I think if we’ve all learned anything from the last few decades of study and research about women in cinema is that there has been a paucity of women creating cinema since the silent era, i.e. from when cinema started to be seen as a viable industry and not just a hobby or a sideshow. This means a lot of women’s work in cinema has been in non-commercial spheres like the experimental avant garde, or else in oppositional contexts, and that is where we find the French/West Indian filmmaker Sarah Maldoror, who chose her surname and began to make films with her Angolan nationalist husband after having been an assistant on The Battle of Algiers. That first short I review below was also made in Algeria, but is specifically about the Angolan situation, before its independence. She made a feature film a few years later, Sambizanga (again filmed in absentia in the Republic of Congo/Brazzaville, but about Angola), which I will be covering shortly in my Global Cinema series when we get to Angola. Sadly, Maldoror died earlier this year, in April 2020, as a result of complications from COVID-19, at the age of 90. The three short films below were made available for a short time by Another Gaze journal, in support of a panel featuring her daughters, poetry recital, and a discussion amongst film critics, which was insightful and also, for me, rather unusual in centering the experiences of African and Caribbean women.
This week I’m theming my films around a rather intangible concept I’m calling the “Cinema of Resistance”, a title that’s been applied to a wide range of films in various film programmes over the years, but which I am defining as films either opposed to the forces of authoritarianism, fascism, white supremacy and colonialism, along with the other power structures used to oppress people and popular dissent, or films which elucidate those structures (and, generally, to understand the workings of systems of oppression is the first step towards dismantling them). Therefore a number of the films this week will deal with revolutionaries, or stories that derive from this position. These are themes that remain continually relevant, never more so than in 2020. I am hardly an authority on such things, so my recommendation (aside from the films I’m covering this week) is to educate yourself, read some books, and if you have money support those who are fighting for these causes.
Today’s film is by Mauretanian filmmaker Med Hondo, a number of whose works I’ve already covered, like the magisterial West Indies (1979) or the indigenous epic of resistance, Sarraounia (1986). However, Soleil Ô is probably his most recognised work, and one that continues to stay relevant over 50 years on. It is sadly not currently available to watch online, though hopefully it will get a proper release in time.
If you want to see what feels like the cinematic scream of an entire race of people against white European colonialist attitudes, then this is probably the film for you. That’s not to say it trades purely in anger, though. A lot of it is almost humorous, and it feels rather episodic in the way it builds up its narratives. Not unlike some of Med Hondo’s other work (e.g. Les Bicots-nègres, vos voisins a few years later), it feels drawn to a variety of forms of expression, channelling something of the thrill of the New Wave in trying out not just formal innovations, but a variety of registers in conveying its clash between the liberal platitudes of post-revolutionary France and the reality of migration from their African colonies. A young African man (Robert Liensol) tries to find a job in a French city, only to run up against racism, abuse and (possibly even worse in some ways, certainly more humiliating) a thin veneer of acceptance from some white people. Some of the film’s methods can get a bit distracting, but Liensol is a fine screen presence and pulls the disparate film together, and it makes enough salient points about the contemptuousness and sheer suffocation provoked by colonialism that it is absolutely worth watching for anyone interested in the racism that is at the heart of ‘Western’ civilisation.
[NB I note that it’s listed as a 1967 production, but it looks from the film as if scenes were filmed later than that (I spotted a big calendar from 1969 in one background), so I wonder if the film wasn’t finished until a few years later? Certainly it feels like aspects of it draw from the events of May 68, and even if they don’t it certainly dovetails nicely into that period of revolutionary ferment.]
Director/Writer Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Cinematographers François Catonne and Jean-Claude Rahanga; Starring Robert Liensol; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 3 December 2019.
Some of the best Australian films really plumb the bleakness at the heart of (their/our) society, and you get the sense that some of that violence and nastiness goes back to the (European, colonialist) foundations of the modern country. That’s certainly the history that Jennifer Kent is confronting with The Nightingale, which took a year or two to get a release in the UK.
Ah yes, the history of Australia: it’s a bit like American history in some respects. It can get quite dark, and The Nightingale is a film that’s intent on peering into that darkness. It’s not a genre film in the way that the same director’s The Babadook (2014) was, except in so far as it plays with a rape-revenge narrative. It tells a gnarly, suffocating tale of British colonialism and state-sanctioned violence, as young officer Lt Hawkins (Sam Claflin) heads north from his rural posting in Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania) to the local city in order to seek a promotion, despite his clearly being unfit for command due to his sadistic violence and inability to discipline his troops (well, perhaps those qualities can’t truly be said to disqualify anyone from command in most colonialist enterprises). Aisling Franciosi’s Clare is the prime object of Hawkins’ violent tendencies, at least at the start of the film, and this section presents a bit of an endurance test (let’s just say that she at least starts the film with a husband and a baby), as the film sets out the circumstances for her pursuit of Hawkins.
Clare begins the film as someone who has been transported to Australia due to a criminal conviction, and the grinding circumstances of criminality, poverty and lack of opportunity, combined with the high-handedness of the British authorities, creates a toxic environment of bitterness and hatred that extends not just within the British settlements but outwards towards the native Aboriginal inhabitants of the country, and at no point does the director spare us from the language or the violence used in pursuit of colonialism. Indeed, at a certain level this film reminded me of The Last of the Mohicans (1992), but only if that film were remade to remove all the elements that make it appealing to cinema audiences, and left only the brute fact of colonial violence and exploitation.
I can’t say that I entirely loved The Nightingale, but I feel as if it fits into a context of films which confront something in history that few films seem prepared to do, territory that in recent Australian cinema is occupied by Sweet Country as one example, though very few other films that have been distributed here in the UK, at least.
Director/Writer Jennifer Kent; Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk; Starring Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 30 November 2019.
Although my theme this week is building up to the release of 1917, this African epic isn’t strictly-speaking a war film (at least as far as its generic cues go), though it deals with a war between European colonisers and an African people who strongly resist.
A bold African epic about the titular queen who resists the French colonising armies in, I gather, what is present day Niger. In terms of the film, the queen (Aï Keïta) is more talked about and feared than actually seen, and in the end it is the white men who sort of do it to themselves, but the focus is on the moustachioed Captain Voulet (Jean-Roger Milo), not very far from some of the roles that Klaus Kinski would play for Herzog, as a power-addled self-destructive little dictator whose military rank makes him believe he is somehow beyond reproach. The film is really about the rot at the core of the colonialist mission, exemplified by this man, whose fixation on defeating queen Sarraounia becomes his undoing. It’s beautifully filmed in widescreen, with a score of traditional African percussion, along with some rousing acting from the non-professional (African) cast. It suggests not just the way that the 19th century European colonial project was resisted by Africans, but also some of the ways that African disunity allowed it to take hold in the first place, while also being celebratory of heroes like Sarraounia.
Director Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Writers Hondo and Abdoulaye Mamani (based on a novel by Mamani); Cinematographer Guy Famechon; Starring Aï Keïta, Jean-Roger Milo; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 7 December 2019.
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.
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.
Following on from my post about John Gianvito’s documentary diptych about the Philippines, which touches on Filipino independence in the late-19th cenutry, another film set touching on the same historical events was made by a Filipino filmmaker in 2009. It has a distinctive style, different from that of his more famous compatriot Lav Diaz, but captures something about how the past intertwines with the present.
There’s a strange and haunting atmosphere imbued with the uncanny that haunts a lot of Guy Maddin’s similar pastiches on silent films, but with more poise and mystery. For a film so short it also nevertheless reminded me of Lav Diaz’s (much longer) film A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016), in that both are set around the turn of the 20th century, at the time just after the Philippines gained its independence from Spain, and which spend a lot of time in lush jungle terrains, though Independencia brings up the American occupation that came soon after independence (and whose effects are arguably still felt, as John Gianvito covered in his documentary epic, mentioned above). What sets Martin’s film apart is the style, which mimics that of early cinema, shot of sets using the sometimes harsh and inconstant natural light of the sun, lending that uncanny quality I mentioned earlier, a sense of a film dealing with a distant past and yet one which nevertheless persists.
Director Raya Martin; Writers Martin and Ramon Sarmiento; Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Tetchie Agbayani, Sid Lucero, Alessandra de Rossi; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 November 2017.
I’ve done a number of themed weeks around genres recently, and I wanted to get back to a country. This Friday sees the UK cinema release of Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary about Imelda Marcos, The Kingmaker, so my week’s theme is going to be the Philippines — mostly by Filipino filmmakers, but I’m starting with an American director looking in. Filipino history isn’t exactly well-known in the west, though a number of the country’s directors have told historical stories in film form, notably Lav Diaz with A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016), in which independence leader Andrés Bonifacio’s wife is a central character (even if the film is more of a poetic-historical interpretation), and the question persists throughout about why Bonifacio was betrayed by his compatriots — one of the reasons why his birth of 30 November (and not his death) is the date used to celebrate him now in the country.
However, there are still questions about the extent to which the Philippines is truly independent from outside political influence (not exactly unusual amongst any country in our globalised modern economy, into one tangent of which recent documentary Overseas provides a fascinating glimpse). The Philippines may have overthrown its former Spanish imperialist masters, but the Americans quickly swooped in during the early-20th century and retain a presence. Over a hundred years later, in the early-2010s, American director John Gianvito put together a carefully-researched documentary diptych themed around the two largest overseas US military bases (at least, until their closure in the early 1990s), both of which were in the Philippines. He calls this diptych “For Example, the Philippines” and one can imagine similar stories in other territories in which the US (or other colonial imperialist powers) have meddled. It’s at once unsurprising, yet illuminating about this specific history, and also in the end utterly focused (even over its cumulative nine hours) about just who is paying the price for this century of imperial ambition. It gives voice to people never usually afforded time in grand political documentaries, and thereby extends the form.
As a documentary this initially comes across as somewhat academic: lots of black leader, intertitles and subtitles with dense historical text and quotations, and an odd interplay of sound and silence, but over the course of its 4hr+ running time, it builds up a complex picture of the legacy of US imperialism in the Philippines, and more specifically the environmental and human cost of their abandoned Clark military base (used as the staging post for all of America’s wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East until its closure in 1991). The interviews with the key modern players in this environmental crisis play out at length, supported by relevant clips and quotes where necessary, and there’s a constant throughline about the fraught history between the two nations (most notably the war with the US which took place after the Philippines declared independence from Spain in 1898), and director John Gianvito continuously probes his interview subjects about what they’ve been taught or know about this war, the answer generally being very little. And so the environmental catastrophe — with its toll on human lives (expressed through images of many many gravestones for children, many of whom never lived beyond a single day), not to mention some pretty harrowing interviews — plays out against a backdrop of historical erasure, the suggestion being perhaps that those who don’t pay attention to their history with respect to American imperialist and militarist ambitions are doomed to repeat it.
Whereas the earlier film was set at the former Clark airbase and its nearby community, this follow-up in Gianvito’s diptych focuses on the legacy of Subic naval base. Both have some protagonists and interviewees in common, notably Teofilo aka “Boojie”, who leads several organisations dedicated to cleaning up the environment around these former bases, which have been so toxic and destructive to the communities (people who originally worked at the bases and even found some economic stability, but now live in great poverty afflicted by diseases brought on by toxic contaminants).
If it were just a journalistic piece about these families, it would be an angry indictment of governmental corruption and lack of responsibility. However, even more than the earlier film, Wake (Subic) weaves in the contested history between the US and the Philippines, in which the former was for a long time the aggressive imperialist power and which even now largely controls many of the political decisions being made in the country, with less direct responsibility than, say, in Puerto Rico (colonised around the same era) but every bit as much disrespect — much of it grounded in racism (alongside, of course, economic profiteering). Indeed, the documentary evidence of early-20th century US military interventions — part of a US-Philippine war which, it becomes evident, is barely taught officially in the country — are chilling, with a series of photos of near-genocidal acts of extermination, alongside written accounts from senior politicians (including a future President, Taft) minimising all this brutal repression in the language of smug westerns spouting their Christian civilising influence (in a country already devoutly Catholic).
Director/Cinematographer John Gianvito; Length 541 minutes (in two parts of 264 minutes and 277 minutes).
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Saturday 4 November 2017 and Sunday 5 November 2017.
I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.
One of the most famous Brazilian films in the mid-20th century was a French-Brazilian co-production, Black Orpheus (1959), marrying a Brazilian setting with an imported director and almost 20 years later, it has some qualities in common with the rather more rare hybrid of Nigerian and Brazilian in Black Goddess. There’s a feeling for the displaced, for folk rituals and syncretic religious figures that both share, perhaps the result of an outsider’s gaze.
This is a curious film. It’s a Brazilian-Nigerian co-production about Babatunde (Zózomi Bulbul), a man seeking an insight into his past — his ancestors were shipped off into slavery in Brazil — by returning there with the symbol of a goddess, in search of that goddess’s priests and answers as to what happened to his ancestor. The opening scenes of 19th century troops wending their way across a mountain, then falling into battle, suggests Werner Herzog — but if one must make comparisons to his work, then it’s worth noting that while his films are from the point-of-view of the coloniser, Ola Balogun makes his from the side of the colonised (a relatively rare point of view, especially in this period).
As Babatunde makes his way around Brazil, he plunges into an almost documentary-like sequence in a favela, then onto a jungle temple (candomblé), taking a woman from back home as his guide, who is trailed by her jealous suitor. Moments of (possibly unintentional) humour come, such as when there is a fight that leads to the suitor’s death and the response is basically an ‘oh well’ shrug. Throughout, the history of transatlantic slavery between Africa and Brazil is emphasised, as well as the continuing hold of syncretic African religions even amongst modern Brazilians. The end of the film sees a sort of ritual in transfigured time that brings past and present into contact, seemingly allowing our protagonist to break the fourth wall and fix his gaze on us.
At my screening, the film was introduced by the director Ola Balogun, whose rather wild and effusive style didn’t address the film itself, but he did tell some Yoruba creation myths, and then invite everyone to dinner on the Friday night, as well as telling us of his interest in clothes design (he gave out his e-mail for those who wanted to get in touch). A singular presence, and one responsible for an oddly fascinating film.
Director/Writer Ola Balogun; Cinematographer Edison Batista; Starring Zózimo Bulbul, Léa Garcia; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Tuesday 26 June 2018.
Born in Argentina in 1966, Lucrecia Martel had a typically Catholic upbringing for the region, albeit such that she only enrolled in an ultra-Catholic school in order to study ancient languages. There she excelled in science and had intended further study in zoology, and even dabbled in farming, but was drawn into more practical studies in consideration of making a living, and bit by bit was drawn into filmmaking, in which occupation she was largely self-taught. She made short films and some documentaries for television during the 1990s, and has made only four feature films for cinema, but already in that time she has proven a keen eye for framing, and a laconic way of drawing out a story. Indeed, after bursting onto the international scene with La Ciénaga in 2001, she has been a model for successive Latin American women directors, if not for an entire strand of arthouse film production. Her films are not immediately accessible, and perhaps that explains her slow output (and the dizzying array of producers and sources of money her films sometimes list), but she also crafts them all very deliberately so perhaps the waits are worthwhile.