Monday, 29 November 2010

African cinema

What do we mean when we talk about African cinema? Well, once upon a time it was perhaps something like this:


What's interesting about the trailer, apart from the weird tone of voice of the narrator, is that the selling point is Africa, with its animal and its people. The actors are mentioned more in passing, and even though the director is as famous as John Ford his name is not mentioned. But the setting is emphasised again and again, in spoken words, written words and in the images.

Today, African cinema thankfully means something different. For some, especially younger audience, it might still mean a Western film set in Africa, such as Blood Diamond (2006), but for most it would mean films made in Africa, by African filmmakers. But the questions then become, what is Africa, who speaks for it, and what are they saying? And why are films from Africa called "African films", instead of Senegalese, Malian or from whichever country they might come. We do after all, call Amelie (Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain 2001) a French film, and Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv 2009) is seen as part of the Romanian "New Wave", and not an European "New Wave". Well, perhaps it is, in non-Western countries. I don't know.

A case could perhaps be made that since African films are usually co-productions, it becomes only relevant to call them African, just as there is a term for European co-productions (Euro-puddings). To take one example, Ousmane Sembene's last film, the very impressive Moolaadé (2006), had at least five countries involved in the production.

Some say that films made by filmmakers born in Africa but making films in other countries, about Africans in that country, should be seen as African films. That too could be problematic though. If somebody from Senegal makes a film in Belgium about Senegalese people, what has that got to do with people in Egypt or Zimbabwe? And if you're a second, or third, generation immigrant filmmaker making films in France, are they still African films then? Are people with African roots "condemned" to always make "African" films?

It is of course always the case when you want to define something, at least outside hard science, that it is damn hard to do so. At best, it creates as many problems as it solves, and maybe it is unfair, or unnecessary, to focus to much attention on these difficulties. In any event when people talk about African cinema, it's relevant to ask the question, "Ah yes, but what do you mean by that?". In this blog post, when I use the expression "African cinema" I mean films made in Africa by people who see themselves as Africans, but only because it is convenient, not because I think that there is some kind of special African kind of filmmaking, that is true for all films made in Africa

African films do not get much distribution, neither in their own countries or around the world. Partly to compensate for this, there is now a number of African film festivals spread around the world. They usually have two laudable aims, to help spread African films, and to counter the image in massmedia of Africa as being all about crime, poverty, war and social strife. However, it becomes ironic since most films that they show are, well, about crime, poverty, war and social strife. You will not be as likely to see comedies about young, rich and successful people having cocktails in Lagos or Khartoum as you are to see films about rural people being oppressed. As much as I like Moolaadé, it could be argued that it caters to Western ideas about Africa, with its depiction of cruel ancient customs, harsh patriarchal societies and feisty, colourful women who sing and dance.

Most African films made outside Nigeria are financed in part or completely by France and/or the EU. Is it possible that it is easier to get funding for films which, as I suggested, caters to Western ideas, and that if these films were wholly independent, and locally funded, they might be very different, and deal with different concerns? I'm certainly not questioning the late Sembene's earnestness in wanting to address, in Moolaadé, the horrendous practices of female circumcision or genital mutilation. But if the film festivals were really interested in portraying a different aspect of Africa, then that is not the kind of film that will do the job, no matter how good it is.

I guess the main problem here is that, with these films and these film festivals, it is still mainly the outside world which gets to decided what is good, proper and worthy as African films. The people of Ghana, Uganda and Kenya and so on watch Hollywood films, cheap Nigerian films (from Nollywood), South American telenovelas and Bollywood films, the kind of films the (often elitist) audience of the African film festivals in many cases would avoid at all costs, instead going to watch films that make them feel good about themselves, such as films about those that are poor and suffering.

The point is not to discourage people to go to film festivals and watch what they've got to offer on African cinema, or to belittle the many great artists making films in Africa, it's just to point out some problems and possibly to some instances of hypocrisy. You should flock to the African film festivals, but not because the films are African, but because they are good.

To round things up, here's a trailer to a Nollywood film, Passions:

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Tobacco Road

I saw a documentary once about amateur Iranian filmmakers, and at one point somebody said that what he wanted was to make films like John Ford. At a film festival in São Paulo I once met a young filmmaker from Argentina whose great idol was John Ford. Once in Canterbury I met an undergraduate who was studying film history and she complained about the fact that today there was no longer any art in filmmaking, just business, complaining that there was no one like Ford any more. "I'm sorry, who?" I said, finding it hard to believe that a young girl in Britain would have John Ford as a role model as well. But she actually meant that Ford.

There's no denying the tremendous global influence and importance of Ford, and he is one of those filmmakers of which I feel I need to see every single thing they've made, because even the lesser films have moments of greatness in them, and by not seeing them all, I will miss out on something. As far as Ford's sound films, I've covered most of them, but I still have many of the silent ones left to watch.

Last week I saw Tobacco Road (1941) for the first time, which is definitely one of his lesser known sound films, and also one of his most idiosyncratic. It's not particularly good, mostly because some of the characters were so obnoxious I wanted them to be killed off as soon as they appeared. And it doesn't have an interesting plot either, although I suppose that was not the intention. This was just a mood piece, about a few days in the life of a desperately poor family in the countryside.

The thing though is that Ford had such a forceful personality, such a immediately recognisable style and tone of voice, and was basically just such a damn good filmmaker, that even a small, cheap, eccentric film such as Tobacco Road has some scenes that are extraordinary.

In one scene the husband (played by Charles Grapewin) is being told by the man from the bank that he will be evicted from his house if he doesn't pay rent, and since he hasn't any money he can't pay. The old man just stands there beside the car in which the bank man sits, and is pleading with him, while his wife (Elizabeth Patterson) is seen in the background, her hand clasped.

But it is a later scene, the last day before they are being evicted, that is the true highlight of the film. Since they have to leave, the woman is picking up some things in their ramshackle cabin, quietly, done with the camera at floor level, looking up at her, taking in the whole of the cabin, and the only sound is the song "Shall we gather by the river" playing softly in the background. Then her husband enters, looking at her. "I guess there isn't much to take with us." she says, while the husband is unable to speak. Then he just says "I'm sorry Ada." It's such a delicate, understated scene, it can bring tears to anybody's eyes. The combination of the music, the composition and the humbleness of it is both what makes it so beautiful and what makes it so essentially Fordian.

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That scene with her in the cabin has the camera at floor level, looking up, with the inner ceiling clearly visible, which makes it the kind of shot Citizen Kane is celebrated for. Tobacco Road was released before Citizen Kane, so it's perhaps yet another example of the profound influence Ford had on Orson Welles. And it wasn't the first time Ford had used such a shot in his films. It must also be remembered that the cinematographer of Citizen Kane, Gregg Toland, had worked with Ford on two films the previous year, The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath. In 1941 though, Ford worked with Arthur Miller, on this one and How Green Was My Valley.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The People vs George Lucas

The other day I saw The People vs. George Lucas (2010), a both exceptionally conventional and unusual documentary. It's a film about George Lucas, Star Wars and the Star Wars franchise, but told through the perspective of the audience, or rather, the obsessed fans of the films. The conventional part is that it consists mainly of talking heads, with the filmmakers cutting from one head to another, the unusual part is that it is a collaborative effort, with the filmmakers first setting up a website and inviting people to share their views, encouraging them to send films, either of themselves talking about Lucas and Star Wars or their own film versions of Star Wars.

The film raises a couple of questions, and one of them is who has the rights to an art work, in this case a series of films. Another question is how George Lucas should be regarded today, as a genius or a corporate sell-out.

The questions are not easy to answer. On the one hand, Star Wars is Lucas's idea, his baby, and he has any right to do with the films what he sees fit. But on the other hand, he wouldn't be anything today if his films didn't have this massive, global fan base, and he should be both grateful to, and respectful of, them. The issue the fans have with him is partly that the later three films are not as good as the first three films. But this is a matter of personal opinions, and it's not really fair to be angry with someone because you don't think his films are good enough. (The anger felt by many is often times baffling, and has very little to do with Lucas or the films, but a lot to do with the fan mentality.)

The other charge against Lucas is that he is messing with the old films, re-editing them, putting in new stuff and removing other things, and digitally polishing them up. The argument from Lucas's perspective is that he had to compromise when making the old films, due to technical difficulties, economic concerns and lack of time, and that now when he has the money and the ability to make them exactly as he wanted them to be, why shouldn't he? The counter-argument from the fans is that it's a shame to tamper with them, because it won't be the same, it will not feel genuine any more. They're also upset with the fact that Lucas is suppressing the original versions, so that they are not available anywhere any more. It is even said that the original negatives has been destroyed. This is particularly what they find upsetting, and comparisons were made with for example Blade Runner (1982/1992) which has also been tampered with, and re-edited to be more like the director, Ridley Scott, originally wanted it to be. But the old versions are still available, even included in the DVD-releases of the new versions.

One thing to consider, and which was not mentioned in The People vs George Lucas at all, is that Lucas might have come up with the idea, and created the worlds which Star Wars consists of, but in the first series he had collaborators, including the script writers Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, and the directors Irvin Kershner (who is great) and Richard Marquand(who is less great), and neither of them were involved when Lucas made the later three films. Maybe that is one reason why they fall far short of the quality of the earlier ones. And maybe, as Lucas did grown old and became comfortable and more conservative, he forgot the warmth and wit that the earlier films had and the new ones desperately lacks.

Maybe a fact that needs to be acknowledged is that Lucas was perhaps never much of a director, but more of a visionary. But that's OK.

What was also discussed in the film were the four films about Indiana Jones, as part of the Lucas franchise. They are of course directed by Steven Spielberg, but Lucas came up with the concept and was executive producer, and he was involved in the whole process. This though, interestingly enough, was not mentioned in the film either. Neither was it mentioned that the first Indiana Jones-film, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), was also written by Lawrence Kasdan and that Philip Kaufman came up with the idea and the characters together with Lucas. But the point in The People vs. George Lucas, though, was that the last part, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), was a horrible film. That, as they say in South Park, Lucas and Spielberg raped Indiana Jones. I don't really understand this. There isn't much difference between the old and the new. They've always been rather silly, and occasionally borderline racist, but have had tremendous visual flair and inventiveness, and the last one is just as bad and as good as the previous ones in my humble opinion. When you begin, as some did in the film, to criticise the new one for being unrealistic, then it becomes laughable, because what were the previous ones if not mythical supernatural adventures, far removed from anything remotely realistic. Incidentally, in the Lucas oeuvre they fit in rather nicely, but they don't compare favourably to Spielberg's best films, as far as I'm concerned.

Here's a link to the originating website: http://www.peoplevsgeorge.com/


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Leigh Brackett, it should be remembered, lend her wit to many of Howard Hawks's best films, and both Lawrence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman are great writer/directors in their own right as well.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

In the bubble, and some new films reviewed

There has been much work lately and no time to write. But now things are more relaxed and there's more time to communicate.

I live in St Andrews, which is a very small place, with a very small cinema, which shows a very small selection of what the world has to offer in terms of films. So I have seen depressingly few new films this year. Since summer I've only seen The Social Network, The Switch, The Other Guys, Certified Copy (Copie conforme), Inception and Alamar. It's a bit pathetic really, six film during two and a half months. Of course I've seen many older films, on DVD, like some Cuban films, and films by Douglas Sirk and Raoul Walsh, and the odd Hasse Ekman, so I'm not starved for cinema, it's just that by living here I miss out on what's new, the cinema of the here and now. Reading about new films is of course not the same as actually watching them. But I suppose I'll just have to watch them on DVD at a later date.

Since I've only seen six films I thought I say something about all of them. I actually liked them all, although The Switch was often-times slow and dimwitted. I wacthed it because I like Jason Bateman, and he didn't disappoint, other than for his poor choice of script. It (or at least Jennifer Aniston's comments about single motherhood) also upset Bill O'Reilly, and that has to be a good thing.

The Other Guys lacks on the visual side, but it more than makes up for it when it comes to the writing. It had some of the most outrageously funny and bizarre dialogue I've heard in a long time, and the story was on some levels pure genius, in its set-ups and twists. It's written and directed by Adam McKay, who previously has made the even better Anchorman - the Legend of Run Burgundy (2004), the less great but still good Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) and a lot of stuff for TV. He obviously has a golden pen, and a very good actor partner in Will Ferrell.

Alamar is perhaps the least known among these six new films, and it is also to most challenging, in that it has very little to offer in terms of plot, story or acting. It is more a meditation on nature and colour, in a sense it's like a film by Terrence Malick with only the lyrical parts kept. Alamar takes place in Mexico, on the coral reef Banco Chinchorro, where a man is taking his son out to fish before they will part, the son leaving for Europe with his mother. The film, written, directed, photographed and edited by Pedro González-Rubio, is deceptively simple, and makes for a very moving hymn to parenthood and nature, in all its unspoiled glory. The most beautiful part of the film involves a bird, a bird which becomes for a while a member of the family, and then suddenly disappears, leaving the boy devastated. It can stand as a symbol of how fleeting life and happiness, and possible nature in its pristine form, might be.

Inception is without doubt one of the most talked about movies of the year, not necessarily because it is better than other films but because it plays around with the viewer, self-consciously leaving us to ponder its games, levels and meanings. I don't want to dwell on it but I found the first hour somewhat boring, since there's far too much superfluous talk and too little gravitas. As the film progresses though it gains a lot, even though it moves into zero gravity. About its meanings and levels, I don't think it matters whether or not it ends with a dream, what matters there is that he is happy for once. I also think it is a mistake to think about it in a linear way, with five separate levels. Like the maze that Ariadne (clever name isn't it...) creates to impress Cobb in the beginning, the film's structure is circular I would say, and it's quite possible that all various levels are dreams, that there is no "reality" whatsoever at play here.

Certified Copy is also a film that plays a lot of games, and where there is talk all the time. It is also a film with many levels, and a film where it is not altogether clear what is real and what is not, and whether or not it actually matters. It is also a film of staggering visual beauty, filled with elegant use of off-screen space. It also, unfortunately, has William Shimell as the male lead. I don't exactly know what he did and why, but it felt like he thought he was in a zombie film, and acted accordingly although Juliette Binoche was radiant as usual. But sometimes I wondered if the film, and Abbas Kiarostami, weren't a bit too clever for their own good.

The Social Network is often referred to as "David Fincher's The Social Network", but with a writer of such esteem and recognisable style as Aaron Sorkin, I think we should ease up on the director-as-default-auteur and if we need to put names to it, say "Fincher/Sorkin's The Social Network". And as such names would suggest, it is a very great film, possibly the best American film I've seen this year. Sorkin's dialogue and structure and Fincher's use of composition, framing and focus are dazzling. It is both a display of supreme craftsmanship and a good snapshot of the world today, as well as a portrait of Harvard. And all the actors are flawless. As soon as it was over I wanted to watch it again. And again. Much like Mark Zuckerberg updating his facebook profile again and again in the last, moving, shot. Someone likened it to All About Eve (1950), and it is possible to see Sorkin as a modern day Joseph L. Mankiewicz. But I think Fincher has more style and passion as a director than Mankiewicz had, great as he was.