Category: African Cinema

Cinemalibero: FESPACO 1969 – 2019

Filmmakers at the tomb of Thomas Sankara

The Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou or FESPACO) is a film festival in Burkina Faso, held biennially in Ouagadougou, and dedicated to African and African film-makers. It was founded in 1969 . Then the host state was known as Upper Volta. The state became Burkina Faso under the leadership of Thomas Sankara, a revolutionary anti-colonial figure. In an early speech Sankara drew on the traditions of the US War of Independence, the French Revolution and the Great October Revolution. His socialist style programme was bought to a halt in a military coup in 1987: clearly involving intrigues by foreign states, in an area where French Neo-colonialism is potent. The Festival has continued and remains the most important forum for African Cinema. In the same year an association of African filmmakers was formed, The Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes). Several of the film-makers featured this year were important in this development, including Med Hondo and Gaston Kaboré, who later became Secretary-General. And there was Ousmane Sembène who is the best-known of these film-makers and who features have been fairly widely available.

Il Cinema Ritrovato has developed a productive relationship with the World Film Foundation, dedicated to the restoration of important films across world cinema. Their new project aims at restoring fifty African films that are considered important as films, as cultural products and historical artifacts. The programme in Bologna this year presented eleven films, eight in new restorations, as examples from the African Film heritage.

I have already posted on one of the titles: Arabs and Niggers, Your Neighbours (Les Bicots-Negres, vos voisins, 1974). This was one of the films screened in its original 35mm format. And it provided a tribute to the film work of Med Hondo, who died early this year. The film provided a link between the other films shown in a Ritrovato retrospective in 2017.

‘Muna Moto’

Among the titles were a number seen here in the 1980s but not seen since. From 1975 in Cameroon came Muna Moto directed by Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa. This was  a critical study of the dowry system, but which was constrained by the censorship operating at that time. Dikongué-Pipa felt that he was able to present

only one fifth of what he felt in his heart.

In the film a young woman, because she is pregnant, has to marry an older man who already has there wives, all sterile. The drama develops when the young man who fathered the child takes drastic steps.

Problems also attended the restoration as there was mould on some sections of the original negative and Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique had to work in part with a dupe print. The film, in black and white, used indigenous Duala and French with English sub-titles.

‘Baara’

Baara from Mali (1978) was directed Souleymane Cissé. His subsequent feature Yeelen (1987) has become a classic of African films seen in Europe.  Cissé had suffered arrest and jail for his previous film which addressed the question of rape; the charge was for accepting French funding; something the ruling class in this state have done right up until today. Set in Bamako this film is a study of trade unionism in a country struggling to escape Neo-colonialism. There are two key character, of similar ages; one an intellectual the other a manual worker. Both work at a factory where the exploitation leads to confrontation and the need for people to identify their interests, individual and collective.

The various elements operating in the film are unified by the narrative strategy employed – specifically related to the Marxist notion of history as essentially collective.

The film screened from a colour 35mm print and used indigenous Bambara language. This was a version with Italian sub-titles and an English translation.

‘Wend Kuuni’

Wend Kuuni was from Burkina Faso itself and made in 1982 by Gaston Kaboré. A young boy is abandoned in the bush. Found, he adopted into a village family. The simple drama develops as we learn the trauma that made him mute and the further action that leads to a cure.

Kaboré, in 2017, explained that

My preoccupation has been to find a film making form to address my own people enshrined in both cinematic language and the legacy of our own story-telling tradition.

This offers as sense of the form of the ‘griot’, a traditional story-teller whose function can be seen at work in a number of African films. The dialogue was in the local language of Mooré with English subtitles.

This was another restoration by the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique. The digital version looked really good. We also had an introduction by Nicola Mazzanti from the Cinémathèque which was less happy. His intentions seemed good but the delivery was rather like a harangue on the neglect of African films. Given that the audience were cineastes who had traveled distances for the festival and for this particular screening, then queued up to get a seat, [some had to stand] this seemed to me completely misdirected.

There were two films by the Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. His two most famous films, Touki Bouki (1973) and Hyènes (1992) were both features. The two titles were intended to be part a trilogy, Histories de petites gens / Tales of ordinary people, but Mambéty died before he could complete the third part.

‘Le Franc’

Le Franc [which refers to a lottery ticket] runs for 45 minutes. The protagonist, Marigo (Dieye ma) is an itinerant musician.

With his easy-going walk and Chaplinesque clothes, Marigo immediately expresses his irreverent nature: . . . (Alessaandre Speciale, quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

Indeed Marigo does share some characteristics with the famous ‘silent’ tramp. And the film  has its  moments of humour. But it also shares Mambety’s taste for sardonic comment, bricolage and a narrative that literally jumps around characters and settings. Marigo shares Chaplin’s famous characters ability to stare down adversity. But such adversities are more dramatic and oppressive in a Neo-colonial setting. This is a landscape in which poverty and decay surround everybody. Yet the characters are vital as is the music which repeatedly disrupts the action.

We had a good transfer to digital with the Wolof dialogue accompanied by English sub-titles. However, the songs were not translated and I am sure they added to the dynamic but bitter story.

‘The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun’

La Petite vendeuse de Soleil (The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun). The ‘sun’ of the title is a daily newspaper which children tout round the streets of [I think] Dakar but it clearly has a double meaning [at least] in the story.. Sili (Lissa Baléra) is a paraplegic. Despite this and her crutches she gamely works round the streets selling what seems to be a popular tabloid. She also gamely ignores the taunts and tricks of the other sellers, all teenage boys. This is a film about facing adversity but with a more upbeat and less sardonic tone than Le Franc.

Mambéty, who died in 1998, was unable to finish the film which was at that point ready for editing. It was completed by colleagues after his death. It is an affecting drama with an emotional punch. It is also more in a linear fashion that Mambety’s other films and there is little sense of the irony that he usually offers. I did wonder if the final film is exactly as he himself would have made it. Like the other title it was in a good quality DCP, running 45 minutes and again in Wolof with English sub-titles.

There were several other features and  material on FESPACO. Notably, nearly all the films came from North and West Africa. The exceptions were the Hondo and a title from Morocco. A number were in French though we also had titles in indigenous languages like that by Cissé and by Mambéty. This is an area once termed ‘Francophone’ because  France was the dominant colonial power. This offers an interesting cultural factor, since narrative films are more common from this area than other parts which were dominated by Britain and the English language. France has continued to exercise a neo-colonial dominance in the region including military adventures. The flip side being the cultural plank and many films had to rely on French technical resources in their production. One of the key aims of FESPACO was to develop the indigenous film industries. This lead to a flowering in the late 1970s and 1980s, witnessed by some of the films at the festival. This fell away in the 1990s but there have been some important cinematic ventures in recent years; [see posts under ‘African Cinema’].

We can look forward to more of the restorations by the World Film Foundation at future festivals.

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.

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).