is led by a President, also head of state.

Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and given the ongoing civil unrest and human rights abuses, does not have a well-developed media infrastructure, and needless to say very few films are made there.


Le Tournant d’une vie (Nothing’s the Same, 2008)

This short film deals with a pretty heavy subject — the pre-marital rape of a devoutly Christian young woman (Ginette Mahoro), who has to deal with the fallout from this and how it affects her relationship — and there’s really no way to do that in a satisfying way within 10 minutes, it turns out. The actors are called on to go through such a huge journey in this time that even the finest and most well-trained would be hard-pushed to pull it off. Still, it’s all played with earnest emotions and even if it feels all too easily wrapped up, it’s certainly a good sign of some film talent in the country.

CREDITS
Director Linda Kamuntu; Writer Lyse Elsie Hakizimana; Cinematographer Emmanuel Heri; Starring Ginette Mahoro; Length 11 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), Wellington, Tuesday 23 February 2021.

Global Cinema 27: Burkina Faso – Samba Traoré (1992)

It may be a rather poor and (relatively) small West African country, but Burkina Faso has a really strong cinematic history, not least thanks to the FESPACO film festival, celebrating pan-African cinema. I’ve reviewed a number of films from the country, and here I cover one of the lesser-known works by its greatest director, Idrissa Ouedraogo.


Burkinabé flagBurkina Faso
population 21,510,000 | capital Ouagadougou (1.5m) | largest cities Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso (490k), Koudougou (88k), Banfora (76k), Ouahigouya (73k) | area 274,200 km2 | religion Islam (61%), Christianity (23%) | official language French (français) | major ethnicity Mossi (52%), Fula (8%) | currency West African CFA franc (CFA) [XOF] | internet .bf

A landlocked West African country, formerly known as Upper Volta, and whose official language is only spoken by around 10-15% of the people (Mòoré, the language of the Mossi people, is far more widely spoken). The name comes from the Mossi for “upright” and the Dioula for “fatherland” (the old colonial name comes from its position on the River Volta). Habitation in the country stretches back to 14000 BC in the north-west, with more permanent settlements from the 4th millennium BCE. An Iron Age Bura culture existed until around the 13th century CE, while the modern day ethnic groups arrived just prior to this. Several separate Mossi kingdoms were set up, and these various tribal groupings existed side-by-side until the arrival of European colonialists, who started to claim territory from the 1890s onwards, and the French protectorate taking in the present country was formed in 1896 and by 1898 took in all the present-day lands, although as part of an Upper Senegal and Niger territory. It wasn’t until 1919 that the present country was separated as Upper Volta (Haute Volta), before being dismantled in 1932, then revived again in 1947. Autonomy was achieved in 1958 and full independence on 5 August 1960, under its first president Maurice Yaméogo, who swiftly suspended democracy and was ousted in 1966. A series of military and military/civil governments marked by coups governed until the coup which installed Capt Thomas Sankara in 1983; he pushed through the country’s change of name the following year and an ambitious programme of anti-imperialist reforms, though another reactionary coup replaced him with Blaise Compaoré in 1987. A semblance of democracy was introduced in 1991, though power still resides largely with the President, who appoints the Prime Minister and has the power to dissolve government.

Though the country is underdeveloped in many ways, Burkina Faso is one of the chief countries in African cinema, not least due to the establishment of the pan-African FESPACO film festival in Ouagadougou in 1969, which continues to take place every two years. A number of internationally renowned directors have come from the country, including Idrissa Ouedraogo (one of whose films I review below) and Gaston Kaboré, amongst others.


Samba Traoré (1992)

The great Burkinabé filmmaker Idrissa Ouédraogo died on 18 February 2018, so in the weeks following that I had wanted to check out one of his lesser-known films, and this is the one I alighted on. There is no hint in Samba Traoré (which takes its name from that of the lead character, played by Bakary Sangaré) of any deficiency of production or craft: it’s a handsomely shot and beautifully acted film about a man returning from the city to his home village, to settle down and find a new life. He’s running from a life of crime, or at least, one specific crime (the film starts with him staging an armed robbery of a petrol station), and of course the narrative demands that this eventually catches up with him. In the meantime, this is an easy, fluid portrait of small village life, as Samba reconnects with old friends and meets a woman he wants to marry (Mariam Kaba). It’s never condescending to its characters or to its audience: the film is simply constructed, but the camera moves expressively and there are layers to the characters that go beyond any simple didactic drama of wrongdoing, punishment and redemption. This really is a fine film.

Samba Traoré film posterCREDITS
Director Idrissa Ouedraogo; Writers Ouedraogo, Santiago Amigorena and Jacques Arhex; Cinematographers Pierre-Laurent Chénieux and Mathieu Vadepied; Starring Bakary Sangaré, Mariam Kaba, Abdoulaye Komboudri; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 1 March 2018.

Global Cinema 26: Bulgaria – Sofia’s Last Ambulance (2012)

The Eastern European country of Bulgaria has a rather smaller film culture than some of its neighbours, though it still can boast a number of prominent international features, most notably The Lesson (2014) along with other films by its directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. The film I’m focusing on here is a documentary, which suggests the Bulgarian economy is still in a period of post-Soviet recovery.


Bulgarian flagRepublic of Bulgaria (България)
population 6,951,000 | capital Sofia (София) (1.2m) | largest cities Sofia, Plovdiv (Пловдив) (338k), Varna (Варна) (335k), Burgas (Бургас) (200k), Ruse (Русе) (150k) | area 110,994 km2 | religion Bulgarian Orthodox Christianity (60%), none (9%), Islam (8%) | official language Bulgarian (български) | major ethnicity Bulgarian (85%), Turk (9%) | currency Lev лев (лв.) [BGN] | internet .bg

A country in southeast Europe that lies on the Black Sea, and is bordered by Romania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Greece and Turkey. The name derives from the Bulgars, a Turkic tribe which founded the country, and which itself may be derived from a proto-Turkic word for “revolt” (bulgak), suggesting a troublemaking people. Neanderthal remains date back to the Middle Paleolithic period, and the Neolithic society of the Karanovo arose around 6500 BCE, succeeded by the Varna culture, known for their gold metallurgy. Thracians arrived in the 12th century BCE, conquered in turn by the Persian Achaemenids in the 6th century BCE; a resurgence of Thracian unity was put paid to by first the Celts and then the Romans, who made it a province in 45 CE, and were succeeded by the Byzantines and then nomadic Slavic tribes. The First Bulgarian Empire was proclaimed in 681 CE, bringing in a written code of law and then Christianity in the mid-9th century (it had been around the region for a few centuries by that point). The Byzantines took back control in 1014, but an uprising formed the Second Bulgarian Empire in 1185. It disintegrated a few centuries later, to be conquered by the Ottomans in the 14th century, waning until the point of an uprising in 1876. With Russian help, an autonomous Bulgarian principality was signed into existence on 3 March 1878 (though this was rejected by the other Great Powers, and a subsequent treaty in July set out a smaller state); independence was proclaimed in 1908. A tumultuous political period saw it pulled between German and Russian influence, eventually falling under the Soviets after World War II, led by Todor Zhivkov for much of this period. The first free elections came in 1990, and the country is now led by a Prime Minister with a weaker Presidential role.

The first Bulgarian film dates back to 1910, and although there was some production early on, it was severely curtailed by World War II. There has been a bit of resurgence in Bulgarian film production, with a number of feature films and documentaries produced each year, and around 226 cinemas in the country. Sofia also hosts an international film festival.


Последната линейка на София Poslednata lineika na Sofia (Sofia’s Last Ambulance, 2012)

There’s a creeping sense of inevitable doom to this documentary about a single Bulgarian ambulance crew, dealing as it does with a medical system at the end of its tether, chronic underinvestment meaning this is one of the only ambulances left servicing the city. Without leaving the vehicle very much (we see the crew attend to a few cases, but never see those they’re helping, and there are few enough shots even from the front window), we get a picture of the many frustrations they face — faulty equipment, operators unwilling or unable to take their calls or give instructions, potholed roads, police who pull them out to the middle of nowhere to attend a long-dead woman, drivers who crash stupidly into them. It’d be funny if it weren’t life-or-death, but the crew have a grumbling sense of humour, while putting away plenty of cigarettes. Don’t get sick in Sofia.

Sofia's Last Ambulance film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Ilian Metev Илиян Метев; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 12 December 2016.

Global Cinema 25: Brunei – Yasmine (2014)

From Brazil, one of the largest countries in the world and a major film producing nation, to one of the smallest, Brunei. Needless to say, this country (also sometimes called Brunei Darussalam) doesn’t have a huge range of film production to choose from, but the teen sports drama I’ve gone for does seem to have enjoyed a little success and was available on streaming services.


Bruneian flagNation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace (Negara Brunei Darussalam)
population 460,000 | capital Bandar Seri Begawan (64k) | largest cities Bandar Seri Begawan, Kuala Belait (31k), Seria (30k), Tutong (19k), Kapok (4k) | area 5,765 km2 | religion Islam (79%), Christianity (9%), Buddhist (8%) | official language Malay (Behasa Melayu), although English is also recognised | major ethnicity Malay (66%), Chinese (10%) | currency Brunei dollar (B$) [BND] | internet .bn

A small country on the northern side of the island of Borneo, surrounded by the Malaysian state of Sarawak and a coastline on the South China Sea; the island is also shared with Indonesia (who call it Kalimantan). Traditionally it is said to be named for its founder Sultan Shah’s 14th century cry of Baru nah (“that’s it!”) upon landing, though may also derive from the Sanskrit varun (for “seafarers”), and Borneo shares the same roots. The earliest settlement on the island may date back to Buddhist Srivijaya empire around the 7th century CE, while Chinese records show an independent kingdom of Boni on the island in the 10th century. Boni converted to Islam in the 15th century and transformed into the Sultanate of Brunei, and at its peak in the next few centuries ruled over Borneo as well as parts of what is now the south-west Philippines up to even Manila. With the rise of Spain in the region and the incursion of the Ottomans, along with internal squabbles, Brunei entered a period of decline. Much of their territory was ceded to these others powers, as well as to Britain in the 19th century, and the modern boundaries were more or less set by 1890 following a treaty with Britain making it a protectorate, aside from a brief period during World War II when Japan occupied the island. Oil was first discovered in 1929 and has been the basis of much of the state’s wealth since. It gained independence from Britain in 1984, and is ruled by an absolute monarchy under the Sultan of Brunei.

Much of the country’s culture is influenced strongly by neighbouring Malay cultures (as two-thirds of the population are of Malay ethnicity) and by Islam. Given this background, there hasn’t been a huge amount of film production in the country and what does exist largely draws its talent from Malaysia.


Yasmine (2014)

On the one hand this is quite a likeable teen sports drama film about the young woman of the title (Liyana Yus) who is trying to break free from her strict father (Reza Rahadian) and who falls out with his schoolmates at the start about where they’re going to college. For reasons (jealousy mainly, I think, but also from being shunned by her new college for being really full of herself) Yasmine takes up the martial art of silat with (as is the usual trope) two other unlikely club members at her small (and apparently, more orthodox religious) school. Once formed into a team, they enlist the help of trainers to help them beat the reigning local champions who, obviously, happen to have Yasmine’s former best friend Dewi (Mentari De Marelle) as their best fighter. There’s also a sub-plot involving Yasmine’s dad and the wheelchair-bound ex-champion who coaches Yasmine’s team.

A lot of these plot points do seem pretty familiar, then, from sports movies over the years, but it’s worth pointing out that on the other hand — and yes, I do appreciate that the usual usage of this structural gambit does imply some kind of juxtaposition, which is not what I’m offering — it appears to be the first film directed by a Bruneian woman, and also how many films do you generally see either from Brunei, or about the sport of silat? Probably about as many as I do, or have done until I saw this. So while it may not break any narrative barriers, it is still likeable and interesting.

Yasmine film posterCREDITS
Director Siti Kamaluddin; Writer Salman Aristo; Cinematographer James Teh; Starring Liyana Yus, Reza Rahadian, Mentari De Marelle; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Airbnb flat (Tubi streaming), Lower Hutt, Tuesday 17 September 2020.