I went into this screening with some trepidation. All I knew was that it was a documentary set in South Sudan. Would it be harrowing? Would I learn anything new? Could I cope at the end of a very long day? (Festivals can be a test of endurance – it isn’t always the best way to encounter films.) I needn’t have worried. This was the most surprising film I saw at LFF. It made me laugh and it made me cry and it started with Keith Shiri, the festival’s Africa expert, suggesting that the film might be about the “pathology of colonialism in Africa” – one of the topics that interests me most. The added bonus was that the director Hubert Sauper was present for the Q&A. He had several friends/’plants’ in the audience and he was on rip-roaring form. Eventually NFT2 had to throw us out as the building was closing.
The title ‘We Come as Friends’ is the age-old greeting of duplicitous invaders/occupiers/colonisers – whether in Africa or in an episode of Star Trek. It signals that this documentary is about the colonisers – though the science fiction angle is in there too. The linking agent in the narrative is the strange little ‘microlight’ aircraft that Sauper and his colleagues built with its “lawnmower engine” mounted on top of the parasol wing. This peculiar little aircraft is non-threatening and capable of landing virtually anywhere. (It flies slowly and not very high.) In this way Sauper and his crewmate Sandor landed in many unlikely places including a large Chinese oil installation as well as small villages across South Sudan. He also told us that he discovered that the trick was to have an official-looking pilot’s uniform with hat and epaulettes. Dressed like this, he was able to negotiate with military chiefs, politicians etc. – whereas in ordinary clothes he had previously been given the brush-off.
Sauper adopts a seemingly passive role as a documentarist, so that those he films and interviews allow their own arrogance/prejudicial views to come through without prompting. At other times he plants ideas and lets them develop (as in the Chinese oil base where he leads a group of Chinese into a discussion about science fiction films). His focus is always the colonisers and what they bring into South Sudan – and what they take away. Several remarkable scenes emerge. In one instance Sauper lands in a village where the local chief is about to sign away the community’s land rights in a lease lasting many years to an American-owned company for a paltry sum of money. The local man has no real idea of the value of the land or the quasi-legal status of the document. Sauper argues that these kinds of deals are being made all the time and it is very rare to see the actual documents which purport to legalise the theft of local resources. Sudan was the largest country in Africa before it was split in two in 2011 and South Sudan is still a country with rich reserves of exploitable resources and a relatively small population of around 8 million. It’s also a country where ecological damage is threatening wildlife habitats and rainforest resources.
In some ways the most terrifying group of people Sauper encountered were the American Christian evangelists who have arrived to ‘save’ the people with solar-powered talking bibles and clothing to cover the naked children! The European colonisers are still present in Africa as arms dealers and industrial developers but the Chinese and Americans are the most visible in this film and both these groups of neo-colonialists are as dangerous as the earlier European settlers and economic exploiters. This film should make any Western/’Northern’ audience uncomfortable about what we have done in the past in ‘underdeveloping Africa’. In the last couple of weeks ‘Big Pharma’ – the global drugs companies – have finally started to move on anti-viral drugs to fight ebola in West Africa. They wouldn’t move on this until the death toll rose to a high enough level to make the demand for drugs great enough to justify investing in research and production. The political crisis in South Sudan in December 2013 has led to 1.7 million displaced persons many of whom are starving as makeshift camps are ravaged by disease. So as agencies like MSF are trying to save lives and develop healthcare it is shocking to know that governments and major corporations are intent on stealing the resources of the poor. In one of the scenes in the film in a bar, a businessman/local politician is discussing the benefits of American investment while in the background the TV is showing Hilary Clinton making a speech about how American investment must ‘do good’ as well as earn profits. Sauper explained that broadcasts like this are repeated on a regular basis so it was relatively straightforward to have his camera available at the right time.
It’s very important that this film gets seen and talked about. It’s not didactic and its subtle approach worked for me. The film has won festival prizes all over the world and it has opened in cinemas in France and Austria, the two home countries of the production funders. I really hope it gets other releases. I presume that it will appear on some documentary television channels.
After the screening, the tiniest bit of research revealed my ignorance about Sauper and his colleagues. This is the third film made in Central Africa that Sauper has completed. Kisangani Diary (45 mins, 1998) investigates the plight of Rwandan refugees who fled to what was then Zaire. Darwin’s Nightmare (107 mins, 2004) is a film about globalisation and neo-colonialist exploitation of the resources of the Lake Victoria region where planes fly in with food aid and fly out with cash crops – and then return selling arms. If it is anywhere near as good as We Come as Friends I want to see it.
The excellent website for We Come as Friends is where you can begin to discover this remarkable filmmaker. There you will find this trailer and much more:
The two young filmmakers behind Beti and Amare were present to introduce and discuss this festival screening at the ICA. Andy Siege performs most of the technical roles and appears himself in a small but crucial role in the film. Pascal Dawson plays ‘Amare’ and generally supports his working partner. Together the two are Kalulu Entertainment and this, their first fiction feature, is a ‘speculative fiction’ set in Ethiopia in 1936.
Andy Siege was born in Kenya to German aid workers and grew up in Africa and Europe, studying film in Canada. In the Q&A he identified as ‘African’. Pascal Dawson was born in Vancouver. The others in the small cast are Ethiopians, both experienced actors and non-professionals. The production budget was just €14,000. This isn’t noticeable in terms of the film overall except possibly with the archive footage of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was known then) in 1936 – which the credits suggest came from the Internet Archive. The film does switch between monochrome and colour and I couldn’t work out why (I did miss part of the introduction, perhaps it was explained then) – but I didn’t find this a problem.
The story is simple. A young woman, ‘Beti’ returns to her home region in Southern Abyssinia hoping to avoid the Italians. She stays with her grandfather in an isolated hut. He then sets off to buy a new goat, leaving the young woman in charge. She discovers that she faces a double challenge. A group of local men on horseback want to ‘protect her’ (and one wants to marry her) and she also fears that the Italians will appear. Then one day at the waterhole she discovers a strange young man, ‘Amare’. Where has he come from? Is he ill? Did he emerge naked from an egg? Is he real or a figment of her imagination? She decides to look after him. When trouble appears there are now two of them to face it together.
This is an imaginative use of familiar genre elements in an African context. African filmmakers struggle with lack of resources and audiences who have been mainly entertained by the crudest forms of Western, Indian and Hong Kong popular cinema. Could a film like this succeed in attracting audiences in Africa? I don’t know, but it does show how a quality production can be achieved on limited resources by filmmakers who have Africa in their hearts and the knowledge and contacts to exploit new technologies efficiently. So far the film has had mainly festival screenings. It will be interesting to see if it gets a wider distribution and if Kalulu can make more films in the same manner. I certainly enjoyed the film and I hope Kalulu succeed in their ambitions.
The official trailer:
I’m glad I saw this on the big screen at Vue West End (but disappointed to miss the live appearance of Nina Hoss). Put simply this is a great melodrama by Christian Petzold with a setting associated with the Trümmerfilme or ‘rubble film’. It includes elements from Fassbinder’s ‘BRD trilogy’ including the image of Hanna Schygulla as the Maria Braun character from The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) stepping through the rubble and the nightclub at the heart of Lola (1981).
It is a few months after the end of the war in 1945 and two women drive into Switzerland. One is swathed in bandages and is being transported by her friend Lene. Beneath the bandages is Nelly, whose face has been disfigured during her escape from Auschwitz. She is about to visit a plastic surgeon and get a new face. Lene searches in the archives for a new Jewish identity for Nelly who was a famous popular singer before the war. Lene’s plan is that the pair of them should go to Palestine where Lene has already rented a flat in Haifa. But Nelly has other ideas – one of which involves finding her husband Johnny back in Berlin. This is where the bar, the Phoenix comes in. I won’t spoil the plot except to say that Johnny reappears in the guise of Ronald Zehrfeld (previously paired with Nina Hoss in Petzold’s Barbara (2012)). What follows has been likened to Hitchcock or film noir. There is a suggestion that Petzold didn’t know how to end the film, but I thought it was a perfect ending and as Howard Schumann suggests in his IMDB posting, it creates a moment so resonant that it could become one of the great final scenes in cinema.
The script is based on a novel by the French crime writer Hubert Monteilhet which was first adapted for the screen for a British film directed by J. Lee Thompson with Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow and Samantha Eggar in 1965 under the novel’s title Return From the Ashes (Le retour des cendres). This film (which I now want to see – I don’t remember it coming out – is only available on a Region 1 ‘print on demand’ DVD from MGM Archives). Petzold, working on a new adaptation with the late Harun Farocki, changed the location from Paris to Berlin and some of the other story elements – shifting the genre from crime melodrama to something more metaphorical concerned with identity and fidelity.
I’m a little frustrated that I can’t find a Press Pack for the film so I’m forced to look for interviews with Petzold to explore some of his ideas. The film was first seen at Toronto and has since then provoked a great deal of discussion – much of it querying why it was turned down by Cannes and Venice. I haven’t seen Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep yet but if it’s better than Phoenix it must be quite something. I’d like to explore aspects of the film in detail but I’d need to se it again first and I don’t want to spoil the surprises. What I would say is that it looks stupendous shot on Super 35 film in CinemaScope and with rich reds standing out against the rubble. Nina Hoss gives a breathtaking performance. Nelly has to gradually recover her confidence and her sense of self – and then the plot requires Nelly to play another role.
As well as Hitchcock and Franju (Eyes Without a Face) some critics have also referenced Douglas Sirk’s 1958 Hollywood adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel ‘A Time to Live and a Time to Die’ set in the last few months of the war. Sirk changed the title to A Time to Love and a Time to Die. Apart from the setting in a bombed out Berlin suburb for part of the film, Remarque’s story is rather different, but Sirk produced one of the first films to try to deal with the emotional lives of individuals in the chaos of Germany’s defeat. This is certainly what powers Phoenix. Nelly has to find an identity and a major part of her quest is to find out what happened to her husband. Did he betray her? Does he still love her? Does she love him? How will people live in the new Germany(s)? How will they deal with memories? The simplicity of Nelly’s final appearance is a response to these layered questions.
Soda Pictures have Phoenix for the UK and Sundance Selects for the US, Films We Like for Canada and Madman for Australia/New Zealand. In fact most territories are taking the film. Keep your eyes peeled – don’t miss it!
SPOILERS!! This trailer gives away a crucial plot development:
It will be interesting to see how this film fares on release in India. The biggest hurdle to a successful release is likely to be the presentation of lesbian sex scenes featuring a Pakistani character. Writer-director Shonali Bose appears fairly relaxed about the prospect, counting on the audience to react sensibly. She may well be proved right since the Indian audience for the film is likely to be confined to middle-class urbanites. I hope it does go wider because it isn’t an art film. I also hope that it gets a significant release in international markets.
The title refers to the alcoholic drink of preference for the film’s central character Laila, a young woman from Delhi with cerebral palsy who is determined to experience everything life has to offer. Laila’s story is a very personal project for Shonali Bose who wrote the film soon after the accidental death of her son and chose to draw on the experiences of her cousin who has cerebral palsy. The film is co-produced by Viacom 18, Jakhatia Group, Bose’s own Ishant Talkies and ADAPT (the Indian agency ‘Able Disabled All People Together’).
The star performance in the film is by Kalki Koechlin as Laila. Shonali Bose was present at the screening in Islington and she answered the inevitable question about why she hadn’t cast someone with cerebral palsy to play the lead role. She explained that she had tried to find the right person but eventually decided that because of the emotional nature of several major scenes, she needed someone with extensive acting experience. Kalki Koechlin is mesmerising and That Girl In Yellow Boots proves that she can do things that many Bollywood stars would find impossible.
The plot sees Laila, a bright and talented young woman in a Delhi college become frustrated by both the academic and creative limitations she faces. In addition she is frustrated in attempts to develop her love life – she is an ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ girl who just happens to be in a wheelchair. Reluctantly her father agrees to her move to New York University on a scholarship. At first her mother accompanies her but soon she has teamed up with a more experienced blind Pakistani student and the two share an apartment. All goes well until the couple travel back to Delhi and several secrets are exposed.
Shonali Bose trained as a filmmaker at UCLA and this is her second film following Amu in 2005 with Konkona Sen Sharma. She spends her time between LA and Mumbai. Her first film was an international festival success but faced censorship in India (it refers to the 1984 attacks on Sikhs following the assassination of Indhira Gandhi). But whereas the first film was mainly in English, Margarita With a Straw switches between Hindi for most of the Delhi scenes and English in New York. Cast and crew are a mix of ‘international’ and Indian. The film is photographed by Anne Misawa, another Californian graduate (who also shot the Korean indie Treeless Mountain (South Korea-US 2008)). Mikey McLeary is a New Zealander working as a music composer out of Mumbai and sound design includes work by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty. Nilesh Maniyar is credited as co-writer and co-director though there is no indication of what this means in practice (he was at the Q&A in London). The cast includes Revathi (Asha Kutty) the experienced star of many Indian language cinemas and recently in 2 States (2014) as the Tamil mother. William Moseley is an English actor and the star of the first two Narnia films. Sayani Gupta, who plays the Pakistani young woman, is an FTII graduate and in 2012 she featured in a Bengali film Tasher Desh, part-produced by Anurag Kashyap Films. Perhaps she met Kalki Koechlin (Kashyap’s then partner) at this point?
What all this adds up to I think is something rather more ‘international/global’ than Indian independent. Perhaps her two features place Shonali Bose alongside Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta as ‘diaspora filmmakers’? I enjoyed the film very much and found it very moving. I was slightly worried in the first section because the incident which partly triggers Laila’s ‘rebellion’ seemed such an obvious slight (Laila’s music group is given a prize seemingly because she is ‘disabled’). But of course such stupidity does happen. Laila, through the script and Koechlin’s performance, is a rounded human being – capable of being petty, mean and selfish as much as vivacious, loving and charming. If I have a criticism of the film it is that Laila’s acceptance by everyone she meets in the New York scenes seemed simply too good to be true. I expect that not all the bus drivers, waiters, taxi drivers and shopkeepers in New York are quite so cheery and helpful – they aren’t in London! Just a little grit and rejection would have helped, but this is a minor quibble. The film is a triumph and deserves to be widely seen. I should also mention the music since this is Laila’s unique talent – in the lyrics she writes and in the singing with her mother. The effect of this film is certainly ‘feelgood’ – but not in a contrived, artificial way. Instead we see somebody living their life and not allowing their own physical difficulties or anyone else’s preconceptions stand in their way. You can’t ask more than that in a story.
It looks like an Indian release is planned but I’m not sure if it has been picked up for North American or UK distribution yet. Variety reported in September that WIDE Sales have a deal for Japan in 2015 and that ‘two or three’ distributors are interested for North America and two for the UK. Having wowed audiences at Toronto, Busan and now London you hope that a distributor would get behind it.
Here’s the rather good ‘International Trailer’: