Like Soni, Beauty 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.
‘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.
Queen of Katwe is a ‘Disney movie’ set in Uganda. But it’s also a Mira Nair film and part of David Oyelowo’s overall project to bring African stories into mainstream cinemas. These three factors ought to combine to create a significant box office hit. The film itself is very good and had the same emotional impact for me as A United Kingdom. Unfortunately, however, Disney as a corporation seems to tripped up in trying to promote the film. There are many websites, videos and stories online about the original project and the Disney film, so perhaps the problem is that the Disney brand is so deeply embedded in the public consciousness that audiences are unable to negotiate it in different ways. Either way, the result is that despite an initial ‘wide’ release in the UK and US, Queen of Katwe hasn’t found the audience it seeks. I finally managed to get to a local screening organised by Keighley Film club, which is able to screen films in our 1913 Picture House. I hope many more find it on DVD/Blu-ray and TV in the coming months.
The story is set in Katwe, a district of Kampala (population 1.5 million) the capital of Uganda. It’s a true story and in the final credits we meet the ‘real’ characters in the drama. Katwe appears to have a reputation both as an innovative centre for artisan manufacture and as a sprawling ‘slum’ district. In the film it comes across much like the shanty towns of other African cities with low quality housing thrown up alongside the railway track. In other descriptions, Katwe is presented as the worst kind of slum with no sanitation, no secure accommodation and a trap into which the poor from rural areas and other parts of the city are destined to fall. As photographed by Nair’s cinematographer Sean Bobbit it looks bright and lively, but also plagued by sewage and subject to flooding. In this unlikely setting Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) is the single parent of three children. The two younger children, close in age, are Brian and Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and it is the latter who is the focus of the film. (The older daughter Night provides the illustration of what Phiona might become if she gives up the discipline of chess.) The film’s title logically refers to Phiona who, through her success in chess tournaments, will become a celebrated media star. But it is also possible to see her mother as a ‘Queen’, simply on the basis that Lupita Nyong’o is such a stunning star presence with the stature of a model and the experience of red carpet occasions as well as her own distinguished family background. There is no reason why mothers in Katwe shouldn’t be beautiful, but Nyong’o certainly stands out.
Phiona discovers chess alongside Brian in a community ‘school’ run by an outreach worker for a Christian charity. Robert Katende himself had a difficult childhood. You can learn about his life through a documentary made by Mira Nair and available on Vimeo. The same documentary is also available on The Queen of Katwe website from Sport Outreach. Katende’s childhood involved the dangers of living in the bush with the violence of the DRC spreading over the border. In the film he becomes an ex-footballer who has had to retire because of injury and a qualified engineer with an excellent degree thwarted by the recruitment policies of local firms. This latter is explored through the class divisions in Ugandan society when Katende takes his brightest hopes, including Phiona and Brian to a competition in an upmarket school where the Katwe children are at first treated as aliens.
At first glance, it isn’t difficult to see why Disney agreed to fund the film. It combines two attractive ideas for the studio – a bright and intelligent young female lead character (for a studio that has brought us Brave and Moana in the last few years) and a solid genre narrative as a ‘sports movie’ with a charismatic ‘coach’ and enough dramatic conflict, but also a ‘happy ending’. As a bonus it is based on a true story. Working with a director like Mira Nair is perhaps an innovation for the main Disney brand (as distinct from Disney’s previous ‘adult brands’ such as Touchstone). Queen of Katwe actually originated from ESPN, Disney’s majority-owned sports company in the form of a magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, but it is branded with the Disney logo. Nair has a distinctive approach which includes work with non-professional actors (e.g. in Salaam Bombay) as well as a background in documentary filmmaking. Madina Nalwanga had not acted before but she has trained as a dancer and the skills she has learned helped her to maintain composure in the role. Mira Nair also has the local knowledge that is so important in making this kind of film in a country with limited film infrastructure like Uganda. She is married to a Ugandan and in 1991 she made Mississippi Mermaid which followed the story of an East Asian family from Uganda migrating to the American South. That story focused on the daughter of the family played by Sarita Choudhury. In the case of Queen of Katwe, it would appear that the Disney ‘front office’ kept its distance and Nair was able to make the film on her own terms in Kampala with support from the South African film infrastructure which has interests in East Africa.
The problems for this film have come in distribution and exhibition. In the UK, Disney is able to organise cinema ads and trailers that target the same audience as the Disney film that is showing. When I saw the film there were no children in the audience which was predominantly 55+ but we got trails for new Disney films. Disney needed two strategies to sell the film to two different audiences in multiplexes and in specialised cinemas. They failed to reach audiences in both. I think the situation in North America was similar. The critics (professional and amateur) rated the film highly but audiences didn’t find the film. Perhaps Queen of Katwe is a ‘safe’ film in terms of its story, but though it pursues a genre narrative, it avoids easy sentimentality and sticks largely to the facts. It doesn’t need any white characters to in any way ‘legitimise’ Phiona’s success as a chess player. I can imagine it would have been tempting for Disney to press for Phiona’s story to end up in the US. But the film sticks to two overseas trips – to Sudan and Russia. At the end of the film, a song from Alicia Keys appears. I thought this was out of place (I like Ms Keys and the song, but it didn’t fit here for me, even though she wrote it specifically for the film). There’s a clip here explaining why she wrote it – and some comments by the cast about the music scene in Uganda. I urge you to see this film and if you want to learn more I suggest looking at the various clips, interviews and documentaries on YouTube. Here’s the trailer (with the Alicia Keys song):
and here’s a documentary from NTV Uganda:
Jackie is a surprising film. I found it to be a riveting watch and it left me strangely uplifted but also puzzled. I’m not sure what immediate conclusions, if any, I came to except that I’m glad I saw it on a big screen. It’s a film about a moment of American history that resonated around the world for those of us alive in 1963 and that has been ‘re-presented’ in different ways ever since. But though this is an American event, it doesn’t feel like an American film, or at least it doesn’t seem to belong to either Hollywood or American Independent Cinema, despite the involvement of several US producers. Instead, this is essentially a French film directed by the Chilean auteur Pablo Larrain. The script and the impressive cast are mainly American but the creative personnel supporting Larrain are European. The best known of the production companies involved, the French company Why Not Productions, has been involved in the recent films of Jacques Audiard and Ken Loach. In what follows I try to analyse my response.
The opening frames of the film set me trying to calculate the aspect ratio. In our local cinema that is usually proud of its presentation procedures, the image was not properly masked. Eventually I realised that it was set as 1.66:1, that odd ratio favoured by some European and British producers for many years after the development of widescreen processes in the 1950s. It was only later that the lack of masking reminded me of a similar problem with Pablo Larrain’s earlier film No (Chile-US-France-Mexico 2011). The way cinema projection boxes are set up for DCPs now means that the projected image is set to 1.85:1 with the smaller 1.66:1 framing inside it. When the image is bright and the film frame is not masked, the letterboxing at the sides is always visible as dark grey and I found it distracting. The irony is that Jackie was shot on Super 16 film, giving the image a slightly grainier and less sharp/bright feel than a digital original image. To add to the disturbance of the framing and image texture, the score by the British composer Mica Levy (best known for her score for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin) and some of the compositions by DoP Stéphane Fontaine are equally unsettling. Together they set up very well the performances by the actors and especially that of Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy.
Jackie is routinely described as a ‘biopic’ by reviewers. But I don’t buy this. A biopic needs to cover a substantial part of a subject’s life with at least some reference to childhood and other key stages in the development of the adult persona. Jackie focuses on not much more than one intensely dramatic week of the life of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy plus some occasional references to earlier events. The narrative structure is such that these events are discussed in retrospect in an interview given to a journalist (such an interview was conducted by Theodore H White for Life magazine in 1964) in the rather austere surroundings of a house in the Kennedy ‘homeland’ of Hiyannis Port in Massachusetts.
The original choice for the director of the film was Darren Aranovsky who later became one of several producers. He is reported to have told Natalie Portman that the key to the film was Jackie’s voice. The character is in virtually every scene and must go through some terrible experiences. Portman appears to have responded fully to his comment in her study of Jackie Kennedy and her delivery has become one of the talking points of the film. Portman does not ‘resemble’ Mrs Kennedy, either facially or in her body shape. The hairstyle and the iconic Chanel suits certainly help to create the character but a lot depends on the voice and on Portman’s performance skills. I have no memory of hearing Jackie Kennedy speak so the only signifier for me was when Portman shifts her voice between the soft, breathy and almost girlish ‘public voice’ of the character and the more clipped and authoritative voice she uses for the ‘behind the scenes’ moments. Overall, I found the performance convincing. I didn’t know much about Jackie before I saw the film and what I learned from the film and subsequently through research I found interesting.
It seems to me that the film illustrates two main points. The first is that there is humanity even in the processes inside the White House and the Presidency. Everyone treats Jackie and her children with respect even as a new administration has to begin. I’m not sure how ‘true’ or ‘realistic’ this is. In one scene Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) orders everyone, including President Johnson, to sit down when Jackie is under stress. Johnson is represented as an amenable figure – which belies the stories of his anger and violent language, though the camera does hint at what he and Ladybird might be saying off screen/off microphone. Personally, I found the scenes of Jackie coping with her grief and the procedures she had to follow quite moving. The other main theme of the film is Jackie’s attempt to create the image of JFK’s legacy. She did this as a continuation of her earlier attempts to redecorate the White House and to learn from the history of other presidential figures. We can see this theme played out both in her determination to organise an appropriate state funeral and burial at Arlington and in the way she conducts the interview with the journalist (played by Billy Crudup with a distinct swagger). Again, I rather admired Jackie as a character and Natalie Portman’s performance.
I’m grateful to Nick Lacey, my viewing partner, who found this useful interview with Stéphane Fontaine on ‘No Film School’. It was Nick who spotted the use of 16mm and in the interview Fontaine explains how he and Pablo Larrain approached the shoot which was mainly in a Paris studio with only a few exteriors in Washington. Larrain went so far as to bring an old three-tube video camera (as used in No) from Chile to Paris in an attempt to ‘insert’ Portman into the 1962 video recording of Mrs Kennedy offering TV viewers a tour around the White House – one of the pre-assassination sequences included to help build Jackie’s persona as a character. The film’s whole budget is listed as $9 million on IMDB which seems extraordinary (it’s quite a lot less than most mainstream French features). All I can say is well done to cast and crew. If you are interested in cinematography this interview is a must.
In conclusion, Jackie is a terrific emotional narrative with a stunning central performance and very good support from a talented supporting cast (including Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant and John Hurt). I suspect it will surprise many audiences. I just hope they are open to the approach adopted by Pablo Larrain and his crew and prepared to learn a bit more about an era and a group of historical figures who they think they might already know well.
Here’s a promotional clip from the film in which Jackie fights for the funeral parade she wants:
This clip from a 1961 TV interview reveals not just the real Mrs Kennedy’s’s speaking voice, but also her historical knowledge about the White House. Some of her statements are used verbatim in the new film.