Welcome to Sodom (2018)

My week themed around African cinema has focused on films by African filmmakers dealing with their own history, political issues and lives, whether in Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad or Mauritania (and, in my previous themed week of Arab-language cinema, in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia as well). However, when looking at cinema about Africa it’s impossible to avoid Western voices. Even in many of the films that I’ve looked at, most notably La Femme au couteau (1969), the coloniser is an unseen but powerfully abusive presence throughout. Therefore, it’s worth pointing out that this documentary about Ghana is by two Austrian filmmakers, and while the subject may be on an environmental catastrophe largely wrought by Western demand for consumer electronics, it also perhaps betrays a certain way of looking at Africa, which you can also sometimes perceive in films by auteurs like Claire Denis, who frequently deals with Black and African bodies, given her upbringing in colonial Africa, or Bertrand Tavernier in Coup de torchon (1981).


This documentary is filmed in Agbogbloshie, an area of Ghana’s capital Accra where electronic waste is dumped and recycled by an itinerant community which has sprung up around this former swamp land. There are some rather thin statistics that start and end the film (translated indifferently into English), which hint at Western complicity in this very literally dirty business, but most of what we see is just the tangible sense of this lived reality. The sense I get of what the filmmakers are trying to do is the kind of epic cinema of fallen humanity as in, say, Herzog’s Lektionen in Finsternis (Lessons of Darkness, 1992), for this film really privileges the visuals over any kind of contextualising or historical research. And like Herzog’s film, this Austrian film could also be critiqued for its white European gaze on a treacherous African hellscape, but when dealing with Africa on film the European gaze becomes inevitable to deal with at times.

That the area, nicknamed “Sodom” by its inhabitants, is polluted is evident in every frame, and the many fires which are set to strip valuable copper wiring of their plastic must account for much of the health risks. We also hear from a number of people (I’m not clear if they are the voices of the people themselves, or of actors, as they are overlaid on the soundtrack), but the stories are more than just your standard ones of people living in poverty: these are people who have chosen for various reasons to come here, and who despite the horrific reality of life have found value in living and working there. We hear from a gay Jewish man who has fled his native Liberia and is living on the margins to escape persecution, from a boy who resists the identity he was assigned as birth, and prefers the manual labour of the men in the camp. We see plenty of the women too, many of whom are engaged in cooking for the camp, or transporting packs of water in chilled buckets on their heads, which are used by the men tending the fires to keep themselves and their wires cool.

It’s a very tactile film that goes big on the senses — and there’s some rather catchy hip hop music being produced by inhabitants of the area too, which breaks up the action a little — but don’t expect to learn too much about why this area exists or what’s being done to mitigate its evident environmental dangers. This is a cautionary tale intended to make us think about our own use of consumer electronics and where they ultimately end up.

Film posterCREDITS
Directors Christian Krönes and Florian Weigensamer; Writers Roland Schrotthofer and Weigensamer; Cinematographer Christian Kermer; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha Dochouse), London, Sunday 17 March 2019.

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Transit (2018)

Taking a brief break from my week’s theme of African cinema, I wanted to highlight a new release to UK cinemas this week which is one of my favourite films of the year I’ve seen so far, and which is definitely worth a trip to the cinema to see. The director’s previous film, Phoenix (2014), has already made it to the Criterion Collection (though it will be some time before a review of that makes it to my blog). However, he’s definitely a well-regarded contemporary German director worth watching.


For whatever reason, I’d not seen a Christian Petzold film before, but this is mesmerising work. In the early scenes, Georg (Franz Rogowski) is meeting a man at a café in Paris; there’s tension in the air as several police vans go hurtling past, and a sense that both these characters are being hunted; a plot is set in motion whereby Georg must deliver some documents to a fellow of theirs. So far, pretty standard thriller stuff, but then some dialogue suggests they are in flight from Germany and some unnamed authoritarian power, and suddenly you wonder if this is in fact the 1940s — there are no mobile phones in evidence and there’s none of that self-conscious recreation of the past you get with historical dramas (though there are some dowdy decaying hotel rooms with a faded sense of history to them), but the streets and the vehicles are modern, so there’s an immediate disconnect. Petzold exploits this beautifully, in updating a Nazi-era novel, to evoke an alternate reality which, sadly, doesn’t ever seem so very far from our own. We never do learn who people are running from — the characters here end up in Marseille desperately seeking passage via sea to Mexico or the US — or what exactly is the “cleansing” the fascists are enacting, but you never really need to know except that the characters live in fear. There aren’t many films that conjure a dystopia in a sunny French seaside city without the need for gloomy lighting or fascistic banners: this is our world, precisely unaltered and unadorned, but yet undeniably a dangerous place.

Transit film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Christian Petzold (based on the novel by Anna Seghers); Cinematographer Hans Fromm; Starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 10 August 2019.

Rafiki (2018)

My week of African cinema has covered many different countries, touching on issues of post-colonialist political transition, civil war, religious divides and the like. However, increasingly filmmakers are grappling with social issues that have been undervalued across a largely conservative continent. The issue of LGBTQ rights comes up in this recent film from Kenya, which amongst other things was notable for being (at least briefly) banned in the country.


A charming, brightly coloured, energetic film set in Kenya about two young women falling in love, and their lives growing up in a suburb of Nairobi, with parents each running for political office and a general sense of neighbourhood gossip. It hits a lot of points that are maybe somewhat familiar, but in a setting and featuring characters who very much aren’t (at least, not in the cinema most of us get to see in the UK). It’s not that it finds a new message, but it’s an enduring one all the same, and the story it tells is told very well, with a glossy sheen and easy performances from all the leads that belies its presumably low budget origins.

Rafiki film posterCREDITS
Director Wanuri Kahiu; Writers Kahiu and Jena Cato Bass (inspired by the short story “Jambula Tree” by Monica Arac de Nyeko); Cinematographer Christopher Wessels; Starring Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 14 October 2018.

Two Recent Nollywood Films on Netflix: Lionheart (2018) and The Department (2015)

These two recent Nollywood films (which is the popular name for mainstream film production in Nigeria), both by women directors, share that they are set against the backdrop of office politics. Within them is the suggestion, though each follows its own genre cues, of a shared problem in how the country deals with women in positions of authority. They may not have the polish of Western films (thanks largely to their shoestring budgets), but both are pretty successful exercises and well worth watching. It’s worth noting that the director of The Department has also made a number of documentaries, including Faaji Agba (2015), which I reviewed a few years ago.

Continue reading “Two Recent Nollywood Films on Netflix: Lionheart (2018) and The Department (2015)”

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.

يوم أضعت ظلي Yom Adaatou Zouli (The Day I Lost My Shadow, 2018)

With the rather slender excuse that there’s a documentary about Gaza out in British cinemas today, I’ve been doing a week of Arabic language cinema over here on this blog, for which I’ve featured films from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt (both old and new), Palestine and Lebanon. I always focus on a new release on Friday, so I’m featuring this film which screened at last year’s London Film Festival. Syria is a country with a long, rich history, which these days is far more often the focus of news reporting thanks to its Civil War that has raged for the past decade. The condition of life in that country is still only a small subject in cinema, which is why accounts such as that of the French-born Syrian director Soudade Kaadan are so welcome.


There’s a magical realist element to this tale of ordinary survival during wartime in Syria — that’s what the title is referring to, the way that people’s shadows just disappear at times of crisis. It’s an attempt by the director to metaphorically grapple with concepts that are perhaps too big to really convey on film — the enormous stresses that wars can inflict on a civilian population (and somewhat recalling the recent Iranian-British film Under the Shadow). That said, I think that was probably the element that worked least well for me in what is otherwise a very capably-crafted tale of quotidian struggle, as Sana (Sawsan Arsheed), a woman looking for gas to cook food for her young son, finds herself bundled up in a car with some others in the same situation, which then ends up hurtling through armed checkpoints into the countryside, whence she must make the trip back to the city.

It’s these small details of keeping a life going when bombs and guns are going off around you — looking for gas and food, hoping the water stays on long enough to wash your clothes, and the desperation just these simple things provoke — that are most effective in conveying the situation. The quest narrative added on top of that makes literal the long trudging journeys that scarcity requires, giving a sense of what every day must be like. And so the disappearing shadows are just an extra element, though they give a sense of poetry and mystery to what is, sadly, a very unpoetic life.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Soudade Kaadan سؤدد‬ كعدان; Cinematographer Éric Devin; Starring Sawsan Arsheed سوسن أرشيد, Reham Al Kassar ريهام الكسار, Samer Ismael سامر إسماعيل; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Monday 15 October 2018.

صوفيا Sofia (2018)

This feature film by a Moroccan woman director, which screened at the recent Shubbak Festival of art from the Arab-speaking world, was introduced there by the excellent British-Iranian producer Elhum Shakerifar (who for me most notably programmes the Middle Eastern and Arabic language films for London Film Festival, which have been a favourite of mine for several years). I didn’t always love it, but it shows a great deal of promise.


The title character’s affectless way of just looking like a deer trapped in headlights somewhat guides this film, as she gives frustratingly vague answers (if she gives any answer at all) to those who question her. She’s given birth to a baby out of wedlock — in what must be about the quickest pregnancy to birth sequence in any film — and this is, as the opening titles make clear, a big problem in conservative Morocco, where having sex out of marriage carries with it a year in jail. But in a sense that unjust law is merely what motivates a drama that goes further than just asking who’s the father, as she starts (in a rather strange way) to realise some power in her situation. Part of that is also a matter of class, as her cousin and aunt are very wealthy and chic, more European than Moroccan, and live in a nice neighbourhood. This accident of birth means she already has access to more resources than most, which becomes clear in the differential between her and the ostensible father, Omar, and between him and his own family. I can’t say I always responded to the central performance, but the film is examining some interesting dynamics in modern Morocco.

The film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Meryem Benm’Barek-Aloïsi مريم بنمبارك; Cinematographer Son Doan; Starring Maha Alemi مهى العلمي, Sarah Perles سارة بيرلس; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Wednesday 3 July 2019.

حقول الحرية Huqul Alhuriya (Freedom Fields, 2018)

Like so many in the region, Libya is a country with a troubled recent history, and so there has been little filmmaking as such from there. The documentary I cover in the review below is therefore primarily a British production by a British woman director (whose father was from Libya), and takes an unusual subject matter: women involved in sport. In that respect, it recalls for me the recent Canadian-Palestinian documentary Speed Sisters (2015).


Like a lot of documentaries this was a labour of love over many years with a lot of disparate sources of funding, but it remains a portrait of modern Libya as told through the stories of women on a Libyan football team (not really the national squad, exactly, because there’s little enough recognition for women’s football, but they might as well be). The strength of the movie — again like a lot of documentaries — is in its subjects, who come from a broad range of backgrounds, from well-educated middle-class daughters of prominent conservative families, to ones from various parts of the country covering differing ethnicities and backgrounds. One even hails from what is now a ghost town, from which its entire population was displaced due to conflict.

They are united by sport, perhaps, but maybe more by the desire for a different future, and of course we see a bit of the country’s political turmoil in the background — online images of conservative clerics, news footage of fighting and fires and revolutionary change — while the intertitles date the footage from the “Libyan revolution” (in this case, the civil war of 2011), but the film remains focused on the women. They express themselves on the field, and in rides with the director in their cars, where they sing along and eat ice cream and generally get to speak out more freely. That’s perhaps part of what the title is alluding to: this isn’t just about football (in fact, it’s not until quite late in the film that we get to see them actually competing), but about women’s liberation more generally, a struggle that’s ever continuing, especially in Libya.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Naziha Arebi نزيهة عريبي; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 11 October 2018.

La camarista (The Chambermaid, 2018)

I wrote about this Mexican film, which I saw at last year’s London Film Festival, in my round-up of my favourite LFF films, and it also made #13 in my favourite films of 2018. Now it’s getting a proper cinematic release in the UK, so if you haven’t seen it, please do.


At the level of plot, almost nothing really happens in this film — a young woman called Eve (Gabriela Cartol) works as a hotel cleaner, and moves around its spaces almost anonymously. Guests ignore her, and those who do seek her help and show appreciation — like a rich Argentinean woman who asks Eve to look after her baby for a few minutes while she’s in the shower, then proceeds to offer her lucrative work in Buenos Aires — disappear from her life with ease. She joins a work educational scheme that is summarily cancelled by the union. At length, she shares a few laughs with co-workers, but even they let her down in the end. Yet while in content it could be grim and unrelenting, it’s really not — and a lot of that is down to the central performance. Eve just wants to be noticed and appreciated, it seems, but she’s enigmatic and reserved, and if it weren’t for the lead actor, maybe even we wouldn’t notice her. It’s a compelling character study, and a fine debut feature.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Lila Avilés; Writers Avilés and Juan Carlos Marquéz; Cinematographer Carlos Rossini; Starring Gabriela Cartol, Teresa Sánchez; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.

Two Recent Mexican Documentaries by Women: Tempestad (2016) and Faust (2018)

On my regular Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday slot, I don’t have any specific women in Mexican cinema to focus on, as there haven’t been a huge number over the years (far more as actors than in the major roles behind the camera), but there have been an increasing number of documentaries of interest. Both the ones I focus on below sit somewhere between narrative and documentary, blending observational techniques with a more poetic sensibility.

Continue reading “Two Recent Mexican Documentaries by Women: Tempestad (2016) and Faust (2018)”