This biopic is predictably but depressingly conventional. It is based on the Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. I have not read the book but this seems to be both a travesty in terms of history and in terms of politics. The Sight & Sound review suggest that it “may find its natural home in school classrooms ..”: if the reviewer is right I find that even more depressing.
The film is an Anant Singh Presentation. Singh produced films during the Apartheid era, often with a critical edge. The most well known is Sarafina! (1992) based on the successful musical set in an African township. That film watered down the politics: reducing the struggle to individual terms and undermining the role of violence in the liberation struggle. The new Mandela does something similar. The politics of the anti-apartheid struggle are here reduced to simplistic slogans. There is no sense of the changes that led from the armed struggle in the early 1960s to the negotiated settlement of the 1990s. There is little sense of either the economic situation of black people or the values that motivate the dominant white population. As you might guess the dynamics of class are missing from both sides of the conflict. The film has space only for Nelson Mandela himself and his second wife Winnie. The rest of the ANC leadership remain ciphers, even Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. In fact, we get a fuller portrait of a friendly guard on Robbin’s Island than any other ANC member. The film reminded me of Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom (1987), ands also at times of the same director’s Gandhi! (1982). All three films present leaders whose politics are acceptable to the so-called ‘International Community’: though I think the two latter films work better as cinema. Where Mandela scores is with the focus on the black characters: they are not as in the other two films mediated by white characters.
We do get some of the Mandela warts, though he emerges mainly as an almost saintly character. Both he and Winnie are shown as involved in extra-marital affairs. However, Nelson Mandela’s ‘fling’s are presented uncritically whilst those of Winnie’s are disparaged in the dialogue. This is an important aspect of the treatment of the two major characters. The white minority, including their leaders, are presented mainly in stereotypes. The film is more accurate in depicting their racism and their brutality. The autocratic strain in Mandela’s politics is apparent, but this is treated uncritically, and with little show of opposition. The greatest danger to Mandela in the film’s narrative comes from Winnie Mandela. She seems a more radical character in the later stages, but she is also discredited by her association with the neck lacing in the townships of the 1980s.
The more complex politics of the resistance are glossed over. So events at Sharpeville are presented as a seemingly spontaneous protest and massacre. The Pan African Congress, who actually organised the boycott of the Pass Books, is nowhere to be seen. In a similar vein the youth rebellions in the townships, including the massacre in Soweto, are missing the important leadership of Black Consciousness and Steve Biko.
The plotting of the film is schematic. The actual life of Mandela is tricky to handle: all those years away from the struggle in prison. But the script fails to find a way to tie these together. The early part of the film works fairly effectively, but the latter parts lack coherence. Stylistically the film is well produced. But we see fairly conventional images and set ups, with a fairly conventional score. The film opens in widescreen colour as a young black boy runs through the long grass on the veldt. Such landscape images recur throughout the film: frequently in flashbacks with a soft focus. The action sequences are shot as with a hand-held camera, [probably a steadicam]. They are then edited in a series of extremely brief shots. This does not help comprehension. There are also low-angle shots of Mandela and his fellow leaders. However, this is not Soviet Montage or even Dogme. The film also has any number of overhead shots: a common predilection in modern cinema.
The cast work hard, I thought Naomie Harris as Winnie was the most effective. But it requires more than authentic costumes and accents to convince. The script does not supply great depth and there is a structural problem in the age spans traversed, which make-up cannot hide. The film is also long: I remembered to comment of Mort Sahl [possibly apocryphal] at a preview of Exodus ‘Otto, Let my people go!’.
Apparently the film is performing well. I saw it in a packed auditorium at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Presumably Mandela’s impeccable timing, passing away on the day of the premiere, assisted. It may also be that he had a premonition about the film! Despite the reformism of Mandela and of the ANC political line – demonstrated by the little change for the Black working class even now – they deserved better than this.
The last several decades have seen a series of mainstream film dramas that address the vicious colonial and neo-colonial system – much of it British. Many of these films have also attempted to sympathetically present the heroic struggles of the National Liberation Movements. It is difficult to think of any that have succeeded. They either wish to let the exploiting classes off the hook – as in Mandela or they end up settling for a personalised resolution that misses the point, also Mandela. As with this film many do both.
There was a post-screen discussion at the National Museum. People were generally positive about the film, though they noticed the omissions. Several argued that to reach a wide audience films had to dramatise and simplify. I think this argument ignores the many facets of the industry: star or auteur power, marketing and publicity, and crucially distribution.
Filmmakers have to consider which audience they are addressing. I do not think it is worthwhile aiming for a mass audience if that entails reducing the ‘message’ to what can be accommodated by ‘Western Union’! There are examples of relatively successful films that dramatise anti-colonial struggles – The Wind that Breaks the Barley (2007) for one. And there are films that both dramatise the anti-colonial struggle in Africa and retain the politics. My favourite from Azania is Mapantsula (1988, by Oliver Schmitz and Thomas Mogotlane) which utilises and then subverts the conventions of the genre.
Can I recommend Khalo Matabane’s Mandela, the Myth & Me, shown in BBC Storyville on BBC 4 on January 13th. Presented as a dialogue of voices, it includes radical viewspoints that never made it into the new film biopic.
Pirogue is a general term to describe boats such as canoes or ‘dugouts’. On the West African coast large versions of the traditional canoe shape, powered by a single motor, are used for fishing. The local fishing industry is in decline from overfishing (including factory fishing by trawlers from the EU) and this gives a further impetus to the attempts to leave the region and migrate to where there might be jobs. Thousands have left the coasts of Senegal and Mauritania in open boats, attempting to reach European beaches. Most of those who have survived the trip have ended up in the Canaries, part of Spain. This film ends with a title informing us that 1 in 6 of these illegal migrants fails to survive – and many of the others are then ‘repatriated’ back to their home country.
Moussa Touré’s film is based on a novel and it tells the tale of one such journey from Dakar. In one sense the narrative is familiar, comprising a mix of the standard illegal migration story (what motivates both the migrants and the people who transport them?) and the ‘forced community trapped in a boat’ genre typified by the Hollywood disaster movie. One of the earliest examples of the latter was Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. The tragedy of La pirogue is that the travellers have chosen this ordeal. Some of them know the dangers, others are so desperate to leave that they probably don’t want to know.
The film is handsomely mounted and looks good in a CinemaScope presentation. The narrative provides us with two main groups: the boat’s captain and his brother plus the trip’s organiser and others in their circle as opposed to the passengers who represent people from the interior including some from Guinea who speak a different language. Allied to these differences are familiar oppositions of young and old, secular and religious. There is enough potential narrative conflict to sustain the film’s relatively short running time and I found it gripping. If I’m honest though, I did think that as a suspense film – who will survive the trip, what kinds of dangers will the boat face? – there were too many clues to what might happen and I found myself in that familiar position of admonishing characters for not being careful enough with essential items of equipment. It will be interesting to see how the film goes down with audiences. It’s a mainstream popular film from Senegal with production values commensurate with European funding and technical support. My fear is that it might fall between two stools – perhaps not enough excitement for the mainstream but possibly not quite enough characterisation and observation for the arthouse. So far, it hasn’t got UK distribution, though it has opened in France and I think it is booked for North America. The people in the boat are a divided community and I’m not sure what this says about Senegal if the film is in any way metaphorical. I think it’s this thought that makes me wish that we found out more about the individual characters and their problems. But despite my slight misgivings I urge you to see this if you get the chance.
Cornerhouse in Manchester starts a season of Francophone films from Europe, Africa, the Antilles and Quebec today. It’s an interesting programme compiled by Rachel Hayward and supported by Alliance française de Manchester and the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. I’m helping to teach an associated evening class and I’ll be blogging on some of the films being screened. The Cornerhouse season includes the following titles:
It’s Not Me I Swear! (C’est pas moi, je le jure!, Canada 2008)
Thu 18 Oct at 18:30
A rare opportunity in the UK to see an earlier film by Philippe Falardeau, director of the wonderful Monsieur Lazhar.
Laurence Anyways (Canada 2012)
Sun 21 Oct at 15:30
The new film by enfant terrible Xavier Dolan which will be on release in the UK and Ireland in December.
Black Shack Alley (Rue cases nègres, Martinique-France 1983)
Wed 24 Oct at 18:30
Another rare opportunity, this time to see a classic film no longer available in the UK. Directed by Euzhan Palcy and based on the book by Joseph Zobel this was a milestone film. I’ll be introducing this screening and posting material on the blog.
War Witch (Rebelle, Canada 2012)
Wed 7 Nov at 18:30
Canada’s entry for the Best Foreign Language film entry for the next Academy Awards. A prizewinner at festivals across the world, Kim Nguyen’s film about a girl forced to become a child soldier in an unnamed African country is one to seek out.
La pirogue (Senegal-France-Germany 2012)
Mon 12 Nov at 18:20
Another of this year’s festival favourites – Moussa Touré’s film about migrants from Africa hoping to reach Europe in open boats.
Our Children (À perdre la raison, Belgium-Switzerland-France-Luxembourg)
Thu 15 Nov at 20:40
A starry cast: Niels Astrup, Tahar Rahim and Emilie Dequenne in Joachim Lafosse’s film based on a real story about a mother and her children faced with a difficult family situation. The UK release will be in 2013.
Sister (France-Switzerland 2012)
On release during November, please check the Cornerhouse listings.
Ursula Meier’s film about a young boy and his sister starring Gillian Anderson and Martin Compston alongside Lea Seydoux and Kacey Mottet Klein has both English and French dialogue. Meier’s realist style in this film has been compared to that of the Dardennes Brothers.
We received this piece from Andrea Swift at the New York Film Academy. It describes a film that may be of interest to our readers, so we decided to post it:
Director Richard Wolf has produced more than 30 documentary films in his career, many for international television networks (CNN, BBC, etc.). Much of his work focuses on the plight of women in third world countries.
As he puts it the, “humanistic values that are deeply reflected in our films… are simple yet gripping because they tap into universal emotions.” In short, Wolf’s vision touches the heart. But his 2008 film,Women of the Sand, enthralls the eyes, the mind and the soul as well – at least according to the selection committee for Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. Last year, the film became one of the select few to enter the museum’s permanent selection – and for good reason.
Women of the Sand focuses on the women at the heart of communities of Islamic nomads in the Sahara Desert, specifically in Mauritania. An unmitigated, cinéma vérité experience of the women’s daily routines, carries filmgoers into the meager existence of this millennia-old culture and engages us in their struggle against growing desertification. The visuals are stunning – a sculptural contemplation of wind blowing across shape-shifting dunes that rise and drop. The occasional trees and bushes are as sparse as the humans who stand improbably against this arid climate. Those same winds also catch the thin fabrics of tents and lean-tos, and of the traditional fabrics worn by the men, women and children of these unsettled communities. Heads peaking out from inside their moulafas, the women tell their stories of survival in this harsh climate, of the challenges they navigate just to feed, cloth and educate their children. They also speak of the green plants that come forth in the rainy season – the basis of all that makes life worth living. Their focus is not on the dryness and the more frequent times when food is less plentiful, though to outsiders those stark climatic conditions make it impossible not to contemplate the fragility of life. These “women of the sand” are resilient people who speak of the friendliness of the desert and desert people. One woman says she prefers that to the coolness she observes between people in the cities she, evidently, has visited.
We also learn that the desert expands by about six miles per year, challenging their beloved and centuries old nomadic ways. Over a lifetime, that means 360 more miles of largely barren sand will overtake arable land, making those green plants a sparser and sparser presence in their world. It is a losing battle against scarcity that drives more interaction with non-nomads, disrupting their way of life. Long term, it threatens to seriously diminish, perhaps even end the nomad culture.
While MOMA selects films for its collection for a broad range of reasons, the unifying criteria, according to the institution’s website, is innovation. That innovation may come into play in the film’s structure, narration or in its success immersing the viewer in the subject. One particularly striking example ofWomen of the Sand’s immersive quality gives us real insight into the nomad’s experience of modernity: In a tent on a rug that are all that separates them from endless, depthless sand, flies walk on the women’s hands and wrists, as they type on the keyboard of a laptop computer with the same skill they later demonstrate creating traditional fabric on a loom. Technology may or may not be useful to them. One mother explains they do not consider it particularly impressive or important. But will their children – who attend school in a tent, seated on the ground, feel the same way? Through a string of such moments,Women of the Sand creates a compelling tension between its exploration of a vanishing way of life, and a simultaneously contemplation its abiding continuity.
Produced by C. Litewski and Lucy Barbosa, directed by Richard Wolf, Women of the Sand is available on DVD (see below). Wolf studied film direction at the New York Film Academy. He also studied documentary production at the Global Village School, also in New York. Part of his signature style is to blend very candid, personal one-on-one testimonies with monstrously out-proportioned imagery that is said to provide a global context to a very intimate story. The production company is Lobo Docs.
Andrea Swift is Chair of the Documentary Program at the New York Film Academy. She earned her Masters in Fine Arts degree from Columbia University and was the executive producer of the ‘In the Life’ documentary series for the PBS network, among many other credits. Her ‘nuclear folktale’ Deafsmith was featured at the United Nations Earth Summit, won a Silver at the Chicago International Film Festival and took second prize at the American Film and Video Festival.
A free low resolution streamed presentation of Women of the Sand is available on SnagFilms (with some forced ad breaks). The film can be purchased from the same website on this page or downloaded/rented on this page. The DVD appears to be Region 0 and the film was made in 2003.