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.

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.

On Architecture & Use of Space: Ben Wheatley’s HIGH-RISE vs. Nicholas Winding Refn’s THE NEON DEMON

Two films released this year showcase first and foremost a unique architecture in their set designs and an equally unique use of space between the characters and their surroundings. However, one film manages to make a note of its structural choices in the ultimate lesson it attempts to convey. The other film’s choices are as thoughtless as flipping the thin pages of a high-end fashion magazine.

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The structural alignment of beams, floors, decks, and their vicinity from the parking lot in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is a physical manifestation of social hierarchy and the seperation of economic class. Many British stories, from E.M. Forsters’ Howard’s End and beyond have focused on the disparity and malevolence between the bourgeoisie and those subjected to a lower pedestal and even the sewers of the social strata. In J.G. Ballard’s novel, which Wheatley has, with his signature explosive cinematic style, translated into film, these socio-economic tales of the yesteryears are thrust forward into a quasi-post-apocalyptic world (it seems normal, but something is ominous about the air) where a series of high-rises dominate the landscape and stare down (literally the top of the buildings are tilted slightly so as to seem the building is “looking” downward) to the Earth with a shivering coldness.

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The main protagonist Robert Laing, has an apartment somewhere in the middle of the building. He is perpetually dressed in shirt and tie, to the point where it almost seems that that is his skin (even during sex, he never takes his outfit off). Throughout the film, the architecture of the building gives an aesthetic dimension to its residence’s statuses in society. The top floors (which also host the Architect, the creator of the building) are huge, barren except for the luxurious minimalist furniture that sets itself more like a modern art piece than something to sit on. The clothing is similarly porcelain… clean whites, straight blacks. The lower floors are decorated the way we may decorate our own houses. Pots of plants, pictures kids drew magneted to the refrigerator, some simple paintings and family photos hanging from the walls. The residents clothes have more color and are knitted with designs. Every part of the look of the film is meant to portray the status of a member or group within the “society”. As the war between the lower and upper floors begins to bubble, we start to see foundations shake quite literally… the lobby of the hotel becomes a mess and the cement beams start to chip away. There’s fires in the hallways. One of the bourgeoisie individuals jumps off his balcony to crash and die in the parking lot. A kind of cheeky metaphor of the phrase “the higher you rise the harder you fall”, and quite deliberate in this case, for the parking lot is the only part of the complex where all residents of all floors are on the same level. There’s no turning up one’s nose there because there’s nowhere to go vertically.

High-Rise: 

Now on the complete opposite end of the platform, is Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon, one which uses space and structure for nothing other than a “cool look”. While there is a clear metaphorical density to the design of Wheatley’s film, The Neon Demon’s use of architecture is more akin to million-dollar wrapping paper on an empty box. The resulting film is eerily similar to the smug, rotten, and morally defunct interiors of the top floors of the Wheatley’s High-Rise. The characters themselves function more like glass mannequins with no interior working parts. They are quite literally the subject of objectification and the male gaze, and even if the intent of this was to reveal the hollowness of Hollywood’s show-business, there was no attempt by Refn to examine it. Instead, the camera’s central job in this film is to move in lateral motions as the actresses, scantily clad, dolled up to the hilt, stare coldly at one another or into space. Sometimes there’s flickering neon lights. Much of the minimalist scene setting in Refn’s films has existed since Valhalla Rising, but this is the first time it seems like just time-filler. The actresses just take up space.

The Neon Demon:

 

Norte, The End of History

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Norte, The End of History (Lav Diaz, 2013)

A disclaimer to start off:

I have personally become disillusioned with the American critical stance of films having to have a certain time-frame of “watchability”. I don’t get that. To me, a film’s “length” being indicative of its watchability only really depends on the seriousness of the filmmaker. If there is, in the filmmakers judgement and intellect, truly a necessity for the runtime he has allotted for his film, then I leave that to his discretion. The nonsensical argument that a movie lasting more than 2 or 2 ½ hours is one which is poorly edited is a myth, and it’s a myth which has ruined films like Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, forced Tarantino to chop Kill Bill into two parts, and made the 4 ½ hour version of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King be restricted to DVD instead of where it really belonged: in the theater. Yet, evidence exists everywhere of films with lengthy run-times that have gripped me far more and relentlessly than even 90-minute features.

One of them, Lav Diaz’s 4 ½ hour Norte, The End of History is in a word, incredible. Incredible to behold in not only its cinematic scope of location, camerawork, and time, but equally in the density of its core, packed with so many discussions of socio-politics, religion, and the fight between immorality, innocence, revenge, and love so jam packed one after another with so many ideas and insights into the film, that its 4 ½ hour runtime doesn’t feel even a millisecond “too long”. There wasn’t a moment of this movie which made me check what the time was, on my watch or my phone. I was glued. From the opening scene discussing a provocative conversation of nihilism, dictatorship, we are automatically drawn to the upstart law student Fabian, who’s radical ideologies, Marxist level of disdain for the economic and social state of his nation, The Philippines. This may not seem riveting to the average film-goer, but I am a sucker for philosophical discussion, especially one in which fervor and anger take central stage, because it displays the passion for socio-politics that I think everyone in every country could benefit from in a knowledge standpoint and one of inspiration.

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Diaz is clearly speaking to the effects of the nation on its populace and in turn, the reaction of its citizens throughout the film. While Fabian’s disillusionment leads him down a dark and horrifying path of self-hatred, poor construction worker Joaquin and his family (wife and 2 kids) lead a life of quiet desperation, going about their daily chores, living hand to mouth, not saying much because they don’t have the power nor the energy to do so. The two threads that made up the quilt of Norte are weaved in the winding lives of Fabian and Joaquin. The distinction between their two lives is important, the former a brilliant prodigy of the law student praised by his teachers as an “outside thinker” and the other a low wage worker at the bottom of the totem pole, a mule of the economic system. As Fabian commits a gruesome murder, one sparked by both a sense of righteousness and blind hatred, Joaquin is the one who bares the brunt of the blame, a perennial scapegoat of the corrupt, a “disposable entity”.

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The irony at face value of course is that in his Raskolnikovian guilt and shame, Fabian lives in his own prison outside of the bars, while Joaquin in jail is shown to grow as a person and his kindness succeeds in winning over even the coldest of hearts. But Diaz’s commentary goes a bit deeper than this, as a 4+ hour film should. We realize that Fabian’s existence as a disillusioned youth was his prison, and his murder was already a murder committed behind bars. For him, the Philippines itself was the prison, a nation which, from the beginning of the film itself, was at the precipice of complete hopelessness according to Fabian, one where every transgression deserved a murder, every political lie deserved torture. His anger at the socio-political turmoil which surrounded him infiltrated his mind and ignited the fire of a young would-be dictator. One teetering between the heart of a good kid wanting so much better for the people of country (he gives up all his saved money to Joaquin’s wife for her to keep and raise her kids with), and a madman who’s helplessness in the grand scheme of things leads him to violent insanity.

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To me, Diaz’s ultimate message in this film was that the oppression and neglect of a ruling government can be directly related to rise of violent and immoral individuals. The lack of power, the lack of solutions, and the continued boiling anger of a population can produce a Fabian, and it can also hamper a Joaquin. There is unforgiving heartbreak, death, rape, and torture which is peppered throughout the film, but none of it is disingenuous, or manipulative, or politically preachy. It is showcased as a happenstance of life in a country where Diaz clearly believes so much to be morally wrong. A country where the populace is devoted to God, where Jesus and Catholicism and priesthood are such a prevalent part of the culture, yet, Godless acts seem to occur, without much mourning.

Readers know from a few of my previous articles, that I am very averse to labelling a film a masterpiece because I always feel like I’m short-changing the power of that word. We use it so loosely (just like everything else today) and freely that I feel the need to be even more strict with my usage of it to counter the complete liberal abandon with which it is being flung around nowadays. But I thought about it, I pondered it, and I spent the better part of the last month letting Lav Diaz’s Norte, The End of History sink in. I am at a loss for another word to describe my experience with this movie. Masterpiece, it is.

(Suffice to say, I will be watching more Lav Diaz in the coming months, starting with From What is Before…. Stay tuned!)