Annette (2021)

It’s that period between Christmas and New Year so it’s time for me to post up reviews of my other favourite films of the year, as most of them will be making it into my best of the year list. One recent release is the latest film from Leos Carax, which has plenty of people hating it, and other passionate fans. I’ve never really been into Sparks, though Edgar Wright’s documentary earlier in the year helped me to get my bearings, but I enjoy their arch orchestral pop music and it fits very nicely into this grand folly of a film. That’s exactly the kind of film Carax makes, though, when he does turn his hand to it (his last was 2012’s equally absurd, equally grand, equally green Holy Motors), so I’m not complaining. There are long stretches where it doesn’t work, even is a little bit dull (I find myself unable to warm to Adam Driver’s character for example), but right from that bravura coup de cinéma opening sequence, when the film does spark, it really has no equal in the rest of cinema.


This certainly reads from the reviews as if it’s a love it or hate it sort of film, and I can see why, but that’s always been the case with Leos Carax’s films I feel. That said, its curious blend of self-awareness and anti-naturalism starts right from the opening number (“So May We Start?”), so you should get a good sense pretty quickly if it’s not for you, but it feels to me a bit like La La Land if that film had properly committed to the emotions. Both films have a sort of emptiness to them at their core, too, but this feels like a stylistic choice, about two people who want some meaning in life but can’t ever get beyond the surface level, never doing much more than saying what they think they should feel rather than actually feeling it. And so having a child who’s a puppet feels like a perfect expression of this abyss (“A-B-Y-S-S”, Henry even spells it out). It’s a film filled with affect, beautiful shots that seem bravura (early on we get Henry’s hands coming in from the side of the frame threateningly towards Ann’s neck before veering into an embrace almost imperceptibly) that turn out to be cleverly foreshadowing, a bold use of colour (green, usually), and those Sparks songs which just grind the themes down until they feel a little bit fresh. Look, I can’t pretend it all worked, but (Adam Driver aside) it’s exactly the kind of thing I love to see on the screen, an ideal showcase for a grand folly of self-indulgence.

Annette (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Leos Carax; Writers Ron Mael and Russell Mael; Cinematographer Caroline Champetier; Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Memoria (2021)

Some films are made for film festivals, and none more so than any given new film by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Some of them have becoming (surprisingly) modest arthouse hits, like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Memoria is very much in a similar mould, with lush jungle terrains (here in Colombia) and a slow, mysterious narrative that seems to promise both naturalism and also science-fiction and fantasy at times. The central investigation may recall Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, in being based around a mysterious sonic fragment, but there’s little else that recalls mainstream narrative cinema, and Tilda Swinton is looking strangely ordinary here as she searches for… something.


Apichatpong Weerasethakul proves that even making a film largely in English and set in Colombia, he’s still able to make exactly the kinds of films he makes, which is to say slow, somnolent and oblique. As with Cemetery of Splendour I nodded off a little at times (to be fair that one was a film about people with some kind of sleeping sickness), but it felt like part of the artistic process, a durational one, about a woman who seems to be searching for the source of a mysterious sound. That search takes her to various specialists (real or imagined?), and to a small village in the mountains, and those shots of ruins and lush vegetation seem very much of a piece with his most famous works. I think in many ways Memoria extends those themes, with some surprising additions that never exactly serve to make clear what’s been going on, but instead intensify and deepen the mystery. But that’s often the way. This had me fascinated and I loved the slow rhythms of it, but it danced nimbly away from explaining itself. Undoubtedly both this and the pacing will madden many of its potential viewers, but it’s an experience in being open to the possibilities of narrative.

Memoria (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom สยมภู มุกดีพร้อม; Starring Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Balibar, Elkin Díaz; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 18 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: მოთვინიერება Motviniereba (Taming the Garden, 2021)

One of the best things about film festivals — and where they differ most markedly from commercial film distribution — is the way they feature a multiplicity of filmmaking techniques. This is especially evident amongst the documentaries. Whereas most of what gets released is deeply conventional (and there were certainly some of those at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival), you also see more poetic, dreamlike, experimental examples. This Georgian film, for example, very much follows the poetic route, with no narration or on-screen text, very few interviews, and is largely just a succession of grand, thought-provoking, curious images of trees being moved.


If the most common type of documentary is the talking heads method of personal testimony, usually about an individual subject and blended with archival footage or even recreations, then another major form — and perhaps more prevalent at film festivals — is this one, which eschews narration or on-screen text to provide contextualisation, and instead just observes its subjects, using the rhythm of the editing, the elegance of the framing and a few musical cues to draw out its inherent drama. It’s slow cinema, in which we just seem to spend time watching trees, watching trees being dug up, watching trees being transported, in slow lumbering ways because these are very large, very old trees. We never even really see the person who’s taking these trees, and only at the end do we get a sense of why they are being taken, but instead we see the communities and the villages of Georgia, where its set and we get a sense for the rhythms of life in these places. It’s not an easy sell, but it has an emotional centre along with a lot of hydraulic diggers.

Motviniereba (Taming the Garden, 2021)

CREDITS
Directors Salomé Jashi სალომე ჯაში; Cinematographers Jashi and Goga Devdariani გოგა დევდარიანი; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Sunday 7 November 2021.

Global Cinema 27: Burkina Faso – Samba Traoré (1992)

It may be a rather poor and (relatively) small West African country, but Burkina Faso has a really strong cinematic history, not least thanks to the FESPACO film festival, celebrating pan-African cinema. I’ve reviewed a number of films from the country, and here I cover one of the lesser-known works by its greatest director, Idrissa Ouedraogo.


Burkinabé flagBurkina Faso
population 21,510,000 | capital Ouagadougou (1.5m) | largest cities Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso (490k), Koudougou (88k), Banfora (76k), Ouahigouya (73k) | area 274,200 km2 | religion Islam (61%), Christianity (23%) | official language French (français) | major ethnicity Mossi (52%), Fula (8%) | currency West African CFA franc (CFA) [XOF] | internet .bf

A landlocked West African country, formerly known as Upper Volta, and whose official language is only spoken by around 10-15% of the people (Mòoré, the language of the Mossi people, is far more widely spoken). The name comes from the Mossi for “upright” and the Dioula for “fatherland” (the old colonial name comes from its position on the River Volta). Habitation in the country stretches back to 14000 BC in the north-west, with more permanent settlements from the 4th millennium BCE. An Iron Age Bura culture existed until around the 13th century CE, while the modern day ethnic groups arrived just prior to this. Several separate Mossi kingdoms were set up, and these various tribal groupings existed side-by-side until the arrival of European colonialists, who started to claim territory from the 1890s onwards, and the French protectorate taking in the present country was formed in 1896 and by 1898 took in all the present-day lands, although as part of an Upper Senegal and Niger territory. It wasn’t until 1919 that the present country was separated as Upper Volta (Haute Volta), before being dismantled in 1932, then revived again in 1947. Autonomy was achieved in 1958 and full independence on 5 August 1960, under its first president Maurice Yaméogo, who swiftly suspended democracy and was ousted in 1966. A series of military and military/civil governments marked by coups governed until the coup which installed Capt Thomas Sankara in 1983; he pushed through the country’s change of name the following year and an ambitious programme of anti-imperialist reforms, though another reactionary coup replaced him with Blaise Compaoré in 1987. A semblance of democracy was introduced in 1991, though power still resides largely with the President, who appoints the Prime Minister and has the power to dissolve government.

Though the country is underdeveloped in many ways, Burkina Faso is one of the chief countries in African cinema, not least due to the establishment of the pan-African FESPACO film festival in Ouagadougou in 1969, which continues to take place every two years. A number of internationally renowned directors have come from the country, including Idrissa Ouedraogo (one of whose films I review below) and Gaston Kaboré, amongst others.


Samba Traoré (1992)

The great Burkinabé filmmaker Idrissa Ouédraogo died on 18 February 2018, so in the weeks following that I had wanted to check out one of his lesser-known films, and this is the one I alighted on. There is no hint in Samba Traoré (which takes its name from that of the lead character, played by Bakary Sangaré) of any deficiency of production or craft: it’s a handsomely shot and beautifully acted film about a man returning from the city to his home village, to settle down and find a new life. He’s running from a life of crime, or at least, one specific crime (the film starts with him staging an armed robbery of a petrol station), and of course the narrative demands that this eventually catches up with him. In the meantime, this is an easy, fluid portrait of small village life, as Samba reconnects with old friends and meets a woman he wants to marry (Mariam Kaba). It’s never condescending to its characters or to its audience: the film is simply constructed, but the camera moves expressively and there are layers to the characters that go beyond any simple didactic drama of wrongdoing, punishment and redemption. This really is a fine film.

Samba Traoré film posterCREDITS
Director Idrissa Ouedraogo; Writers Ouedraogo, Santiago Amigorena and Jacques Arhex; Cinematographers Pierre-Laurent Chénieux and Mathieu Vadepied; Starring Bakary Sangaré, Mariam Kaba, Abdoulaye Komboudri; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 1 March 2018.

Criterion Sunday 371: Body and Soul (1925) and Borderline (1930)

Paul Robeson’s career is of course fascinating, and well worth reading up on, and while his appearance in the stage production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones predates Body and Soul (he had previously gained some success on stage, primarily in musical theatre, in the early-20s), the film of that play wasn’t to be made until the sound era. Instead our first glimpse of Robeson on screen was to be this film by pre-eminent and pioneering Black American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who five years earlier had made the fascinating (and superior) retort to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in Within Our Gates. Between Micheaux’s filmmaking — which sadly has been ravaged by the censors and survives only in this shorter cut — and Robeson’s magnetic screen presence, this is a fine film made for a Black audience, which very much implicates the role of the church through Robeson’s turn as a devious preacher Reverend Jenkins, who drinks heavily, steals money and commits rape (portrayed subtly but no less clearly) without raising concerns from his adulatory congregation. The film ends with a twist and the reveal of a dual role for Robeson, which stretches credulity somewhat, but this kind of ending is hardly unusual for the period or indeed for American cinema. The Criterion release includes a brilliant jazzy score by Wycliffe Gordon which only adds to the film’s depth, making it a highlight of the silent era.

Five years later and Borderline really feels like a one-of-a-kind film, nominally a Swiss production by a British crew, and a strange experiment in form that plays with all kinds of themes. These range from the racism and hypocrisy of a small town, a man called Thorne (Gavin Arthur) whose marriage is falling apart due to his affair with Adah, a Black woman (Eslanda Robeson) who’s married to Paul Robeson’s character Pete, not to mention what seems like a gay subtext with some of the women we see (one of whom is played by the excellently pseudonymous Helga Doom). Any of these themes individually would probably make the film interesting, but it’s the boldly experimental style that makes it so watchable, cutting across the various characters in an almost free-associative way. The score for the restoration is provided by Courtney Pine, and is jazzy and propulsive when it needs to be and I think elevates the film even further. A strange, singular late-silent period work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Body and Soul (1925) [classification PG]
Director/Writer Oscar Micheaux (based on his novel); Cinematographer [unknown]; Starring Paul Robeson, Julia Theresa Russell, Mercedes Gilbert; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Wednesday 11 November 2020.

Borderline (1930) [classification 12]
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Kenneth Macpherson; Starring Paul Robeson, Eslanda Robeson, Gavin Arthur, Hilda Doolittle [as “Helga Doom”]; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Saturday 14 November 2020.

Global Cinema 19: Benin – Gangbé (2015)

Another small filmmaking nation with only a handful of films is Benin, a neighbour to the much larger Nigeria, but poorer by comparison and certainly with an undeveloped cinematic history. As such my film today is a documentary by a Swiss filmmaker about a musical band journeying to Nigeria, and thus ticks a few boxes for, I suppose to Western eyes, a level of comfortable African cinema, though the music is great.


Beninese flagRepublic of Benin (Bénin)
population 11,733,000 | capital Porto-Novo (264k) | largest cities Cotonou (679k), Porto-Novo, Parakou (255k), Godomey (253k), Abomey-Calavi (118k) | area 114,763 km2 | religion Christianity (53%), Islam (29%) | official language French | major ethnicity Fon (38%), Adja/Mina (15%), Yoruba (12%) | currency West African CFA franc (CFA) [XOF] | internet .bj

A West African country formerly known as Dahomey, it borders the much larger Nigeria (which lies to its east), as well as sitting on the Gulf of Guinea where most of its population lives. The name possibly refers to ancient inhabitants, the Bini. The modern state combines coastal city-states and inland tribal regions. By the early-17th century, the Kingdom of Dahomey (made up of Fon people) and related to the nearby Oyo Empire, began taking over coastal areas, and had a rivalry with the area of Porto-Novo (the modern legal capital, though government is based in Cotonou). Dahomey’s war captives were killed or sold into slavery, encouraged by the Portuguese who had some settlements. As a colonial power, the French became pre-eminent by the late-19th century, ruling Dahomey as part of the “French West Africa” region, though granted it its independence on 1 August 1960, under President Hubert Maga. Ethnic strife ensued, as well as periods of military rule (including being proclaimed a Marxist state in 1974), and it was renamed as the People’s Republic of Benin in 1975. The “People’s” bit was dropped in 1990 when Marxism was officially renounced. The President is democratically elected, and is well-regarded on scales of rule of law and human rights.

Cinema in Benin can be traced back to the 1950s or 60s, with a small amount of production in the early years of independence. Most output from the country is in the form of documentaries, but there have been a handful of fiction features, though no indigenous directors are widely known beyond the country.


Gangbé (2015)

I love a low stakes movie, and this one really delivers. It’s about the Beninese band of the title, whose dream is to perform at Fela Kuti’s club The Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, and having booked the trip, the biggest drama is when the Nigerian customs officer asks to look inside the sousaphone case. (He finds a sousaphone.) But the music is good, you can’t fault that horn-driven African big band sound that owes a lot to Kuti, but also a legacy of juju and other traditional music. Naturally I don’t know very much about Benin, but we get a bit of the largest city, Cotonou, at the start, before it moves into the journey — which is as much spiritual as anything else, of course, especially when they record with Fela’s son Femi.

Gangbé film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Arnaud Robert; Cinematographer Charlie Petersmann; Length 58 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Friday 11 September 2020.

بابا عزیز Bab’Aziz (2005)

The Tunisian director Nacer Khemir made this film, the third in his so-called ‘Desert Trilogy’ made over three decades, in both Tunisia and Iran, so it’s both a North African and a Middle Eastern film at the same time, in Arabic and Farsi. It tells a sort of pan-Islamic tale of mysticism, but it harks back to a storytelling tradition that’s based more on the journey and the details than on any particular destination.


This isn’t a period film (there are cars and roads and signs of modernity), but then again it also feels really unmoored from any specific time, or even place — some characters speak in Farsi, some reply in Arabic, and that’s just how it is, a sort of pan-Islamic world utopian vision of deserts and dervishes. It functions, then, less as a film about the world as a film of a spiritual journey or quest — if I knew more about Sufism (a sort of ecstatic, dance-focused branch of Islam), I might be able to pick up on more specific reference points. An old dervish (the father Aziz of the title, played by Parviz Shahinkhou) and his young granddaughter (Maryam Hamid) trek across a desert in search of a gathering of other dervishes (those practising Sufism), while he tells a story of a Narcissus-like prince. Gradually other people they meet add in their own stories, and by the end you realise that in fact nothing very much has really happened at a plot level, but it’s all in the telling. However, it’s a beautiful rendering of this environment, with many sweeping, gorgeous shots of the desert, rich colours and expressive performances. Plot, sometimes, really is a very minor consideration.

Bab'Aziz film posterCREDITS
Director Nacer Khemir ناصر خمير‎; Writers Tonino Guerra and Khemir; Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari محمود کلاری; Starring Parviz Shahinkhou پرویز شاهین‌خو, Maryam Hamid مریم حمید, Golshifteh Farahani گلشیفته فراهانی‎; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 26 March 2018.

Sonita (2015)

This week I’m covering documentaries which screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the past (this year’s programme is online, and taking place this month), and the 2016 winner of the Youth Jury Award was this film about an Afghani/Iranian rapper who left to pursue her musical dreams and now finds herself a de facto activist against child weddings.


A sweet and likeable film about a young Afghani woman living in Tehran, Sonita Alizadeh سونیتا علیزاده, whose family want to sell her as a bride but she has different ideas. Specifically of course, as documented by the film crew who are following her, she wants to be a rapper. Along the way she drags the director into her plans and things take a different turn from what we expect. The film gives a strong sense of the intersection of tradition and patriarchal violence, and from a Q&A at the screening afterwards, Sonita’s dreams after the film were of becoming a lawyer and working against child marriage, so that’s pretty great too.

Sonita film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami رخساره قائم مقامی; Cinematographers Behrouz Badrouj بهروز بدروج, Ali Mohammad Ghasemi علی محمد قاسمی, Mohamad Hadadi محمد حدادی, Arastoo Givi ارسطو گیوی, Parviz Arefi, Torben Bernard, Ala Mohseni; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Friday 11 March 2016.

Chamissos Schatten (Chamisso’s Shadow, 2016)

Ulrike Ottinger is a filmmaker who came out of the 1970’s New German Cinema, making distinctive and odd films like Madame X and Ticket of No Return, before moving on to film a number of works in Mongolia and the furthest east, where she has shown a huge amount of interest in ethnography. This film fits in with that, and while it is in a sense a travelogue, it’s also very much a film about the way that history is latent in the present cultures of the Bering Sea, and the continuum of practices since the 18th century (when some of the texts she reads over these images are taken from). History, then, is indivisible from present-day life, and undoubtedly will continue to be for many generations.


An epic ethnographic documentary in four parts, this covers the cultures and people living around the Bering Sea, both on the Alaskan and Russian sides. As you might expect from the running length it does so in some detail, and as suggested by the title, it also links in historical perspectives. Specifically these come in the form of texts written by naturalist Georg Steller (who accompanied Bering on his exploits), then a century later by Adelbert von Chamisso, a poet and botanist, as well as a little bit from James Cook. However, it’s director Ulrike Ottinger’s voice and cinematic style which dominates the film, though in a respectful way, observing and allowing the people of the region to move about their lives and tell stories when they feel compelled.

It’s difficult to sum it all up in a short review, but the sense I got was of a continuity between Steller in the 18th century and the modern scenes, as a lot of the same practices and customs take place that he described, even if political changes have meant movements of the populations and the closure of the borders between the two nations (which come closest at the top of the world, between the Big and Little Diomede Islands, between which also runs the International Date Line). A lot of the shots of the expanse of this wilderness are breathtaking, but it’s in the simple details too that the film shines, in just pointing the camera at the people, and if some of the sequences seem too long for comfort (some hunters skinning and cutting up a seal), others you feel could go on for an entire chapter (the indigenous people demonstrating their dances was a particular highlight).

Chamisso's Shadow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Ulrike Ottinger (based on texts by Adelbert von Chamisso and Georg Steller); Length 720 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 322: “The Complete Mr. Arkadin”: Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report, 1955)

This Criterion release features three versions of the title film: the European release as Confidential Report which is the one I’ve reviewed below, the “Corinth” cut with some different footage, and a reconstructed cut especially for the Criterion release, which purports to be the fullest and truest to Welles’s original intentions. As I do not (yet) have the Criterion edition of the film, I have not been able to review this cut, but I shall revisit it at such time as I am able to, and add to the review below.


Like any Welles film, or at least like all too many of them, this exists in multiple versions. I watched the European edit which was released under the title Confidential Report and it is, as you might expect, splendidly bonkers, careening around its mystery thriller plot with wild abandon. Welles, of course, plays the larger-than-life title character (well, the title character in the original title of the film), a large bearded fellow with a past that he claims not to know, or is trying actively to cover up, in murderous ways… except that chisel-jawed Robert Arden (as small-time crook Guy van Stratten) is onto him. There’s no shortage of stylish shooting, with all kinds of Dutch angles and scattershot dialogue propelling the drama forward. Perhaps this isn’t the finest version of the film that exists, and I hope at least to watch some of the others eventually, but even a badly recut Welles film is still a fine experience; there’s only so much that an editor can do to his idiosyncratic use of space.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Orson Welles (based on radio scripts for The Lives of Harry Lime by Ernest Bornemann and Welles); Cinematographer Jean Bourgoin; Starring Robert Arden, Orson Welles, Paola Mori, Patricia Medina, Akim Tamiroff; Length 98 minutes [as Confidential Report].

Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Wednesday 3 June 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, October 1999).