West Indies ou les nègres marrons de la liberté (West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty, 1979)

I’ve been doing themed weeks of films since restarting this blog, but as we come up to the end of the year, I want to dedicate a few weeks to reviews for films I’ve not yet managed to shoehorn into a themed week, which I regard as among the best I’ve seen this year. They won’t all be new films, though, so I’m starting with Med Hondo’s wonderful West Indies, a 1979 musical dedicated to anti-colonialism and laying bare the hypocrisy of the French state. It’s a lesson that could be applied to a number of former colonialist and imperialist countries, I suspect.


Historically speaking, African cinema doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on Western cinephilia (certainly the opportunities I had when I was younger to watch any on home media or TV were fairly sparse), and it feels like this has begun to change somewhat only in recent decades. Filmmakers like Scorsese and George Lucas have been putting money into restorations of African and other non-Western developing nations’ cinema (Il Cinema Ritrovato has been screening some great film restorations every year), but there are still so many gems that languish unrestored, and a few of those are by Mauritanian director Med Hondo (though his debut feature Soleil Ô did receive treatment recently).

Hondo’s 1979 film West Indies might be the best thing I’ve yet seen by him, and a truly sui generis work that fuses the radical political sensibility that a number of African filmmakers were channelling from the 60s onwards, in the spirit of pan-African post-colonialism (and which also reminds me a little of contemporary Caribbean filmmakers like Raoul Peck) with something of the avant-garde staging that you might get with Godard or Akerman (who also made her own modernist musical in the 80s).

Needless to say, this single-set musical about colonialism, empire, slavery, capitalism and hypocrisy is truly everything you could want: there are energetic dance numbers, and there’s anger about the West and its involvement in both Africa and the Caribbean. The film makes explicit links between the exploitation of workers in migrant economies with the economics of slavery itself (one notable sequence sees the parade of people getting flights to France, whipped up by the conniving of French businessmen and political leaders, overlap with an historical flashback to slaves in chains being led to the slave ships). The links between this historical violence and the suppression of revolts by riot police in modern French cities is also effectively done, and Hondo throughout deploys recurring visual motifs to link past and present, which all wheels by together on the same multi-layered set.

It’s a virtuoso exercise, but far from a hollow one, as it mercilessly mocks and derides White imperialism — whether economic, political or cultural (oh, the tourists) — and evinces anger at the circumstances of the African-Caribbean peoples. At the same time it mellifluously weaves in song and dance, the sound design as effective as any propagandist, but aimed instead at exploding the myths of Western neo-liberalism when it comes to exploitation and power. It’s a glorious pageant, and a truly inspiring film, which hasn’t dated or lost its relevance in 40 years (because these topics never truly seem to go away). I only hope it can continue to inspire in the future.

CREDITS
Director Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Writers Hondo and Daniel Boukman (from Boukman’s novel Les Negriers “The Slavers”); Cinematographer François Catonné; Starring Robert Liensol, Roland Bertin, Hélène Vincent; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 5 December 2019.

LFF 2019 Day Seven: The Perfect Candidate and Made in Bangladesh (both 2019)

Day seven, aside from being my birthday, was a day of just two films, both of which were fairly decent as films go, if rather earnest, but both of which shone a light on their respective countries in quite revealing ways. Being directed by women, they had lessons particularly about the role and status of women in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh.

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LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)

Day six and another four film day. I’ve actually managed to stay awake for all 16 of the films I’ve seen so far, but this writing them up at the end of the evening is the worst part. Still, I must put my thoughts down or I’ll forget these films, so here are some more reviews. Today I’ve visited Japan, South Korea, Tunisia (again) and Georgia.

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LFF 2019 Day Five: Sweet Charity (1969), Make Up, A Son and Rose Plays Julie (all 2019)

My first day of four films was day five of the festival, which I started with an archive screening of a new restoration of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, with an alternative ending sequence thrown in at the end (wisely ditched from the original film in my opinion), then a new British film introduced by its director, a Tunisian-French co-production with a star more familiar with French cinema, and finally the last screening of Rose Plays Julie, part of the official competition, and a striking Irish film which bristles with technical sophistication.

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LFF 2019 Day Four: A Thief’s Daughter, The Sharks and The Orphanage (all 2019)

Day four of the London Film Festival is the first weekend, and so the first day on which I have bought myself tickets to more than two films — only three, mind, and with fairly generous spacing, so there’s no running from screen to screen today. Two of them are in Spanish (one is Catalan although mostly in Castilian, the other Uruguyuan) and two are coming of age stories (The Sharks and The Orphanage). Oh, and all three are directed by women of course.

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LFF 2019 Day Three: Maggie and The Unknown Saint (both 2019)

Day three of the #LFF brings two films from the ‘Laugh’ strand of the programme, one each from South Korea and Morocco, which go about their comedy beats in different ways, but both raise wry smiles and a few laugh-out-loud moments.

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For Sama (2019)

With this review, I’m returning to two theme weeks, primarily my one focusing on Arab cinema, because this is a documentary filmed in Syria during its (ongoing) Civil War. However, it’s also partly a recent British film directed by a woman, due to its funding and Al-Kateab’s work for British news media. It’s certainly a striking and urgent piece of filmmaking.


There have been a number of documentaries in recent years about refugees, especially as these have impacted Europe, but relatively few films about where these refugees come from (though The Day I Lost My Shadow springs to mind). I imagine this is largely because there hasn’t been persuasive footage of the situations in the kinds of poor, war-stricken countries that generate so many refugees — and documentaries thrive on nothing so much as imagery — but this film has plenty of that. It’s a first-person narration dedicated to the filmmaker’s newborn daughter, born to shelling and constant blood and destruction in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, where her husband (Sama’s father) is one of the city’s leading doctors, mainly because he’s one of the few still there helping to run a hospital. It’s not, needless to say, a happy scene and you may be fairly warned that there is a significant amount of footage of dead and dying people, and particularly children — because Assad’s civil war, backed by the Russian planes we see involved in bombing runs, is not one without a lot of human casualty. Amongst the carnage there are these little stories of hope, a baby cut from his mother who miraculously survives, or indeed the story of the title character, young Sama — and one gets the sense that without stories such as these, the misery and death would probably be unbearable. It’s all very heartfelt stuff, and wrenching too.

For Sama film posterCREDITS
Directors Waad Al-Kateab وعد الخطيب and Edward Watts; Cinematographer Al-Kateab; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 17 September 2019.

Les Bicots-nègres vos voisins (1974)

Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô (1967) received a recent restoration courtesy of Il Cinema Ritrovato and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Another film of his (not yet restored) screened in this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato and exemplifies a more confrontational attitude towards the colonialist past and the challenges of filmmaking on the continent.


With an undoubtedly confrontational title (there are several English renditions of it, but I’m not going to provide any of them here), this politically-engaged piece of post-68 anti-colonialist filmmaking from Med Hondo is very much interested in confronting a legacy of colonialism in Africa. After all, it starts with a lengthy address direct to camera on the necessity of finding a means for an African cinema freed from the demands of Western capital and cultural production. There follow a series of illustrative scenes that unveil the corruption wrought by capital, the methods of control exercised by the colonialist oppressors, a folky anti-racist song about one’s Black and Arab neighbours (which is, more or less, the meaning of the film’s title), a bit of Gilliamesque animation, dialogues with workers about socialism, a sequence highlighting the racism ingrained even in sex work, and some earnest lectures, complete with charts and graphics, on the economics of exploitation. It ends with a group of people in a room festooned with the posters of the kinds of African films that presumably Med Hondo would highlight as exemplars (including his own, even a poster for the one we’re watching), and now I want to see all of them. This isn’t always an easy watch — it’s hardly intended to be (and indeed there’s a longer three-hour cut apparently) — but it comes directly from a spirit of the times, recalling contemporary works like Argentina’s La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968).

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Cinematographers Jean Boffety and François Catonné; Length 100 minutes [French version].
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.

عمر Omar (2013)

I’ve already covered the Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir in a separate feature, but another critically-acclaimed filmmaker from the region (albeit one who has grown up and been educated in the Netherlands) has been Hany Abu-Assad, whose 2005 film Paradise Now put him on the map. He has most recently moved rather surprisingly into the big-budget Hollywood realm with the Idris Elba/Kate Winslet drama The Mountain Between Us (2017)


I didn’t expect to very much more than merely admire this film, given its Academy Awards nomination and fairly dour subject matter — it’s about a group of Palestinian friends whose lives and relationships are pulled apart in fighting against the Israeli occupation. But as so often I was wrong, because it’s not just a well-crafted film (that much is evident from the very start, with precise framing and careful editing) but also a tense thriller, well-mounted and with plenty of twists and turns, not unlike the narrow streets we see our titular protagonist (Adam Bakri) running through. The cinematography in particular is unshowily excellent: dominated by frontal faces in clean, uncluttered frames.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hany Abu-Assad هاني أبو أسعد; Cinematographer Ehab Assal إيهاب عسل; Starring Adam Bakri آدم بكري, Leem Lubany ليم لوباني; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 15 March 2017.

کفرناحوم Kafarnaum (Capernaum, 2018)

I’ve now had a week of Arabic language cinema, with several examples from the small country of Lebanon, where director Nadine Labaki has made a number of films to increasing critical notice starting with the likeable Caramel (2007). Now her latest film Capernaum (referencing ancient Palestine in the Bible, but focusing on Syrian refugees) is apparently the highest-grossing Middle Eastern film ever, so I could hardly omit it this week. I visited the country in 2017 and found it to be both beautiful and also enormously varied, with many different people living in close quarters, not least the huge number of Syrian refugees whom you can’t help but see everywhere (whether the refugee camps dotted across the valleys, or the homeless beggars on the streets of Beirut). When it came out, I remember reading some savagely negative reviews of the film, but equally I’ve seen a lot of praise, so I feel conflicted, and can understand the arguments on both sides.


I don’t exactly know how to feel about this film, though I know exactly how the director wants me to think, because it’s not exactly subtle. That said, perhaps there’s a case that subtlety is beside the point when you’re looking at the state of being a refugee (or the children of one), about being dehumanised by government decrees and forced into ghettoes, separated from parents with no legal recourse, having almost no opportunities and thus a ripe target for exploitation: perhaps that’s the kind of attitude that history has already taught us leads to the greatest horrors, and whatever creative strategy can be deployed should be applauded.

I don’t know this kind of life, of course, but this film seems to delight in presenting the most abject and dehumanising experiences and serving it up for our entertainment. I hope it changes minds and policies, because it must have been difficult to repeatedly force children to act through what’s shown here, even if it reflects something of some of their real lives. There are compensations: the central performance of young Zaid (Zaid Al Rafeea) is excellent, not precocious or cute, but just the right level of gritty determination butting up against the reality of what he can possibly hope to achieve as such a young person, not to mention the Ethiopian woman who plays Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who is also brilliant. But the picaresque narrative as Zaid bounces around various inadequate situations is constantly interrupted by a court case in which the kid is suing his parents for being born, which feels like a very self-consciously filmic framing device rather than something from lived experience, more like a crutch for the plot.

For all this, I admire much of the filmmaking craft, even if I feel conflicted about the way it’s used. Perhaps I’m being unfair: this is undoubtedly an angry film about a topic (children in peril) that inspires righteous fury, as it does in me when I think about it, about the plight of so many young people in such a small and under-equipped country as Lebanon, and about the dangerous futures for them, for their (new) country, for the region. I just didn’t always feel like this film was the best way of presenting it, and I felt somewhat similarly about, for example, Dheepan, but then again I’ve also just had a quick look at other online responses and I see a lot of love (and also a lot of defensive reactions against opinions apparently not a million miles from my own), so I’m willing to concede I’m misjudging it.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Nadine Labaki نادين لبكي; Writers Labaki, Jihad Hojaily جهاد حجيلي and Michelle Keserwany ميشيل كيسرواني; Cinematographer Christopher Aoun; Starring Zain Al Rafeea زين الرافعي, Yordanos Shiferaw يوردانوس شيفراو; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 24 February 2019.