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.

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)”

Two 80s-Set Films by Pablo Trapero: El Bonaerense (2002) and The Clan (2015)

Both of these reviews, written back in 2016, are fairly short, but they deal with a filmmaker who’s considered one of the major forces in contemporary Argentinian cinema, crafting small dramas as easily as big family stories. The only other film of his I’ve seen was 2006’s Born and Bred, but his films have all been worth watching.


There’s a wash of grainy texture to El Bonaerense, a film set in the 1980s as far as I can tell (unless they really are as backwards as their morals), as a small town locksmith finds himself framed for a robbery. He’s swiftly swept up into the metropolitan police force (El Bonaerense, for Buenos Aires) by an uncle who’s owed a favour. That’s generally how the story proceeds, with even the ‘nice’ guys prone to taking bribes and administering a corrupt sense of justice. No one but the director comes out of this situation well.

Trapero remains a fine stylist for his more recent film The Clan, which is a true crime story also set in the heady Argentinean 1980s, and there are solid performances throughout. I gather that all crime films after Scorsese have to juxtapose their stories with cranked-up pop music, but if you’re going to do that, this film does it pretty well in following one Argentine family, who are up to all kinds of no good. Trapero seems interested in interrogating his country’s past via stories of low-lifers, and he keeps the films moving along a swift clip, with no little style to the way he frames and edits his work.

El Bonaerense film posterEl Bonaerense (2002) [Argentina/Chile/France/Netherlands]
Director Pablo Trapero; Writers Nicolás Gueilburt, Ricardo Ragendorfer, Dodi Shoeuer, Trapero and Daniel Valenzuela; Cinematographer Guillermo Nieto; Starring Jorge Román, Victor Hugo Carrizo; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 28 August 2016.

The Clan film posterEl clan (The Clan, 2015) [Argentina/Spain]
Director/Writer Pablo Trapero; Cinematographer Julián Apezteguia; Starring Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Sunday 11 September 2016.

Mi amiga del parque (My Friend from the Park, 2015)

It feels like since the arrival of Lucrecia Martel in the new millennium, there’s been a flourishing of women directors in Argentine and South American cinema, covering a range of genres. Looking at her filmography, Ana Katz, an actor and director who emerged around the same time, has tended towards more populist forms like comedy, though this one sits much more in one character’s head, as a sort of psychological horror film of sorts.


An odd film which starts in the park of the title, then the comfortable apartment of lone mother Liz (Julieta Zylberberg), whose husband is off overseas working, and seems to be telling a story of a middle-class woman’s struggle to parent her baby by herself. It then sets up a meeting with another single mother, Rosa (played by the director, Ana Katz), an older woman who is clearly less well-off, in that park and starts to veer into psychological terror territory. It continues to flirt with playing out Liz’s increasingly paranoid fantasies, stopping just short of that, but nevertheless says something about the incipient terror of motherhood, not to mention being a story of the way class relations play out, as it maintains a constantly uneasy tone in the friendship between the two women.

My Friend from the Park film posterCREDITS
Director Ana Katz; Writers Inés Bortagaray and Katz; Cinematographer Guillermo Nieto [as “Bill Nieto”]; Starring Julieta Zylberberg, Ana Katz, Maricel Álvarez; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 3 April 2018.

Sonita (2015)

This week I’m covering documentaries which screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the past (this year’s programme is online, and taking place this month), and the 2016 winner of the Youth Jury Award was this film about an Afghani/Iranian rapper who left to pursue her musical dreams and now finds herself a de facto activist against child weddings.


A sweet and likeable film about a young Afghani woman living in Tehran, Sonita Alizadeh سونیتا علیزاده, whose family want to sell her as a bride but she has different ideas. Specifically of course, as documented by the film crew who are following her, she wants to be a rapper. Along the way she drags the director into her plans and things take a different turn from what we expect. The film gives a strong sense of the intersection of tradition and patriarchal violence, and from a Q&A at the screening afterwards, Sonita’s dreams after the film were of becoming a lawyer and working against child marriage, so that’s pretty great too.

Sonita film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami رخساره قائم مقامی; Cinematographers Behrouz Badrouj بهروز بدروج, Ali Mohammad Ghasemi علی محمد قاسمی, Mohamad Hadadi محمد حدادی, Arastoo Givi ارسطو گیوی, Parviz Arefi, Torben Bernard, Ala Mohseni; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Friday 11 March 2016.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015)

The historical antecedents to the current turbulent relationship between Black people and entrenched white power in the contemporary United States stretch back a long way, obviously starting with slavery, but developing through the Civil War, Jim Crow policies in the South, the Great Northward Migration of the early-20th century (on which topic The Warmth of Other Sons by Isabel Wilkerson is excellent), and then the Civil Rights era. It is during this latter period that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (they subsequently shortened their name) were a key player. Agnès Varda filmed a short documentary about them in 1968, but a more thorough retrospective work is this one by Stanley Nelson. Incidentally, you can see a bit of their current work in Roberto Minervini’s documentary What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2019). The Black Panthers continue to be committed to supporting their own communities in straitened times. The hope for revolution may have receded, but systemic change is very clearly still very much required, and ever more urgently so.


A solid, involving and engrossing story that is rooted in the displacement and fallout from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s which leads to the formation of the Black Panther Party, which took a rather more militant stance towards (white) aggression but also underpinned it with radical transformative community-based care. It’s in some sense a story of resistance to power, an almost utopian viewpoint albeit one grounded in bitter reality, undone by the forces of the state — and this is where the film’s real bad guys, the FBI (supported by the police), come in. Of course, the story is never really straightforward, and there’s some infighting and fall-outs along the way from within, but on the whole this film is clear about what the Black Panthers were offering, and how tantalisingly close they came to true revolution before being targeted and all-but-destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover’s Feds.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution film posterCREDITS
Director Stanley Nelson Jr.; Cinematographers Rick Butler and Antonio Rossi; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 24 October 2019.

มหาสมุทรและสุสาน Maha samut lae susaan (The Island Funeral, 2015)

Thai cinema isn’t exactly filled with women directors, so one of the few who is working (sporadically), since her first feature film in 2003, is Pimpaka Towira. This Thai film, like the recent Pop Aye I reviewed earlier, is also a road movie of sorts, tracking its way slowly across the Thai countryside.


A strange, slow film with a very conscious way about it, moving slowly across the Thai landscape. It’s a road movie featuring a trio — a brother and sister (Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk and Sasithorn Panichnok) and the brother’s friend Toy (Yosawat Sitiwong) — who are journeying to their aunt, who it turns out lives on an island quite far from the urban trappings of civilisation. Other reviews I’ve seen have talked about the political references, but those are for people deeply embroiled in Thai politics and culture — as a lay viewer, I didn’t really pick up on much of that at all. Rather this feels like a spiritual quest in which several characters are challenged by their situation to find new ways of relating to one another and the world — or something of that nature. It’s also beautifully shot, with a graceful wandering camera which encompasses these characters, often in long sinuous takes. However, it requires a tolerance and patience for its slow cinema approach to unfolding the drama.

The Island Funeral film posterCREDITS
Director Pimpaka Towira พิมพกา โตวิระ; Writers Towira and Kong Rithdee ก้อง ฤทธิ์ดี; Cinematographer Phuttiphong Aroonpheng พุทธิพงษ์ อรุณเพ็ง; Starring Sasithorn Panichnok ศศิธร พานิชนก, Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk อุกฤษ พรสัมพันธ์สุข, Yosawat Sitiwong ยศวัศ สิทธิวงค์; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Thursday 27 September 2018.

The Invitation (2015)

The thing about devoting a week to American indie cinema of the last couple of decades is that it tends to cohere around a fairly self-contained representation of society, which is to say it’s very middle-class and white, with a lot of films about struggling post-university 20-somethings and relationship dramas. This is why I wanted to loop in more class-based dramas like Skate Kitchen which deals with a poorer subsection of the otherwise familiar New York City, and while today’s film is about well-off people having a talky social gathering, it does differ a least in tone as it increasingly moves towards horror. (Indeed, there’s actually a subgenre of “mumblecore” dubbed “mumblegore” and while this film isn’t that, it’s interesting to see the way that indie cinema has mutated and spread into genre filmmaking.)


Most horror films, I suppose, are based around the externalisation of fear as something which can attack you, but this one seems to be using grief instead. It’s about a man (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend (Emayatzy Corinealdi) who are invited to his ex-wife’s (Tammy Blanchard) for dinner, where their relationship history is revealed (not such a surprise, but affecting) and something else seems to start taking place. There’s a sense of it developing like one of those Buñuel films, except replacing gradually-mounting absurdism with terror. The director shows her assured control here: there are some great compositions and a slow-building tension that grips throughout.

The Invitation film posterCREDITS
Director Karyn Kusama; Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi; Cinematographer Bobby Shore; Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michiel Huisman, Tammy Blanchard; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 2 August 2016.

Unexpected (2015)

Another filmmaker working in the same vein of improv and talky comedy-drama as Lynn Shelton and the “mumblecore” scene is Kris Rey (née Williams), credited at the time of this, her third film, as Kris Swanberg, given she was married at that time to Joe. I think it’s fair to say she has her own sensibilities, of course, which find good expression in this solidly-wrought and well-acted small ensemble piece.


I wonder if maybe the title is a joke, because really there’s nothing particularly surprising that happens here, but maybe I’m just becoming used to Cobie Smulders appearing in this kind of low-stakes gently-twee American indie/improv film (she was in Andrew Bujalski’s Results the same year, as well). That said, focusing on a pregnancy isn’t all that common a theme — outside jokey Knocked Up-type films about loser dads — and everyone does a good job. Smulders is a teacher, while Anders Holm has another of those smugly infuriating nice guy roles as her husband (he had a similar role in The Intern, again made the same year). The film loops in class concerns by having a parallel story of one of her black school students (Gail Bean) who’s in the same situation, though without Smulders’ race- and class-based privileges that she is entirely unaware of, and that’s really what the film is interested in exploring. It may not be challenging, but it’s sweet and pleasantly undemonstrative and after some of her former-partner’s works that can definitely be a very good thing.

Unexpected film posterCREDITS
Director Kris Rey [as Kris Swanberg]; Writers Megan Mercier and Rey; Cinematographer Dagmar Weaver-Madsen; Starring Cobie Smulders, Gail Bean, Anders Holm, Elizabeth McGovern; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 15 September 2016.