Arabs and Niggers, Your Neighbours (Les Bicots-Négres, Vos Voisins, Mauritania-France, 1974)

Med Hondo in the 1980s

This film was part of the ‘Cinema Libro FESPACO 1969-2019‘ programme at Il Cinema Ritrovato. The Festival has developed a strong relationship with the World Film Foundation who are leading the African Film Heritage Project which is committed to restoring 50 African films significant in cinema and culture. This series celebrates the Pan African  Film and Television Festival at Ouagadougou which was set up in 1969. That festival has become the centre for both enjoying African film and supporting and developing African Cinema.

This title was directed by Med Hondo and provided a testament to this important film-maker who died on 2nd March this year. We had enjoyed a trio of Hondo’s films at the 2017 Ritrovato. And fortunately he attended and we were able to hear him  talk about his film work. Med Hondo was born in Mauritania in 1936. He migrated to France in 1959 and the exploitation and oppression of migrants was a central theme in his films. He was well versed in International Cinema and his own work was both unconventional and used avant-garde techniques but in the service of accessible films which were ‘made politically’.

Les Bicots-Négres, Vos Voisins was his second film following on from Soleil O (1967). Aboubakar Sanogo in the Festival Catalogue described the film’s structure:

[It] analyses the living conditions of African migrant workers in France in the m id-1970s . . . It comprises seven sequences exploring, respectively the conditions of possibility of cinematic representations in Africa …historical dissonance through the dialectic of past and present . . . a flashback to the eve of African independence , the predicaments of the post-colony, an assessment of the living conditions of migrant workers and the actions taken to transform these conditions . . .

The film opens with a bravura sequence where an African man addresses the audience direct to camera. In a sardonic manner familiar in Hondo’s films he questions the viewer on cinema, Africa and representation. The camera tracks between close-ups, mid-shots and longshots to also reveal the walls covered with film posters. In other sequences he uses a montage of stills, prints, pictures to show Africa in this way. Dramatised sequences point the experiences of African migrants whilst others point how European capitalism retains its hold, in this case on a ‘Francophone’ Africa. And documentary film reveals the actual conditions and the actual actions as Africans  become part of the French proletariat. Towards the close of the film footage of a vast worker’s demonstration, with black and white proletarians side by side, voices the opposition to exploitation and racism.

Hondo and his team used both visual and aural montage as developed by the Soviet pioneers. The cinematography was by Jean Boffety and François Catonné working to a script developed by Hondo. The editing, involving a sequence of stop-motion, was by Michel Masnier. And the music, with a varied combination of African rhythms and French popular songs, was by a team of Catherine Le Forestier, Mohamed Ou Mustapha, Frank Valmont and Louis Zavier.

The screening  used a version from 1988. In an approach shared by other in Third Cinema, Hondo screened parts of the film  to the workers who appear in it and made changes in accordance with their suggestions. So in the opening sequence we actually see in the background a poster for the release of the first version of the film in 1974. Hondo described it as ‘a work in  progress’.

The complete film is challenging but the presentation is quite clear. Med Hondo has a clear grasp of the operation of capital in advanced European states and of the way that neo-colonialism operates in the late C20th. The tone varies from sardonic to dramatic to informative to the powerfully moving. The film was shot in colour and we enjoyed a 35mm print from the Audio-visual Archive of the French Communist Party.

The film  develops the content and style of the earlier Soleil O and also connects with the later works of the film-maker. The screening provided a memorial to a fine director. I was saddened by the thought that I would no longer be able to wait for another  film from Hondo; who had been trying (it seems vainly) to develop a further cinematic  project. However, I am heartened that his unique films will be available still for audiences. A friend in New York recently saw two of these at an impressive retrospective of Liberation Cinema.

Beats of the Antonov (Sudan-South Africa 2014)

The women of one village

This shortish documentary feature (68 mins) was screened as part of Bradford’s Refugee Week with various intros and post-screening comments from members of the local Sudanese community in the city. The screen at the Delius Arts Centre is located in front of the stained glass windows of the late 19th century German church in the city (which still holds a service once a month, I think?). Bradford received many German migrants in the late 19th century and now it receives migrants from Africa and West Asia. It’s great to live in a city that welcomes those who need to move here for whatever reason.

Beats of the Antonov is a film by the Sudanese cinematographer and now director Hajooj Kuka who was educated in Beirut and in the US and who seems now to live between several places. He returned to Sudan to make this film with the backing of South African producer Steven Markovitz, who has helped bring many African stories to the screen. There has been  plenty going on in Sudan since 2014 and the regime of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir who had held power since 1989 was finally ended in April this year after waves of protest in Sudanese cities. The situation is still highly volatile. This film is about the attempts by the al-Bashir regime to crush the resistance of the people of the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan. The conflict is still live today. This area is now on the Southern border of Sudan since the partition of the country which created South Sudan in 2011 and there are refugees from the South in the area.

The film’s clever title refers to both the bombs dropped on villages by Antonov transport aircraft and Russian-built jet fighters and the music produced by the people on the ground as their means of solidifying their resistance and maintaining their strong community bonds. Hajooj Kuka started out thinking he was making a film about refugees and bombings but discovered a form of music and songs that he had never heard before (see the clip below). The music is produced using improvised musical instruments and many of the songs celebrate the everyday lives of the people of small communities under attack.

Celebrations of local culture

As filming progressed it became clear that the musical culture of these villages was all tied up with the fundamental question of ‘identity’ in Khartoum. Sudan is a large geographical area that contains many groups with different language cultures, different religious beliefs and a strong sense of identity. The Ottoman Empire and then the British Imperial administrations from 1899 up to Sudanese independence shifted between policies that either maintained or attempted to obliterate regional differences. Since 1956 there has been an attempt to ‘standardise’ Sudanese culture as Arabic-speaking and Islamic, something generally resisted by peoples from different backgrounds calling for recognition of their individual cultural identities. Kuka himself explains in the second clip below how he soon became aware of the importance of this in the mountains and how he started to reflect on his own identity. There are several comments in the film by local people about their ‘split’ identity between local and national ‘Sudanese’. One example that Kuka explores is the ‘girls’ music’ sung by some of the young women in the villages. The elders don’t like this music because it isn’t ‘traditional’, but neither is it like the commercial pop music played in Khartoum. The ‘girls’ compose their own lyrics about their lives sung to simple tunes. The dilemma for the local people is how to preserve one identity but not become ‘second-class citizens’ in a national sense. But in the meantime, how do they fight against the bombers? The film does include footage of the paramilitary forces of the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army).

This is a remarkable film that Hajooj Kaka made with the people of the region and which he has now taken around the world since its showing at Toronto in 2014. Not surprisingly it provoked lots of comments from the Sudanese in the audience in Bradford, including one from the area in question. The complicated political history of the country and its current issues are very important for the Sudanese people and their families in the UK. It was a privilege to be part of the audience and to very much enjoy the film – and also to realise just how much there still is to learn about British imperialist and colonialist practices in Africa and their role in the damaged future lives of ex-colonial subjects.


High Life (France-Germany-Poland-UK-US 2018)

Robert Pattinson and the baby Willow

At last I have managed to catch the latest Claire Denis film High Life. Many of the films by Denis get only a limited release but, perhaps because this is her first English language film with a ‘Hollywood star’ and because it is ostensibly a science fiction film, High Life has stayed around for a little longer (with a different approach to distribution from Thunderbird Releasing). As several commentators have pointed out, cinephile fans might have worried that this change of approach meant Denis was ‘selling out’. It does seem that some audiences and some mainstream film journalists took that line to mean that High Life is conventional and ‘accessible’ and attended screenings at Toronto and London film festivals – only to subsequently discover that it is still a European art movie and that keen observation and a working brain are required to make any sense of what is happening on screen.

High Life was screened in Toronto partly perhaps because the independent US distributor A24 was involved in the international production process. But the film was made in Germany with some work carried out in Poland and France. The narrative takes us on board a space ship heading out of the solar system, a journey that will last decades and will probably end in oblivion. The purpose of the trip is scientific investigation and the passengers are all criminals, most (all?) on Death Row. They have chosen to ‘volunteer’ for this mission. The crucial aspect of the scenario is perhaps that there are no hierarchies on the ship and all are equal except that Dr. Dibbs, the medical scientist played by Juliette Binoche, has the knowledge about how to use the medical technologies available. The film is in English because Claire Denis (who wrote the script with her long-time writing collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau) wanted the ship to be sent into space by a society where Death Row was still operational and that meant the US. The cast is drawn widely and mainly from English-speaking Europeans. Robert Pattinson is the Hollywood star but he too is European (at least until Brexit is sorted out).

Mia Goth is Boyse

The film’s aesthetic is European, especially in terms of the design and ‘dressing’ of the spaceship. Fittingly, because of the Polish connection, Claire Denis seems to have drawn on ideas from Tarkovsky’s film of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (USSR 1972) and possibly Tarkovsky’s other science fiction film Stalker. I don’t know if she is familiar with British sf films (and TV series) but I was reminded of Duncan Jones’ Moon (UK 2008) and Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s Sunshine (2007). The spaceship is a rather endearing utilitarian ‘box’ looking like a large transport container tumbling through space. With its dark, cluttered and gloomy interior it reminded me of the TV comedy series Red Dwarf. It does contain a small area of cultivation, perhaps derived from Silent Running (US 1972) but less spectacular. There are genre conventions in the film but very few CGI effects and no gloss. The computers seem to date from the 1980s and the moving images on screens feel more like videotape. If there is a Hollywood connection it might be to a film like Gattaca (1997) – which was written and directed by a New Zealander (Andrew Niccol), photographed by the Polish cinematographer Sladomir Idziak and designed by the Dutch Jan Roelfs.

André Benjamin is Tcherny enjoying the solace of the garden

The biggest difference from conventional science fiction or other Hollywood style genre films is that Claire Denis tells us as little as possible and prefers to show us actions and let us work out for ourselves what is going on. Although there is a narrative resolution, it is neither happy nor sad, we have to decide what we would expect to happen next. The many IMDb users who scored the film as a ‘1’ or ‘2’ (the lowest scores) find the film boring, pointless, lacking a story etc. Claire Denis ‘takes no prisoners’ with her films. She makes films about questions and ideas that interest her and her films are always interesting to watch (and listen to) and even if the ideas are difficult to discern, the performances are usually terrific and there is an intelligence at work in every scene. The narrative structure of the film is non-linear and includes ellipses. The narrative begins with Robert Pattinson as ‘Monte’ as seemingly the last survivor of the original crew looking after a baby girl and tending his garden. Various flashbacks suggest something about his possible back story (or his memories of certain moments in his life as a child) and about the mission. But these are obliquely presented, distinguished by use of different filming formats – 16mm film for sequences on Earth, different digital formats for sequences aboard the ship. The projected film also utilises different aspect ratios – 1.66:1 for most of the running time, but also 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 in the closing sequences. I didn’t notice most of these changes, but I was conscious of the overall 1.66:1. The main narrative proceeds as a series of extensive flashbacks to show how we got to the opening sequence and then leaps forward to the closing sequence.

Juliette Binoche is Dr Dibbs – complete with long black hair-piece

High Life has also been criticised because of its presentation of violence, including what is now often singled out as ‘sexual violence’. It is indeed disturbing to watch but it’s crucial to the narrative. Because nothing is explained directly we don’t know the extent to which the investigations into ‘human reproduction’ under the stress of space travel is a primary objective of the ‘mission’. Another objective that I didn’t really understand concerns the energy sources in black holes. (There was a science consultant, astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau, on the film.) Perhaps the drive to reproduce is generated by Dr Dibbs’ own obsession? She tries to collect sperm and to initiate pregnancies, partly through routinely medicating the rest of the crew. I won’t spoil that bit of the plot but two important narrative developments arise from her obsession and perhaps provide the major talking points about the film. The first is to recognise that this drive to reproduce is enacted in the context of a journey which everyone knows is doomed. Why do humans (and all sentient life forms) have a compulsion to reproduce in this context? Secondly, the child that is ‘born’ as a result of Dibbs’ efforts seems to be Monte’s daughter and that might raise problems about social taboos as she grows up as ‘Willow’. (The willow is a fascinating tree, spread across the temperate Northern hemisphere with properties which make it symbolic/metaphorical. Wikipedia’s entry is fascinating.)

One of many colour-filtered scenes. Everyone wears the ‘7’, the number of the ship.

If you want to know more about what Claire Denis set out to achieve I recommend the Press Pack with its Denis Interview. She says the film isn’t ‘science fiction’ as such and she explains how the production came about. She’s effusive in praise of Robert Pattinson, who I think is excellent in the film. Juliette Binoche came late to the production after her stint on the previous Claire Denis film, Let the Sunshine In (France-Belgium 2017). She is as brilliant as she always is, whatever the film. Here she battles with Claire Denis’ version of an orgasm machine which made me think of Dusan Makeveyev’s WR – Mysteries of the Organism (Yugoslavia 1971) as well as Barbarella (1968) and Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973). Denis has a more brutal Anglo-Saxon term for this device. She stresses, however, that she is concerned here with:

Sexuality, not sex. Sensuality, not pornography. In prison, normal sexuality isn’t really on the agenda.But if the prison is also a laboratory destined to perpetuate the human species, sexuality becomes evenmore abstract, if it is just to reproduce.

The rest of the cast in the film have smaller parts but all our well cast and do a fine job. I was a little concerned in the first section of the narrative that this film might not work, but soon I was fully engaged and now I would happily go back and watch it again. Music is by Tindersticks/Stuart Staples, great as usual in his Denis films and do stay for the end titles during which Robert Pattinson sings. Cinematography is by Yorick Le Saux, new to work with Denis but an experienced DoP on some of my favourite European films. Some of Claire Denis’ earlier work is on MUBI in the UK and is highly recommended.

Here’s the French trailer for High Life (English with French subs):

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019

 

This major Archive Festival opened on Saturday. We reckon up to 4,000 visitors may be here over the coming week for a feast of cinematic classics and masterpieces.  The temperatures are expected to reach 40℃ so film-buffs will be thankful for the city’s elegant arcades to shelter as they move between the festival’s five different sites and venues.

The Festival opened officially at mid-day on Saturday with a screening in the Cinema Modernissimo, a 1915 underground cinema which is currently be restored. The lower cavern is a wonderfully atmospheric setting for ‘reel’ film. We were welcomed by the festival’s key organisers in both Italian and English. Then we enjoyed a tribute to that glorious gothic masterpiece which suffered so recently, Notre-Dame de Paris.

The tribute was George Franju’s Notre Dame – cathédrale de Paris (1957) filmed in colour and a scope format. This was a fine 35mm print with the narration translated in digital sub-titles.  Franju had a great visual sense and this is beautiful to watch. The film’s treatment seemed to me to be influenced by Victor Hugo’s marvellous descriptions in his classic novel.

The film explores both the interior and exterior of the massive building and treats the famous gargoyles with care and attention. The film ends with these ‘petrified statues’ and their great vistas of the city. This was a fine way to open a week of cinematic treasures.