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Director/Screenwriter: Alain Gomis
2012 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I recently had the pleasure of meeting African-American storyteller Michael D. McCarty when he came to the Chicago area to bring his mostly African tales to eager audiences at the Fox Valley Folk Music and Storytelling Festival. His performance was a reminder of how rich in wonder and home truths the world’s stories are and why films that tap these ancient fables are so compelling.
I received a reminder of this fact yesterday as I watched the Senegalese film Tey. Director/screenwriter Alain Gomis introduced the film by asking us not to worry about the confusing premise too much and just focus on the present. Good advice, because Tey tells the story of one day—the last day—in the life of a young man, a fact known, celebrated, and mourned throughout his community.
The opening moments of Tey put us directly into the doomed man’s shoes. Satché’s (Saul Williams) eyes flutter open and we see what he sees—his bare stomach and the top of his pants. His hands pat his stomach, and then we hear some crying and wailing. Satché emerges from the bedroom to the hugs and tears of his family and friends as they mourn his impending loss. They go into the courtyard of the compound and sit in a circle. Satché’s father praises God that his son was chosen, and the assembled offer testimonials both kind and cruel about Satché. His mother (Mariko Arame) has the final word, a heartbroken mother telling how much she will miss him. Then it is time for Satché’s best friend Sélé (Djolof Mbengue) to take him out and ask him, “What do you want to do?” The rest of the film chronicles how Satché chooses to spend his final day of life.
Satché’s fate echoes through many stories I’ve heard over the years, particularly from Joseph Campbell, including the grace killing of the noble hostage well told in the Brazilian film How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971). Christians might see the story of Christ in this tale of a man chosen by God to die, but it’s hard to know if Satché’s death will be a transformative sacrifice for his community despite the honors bestowed upon him and joy surrounding him. There is something of the heroic soldier here, a man who has seen “the fear,” as the people he encounters call it. Yet, we also see a child soldier in camoflage fatigues carrying a weapon as Satché scans the streets of Dakar, somewhat undercutting the notion of the bravery society assigns to state-sanctioned violence.
What is most important, and what director Gomis emphasized in the post-screening Q&A, is the familiar admonishment to live each day as though it were your last. For Gomis, this is not a call to achieve as much as you can in whatever time you have, as it is in many Western societies. Indeed, Satché is chosen in the prime of life, before he has been able to put his American schooling into practice to help rebuild Senegal; he will never have the chance to rush to achievement as the fictitious Mozart did in Amadeus (1984).
Instead, Gomis focuses on connection, on living completely in the moment. This realization creeps up on Satché, coming to fruition when he finally grieves for himself after Uncle Thiemo (Jean Mendy), the man he has asked to wash him for burial, demonstrates on Satché in both a chilling and oddly reverential moment what he will do to prepare Satché for paradise. After this, Satché’s life force weakens, and he must be helped as Sélé walks him to his home and gives him the left-handed handshake that signals they will not see each other again for a very long time. Gingerly, Satché pushes open the metal doors portentously marked with Xs and goes into the courtyard of his home to see his wife Rama (Anisia Uzeyman) and two young children for the last time and lay down that evening to die.
With handheld and stationary cameras, Gomis’ cinematographer Christelle Fournier shoots extreme close-ups and scanning shots as Satché takes in his surroundings and the people in his life. We see leaves and the shadows the leaves make on the ground. We watch Satché drink the milk out of a coconut from a young man who is heavily in debt to a missionary school, and we wonder who is more unfortunate—the educated young man who will be in servitude to a debt for many years to come or the one who will not wake up the next morning. Uncle Thiemo tells Satché that he will actually live longer than someone who does not know when he will die because Satché has the awareness to really take in the most important aspects of his life in his final day. Indeed, Gomis recreates the feeling of all times converging in a single moment of being completely alive when Satché sits in his compound with Rama and sees his children, now teenagers, say good-bye and walk out the gate.
During the Q&A, Gomis commented on the positive changes Senegal has been undergoing slowly as more of the young people who went abroad to get educated and find opportunities are returning to the country, a detail he added to Satché’s story. We were shocked to learn that there are no movie theatres left in Senegal, and therefore, this film will not be seen in its own country outside of a cultural center or two that might set up a screening. He said he cast American actor Saul Williams as Satché because he admired Williams’ acting abilities, because he looks so Senegalese, and because his lack of knowledge of the languages spoken by the other cast members would give him an aura of standing a bit outside of the everyday world.
Gomis’ instincts were dead-on in every aspect. Tey is a hauntingly beautiful film that confronts our peculiarly human tragedy of knowing we will die, and gives us a few answers about coping with that frightening inevitability.
Tey screens Tuesday, October 16, at 2:30 p.m. Alain Gomis is scheduled to attend the screening. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
Mr. Sophistication: A familiar story of a comedian trying to make a comeback is made compelling by great performances, an intelligent script, and deft direction and camerawork. (USA)
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni: The life of Egyptian movie star Soad Hosni, a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East, is interpreted in a biopic using nothing but footage from her 82 films. (Lebanon)
Shun Li and the Poet: A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)
The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
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Directors/Screenwriters: Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew
2009 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This Sunday, October 11, the annual running of the Chicago Marathon will take place. Part of the route surrounds the theatre where the CIFF films are being shown, which will make it very difficult for moviegoers to navigate their way to any screenings before 5 p.m. (just another reason we shouldn’t have gotten the 2016 Olympics—bad handling of multiple events and traffic). However, if any of this weekend’s marathoners want some inspiration, CIFF has, like last year, booked a marathon-related film whose first screening will be the day before the big race. The Athlete is a biopic that tells in a rather unique way the story of Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian who burst onto the world stage by winning the 1960 Olympic marathon race in Rome in his bare feet. Rasselas Lakew, in addition to cowriting and codirecting this film, also plays the lead, offering as much grace and internal fortitude as the real Bikila must have had to face the challenges his short life held for him.
The film opens with a striking close-up of Lakew as Bikila, his chin buried in a white fleece collar. He begins a narrative of his life as a can of film is opened and the film mounted and threaded through a projector. The Athlete moves backward and forward through time, as Bikila is shown going about his business or speaking to friends and people he meets—a strategy of both showing important incidents in Bikila’s life and having Bikila or others relate them in a slightly awkward expository fashion that the actors, nonetheless, still seem to pull off fairly well.
Bikila is a national hero. When he is stopped on the road leading from his home village of Jato to his current home in Addis Ababa for an identity check, he complies willingly and gives two bottles of honey to the soldiers at the checkpoint. One upbraids the other for stopping a great man like Bikila and then tells her that he has gotten honey from his home village to help heal his wounds. Bikila, after his historic wins in Rome—sweet victory in the land whose fascist regime had invaded his country in 1936 and sent him fleeing into the mountains—and in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games only 5 weeks after having his appendix removed, was forced to drop out of the Mexico City race at the 18-mile mark due to injuries. He feels the pang of an unfinished race and hopes to compete in the 1972 Munich Games.
Bikila visits the training camp for Ethiopian athletes. The coach is skeptical about his return to form, but his old friend Onni (Dag Malmberg), a transplant to Ethiopia from Sweden, gives Bikila hope and tells him that he needs more rest between races now that he has gotten older and more injury-prone. Bikila had earlier encountered a horse that had been blinded and abandoned by an owner who no longer wanted it. He went out to shoot it before it was killed by hyenas, but changed his mind. “I met one who was at the end of the road. He could not see but his legs still had the will to carry him forward.” This is Bikila in a nutshell.
The film is filled with quiet, poetic moments like this, often using parallel images to communicate the circle of life. For example, Bikila is in a car accident that sends his VW Beetle onto its side. Bikila lays on his back, half in half out of the car, looking at the sky until some men find him in the morning. The accident costs him the use of his legs, but his competitive drive takes him into archery and then into Norway’s Ridderrennet cross-country sit-ski race—source of the opening close-up—in which he is pulled on a sled by dogs while he and an able-bodied man pole and steer. The sled goes out of control at one point and flips on its side. Bikila is again on his back looking at the sky. This time, however, Bikila sees the sun shine through a brief break in the clouds and insists on righting the sled himself. This is a subtle way to suggest that Bikila has progressed past the race he never finished and found grace in accepting his condition and the things he can do.
The film ends at the end of the screening of the film we saw being threaded onto the projector at the beginning of the film: sports documentarian Bud Greenspan’s The Ethiopian. Emperor Haile Selassie, for whom Bikila had served as an Imperial guardsman, approaches Bikila to shake his hand as the dignitaries in the audience rise to give him a standing ovation. I was tempted to do the same myself.
The Athlete has created a new approach to biopics that finds a way to weave flashbacks into present time (even when the exposition feels a little stiff), suggest the beginnings of not only the circumstances, but also the character of its subject, and produce visual metaphors that are subtle and powerful. The landscapes of Ethiopia and Norway are breathtaking and woven into the story, the archival footage well chosen, and the use of music (I’m buying the soundtrack if I can) superb. If I were running on October 11, I’d want to watch this on October 10 to learn about the heart of a champion. l
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Director: Salif Traoré
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Faro is a real goddess of a real tribe (the Bamana) in the West African country of Mali. In a landlocked country like Mali, covered in part by the Sahara Desert, water is a resource that can never be taken for granted. The Bamana village in Faro: Goddess of the Waters not only sits on a riverbank, but also depends for much of its food on fish from the river. Faro is the dominant character in this film, the unseen force for which all action takes place.
On its surface, Faro: Goddess of the Waters seems like a conflict between tradition and modernity. The protagonist of the film is Zan (Fily Traoré), a young man who has been away from the village for years getting an education and earning money and position in the larger world. His departure was not entirely voluntary because he is a bastard, and such children are allowed to stay until they can survive on their own and then are cast out because they are bad luck. One day, he drives his SUV into the village and moves into his mother Niele’s (Rokia Traoré) house.
Many of the village elders are scandalized that Zan would return, predicting trouble and complaining about the lack of discipline among the villagers in upholding the traditions of the tribe. Another worry for the village is the behavior of Kouta (Maimouna Hélène Diarra), a widow originally from another village who feels no compulsion to mourn the way the village wants her to.
Meanwhile, back on the river, fishing is bad and there is a strange current that has the villagers scared. Kouta’s daughter Penda (Djénéba Koné), sad at the loss of her father and trying to dodge her former fiancé Boura (Michel Mpambara), goes to the river with her friends to wash clothes. There, it appears that her wash bowl is snatched from her hands by something in the water; then it goes after Penda. She is rescued from drowning, but appears bewitched by the spirit of Faro. The village chief (Sotigui Kouyaté) declares the river off limits until he can consult with the shamaness Hamady (Balla Habib Dembélé) to find out what Faro wants.
Zan, trained as an engineer, has abandoned his belief in Faro the goddess, but not his reverence for the importance of water. He also has been deeply hurt by the branding of bastard and seeks to find some justice from the village. He comments ruefully, “The world evolves but nothing changes here.” Despite himself, he pays attention to the rituals and tests conducted in the village to root out the evil that is blighting the river and Penda.
In fact, the village is really not so different from the outside world. The social relationships between the villagers, the secrets and hurts and passions, all rule the daily life of the village much more than its religious customs. At its heart, Faro is a very human story. But it also offers a window onto an authentic village society whose customs make a great deal of sense within their context and are more progressive in their own way that life in more developed communities. For example, one of the village men burns down a sacred roof. Until the roof is rebuilt, the power of the chief transfers to Hamady. She passes her bowl of wool, signifying feminine power in the domestic realm, to the chief and gets in return his canoe paddle, signifying male authority derived from fishing. I was very moved by this male/female balance in Bamanan society.
Although some scenes didn’t seem to follow logically, as though they were edited badly, the film is very compelling to watch. It’s a bit like a whodunit, and has a strong narrative drive that pulls you along. I really felt I understood these people, this village, both of which are completely alien to my experience and culture.
The creative team and actors in this film are responsible for some of the finest films to have come from Africa in recent years. Faro: Goddess of the Waters is another fine showing from this rich film center. l
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Director: Khalo Matabane
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I was having lunch with my 80-something Greek neighbor, who told me her story of coming to America. She was asked during her citizenship class if she was loyal to the United States or to Greece. Her answer was, “Greece is my mother. America is my mother-in-law. How can I choose?” I was reminded of this snippet of conversation after viewing Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon.
It was indeed a Sunday afternoon when Facets Cinematheque, again host to the Human Rights Watch Traveling Film Festival in Chicago, screened this compelling and unique movie. Conversations, which has a fictional main character whose search for a woman results in documentary interviews with real people, manages to communicate the scope of the refugee experience beyond the numbing frame most of us are used to seeing and probably have learned to tune out—a refugee camp overrun with bloated-bellied children swarmed with flies and worried women with bony hands and faces. In doing so, it is possible for audiences to reconsider just what a refugee is and find a new, more engaged response.
Keniloe (Tony Kgoroge), a black South African poet living in Johannesburg, carries his favorite bench to a city park, reads the novel Links by Somali writer Nuruddin Farah, and tries to overcome his writer’s block to “make sense of the world.” Over several Sundays, Keniloe struggles, rain or shine, to unlock the door of perception. Before Keniloe takes notice, we are made aware of a black Muslim woman dressed in blue satin sitting in the same park, writing letters of inquiry to the Somali government about her missing mother. It is only after several Sundays that Keniloe goes over to her to ask who she is and why she comes to the park each week. The woman, Fatima (Fatima Hersi), relates her harrowing story of watching her young brother and father being shot dead before her eyes during the civil war in Somalia, being shot herself and left for dead, and waking up in a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. She repeats this story three times, tears running down her face, her hand pushing at her nose to clear it. How she ended up in South Africa is anyone’s guess. Keniloe is next seen sitting in a tree composing a poem about Fatima into his tape recorder. He wants the whole story, but Fatima does not return to the park.
He sets out to try to find her, feeling that the coincidence of reading a Somali writer and encountering a Somali woman who has experienced tragedy has great significance for him. However, as tracking Fatima down proves difficult (using the ineffectual approach of asking random people in the streets where Somalis live if they know her doesn’t help), the film shifts to a general exploration of the refugee experience. Keniloe decides he wants to understand the experience of seeing people killed or killing people. His wanderings through Johannesburg turn up some surprising stories.
We meet a Ugandan who fled his country 10 years before. He says he’d like to go back, but he has no family left—they’ve all been killed. We meet another Ugandan, a young woman who left when she was a child and has been living in South Africa for 20 years. Keniloe asks her if she considers herself South African. She hesitates to answer. Eventually she says that she does, but that she also feels Ugandan, moreso every year. It’s interesting to see this identity crisis play out much like an adopted child who wants to find his or her birth parents.
In a decayed underground garage, Keniloe meets with an entire family who relocated to Johannesburg from a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Several children silently flank the father, who does all the talking, while the mother keeps their toddler occupied in the background. When asked if living in a war zone their entire lives—including 30 years for the parents—has changed them, the father says, incredulous, how could it not.
A young white woman from Yugoslavia—or as she says, now the Union of Serbia and Montenegro—living in a Jo’burg slum is another refugee. She fled Sarajevo. When she walks the streets of Jo’burg at 2 in the morning, her friends are horrified. Her reply is that it is safe because there are no bombs falling and bodies in the streets. A refugee from the dictatorship of South Korean president Park Chung-hee, whose English is immaculate after several years in New Jersey, says she doesn’t miss Korea at all and doesn’t intend to go back. Her bitterness over the oppression of women and university students, a dissident group to which she belonged, will keep her an exile for the foreseeable future.
Keniloe also encounters a former soldier from the Congo (formerly Zaire) who received a machete blow to the head before ordering his troops to gun down his assailants. He doesn’t even remember being shipped to South Africa, but he had refugee status forced upon him by the South African government for his own protection. He shows us the scar on his head beneath his red military beret.
Finally, through twin sisters, one of whom is named Fatima, Keniloe finally finds his Fatima. She lives with her husband and children like many residents of Jo’burg—in a house fortified with a barbed-wire-topped gate and burglar bars on every window. She won’t answer Keniloe’s knocks on the door, but comes to the window and talks through the glass. He tells her he has been looking for her to finish her story. She says she’s not interested in talking about it anymore and disappears behind the drapes. A nonplussed Keniloe stands outside as the film fades to black.
This film has a street theatre quality to it. The lively byways of Johannesburg’s black district of Hillbrow, with their hair-weave, notions, and produce stands, are the scene of most of the interviews. The undoubtedly cheap, handheld equipment produces serviceable pictures enlivened by the surroundings as well as plenty of suspicious stares from people on the street. It doesn’t surprise anyone to learn that raids on illegal immigrants may be producing those stares; indeed, director Matabane takes us into a deportation center where defiant deportees sing that they’ll be back. Occasionally, as with the Palestinian family and the Congolese soldier, decaying surroundings are deliberately chosen as backdrops. Are we to suppose that all refugees live in substandard areas, or are these settings a reflection of the experiences these people have faced and still deal with, in reality or in memory, every day?
Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon is a timely film for Americans and Europeans alike who are clashing over the status of illegal immigrants. It concentrates mainly on political refugees, but does not go so far as to entirely separate economic refugees who illegally reside in a country from foreign victims of war and civil rights abuses. It illustrates in very vivid terms that displacement is a universal problem that many Americans and Europeans view in racial terms. The fight over territory and legitimacy is often caused by war. When the people who are caught in the middle must flee for their lives, they find they must fight the same battle again. If they are lucky, like my Greek neighbor, they will find easy acceptance. If they are unlucky, they may be wanderers, in fact and in spirit, the rest of their lives. l
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Director: Jamie Uys
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There’s not much I find funnier than a well-timed pratfall. It’s embarrassing how much I roar when I see a comedian bump into something and fall down. To me, the pratfall is the most sublime of the class of physical humor we call slapstick. As a silent film fan, I’ve seen some of the best slapstick artists who ever lived—Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Colleen Moore, Fatty Arbuckle—all of whom bounced and banged their way into the hearts of audiences the world over. Modern practitioners of the art of slapstick, such as Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, and Mel Brooks, owe a great deal to these early masters.
The medium of film itself lent something unique to slapstick in the early days—the techniques of varying the speed of and reversing the film. This new type of physical gag gave a wacky edge to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, for example, and has somewhat unfairly branded silent films as herky-jerky, fast-motion affairs, which very few of them were. Nonetheless, the Keystone form endured, particularly in British humor, as seen in such television programs as “The Benny Hill Show” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” It is quite conceivable that Jamie Uys, an Afrikaner in South Africa, watched these and similar shows and movies and thought it would be a pip to make movies like this himself. In 1980, he made a very physical comedy called The Gods Must Be Crazy that became a worldwide sensation, proving yet again the enduring appeal of slapstick.
The film is told in a fable-like way, with a narrator (Paddy O’Byrne) beginning with a geography/ethnography lesson about sub-Saharan Africa’s Kalahari Desert. Its harsh conditions are highlighted to emphasize that nobody, not even the animals, hangs around after the rainy season is over—that is, of course, with the exception of the San (known in the movie as Bushmen). We are told that the Bushmen are supreme survivalists who don’t know they have nothing. Indeed, the narrator, sounding like a used car salesman, makes their society seem utopian as they live in perfect peace and harmony with each other and all the good things in the environment.
One day, a bush pilot flies near a Bushman family compound and throws an empty Coke bottle out of his window. A Bushman hunter sees it fall, and picks it up. It is the hardest object he has ever seen, and assumes it was sent by the gods. At first, the family benefits from the many uses they extract from the bottle—musical instrument, skin stretcher, root pounder. But the Bushmen learn covetousness as well, and fight to use the bottle. When one member of the family hits another on the head with the bottle, there is nothing else to be done but to throw the “evil thing” off the edge of the earth. Xixo (N!xau) sets off on his long march to the end of the earth.
The character of Xixo is the core around which several stories revolve. In one, an incompetent band of rebels who have assassinated several members of their country’s government are on the run. We watch as their hideout is discovered, and two of their number try to shoot down a helicopter with a rocket thrower, only to be thwarted because the missile keeps falling out the back of the weapon. Another two are shown in a card game that stops for nothing, including a march across the desert.
Another story involves the encounters of Kate Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo) a refugee from urban living who falls into misadventures with girl-shy field researcher Andrew Steyn (Marius Weyers) when she moves to the bush to be a teacher. Steyn goes to pick her up from a distant bus depot in a battered jeep his assistant Mpudi (Michael Thys) calls the Anti-Christ. The jeep is the devil to start and will not restart if shut down. It also has no hand break. It’s the height of slapstick when Steyn must open and close cattle gates in the road without losing his jeep down a hill. When he finally does reach Kate, he becomes a stammering fool as he lifts the hingeless passenger door off the car so she can get in. When they stop for gas, Kate gets a face full of window cleaner when a helpful gas station attendant tries to clean a windshield that doesn’t exist.
Xixo moves into Steyn’s, Kate’s, and Mpudi’s world when he is arrested and put in jail for poaching a goat, not understanding the concept of ownership and never having seen a goat or a shepherd before. Mpudi, who speaks the San click language, convinces Steyn to get the “little bugger” out of jail before he dies, unaccustomed as he is to being unfree. A climactic sequence occurs when the rebels come to Kate’s village and force her and her class to march with them as human shields as they attempt to reach the border and escape their pursuers. They are rescued by Xixo, who infiltrates the hostage camp and shoots the rebels with a tiny bow and arrow dipped in a liquid tranquilizer.
The film is filled with sight gags, including a rhinocerous stamping out fires (“the firefighters of the bush”), a tree that grabs Kate while she is in her underwear and ensnares her and her rescuer, Steyn, in a ribald dance of disentanglement, and Mpudi swearing at the Anti-Christ in several languages as he throws parts out from underneath the jeep. A clever script, fast-motion action, and ridiculous caricatures all make for a potpourri of riotousness, that, nonetheless, has an acidic quality.
The film plays to our desire to believe that the San are the sane ones and that the “gods” (civilization) are indeed crazy. The warmth and sense of security with which N!xau imbues Xixo’s persona (no doubt he was largely playing himself) helps lull us into this wistful trap. It’s pretty clear, however, that Uys is sending up the romantic notions that surround Africa.
The idea that a Coke bottle is the first hard object the San have ever seen is ludicrous on its face, and we should be on our guard from that moment on that this is a fractured fairytale. While that fact makes the comedy all the more edgy and funny, some of the sad realities of African life can be glimpsed throughout this film if we care to look. Rebel factions have destroyed the stability of many African nations, and tribal conflicts have cost millions of lives. Driving through a river full of hippos, as Steyn does, is suicide. And the San lead very harsh lives indeed.
A documentary extra on the DVD shows us N!xau 10 years after the filming of The Gods Must Be Crazy. He was living in a border camp in Namibia where people were dying of starvation. A tee shirt he probably got in Paris when he was touring the world to promote the film was in tatters. He has since died of tuberculosis. It makes me sad to think that this natural clown is no longer with us. We are fortunate, nonetheless, to have available this very funny tribute to slapstick and to the bemused spirit of N!xau.