This shortish first feature (78 mins) is fronted by an outstanding performance by its writer-director-star Nana Mensah. An experienced actor with credits on several TV series and some Independent Cinema titles, Mensah had not intended to direct or to star in the film she was writing. But circumstances eventually pushed her into the other roles and as she said in the included online Q&A, it was good that she wrote the script first not thinking she would play the central character. That way she didn’t cut herself any slack or attempt to avoid certain potential scenarios. The outline narrative of the film is relatively simple and, at least on a structural level, familiar as a universal experience. But because of its specific cultural focus it is also distinctive in its narrative events and settings.
After a credit sequence featuring a montage of Ghanaian textile designs, drumming and dancing, we first meet Sarah in her office at Columbia University. She’s a science grad research student with some supervision duties. She’s hoping her boyfriend, who has been appointed to a more senior post in Ohio, will leave his wife and she can share a house with him. She seems sure this will happen. The ‘inciting incident’ when it arrives almost overwhelms Sarah. Her mother dies suddenly and Sarah is faced with a series of responsibilities, the weight of which severely throws her off-balance. First she learns that she has inherited her mother’s house and her Christian bookshop in the Bronx. Second she must organise not one but two large-scale celebrations, one a ‘white person-style funeral’, but the other a traditional Ghanaian funeral with expectations of attendance by many in the ‘Little Ghana’ community in the Bronx. Third, her estranged father arrives from Accra with expectations of a family reunion. No wonder she has little time to check in with the boyfriend, who I think is probably already mistrusted by many in the audience – he can’t even pronounce ‘Accra’ correctly.
One question for me was trying to work out what kind of a film this was. It has been widely promoted as a comedy and I was relieved that the BFI host of the introduction and Q&A, Grace Barber-Plentie, asked Nana Mensah directly about finding the right tone. Mensah was willing to describe her film as a comedy and said that the mixing of grief and comedy was something that did happen in her culture. It strikes me that the same is true in most cultures. It is often said that weddings and funerals have much the same capacity for comedy and drama in my Northern English culture and I suspect it is the same in most others.
From my perspective the narrative suggests a form of realist family melodrama with comic elements. The real story is about Sarah’s struggle to understand what she might be losing if she sells the house and the bookshop and follows her boyfriend to Ohio. This includes questions about the value she places on family ties and friendships within her community. It’s also a question about what a ‘hyphenate’ identity means in the US today. In other words, it’s a diaspora narrative. As I watched the film I realised that I probably know more about Francophone West African cultures both in Africa and in France than the Anglophone West African cultures in the UK and US. This is because of the way film and TV have developed in West Africa in the post-colonial period. I’m aware of a triangular relationship between Nigeria and Ghana with the UK and US, but I don’t have much access to the films and TV produced even though Nollywood and Ghallywood are prolific producers. The films are hard to see in the UK outside specific cities with a Nigerian or Ghanaian community. Nana Mensah’s film feels more like an American Independent film, but there are elements of Ghanaian Cinema as well, I think. She uses archive footage at various points to offer a sense of traditional ceremonies and life on the streets of Accra. One of the key cultural ‘threads’ in the narrative focuses on food. Early in the film Sarah eats pizza and snacks. For the funeral parties she makes, or buys in, Ghanaian food. The prospect of going to the meat market in the Bronx is also intercut with footage of street abattoirs in Ghana, and buying meat (i.e. ‘real meat’) is something she can barely stomach. By the end of the film, however, she is making rice and meat stew for her father.
I enjoyed the film but I agree with at least one other reviewer who recognises that it is almost as if the production ran out of money (and time) since some narrative threads are left in the air and others are quickly resolved. Nana Mensah discussed her positive experience with Kickstarter in the Q&A, but also stressed the work needed to deal with the funding. I don’t know if the production was affected by COVID. This is still an impressive début picture. I enjoyed the ‘Scope photography by Cybel Martin and the editing by Cooper Troxell. I also enjoyed the music in the film, especially the song over the closing credits. I should also mention the actor Meeko who plays the important role of the Christian bookshop manager. The ‘King of Glory’ shop is a ‘real’ location, owned by one of Mensah’s relatives. Anya Migdal was one of the producers of the film and she also plays the the first generation Russian-American next door neighbour in the Bronx who remembers Sarah from the local high school. This was also a promising narrative strand, but like the bookshop perhaps not fully realised.
Queen of Glory won a prize at its home festival Tribeca and it was well-received by Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ghanaian-American reviewer. I’m sure it would find a UK audience if some form of release is possible. Here’s a festival trailer.
This unusual film places a major Iranian star actor, known in the West for three leading roles in the films of Asghar Farhadi, into a downbeat slow-paced thriller set in parts of North London. The director is Mitra Tabrizian, Professor of Photography at the University of Westminster whose 2005 exhibition ‘Border’ appears to have been the starting point for a script written with Cyrus Massoudi. The film was a first feature for both Tabrizian and Massoudi. The impressive cinematography is by South African DoP Dewald Aukema (who photographed Skin (UK-RSA 2008), one of the most viewed posts on this blog). Overall, the film is very impressive, although it is oddly let down by barely visible subtitling (a thin white typeface), sometimes lost against white backgrounds. The two main languages are English and Farsi.
Shahab Hosseini plays the eponymous central character, a forty-something Iranian living in a dingy bedsit in what I take to be North East London, possibly Hackney/Dalston? Gholam drives a taxi by night and works in a very quiet garage for an older Iranian migrant by day. He has an uncle who runs a Persian cafe locally and he is subject to telephone calls from his mother in Tehran, wanting him to return home. There isn’t a great deal of plot, but a double narrative develops when Gholam is recognised by another Iranian as someone who was something of a hero as a teenage ‘warrior’, presumably in the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s. Now he refuses to countenance helping in some form of covert activity (the narrative is actually set in 2011 during various forms of unrest in the Middle East). At the same time he has an altercation with three young white thugs who refuse to pay after travelling in his taxi. Throughout the film, Gholam seems disturbed and his mood seems to pervade the whole film. Here is a man who seems mired in his own despondency, unsure of what he wants to do and especially whether to return to Iran (we don’t know if he is a refugee or what his residency status in the UK might be). Despite this there are strangers (other migrants) who offer him kind words in shops or food stalls. He also meets and befriends a much older African-Caribbean woman (played by the veteran of many UK films and TV programmes, Corinne Skinner-Carter) and her chirpy neighbour played by Tracie Bennett a Lancastrian actor I haven’t seen for quite a while. These friendships seem positive but they have links to Gholam’s eventual fate.
I’m not sure what to make of this film. The performances are all strong and I should mention Gholam’s young cousin Arash (played by British-Iranian actor Armin Karima) who has embraced skate-boarding and rap, but still admires his older relative. As might be expected, Tabrizian has a strong feel for her migrant community characters and the London streets. There were moments when I thought about Rachid Bouchareb’s London River (2009) and Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002), both set in similar London migrant communities with that sense of the ‘invisible workers’ driving taxis, cleaning hotels and offices etc. – or running food stalls and social clubs. The Iranian migrant in Europe is also featured in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (2013) set in Paris and The Charmer (Denmark-Sweden 2017) by Milad Alami and set in Copenhagen. Gholam seems the most austere of all these films and it does need Shahab Hosseini’s commanding performance to sustain our interest. However, the thriller aspect takes over in the last section.
I’m surprised and also disappointed with my own lack of knowledge about Mitra Tabrizian. When I found her website, which lists the various projects and academic partnerships she has initiated or been part of since the 1980s, I realised that I certainly should have known this history. The film is dedicated to the memory of Stuart Hall and Jules Wright (who was a major figure in theatre and the art world, latterly as director of the Wapping Project). Tabrizian herself is an important link between Iranian and Western art practice in cinema and photography. Her collaborators on Gholam are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and she similarly elicited support from the wider arts community in London. This makes the film distinctive but also means that it feels caught somewhere between a kind of downbeat neo-realist thriller and the kind of essay film that might be produced by someone like John Akomfrah. Tabrizian’s visual eye is complemented by the use of Iranian music on record and by tabla and oud music at various points. Distributed by Miracle Films, Gholam has received some good reviews and I would certainly recommend it. Its actual cinema appearances are likely to be only odd dates in sometimes out of the way places (see the official website for planned screenings) and VOD may be your best bet to catch it. It is currently playing on MUBI in the UK. Here’s the trailer:
These notes were compiled for a Day School earlier this year that looked at extracts from various Indian films/films about India in an attempt to understand how the issues surrounding the Partition of India in 1947 have been represented on screens.
The ‘partition’ of India was the final act by the British colonial administration working through the India Office and the Viceroy (i.e. the King’s representative) in August 1947. The Viceroy then became the Governor-General of India still representing the King as the Head of State in the independent ‘Dominion’ of India. In Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah became Governor-General.
The Labour government in London faced many severe problems in the immediate aftermath of war. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the worst on record in the UK and the heavy snowfalls in January severely disrupted industry and agriculture. As much as 10% of industrial output was lost, energy supplies were severely restricted. Public spending with the foundation of the National Health Service and the expense of military activity abroad (15% of GDP) created pressure on sterling and subsequent devaluation from $4.00 to $2.80 as the dollar exchange rate. Historians see this as the first stage in the UK’s decline as a superpower. Despite the enormity of the Partition of India as an event, it was only one of the problems facing Prime Minister Attlee’s cabinet (withdrawal from Palestine was also a priority). Mountbatten was given considerable powers and the government was prepared to accept a swift retreat from India. Communal conflict has been a feature of life in India at various times throughout recent history (much of it caused directly by British policies) and in August 1946 around 4,000 people lost their lives in Calcutta during clashes between Hindus and Muslims. The lack of action by the colonial authorities at this point is inexcusable, but the British state was increasingly running out of resources to police India effectively. Mountbatten was appointed Viceroy in February 1947, charged with achieving a British withdrawal by June 1948 at the latest. He accelerated the process of withdrawal in an attempt to avoid further violence – but instead probably exacerbated the conflicts.
The leaders of the Indian Independence movement, including Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi, had been pressing for independence since the 1920s and earlier. (The Congress Party and the Muslim League had origins in the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th century.) The emergence of a ‘two state’ solution is generally accepted to have happened because of the position that Jinnah and the Muslim League adopted in the early 1940s. Jinnah argued for a division according to religious affiliation because of fear that an independent India would be dominated by Hindus. Ironically, Jinnah himself was not a ’religious Muslim’ and the British had encouraged separate political constituencies for Muslims and Hindus and other religious groups as early as 1932 with ‘The Communal Award’. Congress could reasonably argue that Jinnah did not have the support of the majority of Muslims across India as shown in local elections, but he convinced the British that he was the Muslim leader they should negotiate with.
Once partition appeared inevitable (i.e. when Jinnah and Gandhi /Nehru could not agree on how to negotiate with the Viceroy), the fundamental problem became how to divide the three provinces of British India in which there were roughly equal numbers of Muslims and Hindus. Punjab was further complicated by the presence of the home base of Sikhism in Amritsar. Bengal had already experienced a very unpopular earlier partition by the British along religious lines in 1905 (rescinded in 1911). Jammu and Kashmir was actually a ‘princely state’ – not under direct British control. India and Pakistan had to negotiate a partition arrangement after independence and this proved extremely difficult – leading to future military confrontations.
Punjab, Bengal and Kashmir will be the focus of our study of how Partition has been represented on film.
Who was actually responsible for creating this inevitability of Partition in 1947 is the most contentious issue in the history of the period. The most recent British film focusing on Partition, Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House (2017) lays much of the blame on the wartime British leader Winston Churchill and his attempts in 1944-5 to prepare for the threat of Soviet influence over an independent India. Nehru was seen as most likely to adopt a non-aligned but friendly position vis-a-vis Moscow and Churchill saw the possibility of an independent Pakistan as a Western ally, allowing British bases to remain in place. In a documentary screened on British TV in August 2017, Chadha explored this evidence further (referring to wartime documents held in the British Library). This programme suggested that Jinnah had met privately with Churchill and that the idea of Pakistan as a future ally against the Russians was widely shared by what Chadha termed as “the British establishment” – including the Royal Family and the military. The suggestion is, therefore, that the Attlee government was faced with a fait accompli policy that they were unable to alter. Indian historians and Indian filmmakers have tended to blame Jinnah and the British – either separately or together.
‘British India’ referred to what were in effect British colonies, locally administered by colonial civil servants and the India Office in London. In 1947 there were seven major provinces administered in this way and developed from the original ‘presidencies’ of Bengal, Bombay and Madras.
The British Crown also had ‘suzerainty’ over some 500 plus ‘princely states’, ranging from large states such as Hyderabad and Mysore to tiny states of a few thousand. Each local ruler had to make a separate arrangement with the newly established dominions of India and Pakistan.
The directly ruled colonies and the princely states together comprised the ‘British Raj’ established after the 1857 Indian Mutiny. It also became known as ‘the Indian Empire’.
Languages and local cultures
Religion was just one of the potentially divisive factors in India in 1947 and its impact was felt most strongly in the North. In much of Southern India, language differences and ethnic differences (i.e. the Dravidian South’s mistrust of the Aryan North) were more important. During the 1950s and 1960s, Indian government was re-organised to produce states based on linguistic groups. In the states of West Pakistan and East Pakistan after partition, the fact that the mass of the population in the East spoke Bengali and not Urdu was a major issue for any sense of ‘national identity’.
Indian film industries
We are concerned with representations of the events of Partition and its aftermath on film. One of the important issues for us is to identify which film industry has produced a film and who the ‘creatives’ (writer and director in particular) might be. There are many films about Partition issues as well as many filmmakers from diverse backgrounds. For this reason, I’ve tried to include something from each of the following categories (they are overlapping categories, so some films and filmmakers appear in more than one category). There is no ‘ranking’ in this list.
- Popular (mainstream) Hindi cinema – often now retrospectively termed ‘Bollywood’.
- Popular international or Hollywood ‘studio’ films.
- Indian art films and ‘parallel cinema’ films
- International art films
- Films by Indian diaspora directors
- Indian ‘regional films’ – films in languages other than Hindi (or English)
(Because of difficulties of availability of films, I have not included Pakistani or Bangladeshi films that might address Partition issues)
From the list above, it would be useful to distinguish between a film like Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough’s biopic, as an ‘international’ Hollywood studio film and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House as an independent British film (with some Hollywood support) directed by a diaspora director – someone whose grandparents left Rawalpindi in 1947 and who now lives in the UK.
The so-called ‘parallel’ or ‘middle cinema’ of India is difficult to define but it is clearly distinguished from the popular Indian cinema of multi-genre narratives and choreographed song and dance sequences. Parallel cinema was/is more ‘serious’ in its social concerns and character development. It is more difficult to distinguish between parallel and ‘art’ or ‘avant-garde’ cinema, the latter being in formal and narrative terms more experimental.
What follows is an attempt to select extracts from films which represent Partition and in some cases its aftermath in Pakistan, West Bengal, Kashmir and Punjab. In some cases, longer posts are available discussing the films in more detail and I have included links where appropriate.
Jinnah (1998, UK-Pakistan, (English) dir Jamil Dehlavi)
This unusual biopic of the Muslim leader stars Christopher Lee in the title role. Director Dehlavi is a diaspora figure based in Europe and he used mostly British-based actors alongside Indian star actor Shashi Kapoor in this co-production with Pakistan that was controversial at the time of its release but has since been accepted in Pakistan.
Subarnarekha (Golden Line, 1962, Bengali, dir Ritwik Ghatak)
Despite being one of the most important filmmakers of his generation, Ritwik Ghatak’s films were not widely appreciated when first released. But when he went on to become one of the first tutors at the Indian Film Institute in Pune, he soon became an influential figure for younger directors. He was very much affected by partition, being forced to move from East to West Bengal. His trilogy of films in the early 1960s uses music and politics to explore the heartbreak of partition. (The other two films in the trilogy are Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and Komal Gandhar (1961).
In Subarnarekha, Ishwar, a man in his late twenties and his younger sister Sita find themselves in a refugee camp in Calcutta where they acquire a stepbrother – a young refugee boy Abhiram who has lost his mother. This trio then find themselves in the western part of Bengal by the Subarnarekha River. The children grow up and fall in love, but the older brother can’t cope with events and breaks down, unable to escape from his past. In the clip above, the landscape is expressive of the despair and sense of exile and loss experienced by Ishwar.
Roja (1992, Tamil, dir Mani Ratnam)
An important film for Indian cinema, Roja is an example of Tamil language popular cinema. Unlike Bollywood, which in the early 1990s preferred stylised fantasy films, Tamil cinema, and Mani Ratnam in particular, created romances set in ‘real’ situations. Roja (‘Rose’ – a symbol for Kashmir) sees a Tamil cryptologist working for Indian intelligence being sent to Kashmir with his young wife. Visiting an area close to the ‘line of control’, he is captured by a Muslim guerrilla group who want to exchange him for one of their own members imprisoned by Indian forces. The film won many awards and was hailed as a ‘patriotic film’, being dubbed into Hindi, Telugu, Marathi and Malayalam. It encouraged Bollywood to think of more serious issues as the basis for entertainment features.
In this clip the cryptologist tries to talk to his captors.
Lakshya (2004, Hindi, dir Farhan Aktar)
This mainstream Bollywood blockbuster was written by the director’s father, Javed Akhtar, one of the most acclaimed writers in Indian cinema. A young man (Hrithik Roshan) from a wealthy Delhi family attempts to give up his aimless life and eventually passes out of the Indian Military Academy. He is posted to Kashmir and given the opportunity to prove himself in action against Pakistani insurgents. The various conflicts on the Kashmir border/line of control feature in several Indian films, often associated with the ‘Kargil War‘ of 1999.
The film shows Hindi cinema attempting to merge a romance (Pretty Zinta is the hero’s ‘lost girlfriend’, a TV reporter) with a story about young India’s indifference towards guarding its border. Ironically, the Colonel of the regiment is played by the supreme Bollywood hero Amitabh Bachchan. At the time Roshan was one of the young hopefuls attempting to replace Bachchan.
The clip below is a ‘music video’ featuring the title song with scenes from the film. We see the hero in training and the role of the Army officer is shown as both heroic and glamorous. It’s worth noting that both the Indian and Pakistani Armies were created out of the British Indian Army in 1947, a situation which initially created the possibility of a civil war situation in which officers and men who had trained together might find themselves on opposite sides in a conflict. The Bollywood presentation suggests that today there is an American influence on how the image of the Indian military is constructed.
Garam Hava (1973, dir M.S. Sathyu)
This film, in Urdu, is one of the first examples of the ‘parallel cinema’ of the 1970s and 1980s. The title translates as ‘Scorching Winds’. They are mentioned in the first few lines of dialogue as threatening the flowering trees of the city of Agra (the city which is the home of the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal, two major symbols of the Muslim Mughal Empire in India). If not uprooted, the trees will wither in the heat. ‘Scorching Winds’ is also metaphorical and refers to the violence of communalism sweeping through India in 1947-8. The film deals with a Muslim owner of a small shoe factory. He decides to stay in Agra, but his brother moves to Karachi and gradually life becomes very difficult for the brother left behind. Garam Hava proved controversial even after more than 20 years since the events depicted. It had a delayed release because of fears of communalist violence. It was supported by the government agency, the NFDC and submitted as India’s entry for Best Foreign Language Oscar.
In the interview above the director and scriptwriter discuss the film and its legacy in some detail. The interview in 2014 was conducted at the time of the film’s re-release. (You need to click on the link and watch the interview directly on YouTube).
Earth (1998, dir. Deepa Mehta)
Earth is an adaptation of an autobiographical novel Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, first published as ‘Ice Candy Man’ in the UK in 1988. The director Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar in Punjab in 1950. She moved to Delhi as a child and graduated from the University of Delhi. In 1973 she migrated to Canada and started a film career as a writer and documentarist. She directed her first feature in 1991 and as well as English language features in Canada she has returned to India to make four features. Earth was the second film in her ‘Elements’ trilogy after Fire (1996) and preceding Water in 2005. All three films were controversial (Fire addresses lesbianism and Water, the treatment of widows in traditional Hindu culture). They were also highly praised and won prizes. Her 2012 adaptation of Midnight’s Children was less successful (but still well worth watching).
Although this is a film from a diaspora director with photography by Giles Nuttgens from the UK, it is also a film deeply rooted in Indian cinemas. The music is by A. R. Rahman and the actors include the current Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan in an early role. Nandita Das is a star of Indian parallel cinema and other cast members are well-known in India.
The film is part of the group of films, like Garam Hava that deal with the personal tragedies of Partition rather than directly with the political machinations. Like Train to Pakistan its focus on Punjab means that the complexity of religious, social and cultural relationships are explored in some detail.
The film is set in 1947 in Lahore in Northern Punjab. The city has a Muslim majority but the household at the centre of the narrative is Parsee and the little girl who in effect ‘narrates’ the story has a Hindu nanny/maid (Nandita Das) who has a circle of friends that includes Muslims and Sikhs. The clip below shows the girl and the maid during the kite-flying festival and the maid is being wooed by the Aamir Khan character, the Muslim known as the ‘Ice-Candy Man’, one of his several identities. The kite-flying is a joyful competition which ironically underlines how the community will later be divided by the violence of the communal violence in the lead up to Partition.
Train to Pakistan (1998, dir. Pamela Rooks)
This is another film that received backing from NFDC as a later example of a parallel film. Pamela Rooks was a filmmaker born in Calcutta to an Army family, but the film (in Hindi) is set in Punjab. It’s an adaptation of a 1956 novel by Kushwant Singh, himself a major cultural figure in India post 1947.
The trailer above does not have English subtitles but a subtitled DVD is available in the UK. The story is set in an Indian village in 1947 close to the new border with Pakistan. Despite the conflict all around them, the villagers, mostly Sikh landowners and a minority of Muslim labourers, live a peaceful life. The film explores, through various characters, how the peaceful village is drawn into the conflict. The village money-lender is killed when he refuses to open his safe for a band of Sikh dacoits. The local magistrate, befuddled by whisky and a young prostitute, sanctions the arrest of two men – one is a Communist Party member just arrived from Delhi and the other a local dacoit who never robs in his own village and who was sleeping with his Muslim girlfriend when the murder was committed. The magistrate and police attempt to frame both men, meanwhile a train filled with dead Sikhs arrives in the village and a little later, Muslim refugees on foot from India.
Other Partition narratives
The films discussed here are by no means the only examples of film narratives exploring Partition. Here are two other examples not discussed on the day:
Partition (Canada-UK-South Africa 2007)
Another diaspora director, Vic Sarin, made this film in English starring Jimi Mistry, Irrfan Khan and Neve Campbell in Canada. It takes the Sikh perspective on partition in Punjab.
Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (India-Germany-France-Netherlands 2013)
I didn’t see this fine film by Anup Singh until after the Partition Event. Please follow the link on the title above for more details. The film again stars Irrfan Khan as a Sikh in the Punjab at the time of partition. Anup Singh is also a diaspora director with a similar but also slightly different background to Gurinder Chadha.
I used the following two books alongside web searches in preparation for the event:
Akbar, M. J. (1985) India: The Siege Within, Harmondsworth: Penguin
Tunzelmann, Alex von (2007) Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, London: Simon and Schuster
The films from which extracts have been taken have all been available in the UK on DVD except Garam Hava (which is available on YouTube or from India/US as a Region 0 DVD).
Divines is a fascinating and provocative film that is highly entertaining and timely. No wonder it created a stir at Cannes earlier this year where it won the Camera d’Or, the ‘first feature’ prize, for its director Houda Benyamina. Unfortunately, what could be an excellent film to use with 16-19 students in schools and colleges in the UK has been bought by Netflix and is currently certificated (15) by the BBFC only for VOD. If you want to see this in cinemas you’ll have to go to France. Perhaps we should lobby Netflix for a DCP? Presumably it will appear on Blu-ray? But first you’ll want to know why all the excitement.
Divines is a ‘banlieue film’, i.e. a narrative set in the the housing estates outside Paris. Its director is Moroccan-French and the lead character Dounia is played by the director’s younger sister Oulaya Amamra. Dounia is a 15 year-old facing the same bleak future as the central character in Girlhood (France 2014) and she reaches breaking point when faced with a role-play in school designed to train her as a receptionist/desk clerk. Dounia is already equipped for survival on the street and has a shoplifting scam worked out for the local supermarket with her partner in rebellion Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena). Dounia is petite, beautiful and sharp as a tack, Maimouna is large, exuberant, but also slightly vulnerable. Dounia is in charge. Her family is unable to control her. The family lives in a Roma camp and earn a living in bars and clubs. Maimouna’s parents are more conservative and she is expected to go to the mosque.
Divines is a youth picture which mixes crime, romance and dance – an interesting combination. Dounia can only see herself making progress by working for the area’s drug queen, but she’s distracted by her interest in the security guard at the supermarket – a handsome young man with a six-pack and a flair for athletic modern dance. Dounia seems driven both by desire and envy when Djigui (Kévin Mischel), the guard, succeeds in his attempt to get into a dance troupe. The film’s final section uses a familiar genre narrative device and overall the strength of the film is not so much in the story development as in the performances, the presentation of the action and the emotion packed into the central relationship between the two girls.
According to Isabel Stevens in her useful overview of the film for the LFF, director Houda Benyamina is a self-taught filmmaker who made several short films and set up a workshop for actors, including her sister and Déborah, before this, her first feature. Divines is informed by Benyamina’s experiences of the Paris riots in 2005. Her filmmaking background reminds me of the similar story of Shane Meadows and his Nottingham experience. In both cases the director is working with actors they know from a local community and that gives the performances an energy that is more difficult to conjure up by directors who come into the community from outside. Divines does use some ideas that are shared by both Girlhood and La haine but it is in no way derivative of those two well known films and includes its own innovative ideas alongside the emotional impact of its central relationship. It also acts as an antidote to the negatives of the otherwise worthwhile Black on release in the UK earlier this year. But can we get Divines out of the clutches of Netflix?
Nowhere in Africa is an engrossing film and it is no surprise that it won the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2002. It is adapted from an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig in which she explores her childhood experience of arriving in Kenya in 1938. On the Region 2 DVD Zweig says that one of the features of the film that she appreciated most was the representation of rural Africa. She felt that writer-director Caroline Link had captured the beauty that she had experienced as a child without resorting to the simply picturesque or exotic (“no lions or leopards”). This is an important observation which rings true. The film raises a number of unanswered questions but in respect of its images it is certainly one of the best European perspectives on Africa in the mid 20th century.
1938. Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), a successful lawyer in Hesse, has left Germany and taken a job as farm manager in Kenya. He fears the rise of the Nazis and as a (non-practising) Jew thinks it wise to leave his comfortable middle-class existence for rural Africa. Stricken with malaria he has arranged for his wife and small daughter to join him. Jettel (Juliane Köhler) enjoys her comfortable life and ignores her husband’s plea to bring useful items. 8 year-old Regina is less happy in Germany and immediately takes to Africa and especially to her father’s cook Owuor who has used local knowledge to care for Walter during his bout of malaria. When war breaks Walter is interned by the British and Jettel and Regina lose their home but with the help of Nairobi’s Jewish community solutions are found and the family are soon together again on a different farm. The film follows the family up until their departure from Kenya in 1947 when they return to Germany. The drama comes from the different experiences of each member of the family as well as the relationships between them (and with Owuor and the local Pokot people). The fifth major character is Süsskind, another German Jewish man who migrated earlier than Walter and who helps the Redlich family at various times.
The narrative is constructed in retrospect by Regina as she travels back to Germany in 1947. The film begins and ends with her voiceover. The three central characters each represent a different approach to the problems of migration. Walter is the rationalist (though he also claims to be an idealist). They had to leave. He doesn’t want to be a farmer but he’ll buckle down. The war changes him – he joins the British Army in Kenya and he uses the demobilisation scheme to get the family back to Germany. Jettel follows a classic Hollywood ‘journey’. Initially she finds it hard to adjust and her middle-class, European stance makes it difficult for her to get on with Owuor and the local people. Eventually though she becomes a farmer and is reluctant to return. Jettel’s story might have made a conventional melodrama. Regina ‘blossoms’ in Africa. She is the narrator of the story and she mixes not only with Owuor but also the local children. It is not until she attends an English boarding school in Nairobi that she feels ‘alien’. Since she makes the transition over nine years from little girl to bright teenager it is more difficult to assess how she feels in the closing scenes (since she now understands more about her parents’ marriage).
Nowhere in Africa is a long film (140 mins) and some critics/reviewers have argued that the narrative drive is lost in the final third. There is something in this charge and sometimes the film does feel more like a memoir of a period than a filmic narrative in the mainstream sense. This might also take something away from those unanswered questions.
British colonial Africa
Nowhere in Africa was commercially successful in Germany ($10 million) and in North America ($6 million). The third biggest territory was Spain (over $2 million) and then Australia. In the UK, Box Office Mojo quotes $400,00 – not bad for a subtitled film, but half the Australian total and not much more than Argentina ($370,000). The first three UK reviews of the film that I found each see the film as underwhelming, simplistic, ‘safe’ etc. These reviews also tend to be inaccurate as well as missing some of the interesting angles. Perhaps the film suffered from comparisons – to Polanski’s The Pianist and Out of Africa, the Isaak Dinesen story that became a Hollywood melodrama with Meryl Streep? I’m not sure that either is a useful comparison, though Out of Africa does share several important elements. The reviews don’t really pick up the colonial melodrama issues that interest me. In several ways, the most interesting link would be to the Claire Denis film Chocolat (France/WGer/Cameroon 1988) – which also features the daughter of middle-class Europeans and their family servants.
Kenya has always been prominent in British cinema’s relationship with colonial Africa – and with the whole ideological terrain of colonialism, independence struggles and post-colonialism. Putting aside the specific case of South Africa, Kenya was perhaps the most attractive colony for European settlement, based to some extent on plantation development for tea, coffee and maize. The climate and the fertility in the ‘White Highlands’ of Central Kenya meant that they were reserved for white settlers by the colonial administrations – displacing local farmers and reducing grazing land for nomadic peoples. The settlers were mainly middle-class British, but also other Europeans and in UK popular culture their lifestyle was seen as hedonistic in the ‘Happy Valley’ region – later represented in the film White Mischief (UK 1987). The exclusivity in this region also helped to encourage local political independence movements which began to be active in the 1920s and grew in strength immediately after 1945. In the early 1950s the same area became an important location for British adventure films including Where No Vultures Fly (1951) – which dealt with game poaching and the struggle to establish national parks in Kenya.
Nowhere in Africa is interesting in not really featuring the British upper middle-class settlers and instead offering more practical settler-farmers with few graces. One farmer has to use the cook as a translator in talking to Walter as he has learned some Swahili but not English. When Jettel and Regina are interred in a hotel in Nairobi, however, it is a very upmarket establishment and their other experiences include meeting the Nairobi Jewish community, who are British and middle-class, and experiencing the boarding school. When they do begin effective farming, the crop is maize which was mainly introduced by the British as a cash crop. The simmering political unrest is not directly represented – though arguably it is still there. One of the telling lines of dialogue is from an old man who Walter meets when he starts work on the second farm. The man says he knows the land and can help – he’s known it for 40 years. He then says that “if someone steals your cow and eats it, you can forget it. But if they steal your land it is still there and you’ll never forget it”. He is prepared to help because Walter is not a ‘bwana’ who seeks to get rich by stealing more land. This is one of the scenes in which Regina is not present and therefore one she must invent from what she understands happened to her parents. The whole narrative is narrated from her perspective – which was a child’s and then a teenager’s. She was at that age less interested in politics and more in love with the country and its (native) peoples.
I would recommend Nowhere in Africa for several reasons, including excellent performances by the principals. It offers a different European perspective on Africa, one that is still eurocentric but is less trapped in the coloniser-colonised binary. It’s also a film about a girl growing up that to my ageing male eye seems to be authentic and well worth engaging with. I’d also be interested in a film which told the parents’ story in more detail. I found the film in the bargain bin at Fopp (£3 for a DVD) and I consider it money well spent.
When I Saw You is an important film. Well-made and times very beautiful, it is perhaps a film that surprises in what it achieves. Significantly, it is one of the first Palestinian films to be made almost entirely with Arab money and to receive critical acclaim and commercial distribution within the Arab world. It deals with issues of identity and the experience of expulsion from home and exile as refugees. From the perspective of contemporary audiences outside the Arab world, the story may seem slight in terms of ‘events’ even if it is rich in observations (a problem evident in Philip Kemp’s Sight and Sound review, July 2014). In some ways it is a ‘personal story’ even though the events take place in 1967 and the filmmaker Annemarie Jacir was not born until 1974. As she has said in interviews, the Naksa (the ‘set-back’) – the exodus of Palestinians forced out of the West Bank by the Israeli occupation following the Six Day War in 1967 – had a major impact on the Jacir family who were forced to leave Bethlehem. Annemarie Jacir grew up travelling between Bethlehem (where she was born) and the new family home in exile in Saudi Arabia before training as a filmmaker in the US. Having spent much of the early part of her filmmaking career in the Occupied Territories she is now barred from returning and she has settled in Jordan where When I Saw You is set and where it was shot.
The central character is 11 year-old Tarek who after a few weeks in a Jordanian refugee camp is still bewildered by events. His mother Ghaydaa is working in a makeshift garment workshop but his father has gone missing during the war and Tarek wonders how the family will be re-united. He’s taken aback to discover that many of the refugees have been in the camp since 1948 and he’s unhappy at the camp school where he doesn’t fit in. He’s determined to return to his Palestinian village and eventually simply sets off walking. Fortunately he’s found by someone who recognises him and he ends up in a secret camp of freedom fighters (fedayeen) preparing for forays into the Occupied Territories. The second half of the narrative concerns what happens in the training camp – where Tarek at first feels much more comfortable – and where his mother will eventually find him.
The time period of the film is very important. The late 1960s was a time of savage conflict but also considerable optimism. The fighters in the camp (never identified as a specific political faction) are drawn from many Arab countries. There are female fighters and the group is mainly secular, drawing on Marxist philosophies rather than religious faith. The weapons and supplies come from around the world, including Europe, China and the Soviet Union. In interviews Jacir admits that there is a romanticism in this representation but that this was true to a certain extent. She researched life in the training camps – which was widely recorded on film and in print journalism – and she does also hint at the tensions and conflicts within the group. Some of the scenes are conventional and familiar from various genre films. The guerilla fighter is a ‘rebel’ figure beloved of Hollywood and I was reminded of Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with musical interludes and dancing around the camp fires. Tarek will learn to play a few notes on the oud and to develop skills in painting propaganda posters. But Tarek is not ‘political’, he just wants to go home and we see things from his perspective. He left the refugee camp because he couldn’t understand the concept of just ‘waiting’ for his father to to find his wife and son. The fighters are not necessarily glamorous because they handle weapons. They are attractive because they have an objective and because they work together. Tarek can play a role. Perhaps the key point is that Tarek seems much more likely to accept the group leader’s instruction to be patient and disciplined than he was to listen to his teacher in the refugee camp. But he is 11 years-old. How patient can he be?
I think I’ve worked out what the title of the film might refer to but since my explanation would give away the film’s resolution, I’ll restrain from giving it here. What I will say is that I think it refers to recognition of the pain of exile. For Jacir herself being in Jordan but not being allowed to cross the Jordan river back into Palestine must be painful.
When I Saw You has beautifully composed images courtesy of French cinematographer Hélène Louvart who has also worked for Wim Wenders on Pina (Germany/UK/France 2011) and earlier for Agnès Varda on Beaches of Agnès (France 2008). The Varda documentary ties in with Jacir’s own background as a documentary camera operator on Until When (Palestine 2004). One of the press features that appeared when When I Saw You was released in the UK carries this interesting observation by Nicholas Blincoe:
Her work bears comparison to that of her contemporaries in Iran – deceptively casual, studied cinematography, realistic performances and an eagerness to push the dramatic envelope. “I like to be rooted in real people and real situations,” she says. “Yet at the same time indulge in the freedom of what cinema is about: our dreams, our ability to change or escape”. (‘Annemarie Jacir: an auteur in exile’)
Inevitably, as Jacir toured film festivals she was asked questions in which she was bracketed with other recent Arab directors who happen to be women such as Nadine Labaki (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) and Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda). She has also been asked about comparisons to the already-established Samira Makhmalbaf, who is Iranian and not an Arab. However, she clearly does admire Iranian cinema and I think Blincoe makes a good observation. Tarek is played by Mahmoud Asfa, a non-professional who Jacir found in Irbid refugee camp after a lengthy search for the right boy. She chose him because he really seemed to have the same viewpoint as Tarek. He is excellent in the role and so are the other actors who are working in film for the first time even if they are experienced performers on stage or street theatre. (The two screen actors known to local audiences, Ruba Blal and Saleh Bakri are also excellent.) With her documentary experience and research Jacir is grounded in ideas about realism but she has enough of the imagination required to approach important issues in slightly oblique ways as many Iranian filmmakers have been forced to do. She has also expressed admiration for her mentor on the Rolex ‘Mentors and Protégés’ scheme – Zhang Yimou, the Chinese master who has made his own Iranian-influenced films such as The Long Road Home (China 1999). She was mentored during 2010-11 when she was working on When I Saw You.
When I Saw You offers many pleasures including an eclectic music soundtrack and a song performed by Ruba Shamshoum, a young Palestinian singer who was cast as one of the freedom fighters. (In this interesting review on The Electronic Intifada, Sarah Irving pinpoints how cleverly the music is used and how various bits of the popular history of the time are incorporated in the script.) In Europe and North America the film may be seen as an example of ‘specialised cinema’ likely to be seen in an arthouse cinema but Annemarie Jacir and her producer partner Ossama Bawardi worked hard to get the film shown in Palestinian villages as well as commercial cinemas in Jordan. Jacir sees the film as targeting mothers and children.
Here’s a taster in the official trailer from Philistine Films:
Palestinian cinema is featured as a case study in Chapter 6 ‘Middle East Without Borders’ in the Global Film Book.