Trapped – Middle-Class India in a High Class City

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Trapped (Vikramaditya Motwane, 2017)

Motwane’s latest film, Trapped, points its spotlight at the unsustainable infrastructure of India’s urban society. Its hustle and bustle, its middle class’s unwavering search for upward movement along the capitalist ladder, dependence on technology in a country where electricity and water, even in the 21st century, are still variables instead of constants, and the irony of dense population still leading to isolation as the city’s horizontal planar limits give way to vertical movement.

The main character, Shaurya (Rajkumar Rao), is your run of the mill nine-to-fiver, recently having taken the next big step with his girlfriend asking her to marry him. Her response isn’t clear and very hesitant, but his secret to winning her over is a brand new apartment which he tries to get through haggling despite not having a high paying job. The need to move ahead in stature is a common endeavor of the Indian middle class in the current economic age, the same as it was during the 90’s in the United States, and it is manifest in the construction of massive high-rise apartment towers throughout metropolises in the country. Many of these are built ahead of demand and end up stuck in construction for months even years (my uncle’s family is currently in this conundrum in Mumbai), leaving them essentially abandoned.

One of these unfinished abandoned complexes is offered to Shaurya through a less than reputable individual who just so happens to “know a guy”. Shaurya is desperate and like many desperate in India, there is always someone willing to give you something in the sketchiest way possible. Much like during America’s first economic boom in the post-reconstruction era, India’s growth monetarily and in population has created a black market in literally every realm of consumer products.

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Shaurya moves into his new apartment, high above the city skyline and clearly way out of his own price range. His isolation is a product of having a lot of money and resources, or in his case, a shady back-end deal that allows him his “pretend wealth”. In any urban environment, the vertical geographical distribution of individuals is almost always proportional to their economic wealth. This idea is best exemplified by one of my favorite films, Kurosawa’s High & Low, and is reiterated here in Shaurya’s place suddenly way above his middle-class lifestyle. But much like abandoned buildings go, there are complications and the place is less than hospitable in terms of furnishings and basic utilities.

Soon enough, as Shaurya begins exploring the place, things start to fall apart. The water doesn’t work anymore. His phone doesn’t charge. He rushes out the door to get to work but forgets things. He leaves his keys in the door on the outside. This wouldn’t be a problem in the U.S. really, but again the reality of India’s infrastructure is a curious series of mismanaged and mis-engineered little quirks that make things go downhill in quite a hurry. India is a nation with a lot of money and a lot of building projects, but no attention to periodic maintenance and the country’s rapid acceleration into an economic superpower has suddenly made its feet move faster than its body or mind can really keep up with. Many of India’s newest buildings are being shot up so fast and at such a rate that the little issues, the minor details, leave for massive inconveniences and eventually, cracks and fissures over time. The wind blows the door closed, jammed by the upturned key. Shaurya becomes trapped inside.

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Motwane sort of belies the trend of filmmakers having a strong first half of ideas which wither away as their films trudge towards their finish mark by making memorable conclusions. He knows exactly how the film should begin and end. This comes at a cost though, and that cost is the central meat of the film. The cinematography and editing have a lot to do with the film’s lack of thrills, but it is Motwane’s decision-making which remains the main culprit. Surprising, since his stellar and emotionally-wrecking debut Udaan and his underappreciated follow-up Lootera situated him as one of the few and far in between serious talents of mainstream Bollywood. The majority of action takes place in the flat itself, and like bottle episodes of TV shows and some movies centralizing on stranded figures, (Home Alone, Cast Away and Buried come to mind) the suspense and forward thrusting mechanics of the story originate in the singular character trying and failing different methods of escape. It is much more difficult to do than it sounds because for a film consisting of only a single finite space and only one person’s point of view, every directorial choice must be made to keep the viewer hooked and in complete alliance with the character. Not surprisingly this is where Motwane’s flaws creep through.

Too many shots outside of the confined space disrupt the increase in tension. The geometrical area in which Shaurya is trapped would mentally begin to become smaller and smaller, more claustrophobic, and further up from the ground. Why do we need to know the watchman is distracted by a radio when Shaurya screams his name in hopes of his attention? The fact that Shaurya never receives an answer to his calls is enough of a frustration. If the purpose is to get us to feel the same level of choking enclosure of the walls of Shaurya’s prison, then points of view such as those from ground level and of the woman hanging clothes to dry on a terrace just a few blocks from the building are unnecessary and tear away the anxiety we should be feeling at every ticking moment.

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While as a thriller, Trapped doesn’t render much interest, the film’s social undertones are what keep it afloat as at least an acknowledgeable piece of filmmaking. The social realities of being ‘trapped’ in India are much easier to construct as plausible than in more developed countries, and Motwane has that to his advantage. The lack of water and electricity, which sporadically come on and off add the frustration of the main character, but are hardly ever utilized as devices to promote urgency. I don’t think Shaurya ever even once collapses of dehydration despite not drinking a sip for close to 3 days. One of the underrated nuisances in India are that there are hardly any apartments that have fully open window structures. From personal anecdote, I can tell you that all of my family members there have windows barricaded by thick metal wiring, artistically shaped so as to not be a total eyesore. Had the balcony of Shaurya’s cage simply been a ledge instead of a floor to ceiling metal bar fixture, the film would’ve lacked a plot.

Shaurya’s attempted escape from his accidental prison can be interpreted quite clearly as a metaphor for economic movement of the Indian middle-class individual. Despite the growth of the nation, there still exist structural and political obstacles which bring advancement to a screeching halt, an attempt to create so many barriers as to hope one with eventually say “fuck it” and lie in place. But once the taste of freedom and a new life is there, they can’t help but keep pushing harder.

Wakefield – A story of a patriarch

 

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Wakefield (Robin Swicord, 2017)

It’s unclear what the motive behind the movie Wakefield is. Not just the characters or the world they exist within, or the film’s “message”, but the reason for its existence. Why did director Robin Swicord, who gained fame for her literary adaptations such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Memoirs of a Geisha, feel the need to write and make this movie? I have a few thoughts, but I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m asking for the purpose behind a film’s creation. Frankly, it’s a question we should ask Hollywood films more often, and more often than not the reason is money. But that’s clearly not the case here because, besides me, I don’t know another human being who has seen this Bryan Cranston starrer which released three weeks ago. Yeah, did you know Bryan Cranston acted in a movie that released three weeks ago? Money could not have been part of the equation. The real reason behind my curiosity is the actual plot and story of the film….

Adapted from a short story by E.L. Doctorrow which in itself is a reimagining of the same story originally written by Nathaniel Hawthorn, Wakefield is about a family man with a city job who comes home late one night after being stuck on a malfunctioning train and follows a racoon loitering through his garbage into what seems like a storage area above his garage… and (take a breath)…. decides to just live there and spy on his family for a whole year.

“What the fuck?” – you right now, probably

Bryan Cranston plays the titular character, Howard Wakefield, a man disillusioned from his monotonous day to life-cycle of wife, kids, and job. He lives in a very upper-class WASP neighborhood, decked with picket fenced McMansions, luxury cars (Wakefield owns a Mercedes), fine china, private-school going children, and Joseph Aboud tailored suits. The need to cutting lose from a daily lifestyle is something a lot of people experience, particularly at Wakefield’s mid-life crisis age. However, instead of the expected trope of blowing off money on expensive things, Wakefield’s crisis takes him into a faux-“survivalist” lifestyle. I say faux- because he technically has food and shelter at his disposal at all times. He’s not ever in any real danger through this whole ordeal.

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But the way he enters into this commitment away from his family seems preposterous. Coming home late one night, he notices a raccoon scavenging in the bins on his driveway. In an attempt to shoo the rascal away, he instead sends it up the stairwell in his garage into a storage floor. There, Wakefield notices his wife and kids finishing up dinner without him and… decides to just spend the night. Over the course of a week, he argues with himself over what time would be appropriate to re-introduce himself into his family without it being a gigantic ordeal. Clearly, he supposes, his wife will assume he has been cheating. It’s such a strangely evolved concept that it not only challenges us into identifying with a clearly unlikeable person but also in the idea of what the hell the story is getting at.

Going through E.L. Doctorrow’s short story, written first-person, a marked distinction from Hawthorne’s original which is told as a third-person account, much of the actions Wakefield executes are hardly explained beyond a mere “unknown circumstances” or “can’t imagine why”-s. It’s almost as if this man doesn’t have any control over his mind or body, that he believes fully that his several months in that attic were a literal out of body experience as much as an out of lifestyle experience.

Is Wakefield clinically insane? He talks about the events towards the beginning of the story as having a Doppler effect, or a string of occurrences which seem to prophesize on the collapse of human civilization. He mentions his actions had a snowball effect of irrationality from the first night he spent in the storage area to the following several months. But his constant acknowledgment of his irrational behavior rules that out.

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The most logical interpretation of the film’s underlying social themes, in my eyes, is that Wakefield is engaging in a despicable patriarchal power move. One with an heir of complete self-importance in regards to his family. By removing himself from the family, and watching their struggles he finds a sort of sick joy in knowing they can’t handle life without him. He is not so much insane as he is sociopathic. The evidence of this is obvious in several instances where his wife is getting help from a friend on finances, and Wakefield chuckles knowing there’s no way she can afford her lifestyle without his paycheck let alone manage all the monetary budgeting that he and he alone does for the household. Given Swicord’s talent in translating fiction into a visual portrait of multi-dimensional individuals for the screen (her best work, in my opinion, Matilda, takes many moments of a whimsical child’s life and breaths soul-crushing emotional heft into them, quite daring for a children’s movie), her taking a short story to feature length with such a difficult to handle premise was not something I was particularly worried about… but the end result showed that stretching Wakefield as a character leads to many wrong turns and confusingly contradictory portraits of who he is, and why we should accept him as believable.

Much of the second half of the film, a swift turn from the first half, Swicord concentrates on humanizing Wakefield into a compassionate, humble character who ultimately has a self-realizing epiphany. It’s the classic case of a film which steers away from difficult, murky territory of seeing a truly depraved person eaten by his own mind and into a story of glorious self-fulfillment, that too, at the detriment of everyone around him. It’s strange coming from Swicord, who’s writing sensibilities clearly lean towards a feminist reading of the material. Why would she have us believe in this man’s motives as being anything less than a narcissistic act of neglecting three women in his life on a whim? That he is actually capable of learning a lesson and that is what catalyzes his return to society, and not that he is so egotistical, so emotionally distanced from his family as humans with wants and needs, he feels he can waltz back in just like that.

The film would have us believe that by removing himself from everything Wakefield has gained an appreciation for it all… one of the most tired and uninspiring Hollywood lessons. It’s like an American Dad episode written and directed with a straight face.

Manifesto

 

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Manifesto (Julian Rosefeldt, 2017)

 

Advancement of technology in film is a constant, and thus, the horizons of its boundaries as an art are also ever expanding. For the first time in my life, I really had to contend with whether a single screen theater was limiting for a motion picture. Julian Rosefeltd’s film, or more appropriately, cinematic art piece, Manifesto is a movie which was exhibited in two different forms, both vastly changing the structure and therefore the perception of the piece as “cinema”. It was first released in the Australian Center for the Moving Image in a gallery setting which showcases Cate Blanchette, playing 13 different roles, on different screens throughout the room and reciting 13 different manifestos on the idea of “art” itself. As you walk deeper, the voices of her different characters start to create a conversation or argument, or as Jane Howard put it in The Daily Review, “an unspoken stand-off”. This is an experience, a three-dimensional space which takes the 2-D cinematic image and echoes it to and from us in multiple directions. It’s a cinematic piece you literally walk through, experience as you are in motion in real time, in the real world.

Suffice to say, this is not how I personally experienced this film, and it brought about limitations and complications which again, made it clear that a single-screen theater was inadequate in showcasing the new horizons of what artists can do with the film medium. Manifesto, the 90-minute popcorn motion picture, is not much more than a long-string cut-and-paste rant. Out of the 13 different sermons you sit through, the only one which made any sense in the traditional theater setting was the news broadcast because, well, by its definition it is to be watched motionless in a single sitting. Rosefeltd’s writing is clearly passionate and clearly demonstrates a deep understanding of art history and it’s underlying philosophies, all of which are masterfully recited by Blanchette who, in many cases hams it up (perhaps the nature of the piece is to be satirical of art), but also manages to embody the writing in her movements and her biggest asset as an actress, her eyes.

 

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Australian Center for the Moving Image opening showcase of Manifesto.

 

It was clear, however, that I was watching something that begged to be limitless, not constrained in a traditional movie theater and demanded its viewers to not be sitting on their asses munching on popcorn for 90 minutes. It perplexes me why Rosefeldt would want his film to be shown in this setting after two highly-touted exhibits in Australia and Berlin which captured the essence of the project’s ambition: to create a cinema which architecturally invades us through all its forms, visual, audial, and as interaction with the viewer. If the gallery exhibit was like riding a rollercoaster in an amusement park, the theater screening which I sat through was more like someone reading me the entire pamphlet or brochure for Six Flags. Maybe this was the point. By showing the project in both areas, Rosefeldt can illuminate the limitations of the theater complex itself. If film is to enter a new horizon as and artistic medium, then Rosefeldt is claiming its current home of the movie theater is not sufficient.

Tribes and Tribulation: Colonization of South America in THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017) and THE MISSION (1986)

 

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The Lost City of Z (James Grey, 2017)

 

Indigenous communities in Hollywood films have always had marginalized roles and appearances, especially in those films dealing with Western and imperialist historical topics. James Grey’s The Lost City of Z (pronounced “Zed”) however, might be the first I’ve seen which makes a conscientious effort to reverse this Hollywood treatment. To, in fact, make it a point to say native peoples are actively marginalized throughout imperialist histories, and it’s main protagonist, Colonel Percy Fawcett, as a beholder to their intellect and power.

The main obstacle to Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) was not to convince England he had discovered a lost tribe, but that it was, in fact, a civilization, one replete with the advancements of cookware, art, weaponry, and buildings that constituted a people of intellect and scientific and engineering knowhow. In a boisterous and argumentative session before the Royal Geographic Society, he makes his case to the horror of many of the “intellectuals” who’s fear of a non-white race achieving civility and discipline shattered their world view.

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Fawcett’s adamant stance on the intelligence and advancement of native cultures is an important counter to our biased views of Western civilization. Despite a more politically correct polish on what used to be incredibly racist stereotypes of the civilized white towards the native barbarian, we still don’t acknowledge in textbooks or discussion of colonization how much more advanced Natives actually were in regards to their understanding of natural and environmental science and food cultivation than any settlers were.

Previous treatments of native cultures contained them as entities having to be “saved” by a Western hero (Dances with Wolves). It was a veil of digestibility for our sake and a continuation of the lies that native cultures never really had an “order” before the Conquistadors or Pilgrims came to settle and command. That there were no rules or governance and thus, the land was essentially for the taking and the people free to be “educated”.

In contrast to such restrictive Hollywood tropes, James Grey’s The Lost City of Z might be considered unique in its “progressive histrionics”. There are conversations regarding women’s roles in society and home, white and non-white race relations, the erasure of cultures, and the validity of scientific findings. The film has quite a clear argument in favor of progressive views of the world, even if its setting is in the old world where such thoughts were considered preposterous or worse, treasonous.

 

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The Mission (Roland Joffé, 1986)

 

Take these views into consideration with Roland Joffé’s The Mission, a critically acclaimed historical epic which uses a very traditional Hollywood construct of native people as a group looking to be conquered or brought to salvation… or both. Joffé’s film also creates a good vs evil dichotomy, wherein its progressive politics are poised as a fight between the peaceful salvation of the Jesuit order and the ruthless slavery-driven economy of imperialist Portugal. There is even a character, Rodrigo Mendoza (a miscast but adequate Robert DeNiro), who spent time on both sides of this fence; a former mercenary and slave trader who corrects his ways and finds God with the help of Father Gabriel (the impeccable Jeremy Irons).

Much like Fawcett’s character, Father Gabriel and Mendoza fight for the dignity and independence of the indigenous Amazonian tribe they befriend, the Guarani. Unlike Fawcett however, their attempts at protection of the tribe, i.e., “conversions” via their mission, is on its head a form of cultural erasure… the elimination of the Guarani’s spiritual and traditional beliefs in favor of the Holy Spirit.

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The Mission is much more politically volatile than The Lost City of Z and thus, much more exciting and entertaining, but also much more unforgiving. But what makes one a tale While Grey maintains his central characters in such a steady and unbending light for “good”, for the true understanding of native peoples in the fact of evil imperialism, Joffé’s story is more about the inevitable genocide of the native, caught between enslavement via the Monarchy or coerced abandonment of their century-old cultural beliefs.

SONG TO SONG and VOYAGE OF TIME: There’s Something Wrong With Terrence Malick

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Song to Song (Terrence Malick, 2017)

When you feel as if an artist you always admired has lost something, what do you do? Do you hold out hope for future projects? Continue to selectively relive their past glory? Review their work chronologically to determine when and where it exactly all went to hell? It’s a troubling thing, realizing that a brilliant filmmaker, painter, sculptor, writer, or whoever cannot create the beautiful works which helped change your life, which helped inspire countless moments of your own burst of creativity.

Terrence Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers ever, and to me one of the greatest artists in American history. His repertoire, much like Kubrick’s, is sparse, spread out, untamed, and utterly brilliant. In the 30 years between 1970 to 2000, Malick made only 3 films: his debut feature Badlands, his most “critically acclaimed” work, a tragic romance called Days of Heaven and after a long hiatus, a film I consider to be possibly the single best movie I’ve ever witnessed, the war epic The Thin Red LineIn the 21st Century, however, his production increased in both volume and frequency, churning out The New World in the last decade, and a whopping 4 features and 1 documentary since 2011, a ratio of output to time-span that shocked pretty much everyone in the cinema world. Something about Malick had changed.

Initially, I thought he had simply had an explosion of great ideas he felt were necessary to put to film. When The Tree of Life released in theaters, I made it a point to revisit and experience Malick’s filmography in chronological order to prepare myself for what many hailed as a decades-long passion project. My roommate Joe and I spent the week watching 1 Malick film each day, starting with Badlands and working our way to The New World. I learned a lot from that experience, especially the historical and technical origins of Malick’s signature voice-over narration that haunts his characters and landscapes like whispers of ghosts reaching out into our world. I saw glimpses of dazzling visuals, lingering tracking shots, and an aching small-town nostalgia within Badlands that would culminate in a tidal wave of personal memory in The Tree of Life. The definition of auteur given by film critic Andrew Sarris boiled down to the idea that there existed a thematic string, a world-view, within a filmmaker, which was prevalent throughout their entire oeuvre, and that made the “auteur”. This string was clear in Malick’s career.

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Has it been cut? If his last three narrative features are any indication, at the very least it’s been weakened and frayed. A few weekends ago I saw his latest offering, a romantic music-centered film called Song to Song. A compilation of all the typical Malickian ingredients, from the dream-like visual work to the understated characters to the themes of love, loss, death and memory, the film felt like it was directed by Malick on autopilot. It was a movie filled with the filmmaker’s most natural instincts and so many of them packed together with no theme that it becomes a self-parody. The style that I used to love, that used to evoke such a deeper questioning to the themes he explored, that added immense depth to a painterly celluloid canvas, now evoked only an eye-roll, a sigh, and a glance at my cell phone to see how much time I had left before I could go home.

Is Malick bored? Or did he just run out of ideas? It seems counterintuitive for a bored and imagination-dry filmmaker to start making movies at a faster pace than he used to.

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Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick, 2017)

Even more perplexing is the other movie I saw from him, a short documentary in IMAX at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum called Voyage of Time was so moving and beautifully composed. It’s is a visual “companion” of sorts to his narrative masterpiece The Tree of Life, and is a representation of human existence told through the creation of the universe. The film has no dialogue and almost no humans aside from a girl standing in a field and two kids playing in the front yard of a colonial suburban home. This film was purely the essentials of Malick’s visual technique. Aside from a beautiful opening scroll that in itself eclipses any inane forced voice-over dialogue from his last 3 disappointing films, the film is just CGI and natural shots depicting the birth of the universe and the world and ultimately, its expansive relation to us and our place within it.  What is the string between this film and Song to Song? Is there any thematic connection? They were made by the same man, a director I have incredible admiration for, but one is comprised of all his greatest tendencies and the other all his worst. One felt personal and profound while the other felt like pseudo-intellectual blabber and faux-artistic posturing.

The clearest distinction I can make between the old and new Malick, is that before, his visuals and his words were dictated by an inner voice that was so clear, making his style a necessary vehicle to project that voice to us. Malickian style now seems like nothing more than a pandering technique for his fans. The weight of his voice-overs is absent, the meaning behind his mesmerizing images isn’t there. Song to Song‘s entire aesthetic could be recreated by anyone with a high definition camera and it wouldn’t lose any of its already flimsy effect. That is sad to say about a filmmaker who didn’t miss a step for almost 4 decades of sparse but masterful filmmaking.

Personal Shopper

 

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Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2017)

 

The triumph of Kristen Stewart’s highly-touted performance in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper is both a result of great casting and Stewart’s pressure situation for having the film’s entire plot be dependent on her character’s emotional reactions to situations. Stewart plays Maureen, a “personal shopper” for an uppity French designer. Her monotonous job involves going from store to store picking out outfits that her boss wants for her next runway show. However the film’s meat comes from Maureen’s real reason for being in Paris… finding her dead brother’s ghost. Olivier blends the melodrama of familial relations with a supernatural thriller but the film maintains a fully character-centric focus. The plot chugs only as fast and as slow as Maureen wants it to, making Stewart the center of attention in virtually every moment of the film. This speed conditioning is manifested quite literally in the long sequence in which Maureen receives anonymous texts in riddles. Throughout these sequences our perception of “time” in the movie is dictated completely by the pace at which Maureen responds to the texts. Our emotions are dictated by her’s facial response to each one she receives and the wait-time between the anonymous texter’s responses. Assayas’s deliberate subversion of American horror film tropes also play directly into Stewart’s ability to act. Ghosts, sex, and murder are all siphoned through Stewart and the camera concentrates on her personal encounters with these instances more than the instances themselves.

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The ending sequences concludes with a line uttered by Maureen which explains Assayas’s entire approach to the film as a pedestal for Stewart and her character: “Is it you… or is it just me”. The phantom thumps a “yes”.

Lessons from the New African Film Festival

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There is a clear and distinct privilege for people in metropolitan areas to be able to experience a wide variety of film offerings that you’d never get in a suburb or rural neighborhood. Take it from me, I lived most of my life in suburban New Jersey and even though it was more developed than most places, the nearest indie theater was 45 minutes away in Montgomery. In comparison, I can walk to the American Film Institute’s Silver Theater in D.C. area from my apartment. I can take a short 15 minute train ride to E Street Cinema to watch a Turkish documentary called Kedi on a lazy Sunday.

The New African Film Festival screening at AFI Silver in March is one of the best opportunities for global exposure to cinema that will never a theater near you for a weekly screening. Even those of you sneaky pirates who think they can find an online version of these will be sorely mistaken. Torrents are created for hits, and hits will come from movies that people already know about. African cinema is easily the most neglected cinema on the planet. It doesn’t make money, it doesn’t gain exposure, and in many cases, it never even escapes the mind of a creator, who is too often lacking in resources to make his vision, and even if he has resources, is discouraged more often than not by government censorships and bylaws meant to repress artistic expression for a variety of heinous political reasons.

Yet, for some reason, African cinema is rumbling. There are signs, noises, and whispers of a cinema that is ready to burst. In my continued discovery of cinema history’s offerings, I have only ever encountered 2 African mainstays in the global cinema discussion; the Senegalese masters Ousmane Sembené (Black Girl) and Djibril Diop Mambéty (Touki Bouki). Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine (Cairo Station) and Algeria’s Mohammed Lakdar-Hamina (Chronicles of the Years of Fire) are being rediscovered just now.

In recent years however, we’re seeing a variety of filmmakers from the forgotten continent emerge in major projects. Abderammane Sissako’s Timbuktu was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2015, the first ever film from Mali nominated. Chadian filmmaker Mahamat Saleh-Haroun is a Cannes regular spotlight artist. North Africans such as Mohammed Beni Attia (Tunisia), Mohammed Diab (Egypt) are being reinvigorated post-Arab Spring as filmmakers with strong social messages.

So it seems the New African Film Festival in D.C. is but a culmination of the years of struggle of these filmmakers and countries to break through. Cannes, Berlin, and Venice are nice steps, but even they are inaccessible to most of the regular public. To have a screening in a town like Silver Spring, Maryland a very unsuspecting place, it can be seen as a first step of the American public getting a taste of what African cinema has to offer.

But how exactly how far has it come?

 

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Kati Kati (dir. Mbithi Masya)

 

A sure sign of the massive technical and thematical progress of African cinema has come over the past decade, Kati Kati plays like a (good) Shyamalan thriller by way of Terrence Malick. Centering around a young woman named Kaleche who ends up in a mysterious village only to find out that it is a pergatory for the dead, the film unravels in layers, with clues beginning to connect and form a story behind each individuals journey to this purgatory, siphoned through Kaleche’s interactions with them. The movie’s narrative ties the audience’s anticipation with Kaleche’s (we and her are both as ignorant of the “rules” of this place) and Masya isn’t afraid of adding non-narrative flourishes, and experimenting with sound and cinematography, a style which more than reminded me of Malick’s The Tree of Life and David Gordon Green’s George Washington.

The movie’s ultimate reveals may seem conventional to those well versed in Hollywood and Bollywood thriller stock, which is clearly what Masya is playing off of here, but for a debut filmmaker from a nation just recently having dipped its toes into the narrative filmmaking world (Kenya has more of a history of documentary filmmaking), Kati Kati more than works. It deftly blends in a variety of genre spices, including a romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, sports, and historical allegory to Kenya’s political struggle into a bubbling stew which can be seen as a sort of resume for the nation’s film industry as a whole… the ideas and technical resources which are now ready to flourish and an industry of future filmmakers which can contribute to the growing production of African cinema, usually lost in global film discussion.

 

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Wúlu (dir. Daouda Coulibaly)

 

The second film I screened, Wúlu, was a much more accomplished work. Still it was from only a sophomore filmmaker, Daouda Coulibaly, but resolute in its vision of covering the cocaine trade in West Africa and the intricacies of its web, which entangles the main character, a young upstart named Ladji. The movie sets its premise with a familiar storyline of a young man who, in desperate need to get out of his current glut as a poor taxi servicer, decides to give himself to the service of cocaine dealers in Mali. Very much in Goodfellas fashion, Ladji climbs the ladder and gets the riches, but his life of crime continuously leaves him looking over his shoulder. His sister, who whores herself out for money, becomes enamored with his success and bathes herself in the new lavish lifestyle, which is volatile and unlikely to last. Added to the problems is Ladji’s budding romance with the daughter of an influential and intimidating state diplomat.

Coulibaly’s ability to shock us in even predictable situations is the gift of a talented filmmaker. His shaky-cam technique is not a gimmick but a deliberate style to mimic the volatile atmosphere the film’s characters constantly find themselves in. It focuses on the surrounding details rather than the people themselves. When Ladji and his two henchmen enter their bosses layer, there is no one there, and the camera suddenly starts wandering around just as Ladji’s eyes would, checking out the walls, the floors to find clues. Then, it focuses on blood smears by Ladji’s feet. The boss is dead. Throughout the film Coulibaly employs this technique and only during scenes within closed doors does the camera enter static mode; when we are officially barricaded from the hostility of Ladji’s work.

The turbulent existence of oppressed populations and the survival techniques of a hostile environment accurately reflect the realities of life of Africa’s unstable nations, ever-changing through the rise and usurpation of military rulers. One such ruler was Hissein Habré, dictator of the nation of Chad, and subject of Mahamat Saleh-Haroun’s latest documentary, Hissein Habré: un trágedie tchadienne. An expose on the mass murder, arrest and torture of citizens during Habré’s ruthless rule, the film focuses on subjects who tell their stories through some graphic body injuries, stuttering voices, and dejected outlook on the future. But the aim of Haroun was not only to give these people a voice, but have it be formed into action and ultimately justice. It’s a valiant documentary that, while you’re watching it, is a reminder of incredible neglect that the rest of the world has on some of the most vulnerable populations.

 

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Hissein Habré: un tragédie tchadienne (dir. Mahamat Saleh-Haroun)

 

Several instances throughout the film remind us of how Western politics uses war-gaming which results in, through a chain reaction, the murder of thousands. Yes, the rise of Hissein Habré is no small “coincidence” but a direct result of American and French funding. Yet, the powerful countries of the world are laser focused on only areas which serve their own self-interest, despite the fact that they declare themselves purveyors of “justice”. Justice for who? In filmmaker Haroun’s hands, the justice comes from within the community. The trial and sentence of Habré gave Chad a new era and a joyous renewal of faith for the hundreds of the thousands of lives he attempted to destroy. Likewise, our own faith may get restored, for the power of cinema and its spreading of knowledge, information and harsh truths can lead to action and ultimately, victory.

Not all stories end on such a positive note however, and we must always remember, that as first-worlders in countries where basic necessities and daily freedoms allow us a wealth of information also feed into an arrogance about the rest of the world. We feel that because of our elevated economic or social position on the global scale, that we have the power and ability to know other people’s situations and thus, patronizingly dictate to them how to solve it. Such a misnomer on that part of the privileged is brilliantly destroyed and buried by Mohammed Diab’s firecracker thriller Clash. Taking place entirely within the confines of a police van, the movie traverses the dangerous neighborhoods of Cairo following the Arab Spring and the rise of power of the Muslim Brotherhood. Within the van are individuals from all sides of Egypt’s complex socio-political uprising… Journalists, police officers, supporters of the former Mubarak regime and Muslim Brotherhood members. There are the young and the old, the radical and the centrist, the religious and the indifferent.

 

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Clash (dir. Mohammed Diab)

 

The conversations that Diab strikes between his characters are wild enough to make our heads spin, the confusion of who is on who’s side is unclear enough to frustrate our ignorant and uneducated Western minds. I could tell, from the first 10 minutes of the movie, until its conclusion, that Diab’s film works both as a stark social commentary for an Egyptian filmgoer and a mocking satire of America and Europe’s feeble attempts to try to “pinpoint” the good and the bad of the Arab Spring. The film systematically obliterates our binary point of view when discussing tensions in the Middle East. Diab purposefully populates the back of the police van bit by bit with different groups, initially daring us to pick the good guys. Like the Western-educated rube I am, I fell for it. When the first group of journalists were stashed alongside Mubarak supporting youths, I took the journalists side because they had “Associated Press” tags. I villainized the youthful protestors. When the Muslim Brotherhood members came aboard I villainized them, and suddenly the Mubarak supporters started to elevate in likeability. This continued throughout the film whereby naturally, our minds try to organize people into groups, and organize morality into “levels” on a scale.

The lessons learned in films like these make it all the more important that they are presented at such events as the New African Film Festival. These films represent a cinema of a world, a continent, a people we probably do not think of very often. They are not in the microscopic focus of our government and news organizations, their events are not held as important even though they may be as directly affected by our nation’s actions as are events in the Middle East or Europe or Asia. African cinema is a cinema which has for so long been the kid in the back of the classroom, in the corner, the one everyone forgets has a voice and something to say. But we are starting to hear its voice, and it is growing ever louder and its words ever more important.