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:
This film was in the LFF programme but I watched it at home on MUBI. The streaming service is making three titles from LFF available for streaming. Zombi Child appeared in the festival’s ‘Dare’ section, a decision I find completely baffling. The French auteur Bertrand Bonello is a director whose name I recognise but whose films have had a relatively low profile in UK distribution. I remember the releases of a couple of his earlier films but I didn’t get to see them. I’m not sure if Zombi Child is typical of his work but it is certainly an interesting and intriguing film which I enjoyed. MUBI also has an earlier title from him which I will consider watching.
The film’s title uses a mixture of English and Haitian French. This is because Bonello wished to go back to the original meaning of ‘zombi’ and to try to avoid the American conception of ‘zombie’. The difference as I understand it is that ‘zombification’ is the process by which a person can be put into a trance-like state, losing any sense of personal will and therefore proving an effective slave worker in the plantation fields. In this instance a man in Haiti in 1962 (the character ‘Clairvius Narcisse‘ is based on a real person whose case was discussed in the 1980s) is zombified using dangerous toxins and buried alive but unconscious. Later he emerges from his grave and joins the workers in the cane fields. What happens to this figure becomes one of the two parallel narratives in the film. The other one deals with a teenage girl from Haiti who is a new arrival at a girls boarding school in Saint-Denis near Paris. Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) is the daughter of a woman who died in the Haitian earthquake of 2010. The school (the real school was used for 12 days of location shooting) was set up by Napoleon Bonaparte and opened in 1812 as a Maison d’éducation de la Légion d’honneur, educating the children of holders of the award. Mélissa’s mother was a recipient of la Légion d’honneur for civil duties in Haiti. Mélissa makes friends with a small group of her fellow students, all studying for the Baccalauréat. The girls have a form of secret society and Mélissa is initiated when she tells the group a ‘personal secret’ about life in Haiti. Mélissa has an aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort), her mother’s sister, who lives in Paris.
Eventually it becomes clear that a second girl is also important. This is Fanny (Louise Labeque). She was the one who invited Mélissa to join the group. She has, or perhaps had, a boyfriend who she sees in her dreams, a beautiful bare-chested, long haired young man called Pablo (Sayyid El Alami). His name suggests a Spanish young man or possibly a Roma. The actor’s name suggests a Maghrebi. Either way it doesn’t matter, he is an ‘exotic other’ as a partner for Fanny. Fanny is an adventurous young woman and her actions will lead to an overwrought conclusion to the narrative.
The key to the narrative enigma – who is Mélissa and what does she represent? – comes, according to critics, when the first cross-cut comes from Haiti in the 1960s to the school ‘today’ (Bonello helpfully provides dates on screen). The girls are in a beautiful spacious classroom listening to a history lecture. The lecturer is actually a well-known French historian, Patrick Boucheron, and his lecture discusses the image of France from the end of the 18th century, associated with ‘Revolution’, the subsequent history of ‘liberalism’ in the 19th century and the way that France would be accused by its colonised peoples. I confess that I didn’t read the subtitles very carefully so this scene didn’t stay with me as perhaps the director intended. What I saw was a very traditional pedagogy, lecturing a group of 15-16 year-old girls, some of whom were attentive, some bored and some like Fanny, obviously distracted. Something similar happened in a later scene in a Literature class – no engagement by the teacher with the students. But still, I did get the connection because I knew that Haiti was the first French colony and the first slave colony anywhere to rebel in the 12 year war which saw Toussaint Louverture deliver the first ‘Black Republic’ in 1804.
In the Press Notes, Bonello discusses several aspects of the production, revealing that the budget was €1.5 million which is low for a French production, especially given the several trips for preparing and shooting in Haiti. Shooting was completed in four weeks, three in the school and Paris suburbs and a week in Haiti with no extra lighting and a skeleton crew. I think the results are remarkable and this certainly doesn’t look like a low budget film. I was particularly impressed by the Haitian footage. I don’t know Haiti at all, but the imagery was evocative of other parts of the Caribbean that are more familiar. The Haiti images also provide a link to Claire Denis, whose White Material (2009) was also shot by Yves Cape. I made this connection while watching the film and confirmed it later. There is a fascinating piece on the website of the French cinematographers’ website AFC in which Cape explains how he shot the film using “a RED Monstro with a set of Summilux lenses”. He explains how he coped with the lack of artificial lighting, trying to produce the most detailed 5K or 6K image which could then be cropped and manipulated in post-production. We often have debates on this blog about projection prints of digital film. I’m not sure if what I saw on MUBI was 2K or 4K but it looked very good. The possible supernatural aspects of the film and the overall theme also linked the film to Mati Diop’s Atlantique, also in the festival with review to come.
One of the intriguing aspects of the film is the mixture of different genre forms. The two parallel narrative might be seen as informed by the specific sub-genre of the girls’ boarding school (Yves Cape comments that this was very much in mind for the scene in the washroom) and the Haitian narrative draws on the history of both colonial melodramas and supernatural/horror stories. Bonello tells us that he did indeed re-watch Jacques Tourneur’s fabulous I Walked With a Zombie, the Val Lewton production from 1943. In his AFC piece, Yves Cape suggests that Bonello also moves between “ethnological documentary, historical recreation and fiction”. I think it is an achievement to meld all these different forms in such a way as to produce a coherent single narrative. The last part of the film is a challenge, when the two separate narratives come together. I’m still not sure exactly what happens and what the resolution actually means. Bonello himself suggests that the whole Haitian narrative might simply be how Mélissa imagines how the memories and stories from her childhood might be put together. But that doesn’t explain what might be in Fanny’s head!
As well as the cinematography and imaginative use of locations, the film stands or falls on the performances of the four leads. The two young women were both found through open casting for five moths and Wislanda Louimat actually came to France from Haiti when she was 7. Katiana Milfort was found in Haiti and so was Mackenson Bijou, who plays Clairvius. All the Haitians had some kind of experience of performance, singing or dancing on stage. The music in the film is also important. I hadn’t heard of Damso, who I understand is a Belgian-Congolese rapper but what truly knocked me back was to have Liverpool’s football anthem, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ by Gerry and the Pacemakers, close the narrative. But then I thought about the song’s original role in Carousel (1954) and it made a certain sort of sense. If you have access to MUBI in the UK, do try and watch Zombi Child.
Here’s the trailer. Beware it delivers SPOILERS that I’ve been careful not to divulge. You have been warned!
A documentary set in an underground hospital regularly peppered with bombs and rockets: what’s not to like? It wasn’t as gruelling an experience as I expected because of the amazing fortitude displayed by the staff, particularly paediatrician and hospital administrator Amani Ballour. She not only has to deal with the patients, and the logistics of an under-resourced hospital in inhospitable circumstances, but also the ingrained sexism of some of her patients! The film celebrates the good in people even when they are victims of what can only be characterised as evil.
The ‘rights and wrongs’ in the world are possibly more blurred than ever as misinformation infiltrates information. The fact that this is a National Geographic presentation raises a question mark with me as America has a particular agenda in the conflict. Director Feras Fayyad was Oscar nominated for Last Man in Aleppo (Denmark-Syria, 2017), which I haven’t seen, that focused on the work of White Helmets. These appear to be engaged in criminal activities (this apparently was not the subject of Fayyad’s film); elsewhere it is suggested that they are victims of Russian propaganda . . . So although The Cave appears to be absolute authentic we should (always) be sceptical.
The documentary is primarily observational with occasional voiceover from Ballour. However, Fayyad’s use of sound is more in keeping with a fiction film as it uses a design that emphasises the immense cacophony of a military attack; brilliantly done – Peter Albrechtsen supervised 16 sound technicians according to IMDb . Matthew Herbert’s score, too, seeks to squeeze the emotion out of the spectator. These are both extremely effective but also leave question marks over the image, as if what we’re seeing isn’t enough to make us believe the terrible events. Similarly, the end credits state the film is based on Ballour’s diaries and so the observational rhetoric of the film is tempered by subjectivity; to what extent did Fayyad stage events recorded in Ballour’s diary? I’m not suggesting subterfuge (after all the source is credited) but The Cave is clearly not a straightforward presentation of Fayyad’s experiences.
Apparently 500 hours of footage was filmed, which took a year to edit. A chemical attack in Ghouma, that took place in 2013, serves as the climax. At least I think it was a chemical attack; again we must understand that misinformation is rife, for example the apparent chemical attack last year in Douma is highly contentious. I’m not saying the attack shown in the film didn’t happen; how can I know? All documentaries are representations of reality but what’s real in Syria is nebulous at best from the perspective of a cosseted westerner in a London cinema.
The observational stance the documentary takes means we learn nothing of the logistics of supplying food and medicines to the hospital. Though it is understandable why Fayyad rarely steps out of ‘the cave’, this means the film raises as many questions as it seems to answer. One telling line, from Ballour, is when she asks ‘is there a God?’ The same question had arisen in The Two Popes, that I’d seen a couple of hours earlier, with reference to the Argentinean military junta’s atrocities. The answer given by The Cave, as I read it, is ‘no’.
I missed Fernando Meirelles’s last film as director, 360 (UK-Austria-France-Canada-Brazil-US, 2011), but his previous, Blindness, The Constant Gardner (UK-Germany-US-China-Kenya, 2005) and City of God (with Kátia Lund, Brazil-France-Germany, 2002) were all interesting. As is the Netflix-headed The Two Popes which surprisingly engaged me given my interest in religion is tangential at best. If I struggled with the film at all it was because it humanised the Pope(s), which is not to say they aren’t human, but they tend not to represented as such. As God’s representative on Earth, the issues of representation are tricky. I dislike monolithic meta-narratives that purport to tell others how to live; earlier this week the DUP tried to keep Northern Ireland in the ‘dark ages’ regarding religion and same sex marriages to show bigotry still thrives in some institutions. Indeed, that is the focus of the film, scripted by experienced film writer Anthony McCarten, as it contrasts the last two Popes: ‘fundamentalist’ Benedict and his successor, the ‘humanist’ Francis.
The Popes are embodied by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, who are both superb, and the narrative is ideal for those ignorant of anything other than broad brush Roman Catholic politics (me). It sets up the conservative versus progressive narrative and then undermines it with flashbacks to Francis in Buenos Aries under the military dictatorship of the 1970s. Humanist characters are rarely ‘black or white’, which is why the almost-deification of the Pope is ridiculous, and the film admirably shows us the shades of character that are part of all us.
My ignorance is such that I’m not sure how much we see is imagined or based on what is generally known. It’s certainly not a docudrama about the last two Papal accessions so a liberal degree of artistic licence is to be expected. The (almost) obligatory footage of the actual Popes at the end of the film seems to suggest what we’ve seen is true but the film would have been better without this epilogue. Has Francis been a better Pope than Benedict? I have no idea.
I saw the film in 4k, which for The Aeronauts added greatly to the experience (the ice on the ropes was palpably freezing), but it added little to my enjoyment of The Two Popes; though there is a scene in the Sistine Chapel. Such a dialogue heavy film will be little diminished by Netflix I suspect though, of course, films should preferably be seen in the cinema.
Apparently writer-director Johannes Nyholm asked journalists not to reveal the plot in their coverage of the film however it is very difficult to write about the film without giving away details so go and see the film (though it’s not due to be released in the UK until February) before you read this as spoilers abound.
This is the second film I’ve seen recently that deals with parental grief at the loss of a child; the other was The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium-Netherlands, 2012). The latter dealt with the trauma in a realist fashion using melodrama to articulate the emotional pain. The milieux of that film, a country band, gave plenty of opportunity for music, which was superbly done. Koko-di Koko-da uses horror as a vehicle to articulate grief; early in the film a character references Freddie from The Nightmare on Elm Street series as a clue to understand the recurring (apparently) dream narratives the protagonists suffer. There’s also an element of Run Lola Run (Lola rennt, Germany 1998) in the repeating narrative; whilst Lola relived her trauma three times, the six experienced here felt excessive until the denouement. Koko-di uses an arthouse narrative technique where the end of the film throws into focus what’s gone before and there’s an epiphany. I won’t spoil what that is.
The ghouls are Grimm fairy tale type characters that are truly unsettling; they appear to be products of Nyholm’s imagination but have a convincing ‘collective consciousness’ quality to them. They are brilliant bogeymen. Of course, these tales are primarily aimed at children but the context here is entirely adult as the nightmare of a child’s death is brilliantly staged at the start. The bulk of the film is three years later when the couple are camping and end up in the woods. The cyclical nature, the vicious circle, of grief is brilliantly articulated by the repetition of their nightmare. In The Broken Circle Breakdown the narrative is a spiral down and expresses anger at the American ban of gene cell therapy, which may have saved the child. Hence, the American music context of the film: Johan Heldenbergh’s Didier loves the country but rails against Bush’s relgious convictions that prevent research.
Koko-di isn’t situated in a particular time and place, though the Nordic woods are particularly spooky with the bleached-out light, and is more effective for it. The pain has a universal quality that intensifies the nightmare and it’s clear that suffering the death of a child is likely to get you waking up screaming.
Writer-director Anthony Chen from Singapore has been living in London for ten years and he was present to introduce his film and then to offer a Q&A (which I had to leave after around 20 minutes to get to my next screening). Chen’s first film Ilo Ilo (Singapore 2013) won the Sutherland Prize for a ‘First Feature’ at LFF in 2013. The director explained that he had been involved in two other productions (as a writer and producer for his jointly-owned company Giraffe Pictures) since 2013, but also he needed a long time to make his own films because he is so concerned with the details of location, casting and production design.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this fascinating film is that the two principal characters are played by two of the leads from the earlier film, even though initially the director had been determined not to cast them. This isn’t such a minor point as will become apparent after a discussion about the plot outline. Yeo Yann Yann, the mother in the first film, now plays another woman in an unhappy marriage, but now she is a teacher in an English-medium high school (where students take a form of the traditional British O levels, still available internationally). This character, ‘Mrs Ling’, is under pressure in three ways. As a wife she has been undergoing intensive IVF procedures but has ‘failed’ after several years to become pregnant. She is also a migrant from Malaysia, married to a Singaporean man, and finally she is a teacher of Mandarin – a subject that is sidelined in a high school which is resolutely focused on English and Maths. Add to this that she has become the main carer of her father-in-law who is severely disabled and requires intensive personal care. A carer is with him during the school-day but it is Ling who must cope at all other times. Ling is determined to secure her place as a Mandarin teacher by improving her students’ grades and she organises a post-school remedial class. It quickly becomes apparent that only one boy, Wei-lun (Koh Jia Ler, the 10 year-old from Ilo Ilo, now a strapping 16 year-old), is prepared to take it seriously. When the other boys drift away, Wei-lun stays, citing his parents’ wish that he learns Mandarin to be able to ‘do business’ in China when he grows up.
As the relationship between Wei-lun and his teacher develops in this ‘after-school’ time, it becomes apparent that they are two lonely people who need each other and that makes them feel validated. (Wei-lun’s parents are away much of the time.) Later Ling will introduce Wei-lun to her father-in-law and the pair will bond over a love of martial arts. I won’t spoil the plot but you will guess where all of this is heading. What I do want to do is to discuss the film as a melodrama. Compared to relatively restrained Ilo Ilo, which I haven’t seen for a few years, this new film feels like a full-blown melodrama. I love melodramas and this was, for me, a successful film, but from the few reviews I’ve seen so far (mostly North American), it will suffer in the West because of melodrama’s poor reputation with contemporary audiences. But not here for me.
The starting point of the film is the winter monsoon season, when rain is torrential. In melodrama, rain is often associated with sexual desire/sexual release. It rains a lot in Singapore and when it rains, it’s heavy rain. Anthony Chen uses rain very effectively but he has other melo possibilities as well and this is where his meticulous attention to detail pays off. I’ll just mention a few instances. One of the key ‘significant objects’ of the narrative is the durian. The durian is a very large and heavy fruit which Ling breaks in two and then she scoops out handfuls of fleshy pulp which she shares with Wei-lun. Durian is native to Borneo and Sumatra and is imported into Singapore from Malaysia. In this sense it is like Ling herself. But the fruit is also divisive. While many love the fruit, many others think it has the most disgusting smell of any fruit. In Singapore there are shops and stalls devoted to the fruit but it is also banned from the transit system and many hotels because the smell is said to linger. The symbolic value of the image of eating durian should be clear (see the image of Ling and Wei-lun eating at the head of this blog post and in the clip below).
A second sequence involves Wei-lun taking part in a wushu contest – a display of a distinct form of martial arts movements. Anthony Chen told us that Koh Jia Ler had been interested in this activity as a young boy but now he trained intensively for several weeks to get to the standard necessary to win a gold medal in a national schools competition. Ling and her father-in-law support his performance. Finally, to emphasise the importance of location, Chen has two key scenes in which we see Ling and her banker husband Andrew each in their ‘natural habitats’. Andrew (Christopher Lee who is ironically Malaysian) is shown in Singapore’s financial district where the tall buildings are linked by green walkways. Ling is shown at one point in her home environment in rural Malaysia – a quieter, calmer and more organic environment. Chen told us the house in Malaysia took him a long time to find. (Yeo Yan Yan was also born in Malaysia.)
Yeo Yan Yan wore a wig for the part of Mrs Ling and Chen dresses her in what seemed to me to be fairly dowdy outfits with rather shapeless skirts and clumpy shoes for her teacher role. She comes across as an attractive woman who has lost interest in her appearance, which perhaps helps the idea that the confused Wei-lun sees her as both a teenage boy’s idea of an ‘older woman’ and a maternal figure. It’s an interesting and potentially disturbing basis for a student-teacher relationship. My impression is that as the narrative progresses her costumes become slightly less dowdy. As a melodrama with a woman at its centre, the other notable feature is that Ling doesn’t seem to have a close female friend but then the more I think about the film as a melodrama, the more interesting it gets. I need to see it again. At the moment, I don’t think that the film has a UK distribution deal in place. It is scheduled for release in Singapore in November and I think it may do well in Asia generally. The two leads are very good and the UK DoP Sam Care does a great job with director Chen’s careful selection of locations.