Tagged: Il Cinema Ritrovato

Cinemalibero: FESPACO 1969 – 2019

Filmmakers at the tomb of Thomas Sankara

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

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

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

‘Muna Moto’

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

only one fifth of what he felt in his heart.

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

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

‘Baara’

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

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

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

‘Wend Kuuni’

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

Kaboré, in 2017, explained that

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

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

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

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

‘Le Franc’

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

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

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

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

‘The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun’

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

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

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

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

Film from 1919 at Il Cinema Ritrovato

Neil Brand at the piano in the Modernissimo

Every year this Archive Festival in Bologna has a programme of titles from the parallel year in the 20th century, A Hundred Years Ago: 1919′. The curators of the programme, Mariann Lewinsky and Karl Wratschko, made the point in the Festival Catalogue:

1919 is the first year of the A Hundred Years Ago strand for which a certain canon exists . . . the easiest option seemed not to be the most interesting one, and we decided, as in every year since 2004, to go on a pilgrimage to the archives and view as many films from 1919 as possible . . . We also decided at an  early stage to include as many short films as possible …

They also argued that the focus is on films from Germany and Scandinavia.

This was not planned but simply happened  as a result of the fact that in 1919 the most interesting films were made there.

So we enjoyed some known classics, unknown films and surprises, and a programme of varied short films from small dramas to travelogues and newsreels. One of the attractions of the selection was that the bulk of the screenings were on 35mm. Even so, given the complexity of the overall festival programme, with up to seven screens at any one time, it was not possible to see every single film.

The programme was divided into eight chapters, the first being ‘Old and New’.

Here we saw Carl Théodor Dreyer’s very fine The President (Præsedenten, 1919). Adapted from an Austrian novel the President of the title is a judge. His fallibility repeats the transgression of both his father and grandfather. The print  from the Danish Film Institute was both tinted and toned  and the visual quality was enhanced by a fine accompaniment by Gabriel Thibaudeau. This was a great film to revisit.

‘The President’

Three other titles were by Jakov Protozanov, Mauritz Stiller {Sir Arne’s Treasure / Herr Arnes Pengar} and Augusto Genina. The last was a social comedy, The Mask and the Face / La maschera e il volto, in which a husband’s macho boasts on what he will do if his wife takes a lover come back to haunt him.

Next was ‘Censorship Abolished. German ‘Vice and Enlightenment Films”.

A vice film (in German: Sittenfilm) is a film that, under the mantle  of ‘enlightenment’, deals with taboo subjects mostly from  the field of sexuality. (Karl Wratschko in the Catalogue).

There was a film directed by Richard Oswald on a gay them, Different from the Others (Anders als die andern). The Pimp (Der Mädchenhirt) directed by Karl Grune  with prostitution and venereal decease in the plot. When censorship was re-imposed it disappeared from view. Whilst Misericordia (Tötet nicht mehr!) was a committed film addressing capital punishment directed by Lupu Pick.

‘Indian Cinema’ was a screening of D. G. Phalke’s Kaliya Mardan (The Childhood of Krishna). This is one of the few surviving silent films made in India and the only film by the key pioneer Phalke to survive almost complete.

‘Three actresses from the US with Love’ featured an extract from Creaking Stairs with Mary McLaren who also starred in Lois Weber’s Shoes (1916). A woman director, Ruth Stonehouse’s Rosalind at Redgate. And the French director Albert Capellani working with the star Nazimova at the Metro Picture Corporation. This drama, The Red Lantern,  was set  during the ‘Boxer rebellion in China; with fairly awful stereotypes of Chinese people.

Nazimova

‘Independent Cinema’ offered Back to God’s Country, a Canadian wilderness adventure. Historien om en gut / The Story of a Boy, a Norwegian drama of a boy who runs away. And fragments from La Fête Espagnole / Spanish Fiesta directed by Germaine Dulac. All three showed the way that many independent productions utilized actual locations, offering natural detail often lacking from studio productions.

The sixth chapter was titled ‘Revolution’, Karl Wratschko commented;

1919 was one of the most revolutionary years in the C20th. In this year there was revolutionary activity in many different countries of Europe as well as in Egypt.

From Hungary we had a film by Mihály Kertész [later Michael Curtiz] My Brother is Coming (Jön az öcsém), adapted from a revolutionary poem,

released barely two weeks after the proclamation of the world’s second communist republic . . .

‘My Brother is Coming’

From the opposite standpoint came Die Bolschewistischen … (Germany) which depicted the killing by the Bolsheviks in Ukraine of the opposition in the Civil War. A German newsreel showed the street battles during the Spartacist uprising in Berlin. A  second included the funeral of one of the Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg.

‘Nature, Humour, Science’ provided a sense of a cinema visit in the early C19th.

. . . for nearly two decades, . . . [this] meant not seeing a long story . . . , but some 10 to 15 short films from  a wide range of genres and with maximum diversity in aesthetic impact and emotional register; . . . (Mariann Lewinsky in the Festival Catalogue).

So we had non-fiction, newsreel, adverts and comedy. There was the famous and staged signing of the United Artists incorporation with the stars gathered round Chaplin. From the Soviet Union ‘The Funeral of Vera Kholodnaya, a major star of the Russian silent cinema, including films with Evgeni Bauer. The adverts were animated films from a French pioneer, Robert Lortac. And among the comedies was Seff Kostet 24,50 dollar groteske von seff (Austria). This followed the adventures of a tailor’s dummy and its human look-a-like.

Dummy or human?

The final part of the programme was a serial screened in parts, morning and evenings, at the Modernissimo. This is an underground cinema waiting restoration but extremely atmospheric and [seemingly] the coolest spot in Bologna. I Topi Grigi is an Italian production starring and directed by Emilio Ghione. A major star Ghione played Za la Mort, a master of disguise, who has eight episodes to outwit and bring to justice the ‘Grey Rats’ of the title. As always in serials there were cliff-hanging ends of episodes, a variety of criminal enterprises, a changing cast of villains and victims and a final denouement between hero and arch-villain. Following the whole serial was a commitment but a bonus was that one would hear nearly all of the ensemble of talented musicians who accompany the silent screenings.

Arabs and Niggers, Your Neighbours (Les Bicots-Négres, Vos Voisins, Mauritania-France, 1974)

Med Hondo in the 1980s

This film was part of the ‘Cinema Libro FESPACO 1969-2019‘ programme at Il Cinema Ritrovato. The Festival has developed a strong relationship with the World Film Foundation who are leading the African Film Heritage Project which is committed to restoring 50 African films significant in cinema and culture. This series celebrates the Pan African  Film and Television Festival at Ouagadougou which was set up in 1969. That festival has become the centre for both enjoying African film and supporting and developing African Cinema.

This title was directed by Med Hondo and provided a testament to this important film-maker who died on 2nd March this year. We had enjoyed a trio of Hondo’s films at the 2017 Ritrovato. And fortunately he attended and we were able to hear him  talk about his film work. Med Hondo was born in Mauritania in 1936. He migrated to France in 1959 and the exploitation and oppression of migrants was a central theme in his films. He was well versed in International Cinema and his own work was both unconventional and used avant-garde techniques but in the service of accessible films which were ‘made politically’.

Les Bicots-Négres, Vos Voisins was his second film following on from Soleil O (1967). Aboubakar Sanogo in the Festival Catalogue described the film’s structure:

[It] analyses the living conditions of African migrant workers in France in the m id-1970s . . . It comprises seven sequences exploring, respectively the conditions of possibility of cinematic representations in Africa …historical dissonance through the dialectic of past and present . . . a flashback to the eve of African independence , the predicaments of the post-colony, an assessment of the living conditions of migrant workers and the actions taken to transform these conditions . . .

The film opens with a bravura sequence where an African man addresses the audience direct to camera. In a sardonic manner familiar in Hondo’s films he questions the viewer on cinema, Africa and representation. The camera tracks between close-ups, mid-shots and longshots to also reveal the walls covered with film posters. In other sequences he uses a montage of stills, prints, pictures to show Africa in this way. Dramatised sequences point the experiences of African migrants whilst others point how European capitalism retains its hold, in this case on a ‘Francophone’ Africa. And documentary film reveals the actual conditions and the actual actions as Africans  become part of the French proletariat. Towards the close of the film footage of a vast worker’s demonstration, with black and white proletarians side by side, voices the opposition to exploitation and racism.

Hondo and his team used both visual and aural montage as developed by the Soviet pioneers. The cinematography was by Jean Boffety and François Catonné working to a script developed by Hondo. The editing, involving a sequence of stop-motion, was by Michel Masnier. And the music, with a varied combination of African rhythms and French popular songs, was by a team of Catherine Le Forestier, Mohamed Ou Mustapha, Frank Valmont and Louis Zavier.

The screening  used a version from 1988. In an approach shared by other in Third Cinema, Hondo screened parts of the film  to the workers who appear in it and made changes in accordance with their suggestions. So in the opening sequence we actually see in the background a poster for the release of the first version of the film in 1974. Hondo described it as ‘a work in  progress’.

The complete film is challenging but the presentation is quite clear. Med Hondo has a clear grasp of the operation of capital in advanced European states and of the way that neo-colonialism operates in the late C20th. The tone varies from sardonic to dramatic to informative to the powerfully moving. The film was shot in colour and we enjoyed a 35mm print from the Audio-visual Archive of the French Communist Party.

The film  develops the content and style of the earlier Soleil O and also connects with the later works of the film-maker. The screening provided a memorial to a fine director. I was saddened by the thought that I would no longer be able to wait for another  film from Hondo; who had been trying (it seems vainly) to develop a further cinematic  project. However, I am heartened that his unique films will be available still for audiences. A friend in New York recently saw two of these at an impressive retrospective of Liberation Cinema.

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019

 

This major Archive Festival opened on Saturday. We reckon up to 4,000 visitors may be here over the coming week for a feast of cinematic classics and masterpieces.  The temperatures are expected to reach 40℃ so film-buffs will be thankful for the city’s elegant arcades to shelter as they move between the festival’s five different sites and venues.

The Festival opened officially at mid-day on Saturday with a screening in the Cinema Modernissimo, a 1915 underground cinema which is currently be restored. The lower cavern is a wonderfully atmospheric setting for ‘reel’ film. We were welcomed by the festival’s key organisers in both Italian and English. Then we enjoyed a tribute to that glorious gothic masterpiece which suffered so recently, Notre-Dame de Paris.

The tribute was George Franju’s Notre Dame – cathédrale de Paris (1957) filmed in colour and a scope format. This was a fine 35mm print with the narration translated in digital sub-titles.  Franju had a great visual sense and this is beautiful to watch. The film’s treatment seemed to me to be influenced by Victor Hugo’s marvellous descriptions in his classic novel.

The film explores both the interior and exterior of the massive building and treats the famous gargoyles with care and attention. The film ends with these ‘petrified statues’ and their great vistas of the city. This was a fine way to open a week of cinematic treasures.