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.

Kedi: The Cats of Istanbul

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Kedi (Ceyda Torun, 2017)

Behold, the ultimate culmination of the internet’s craze with cute cat videos. An amusement park specifically built for the new American past-time that has taken over baseball. We’ve seen felines play the keyboard, interact with dogs, failing in the art of jumping, and getting booped on the nose. Now we can interact with them in real life! In Istanbul!

If only interacting with one of Earth’s greatest domesticated creatures was as simple and carefree as we imagine on the internet. Instead, with the documentary Kedi, filmmaker Ceyda Torun examines the complex interaction of cats and humans that has evolved and developed over centuries in the city of Istanbul, and become a relationship of respect and love in equal measure. The film runs through several different “famous” cats in the city and their human friends, all working class individuals who run cafes, markets, hardware stores, and fishing vessels. who develop a neighborlike acquaintance with them. It is clear from the get go that these cats are not pets though they behave in familiar domesticated ways. They are not patronized as playthings. They are truly members of the society and their contributions to the people in the film ranges from simply a source of companionship, to the healing of deep psychological wounds. This idea of feline or canine companionship as a remedy for mental health issues is not new, and it is perhaps a portal into our own fondness for the activity with watching endless streams of kitten and puppy videos on social media. Is it a form of self-medication that we subconsciously engage in?

But let’s not get too bogged down with the weighty issues. Kedi is still overall light-hearted, featuring several sequences of “go-pro” style camera tracking shots that give ground-level point of view shots of the cat’s journey through human-dominated habitats. The film is fun, and it plays perfectly to our unmitigated need to place human characteristics and traits onto non-human animals. A sequence where one of the cats chases after a mouse plays like the tunnel scene from the Harrison Ford movie The Fugitive. The mouse peeks in and out, aware of the cat’s presence but avoiding being seen. It’s thrilling, it’s quirky, it’s exactly the type of thing that gets a million “likes” and “clicks” and “retweets”.

Many of the cats in the film are described with characters you’d see in film archetypes. “The swindler”, “the matriarch”, the “drifter”, the “new kid on the block”. All of these cats may not be any of these things, but an observation of their behavior on a daily basis forces us to relate to them, and because language is a rigid barrier that will never be torn down, our perception of “humanness” is all we have in determining who these fuzzy felines “are”.

*Currently playing at E-Street Cinema in Washington D.C. and possibly other independent cinema’s in your resident city.

The Oscars 2017! or, something like that

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Ugh, these Oscars… the Best Picture nominees (except for Moonlight) this year are boring. The individual acting and directing nominees (except for Moonlight’s cast and director) are uninteresting and tired. The show is just going to be a sling of overused jokes about a toupeed orangutan all of us are tired of thinking about . I frankly care less about who wins or loses this year (but Moonlight is great, it should win) more than any year in the past.

So here’s just ONE THING you should keep in the back of your troubled minds while you’re sitting on your couch watching this charade thinking about the 6th Mass Extinction that scientists keep mentioning and wondering when it will finally take all of humanity with it:

The Real BEST PICTURE Nominees are in the BEST DOCUMENTARY CATEGORY:

I just made 3 straight not-subtle references to Moonlight if you were paying attention, but even that movie is nothing compared to the merciless bitch-slap across the face the Best Documentary category has in store for you. These movies are challenging, frustrating, the “I want to throw my computer against the wall because what I just watched pissed me off to no end” sort of great realistic, unapologetic and volcanic documentation of LIFE.
I mentioned in my Best Films of 2016 list that O.J.: Made in America was the #1 movie of last year. That hasn’t changed, and I wrote enough about it here to not have to go into an explanation:

But look at the other 4.

The 13th is a film by Ana DuVernay in multiple parts on the epidemic of unlawful and dangerous incarceration of black people throughout American history. There is zero excuse for you not to watch it considering it is on Netflix right now and I know all of you send them $7 straight out of your paycheck every month. Stop wasting that money watching F.R.E.I.N.D.S. for the millionth fucking time and support the voice of a filmmaker in DuVernay who is doing important work.

I Am Not Your Negro is probably the best title for a movie since Leos Carax’s Pola X (the explanation for that film title is here). On the manuscripts of James Baldwin, the film runs through his thoughts on and furious anger over the civil rights violations of a nation coming to grips with its own horrifically racist past, present, and if nothing changes, future.

The Italian documentary winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Gianfranco Rossi’s Fucoammare (Fire at Sea), showcases the lives of immigrants from Northern Africa who sail to find solace in Europe. The film’s raw footage gives the depth, danger, and peril of the journey of many of these individuals who understand the risks of death and proceed at all costs.

The final film is the least political, but still important. Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated showcases the coming of age a young boy with autism, who escapes the isolation and discrimination from society and learns to cope with his disability through his love for Disney movies. Most of our childhoods were defined by the Disney Renaissance, but for some, it wasn’t just a matter of nostalgia. This doc is a great testament to how cinema can change a life.

Watch these movies. If you have watched ANYTHING from the year 2016, makes sure you watch these:

OJ: Made in America (on WatchESPN for free)

The 13th (on Netflix)

I Am Not Your Negro (on Netflix)

Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) (on Netflix)

Life, Animated (on Amazon Prime)

Top 10: Best Movies of 2016

[Inset “2016 was the worst year ever” joke here]

2016 was terrible on many political fronts, but when it comes to cinema, it forces me to look at the best of things that have passed. As I moved to Washington D.C. I was surprised by the solid film culture that exists here. I guess (or at least I hope) that despite any changes in what goes on in the federal buildings of this district, the cultivation of theaters, movie screenings, and film community will continue to grow and offer more.

I look forward in 2017 to start watching more local cinema, created by D.C. filmmakers, reading scripts by D.C. talents and joining their ranks by continuing to film my own stuff. I also look forward to being more selective in the movies that I watch. As the year went on I succumbed to the glitz and glamor of major Hollywood releases, but I’m going to try to make a point to restrict myself to spending money on smaller filmmakers and production companies that really need the money and funding. I’m sure I’ll catch a big release here of there, but it will be less than last year. I’m also curious to see how this plays into the types of films I try to expose through recommendations. I’ve seen my Top 10 lists become more and more focused on smaller non-blockbuster movies as years go by. That trend I will continue, maybe next year I’ll have a list that is strictly geared towards giving exposure to movies you may have never heard of… trust me, that’s a good thing.

Anyway, here’s a list of 10 of the best movies I’ve seen this year of 2016. I also have additions at the end of the page for movies from past years which I watched for the first time this year (if that makes sense). Hopefully this will see some older movies you may not know you love yet.

#1   O.J. Made in America   (dir. Ezra Edelman  –  U.S.A.)

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OJ: MADE IN AMERICA positions itself as a media-on-media critique. It uses interviews, news broadcasts, movie scenes, commercials, sports clips and analysis, and political speeches and reactions to recreate the aura and mythology of its central character, O.J. Simpson.

But the greatness of this documentary is brought forth in its ability to connect the evolution of a nation with the trajectory of one man’s fame, power, and wealth and the American people’s investment in that story. Full review HERE

#2   American Honey    (dir. Andrea Arnold  –  U.S.A.)

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What sets American Honey apart is that it essentially treats seizing the moment as a survival tactic for its protagonists in conjunction with its traditional depiction as a rebellious act of pure free will…. Opportunistic capitalism meets the self-discovering millennial. The entire film rides an electric current that transfers itself directly from Arnold’s camera. The shaky-cam is a technique many have grown tired of, but its wandering, untamed eye captures the imagination of the film’s characters and their surroundings. Their dance circles bumping to trap songs have the aesthetic of a music video. Full Review HERE

#3    I, Daniel Blake   (dir. Ken Loach  –  U.K.)

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The theater was full of heavy sighs, groans, headshakes, and a clear frustration bouncing off the walls from every corner. Everyone left tsk-tsking. I’ve never seen such a vocally frustrated response from an audience for a character and a story. It made it that much harder to shake off Ken Loach’s remarkable and painfully relevant film.

Full Review HERE

#4   Cameraperson   (dir. Kirsten Johnson  –  U.S.A.)

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Constructed from tape Kirsten Johnson has collected over many years of travel and documentation, CAMERAPERSON is the living breathing embodiment of the phrase “a film is made in the editing room”. All of the sequences in the film jump around geographically and temporally making their juxtaposition more jarring and their lack of context daring in making the audience piece together stories of individuals themselves. It’s as educational and personal of a documentary as I’ve ever seen, and its presentation will make almost anyone search and read endlessly about the topics and historical events it showcases… many of them leading to dark and painful places and revealing terrifying truths about our world.

#5   Moonlight    (dir. Barry Jenkins  –  U.S.A.)

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There is nothing better than seeing a filmmaker have his debut film emphatically stamped with his own vision. The best part of Moonlight isn’t that it sheds light on a neglected class of American society, but that it dares to examine and say a good deal about them with a completely unique perspective. Dee Rees’s sadly forgotten parable Pariah did something very similar.

#6   The Hunt for the Wilderpeople   (dir. Taika Waititi  –  New Zealand)

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I have been watching Taika Waititi’s career since his debut Eagle vs. Shark back when I was a junior in high school, and it’s always rendered as very hit-or-miss, with the misses coming more frequently and missing by a lot. He may have won me over however with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a fun New Zealander’s take on the American mismatched-pair buddy comedy. Its moments of family dynamics, what it means to be a “man”, and an undercurrent of racial disparities between New Zealand’s white and native Maori populations all come under hilarious satirical examination with Waititi’s ability to balance both cultural relevance and popcorn entertainment seamlessly.

#7   Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping   (dir. Jorma Taccone & Ariel Schaffer  –  U.S.A.)

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Popstar isn’t quite the comedic success that Hunt for the Wilderpeople is, but it manages to play to its central characters’ (Lonely Island trio) built internetz fanbase with hilarious and some cringy moments that make for a light and airy satire on the pop industry’s slow demise into utter ridiculousness. I only wished in addition to the whimsy, the film added a bit of bite the way Eminem’s “Real Slim Shady” track did on this same subject of “pop stardom” 15 years ago.

#8   Les Innocents   (dir. Anne Fontaine  –  France)

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Look here. For all the film critics and viewers fawning over Mel Gibson’s slathering faith-based conundrum Hacksaw Ridge that presents itself with the subtlety of hammering a nail into one’s palm, if you want a truly gut-churning film which both tests and reaffirms belief in a higher power and its place in a world slowly losing hope… look here.

#9   Sunset Song   (dir. Terrence Davies  –  Scotland)

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It’s hard to call the film merely a romantic period-piece because it doesn’t dwell much on its setting or its time-period as a major factor for the relationships of its characters. Yes, there is a war, and its clear its the Scottish country-side, but people can experience what Chris Guthrie goes through in almost any time period. Enduring the abusive relationship with her domineering father, the death of her mother, falling in love, having her loved one changed from the inside-out by war. Davies turns Sunset Song into more a film of human emotion transcending time and place, but the pre-war Scottish countryside adds the nostalgia by channeling a near fairy-tale like setting, but bombarding it with a devastating story filled with every bit of the harshness of real life, but also the warmth.

Full Review HERE

#10   Rogue One   (dir. Garth Edwards  –  U.S.A.)

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There was a lot of noise made about a particular Vox article with an ill-conceived clickbaity title suggesting that this Star Wars film, apart from any of the regular “canon films”, was the first one to acknowledge the “war” part of the Star Wars franchise. Watching this movie proved the article’s meat correct, despite its headline being manipulative. The fact of the matter is, the reason Rogue One resonates with people (me) not really all that enthusiastic about Star Wars movies is that it plays more towards the series biggest strengths, which is the mythos surrounding it and the humanization of its characters to being citizens under distress. Even when Leia’s planet of Alderaan was destroyed, there was hardly an acknowledgment of the weight of such a genocide occurring. It was brushed off as a plot point. We moved on. Rogue One takes the time to, for the first time in the franchise, calculate a loss within each individuals character’s contribution to the fight for a new hope. Rogue One‘s heart is more that of a war movie than it is “space-opera”.  That’s why I liked it better than any of the other ones.

Top Movies From Years Past that I Watched for the First Time in 2016 (in alphabetical order):

  • Babette’s Feast  (Gabriel Axel, 1987)
  • Colossal Youth  (Pedro Costa, 2006)
  • El Sur  (Victor Erice, 1983)
  • From What is Before  (Lav Diaz, 2014)
  • Lady Snowblood  (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)
  • Mumbai Cha Raja  (Manjeet Singh, 2012)
  • My Home is Copacabana  (Arne Sucksdorff, 1965)
  • My Dinner with Andre  (Louis Malle, 1981)
  • Norte: The End of History  (Lav Diaz, 2013)  –  *masterpiece, 2010’s All-Decade List
  • Ratcatcher  (Lynn Ramsey, 1999)
  • Santa Sangre  (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989)  –  *masterpiece, 1980’s All-Decade List
  • Shotgun Stories  (Jeff Nichols, 2007)
  • Take Aim at the Police Van  (Seijun Suzuki, 1960)
  • Warrendale  (Allan King, 1968)

O.J. Made in America

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OJ: Made in America positions itself as a media-on-media critique. It uses interviews, news broadcasts, movie scenes, commercials, sports clips and analysis, and political speeches and reactions to recreate the aura and mythology of its central character, O.J. Simpson. As a black kid from the projects turned football star turned American icon, he was the living, walking, and talking embodiment of the American Dream, and exhibit A for proof that capitalism worked. A man whose figure in the American pop culture diaspora was so magnanimous, it defied definition. As Jay-Z put it, “Not a businessman, but a business… man.” However, all of this was shattered through a court trial that ended up finding him innocent, but fallout that rendered him an outcast of American society. In this, Edelman paints an America comprised of two sides that were always at odds in the fight for O.J. Simpson. A white America who embraced his rise and turned un-apologetically to relish in his fall, and a black America who felt neglected by his apathy towards their social struggle yet embellished in the opportunity to use his trial as a means of social justice. As a documentary, a piece of visual media, it turns its lens in every direction and points it back at us in 2016, facing a similar racially fractured situation which all but intensified post a seminal verdict in the court that is the American presidential election. It points it back at its own storytelling form, the overexposure of an individual, a normalization of his dangerous behavior, a treatment of him as a victim of unwarranted harsh criticism rather than recognizing his actions as inviting and justifying it.

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The social and cultural shifts of American history through time shape and are shaped by its most powerful citizens. Race relations brewed through O.J.’s life, even if he tried his hardest to avoid them. We perceive race as a binary entity. You are either racist or you are not. However, like most ideologies or worldviews, it exists in a blended spectrum that makes it harder for us to judge, and dangerously, harder to detect or realize. Many instances in O.J. Made in America showcase blatant examples of racism. Use of the n-word, beating of black individuals by police, direct violence against blacks by whites. However, there is also deeply rooted systemic racism that the documentary taps into and it is revealed not only in the laws and policies of the nation, but in the everyday lives of people, perhaps unwittingly. As they say, the system isn’t broken, it’s meant to work this way and it ingrained itself in the American psyche to the point of second nature… subconscious reaction to visual signals. Mark Cuban mentioned in an interview several years ago that if he was out at night in the city and saw a black kid in a hoodie he would feel the need to go to the other side of the street(1). We don’t know where such a mental reaction originated from and that’s exactly the issue. Preconceived notions on race are omnipresent in American media as well. In OJ, majority of the violent news footage is consisted of black individuals in urban areas attacking and being “handled” by police officers. These biases exist in everyone and they exist to different degrees. They existed within the rich white circles O.J. Simpson surrounded himself with and then was discarded from once they couldn’t use his stature to their benefit anymore. They existed within Johnny Cochran and his team, who used race-baiting tactics to overcome hard evidence and let a murderer go free. They existed within Simpson himself, who claimed he “never saw race” yet, upon seeing a commotion outside his mansion following his chase down the highway remarked to a white police officer “what are all these n—— doing here?”

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The subject, OJ, of Ezra Edelman’s documentary is amended with a predicate: Made in America. Here lies the power of the story. Where the onus is placed on a culture, a nation, and a history that perpetuated the rise of such an individual, and tore itself apart amidst his demise. The idol worship culture, where the concept of a person being bigger than a person, exists for better or for worse. We elevated Bill Cosby as an all-time comedian. We elevated Tom Cruise as a charismatic screen-stealing superstar. We elevated Donald Trump as a money-savvy outsider who could plausibly lead the most powerful nation in the world for four straight years. Through interviews and news clippings Edelman shows us how our (now social) media-obsessed culture feeds into the mythos of ultimate success and power. We say that America is the place where winners go. You’ll never become as successful and as wealthy and as powerful anywhere else in the world as you can in America. Well, that sword comes with two edges. Capitalism is always coupled with materialism. Fame is always coupled with greed. Power is always coupled with corruption. Only in America could an O.J. Simpson be made. We all made him because we all fed into his myth and his lie. The greatness of O.J. Made in America is in its ability to connect the evolution of a nation with the trajectory of one man’s fame, power, and wealth and the American people’s investment in that story. Something to think about for the next four years.

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I, Daniel Blake

 

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I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016)

 

The theater was full of heavy sighs, groans, headshakes, and a clear frustration bouncing off the walls from every corner. Everyone left tsk-tsking. I’ve never seen such a vocally frustrated response from an audience for a character and a story. It made it that much harder to shake off Ken Loach’s remarkable and painfully relevant film I, Daniel Blake.

Any one of us sitting in those theater seats could have been in the same situation as the movie’s titular character. Many of us have probably experienced more or less the same sort of disgruntled and rejected responses from government personnel when trying to be nice. Loach is clear in his message. People are tired of bureaucratic regulations on the middle and lower classes ability to earn. They’re tired of being underpaid for jobs. They’re tired of red tape barring them from basic human necessities like healthcare and education and food. They’re tired of feeling like everyone in a power position doesn’t give a rat’s ass about whether they live or die. The companionship between the Daniel Blake and Katie, a single mother of two young children, signals a response of the populace in the face of neglect. Take care of each other because who else is going to? At the same time, however, even pooling together resources from several people isn’t enough to create more than the sum of its parts when they live under a system which is built to undermine those who are least fortunate. The film is filled with many sentimental and heartaching moments, typical of Loach’s regular plea to his populist/socialist audience, but they are built as moments of desperation rather than as some sort of narrative ploy. Before we see Katie sneaking a handful of crushed tomatoes at the food bank only to sob, embarrassed at how low she has fallen, we see her giving up her portion of dinner to give her children extra while she goes hungry… night after night.

Unlike many other films depicting one individual’s violent frustration with fascist corruption, Loach resists the urge to throw his character over a cliff, a la Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Instead, Blake’s frustration comes in waves, and his affable yet stern demeanor is all the more frustrating for us. We want to be good, decent, happy, and compassionate people, but even the most joyful must draw a line somewhere. Like a carrot dangling from a stick, there are several false moments of hope which alleviate Daniel Blake’s urge to succumb to vigilante status. That is, until one seminal moment where he spray paints his name of a federal building. But even here, we see him with a grin, shrugging, and chuckling. The heartache of neglect is that when government turn Kafkaesque there are a few who, sure, take it to the limit and look for blood. But most of us are Daniel Blake, most of us can’t do anything but laugh at the ridiculousness of how our countries operate. We can’t do anything except seek attention to our plight. As in the letter reads at the end of the film, “I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, no more, no less.” If only we were all seen that way.

Three Stories from India’s Rural Heartland

The regional cinema of India, away from the glitz of Bollywood and bustle of Westernized city-life and in the isolated patches of huts and farms of the country, revealed a cinema which is starting to examine village-life with a keen eye. This trend started a little while ago, but more and more filmmakers from India are turning their cameras to capturing tall fables, inspirational stories, and timely socio-economic examinations of life in the rural heartland of India’s villages. Here are three such movies which caught my attention this year:

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Umrika (Prashant Nair, 2016)

UMRIKA  (thick-accented Indian pronunciation of “America”)

Prashant Nair’s Umrika, like many independent Hindi features from India had an incredibly difficult time finding distribution because of the over-saturation of mainstream garbage cinema Bollywood continues to pump out like a vomiting gutter-pipe. Yet, thanks to the revelation of online-streaming media and the newly sprouting avenues as well as rave reviews from the Sundance Film Festival, Nair’s little film found a home in Netflix. God bless.

Umrika uses Indian village life’s conservative traditionalism and isolationism as a comedic device. Clearly Nair’s film is meant for the urban-dwelling Indian or the innocent Westerner discovering Indian cinema for the first time. As a village family’s oldest son ventures off to America (they call it, in their heavy Indian accent, “Umrika”), they fantasize about a land of plenty that they cannot even fathom. He sends back letters and photos of strange things incredibly alien to these isolated villagers. A scene shows them holding up a picture of a muscular meaty American beef cattle and comparing it to their own Indian gai comprised of just flimsy skin and bones. These comical moments are relatable because they create the dichotomy that we already hold in our minds between Umrika and the rural poor of India. However, once the son’s letters stop coming, we know something is wrong and the story shifts to a more urban environment as the younger son, Ramakand goes searching for him. Here all our prejudices of rural life are confronted with the corruption of money amongst the urban elite. The idea of Umrika changes from being a land of plenty to a myth shrouded by deceit and phoniness. Umrika is an innocent film, and its ambition exceeds its grasp, but it does get one thinking about how we define our place between where we come from and where we ultimately go?

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Thithi (Raam Reddy, 2016)

 

THITHI  (English: “Funeral”)

Part of what made Raam Reddy’s debut film Thithi so compelling is its ability to give a real account of village life ongoings and procedures through a fully unfiltered lens. Yes, there have been other “village” films to come out, particularly those from Bollywood such as Peepli Live, but the forced media-eye encounter of that film was still a bit decorated and polished. Here, we get Karnataka in its utter primal state. Even the semblance of a love story that starts bubbling in the tall grass, one which could have gone the way to a orchestrated first class crescendo like in Manjule’s Sairat, instead only teases and taunts and ultimately fizzes out to the everyday monotony of village worklife. The film’s story centers around two sons of a dead centenarian. But the story or the ultimate capture of one son’s lie and the other’s redemption in the climax of the film is a narrative which trudges us along. Even the main character, Channegowda’s, horrific revelation of his father’s rape is a disturbing plot-twist that gives depth to his character, but is still a side-note in the cinematic landscape that Reddy paints with such an authentic brush. The real treasure lies in the minute details of a vibrant community that is hidden in the plains, away from an India quickly undergoing what the United States did in the late 1800’s. It is a nation on the cusp of something great… but there is still a life away from all of that, wandering aimlessly in the bushels, chugging a bottle of whiskey, just waiting to die.

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Kothanodi (Bhaskar Hazarika, 2016)

KOTHANODI  (English: “River of Fables”)

Kothanodi might be the most disturbing Indian film I’ve ever seen. There have been unnerving films, like Kaun or Phobia and depressing films like Matrubhoomi, but Bhaskar Hazarika has tapped into something incredibly unique here. This film is weird, strange, and left utterly uncomfortable about the whole ordeal. Kothanodi is a film comprised of four mythical tales which revolve around a stream. A woman is followed by a mysterious fruit which she inexplicably gave birth to… a husband and his uncle kill a woman’s three children and bury them in the forest, but when the fourth one is born, she decides to take a stand… a young girl is left alone with her stepmother, whose mind is possessed by a demon… and a greedy couple plan to marry their daughter to a King Python in hopes the snake will bless her with fortune and riches.

This is a hard movie to shake because its stories are unrelentingly bleak. It’s also uncompromising in its regressive “village politics”. Many of these stories are old and their lessons may seem outdated in today’s age, yet its commendable Hazarika doesn’t bother to “adapt” them for a modern audience. He leaves them as is, a relic of the past and presents them as a “take it or leave it” situation.

The film isn’t a horror film, but it has a very unnerving feeling about it. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Hazarika is an avid fan of Kanedo Shindo because there are so many moments that bring back visions of a Onibaba or Kuroneko. The ominous music, rustling tall grass hiding and revealing characters and secrets, wild eyed possessed women and a disturbing entity brewing through each story. It’s a unique film in its ability to merge traditional Indian dramatization with a cold surrealism that is indescribable except for how it made me feel… uncomfortable.