NZIFF 2021: Night Raiders (2021)

Just over a year ago, I posted reviews from the 2020 London Film Festival, of which I attended a few online sessions (and which has since returned fully to cinemas this year). However, since 2020 I’ve moved to New Zealand and in November it was the New Zealand International Film Festival, now bilingually rebranded as Whānau Mārama (which loosely translates as “family of light”). Although a COVID-19 outbreak meant that there were restrictions in place (every other seat left empty and very few filmmakers present), it was still great to see these films in person, even if some of the sold out houses seemed eerily quiet.

Anyway, as it’s now December and I’ve only been posting my Criterion Collection films for the last few months, I’ll take some time over the next few weeks to post reviews of the NZIFF films I saw, which will also help us get up to speed before we get to the inevitable ‘best of the year’ lists. I’m going to start with a New Zealand co-production which focuses on issues of indigenous rights and history embedded in a story that by its nature (science-fiction) looks to the future.


This is pitched as a dystopian post-war science-fiction set in a fascist state where kids are taken from poor non-citizens and brainwashed to prepare them for… well, the usual. You know the deal, big Starship Troopers crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale vibes. Many of these tropes are pretty familiar, but this film puts an extra spin on them by using a First Nations perspective, wrapping up race and class with its dystopian oppression and imagining an indigenous resistance movement. In fact it puts plenty of spins on its subject matter and is all the richer for all the ideas it pops out. Some plotlines feel as if they could be more developed but then it wouldn’t be such a fine, tightly structured picture. Plus it’s lovely to see the star and director of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) back on screen again as a fiercely-protective mother who has a heartbreaking choice to make near the film’s outset that resonates strongly enough that it pulls the whole film together even more effectively.

Night Raiders (2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Danis Goulet; Cinematographer Daniel Grant; Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Brooklyn Letexier-Hart, Alex Tarrant, Violet Nelson, Amanda Plummer; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 464: Danton (1983)

I certainly don’t mean to be reductive about what is clearly a grand effort at staging a historical spectacle, but this very much seems to fall into the ‘sweaty men shouting at each other in antique rooms’ sub-genre of historical film. It’s not that any of them is specifically a bad actor — although the dubbing into French of the many Polish actors is a bit off-putting at times — but it is rather reliant on the conflict of men (the few women involved are reduced very much to side figures, a little unfair I think in the case of Camille Desmoulins’ wife Lucile at least, who was a prominent diarist and journalist).

Danton, of course, has the more heroic character in this rendering of history — the film is named for him after all, and is played with all the charismatic charm that Depardieu can bring — but he’s still more talked about than seen. The film focuses far more on his chief antagonist, Maximilien Robespierre (played by a Polish actor, Wojciech Pszoniak), a shrinking and rather pathetic figure here. Patrice Chéreau matches Depardieu for sweaty outrage as Desmoulins but doesn’t get too much time to shine (though his presence reminds me of Chéreau’s own grand historical drama from the following decade, La Reine Margot, an older bit of history but rendered much more lustily and effectively than here). So in a sense the period costuming and other effects — the sweat, the blood, the crumbling architecture — stands just as strongly in for the drama as the actors themselves, which may owe a little to Rossellini’s history films. Rossellini’s films may have a calmer demeanour, but Wajda’s protagonists really like to get stuck in. It doesn’t always serve the film best, but it’s not too dull.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Bolesław Michałek and Jacek Gąsiorowski (based on the play Sprawa Dantona “The Danton Case” by Stanisława Przybyszewska); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring Wojciech Pszoniak, Gérard Depardieu, Patrice Chéreau; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

A film that came out earlier this year, and got some Oscar nods (including a win for Kaluuya), is this impressive biopic. It’s hardly perfect but it’s put together well with some fine performances, and shines some light on an underappreciated aspect of revolutionary American history.


This feels in many ways like a pretty traditional biopic showing all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre, with its arc through to someone’s death, and though it’s not clunky or badly directed, it really stands or falls on the quality of its actors. Luckily Daniel Kaluuya as Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant Bill O’Neal, along with (notably) Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, the partner of Hampton, all do brilliant work. Kaluuya’s is the more up-front role, the more direct angry young man, but it’s Stanfield who particularly impresses as this fraught character (the ‘Judas’), torn in many directions who communicates that well without big speeches, but just in these quiet scenes between himself and his handler (Jesse Plemons), that means the epilogue about the real life Bill O’Neal somehow comes as no real surprise while also being quite shocking. But the greatest shock of the epilogue — and something not fully conveyed by the film and its casting (however fine the actors) — is just how young all these people were. Hampton was 21 when the film ends. It’s a film not just about his work with the BPP but also about the policing culture (at the time, though I think we all know that time hasn’t changed much in that respect), and about the way this authoritarian power was directed at those trying to make positive change and resist the racist, capitalist narratives of the mainstream. Ultimately this is still a studio product, but it allows for those voices to be heard, that protest to be enunciated, and as protest this is striking.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)CREDITS
Director Shaka King; Writers Will Berson, King, Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 March 2021.

الميدان Al Midan (The Square, 2013)

Taking us back a few years to a time when it seemed the world could change for the better. I think the full accounting of the cause and effects of the Arab Spring are probably still quite far away, and this film was made in the ferment of the initial action, at least as it took place in Egypt. It’s a great piece of documentary work, urgent and compelling. Even almost 10 years on, it’s still not clear the direction things have taken, but it’s always useful to show that the people are not entirely without voice in such moments.


There are a lot of documentaries and films about protest (plenty indeed just about the Arab Spring, like the Tunisian film A Revolution in Four Seasons), but The Square — which comes quite soon after the initial events — really seems to capture something of what this means, both in practice, with the immediacy of reportage from sites of revolutionary insurrection and activist struggle, and also in thought. This latter is served by a number of individuals, who perhaps represent a wider cross-section, if not of the full range of society, but of its most reflective participants. Egypt is still working through the legacy of 2011, and the documentary acknowledges that at the end, but the couple of years we see here are pretty compelling.

The Square film posterCREDITS
Director Jehane Noujaim چيهان نچيم; Cinematographers Noujaim, Muhammad Hamdy محمد حمدي, Ahmed Hassan أحمد حسن and Cressida Trew; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 7 December 2016.

我們有雨靴 Ngor moon yau yu her (We Have Boots, 2020)

I don’t have a specific theme for this week on my blog, so I’m just continuing to post some reviews from the Sheffield Doc/Fest.


This feels like a particularly urgent documentary, and as such it has a rather scrappy quality to it. There’s a lot of text and a few interviews, but mainly what it thrives on is the first-person footage of the protests, the civil disobedience, that have galvanised pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong for the last five or six years (at least). As someone who is far outside this particular conflict, there are a lot of people and details to take in, and it can be difficult to follow it all, but then again maybe a proper accounting of this time would take an epic length multi-part documentary. Even the two or so hours we get here (and I gather there have been several edits; this one has an epilogue which takes it up to May 2020, making it very fresh) ping all over the place, but they have an anger and a focus to it that becomes clear, from the covert colonisation being done by mainland China, to the various autocratic laws announced or sponsored on its behalf through pro-China HK leadership, plus the almost inevitable captions for each person we see announcing how they’ve been cracked down on or jailed or censured for their involvement. And as the ending makes clear, this is all very much just the beginning; protest and democracy is an ongoing process and will unfold for many years yet.

We Have Boots film posterCREDITS
Director Evans Chan 陳耀成; Cinematographers Lai Yick Ho, Mo Ming, Wong Hing Hang, Nero Chan, Jeong Hun Lee; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Monday 6 July 2020.

Global Cinema 5: Angola – Sambizanga (1973)

Angola is a country which has been beset for most of its independent existence by war, and continues to be hugely impoverished, so its no surprise there isn’t a huge cinema coming from there. Even the most prominent filmmaking linked to the country isn’t really funded there; Sarah Maldoror was married to a prominent leader in the MPLA, and her films about the country and its colonial troubles were funded by the French, and Sambizanga filmed in the bordering Republic of Congo (aka Brazzaville). Still, it’s very much a film about the situation in the country at a febrile time just leading up to its independence.


Angolan flagRepublic of Angola
population 25,789,000 | capital Luanda (6.8m) | largest cities Luanda, Lubango (601k), Huambo (595k), Benguela (555k), Cabinda (550k) | area 1,246,700 km2 | religion Catholicism (56%), Protestantism (37%) | official language Portuguese (português) | major ethnicities Ovimbundu (37%), Ambundu (25%), Bakongo (13%) | currency Kwanza (Kz) [AOA] | internet .ao

With a coastal plain along the Atlantic ocean and an inland plateau, divided by a mountain range, this is the seventh largest country on the continent, and has a tiny exclave of Cabinda just to the north, divided from the rest of the country by the DRC. The name comes from the Portuguese colonial name, itself derived from the title ngola held by kings in the highland region. Early nomadic tribes gave way to Bantu in the first millennium BCE, and a number of kingdoms were established thereafter in the region. The Portuguese came in the late-15th century, first explorer Diogo Cão, then establishing a trading post; they founded Luanda but had little control over the interior regions until the 19th century. Post-WW2 nationalist movements led to the founding of the FNLA, UNITA and the Soviet-supported MPLA, and independence declared on 22 November 1975. Agitation between these groups then led to a Civil War (with support coming from Soviet and US factions), which lasted sporadically until 2002. The country has yet to recover, and droughts have compounded problems. The government is led by a President, who had been José Eduardo dos Santos for 38 years until 2017.

The first cinemas were built in the 1930s, but many are now in disrepair. After so many years of war, understandably there is very little money available for filmmaking in the country, though there was a small boost in the 2000s after the Civil War concluded.


Sambizanga (1973)

I’d long hoped to see this film — and still do hope for a proper restoration — but it took the director’s recent passing for me to seek it out online, albeit in a poorly-kept print transferred badly to YouTube. However, some films you need to accept how they are if you want to watch them; in some ways, the poor quality and bad subtitling just adds to the film, which deals with Angolan liberation. It’s named for the area in Luanda where the prison is located to which our hero, Domingos (de Oliveira) is taken. He’s a member of the liberatory resistance to Portuguese colonial rule, and is grabbed from his workers’ shack in a nearby community by armed police. The film then intercuts his own tribulations in prison with his wife searching fruitlessly for him in the various prisons in the capital city, as well as other resistance workers trying to discover who this man is who’s been captured. It has the simple power of Soviet cinema in some respects, as it lays out the terms by which independence is fought for in an oppressive colonial system.

Sambizanga film posterCREDITS
Director Sarah Maldoror; Writers Claude Agostini, Maurice Pons, Mário Pinto de Andrade and Maldoror (based on the novel A vida verdadeira de Domingos Xavier “The Real Life of Domingos Xavier” by José Luandino Vieira); Cinematographer Claude Agostini; Starring Domingos de Oliveira, Elisa Andrade; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Saturday 9 May 2020.

Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)

One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.

Continue reading “Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)”

Monos (2019)

As far as revolutionary cinema goes, Monos is very much more about capturing a mood, an intensity to being a guerrilla in the jungle, rather than trading in any particular or specific history. It’s more of a mood piece, and it worked (for me) very well, although critical opinion I’ve seen has certainly been divided. It’s probably not the exemplar of a ‘cinema of resistance’, but it’s about revolutionaries and the idea of resistance.


As an experience of a film, I really liked this. It has a dreamy intensity to it, which starts out as if amongst the legionaries in Beau travail albeit situated in a mountainous and muddy jungle terrain (rather than the heat of Claire Denis’s film) and with teenage revolutionaries in a sort of Lord of the Flies-type dystopia. The Latin American setting and the guerrilla-style warfare that is being undertaken suggests that they are fighting against state suppression and possibly some kind of American military-industrial nexus of capitalist interests, but honestly I’m just reading all that in based on what I’ve seen of South American liberationist history (as it has been portrayed on film at least), and no specifics are ever touched upon here, undoubtedly quite intentionally. However, it has such a concrete sense of place, and evokes such a tangible mood through the movement of the actors in the setting, and the throbbing Mica Levi score, that it achieves something that feels properly cinematic, though perhaps on reflection it’s more of a suggestion of cinema than something fully achieved. What it does evoke is a scenario that could as easily be science-fiction, making it more Hunger Games than Apocalypse Now. Ultimately it feels like more of a cautionary tale about what happens when trust breaks down amongst a group than about any specific socio-political idea, with the curiously gender-non-specific character of Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) a particular highlight for me. It must have been an intense shoot.

Monos film posterCREDITS
Director Alejandro Landes; Writers Landes and Alexis Dos Santos; Cinematographer Jasper Wolf; Starring Julianne Nicholson, Moisés Arias, Sofia Buenaventura, Julián Giraldo; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 13 November 2019.

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”

Two 1986 British Films about Race Relations: Handsworth Songs and The Passion of Remembrance

It can sometimes feel to me as if too many people in the UK (or, say, Australia or NZ, as other examples) look to race riots in the United States and feel somehow as if they are unrelated to struggles taking place in their own country, as if the toxic legacy of slavery in the US doesn’t somehow also apply to other countries, especially ones with their own long colonialist histories. Another sad theme of my week dedicated to the ‘cinema of resistance’ (as I’m calling it), is that struggles that were documented playing out decades ago, and sometimes centuries ago, are still relevant.

Looking to the situation in the UK, these two films were made almost 35 years ago, dealing with race relations — and, in the case of the first film (a documentary), race riots — playing out in the United Kingdom. The impetus to rioting may have been somewhat quelled by a report which identified institutional racism within the police and took steps to alleviate the immediate problems, but it’s certainly very far from the case that the police in the UK (or Australia or NZ) are somehow colour-blind or that there are no cases of violence against the bodies of minority ethnic people. You can look to more recent films like The Hard Stop or Generation Revolution to see that clearly enough, and the ongoing fight against injustice. Race, often intertwined with class, continues to be a source of conflict in most Western countries, and the police and forces of state violence continue to be the main actors, even under conditions where it seems unrelated (witness a report even just today in the UK linking Black and minority ethnicities to higher instances of COVID-related deaths).

For those interested, Handsworth Songs can be watched on YouTube (so look it up), though I can’t find anywhere you can see The Passion of Remembrance.

Continue reading “Two 1986 British Films about Race Relations: Handsworth Songs and The Passion of Remembrance”