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.
I’m not sure why I booked this screening. Possibly it was the prospect of Catherine Deneuve as a matriarch and the reputation of writer-director Cédric Kahn. I also like the venue, the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington. However, I later realised that I’d got my Cédrics mixed up. I was thinking of Cédric Klapisch who made Un air de famille in 1996 and this new film has a very similar plot, except it shifts the location to a country house rather than a restaurant. Cédric Kahn is connected in my memory with films that are more dramatic than comic.
The birthday party in question is for Andréa (Deneuve) the matriarch of a family of two sons and a daughter plus three grand-children and a husband Jean (Alain Artur), who I don’t think is the father of any of the three grown-up children. Andréa is the owner of the large house in the country. The director himself plays the elder son Vincent with Laetitia Colombani as Marie, his wife and the mother of the two grandsons. Emmanuelle Bercot plays Claire the daughter and Vincent Macaigne plays the second son Romain. Claire’s estranged daughter Emma (Luàna Bajrami) is a student who lives with her grandparents and Romain has his latest possible fiancée in tow, Rosita (Isabel Aimé González-Sola). The party also includes Emma’s boyfriend Julien (Joshua Rosinet). He is a talented pianist who I don’t remember having much dialogue at all. He is disturbingly the only person of colour on screen. I did tend to see his presence as either a cliché or a form of tokenism (intended to strengthen the sense of Emma as a rebel within the family group?).
It’s worth noting that four of the actors are also directors themselves. I’m not sure if that makes any difference. The setting and the script suggest a very ‘theatrical’ production with most locations in the house or garden and just a few brief but eventful car trips outside. Cédric Kahn himself suggests that there is a conventional three-act structure and one episode includes a play devised and performed by Emma and Julien and the two young grandsons. As well as the starry cast, the film has an equally experienced and celebrated crew and the whole thing looks very good. Music is important and I very much enjoyed a song by Françoise Hardy, ‘Mon amie la rose’. Why then did I feel disappointed and a little let down by the film overall?
I think perhaps that I was surprised that such a conventional film would be included in a festival programme. This is indeed like a well-produced play with twists and turns in the plot and each of the core star actors given a story to present. But in the end these stories don’t add up to much that’s new or particularly interesting. Added to that, the comic elements didn’t really work for me. Sometimes the comedy seemed cruel or perhaps seeking to be satirical but without clear targets. It’s a prestigious production however and if you like that kind of thing you might like this.
In Fabric is easily recognisable as a Peter Strickland film. Few directors have such a ‘personal style’. This fourth feature is perhaps the most removed from the first film, Katalin Varga (UK-Romania-Hungary, 2009) and closer to the other two, Berberian Sound Studio (UK-Germany, 2012) and The Duke of Burgundy (UK-Hungary, 2014). It is the first of Strickland’s films to be set in the UK and this perhaps makes the film ‘feel’ different.
Strickland’s films are absurdist and include elements of horror and comedy and the kind of erotica associated with European exploitation films. They also feature avant-garde soundtracks, on this occasion from Cavern of Anti-Matter based in Berlin. Some audiences find the films impenetratable, some find them comic and others are morally outraged. In this one there are numerous vaginal symbols and an anatomically correct mannequin with synthetic pubic hair – which gets a credit for the designer of the hair, much like the ‘human toilet consultant’ on The Duke of Burgundy.
A brief plot outline (no spoilers)
Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a bank teller in ‘Thames Valley-upon Thames’ (Strickland is associated with Reading). She is divorced from her husband and lives with her teenage son Vince and whose older girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie) often ‘stays over’. Sheila starts trying to date again and buys a striking red dress in a sale from the local department store, Dentley & Soper (some customers of the John Lewis store in Reading – originally Heelas – will wonder what went on there!). Sheila makes a bad decision! The dress has a life of its own. The narrative follows what happens to those who attempt to ‘own’ and wear the dress.
The story is set in an indeterminate period of the recent past when life was still ‘analogue’. Sheila answers a ‘lonely hearts’ ad in a newspaper and nobody uses mobile phones. The mise en scène generally evokes the 1970s-90s. Although the European touches are still there, this time they take second place to a set of British signifiers which point to ‘horror anthology series’ such as the Amicus films of the 1970s or TV series such as Tales of the Unexpected from the 1980s. In Fabric offers two or possibly three stories associated with the red dress. The European elements include the strange sales assistants at the department store who are dressed in what one reviewer described as ‘Victorian mourning outfits’ and who speak in an almost unintelligible formal language. These women (and the male manager) indulge in various dubious activities in the store’s cellar, accessed by a dumb waiter. I did enjoy the store’s old-fashioned vacuum tube system for sending payments to its accounts office. I was reminded of how shops functioned in the 1950s. I note that the effects team on the production all appeared to be Hungarian. The other European horror element comes from Dario Argento’s gialli.
It took me a while to work out which role Sidse Babett Knudsen plays in the film since she is credited first in the cast list on screen. I wondered if this was a joke (she starred in the previous film, The Duke of Burgundy). Eventually I realised that she was the model in the store catalogue wearing the ‘Ambassadorial Function Dress’ in ‘Artery Red’. It is this attention to detail that remains a joy in Strickland’s films. As well as the great design, Strickland has a strong cast. Marianne Jean-Baptiste best known for her role in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies and Hayley Squires from Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake might seem like odd choices but their casting works well. Romanian actor Fatma Mohamed appeared in Strickland’s two previous films and she gives In Fabric its most distinctive character. Most of the rest of the cast is from British TV and the supporting casts of British films.
What to make of all this? Perhaps because of the specific genre elements, this may have been more accessible to audiences than the three earlier films. The people behind me in the cinema laughed and gasped and seemed to be having a good time. In the credits I noted that Ben Wheatley was an executive producer. I don’t know how much, if any, influence he had on the film. I heard someone in the cinema mention Wheatley’s Sightseers (UK 2012) when they read the credit. I’ve only seen Sightseers of Wheatley’s films and because, I didn’t really enjoy it, I haven’t looked for the others. Perhaps this is why I found In Fabric felt different from Strickland’s earlier films? (I realise now two of In Fabric‘s cast have appeared in Wheatley’s films.)
Peter Strickland is a talented filmmaker and I will seek out his next film. In Fabric should be out on DVD in the UK as well as on VOD from Curzon.
Blinded by the Light is Gurinder Chadha’s eighth feature film, placing her alongside Sally Potter as the most prolific female director in British cinema since Muriel Box in the 1950s/60s. But I don’t think Chadha gets the credit she deserves for popular films which tell important stories. The early signs are that her latest film might be subject to the same criticisms that were aimed at some of her other features (‘feelgood’ doesn’t have to mean a ‘bad’ film). So I’ll just state from the off that I thoroughly enjoyed Blinded by the Light. I hope it reaches the widest possible audience and that Gurinder Chadha’s skills as a filmmaker are properly appreciated.
The intriguing aspect of her new film is how much it follows the same kind of narrative as that of her most successful film Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002), yet Blinded by the Light is a form of biopic, very much the autobiographical story of Sarfraz Manzoor even if Chadha and her partner Paul Mayeda Berges have shaped it for an international release. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising. Manzoor was born in Pakistan and brought up in Luton and Chadha was born in Kenya and brought up in Southall. They might be ten years apart in age but their experiences of being ‘British Asians’ in the Thatcher years with their more overt manifestations of racism will have been similar. Chadha has said that the reappearance of racism and fascism on the streets following the Brexit referendum was one of the factors driving this production. Just to make the point clearer that the stories are similar, Chadha includes a sequence in which the Manzoor character Javed takes his sister to a ‘day-time night club’, the only way young South Asian girls could get to a dance in the 1980s (because of parental restrictions) – and a cultural phenomenon Chadha included in her first groundbreaking documentary short, I’m British But . . . (UK 1990).
Blinded by the Light offers Bruce Springsteen in place of David Beckham and a 16 year-old boy instead of an 18 year-old girl and, because it is Sarfraz Manzoor’s own story, it’s a ‘period drama’ set in 1987/8 rather than West London in the Blair era. A brief prologue introduces us to Javed as a young teenager with his only close friend Matt and we get an early sense of how isolated and trapped he feels in Luton (for overseas readers, Luton is a large town 30 miles NW of London and in the 1980s best known for the Vauxhall (GM) car factory).
The main narrative finds Javed, now 16 and moving to Luton’s Sixth Form College. Here he meets another British Asian, Roops, a Sikh who gives him a Springsteen cassette, explaining “Bruce is the Boss – he knows how you feel”. Though it takes Javed time to appreciate that Bruce definitely does speak to him about the things that matter – getting out of Luton and following his dream – he soon becomes a follower and embraces Springsteen’s lyrics as inspiration for his own writing. Javed’s dreams mean defying his father (he is studying English not Economics and wants to become a writer, not an accountant). When his father is made redundant by Vauxhall, Javed’s obsession to be a writer is in danger of causing a family rift. They need him to make money and to support his father. This is based on a true story so we know Javed will become a journalist (Sarfraz Mansoor is a successful journalist and radio and TV personality) but to do so he needs the support of an inspiring English teacher (played convincingly by Hayley Atwell) with her contacts. Will Javed get to America and visit Bruce’s home town? Will he get a girlfriend and will he learn to respect his family? Well what do you think?
The narrative itself is certainly not original (and some of the college scenes are over-familiar) but Chadha includes two elements which give it a difference. Firstly, she doesn’t shy away from the racism on the streets including the National Front marches. Javed may himself draw back from confrontation with the racists and fascists at first but he can’t ignore the threat towards his family and his embrace of Springsteen gives him confidence to stand up and be counted. The other ‘difference’ is the way in which Chadha uses the Springsteen songs.
Bruce Springsteen liked Sarfraz Manzoor’s book and he gave Chadha free rein to use his songs. Because Javed is a writer and responds to Springsteen’s lyrics, Chadha decided to emphasise them in various sequences where Javed sings along to the songs on his Walkman and the lyrics appear on screen bouncing around Javed a line at a time. I remember Danny Boyle using a similar technique in Slumdog Millionaire where the subtitles escaped their usual position across the bottom of the frame.
I enjoyed the use of the songs. I’m not an obsessive Springsteen fan but these are mainly the well-known songs from the period between ‘Born to Run’ (1975) and ‘Born in the USA’ (1984) so they worked for me. However, I did wonder if the balance of songs to dramatic scenes would be right for those least familiar with Springsteen. The key question may be how the film plays to younger audiences. I suspect that the film skews more towards a 35+ audience but I would hope Javed’s story appeals to younger audiences and especially to young British Asians. On its first weekend in the UK, it made No 4 in the chart and it also made it into the North American Top 10 this weekend. But both weekends were relatively ‘soft’ in terms of screen averages for wide releases. If the film does skew older, the midweek figures may be healthier but the effect is arguably less so in the summer holiday period. The film had made £2 million in the UK after eleven days and $4.45 million in the first three days in North America.
All the performances in the film are strong and mostly from newcomers playing the youth roles. I want to pick out the redoubtable Kulvinder Ghir as Javed’s Dad and the cameos by Rob Dryden as Matt’s Dad, Sally Phillips as the Sixth Form College Principal and Marcus Brigstocke as a Tory parent bemused by Javed’s appearance as his daughter’s boyfriend. All four actors are veterans of UK TV comedy. I also want to commend the cinematography by Ben Smithard and all of the design team re-creating 1980s Luton. Springsteen’s music is to the fore, but having A. R. Rahman responsible for the overall score makes Blinded by the Light a winner.