Akasha or aKasha (the ’round-up’) is a gentle comedy about young men and women in the midst of the long-running civil war in Sudan. Writer-director Hajooj Kuka won prizes for his documentary feature Beats of the Antonov (2014) and this feature returns him to the same conflict with the same backing from South African production company Big World Cinema (which also backed Rafiki from Kenya). Big World Cinema has been effective in getting films from across Africa into major international festivals and this one appeared at Venice, Toronto and London in 2018. We watched the film as part of Black History Month at the same venue where we saw Beats of the Antonov back in July. Again there were members of the local Sudanese community in Bradford in the audience. This time they were nearly all women which makes me wonder if the men knew something about the film. One of the features of the earlier film was the director’s interest in the culture of the young women in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions of Sudan, fighting against the regime in Khartoum.
The film begins with a pre-credit scene in which we learn that the civil war has a forced ‘time out’ during the rainy season when the churned-up mud tracks make movement difficult. The soldiers in the rebel army are given time off to help their families. The ’round-up’ then begins to bring the soldiers back for the next round of action and the film’s narrative follows two young men who attempt to avoid being called back. We first discover Adnan (Kamal Ramadan) in bed with his girlfriend Lina (Ekram Marcus) but when she sees another woman’s name carved onto the stock of Adnan’s AK-47 she throws him out, believing he has been sleeping around. Adnan finds himself outside the compound without his gun and without a belt to hold up his uniform trousers. But he does come across Absi (Ganja Chakado), a city boy who has so far avoided a call-up. The two bond quickly and hatch a plan to retrieve the gun and to avoid the local commander Kuku Blues (Abdallah Alnur) who is already hauling young men back into uniform. The plan involves dressing as local women. Meanwhile the young women in the village are preparing for a wedding. Those are the ingredients of the plot with ample opportunities for jokes and sight gags.
Most of the gags are basic and universally accessible but Hajooj Kuka sets out to satirise the military pretensions of the men and to boost both the intelligence and the wit of the young women. A couple of carefully placed objects (a copy of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and a poster of Angela Davis and other Black leaders) suggest that Lina is far more aware than Adnan who will later have to eat humble pie when his ‘warrior’ status is revealed as a sham.
Hajooj Kuka was initially known for his camerawork and with his cinematographer Giovanni P. Autran he creates some attractive landscapes around the village and into the hills. With characters often seen in long shot moving through the landscape (including chase sequences) the film seems to refer back to quite a few of the internationally-distributed West African films of the 1970s and 1980s. At one point Absi borrows a motorbike and I wondered if the resulting images were a nod to Touki Bouki (Senegal 1973). Closer examination shows the bike to be a Chinese model from Senke. A little later, Adnan sets off for the hills and has an ‘experience’ with hallucinogenic flowerheads. Jokes about ‘stoners’ and dope smoking are told by Kuku Blues, possibly in order to demonstrate his ‘hipness’ – but readings like this are dependent on subtitling. I wondered if this too was a nod towards the ‘Return to Source’ African films of the 1980s. Mostly though the film is a gentle comedy that makes some interesting social comments on gender identity and modern culture for young black Sudanese men and women. The Civil War is currently on hold after the dictator was deposed in April 2019 and peace talks with the new regime are underway. It would be good to think that films like this in future can focus on the comedy (and the music) without worrying about the recall to arms.
Although I’ve dated the film 1969, it wasn’t shown complete until the Berlin Film Festival of 1990, where it won the Golden Bear. The film fell foul of the Soviet-Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in May 1968 and Dubček’s ‘socialism with a human face’ was taken over by totalitarian rule. It’s not surprising that bureaucrats disliked director Jirí Menzel’s satire on Czechoslovakian society. Menzel adapted the film from Bohumil Hrabal short stories; the writer had also provided the material for the director’s debut, the celebrated Closely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky, 1966). I think Larks on a String is better than that Oscar winner.
Mostly set in a junk yard, a metaphor for Czech society, male bourgeois ‘exiles’ and women prisoner’s, overseen by a guard (above), sort through the rubbish. L.K. Weston summarises the bourgeois:
Thrown together by circumstance in the name of re-education, the group includes a philosophy professor and former librarian (a wonderful Vlastimil Brodský, who also starred in Closely Observed Trains), who refuses to burn books; a prosecution lawyer (Leos Sucharípa) who believes in everyone’s right to a defence; a saxophonist (Eugen Jegorov) whose only crime was possession of an instrument deemed too bourgeois, and a young cook Pavel (Václav Neckár another Trains cast member) who is a Seventh-day Adventist and refuses to work on a Saturday. The only willing volunteer in the group is dairyman (Vladimír Ptácek), who closed his premises and came to ‘work for Socialism.
The women have been imprisoned for attempting to leave the country. Although the film is clearly allegorical, there’s no heavy-handedness to the satire. Most of the characters are primarily interested in members of the opposite sex, which requires circumventing the guard to even say ‘hello’. The guard has his own problems, we see him marrying a gypsy girl but is clueless about how to get her into bed to consummate their union. It’s light comedy, but also heartwarming to see characters carrying on in adverse circumstances.
Jaromír Ŝotr’s cinematography is beautiful: I can best describe it as having a polaroid quality (the instant photography of the early 1970s) giving the film a retro look. Menzel’s direction is impressively fluid as the location cannot have been easy to shoot on.
Despite its humour, the film’s devastating ending makes clear that regardless of the amount of human spirit people have to deal with their lot, the oppressors are self-serving scumbags who need consigning to history. In the UK at the moment, we are suffering from our own self-serving scumbags as Johnson’s regime prorogues Parliament to push its, and its right-wing backers’, agenda. Time to get on the streets.
This screening was frustrating and disappointing, partly because the promotion material was misleading. I’d persuaded friends to watch it on the basis that it was a comedy. I sought out the film with some difficulty (it played a handful of venues locally for a couple of showings). My interest was in its lead player Regina Hall whose earlier roles in Girls Trip (US 2017) and The Hate U Give (US 2018) had impressed me. But Support the Girls isn’t a straight comedy. Some reviewers call it a comedy-drama. I think that for me it may be a form of satire. I did know that it was an ‘American independent film’ rather than a mainstream African-American film like the two titles listed above and I did recognise the name of writer-director Andrew Bujalski, but I hadn’t seen any of his previous films. I was perhaps too reliant on the bold claim in the promo trailer that this was a ‘big-hearted comedy’.
On reflection I can see that the film has merits and it’s actually quite a serious observation of a particular slice of American popular culture and importantly, the people who work to make it possible, the ‘girls’ of the title. Regina Hall’s character, Lisa, is the manager of a sports bar, a privately-owned version of bars like the national Hooters chain with the wince-inducing title of ‘Double Whammies’. The bizarre concept for the film is a bar featuring big-breasted and scantily-clad serving women that is also meant to be ‘family friendly’! It’s situated in a strip mall on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. The ‘plot’ is barely visible but it begins with Lisa opening up the bar in the morning when she is already upset by something. But she is a trouper and just gets on with things. Throughout the next 24 hours she will deal with a whole range of problems, most work-related but others involving her life outside work. She deals with every challenge in the best way she can. Despite everything, Lisa loves her job and she loves her girls, most of whom return the affection but don’t necessarily understand her position. As one reviewer put it, Lisa is the archetypal ‘den mother’ and who wouldn’t want to work for a manager who backs her staff if customers misbehave and who, if she has to fire someone, will do it as humanely as possible, always trying to be ‘fair’? She inspires loyalty and regular customers like her too. Regina Hall carries off the role to perfection. But are today’s events just too much, even for Lisa?
The concept behind the bar is difficult to understand from a UK perspective. (There is one Hooters bar, in Nottingham, I believe. It’s been open since 2010 but the chain hasn’t expanded.) UK sports bars don’t have provocatively dressed ‘waitresses’ as far as I’m aware and the focus is on the sport. I tend to avoid such bars myself but I’m sure they have female as well as male customers. The concept is odd, even in the US. Andrew Bujalski himself explains how he sees it:
You don’t see many stories set in this slice of Americana, and with good reason. It does not lend itself to grand dramatic arcs, or, really, to gut-busting comedy. But it certainly is full of contradictions, and incredibly fertile with opportunities for subtle spiritual conflicts. I couldn’t pretend to untangle these from an insider’s perspective, so I dreamed up a kind of outsider character, Lisa the general manager, to walk in there with a spirit of openness and love – and plenty of her own pathologies – to see what she might discover in there. While it is a very specific story in many ways, I hope that anyone who’s ever worked for a living will relate. Most of us have to buy/sell one crazy ‘concept’ or another to pay our bills, and some days, you’re not sure if your humor and dignity will survive to the end of the shift . . . (Press Notes Director’s Statement)
This statement suggests that Bujalski knew what he was up to and for many critics in the US he succeeded. Many see the film as celebrating the sisterhood of female workers at a time of #MeToo. The film also scored highly with the Spirituality & Practice website. As well as the simple daily grind of Lisa’s job and the endless stream of decisions in the face of new problems she has to contend with, the narrative offers two distinct critiques. One is the way in which the owner carefully subverts ideas of diversity in employment practices when he requires Lisa to ensure that there are never too many Black or Latino girls working together on the same shift. The other is a sequence in which we eavesdrop on a hiring scenario for another, similar, establishment in the same strip. The ‘Man Cave’ is a national chain (fictitious, I assume) and the woman spouting corporate guff has risen through the ranks. She speaks as if she actually believes what she says. This might have been part of a ‘mockumentary’.
I think that if the film had been promoted as a drama about working in this kind of place, I would have engaged with it differently. But there are still problems with the production, whatever the perspective. One is the poor quality of the sound recordings/presentation. I often do have difficulty following American dialogue, not so much the language or the accent, but when the sound is muddy or actors mumble or talk over each other it becomes difficult to follow the details of the plot. We all agreed this wasn’t a ‘Hollywood’ film, but all the same we did expect some kind of coherent plotline. It’s not often that a film ends when you are still trying to work out what is going on. In retrospect it all makes sense but this isn’t the kind of film which should require that kind of retrospection. As well as Regina Hall, I should also pick out Haley Lu Richardson as Maci and rapper Shayna McHayle as Danyelle, the two main employees supporting Lisa. US TV watchers will also no doubt pick out Lea DeLaria of Orange Is the Only Black as one of the regular customers, Bobo. There isn’t too much to say about the look of the film, though I did enjoy the brief montage of food preparation in the kitchen. In the end, I think this screening simply proves that I’ve lost touch with some aspects of American popular culture and filmmaking.
Time Share won a Special Jury Prize (for scriptwriting, World Drama) at last year’s Sundance festival and appears to have been seen little in cinemas outside Mexico (where it won a couple of Ariels). Whether we should be grateful to Netflix for picking up the film for distribution, or berate them for preventing it being shown in cinemas, I don’t know. I do know that director Sebastián Hofmann, who edited the film and co-scripted with Julio Chavezmontes, clearly has a cinematic eye that would greatly benefit from the big screen. Matias Penachino’s cinematography brings out the candy colours of the holiday resort setting that makes it look like a Ballardian hell.
Pedro (Luis Gerardo Méndez) and Eva (Cassandra Ciangherotti) arrive late at their time share villa to find it’s been double-booked with another family. Hofmann and Chavezmontes’ script beautifully captured the apologies of corporate speak that mean nothing and the families are forced to co-habit. A parallel plot focuses on Andres (Miguel Rodarte) and his wife Gloria (Montserrat Marañon) who are taking opposite trajectories as workers for Everfields, the American owners of the resort. The corporate environment is causing Andres to lose his grip on reality whilst Gloria relishes the promotion that gives her the opportunity to sell time shares to the holiday makers.
I don’t know the location of the film’s setting, a building designed to look like a Mayan temple, but I’m guessing it is an actual resort and wonder how the filmmakers managed to finesse making such an excoriating satire at the expense of the industry. ‘Excoriating’ only to an extent: the final half hour doesn’t quite have the punch of what precedes it. I’d have preferred that they had gone full blown ‘madness’ rather than keep the narrative world in touch with reality. Grotesquerie is reserved for the credit sequence at the end.
As noted above, Hofmann creates some stunning shots (the golf buggies’ dreamy movement, for example) and uses shallow depth of field, occasionally, to give a surreal look to the setting. A pink flamingo makes its appearance a couple of times suggesting that the pharmaceuticals given are designed to do more than pacify and relieve pain.
This was Hofmann’s second feature as a director and I hope I get to see his next one in a cinema.