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.

찬실이는 복도 많지 Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (Lucky Chan-sil, 2019)

I’m fairly sure that if I watched this little Korean indie film again I’d like it even more. It has a relaxed vibe that may owe a little to Hong Sang-soo, but is mostly down to the film’s director/writer, one of Hong’s former producers, whose directionless character of the title starts to find a little bit of it as the film goes on.


This is hardly even the first South Korean film directed by a woman that I’ve seen about someone who’s already lived a bit of their life (I hesitate to say middle-aged, but sort of on that cusp of it) who feels directionless and unmotivated and unfulfilled. I’m thinking of Microhabitat, though it has a quite different vibe, but also the fact that the central character is a film worker makes me think of Korea’s great indie auteur Hong Sang-soo (again, his works have a quite different feeling, though it turns out that this film’s director did indeed produce many of his films for a period). In any case, Chan-sil finds herself out of a job as a film producer and unwilling to keep on trying to do it, wracked with depression, renting a room off a cranky older woman (“Oscar­™ winner” Youn Yuh-jung), working as a cleaner for a young actress, and generally feeling down. She even gets visited by the ghost of Leslie Cheung (obviously not really him, and with plenty of self-deprecating dialogue at his own lack of resemblance thereto). It’s amiable, if understandably a little meandering (given Chan-sil’s malaise), but I liked it.

Chansilineun Bokdo Manji (2019) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kim Cho-hee 김초희; Cinematographer Ji Sang-bin 지상빈; Starring Kang Mal-geum 강말금, Youn Yuh-jung 윤여정, Yoon Seung-ah 윤승아; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Wednesday 20 October 2021.

Naomi Osaka (2021)

I’m rounding up my favourite films of the year before I get to a list, and the first thing to acknowledge is that this isn’t actually a film. It’s presented as a three-part television special on Netflix. But the chapters are wildly different in length and the total running time puts it firmly in feature film territory. It’s a choice to present it this way, of course, but I watched it all in one sitting and it works perfectly fine that way.


This is an odd way to present what is essentially a feature-length documentary, as three sort-of-half hour episodes in a ‘limited series’. I wonder if that’s just to give more space between them, because although they are all part of a continuous narrative arc, there’s a feeling of chapters which I suppose plays into the way that Naomi Osaka’s (at this point, still fairly short) professional life has panned out, and also the interruption that the pandemic has had not just on sport but on society. Osaka is a reflective interview subject (though her primary interview for the film is presented as a voiceover), perhaps not profoundly deep but why should one expect that from an athlete of her age, but still more reflective than many who are thrust into the limelight in their teens and early twenties. And of course in the hands of Garrett Bradley, who made my favourite film of last year (Time) — at least I think it was last year (time, eh) — there’s an assured sense of how the film constructs its subject, and plenty of empathy. It made me fascinated by her, by her life and career, of what she’s achieved, of what she struggles with and and by the possibility yet to come.

Naomi Osaka (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Garrett Bradley; Cinematographer Jon Nelson; Length 111 minutes (in three episodes).
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 20 July 2021.

你好,李焕英 Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)

Earlier on this year, I took a punt on a random Chinese film which now has turned out to be the second-highest grossing film of the year (probably because China was one of the most unaffected film markets given everything that happened in 2021). It’s also pretty good fun and sweet, so I can recommend it, not that it likely says anything too controversial about the country’s recent past.


So apparently this is (currently) the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, which is pretty cool, and it’s a shame that more Western audiences won’t see it, if the audience at the screening I saw is anything to go by, but then I guess it doesn’t fit the model that most distributors go by when it comes to the kinds of Asian films that get seen widely in the West. Sure, this doesn’t offer any deep messages about alienation or bitterly-observed insights into Communist China, but it is deeply likeable. Its director (Jia Ling) is also the lead star (as Jia Xiaoling), and while she doesn’t exactly pass for a teenager, she almost makes up for it with her dimpled smile and direct, engaging energy, and the story is apparently drawn from her own life.

It starts in 2001, as an accident threatens the life of Jia Xiaoling’s mother (Li Huanying, who is named in the Chinese title and played by Zhang Xiaofei), and it catapults Xiaoling back twenty years to just before she was born, in 1981. This is where much of the film takes place and, despite the rather harrowing set-up, the tone remains pretty light and comedic throughout. There were some jokes that clearly landed with a Chinese-speaking audience, but plenty too that was genuinely funny, and the central emotional core of the film landed pretty effortlessly, as the film switches gears into slightly sentimental weepie territory. Still, the sentiments which come through feel pretty earned, and the whole thing is put together with a slick craft that makes even the hokiest elements seem integral — and crucially, they are all acted with good humour and earnest feeling that doesn’t feel forced. Look, I’ve seen some pretty bad generational family dramedies, and this one stays sweet through to the end.

Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)CREDITS
Director Jia Ling 贾玲; Writers Jia, Sun Jibin 孙集斌, Wang Yu 王宇, Bu Yu 卜钰 and Liu Honglu 刘宏禄; Cinematographers Liu Yin 刘寅 and Sun Ming 孙明; Starring Jia Ling 贾玲, Shen Teng 沈腾, Zhang Xiaofei 张小斐, Chen He 陈赫; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 26 March 2021.

Petite maman (2021)

Another of my favourites of the year, I went to see this twice (the running time helped). The second viewing prompted a long discussion about when exactly it’s set, as it doesn’t appear to be the modern day but the markers of the time period are fairly oblique. The presence of a Walkman suggests to me maybe the early-90s at the latest, but I’m really not sure. Anyway, it’s a U-rated film about children that is still suffused with melancholy.


I’d just finished watching a 10-hour film when I went to see this, so was particularly appreciative of the virtues of concision. This film feels exactly as long as it needs to be. It tells a story that’s about grief and loss, sadness and familial disconnection, but from the point of a view of a child, and formally it sort of matches its narrative structure to that of a child’s game. with all the inventiveness and non sequiturs you might expect, as young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) finds a very similar looking and similarly aged playmate called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) in the forest near her recently-deceased grandmother’s home, with whom she starts to form a friendship. Sciamma has done films about childhood before (the excellent Tomboy) and I particularly appreciate her clear distinction between the two lead actors (sisters in real life, I can only assume from their names) marking them out with different clothes and a hairband for Marion. The film’s conceit becomes clear as it goes on, and yet it still preserves that mystery about really knowing someone else, even the connection one has with one’s own mother.

Petite maman (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Céline Sciamma; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 26 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Monday 20 December 2021.

Global Cinema 31: Canada – Kuessipan (2019)

Having restarted this ‘Global Cinema’ thread, we’re straight into one of the largest countries in the world (by area at least), and also one of the most notable internationally in terms of film production. Some of that comes from shared resources with the USA to its south, but I think Canadian films have a very specific feeling to them, something a little bit dark and oddball. In recent years there have been more films dealing directly with issues related to First Nations and indigenous peoples, which makes for a positive change to their filmic landscape.


Flag - CanadaCanada
population 38,436,000 | capital Ottawa (1.3m) | largest cities Toronto (5.9m), Montréal (4.1m), Vancouver (2.5m), Calgary (1.4m), Ottawa | area 9,984,670 km2 | religion Christianity (67%), none (24%), Islam (3%) | official language English, French (français) | major ethnicity European (73%), Asian (18%), indigenous (5%) | currency Canadian dollar ($) [CAD] | internet .ca

Canada is the second-largest country in the world by total area, stretching from Atlantic to Pacific in North America. It has the longest bi-national land border (with the USA), stretching almost 9000 miles. Its name is now generally accepted to come from the St. Lawrence Iruquoian word kanata, meaning “settlement”, used by the native population when directing French explorer Jacques Cartier to a nearby village, and then used by him to refer to the whole area. Human habitation from Siberia began around 14,000 years ago, and the indigenous peoples remaining in Canada are First Nations, Inuit and Métis (mixed descent people considered separately from the First Nations). European colonisation wiped out indigenous populations, which declined by up to 80% (largely due to disease, but also conflict). Nevertheless the earliest contact was likely peaceful and began with the Norse, and then in 1497 the Italian seafarer John Cabot. However a number of wars were fought between indigenous and French populations in the 17th century into the 18th, eventually leaving Britain as rulers after the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Quebec was granted a degree of autonomy and the use of the French language and the Catholic faith, in order to stave off the independence movement. The initial four provinces (of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) were extended west by a series of acquisitions, and the building of railroads opened up the expanse of the country, but also the clearing of First Nations peoples into reserves. Independence came in 1931, though the country remained closely linked to the UK. National identity grew after World War II, with the Maple Leaf flag adopted in 1965 and official bilingualism in 1969. There are two houses of Parliament, the lower one (the House of Commons) and the upper (the Senate, modelled on the UK’s House of Lords).

Filmmaking in Canada stretches back to the start of cinema itself, indeed to films shot by the Lumière brothers themselves in 1896 at Niagara Falls. Nevertheless, despite this a lot of film production before WW2 was largely documentaries and propaganda, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that federal efforts to foster a feature film industry began in earnest. There were a few notable filmmakers dating back to this period (including experimental auteur Michael Snow), but it wasn’t until the 70s that Canadian cinema came to more prominence, some of which was due to notable horror films such as from Bob Clark and David Cronenberg. There’s a darker sensibility, too, to works by Claude Jutra and Denys Arcand, amongst others, that only extended in future decades. A new wave of sorts emerged in the 1980s with filmmakers like Patricia Rozema and Atom Egoyan, the latter of whom had the first Grand Prix at Cannes in 1997 with The Sweet Hereafter. A large number of US productions have also continued to use Canadian locations for their filming, blurring some of the distinctions between the two markets (and Toronto’s film festival is a major platform for a lot of Hollywood content), but it’s fair to say that in recent years there has been no shortage of Canadian film talent making waves internationally.


Kuessipan (2019)

One of the best things about watching films from around the world is being immersed in stories about people and cultures you’re not familiar with. This is a Canadian film, but this tells a Québec story, and specifically one set amongst First Nations people, the Innu, in the north-east of the province. The story is rather a timeless one, so in that sense there’s nothing new: two young women, one of whom finds herself pregnant too young and somewhat stuck in this little reservation outside Sept-Iles, and the other who has dreams of making it out, going to study in the big city (Québec City), maybe even getting a boyfriend who’s not Innu. These kinds of dreams all play out, with some familiar stakes, but it’s a story told from within the community, by actors and a writer who come from there and know the area well (although the director is not Innu). The emotional moments therefore land particularly strongly, and what initially is confusing and new (to me, as a viewer) starts to feel like a heartfelt portrait of a community.

Kuessipan (2019) posterCREDITS
Director Myriam Verreault; Writers Verreault and Naomi Fontaine (based on Fontaine’s novel); Cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni; Starring Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine, Yamie Grégoire, Étienne Galloy; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Monday 15 March 2021.

A Castle for Christmas (2021)

It’s that time of the year, the time of the year for the extremely bad (but hopefully still fun to watch) seasonal films on just about every channel you care to look on, and as usual Netflix has stepped up to the plate with a bunch of releases. I had hoped to bring you that seasonal treat Spencer for this special day, but inexplicably that hasn’t been released here in NZ yet, so you’ll have to make do with this very bad — but nevertheless compulsively watchable (if only for the car crash of Elwes’s Scottish accent) — film.


The director Mary Lambert is best known for directing horror movies (most famously 1989’s Pet Sematary), and I’d really like to put the knife in and say this is in the same genre, but honestly there is stuff I liked here. It is formulaic in the extreme, and don’t even get me started on Cary Elwes’s Scottish accent (okay maybe do, because it is very bad, just constantly, almost every scene perceptibly worse than the last one), and there are many holes in the plot. The script, in short, is messy. There’s a slightly evil couple who show up at one point in the middle of the film, and you go, “Ah… her ex! Or some nefarious English buyers for the castle. The stakes have just been raised!” but it swerves and you never see them again. The stakes therefore never get raised, and remain firmly at the level of the relationship between Brooke Shields’ American romance writer and Elwes as a Scottish duke fallen on hard times (or hard-ish, well maybe not hard at all really in the grand scheme of things, but hard by the standards of Christmas-themed romance movies). It really is a mess, and the music is mostly pretty bad and makes it seem like it really wanted to be an Irish-set movie (though most of the actors are English, so maybe they should have just sticked to there, as England has castles too). But, for all that, it retains a sort of kitschy charm.

A Castle for Christmas (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Mary Lambert; Writers Ally Carter and Kim Beyer-Johnson; Cinematographer Michael Coulter; Starring Brooke Shields, Cary Elwes, Lee Ross, Andi Osho; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 12 December 2021.

The Power of the Dog (2021)

Jane Campion’s latest directorial effort, her first feature film since 2009’s Bright Star, was the opening film of the New Zealand International Film Festival but it gained a cinematic release while the festival was underway so I went to see it just afterwards. It’s a film that doesn’t reveal its hand until fairly late in the piece, a classic slow burn story, and even by the end there’s still plenty of mystery to the characters, but that makes it all the more compelling in my opinion.


I am aware that this film isn’t for everyone, and honestly I approach this as someone who is not a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as an actor or of Campion’s work this past decade (chiefly on Top of the Lake, though I adore all of her feature films). That said I feel there’s enough here that’s resonant and special, especially within the context of modern film production and certainly among films commissioned by Netflix. This is mostly a film of atmosphere and setting — narratively Montana, but it’s filmed in New Zealand, and I think that’s going to be fairly clear to anyone who’s from either of those places. It’s essentially a two-hander between Cumberbatch’s grizzled older rancher Phil and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, the son of Kirsten’s Dunst’s Rose (who marries Phil’s brother George, played by a doughy-cheeked Jesse Plemons).

There’s a subtle but unavoidable underlying homoerotic tension throughout the film — which mostly comes out within the screenplay as talk about Phil’s now-departed mentor Bronco Harry, but is also clear in some of the loving close-ups that really I can’t explain here but are evident when you see the film — and I think it starts to become clear that Phil has a lot of the same background as Peter. Indeed, he is in a sense a version of the latter, albeit one who has actively remoulded himself to meet the expectations of his era, of his surroundings and of his peers into a more ‘manly’ man. Some of the dramatic moves don’t quite work to my mind — especially the way in which Phil and Peter at one point start to become friendly — but there’s an underlying power to their scenes that has almost a classical tragic resonance as the power balance between the two starts to shift throughout the film. And while nothing much outwardly seems to happen, it’s clear that this subtly sketched yet evident mental struggle between the older and younger men starts to consume both their lives.

The Power of the Dog (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jane Campion (based on the novel by Thomas Savage); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Thomasin McKenzie; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 25 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Friday 24 December 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Titane (2021)

The closing night film of the New Zealand International Film Festival ended up being the Cannes Palme d’Or winner Titane, which is certainly a very bold and disturbing film to be winning major awards but there’s something to that. I was never quite sure if I really loved it while it was going on, but I do know that it was surprising and confrontational, and quite baroquely stylish, with an excellent performance from newcomer Agathe Rousselle and grizzled veteran Vincent Lindon.


Watching this Cannes prize-winning film most strongly reminds me of the work of Claire Denis. The influence of David Cronenberg is perhaps most obvious in its body horror genre trappings, but for me Denis is the influence that seems clearest to me, and partly that’s a matter of tone. The one time I’ve seen Denis discuss her film at a live Q&A was after a screening of Bastards, which also stars Vincent Lindon and is set in a twilight world riven with anger (at least in my recollection), and reading interviews with this film’s director Julia Ducournau reminds me of the way Denis would confront her critics, never seemingly more engaged than when she was outraged by an angry comment.

Clearly there’s a lot that audiences and critics are divided over with Titane, and some of the criticism is probably quite at odds with what Ducournau intended, but it seems at heart to be about human connection. Along the way it dispenses with trite psychologising — we see Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) briefly as a child, but any relationship she has with her parents is very much only indirectly implied, and the reasons for her turning to murder are never really delved into — in favour of a heady immersion into a stylised world of machines and flesh. This isn’t the romantic abstraction of, say, Ex Machina, but instead a very fleshy world of scars and body transformation, which hints at a trans subtext (though the filmmaker denies that) and certainly speaks to gender fluidity, an in-your-face be-queer-do-crimes vibe. That said, when she comes into contact with Vincent Lindon’s firefighter, the film changes perceptibly to being one about acceptance and love despite everything — and there’s a lot there for his character to blindly accept.

The filmmaking is fearless when it comes to bodies, and that much is certainly evident from Ducournau’s debut feature Raw, but it’s also very much within a genre framework where this kind of horror is a little bit abstracted from the emotional reality (a scene with a knitting needle lands very differently in, say, Happening) without entirely relinquishing that primal response. That can make twists like Alexia’s relationship with the car make a certain amount of poetic sense, but her relationship with Vincent seems pretty profound too, and he is great in what must have been a challenging role. The textures of the colours and images, the propulsive music and relentlessness of the endeavour carries it, along with a fair amount of jet black humour. I’m not even sure if it’s a great film, but it feels pretty special.

Titane (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Julia Ducournau; Cinematographer Ruben Impens; Starring Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 21 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Разжимая кулаки Razzhimaya Kulaki (Unclenching the Fists, 2021)

This tough little Russian film screening at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival won a prize at Cannes thanks to Andrea Arnold’s jury, and I think there’s a lot to commend it, even if I didn’t fully connect with it. I think there’s a lot going on that could resonate pretty powerfully for those who tune into its specific vibe — though it’s a fairly bleak one.


The more I think about this film in retrospect the more I have some respect for what it’s trying to do, but certainly while it was playing out, I found it quite a tough watch. This is not so much because of what we see on screen, but the fact that it centres on Ada, a character who is largely hollowed out by childhood trauma. As the source of this pain becomes clearer (and I gather from other reviews that this is much less oblique to native audiences, who will be more aware of the Beslan school siege of 2004), it also makes the behaviour of other characters a little more explicable, like her controlling dad (Alik Karayev) or her hyperactive younger brother (Soslan Khugayev). But it doesn’t change the fact that the lead actor (Milana Aguzarova) has to convey a character who is withdrawn from the world and often frustratingly passive in her dealings with other people, meaning there’s not much for a viewer to latch onto and so this story set in an impoverished part of North Ossetia just ended up washing over me. However, as I said, I do think the story its telling is quite complex and interesting and may work better on a second viewing.

Razzhimaya Kulaki (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kira Kovalenko Киры Коваленко; Cinematographer Pavel Fomintsev; Starring Milana Aguzarova Милана Агузарова, Alik Karayev Алик Караев, Soslan Khogayev Сослан Хугаев; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Wednesday 17 November 2021.