Dhalinyaro (aka Youth, 2018)

My main instinct with this film is to hold it back for my Global Cinema series, as I can’t imagine there are a huge number of other Djiboutian films to cover. Still, I like a challenge so hopefully I can find another one to cover when I get to the Ds. In the meantime, this is one of the films I’ve seen in the cinema since I arrived in New Zealand, and I thought broadly favourably about it.


A lot of the drama within this film is somewhat programmatic, in the sense of taking three young women from different walks of life and pushing them together for the sake of narrative expediency. Still, I can’t fault any of the spirited acting from the three leads, and needless to say there aren’t a whole lot of Djiboutian films that I can think of, so it’s just interesting to get an idea of the country. It follows the familiar movements of the coming of age film, as all three study for the college entrance exam, with varying levels of commitment. I also occasionally got the feeling that it didn’t quite know how to resolve some of these storylines, but seeing any of the three smiling was just about the happiest experience, and I can’t blame the filmmaker for wanting the best for her characters.

Dhalinyaro film posterCREDITS
Director Lula Ali Ismaïl لولا علي إسماعيل; Writers Ismaïl and Alexandra Ramniceanu; Cinematographer Jean-Christophe Beauvallet; Starring Amina Mohamed Ali, Tousmo Mouhoumed Mohamed, Bilan Samir Moubus; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 5 November 2020.

Global Cinema 17: Belgium – Tomorrow We Move (2004)

Aside perhaps from Agnès Varda (who was born in the suburbs of Brussels but spent most of her life in France), the country’s most famous filmmaker may be Chantal Akerman. The film I’m using of hers today is a French-Belgian co-production (which as far as co-producing nations go, is a fairly common combination, as the Flemish/Dutch-language cinema is largely separate) and is actually set in Paris, but I think Akerman always honoured a certain spirit of her Belgian roots, while always making films that were ultimately her own.


Belgian flagKingdom of Belgium (België/Belgique)
population 11,493,000 | capital Brussels (Brussel/Bruxelles) (179k, but 1.2m in the wider capital region) | largest cities Antwerp (523k), Ghent (260k), Charleroi (202k), Liège (197k), Brussels | area 30,689 km2 | religion Christianity (63%), none (29%) | official language Dutch, French, German | major ethnicity no information | currency Euro (€) [EUR] | internet .be

A West European country bordered by France, Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg, it is the 6th most densely populated country in Europe and is divided into three largely autonomous regions: the Flemish in the north (60% of the country’s population speaks Flemish Dutch), Wallonia in the south (French-speaking) and the Brussels-Capital Region (where French is dominant). The name comes from the Latin word used by Julius Caesar. There is evidence of prehistoric settlement, but the Belgae were the inhabitants of Northern Gaul during the Roman era; when this collapsed, it came under Merovingian rule, and the Frankish lands evolved into the Carolingian Empire. In the 9th century, the Treaty of Verdun more or less created the boundaries of modern Belgium as the Middle Kingdom, later Lotharingia, ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor. A succession of European rulers eventually led to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1814, and an independent Belgium was declared in 1830. The installation of King Leopold I on 21 July 1831 is celebrated as the National Day. The late-19th century saw imperial expansion in the Congo under Leopold II, the brutality of which quickly became an issue that led to the Belgian state to take over control. Germany invaded in WWI and WWII, and the collaborationist Leopold III was forced to abdicate. There is still a monarch and a parliamentary democracy, but political institutions are complex due to the linguistic and cultural divisions in the country.

Likewise, there are essentially two cinemas in Belgium: Flemish/Dutch-speaking and Walloon/French-speaking. The first public screening was in 1896, and the first studio founded in 1910, though the first real attempts at cinema came in the 1930s. Subsidisation in the 1960s led to a new generation of filmmakers, though modern Belgian cinema became best known in the 1990s with films by the Dardenne brothers and black comedies like Man Bites Dog.


Demain on déménage (Tomorrow We Move, 2004)

It’s fair to say that mother and daughter relationships loom large in Akerman’s work and here again we have one such, in a broadly comic vein. A mother moves in with her daughter in Paris, but they need more space so are on the market for a new flat. Rooms are ritually aired of their mustiness, fridges are opened, furnishings are moved around, little jigs are done (it’s almost a musical) and there’s a surpassing neurotic tendency to these characters’ behaviour, as befits screwball. But then again there are moments of pathos and sadness every so often and one is reminded of Akerman’s own story.

Tomorrow We Move film posterCREDITS
Director Chantal Akerman; Writers Akerman and Eric de Kuyper; Cinematographer Sabine Lancelin; Starring Sylvie Testud, Aurore Clément, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Natacha Régnier; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 14 July 2016.

Baden Baden (2016)

Another Franco-Belgian co-production is this excellent film about a young woman returning to her home (also the director’s home, Strasbourg) to sort out her life. It’s not a coming of age, exactly, because the protagonist is in her 20s, but it definitely deals with a similar sort of malaise and aimlessness. That shouldn’t make it particularly compelling but I really liked it.


Trading on all those classic elements of the cinema of self-indulgent continental introspection — a young woman returns home to her ailing grandmother to tidy up shattered plans, creating new messes to tidy, and reopening some fresh wounds — but it’s done with such verve, such control of the medium, and such fine performances in the lead roles that what initially sounds like it might be drab and unengaging is really compelling. Sure, Ana’s life may or may not be going anywhere (whose is?) but right from that first extended shot of her driving a star to a film set only to be bawled out by the producer, it shows a sure sense of what is cinematic. There are ways I’m reminded of British film Adult Life Skills in its themes, but here put across with at times an elegiac grace — little dreamlike interstices, a careful regard for small details, holding the shot just a little longer than is comfortable at times. It’s also got plenty of downbeat humour, no little thanks to its lead actor, Salomé Richard. (I didn’t even mention her delightful DIY determination to remodel her gran’s bathroom, which the titular use of a famous spa town may obliquely be referring to?)

Baden Baden film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rachel Lang; Cinematographer Fiona Braillon; Starring Salomé Richard, Claude Gensac, Swann Arlaud, Zabou Breitman; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Tuesday 27 September 2016.

Un divan à New York (A Couch in New York, 1996)

Chantal Akerman is a filmmaker very much from Belgium and linked with that country, but this Franco-German-Belgian co-production isn’t even set in any of those places, which certainly makes it unusual. European films about America and its people are rarely particularly successful, I don’t think, and this romcom (not a genre most associated with Akerman, though she often veered quite close to it) is surely very odd. It’s on Mubi right now, and worth having a look at.


I’m not honestly sure what exactly I can say about Chantal Akerman’s romcom, given just how far it is outside her usual style and themes (though I suppose Tomorrow We Move had a story of comedic edge to it, even if it was about mothers and daughters, which you somewhat more expect with Akerman). It’s set mostly in New York City, with a bit in Paris, as William Hurt and Juliette Binoche’s characters swap apartments, and he is exposed to a rather bijou but artfully squalid Parisian flat (complete with overly passionate boyfriends stomping in and smacking him around), while she gets a plush, grand apartment in a block with a concierge, where his patients (for he is a psychoanalyst) just wander in and demand therapy. This, primarily, is where I suppose the comedy happens, in these encounters where it turns out Binoche’s character is ‘curing’ everyone, leading him to return and seek therapy from her himself. It’s all a little bit arch, and stretches credulity, but such is the generic framework of the romcom. It doesn’t really work, quite, at least not in the usual ways, but Binoche remains a delightful screen presence as ever.

A Couch in New York film posterCREDITS
Director Chantal Akerman; Writers Akerman and Jean-Louis Benoît; Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann; Starring Juliette Binoche, William Hurt; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 17 January 2019.

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.

Proxima (2019)

This was my first big screen experience for a film since seeing Portrait of a Lady on Fire for the second time, 147 days earlier, and it’s another French film directed by a woman, the title literally translating as “Next”. It’s very different in its setting though, being about a woman training to become an astronaut, but there feels like something similar to it, in its scope perhaps or the feeling with which it is imbued.


Like a lot of the best films about space travel, this is really about the human relationships on the ground, to the extent that it never actually goes into space (that would presumably have put it in a different category for the producers trying to scrounge a budget). Still, it’s got Eva Green and she’s giving a fantastic and controlled performance as the leading lady, so it has all the special effects you could possibly want. She plays Sarah, a French astronaut training for her first flight in Germany and then Kazakhstan (nimbly switching languages from line to line, whether German to her husband played by Lars Eidinger, French, English and then Russian), but trying to deal with her daughter (Zélie Boulant-Lemesne) at the same time. You could say that films about male astronauts don’t deal with the family quite so much, but that’s presumably why Matt Dillon is cast as Mike, a sort of lunkish, sexist guy, a very all-American type familiar from the genre, who has rather set ideas about women (though he has his sensitivity at times, too, so it’s not a one-note performance). For the most part I really liked the way the film handled its central themes, but the one moment that lost me a bit was well, no spoilers… but let’s just say that someone breaking quarantine maybe doesn’t go down quite as well in mid-2020 as when this film was made.

Proxima film posterCREDITS
Director Alice Winocour; Writers Winocour and Jean-Stéphane Bron; Cinematographer Georges Lechaptois; Starring Eva Green, Zélie Boulant-Lemesne, Matt Dillon, Lars Eidinger, Sandra Hüller; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 8 August 2020.

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)”

Tu crois que la terre est chose morte (You Think the Earth Is a Dead Thing, 2019)

I think my favourite documentary at the Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects online programme 2020 was this French documentary about its overseas dependency of Martinique, which ties in environmental damage with a legacy of colonialism and slavery in surprising and interesting ways.


It’s fairly common to see films about the global environmental crisis, and also occasionally one sees films that deal with the legacy of slavery and colonialism, but it’s particularly interesting the way this film deals with both. In many ways these topics are interlinked, particularly on the island of Martinique where this film is set. Here the French colonialist legacy of sugar plantations (and their ongoing importance to the economy and its export trade) ties in with agricultural pesticides which have undermined the environment, as well as the primarily Black workers whose lives have been threatened by both these things, and who keep herbal remedies alive from generations before. Interviews are filmed with these farmers and plantation hands as they do their work, which exerts its own fascination, and the film’s thesis comes out gradually.

You Think the Earth Is a Dead Thing film posterCREDITS
Director Florence Lazar; Writers Lazar and Jean Breschand; Cinematographer Roland Edzard; Length 70 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Wednesday 1 July 2020.

Seekers (2020)

Among the films at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest online programme, there seemed to be a particular focus on indigenous voices and stories, whether Brazilian tribal people or the Native Americans at the heart of this documentary. It’s by a French director, so it’s an outsider’s perspective, but it’s still a beautiful and interesting film about different ways of living in an essentially white supremacist society.


The start and end of this documentary presents archival footage of Native Americans and the context of their modern existence at the hands of colonial interlopers, being forced into pedagogical systems that proclaim a “civilising” influence, or clashing against forces of the state protecting white supremacy. In some ways, I’d have been interested to see a film about that, but director Aurore Vullierme is an outsider (not unlike Chloé Zhao with her wonderful features set amongst Native Americans) and her story focuses on one man, who has just lost a local election. It’s a little unclear why exactly he’s the focus, and the sense you get as the film unfolds is somewhat elegiac, of a man who is passing down the baton of fighting for rights and to uphold the hopes of their nation to his children, as he’s pushed out by what is assumed to be corrupt forces. But really this is just a sort of hang-out documentary, giving a sense of his life and that of the community he is a part of, and on that level it’s engaging and likeable, even if it feels a little meandering at times.

Seekers film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Aurore Vullierme; Cinematographer Lucile Mercier; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Saturday 27 June 2020.

Trop tôt/Trop tard (Too Early/Too Late, 1981)

I wrote about Straub/Huillet’s Antigone in last week’s ‘cinema of resistance’ theme, as a sort of abstract text touching on ideas of resisting authority, but in looking at history, their work also draws out plenty of important themes, largely with regards to class consciousness. Like the films by Ulrike Ottinger and Ruth Beckermann that I covered earlier today, also in the essay film/travelogue vein, Too Early/Too Late juxtaposes historical texts with present reality, drawing out both change and continuity over time.


I think I may like this film best of Straub/Huillet’s works that I’ve seen, though even on second viewing I can’t pretend it’s all gone into me, and an academic introduction to the screening did rather impress on me how little purchase I have on the language for describing this kind of cinema. The film’s topic (and its title) is about the way that revolution never comes at the right time, so I gather. The film itself is structured into two parts, one set in France, the other in Egypt, accompanied by the reading of texts about class consciousness from either country (the one for France is Friedrich Engels, read by Huillet herself in heavily-accented English, and the Egyptian text is by a pair of academics writing pseudonymously as Mahmoud Hussein). The texts don’t exactly match what we see, but seem to be discussing the places shown. For the French-set scenes, Engels runs down a list of various rural towns and the numbers of people within them who live in poverty. We don’t see many people here, but there are a huge number of cars, and these signs and sounds hint at changes to working conditions that the images, in the placidity of the rural scenes, also belie.

Formally, the strategy seems to be constant movement. The camera starts in a car circling a roundabout in Paris (I’m going to guess Place de la Bastille) until the audience is dizzy, and then subsequent images show the camera panning across small towns and then back again constantly. In the Egyptian scenes, we see more people, walking or on bicycles, so at times the camera just sits still and watches them move around and across the scene (such as one memorable scene mimicking the Lumière brothers’ “La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon” [Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory]). Another shot tracks along a dirt road for the same amount of time as the roundabout in Paris, but here the movement is linear towards the horizon rather than circular. The use of the camera thus seems to be creating formal parallels (as well as dissonances) between the two locations, all while the spoken texts emphasise an understanding of the operation of class consciousness.

However, even if I can’t fully grasp every element of the discourse, I do like a good piece of slow cinema, and for a change with these filmmakers (unlike in, say, Fortini/Cani), there is plenty of time to process the words, as the visuals have an almost hypnotic effect, beautifully framed and shot.

CREDITS
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (adapting a letter to Karl Kautsky and the essay “Die Bauernfrage in Frankreich und Deutschland” [The Peasant Question in France and Germany] by Friedrich Engels, and the book La Lutte des classes en Égypte de 1945 à 1968 “The Class Struggle in Egypt from 1945 to 1968” by Adel Rifaat عادل رأفت and Bahgat El Nadi بهجت النادي [as “Mahmoud Hussein” محمود حسين]); Cinematographers Caroline Champetier, William Lubtchansky, Robert Alazraki and Marguerite Perlado; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 30 November 2003 (and most recently at the ICA, London, Tuesday 19 March 2019).