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.

Out of Memory and Time: The Cinema of Victor Erice

 

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The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)

As my generation trudges ever forward year by year, there is a creeping and growing sense of nostalgia that overcomes us with each passing birthday. The never-ending “90’s kid” retrospectives on the internet filled with pictures of old video game consoles, Toys R Us toys, commercials, movies, celebrities, and sports events don’t make reconciling with the fact that our childhood and innocence is gone for eternity and will never come back any easier. Is that too dark?

Nevertheless, nostalgia is arguably the strongest agent of emotion in human beings. What we’ve experienced and lived through is our deepest connection to ourselves. This is especially true for our childhood when we’re still shielded and safeguarded and it seems like life is a cool breeze of care-free afternoons, exciting summer vacations, and instant food anytime anywhere delivered by mom. The longing for the “simpler” or more innocent times is something humans do with social life as well as politics and art. How many times have you heard politicians talking about taking our discourse back “to a simpler time” before everything got all screwed up, or critics saying “they don’t make ’em [movies/tv/literature] like they used to!”. Some of these have more nefarious intentions than others, but in general, we tend to fall into line behind the idea that hindsight is twenty-twenty and the way things used to be was always in many ways ‘better’ than the way things are.

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In art, particularly cinema, this emotion of nostalgia is the most potent connection formed between filmmaker and viewer. Our longing for a particular time or place or general memory of an area or event is a human trait that great filmmakers observe and pick at with an incredible precision and good intentions. It is where melodrama, fear, joy, and pain are all extracted from and used to build connections with characters and places. A recent filmmaker who’s sparse but utterly brilliant body of work I recently became acquainted with is Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice. A filmmaker adroit in his ability to evoke a very overwhelming sense of time and place, Erice’s cinema is the ultimate embodiment of nostalgia in art.

Playing along the same wavelengths as Terrence Malick in regards to textures and themes of youth and abandonment, as well as a very personal connection to his home country’s culture, politics, and daily life, Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, regarded the world over in cinema circles as a undeniable masterpiece, centers around a small Spanish village in Francoist Spain in which a young girl name Ana becomes disturbed and entranced by her viewing of Universal’s 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. A particular infamous scene in the 30’s horror classic features the monster and a young girl throw daisies into the river and the monster, fascinated by the idea of using his hands to “throw”, picks the young girl up and throws her into the water as well. She subsequently drowns and dies. The historical symbolism of this scene in the context of The Spirit of the Beehive‘s fascist Spain setting aside, the crux of the film’s power in Ana beholding this sequence comes from our own experience witnessing cinema for the first time. The first time we saw moving images in the form of a story, how were we emotionally altered by its presentation and what did it mean to us? I remember the first movie I ever watched was Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and it was the first time I truly became terrified and disturbed by a fictional character (the witch with the poisoned apple).

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As kids, one of the lessons we always learn is to “face our fears”. It is a necessity of growing up and every adult tells you it prepares you for the horrors of the real world. Many of the fears are actually much more elaborate, real world fears which we manifest in things closer to ourselves. This theme is repeated throughout coming of age tales, many times as symbolism for the turbulent political affairs of the country at the time. In Erice’s film, Ana is haunted by the interaction of the monster and girl, and the movie’s plot, though it’s really more of a loose string of painterly movements, focuses on Ana’s obsession with finally finding and confronting the monster from the film that haunts her dreams. It’s not inconceivable that Ana’s tussle with Frankenstein was meant by Erice to represent the Spanish populace’s ultimate reality of having to confront the fascist takeover by dictator Francisco Franco. Nostalgia often places these circumstances and events in a rose-tinted light. We do it all the time now in our political spheres, framing our upbringing under the Clinton and Bush administrations as times of much less political intervention despite the fact that even they were in perpetual war with foreign nations. The difference is, back then we didn’t have reason to care. Likewise, in The Spirit of the Beehive, the notion of Franco exists only in small clues such as the rationing of food, the opening scroll, the time-period of the film, and the encounter Ana has with a rebel soldier. But Ana is still very much shielded in her village from any notion of a fascist leader wreaking havoc and despair in his own country. Her preoccupation lies within her childhood experiences of make-believe, much like the young Ofelia in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

 

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El Sur (Victor Erice, 1983)

While Erice’s debut was concerned with the memory of fear, his second film El Sur (English: “The South”), much greater in my estimation and much more pronounced in its ability to evoke the passage of time and its nostalgic effects, focuses on the memories of family, or in particular, father figures. Reflective of his debut, the film centers around yet another young girl, this time named Estrella, in the backdrop of yet another tumultuous time in Spanish history, the Spanish Civil War. Estrella’s father’s disappearance to fight in the war shapes her view of him as she comes of age as a young lady. Her experiences of youth with him are a constant projection in the back of her mind, and her search to finally meet him again shapes the basis of the film. Erice’s ideas of memory are deeply rooted in the characters’ own thoughts and words, but his painterly depictions of Spain play as an additional vehicle of “remembrance” as if the world his characters inhabit is a Spain of a time gone by even for them.

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Perhaps the most quintessential sequences in El Sur center around Estrella going to bed and waking up. Many conversations about her father’s past, which she has with her nanny, and conversations of the Spain from before her time are recounted as relics which shapes her present life. The ideas of nostalgia can also be many times cruel, as Estrella comments on the war and the meanness of her grandfather towards her father. Perhaps then, the fondness we feel for our past is revisiting even the less than comforting events with a fresh set of eyes and confronting them with an added confidence. As Estrella’s nanny states, “even the wildest of animals tame with age”. Perhaps it is our nostalgia that does it.

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 release in 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 most likely 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.