One of my favourite films of last year was a documentary about filmmaking, and about film culture, in a place where it’s been allowed to die. Four elderly men try to revive cinemagoing in Sudan, and it’s a film about life and the difficulty of living in certain political conditions, but the drive to keep on going anyway.
Although it’s a documentary, fairly straightforward as these things go, there’s something of a deeper resonance to it. Partly that’s the style, the way it unfolds at a leisurely pace. After all, it’s about four elderly filmmakers trying to bring back the cinema to their country of Sudan, trying to find a suitable space, getting the screen and cameras and sound sorted, looking for the right title, and getting the official permissions in order. And so if it feels unhurried, that’s partly because these are all men who don’t have anywhere else to be going, or so it seems. The passion, though, is real and very evident as they try to get their project going. As it moves along, the documentary also hints at some of the promise of Sudanese cinema, which died back when these men were young, and about the political state of their country. In one memorable scene, one of the men counts off all the times they lived through: “colonialism, the first democracy, the first dictatorship, the second democracy, the second dictatorship…” So in fact the film is not really talking about trees or insubstantial subjects, but dealing with something that feels more tragic in its hue. You hope for their success, but it seems to recede further the more the film plays.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Suhaib Gasmelbari صهيب الباري; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 February 2020.
You just have to look at the poster to get the sense that this will be (yet another) feel-good story of poor African people redeemed by magical white Western saviours, but — and I think most reviewers have pointed this out — that would be largely inaccurate. Even when Reese Witherspoon’s employment agency counsellor does appear, once our refugee heroes have made it to the United States, it’s made clear that she’s largely clueless about the refugees’ situation and constrained by many other factors from being of more help to them (though she does what she can). No, this ends up being a story primarily of three Sudanese men and one woman, in two acts: first, as they struggle as children to flee bloody warfare in the late-1980s, eventually reaching a Kenyan refugee camp; and then over a decade later when they are relocated to the United States (a programme which largely ceased in September 2001). It makes plain the struggles that they and their compatriots faced in this period — one which was never exactly top of the Western news agenda (where one African conflict somewhat shaded into all the others) — and imbues a great sense of empathy and humanity to these four embattled young people. Once the film moves Stateside (where we stay with the three guys in Kansas City, Missouri, while their sister is sent away to Boston), there’s a bit of fish-out-of-water comedy, and though one senses that the struggle narrative of the first half could easily be picked up and folded into tensions around immigrants and race, the film thankfully opts instead to embrace a hope for positive change. So The Good Lie may not be perfect, but it’s also warm-hearted and generous to its protagonists, and ultimately a fascinating story well told.
Director Philippe Falardeau; Writer Margaret Nagle; Cinematographer Ronald Plante; Starring Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Reese Witherspoon; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Olympic Studios, London, Sunday 10 May 2015.