Criterion Sunday 504: Hunger (2008)

The subject of this film is undeniably tough, like Steve McQueen’s later film about American slavery (12 Years a Slave), and one that I had put off viewing for some time. I remember watching Wang Bing’s epic documentary Dead Souls a few years ago (about Mao-era Chinese re-education camps) and one of the most striking and upsetting things was the extensive descriptions of what happens to the human body when it’s starved. Here instead we get a visual depiction, and though McQueen leaves much of it to the last 15-20 minutes, it’s still impossible not to reckon with the image of Fassbender’s body, not unlike that of the slaves in the later film, even if their situations are obviously different. Bodies remain a focus throughout, and wounds, like those on the knuckles of the prison guard that start the film, making us wonder how they were sustained (and pretty quickly we find out). Quite aside from his knuckles, that guard’s fate makes it clear that nobody really benefits from these struggles. That said, McQueen is fairly circumspect with the politics: the points it makes are largely visceral ones, and Bobby Sands’s place in re-energising nationalist republican politics isn’t explicitly confronted, though the centrepiece of the film is a bravura single-shot dialogue he has with a partisan priest (Liam Cunningham) shortly before starting his hunger strike, in which he sets out his philosophical basis for the action. (I didn’t learn from the film, for example, that Sands had been elected an MP in the UK Parliament while he was striking, nor about the specific demands that led to the end of the strike, after 10 men had died.) After all, you don’t need to have characters speaking about the brutality of British rule when it is enough to see the conditions of the prison and their struggles to retain some dignity. So ultimately, for all my fears about the film, it walks a line between the visceral evocation of horror and a visual artist’s eye for semi-abstraction in the compositions; this is McQueen’s debut, but it merely begins a new phase in his artistic work after many years at the forefront of gallery-based visual arts.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve McQueen; Writers Enda Walsh and McQueen; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 5 February 2022.

Global Cinema 32: Cape Verde – Djon África (2018)

Getting back into my Global Cinema strand, which involves me paraphrasing the Wikipedia entries for the country and cinema, along with a review of a film so apologies if that seems lazy. I am hoping it helps me learn about the world. Anyway, the country I’m covering today has always been known in English as Cape Verde, but they prefer Cabo Verde (even in English) so that’s the name I’ll use for the rest of this article. Pedro Costa has dealt with Cabo Verdeans in a number of his films, but there are also some good local films like this one (a co-production with Portugal and Brazil). I’m very worried now about my next visit, which is to the Central African Republic, but I’ll cross that bridge soon.


Flag - Cape VerdeRepublic of Cabo Verde (República de Cabo Verde aka Cape Verde)
population 484,000 | capital Praia (128k, on Santiago island) | largest cities Praia, Mindelo (70k), Santa Maria (24k), Assomada (12k), Porto Novo (9k) | area 4,033 km2 | religion Christianity (85%, mostly Catholic), none (11%) | official language Portuguese (português) with Cape Verdean Creole (kriol) also recognised | major ethnicity not officially recorded but mostly mixed ethnicity | currency Cape Verdean escudo ($) [CVE] | internet .cv

An archipelago and island country in the Atlantic Ocean, comprising 10 islands starting from 600km west of the Cap-Vert peninsula in Senegal, part of the Macaronesia ecoregion. The name comes from the peninsula which itself takes its name from the Portuguese for “green cape”, a name given to it by explorers in the mid-15th century. There was no indigenous population but first became populated by the Portuguese in the 15th century, who used it as a convenient location as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from the 16th century onwards. The earliest settlement Ribeira Grande (now called Cidade Velha) was sacked by Francis Drake amongst others, and Praia became capital in 1770. The decline in the slave trade led to an economic crisis, though ship resupplying continued to be important. Growing nationalism in the mid-20th century led to Amílcar Cabral organising the secret PAIGC for the liberation of Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde, which was followed by armed rebellion and then war in Guinea, which culminated in independence there and then in 1975 for Cabo Verde. A one-party state ceded to multi-party elections in 1991, and the country is now a stable democracy.

Cinema on the archipelago dates back to the early-20th century and naturally still has a lot of ties with Portugal. The first cinema was established in 1922 and there are now two film festivals. A number of films by Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa have been set on the island (such as Casa de lava) or amongst expatriate communities of Cabo Verdeans in Portugal, but a handful of native filmmaking efforts have been made over the years, fiction features as well as documentaries.


Djon África (2018)

This is a very thoughtful film about displacement and belonging, about the lingering effects of a colonial past on a present population, left disconnected from culture and family in profound ways. At the same time it’s a rather likeable film about a young man (Miguel Moreira) who has grown up in Portugal, who’s grifting and getting by, doing some petty thievery and with a girlfriend, but who finds himself drawn to find out something about his father. And so he travels to Cabo Verde, where his dad is from, in the hope of finding him and somehow forging some meaningful connection. His journey takes him around the islands, from the capital Praia to some small towns, and like a lot of road movies, it’s actually a voyage of self-discovery and so there are very few words I could choose to describe this that don’t make it sound like nauseating sentimental nonsense (“he finds out the real meaning of family” or “by facing up to what it means to not be from any place, he discovers where he’s actually from” or something), but actually it’s perfectly judged. It limns the divide between documentary — presenting this man in a world he’s only just discovering, which to a certain extent was the actual lived reality of the actor playing this role, and really conveying the textures of this country — alongside a fictional narrative. The scenes are scripted, and there’s also a febrile sense of the magical or the nightmarish that crops up every so often, blurring distinctions between lived reality and hallucination, and yet it still feels natural and at times improvised. For all that it’s very conscious and thoughtful about its process, though, it never sacrifices naturalism to formal rigours, and retains throughout a loping forward momentum.

Djon Africa (2018) posterCREDITS
Directors João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis; Writers Miller Guerra and Pedro Pinho; Cinematographer Vasco Viana; Starring Miguel Moreira, Isabel Cardoso; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 16 August 2019.

Cousins (2021)

Finishing the week of New Zealand-themed films with one that’s just been released in cinemas here, a multi-generational story written and directed by two women filmmakers, which grapples with some of NZ’s colonialist history and how it has affected several indigenous Maori women.


These kinds of generational stories of trauma, especially ones anchored in memory, feel like the kind of thing that New Zealand filmmakers have been adept at making for some time now. This example is a fine one, with each of the three title characters played by three different actors at various ages (childhood, young adulthood and then, around half a century later I would guess, as old people). The film obliquely blends stories from these three different eras, tying them together with flashbacks but also with visual cues and colours in the set and costume design, which have a poetic feeling to them, and makes up for some of the more sentimental stretches in the narrative. That said, I felt wrapped up in the emotion of the journey, which neatly ties together these strands, evoking a sense of ancestry, of the presence of death and the continuation of life that is presumably drawn from mythology as well as a shared understanding of the meaning of the land and of nature. There’s also, rather more directly, a reckoning with the racist policies of previous generations, especially with regards to orphaned children, keeping them from families deemed insufficiently civilised and placed in foster care (and the foster mother here is a bit of a monster). There’s a lot in the characters here, and in the grand sweep of the melodrama, and for the most part it held my attention well.

Cousins film posterCREDITS
Directors Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith; Writer Smith (based on the novel by Patricia Grace); Cinematographer Raymond Edwards; Starring Tanea Heke, Rachel House, Briar Grace Smith; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 5 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 372: Sanders of the River (1935) and Jericho (1937)

At this remove, of 85 years now, it’s fairly clear that Sanders of the River is condescending paternalistic colonialist propaganda about the civilising influence of the British in their conquest of Africa, specifically among the inland tribes of Nigeria. There are sequences of tribal dances and customs that feels at times close to ethnographic documentary, but it’s all allied to a plot that is just insidiously insistent that Africans can’t govern themselves without the gentle guiding help (and gunboats when necessary) of the British. It’s remarkable then that Paul Robeson agreed to be in this, though by his account it was a different film until late in the editing process. There’s also a fine role for Nina Mae McKinney as his wife, and though neither feels particularly convincing as a Nigerian, it’s clear too that the film has only the most surface of interests in Africa (including a few sequences of dancing women that presumably got by the 1930s censors for their, er, National Geographic ethnographic interest), because the prominence of Leslie Banks’s bland colonial administrator Sanders destabilises the whole thing. Still, for all that I dislike it, it certainly is interesting when viewed in the context of Robeson’s career, and that’s the way that Criterion presents it, alongside Jericho of two years later.

That, of course, is part of the interest in Criterion’s Paul Robeson boxset: his career is a fascinating one, and it wasn’t long after American silent films like Body and Soul before he found more opportunities on the big screen in European productions, with a number of British films in the 1930s. Jericho follows an unhappy experience making Sanders of the River, and gives him a stronger lead role. He plays the titular character (whose full name is Jeremiah Jackson), a sailor during World War I who disobeys his superior officer to rescue some trapped men, accidentally killing the officer in the process. He is court-martialled but escapes, and, in the tortuous way of movie plots, ends up taking up a new life as a leader amongst the Tuareg people in the deserts of North Africa. It’s an interesting portrait of camaraderie amongst Black and white men during wartime, and about the possibility of personal redemption for Jericho, who is essentially a good man and understood as such throughout the film, despite what happened. He gets a slightly annoying American sidekick on his journey to the Tuareg (Wallace Ford), and the final resolution with a fellow soldier who took the blame for his escape (Henry Wilcoxon), doesn’t quite have the emotional heft it probably needs, but it’s a solid role for Robeson and he gets the chance to exercise his vocal cords on a few occasions too.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Sanders of the River (1935)
Director Zoltán Korda; Writers Lajos Bíró and Jeffrey Dell (based on stories by Edgar Wallace); Cinematographers Osmond Borradaile, Louis Page and Georges Périnal; Starring Paul Robeson, Leslie Banks, Nina Mae McKinney; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 15 November 2020.

Jericho (aka Dark Sands, 1937)
Director Thornton Freeland; Writers George Barraud and Walter Futter; Cinematographer John W. Boyle; Starring Paul Robeson, Henry Wilcoxon, Wallace Ford; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Saturday 14 November 2020.

الشرقي El Chergui (The East Wind, 1975)

North African Cinema (or indeed, cinema in any of Africa) never really gets the attention it deserves in the West, and films from the 1970s and earlier seem to be especially rare, but from the 1950s onwards in particular a lot of filmmaking started to spark off across the continent. This Moroccan film is set in this period, the 1950s, when independence was something that started to become a tangible hope for the country (it gained independence in 1956). I saw it at a rare screening at the Barbican, but one can only hope that this and other films of the period don’t disappear entirely.


There are of course various ways and various traditions of making films, even fictional narrative films, and not all of them involve tight pacing and clear character arcs. Moroccan director Moumen Smihi clearly prefers to have his characters almost intrude upon what otherwise seems like ethnographic documentary, languidly paced scenes of a city, albeit focused on its customs, particularly at the more mystical end of things. When we do get plot, it transpires that a young woman’s husband is looking for a second wife, and so she turns to various magical rites to try and dissuade him — but all of that wouldn’t fill up five minutes of time. Instead there’s a real eye, in sparkling black-and-white, for the life of the city (Tangier), apparently on the cusp of some tumultuous events (made in 1975, it was set some twenty years earlier), all of which comes in little snippets. It also features one of the great subtitles: when Aïcha (Chaïri), our lead character, is observing some frightfully English diplomats nattering away at a garden party, the French subtitlers resort to “(Colonial gossip)” to cover it, which is now, in my heart, the subtitle to everything any posh upper-class twit ever says.

The East Wind film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Moumen Smihi مومن السميحي; Cinematographer Mohamed Sekkat محمد سقات; Starring Aïcha Chaïri عيشه شعيري, Ahmed Boda أحمد بودا, Abdelkader Moutaa عبدالقادر مطاع, Leila Shenna ليلى شنّا; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Barbican, London, Wednesday 23 May 2018.

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.

Three Short Films by Sarah Maldoror

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.

Continue reading “Three Short Films by Sarah Maldoror”

Soleil Ô (1967)

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.]

Soleil Ô film posterCREDITS
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.

The Nightingale (2018)

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.

The Nightingale film posterCREDITS
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.

Sarraounia (aka Sarraounia, une reine africaine, 1986)

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.

Sarraounia film posterCREDITS
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.