The second of my two archive screenings featuring films with female editors was this 1982 feature by Gaston Kaboré. The editor in question is Andrée Davanture, the French woman who founded a company called Atria in Paris in 1953. After working with several well-known French directors, she later worked with some of the most significant francophone African directors including Souleymane Cissé from Mali, Safi Faye from Senegal and Gaston Kaboré among others (see this website). Beautifully restored by Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, Wênd Kûuni was projected in Academy (1:1.37) in stunning colour with especially good lighting and grading to produce a range of dark skin tones.
Wênd Kûuni is one of the first of what Manthia Diawara termed ‘return to the source’ films. The earliest Sub-Saharan African films had tended to take a neo-realist approach to contemporary life in the newly established independent francophone states of West Africa. Later this became a more sophisticated historical approach analysing the process of colonisation in the films of Sembène Ousmane, Med Hondo and others. The return to source was an attempt to present African stories from pre-colonial times and to try to find a new aesthetic for a distinctively African cinema. Some directors also saw this approach as a way of avoiding censorship in the difficult days of neo-colonialist rule by new authoritarian leaders.
Kaboré’s film is set during the period of the Mossi kingdoms which lasted for hundreds of years before the French imperialist forces arrived in the Upper Volta region in 1896. (Upper Volta became Burkina Faso in 1984 after the film was released.) The film begins with a woman being told that her husband is missing and she is worried about how she and her son will cope. A transition then moves the story on and a pedlar is riding his donkey through the bush. Hearing a sound, he investigates and finds a boy clearly ailing and exhausted beneath a ragged cloth. He decides to take the boy with him to the next village he intends to visit and there the boy is taken in by a weaver who accepts him into his family – he has a wife and a little girl. The weaver decides to name the boy ‘God’s gift’.
Wend Kuuni recovers after he is fed and watered but he refuses to speak. As he recovers he becomes the family’s shoat (sheep?goats?) herder. Eventually comes the moment when a dispute in the village (concerning the role and behaviour of women) escalates so that Wend Kuuni is himself shocked back into speech. The plotline of the narrative does not contain many dramatic moments but it more than makes up for this with an observation of daily life in the village. I enjoyed the film very much. Following Keith’s comments on Osaka Elegy, I don’t know whether it was a film or digital print but it looked good. Several years after the film’s production in 1995, Gaston Kaboré made the following comment as part of celebrations for the centenary of cinema:
A society daily subjected to foreign images eventually loses its identity and its capacity to forge its own destiny.
The development of Africa implies among other things the production of its own images.
‘Moffie’ is the standard homophobic term of abuse in South Africa, apparently across various languages. This film has been described as a ‘queer war movie’. In 1981 what the South African authorities described as the ‘Border War’ was in operation along the boundary separating the former ‘South-West Africa’ from Angola. (Many of us outside South Africa thought of it as a ‘Liberation War’ on behalf of SWAPO – the South West Africa People’s Organisation.) Conscription in South Africa meant every young man over 16 was subject to 2 years National Service. Nicholas Van der Swart has an Afrikaans name courtesy of his stepfather, but his biological father is an English-speaking South African. He finds himself in a predominantly Afrikaans intake for basic training.
The basic military training of raw conscripts is a familiar narrative in film cultures across the world. It always has an element of brutality, often via the figure of the Sergeant-Major or equivalent. Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is perhaps the best-known example, but there are many others. I’ve seen a few but none quite so foul and repulsive as the treatment handed out to the young men here. It’s a brutality delivered with constant swearing and sexist and homophobic insults. The conscripts are duped into thinking that they are fighting to protect the women and children of South Africa from the ‘blacks’, the communists and the threat of homosexuality (illegal in apartheid SA). Two conscripts found in the same toilet cubicle together are treated harshly with terrible outcomes. Nicholas defends himself in the intense testosterone-filled Afrikaner barracks, but he is spotted by another gay conscript. We learn about Nick’s earlier teenage years in a flashback and are prepared for what might happen as basic training continues.
There are only two direct contacts between the conscripts and black Africans. One is treated in a vile way, the other is an enemy soldier. I can’t remember if it was a line of dialogue or something I read in a review but I was struck by the observation that however evil the apartheid regime was in its treatment of black Africans, at least it wasn’t illegal to be a black African (but it was illegal to be in the wrong place). It was illegal to be gay and the psychiatrists of the South African Defence Force (like the Israeli Defence Force, quite happy to be offensive and cross into other countries) were prepared to use any methods to ‘convert’ young gay men.
This the fourth feature by writer-director Olivier Hermanus. One of the first three films, Beauty (2011), also had a gay theme and did get a UK release by the LGBTQ specialist distributor Peccadillo Pictures. Moffie is a UK co-production but so far doesn’t seem to have a UK distribution deal. It certainly deserves one. The script for this film was adapted from an autobiographical novel by André Carl van der Merwe. The adaptation produces a confident, disciplined piece of filmmaking with a stunning central performance by Kai Luke Brummer in the central role. Many of the other young men in the cast are non-professionals. The photography by Jamie D. Ramsay is equally impressive, especially since the film appears to have been shot entirely in Western Cape Province. The restrained score by Braam du Toit also includes some local pop material including an allusion to the ‘Sugar Man’ phenomenon in the country and a local version of the Isley Brothers ‘Summer Breeze’ during the flashback sequence to Nick’s early teens.
Once the basic training comes to an end, the brutal treatment of the conscript becomes less pronounced, though it is still there and increasingly insidious. Ramsay’s camera becomes more lyrical in presenting the bodies of the young men, often naked in the showers or skinny dipping en masse. In one scene they play volleyball bare-chested and in shorts and, reading reviews, I see that I wasn’t the only one to recognise what seems to be an hommage to Beau Travail (France 1999), the Claire Denis film about another set of gay relationships in a colonial army in Africa (the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti). These scenes are indicative of one of the great strengths of the film. Here is Jonathan Romney from his Screendaily Review commenting on the changing depiction after the earlier brutality:
That Hermanus is able, subsequently, to portray these young white men as human, vulnerable, even sympathetic, is a sign of the moral seriousness and subtlety of his approach.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative but I will say that the film does not have a conventional resolution. IMdB suggests that the film involves ‘War. Romance. Drama’. I think calling what Nick experiences ‘romance’ is misleading. Sensitivity, emotional bonding, loyalty certainly and desire for intimacy definitely but many of these young white men were traumatised and scarred by their experiences in the SAFD. Thirty years on they still find it difficult to process. All of this means that the film might struggle to find audiences outside South Africa, but I hope not.
This is a major achievement for a black filmmaker from South Africa who has made an important social statement as well as one of the best films of the year. If you get the chance, do go and see it. It opens in South Africa in 2020 and is still visiting festivals like Leeds.
Akasha or aKasha (the ’round-up’) is a gentle comedy about young men and women in the midst of the long-running civil war in Sudan. Writer-director Hajooj Kuka won prizes for his documentary feature Beats of the Antonov (2014) and this feature returns him to the same conflict with the same backing from South African production company Big World Cinema (which also backed Rafiki from Kenya). Big World Cinema has been effective in getting films from across Africa into major international festivals and this one appeared at Venice, Toronto and London in 2018. We watched the film as part of Black History Month at the same venue where we saw Beats of the Antonov back in July. Again there were members of the local Sudanese community in Bradford in the audience. This time they were nearly all women which makes me wonder if the men knew something about the film. One of the features of the earlier film was the director’s interest in the culture of the young women in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions of Sudan, fighting against the regime in Khartoum.
The film begins with a pre-credit scene in which we learn that the civil war has a forced ‘time out’ during the rainy season when the churned-up mud tracks make movement difficult. The soldiers in the rebel army are given time off to help their families. The ’round-up’ then begins to bring the soldiers back for the next round of action and the film’s narrative follows two young men who attempt to avoid being called back. We first discover Adnan (Kamal Ramadan) in bed with his girlfriend Lina (Ekram Marcus) but when she sees another woman’s name carved onto the stock of Adnan’s AK-47 she throws him out, believing he has been sleeping around. Adnan finds himself outside the compound without his gun and without a belt to hold up his uniform trousers. But he does come across Absi (Ganja Chakado), a city boy who has so far avoided a call-up. The two bond quickly and hatch a plan to retrieve the gun and to avoid the local commander Kuku Blues (Abdallah Alnur) who is already hauling young men back into uniform. The plan involves dressing as local women. Meanwhile the young women in the village are preparing for a wedding. Those are the ingredients of the plot with ample opportunities for jokes and sight gags.
Most of the gags are basic and universally accessible but Hajooj Kuka sets out to satirise the military pretensions of the men and to boost both the intelligence and the wit of the young women. A couple of carefully placed objects (a copy of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and a poster of Angela Davis and other Black leaders) suggest that Lina is far more aware than Adnan who will later have to eat humble pie when his ‘warrior’ status is revealed as a sham.
Hajooj Kuka was initially known for his camerawork and with his cinematographer Giovanni P. Autran he creates some attractive landscapes around the village and into the hills. With characters often seen in long shot moving through the landscape (including chase sequences) the film seems to refer back to quite a few of the internationally-distributed West African films of the 1970s and 1980s. At one point Absi borrows a motorbike and I wondered if the resulting images were a nod to Touki Bouki (Senegal 1973). Closer examination shows the bike to be a Chinese model from Senke. A little later, Adnan sets off for the hills and has an ‘experience’ with hallucinogenic flowerheads. Jokes about ‘stoners’ and dope smoking are told by Kuku Blues, possibly in order to demonstrate his ‘hipness’ – but readings like this are dependent on subtitling. I wondered if this too was a nod towards the ‘Return to Source’ African films of the 1980s. Mostly though the film is a gentle comedy that makes some interesting social comments on gender identity and modern culture for young black Sudanese men and women. The Civil War is currently on hold after the dictator was deposed in April 2019 and peace talks with the new regime are underway. It would be good to think that films like this in future can focus on the comedy (and the music) without worrying about the recall to arms.
This is an effective ‘coming of age’ film from an unlikely source: Kenya. Co-written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu the film was banned in its native country because it ‘promoted lesbianism’. If anything, the film shows how difficult gay love is in a homophobic society so ‘promotion’ doesn’t exactly cover it. The discriminatory formulation harks back to Thatcher’s disgusting ‘section 28’ that, in 1988, was designed to prevent local authorities in Britain from ‘promoting homosexuality’. So disgust with Kenya for banning such a tender, and not explicit, film must be tempered, in the UK, by the acknowledgement that 30 years ago our government was promoting similarly homophobic messages. No doubt our colonial laws, homosexuality was only ‘made legal’ in 1967 in the UK, contributed to the difficulties Kenya has in acknowledging different sexualities.
Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva are superb as the unlikely couple: Kena quiet and withdrawn; Ziki loud and flamboyant. They are daughters of local electioneering politicians which adds a social dimension to the film’s melodrama. The importance of the Christian church in Kenyan society is acknowledged and so is its homophobia. The pastor’s sermon against difference is shown to encourage the attacks Kena and Ziki suffer; Kahiu shoots a mob scene in a genuinely scary manner. The film itself is as brave as its characters.
The film also portrays patriarchal society, particularly through Kena’s dad, as problematic. He seems to be a genuinely nice guy, he owns a shop and happily gives credit to shoppers that seems to be more than part of his campaign for reelection (presumably as a local councillor). However that hasn’t stopped him abandoning his wife for a ‘younger model’.
Ziki allows Kena to fulfil her potential by giving her confidence; initially her ambition was to be a nurse. However, she is obviously bright enough for even more challenging roles in health care. The ending of the film is nicely ambivalent for no matter how much the audience (I doubt homophobes will be still watching at this point) want the couple to be together, that is not a straightforward option in contemporary Kenya.
Atlantique won the Sutherland Award for ‘Best First Feature’ at LFF 2019. This follows the Grand Prix at Cannes earlier in the year. Although the film is now held by Netflix it will appear at the Leeds International Film Festival in November and maybe others as well. Netflix has announced plans to distribute films through independent cinemas in the UK so I hope many of you will see this film as it is meant to be seen on a big screen. It’s arguably the highest profile African film for some time and it’s great that it lives up to its billing.
Writer-director Mati Diop is the niece of Djibril Diop Mambéty. I mention this not to diminish Ms Diop, who has already produced five celebrated short and medium-length films to add to her acting career, but to underline her achievement in picking up the baton and linking Senegal’s celebrated cinematic past with the vibrancy of its contemporary popular culture and political struggles. I could see elements of her film possibly drawing on the work of Sembène Ousmane’s Xala (Senegal 1975) with disadvantaged people invading the house of a corrupt business man and also elements of her uncle’s film Touki Bouki (Senegal 1973) (which was also the subject of her short film Mille soleils (France 2013)). Atlantique is a development of an earlier Mati Diop short film Atlantiques (2009). That short addressed the recent stories of young Senegalese attempting dangerous sea crossings to the nearest EU port. Those sea crossings are also an offscreen element of this new feature, which also ties in with both migration films such as La pirogue (Senegal-France-Germany 2012) and films which tap into the supernatural in African narratives such as War Witch (Canada 2012).
Atlantique begins with workers on a new building project in a district of Dakar. When they discover that yet again there is no prospect of getting paid this week they protest loudly but eventually return to their homes outside the city. With no income for their families a group of the younger men decide that attempting a dangerous sea crossing to the Canaries, the nearest EU territory, offers their only chance of finding work and money. One of them, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), says goodbye to his teenage girlfriend Ada (Mama Sané). Deeply in love with her young man, Ada faces an arranged marriage to an older man with little chance of escape. Her family want her to marry as the man is wealthy and imports goods from Europe. But as the wedding begins a few days later, a fire breaks out, halting the proceedings. A new detective at the local police station comes to begin an investigation and Ada seeks out the support of her girlfriends and in particular Dior (Nicole Sougou) who runs a bar on the sea front. More fires start in the area and some people begin to feel ill, including the detective. I won’t spoil any more of the plot. Instead I’ll refer to the Press Pack and what Mati Diop says about her film.
Ms Diop grew up in France and she says that her film in some ways refers to the adolescence in Senegal that she never had. She also stresses that the film is a romance and that apart from her uncle’s film she can’t think of many other romances between young African people. But though the romance is very important, there are other things going on here. The film’s tagline is a ‘ghost love story’. Diop explains that the building site featured at the beginning of the film is part of a new up-market development on the edge of Dakar. This is real, but the imposing tower seen in several shots is a CGI rendering resembling what was planned by the former president of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade. This fantasy element is then followed up by the fires that begin spontaneously, the sickness and the young women who appear possessed. The inference is clear. The corruption of the neo-colonialists who prey upon the people has been met by something akin to a ‘popular will’ expressed in spiritual terms. There are some factors here that I couldn’t quite work out on a first viewing. For instance, the new police detective is young, seemingly smart and not tainted by the corruption. But he gets sick as well. Is he another metaphorical character, representative of how young professionals might be seduced by a corrupt system? He does also represent a familiar figure, the ‘modernised’ man asked to investigate a crime involving a traditional social ritual
The look and the sound of the film are very important and Mati Diop chose to work with two women who added a great deal to the impact of the film (I should also note that she co-wrote the film with Olivier Demangel). Here is the director on Fatima Al Qadiri’s music:
I knew that the soundtrack was going to have to be responsible for the film’s invisible component – everything that is present, but that we don’t see, that we can’t film. The world of spirits. The film takes place in a world where the fantastic is embodied and emerges within the characters themselves before entering reality.
Cinematographer Claire Mathon has a strong documentary background and it was this that attracted Mati Diop as well as her experience on features:
I knew that she would know how to apply a documentary approach (to shoot quickly, catch things on the fly, spontaneously invent things) without losing any aesthetic ambition.
The actors in the film are mainly non-professionals who took part in workshops with Diop and one of the few veteran actors in the cast before shooting began. I hope you can get a sense of camera, sound and performances from the trailer:
Talking About Trees is a wonderful film that manages to tell a sad story but to imbue it with the energy and the warm human feeling of its remarkable central characters. A ‘first feature’ documentary by Suhaib Gasmelbari, it won a prize at Berlin this year and has been acquired for UK distribution by New Wave Films. Do try and get to see it if it comes your way. You are unlikely to be disappointed.
There are two narratives woven together here. The main ‘driver’ is the attempt by the ‘Sudan Film Group’ to revive a cinema culture in Sudan where cinema-going was effectively banished by the regime which came to power after the military coup of 1989. The film group comprises four of the Sudanese filmmakers who were trained abroad in the 1970s and who returned to produce the first Sudanese films. Now in their late 60s they travel to villages around Khartoum offering ‘pop-up’ film shows using a laptop and a small digital projector. But their aim is to rent one of the large and virtually abandoned cinemas in Omdurman and show contemporary films to mass audiences. But to do this they must navigate the bureaucracies which remain reluctant to see cinema return (the film was made before Omar al-Bashir was deposed earlier this year.). While they work on trying to organise a large scale screening, the old friends also begin to excavate the history of Sudanese cinema, finding scratchy old copies of their own films and VHS tapes that were part of their collections of global cinema. One of the four is also engaged in making a film with his smartphone about his experience of being imprisoned and interrogated at the time of the coup. The history of what actually happened around 1989 is told in subtle ways, so we see the filmmakers being interviewed for a radio programme in which the interviewer is gently corrected about the demise of cinema in Sudan. It didn’t die of natural causes, it was shot.
What the film also usefully reveals is that Sudan experienced what happened across much of sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in francophone countries. Talented young filmmakers (mostly young men) were able to travel to film schools abroad, often to Paris but also to the Soviet Union. Sudan had been under British control before 1956 but hadn’t been fully part of the British approach to documentary which was the legacy in Ghana or Kenya for example. (This website account suggests that there was a British colonial film legacy even if limited.) Instead in the 1970s the Sudanese went to the USSR or Germany or France. There they learned how to make the kinds of politically charged ‘Third Cinema’ films which won prizes and sometimes gained a form of international distribution as well as attracting local audiences. In one scene we see a filmmaker now in his late sixties phoning a Russian film archive to see if they have a copy of the film he made as a young man. To place this in perspective we also see a phone call to a European company that sells cinema screens – we learn just how much it might cost to re-equip one of the Sudan’s big (outdoor) cinemas. Across Africa traditional cinemas have closed over the last 25 years, mostly because people now watch films on satellite TV or forms of digital video and cinemas have been bought by churches and wedding entrepreneurs. In Sudan it is the government and a fundamentalist form of Islam that helped to close them.
The film was produced with various European partners and also with support from the Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. One of the films shown by the group to a village audience is Waiting for Happiness (2002) by the Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako and this suggests the solidarity of African filmmakers. These two directors represent the last link to the generation that travelled abroad to study film. Sissako was also in Moscow in the 1980s. Sissako too has been involved in re-opening a cinema in Mali. We do get to see some clips from the films made by the four Sudanese filmmakers back in the 1970s and 1980s and the documentary’s title refers to one of these.
We’ll have the chance to see Talking About Trees again in West Yorkshire at the Leeds International Film Festival in November. I hope it proves popular. I do worry that its one weakness is that it takes a little time to get going for audiences not already au fait with the history of cinema in Africa. Some of the later scenes in which the old filmmakers talk to young footballers and spectators about what they want to see in a re-opened cinema are very lively and engaging. What the young people (and older people) want to see are contemporary films from America or India, something which leads the Sudan Film Group to consider showing Tarantino’s Django Unchained (US 2012). There are, I think, at least two commercial cinemas operating in Khartoum which have internet listings. I assume that these attract a middle-class wealthy patrons but it would be good to hear from anyone who knows the cinema scene in Khartoum. If you want to know more about how Africa Cinema developed in the 1970s, try to find a copy of Caméra d’Afrique directed by Férid Boughedir in 1983.