Global Cinema 19: Benin – Gangbé (2015)

Another small filmmaking nation with only a handful of films is Benin, a neighbour to the much larger Nigeria, but poorer by comparison and certainly with an undeveloped cinematic history. As such my film today is a documentary by a Swiss filmmaker about a musical band journeying to Nigeria, and thus ticks a few boxes for, I suppose to Western eyes, a level of comfortable African cinema, though the music is great.


Beninese flagRepublic of Benin (Bénin)
population 11,733,000 | capital Porto-Novo (264k) | largest cities Cotonou (679k), Porto-Novo, Parakou (255k), Godomey (253k), Abomey-Calavi (118k) | area 114,763 km2 | religion Christianity (53%), Islam (29%) | official language French | major ethnicity Fon (38%), Adja/Mina (15%), Yoruba (12%) | currency West African CFA franc (CFA) [XOF] | internet .bj

A West African country formerly known as Dahomey, it borders the much larger Nigeria (which lies to its east), as well as sitting on the Gulf of Guinea where most of its population lives. The name possibly refers to ancient inhabitants, the Bini. The modern state combines coastal city-states and inland tribal regions. By the early-17th century, the Kingdom of Dahomey (made up of Fon people) and related to the nearby Oyo Empire, began taking over coastal areas, and had a rivalry with the area of Porto-Novo (the modern legal capital, though government is based in Cotonou). Dahomey’s war captives were killed or sold into slavery, encouraged by the Portuguese who had some settlements. As a colonial power, the French became pre-eminent by the late-19th century, ruling Dahomey as part of the “French West Africa” region, though granted it its independence on 1 August 1960, under President Hubert Maga. Ethnic strife ensued, as well as periods of military rule (including being proclaimed a Marxist state in 1974), and it was renamed as the People’s Republic of Benin in 1975. The “People’s” bit was dropped in 1990 when Marxism was officially renounced. The President is democratically elected, and is well-regarded on scales of rule of law and human rights.

Cinema in Benin can be traced back to the 1950s or 60s, with a small amount of production in the early years of independence. Most output from the country is in the form of documentaries, but there have been a handful of fiction features, though no indigenous directors are widely known beyond the country.


Gangbé (2015)

I love a low stakes movie, and this one really delivers. It’s about the Beninese band of the title, whose dream is to perform at Fela Kuti’s club The Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, and having booked the trip, the biggest drama is when the Nigerian customs officer asks to look inside the sousaphone case. (He finds a sousaphone.) But the music is good, you can’t fault that horn-driven African big band sound that owes a lot to Kuti, but also a legacy of juju and other traditional music. Naturally I don’t know very much about Benin, but we get a bit of the largest city, Cotonou, at the start, before it moves into the journey — which is as much spiritual as anything else, of course, especially when they record with Fela’s son Femi.

Gangbé film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Arnaud Robert; Cinematographer Charlie Petersmann; Length 58 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Friday 11 September 2020.

La Belle at the Movies (2015)

Talking about Belgian films, all of which have been co-productions this week on my blog, you inevitably can’t avoid the legacy of colonialism, especially in Africa. Like much European involvement on that continent, the history of the Belgian Congo is not perhaps one of the more fondly recalled projects of imperial Belgium, but of course at least one of the consequences is a film culture that (when it existed) was primarily for white people. This film has an Italian crew and British/Belgian financial backing, and tells an interesting story, although it doesn’t appear to be easily available to watch anywhere.


A documentary about film culture in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC (that city being the “La Belle” of the title), though it’s the apparent lack of film culture — no cinemas, no posters advertising movies — which initially drew the (Italian) director’s interest. So we start with buildings which used to be cinemas, and as she gets further into the subject, we start to get a bit of history of this country, and how under Mobutu Sese Seko and his “Zairianisation” project, the imposition of traditional values meant that there was a decline in what was perceived to be a foreign colonialist art form (many of the city’s cinemas were segregated to the white Belgians). There’s an interesting sidebar in the popularity of cowboy movies, and interviews with some men who continue to dress up that way, while film culture is reduced to roadside stalls selling pirated movies as well as fairly ad hoc community initiatives to screen videos, which is the closest the city comes to the idea of the cinema. Along the way there’s a solid sense of a city, its people and (some of) its turbulent 20th century history that makes this a fascinating work.

La Belle at the Movies film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Cecilia Zoppelletto; Cinematographer Paolo Camata; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 21 April 2018.

بابيشة Papicha (2019)

A fiction feature debut film for its Algerian French director, and a fine one at that, is Papicha, whose title is taken from an Algerian French phrase used about a young woman, and its star Lyna Khoudri is clearly destined for great things (I believe she already has a role in the latest Wes Anderson film The French Dispatch, though who knows when that’s going to get a release). This is a fine film, though it rather takes aim at Islamic fundamentalism in a fairly direct way.


There are a number of recent French co-productions that deal with religious intolerance in traditionally patriarchal societies; I think of the Turkish-French film Mustang as perhaps the most notable example, and perhaps closest to this one. In each case, the filmmaking is strong and the performances the director gets from her (in this case) French-Algerian cast, constantly switching between Arabic and French in their scenes, are really believable. The setting is the Algerian Civil War of the late-1990s, and a creeping Islamic fundamentalism that expresses itself particularly (as these things seem to do) in restricting the liberties afforded to women. And so we have aspiring fashion student Nedjma (the riveting Lyna Khoudri), who really wants to put on a fashion show and really doesn’t want to put on the hijab, negotiating the way these social standards seem to be evolving at a breakneck pace around her and her friends, all of whom are students at the university at a time when learning itself is under threat. I do wonder a little at a French-funded film dealing with hijab as such a central issue, given that country’s own views on the practice, but the drama as presented here is galvanising and, very swiftly, rather traumatic in the way that it unfolds. Nedjma has no desire to leave Algeria, but at the same time the conflicts taking place at this period (which were already apparently winding down by the late-1990s) put her and her friends’ lives in danger just for the freedoms that they take for granted. Like Mustang it harnesses a lot of the same female ensemble energy, though the camera here often stays far closer in to its protagonists, who move about in a blur at times. It’s a fine film, and one that suggests promise for her feature directing career, and especially for its standout star.

Papicha film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mounia Meddour مونيا مدور; Cinematographer Léo Lefèvre; Starring Lyna Khoudri لينا خودري, Shirine Boutella شرين بوتيلا, Amira Hilda Douaouda, Marwan Zeghbib مروان زغبيب; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 8 August 2020.

Dreamaway (2018)

A recent film from Egypt (co-produced by Germany, with a German co-director and cinematographer) is this piece which sits somewhere between an evocatively artful documentary and something fictionalised, though quite where the boundaries between the two lie is open to interpretation. It was one of my favourite films of the London Film Festival in 2018, so I’m saddened there hasn’t been much distribution of it since then because I think it’s really interesting and beautiful, and I wonder if holiday resorts in the age of Covid-19 look somewhat similar right now?


Although billed as a documentary, Dreamaway (as it’s styled on screen, though often referred to as Dream Away) lies somewhere just between that and fiction, presenting stories of real people in a real place, but with just a slight hint that these are fictionalised versions, or reconstructions, workshopped with a non-professional cast (albeit people who have done and experienced the real life depicted). There are all these hints throughout that what we’re seeing is at one stage removed from pure observational documentary filmmaking — a sage-like man in a monkey costume asking questions from the back of a truck, or all the key characters trudging through the desert in search of nothing like the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Partly this may be to stay on the right side of the censors, for after all it’s hardly the rosiest portrait of the Egyptian tourist industry at Sharm-el-Shaikh (we barely see any tourists at all, as all these service workers turn down beds, DJ music, and do fitness routines for an audience of no one). But it’s a canny move in a film that has much of the same feeling as Alma Har’el’s films (Bombay Beach or LoveTrue), somewhere at the interstices of reality and make-believe — then again, a lot of the world it depicts could be said to inhabit that same duality, creating this fake English-speaking zone of no conflict in a country consumed by it in recent years.

Dreamaway film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Marouan Omara مروان عمارة and Johanna Domke; Cinematographer Jakob Beurle; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 19 October 2018.

الميدان Al Midan (The Square, 2013)

Taking us back a few years to a time when it seemed the world could change for the better. I think the full accounting of the cause and effects of the Arab Spring are probably still quite far away, and this film was made in the ferment of the initial action, at least as it took place in Egypt. It’s a great piece of documentary work, urgent and compelling. Even almost 10 years on, it’s still not clear the direction things have taken, but it’s always useful to show that the people are not entirely without voice in such moments.


There are a lot of documentaries and films about protest (plenty indeed just about the Arab Spring, like the Tunisian film A Revolution in Four Seasons), but The Square — which comes quite soon after the initial events — really seems to capture something of what this means, both in practice, with the immediacy of reportage from sites of revolutionary insurrection and activist struggle, and also in thought. This latter is served by a number of individuals, who perhaps represent a wider cross-section, if not of the full range of society, but of its most reflective participants. Egypt is still working through the legacy of 2011, and the documentary acknowledges that at the end, but the couple of years we see here are pretty compelling.

The Square film posterCREDITS
Director Jehane Noujaim چيهان نچيم; Cinematographers Noujaim, Muhammad Hamdy محمد حمدي, Ahmed Hassan أحمد حسن and Cressida Trew; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 7 December 2016.

الشرقي El Chergui (The East Wind, 1975)

North African Cinema (or indeed, cinema in any of Africa) never really gets the attention it deserves in the West, and films from the 1970s and earlier seem to be especially rare, but from the 1950s onwards in particular a lot of filmmaking started to spark off across the continent. This Moroccan film is set in this period, the 1950s, when independence was something that started to become a tangible hope for the country (it gained independence in 1956). I saw it at a rare screening at the Barbican, but one can only hope that this and other films of the period don’t disappear entirely.


There are of course various ways and various traditions of making films, even fictional narrative films, and not all of them involve tight pacing and clear character arcs. Moroccan director Moumen Smihi clearly prefers to have his characters almost intrude upon what otherwise seems like ethnographic documentary, languidly paced scenes of a city, albeit focused on its customs, particularly at the more mystical end of things. When we do get plot, it transpires that a young woman’s husband is looking for a second wife, and so she turns to various magical rites to try and dissuade him — but all of that wouldn’t fill up five minutes of time. Instead there’s a real eye, in sparkling black-and-white, for the life of the city (Tangier), apparently on the cusp of some tumultuous events (made in 1975, it was set some twenty years earlier), all of which comes in little snippets. It also features one of the great subtitles: when Aïcha (Chaïri), our lead character, is observing some frightfully English diplomats nattering away at a garden party, the French subtitlers resort to “(Colonial gossip)” to cover it, which is now, in my heart, the subtitle to everything any posh upper-class twit ever says.

The East Wind film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Moumen Smihi مومن السميحي; Cinematographer Mohamed Sekkat محمد سقات; Starring Aïcha Chaïri عيشه شعيري, Ahmed Boda أحمد بودا, Abdelkader Moutaa عبدالقادر مطاع, Leila Shenna ليلى شنّا; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Barbican, London, Wednesday 23 May 2018.

Two French-Tunisian Films about Musicians: Satin rouge (2002) and As I Open My Eyes (2015)

For my week of North African films, I have looked at a couple of Egyptian films by Youssef Chahine and an Iranian-Tunisian co-production fusing a spirit of the entire MENA region. Today I have shorter reviews of two films directed by Tunisian women, both which touch on musicians and musical performance, which are central parts of the culture of the country it seems. I think they say plenty about their society, the latter film explicitly so in dealing with the intersection between music and the Arab Spring events of 2011.

Continue reading “Two French-Tunisian Films about Musicians: Satin rouge (2002) and As I Open My Eyes (2015)”

بابا عزیز Bab’Aziz (2005)

The Tunisian director Nacer Khemir made this film, the third in his so-called ‘Desert Trilogy’ made over three decades, in both Tunisia and Iran, so it’s both a North African and a Middle Eastern film at the same time, in Arabic and Farsi. It tells a sort of pan-Islamic tale of mysticism, but it harks back to a storytelling tradition that’s based more on the journey and the details than on any particular destination.


This isn’t a period film (there are cars and roads and signs of modernity), but then again it also feels really unmoored from any specific time, or even place — some characters speak in Farsi, some reply in Arabic, and that’s just how it is, a sort of pan-Islamic world utopian vision of deserts and dervishes. It functions, then, less as a film about the world as a film of a spiritual journey or quest — if I knew more about Sufism (a sort of ecstatic, dance-focused branch of Islam), I might be able to pick up on more specific reference points. An old dervish (the father Aziz of the title, played by Parviz Shahinkhou) and his young granddaughter (Maryam Hamid) trek across a desert in search of a gathering of other dervishes (those practising Sufism), while he tells a story of a Narcissus-like prince. Gradually other people they meet add in their own stories, and by the end you realise that in fact nothing very much has really happened at a plot level, but it’s all in the telling. However, it’s a beautiful rendering of this environment, with many sweeping, gorgeous shots of the desert, rich colours and expressive performances. Plot, sometimes, really is a very minor consideration.

Bab'Aziz film posterCREDITS
Director Nacer Khemir ناصر خمير‎; Writers Tonino Guerra and Khemir; Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari محمود کلاری; Starring Parviz Shahinkhou پرویز شاهین‌خو, Maryam Hamid مریم حمید, Golshifteh Farahani گلشیفته فراهانی‎; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 26 March 2018.

Two Early Films by Youssef Chahine: The Blazing Sun (1954) and Dark Waters (1956)

There’s an Algerian film called Papicha (2019) out in cinemas in the UK at the moment. I haven’t seen it yet, because I’m not exactly going out a lot, but I do mean to do so. Therefore, in honour of that I’m doing a North African cinema week, which will probably mostly be Tunisian and Egyptian films, because I’ve not seen many Algerian ones (and I covered one in my recent Global Cinema entry for the country). Turning to Egypt, I’ve covered Youssef Chahine’s films before, but he was responsible for bringing Omar Sharif to the screen. Sharif’s first two films for Chahine partnered him with Faten Hamama in the mid-1950s (though Chahine had made a few with Hamama before) and they have matching titles in the original, usually translated more literally as Struggle in the Valley and Struggle in the Pier. However, like many non-English language films in the period, distributors seem to have been fairly inconsistent and a variety of titles are attested. On Netflix they are The Blazing Sun and Dark Waters respectively (and that’s what I’ve used here), which have a more poetic ring perhaps, but either way both are full-blooded melodramas reminiscent of contemporary Hollywood productions.

Continue reading “Two Early Films by Youssef Chahine: The Blazing Sun (1954) and Dark Waters (1956)”

Black Is King (2020)

I’m posting a second recent film today, which I don’t usually do… however, this new ‘visual album’ from Beyoncé was released today, therefore I watched it and present my thoughts below.


I haven’t seen the 2019 remake of The Lion King nor have I listened to the compilation that Beyoncé curated for that film’s release (The Lion King: The Gift), but I’ve seen this film now, and it obviously ties in stylistically to what she’s been doing for the last few albums, most notably with Lemonade (2016). Again there are the musical segments, choreographed and beautifully designed and costumed, sitting alongside the poetic fragments of voiceover (Warsan Shire’s poetry pops up once more, along with what I assume are clips from The Lion King film). If that previous visual album was harking back to a specifically African-American history, this one obviously looks to Africa instead, and Beyoncé has recruited a range of co-directors both from the continent and from its diaspora to capture the textures, colours and rhythms of some of the countries within it. It’s impossible (for me) to really meaningfully critique this work: it stands or falls on how much you love Beyoncé I suspect (and I do), but it’s also bold in the way it takes its influences and shapes them into something hovering right on the edge of narrative, neither a music video nor a feature film as most of us understand them, but something beautiful and opaque and fascinating.

Black Is King film posterCREDITS
Directors Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Kwasi Fordjour, Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Ibra Ake, Jenn Nkiru, Jake Nava, Pierre Debusschere and Dikayl Rimmasch; Writers Knowles-Carter, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope and Andrew Morrow; Cinematographers Muhammad Atta Ahmed, David Boanuh, Michael Fernandez, Santiago Gonzalez, Ryan Marie Helfant, Erik Henriksson, Danny Hiele, Laura Merians, Nicolai Niermann, Kenechukwu Obiajulu, Malik Sayeed, Benoit Soler; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), London, Friday 31 July 2020.