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.

Global Cinema 24: Brazil – The Trial (2018)

Brazil is the biggest country I’ve yet covered in this series and it has a long and fruitful cinema history. Indeed, Mubi where I watched this film has been curating a ‘new Brazilian cinema’ strand over the last few months that has featured plenty of equally interesting titles and if I weren’t a little pressed for time this week I’d have featured more of those films in the leadup to this review. I certainly do intend to do a Brazilian themed week before too long. However, as the film I’m featuring today is about modern Brazilian politics, it seemed like the best introduction to this huge country.


Brazilian flagFederative Republic of Brazil (Brasil)
population 210,147,000 | capital Brasília (3.99m) | largest cities São Paulo (21.3m), Rio de Janeiro (12.4m), Belo Horizonte (5.1m), Recife (4m), Brasília | area 8,515,767 km2 | religion Christianity (87%), none (8%) | official language Portuguese (português) | major ethnicity white (47.7%), mixed (43.1%), Black (7.6%) | currency Real (R$) [BRL] | internet .br

The largest South American country is also the world’s fifth largest by area, and sixth largest by population, so needless to say there’s a lot to fit into this paragraph. It borders all other countries on the continent except Ecuador and Chile, with an incredibly diverse geography. The name comes from the Portuguese for Brazilwood (“pau-brasil”), a tree that once grew along the coast, with this part of its name referring to its reddish colour like an ember (from brasa); in the indigenous Guarani language, it is Pindorama, meaning “land of the palm tree”. Evidence of human habitation goes back some 11,000 years, and the earliest pottery found in the west is from the Amazon basin — around 7 million indigenous people lived in the area covered by the modern country by the arrival of the Portuguese, who claimed the land in April 1500. Colonisation began in earnest around 30 years later, and was divided by King John III into 15 autonomous areas before bringing them back together under unified leadership in 1549. There were any number of wars with indigenous people, whose number were added to by the slave trade from sub-Saharan Africa, brought over to work the sugar plantations (slavery continued until 1850). In the early-19th century, Rio de Janeiro hosted the Portuguese royal court for over a decade, unifying the colony with its coloniser across the Atlantic. However, independence was soon after declared on 7 September 1822, resulting in the foundation of the Empire of Brazil, though a series of internal conflicts and political tensions eventually led to its transformation to a republic in 1889, albeit one essentially under military dictatorship. The ensuing century saw a tumultuous push and pull between dictatorship and socialism, with the current trend being back towards authoritarianism. It is a democratic republic with an elected president.

The film industry can be traced back to the late-19th century, though the country’s production didn’t come to prominence until Cinema Novo in the 1960s under directors such as Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, with another more commercial peak in the 1990s. There are a number of prominent film festivals and its films continue to be well-regarded by critics.


O processo (The Trial, 2018)

Though I recognise a few of the names, I am by no means acquainted with Brazilian politics. It’s a huge country, with a huge range of experiences, races, class divides and no doubt a range of very specific things that lead to various factions within their political system. This documentary throws you headlong into that without on-screen captions as to who the people we see are, and with only a few intertitles for context, as its first woman President, Dilma Rousseff, faces impeachment for a small number of charges which — depending on your viewpoint, and all of them get voice here — could either be rather minor in the scheme of things and therefore a pretext for a coup, or else evidence of deeper corruption. And aside from Rousseff, a few other major figures (mostly men) are also in the firing line for corruption and criminal charges.

What becomes evident though is that, notwithstanding your familiarity with the specifically Brazilian context, the kinds of political theatre we are accustomed to seeing in all our countries, and the creeping way of the fascist right to turn the electorate against itself, is very familiar. What is also interesting is that aside from Rousseff herself (who is more talked about than actually seen or heard), the impeachment trials and the film itself seems to converge around two other women — though there are no talking heads interviews, so it’s all very much in overheard meetings, brief news clips, press conferences and parliamentary proceedings. These are Janaina Paschoal (a lawyer and prosecutor, subsequently elected as a member of a far right party) and Gleisi Hoffmann, who is in Rousseff’s party and a senator at the time of the trial. Again, without offering overt context, the film allows the viewer to form their own opinion of the various arguments, though Hoffmann feels like a compelling presence at the edges of this show trial.

Anyway, my main point is that though I didn’t know much about Brazil or its politics, this documentary felt compelling and interesting, not just about that country but about democracies, and the propensity for various factions to derail them. I’m not sure that the subsequent election of Jair Bolsonaro allays any of those fears.

The Trial film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Maria Augusta Ramos; Cinematographers Alan Schvarsberg and David Alves Mattos; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 10 September 2020.

Global Cinema 23: Botswana – Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale (2016)

I am currently in the process of moving halfway around the world, so some of my regularly scheduled reviews may be a little delayed, and that’s also the reason I haven’t been running my theme weeks. I’ll get back up to speed soon enough I’m sure, when I have better access to films and places to watch them. In the meantime, here’s an older review (and a rather short one) for a Bosnian film, as we’ve reached that country, which has gone through a tumultuous recent history, and emerged as its own sovereign state in recent years.


Batswana flagRepublic of Botswana
population 2,254,000 | capital Gaborone (227k) | largest cities Gaborone, Francistown (100k), Molepolole (68k), Mogoditshane (58k), Maun (56k) | area 581,730 km2 | religion Christianity (73%), none (20%) | official language English, Setswana (or Tswana) | major ethnicity Tswana (79%), Kalanga (11%) | currency Botswana pula (P) [BWP] | internet .bw

A largely flat landlocked country bordering South Africa, with 70% of its territory taken up by the Kalahari Desert and thus one of the most sparsely populated in the world. The name means “land of the Tswana”, the largest ethnic group in the country, though the former name under British colonisation was Bechuanaland. Human remains have been traced back 2 million years, and may have even been the birthplace of modern humans. The original inhabitants were bushmen (San) and Khoi, with Bantu speakers moving in around 600 CE and the first Tswana speakers around the 16th century or earlier. Trade routes via the Limpopo River to the Indian Ocean was largely around ivory and gold in exchange for Asian goods. Various chiefdoms prospered until brought under Batswana control by the late-19th century, resisting incursions by Afrikaner settlers from the south. Comparative peace followed, along with a settled border, and Christian missionaries flourished. Britain claimed the area during the Berlin Conference to protect its trade routes from South Africa, but resisted integrating the territory into South Africa, and independence was granted on 30 September 1966 with Seretse Khama elected as first President (with some of his story told in the 2016 film A United Kingdom). A relatively stable democracy is in place, with an elected President accountable to Parliament.

There is relatively little film production in the country, although it has been used as the location for a number of projects, including the international hit The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981) and its sequel, and a few other Western films.


Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale (2016)

I’m hardly a connoisseur of nature documentaries. This one has some occasionally lovely shots of the Batswana landscape, of elephants and other creatures roaming the wild, while the (mostly white) conservationists and veterinarians who are at the film’s heart watch them and talk about the ways in which they are trying to preserve them from ivory poachers. However, the bulk of the film is taken up by the young elephant of the film’s title, which is tracked from its birth through a difficult childhood as its mother dies, and the doctors need to ensure it continues to live. There’s a bit of drama there, all underscored by swelling music at appropriate moments. I can’t say it was transportative but it gives an idea of the work being done in these African habitats to try and ensure the survival of elephants.

Naledi: A Baby Elephant's Tale film posterCREDITS
Directors Ben Bowie and Geoffrey Luck; Cinematographer Lee Jackson; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at a hotel (Netflix streaming), Auckland, Wednesday 21 October 2020.

Global Cinema 22: Bosnia and Herzegovina – Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (2006)

I am currently in the process of moving halfway around the world, so some of my regularly scheduled reviews may be a little delayed, and that’s also the reason I haven’t been running my theme weeks. I’ll get back up to speed soon enough I’m sure, when I have better access to films and places to watch them. In the meantime, here’s an older review (and a rather short one) for a Bosnian film, as we’ve reached that country, which has gone through a tumultuous recent history, and emerged as its own sovereign state in recent years.


Bosnian and Herzegovinian flagBosnia and Herzegovina (Bosna i Hercegovina)
population 3,301,000 | capital Sarajevo (276k) | largest cities Sarajevo, Banja Luka (185k), Tuzla (110.9k), Zenica (110.6k), Bijeljina (108k) | area 51,129 km2 | religion Islam (51%), Christianity (46%) | official language Bosnian (bosanski), Serbian (srpski) and Croatian (hrvatski) | major ethnicity Bosniaks (50%), Serbs (31%), Croats (15%) | currency Convertible mark (konvertibilna marka) (KM) [BAM] | internet .ba

A Balkan country in southeast Europe, with a mountainous interior, flatlands in the northeast, and a Mediterranean climate in the southern (Herzegovina) region, and only 20km coastline on the Adriatic. The name can be traced back to the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII in the 10th century, who wrote of “Bosona”, deriving from the river Bosna, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European for “running water”; Herzegovina meanwhile derives from the German word for “duke” (herzog), in reference to a Mediaeval ruler. Settlement in the region can be traced back to the Upper Paleolithic era (late Stone Age), and has had permanent settlements since the Neolithic. Illyrian and Celtic people gave way to South Slavic, and the earliest existence of Bosnia as a polity was in the 7th century CE. The Banate of Bosnia was established in the C12th followed by the Kingdom in the C14th, then taken up as part of the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century, which is how Islam was introduced. After a brief period as part of Austria-Hungary, it became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia following World War I, and gained full republic status after WW2. Independence was proclaimed on 1 March 1992, leading to a civil war with Bosnian Serbs that lasted until 1995, ended by the Dayton Agreement that year. The country is largely divided into two as a result (the Federation of B&H and Republika Srpska), with a three member presidency for its three main ethnic groups (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats), among whom leadership rotates, a democractically-elected parliament, with oversight provided by an external High Representative (required under the terms of the Dayton Agreement to ensure that peace is kept).

The country’s film heritage goes back to its time as part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, with notable Bosnian film figures like Danis Tanović, Emir Kusturica and the director of the film I’ve reviewed below. The Sarajevo Film Festival was established in 1995 and continues to be a prominent part of film culture in the region.


Grbavica (Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams, aka Esma’s Secret, 2006)

Made over a decade after a bitter civil war, the effects of it are still powerfully felt in this Bosnian drama. It’s called Esma’s Secret in the UK, though quite what is that secret never really feels surprising, as the truth is always so painfully near the surface. The source of her trauma, rooted in the civil war, really radiates out from the lead actor’s eyes (Mirjana Karanović), her hollow expressiveness, and it affects particularly her relations with even ostensibly friendly men.

Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams film posterCREDITS
Director Jasmila Žbanić; Writers Žbanić and Barbara Albert; Cinematographer Christine A. Maier; Starring Mirjana Karanović, Luna Mijović; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 26 November 2016.

Global Cinema 21: Bolivia – When the Bull Cried (2017)

It should be clear by now that I don’t choose what I consider the most representative or famous titles from their country. Partly, it’s about what is easily available for me to watch, but I also seek out films directed by women and people of colour. There isn’t a huge amount of Bolivian cinema, but almost certainly there are better known titles than this Belgian-Bolivian co-production documentary, though I feel it certainly captures something specific about Bolivian life, at least in the mountainous mining communities.


Bolivian flagPlurinational State of Bolivia
population 11,428,000 | capital Sucre (259k) [constitutional/judicial], La Paz (765k) [executive/legislative] | largest cities Santa Cruz de la Sierra (1.5m), El Alto (849k), La Paz, Cochabamba (631k), Oruro (265k) | area 1,098,581 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism (70%), Protestantism (17%) | official language Spanish (Español boliviano), Aymara, Quechua (Runasimi), Guarani and many others | major ethnicity Mestizo (68%), native Bolivian (20%) | currency Boliviano (Bs) [BOB] | internet .bo

A landlocked South American country, with two capital cities (though the seat of government is located in La Paz), neither of which is the largest. It ranges from peaks in the west to eastern lowlands within the Amazon Basin. The name comes from Simón Bolívar and the country originally called the Republic of Bolívar; the modern name was adopted in 1825. The country was first occupied several millennia BCE, before the Aymara arrived. It wasn’t until the first millennium CE that the population cohered into cities, and it became a regional power as the Tiwanaku (or Tiahuanaco) empire. This empire crumbled due to a lack of food production, and by the mid-2nd millennium the Incan empire moved in. Spanish conquest began in 1524 and didn’t take long to complete, after which point the colonial power exploited silver via mining (tin took greater importance by the 20th century), though the brutal slave conditions led to an indigenous uprising, which coalesced into a struggle for independence in the early 19th century. Marshal Sucre led a military campaign that resulted in the Republic being declared in 1825. A number of wars took place between neighbouring powers on the continent for the ensuing few decades, and the country successively lost a lot of territory, including access to the sea. Periods of military dictatorship ceded to democracy in the 1990s, though there has been further instability since then. There is an elected President.

Bolivia has produced feature films since the 1920s, many of which have been documentaries. There was a New Bolivian Cinema in the 1960s, in parallel to Brazil and Argentina’s movements the same decade, and social realism continues to be a feature of modern, digital filmmaking practice.


Cuando el toro lloró (When the Bull Cried, 2017)

The title suggests something a little bit poetic about life in the Bolivian mountains amongst a small mining village. The film is dominated by images of rocks being cracked open by elderly women looking for tin, and of men going down into the miasma of the mountain, some of whom don’t return, as the women regretfully note. The traditions and customs are seen, protection sought for the dangerous work many in the community do, and the film ends with a gory animal sacrifice, the pulsating heart seen burning on a flame being despatched to El Tio, the deity worshipped around these parts. It’s an evocative film, albeit a slight one, running at just over an hour.

When the Bull Cried film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Karen Vazquez Guadarrama and Bart Goossens; Cinematographer Guadarrama; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Thursday 1 October 2020.

Global Cinema 20: Bhutan – Milarepa (2006)

There aren’t a huge number of Bhutanese films, but one of the most well-known is 1999’s The Cup, which starred the director of this film, himself a Buddhist monk. Given the prominence of the religion in the country, it seems fitting that it should be the choice for my representative film for Bhutan, though it’s set in Tibet (now part of China), and filmed in India near the border.


Bhutanese flagKingdom of Bhutan (འབྲུག་ཡུལ་ Druk Gyal Khap)
population 754,000 | capital Thimphu (ཐིམ་ཕུ) (115k) | largest cities Thimphu, Phuntsholing (28k), Paro (11k), Gelephu (10k), Samdrup Jongkhar (9k) | area 38,394 km2 | religion Buddhism (75%), Hinduism (23%) | official language Dzongkha (རྫོང་ཁ) | major ethnicity not recorded | currency Ngultrum (Nu.) [BTN] | internet .bt

A small landlocked South Asian country surrounded by India on three sides, and bordering Tibet (China) to the north. It is situated on the historic Silk Road, and has avoided colonisation, with its identity largely formed by Buddhism. Geographically, it moves from subtropical in the south to alpine in the north. The name probably derives from the Tibetan name for Tibet (“Böd”), though traditionally it is said to come from the Sanskrit “Bhota-anta” for “end of Tibet”, and since the 17th century its own official name (Druk Yul, “Land of the Thunder Dragon”) refers to the country’s dominant Buddhist sect. Settlement dates back to 2000 BCE, and the aboriginal peoples were called the Monpa. Buddhism was introduced in the 7th century CE, and promulgated widely the following century, although historical records are scarce about early Bhutan. However, it seems that it is warlords and fiefdoms, each subscribing to a different sect of Buddhism, that defined the political divisions within the country, united in the 17th century. Bhutan attempted a bit of expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries, but were beaten back by wars with the British. A monarchy was instituted (the House of Wangchuck) in 1907, and a legislature created in 1953. Much of the monarchy’s power was transferred to an elected parliament in recent years, and the first elections took place in 2007. It is governed by a Prime Minister, though much power still remains with the monarch.

The cinematic industry emerged in the 1990s (television was banned until 1999), influenced by neighbouring India’s Bollywood. Some films blend this tradition with Buddhism, and the country produces around 30 features a year, with six cinemas in the capital.


མི་ལ་རས་པའི་རྣམ་ཐར།། Mi-la-ras-pa’i rnam-thar (Milarepa, 2006)

This tale is about the famous 11th/12th century Buddhist yogi of the title, and was originally intended to be the first of two parts about his life (though sadly the latter was never made). It covers his birth and journey towards becoming a Buddhist, specifically the period when he learned arcane powers to kill his family’s enemies, something that jarred him to the extent of wanting to turn his back on a violent life and pursue a higher ideal. Dramatically, it’s not always satisfying, though there’s plenty still to recommend it in the scenery and the setting, which is unusual enough to be of interest, even if Milarepa’s moral quandaries often seem a little bit buried in overly dark interior scenes and a lack of urgency. Still, it’s a very handsome work.

Milarepa film posterCREDITS
Director Neten Chokling གནས་བརྟན་མཆོག་གླིང་རིན་པོ་ཆེ; Writers Chokling and Tenzing Choyang Gyari; Cinematographer Paul Warren; Starring Gimyan Lodro, Jamyang Lodro; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (Gaia via Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 22 September 2020.