Category: African Cinema

Beauty and the Dogs (Aala Kaf Ifrit Tunisia-France-Sweden-Norway-Lebanon-Qatar-Switzerland, 2017)

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Lost in a Kafkaesque nightmare

Like SoniBeauty and the Dogs relies on sequence shots (scenes shot in one take) to drive the narrative and writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania brilliantly harnesses the acting talent to portray a nightmarish series of events during one night. We meet the protagonist, Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), during the credits confidently preparing for a disco but the following eight chapters (signed by intertitles) show her disintegration after she has been raped (mercifully this ‘chapter’ is omitted). The film then follows her attempts to report the crime, aided by a friendly young man she’d fancied at the disco.

Ben Hania isn’t just recreating events, which are based on a true story, but commenting upon post-revolution Tunisia, after President Ben Ali was deposed in 2011. She shows the forces of reaction remain strong as, for example, Mariam is refused treatment at a hospital without ID, which she lost during the attack. Comments are made about her (slightly) revealing dress suggesting she somehow deserved to be raped. Such sentiments are not absent in western judiciary and media so we shouldn’t feel smug about how ‘backward’ this is.

Most of the action takes place during one night, beautifully shot by Johan Holmquist (his only imdb credit!). Variety complained that ‘Ben Hania’s almost chilly mise en scène lessens the emotional impact of the protagonist’s truly nightmarish plight’ and the narrative was unbelievable because so much happens to the victim. I struggle to understand how, given the Al Ferjani’s incredible performance, the emotional impact can be anything other than staggering; for me, the blues of the mise en scene are perfect for the coldness of the society that allows such treatment to occur. As to the writer’s second point, that is what gives the film its Kafkaesque quality: the trauma of the rape is made worse by the difficulty in getting recourse to justice. What happens to her is screamingly unjust and thus shows the absurdity of social institutions.

Unlike Soni, where the camera’s positioning sometimes distanced us from the drama, the sequence shots serve to ‘immerse’ us in the action. This immersion is emotional as the scene plays out in real time, the lack of editing signifies a lack of manipulation as we know the action we are seeing was actually played out by the actors. However, Ben Hania’s direction isn’t just ‘follow the action’ as she carefully frames, and reframes, the composition and the steadicam movement always flows in an aesthetically pleasing way.

The film was screened at Cannes and I look forward to seeing Ben Hania, and Al Ferjani’s, next films.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (UK-Malawi 2019)

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The boy who challenged his dad

‘True life’ stories are invariably uplifting and the title gives away the film’s denouement. While that’s not a reason to avoid a film I was feeling a little uneasy about the prospect of being made to feel good about a film set in rural Africa. Was the purpose of the film to salve my western guilt about those less privileged than I?

There was no need to worry because director-star and scriptwriter Chiwetel Ejiofor has ensured that there’s enough realpolitik about, in this case, rural Malawi that the uplifting ending can’t disguise the privation suffered by the people. The film is based on the titular hero’s book and we duly get the end credits filling in what happened to William Kamkwamba next. But the journey there is truly tough as Ejiofor ensures we understand the problems of education, politics, climate change and capitalism that beset the village community. Most striking of all is the need for free education for all children.

Ejiofor plays William’s dad I wondered whether his charisma was a little too powerful for his character, the melodramatically named (and presumably actually named too), Trywell. Obviously his star wattage was essential to getting the movie made and he, creditably, even learned to speak the local language, Chichewa, though much of the film is also in English. However, he is such a fine actor, and patriarchy is so strong in the African community, that ultimately the casting worked because it made clear how hard it was for William to challenge his dad.

Ejiofor defended the decision to distribute via Netflix (see here) but his hope that it would also be seen in cinemas appears to have been dashed (apart from some festival screenings). Obviously much is lost on television when the cinematography, courtesy of Dick Pope, is widescreen. Presumably the BBC’s involvement means it won’t be too long before it appears on terrestrial television.

As Extinction Rebellion activists make their presence felt, it’s important to see the impact climate change is having on communities who live on the verge of starvation. It might give some perspective to the whingers who have been complaining about the prospect of having to change their lives or face annihilation. It seems some believe that climate catastrophe will only affect poor countries (I spoke to an American who was relaxed about the idea that Bangladesh will disappear), not understanding that there is only one ecosystem on planet Earth.

Cairo Station (Bab el hadid, Egypt 1958)

Youssef Chahine as Qinawi, the news vendor

Cairo Station was the 11th film directed by Youssef Chahine. He was still only 32 and he also played the central character in the film. Although he was established and had already shown films at Cannes, it was this film that announced him as a major director in global cinema. He managed to cram a great deal into 77 minutes and to make a film both thoroughly Egyptian but also remarkably contemporary in an international setting.

The film’s plot involves a recognisable romantic triangle but its presentation of characters and location, already dramatic, is further enhanced by Chahine’s performance as Qinawi the lame man with a dangerous obsession. I showed the film recently as part of an event on Egyptian Cinema and one colleague remarked that the rapid dialogue was reminiscent of a Howard Hawks film. Someone else noted the neo-realist aspects and other suggestions linked the film to work by Fellini and Sergio Leone and to film noir melodramas of the late 1940s and early 1950s from the US or UK (the latter invoked particularly by the railway scenes).

The ‘love triangle’ with Abu Ser (Farid Chawki) asserting his status over Qinawi in respect of Hanouma (Hind Rostom)

As the title suggests, the setting is Egypt’s main railway station built in the late 19th century on the site of the first station in Africa dating from 1856. Over the opening images of the station some narration gives us an impression of the large numbers of trains arriving and departing the station. The narrator turns out to be the operator of the newspaper stand on the station who has taken pity on Qinawi, offering him a job as a news vendor and finding him a shack by the railway tracks in which to live. Qinawi’s background remains a mystery, although like most Cairenes he has a village to go back to. We soon learn that he is obsessed with images of attractive women which he cuts from pin-up magazines and pastes on the walls of his shack. He has further become obsessed with Hamouna (Hind Rostom), one of a number of women who (illegally) carry buckets with bottles of soft drinks down the tracks, selling them to thirsty passengers (angering the official supplier on the station concourse). But Hamouna is expected to marry Abu Seri (Farid Chawki) the would-be leader of the railway porters who is attempting to form a trade union. Added to this by scriptwriters Mohamed Abu Youssef and Abdel Hai Adib (both seemingly writing their first feature) is a third narrative strand about a young couple. A young woman (only a teenager?) waits around the station for her lover – who can’t acknowledge her in public because he knows his parents won’t approve of their liaison.

The drinks sellers swarm over the trains to reach passengers. Here Hind Rostom adopts an audacious pose – claiming ownership over a carriage?

I got the feeling that the film starts like a neo-realist melodrama – something like a de Sica film – but as director Chahine gets into his stride, we tend to lose a little of the sense of the ‘everyday’ in a busy railway station and the narrative slides into film noir thriller territory. Chahine was that interesting combination of an Egyptian committed to the socialism of Nasser, but also an international film artist. In Cairo Station, the political issue does get sidelined but in Chahine’s later films different ‘national’ political stories are prominent. In this film Chahine worked with two of the biggest stars of Egypt’s ‘Golden Age’ of studio production. Hind Rostom was sometimes called the ‘Marilyn Monroe of the East’ and Farid Chawki was dubbed the ‘John Wayne’ or ‘Anthony Quinn’ of Egyptian cinema (he certainly has the physical presence). Both are very good in their roles, but, perhaps not surprisingly, it seems that the popular audience in Egypt at the time didn’t respond to seeing their heroes playing ‘harder’ roles than they might do in popular comedies, melodramas or action films.

The strengths of this film are partly in the photography and editing and the action by the railway tracks with the dangers associated with so many moving trains. The action in the narrative is compressed into a single day and in the last section, as night falls, the noirish elements begin to dominate, not just with the dark shadows and single light sources, but also the mise en scène of windows, doorways and other ways of disturbing the balance of the compositions. Without spoiling the narrative too much, the closing scenes offer a chase across the tracks. The photography is by ‘Alvise’ (Alevise) Orfanelli a film veteran who also wrote and directed films. His start was in 1919 and Cairo Station was his penultimate film. He died aged 59 in 1961. Orfanelli was part of the Italian community in Alexandria and was an important mentor and guide for Chahine in the late 1940s/early 1950s (see the excellent website of the Alexandria Cinema website http://www.bibalex.org/AlexCinema/cinematographers/Alvise_Orfanelli.html). The film’s music by Fouad El-Zahry is equally effective and carries motifs that remind me of American studio pictures – another trait associated with Chahine’s later films.

The unnamed young woman in the film’s closing shot

There are several interesting social observations in the film. After our screening we noted that only one woman in the whole film wore a headscarf (and this became a short comedy sequence when her husband tried to stop someone looking at her). Two rather supercilious men are identified as religious observers tut-tutting young people in Western clothes, but otherwise Cairo appears to be a secular city, at least on the surface. How different to modern filmic representations. The sub-plot of the two young lovers is particularly interesting. The young woman is a passive character whose life involves a great deal of waiting. At one point she asks Qinawi for a telephone token and on receiving it she says “Merci” rather than “Shukran”. She may be a character representing Chahine’s own biography. He grew up in a tri-lingual household speaking French (like many Alexandrines) and married a French-Egyptian woman. Some of his later films became much more auto-biographical.

Realist (and potentially dangerous shots) on a working railway

The general critical response to Cairo Station saw the film as presenting the marginalisation of Cairo’s poorer characters and how this sense of exclusion in this case pushed Qinawi into sexual violence and a tragic ending. What is just as important is the social realism and humanism of the film in which characters are equally likely to help each other as well as to display prejudice towards one another (so Qinawi is mocked because his limp makes him less likely to marry the girl of his dreams.

I enjoyed Cairo Station very much and I was very impressed by Chahine’s handling of his actors and the choreography of action in the film. The film is thrilling and visually inventive and as others have noted, there is plenty of evidence that Chahine had learned from other directors, but also that he probably influenced many others. And the film felt so contemporary for 1958. When the hip young people of Cairo board the train and an impromptu session from ‘Mike and the Skyrockets’ starts, as my colleague suggested, it was almost like Expresso Bongo (UK 1959).

The Wound (Inexba, South Africa-Germany-Netherlands-France 2017)

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Outside tradition

The screening was preceded by brief talking heads, the director John Trengrove and lead actor Nakhane Touré, giving some insight into the film. Interesting though this is, I don’t want ‘insight’ into a film just before I’m watching it; I prefer sometimes to see films with no preconceptions. I’m not sure what the point of this preface is, A Fantastic Woman had one also, because it’s not selling the film as the audience are already in place.

Whilst I’m on a moan: I understand cinemas need to show adverts and trailers for economic reasons but it’s always a relief to see the BBFC certificate as that means the marketing messages are over. Except before this film after the certificate another promo – for Selfridges – appeared. Unlikely as it may be, if any marketing person for this shop is reading: the effect of this on me is to make me think ‘fuck off’ to the company that is further delaying my pleasure of the film!

I knew nothing of The Wound before sitting down in the cinema other than it was a South African film. The number of producers in the credits indicated a heavy European involvement which is presumably why the film has managed to get distribution in the UK. It’s a good film so deserves to be seen but I’m sure there are many good films from Africa that we never get a chance to watch. The fact that The Wound won best first feature at the London Film Festival also would have helped.

Although it is an international co-production this seemed an entirely African film; it focuses on the initiation rites of the Xhosa people where boys become men after being circumcised and spending a week on a mountain tended by a carer. The portrayal seemed authentic to me and there’s an ethnographic (to an ignorant westerner) fascination at seeing a portrayal of this rite. But there’s more to the film because the protagonist, superbly played, is a closeted homosexual and so he fails to be a ‘man’ in the traditional sense. Another outsider is the ‘city boy’, a place that is defined as effeminate by the rural tradition that the ceremony derives from. At the same time, it’s clear the ‘country boys’ envy urban wealth.

There’s plenty of melodramatic conflict in the narrative and it is shot in the beautiful ‘cradle of life’ World Heritage Site in Eastern Cape. Trengrove tends to keep his camera close to the men and boys which makes for some vertiginous wobbling when they are running but there are some artful compositions to enjoy too.

Trengrove’s introduction tells us the film was controversial because of its depiction of gay Africans; homophobia is, it seems, a traditional value too. Touré stated he had to withdraw from a film because of death threats. Hence The Wound is a brave film as it confronts a taboo subject and it does it with style.