Atlantique won the Sutherland Award for ‘Best First Feature’ at LFF 2019. This follows the Grand Prix at Cannes earlier in the year. Although the film is now held by Netflix it will appear at the Leeds International Film Festival in November and maybe others as well. Netflix has announced plans to distribute films through independent cinemas in the UK so I hope many of you will see this film as it is meant to be seen on a big screen. It’s arguably the highest profile African film for some time and it’s great that it lives up to its billing.
Writer-director Mati Diop is the niece of Djibril Diop Mambéty. I mention this not to diminish Ms Diop, who has already produced five celebrated short and medium-length films to add to her acting career, but to underline her achievement in picking up the baton and linking Senegal’s celebrated cinematic past with the vibrancy of its contemporary popular culture and political struggles. I could see elements of her film possibly drawing on the work of Sembène Ousmane’s Xala (Senegal 1975) with disadvantaged people invading the house of a corrupt business man and also elements of her uncle’s film Touki Bouki (Senegal 1973) (which was also the subject of her short film Mille soleils (France 2013)). Atlantique is a development of an earlier Mati Diop short film Atlantiques (2009). That short addressed the recent stories of young Senegalese attempting dangerous sea crossings to the nearest EU port. Those sea crossings are also an offscreen element of this new feature, which also ties in with both migration films such as La pirogue (Senegal-France-Germany 2012) and films which tap into the supernatural in African narratives such as War Witch (Canada 2012).
Atlantique begins with workers on a new building project in a district of Dakar. When they discover that yet again there is no prospect of getting paid this week they protest loudly but eventually return to their homes outside the city. With no income for their families a group of the younger men decide that attempting a dangerous sea crossing to the Canaries, the nearest EU territory, offers their only chance of finding work and money. One of them, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), says goodbye to his teenage girlfriend Ada (Mama Sané). Deeply in love with her young man, Ada faces an arranged marriage to an older man with little chance of escape. Her family want her to marry as the man is wealthy and imports goods from Europe. But as the wedding begins a few days later, a fire breaks out, halting the proceedings. A new detective at the local police station comes to begin an investigation and Ada seeks out the support of her girlfriends and in particular Dior (Nicole Sougou) who runs a bar on the sea front. More fires start in the area and some people begin to feel ill, including the detective. I won’t spoil any more of the plot. Instead I’ll refer to the Press Pack and what Mati Diop says about her film.
Ms Diop grew up in France and she says that her film in some ways refers to the adolescence in Senegal that she never had. She also stresses that the film is a romance and that apart from her uncle’s film she can’t think of many other romances between young African people. But though the romance is very important, there are other things going on here. The film’s tagline is a ‘ghost love story’. Diop explains that the building site featured at the beginning of the film is part of a new up-market development on the edge of Dakar. This is real, but the imposing tower seen in several shots is a CGI rendering resembling what was planned by the former president of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade. This fantasy element is then followed up by the fires that begin spontaneously, the sickness and the young women who appear possessed. The inference is clear. The corruption of the neo-colonialists who prey upon the people has been met by something akin to a ‘popular will’ expressed in spiritual terms. There are some factors here that I couldn’t quite work out on a first viewing. For instance, the new police detective is young, seemingly smart and not tainted by the corruption. But he gets sick as well. Is he another metaphorical character, representative of how young professionals might be seduced by a corrupt system? He does also represent a familiar figure, the ‘modernised’ man asked to investigate a crime involving a traditional social ritual
The look and the sound of the film are very important and Mati Diop chose to work with two women who added a great deal to the impact of the film (I should also note that she co-wrote the film with Olivier Demangel). Here is the director on Fatima Al Qadiri’s music:
I knew that the soundtrack was going to have to be responsible for the film’s invisible component – everything that is present, but that we don’t see, that we can’t film. The world of spirits. The film takes place in a world where the fantastic is embodied and emerges within the characters themselves before entering reality.
Cinematographer Claire Mathon has a strong documentary background and it was this that attracted Mati Diop as well as her experience on features:
I knew that she would know how to apply a documentary approach (to shoot quickly, catch things on the fly, spontaneously invent things) without losing any aesthetic ambition.
The actors in the film are mainly non-professionals who took part in workshops with Diop and one of the few veteran actors in the cast before shooting began. I hope you can get a sense of camera, sound and performances from the trailer:
A few weeks ago A Ghost Story was included in a list of ‘post-horror’ films in a Guardian piece by Steve Rose. Now it’s been released in the UK to some glowing reviews and some extravagant claims. I fear, however, that for many audiences it might provoke an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ response. Rose foresees this when he notes that another possible example of the trend, It Comes at Night (like A Ghost Story, given a 4 star review by the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw) has been denounced on social media. Rose suggests:
Mainstream moviegoers went in expecting a straight-up horror; they came out unsure about what they’d seen, and they didn’t like it.
The point being that a ‘post-horror film’ is not really a horror film at all. The director of A Ghost Story, David Lowery, is quoted by Rose as saying:
I wanted to engage with the archetypes and iconography of ghost films and haunted house movies, without ever crossing over into actually being a horror film.
Well, that seems clear enough. But what if you haven’t read the quote and all you see is a film poster for A Ghost Story with a load of 4 and 5 star review notices? You’d reasonably expect something that resembles a horror movie or at least an entertaining fantasy. My real concern is the implication of Rose’s statement above. If you are a mainstream movie fan, you won’t ‘get’ the post-horror film. This suggests a new form of cinema snobbery.
If you want to see the film, I suggest avoiding Peter Bradshaw’s review since he tells you most of the plot. I’ll just mention a few of the elements in the film. The single point that is emphasised in the poster, the trailer and all the promo pics is that Lowery’s ghost is represented by the white sheet of the traditional genre image with two eye holes that are disturbingly deep and dark. This seemingly substantial ghost moves slowly through every scene after the death of the Casey Affleck character early in the narrative – but it can’t be seen by others, only ‘felt’ by some. Affleck and Rooney Mara are a couple (the characters are not named) on the verge of moving out of a suburban house when an accident kills Affleck. The rest of the 90 minutes follows the ghost.
What follows is sometimes funny, sometimes silly, sometimes potentially moving, sometimes irritating but often, I’m afraid, a bit boring. Lowery wants us to know that ghosts aren’t stuck in one time period, they exist ‘outside time’, so although the ghost doesn’t move that much, we can see it in different time periods. This is hardly a revolutionary idea but it does have possibilities for some kind of meditation on time. At one point, I did wonder if what I was watching was similar to the structural avant-garde films of the 1970s by artists like Hollis Frampton with Zorn’s Lemma in which images are repeated with slight variations and the viewer must spot the patterns or Michael Snow with Wavelength comprising a single ‘zoom in’ which nevertheless builds narrative tension. But I decided A Ghost Story wasn’t as interesting.
A Ghost Story does have its moments and the ‘mini lecture’ by Will Oldham in a party scene will be the test for most audiences. Oldham is an actor and musician, perhaps best known for his work in two Kelly Reichardt films. Like Reichardt in Meek’s Cutoff (2011), Lowery opts for an Academy ratio screen shape, but I’m not sure why. Reichardt’s films move slowly, but she shares a novelist’s ability to tell stories through nuances and tiny details. I didn’t get that from A Ghost Story. Here’s the US trailer. It indicates the interesting images and hints at some of the plot points, but it can’t really represent the slow pace of the narrative. If you want a horror film, I’d watch Get Out again. If it’s a romance you want, I’d try Maudie.
Like Gurinder Chadha, the co-writer and director of Qissa, Anup Singh, was born in East Africa into a family which had originally had its home in Rawalpindi in Northern Punjab before Indian Partition in 1947. Unlike Chadha he attended university in Bombay and then FTII in Pune for his film school. His approach to a film about Partition might therefore be expected to be different to Viceroy’s House, but also to have a personal dimension. Qissa is a co-production with a mixed crew and creative inputs from Europe and India. The film was shot in (Indian) Punjab after a long search for locations.
Introducing his film at HOME during the Indian Partition weekend, Anup Singh told us that ‘qissa‘ means a ‘tale’ – the kind of story that might be told in a community setting. He also suggested that many such tales involved lovers from different sides of a barrier such as a river. These stories would then involve various forms of ‘crossings’ or ‘transgressions’ as the lovers attempt to meet. Cue a very different kind of ‘Partition’ story.
The film is dominated by the central performance given by Irrfan Khan as Umber, the head of a Punjabi family whose village has been attacked at the time of Partition in 1947. It’s a tribute to both the director and the other excellent actors in the cast that this powerful central performance doesn’t derail the narrative as a whole. After committing an act of revenge, Umber moves his family from what has become ‘Pakistani Punjab’ to ‘Indian Punjab’ and begins a new life working in forestry. At the moment his village was being attacked, Umber’s wife Mehar (Tisca Chopra) was giving birth to the couple’s third daughter. When, a few years later, a fourth child is born, Umber decides that this is his son and he proceeds over the next few years to treat ‘Kanwar’ as a warrior Sikh who will hunt and grow strong. He ignores the evidence that this is his fourth daughter, not his son. In the second half of the film an incident pushes Kanwar (now played by Tillotama Shome) into a marriage prescribed by local custom. Something has to give as Kanwar moves to live with Neeli (Rasika Dugal).
This second half of the film, as the title suggests, moves into the realm of a form of ‘magic realism’. The whole film is constructed so carefully, with close attention to details of the mise en scène, that the shift does not seem abrupt but instead seems to develop naturally. The narrative resolution then returns us to the opening shots of the film so that the whole narrative seems like a dream (or a nightmare) – and one that will return. A recurring motif is the well in the courtyard of each of the two houses that the family occupies. In the Q&A, Anup Singh told us that his grandfather had told him that in the terror experienced in the moment of Partition, many women in the Punjab had hidden in wells. In one scene in the film the young Kanwar, having watched his/her father washing, is lowered down the well in the bucket with sunshine penetrating the lower reaches of the well. At other points in the film, the dominant component of the image seems to be a mirror, an open window or doorway, a shaft of sunlight or the reflecting surface of a pool of water. It’s not difficult to recognise the metaphor for the trauma of Partition, although it is presented, very beautifully, in these symbolic images – and is open to interpretation of what it actually means for the individuals concerned.
It was only after the screening that I fully appreciated that the crossing of the river and the journey to a new location forced on the family by Partition is an echo of Ritwik Ghatak’s thematic concerns in his Bengali films. But the ‘absence’ in Anup Singh’s film is the central symbol of the train which seems to appear in every other Partition film narrative that I can remember and is clearly present in Ghatak’s Cloud-Capped Star – which was screened in Manchester immediately before Qissa.
As far as I am aware, Qissa was not released in the UK, but has appeared in one of Channel 4’s seasons of Indian films. This Punjabi language film was released in cinemas in its four co-production countries. The curator of the Partition Weekend, Andy Willis, told us beforehand that when he had started to think about the films to show, Qissa had been the film he knew must be included. I’m glad he gave us this opportunity to see this fine film. Here’s a trailer for a Dutch release (with English subtitles):
Quite a few good films coming out of Oz in the last year or two I think. The Babadook is intriguing and I’m still thinking about it. There seem to be several references to classic haunted house/melodrama/demonic possession movies of the 1960s-80s though I worry that I might not recognise the modern references so I can’t really comment on how ‘fresh’ it is. But for a low budget Kickstarter-aided film from a relatively inexperienced director it is pretty impressive. There aren’t enough horror films made by women and it’s interesting that the most frightening scene in Jennifer Kent’s movie for me was the clutch of glammed-up young mothers at a children’s birthday party with their matching gift bags – very ‘Stepford Wives’!
The Babadook is that old standby, a magic or ‘possessed’ book, in this instance a child’s pop-up book with rather interesting drawings (charcoal or pen and ink?). The book finds its way into the decidedly Gothic old house of Amelia, the widowed mother of 6 year-old Samuel. Samuel’s father was killed driving his wife to hospital on the night she gave birth and Samuel’s upcoming birthday is a significant date. Amelia is sleeping badly and Samuel is a difficult child who is driving her to distraction with his fears about monsters. Neither of them need the further pressure of a new monster threatening to cause havoc and terror in the household. But once you’ve read the book, your fate is apparently sealed . . .
I was amazed to read that the film’s producer suggested that this was an ‘arthouse film’ and that this explained why it had only a limited release in Australia. The Guardian reported that the film made more in the first weekend of its UK release (on 147 screens) than in its entire release in Australia. Australian distribution seems to be in even more of a crisis than in the UK.
It isn’t an art film for me, rather an intelligent genre film that marries the familiar tropes of the haunted house/demonic possession genre with the good old family melodrama. Apart from Samuel and the demon/ghost, the only other male character who appears more than once is the nice young man at the care home where Amelia works. Much more significant are Amelia’s sister and the older woman next door. Essie Davis is very good as Amelia and she joins Deborah Kerr (The Innocents), Nicole Kidman (The Others) and Bélen Rueda (The Orphanage) as a woman under pressure trying to cope with small children. The Babadook doesn’t have the budget of those earlier films and it doesn’t have the allegorical status of the latter two, but it is distinctive. I’m not sure how ‘Australian’ it is – or whether this matters. (In terms of its difficulties in getting a wide release in Australia, this seems contradictory – the more an Australian film is recognised by overseas audiences first, the better chance it is supposed to have with domestic audiences who respond to foreign commendations. At least, that’s how I read comments from Australia.)
The colour palette is drained and costumes have generally been chosen in muted colours. Added to that, the costumes look very old-fashioned (is this a period film?) and the actors in minor roles have unusual faces and expressions. Check out the trailer below. The television seems to play a bizarre range of violent cartoons and a selection of films that includes Mario Bava(!), George Méliès and a Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in peril’ noir. (It appears to be The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, when it should be Sorry, Wrong Number?) The more I think about the film, the more references come to mind. Although the stories are different in terms of the ghost, there are strong connections to the Nakata Hideo film Dark Water (Japan 2002) which was in turn remade by Walter Salles for Hollywood. The social pressures on Amelia as a single mother are not as great as in the Japanese context but they are definitely there.
I think the film deserves its generally very good critical reception and I’m glad it seems to be attracting audiences. My only complaint would be that having imposed restraint for three quarters of the film, Jennifer Kent perhaps let go too much in the final quarter, changing the overall tone of the film.