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Los Angeles' Pan-African Film Festival ...a year heavy on Nollywood and South African films

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 12, 2010 03:46pm | Post a Comment
Pan African Film and Arts Festival
Los Angele
s’s Pan-African Film Festival is currently in effect (February 10-17). I have a long-lasting love-hate relationship with it. On the one hand, their website (despite improvements this year) remains hard to navigate, is rife with typos, incomplete information and omissions. In other words, it’s inexcusably bad. How about a calendar, folks? 

In addition, every year I take issue with the selection of films. The programmers have a very odd definition of “Pan-African.” Last year was the worst, with the focus on the African diaspora coming at the expense of even a single African feature. Thankfully, this year there are several African features but still some questionable choices. It’s nice to see films about Africa’s many-but-usually-ignored non-black people, such as Finemachiyamoché, about Moroccan Jews, and Florida Road, starring members of South Africa’s sizable south Asian population. On the other hand, Forgotten Bird of Paradise, about Papua is, regardless of its possible merits, an embarrassing example of the organizers' colorist, transracialist equation of African-ness with pigmentation rather than actual African ancestry. The inclusion of an Iranian film, The Stoning of Soraya M., is a real head-scratcher. Are they equating Islam with African-ness now? Another odd choice is Darfur, directed by German hack Uwe Boll (BloodRayne 3, House of the Dead, Postal Zombie Massacre and other garbage).

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District 9 Movie Review

Posted by Eric Brightwell, August 16, 2009 08:53pm | Post a Comment


I will admit, I was very wary of seeing District 9 for a variety of reasons. For one, my exposure to South African films had led me to the conclusion that the South African film industry is the worst in Africa. Armed with relatively large budgets, South African films seemed technically solid but at best, soulless and at worst, odious. On a continent where countries like Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali make amazing, artistic and entertaining films with a uniquely African voice, why would I want to see another glossy piece of crap from what seems like an ersatz Hollywood? Critical Assignment was one long and comically awful Guinness ad, Boesman and Lena an unwatchable minstrel show, Stander stultifying bland, Wooden Camera a ponderous examination of racial politics, and The Gods Must Be Crazy (I & II) ponderously racist. When Tsotsi was praised by the Academy, I wrote it off without giving it a chance. Only Richard Stanley's Hardware and Dust Devil did much for me. Also, I find South African accents (and all non-rhotic accents) rather unpleasant.


What's more, the premise of aliens living in townships sounded like a thinly veiled excuse for some heavy-handed sermonizing. Were District 9 to follow Hollywood rules, the film would inevitably follow the valiant effort of one member of the oppressors who, following a change of heart, would lead the helpless "Others" to victory after gaining their trust whilst the villains would embody absolute evil, therein allowing the members of the audience to feel good about themselves by making sure that they couldn't identify at all with the antagonists. Simultaneously it would allow them to feel down due to their acceptance by the authentic victims; a genre I call "Through Blue Eyes" (e.g. Dances with Wolves, Schindler's List, The Last Samurai, The Mission, Ghosts of Mississippi, The New World, Mississippi Burning and on and on). A human and an alien would come to love each other, profess to have one another's backs, and probably stand back-to-back with guns drawn on the opposition. If I want to hear shallow discussions about racial politics, I don't watch buddy films, I have a beer at the white house.


Fifteen years after the fact, a film telling me that apartheid was bad, I thought, would be pointless and annoying. Even the Israeli government can agree that South Africa's apartheid system was unjust. Do we need a sci-fi, a genre at often its best when examining our own failings, to tell us that discrimination is wrong? Furthermore, the message, if applied in District 9, wouldn't even seem very analogous. After all, the aliens in the film came to South Africa and are forced into townships. In South Africa, it was the pre-existing black population (who, it should be noted, had largely displaced and destroyed the indigenous one) who were rounded up by the new arrivals. If the film was going to draw simple parallels to South Africa, the aliens would be forcing the South Africans into concentration camps, not the other way around.


Then there was the Peter Jackson issue. Although just the producer, after the leaden, hokey and abjectly awful King Kong, I worried that his involvement might be a detriment (despite having never made a less than excellent film before).

Fortunately, District 9 is a thoroughly enjoyable film that works both as entertainment and thoughtful art. It does contain lessons about prejudice, but does so by creating an interesting scenario and then intelligently expounding upon it. And, with a paltry $40 million cost, it's a lesson in how sci-fi/action films should be and thus a towering middle finger to Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers. Even with its relatively meager budget, it serves up consistently amazing special effects and the result is the most enjoyable sci-fi film since 28 Days Later.


To start, Sharlto Copley as Wikus van der Merwe is pretty much perfect. He plays the protagonist as neither a sexy, roguish anti-hero nor a ethically spotless do-gooder. Rather, he's an unfailingly chipper, by-the-books bureaucrat who's devoted to his wife but at the same time, not completely likeable. He has a pronounced yellow streak and he doesn't, unlike say Matt Dillon's character in Crash, magically transform over the course of the film into a good person. In fact, no one in the film, with the exception of the alien, Christopher Johnson, is a shining avatar. In many ways, Wilkus reminded me of David Brent, an association re-inforced by the faux-documentary set-up that thankfully falls by the wayside after a methodically paced and protracted opening act. And even Christopher Johnson is so damned physically repulsive that the viewer's sympathetic connection to him is rather challenged. Even an intergalactic sex tourist like Captain Kirk would probably require a case of Romulan Ale before going there. One of the many clever and innovative (by Hollywood standards) aspects of the film is that the audience isn't let off the hook for its/our seemingly insurmountable prejudices. For example, when we're informed that there's a considerable demand for interspecies prostitution, it's hard not to wince at the thought, despite our valiant attempts to remain open minded. 


In doing so and in other ways, the film also suggests that discrimination and prejudice aren't the sole province of white people -- something so obviously true and yet still treated as controversial by the Kool-aid-drinking PC cult. It's rather laughable that more than one reviewer has knee-jerkily attacked the film for daring to depict Nigerian criminals as opportunistic villains, since we're only used to accepting black Africans as victims. In one of the only straightforward analogies in the film, the depiction of their cannibalism of the aliens is rather similar to the very real issue of some Africans' cannibalism of albinos for their supposed magical properties. District 9 is refreshingly and nearly completely devoid of simple, spoon-fed, race-based moralizing. It points fingers at all people complicit with concentration camps, occupations, townships, reservations, security fences and apartheid walls, regardless of skin color or hair type, instead equally implicating all humans for discrimination, xenophobia, tribalism and intolerance.


Filmically-speaking, director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp's sensibility is very African. The film is in no rush to get going. It doesn't use slow-motion or Matrix-style effects. It doesn't underestimate the audience's intelligence, explaining every aspect of the story which, for some viewers so used to Hollywood, may be misinterpreted as a technical failing. We are never told why the aliens came, why they chose Jo-Berg, how they have sex, why they like cat food, how many hours they sleep, what their favorite color is, &c. The film requires that the audience assume that a government figure specializing in alien affairs will, after a 28-year presence, learn their language, without showing us him buying and using Rosetta Stone software. Its only glaringly non-African concession to foreign audiences is in the use of subtitles to reveal information about the date and time of the proceedings.


As with all films, District 9 isn't flawless and viewers determined to find fault will invariably find enough in the film to justify their need to offer a voice of dissent against the overwhelmingly positive opinions of the masses. The two main standbys for these determined contrarians are usually bad acting and predictability. The acting is uniformly good, so only the most poorly reasoned wag will choose it as a criticism. Predictability, on the other hand, is a reality of all films. Yes, it's of a typical length, it tells a story, and there's a beginning and end. Just as Saturday predictably follows Friday, the ability to predict the inevitable isn't a sign of a reviewer's insight. As with all films, nor is District 9 completely original. The film echoes in varying degrees Enemy Mine, Alien Nation, The Fly, Iron Man and the Get a Life episode "Spewey and Me." It's also much better than any of them... except for, maybe, the under-recognizedly brilliant Get a Life. And it's not just because of lowered expectations stemming from Hollywood's near complete reliance on video games, pre-existing franchises, and old TV shows. District 9 is a breath of fresh air-- a fun, gorey, loud, gross, inventive and rousing mix of space opera and more speculative sort of sci-fi that examines issues that in many cases don't always have clear cut, real-world parallels. As such, I highly recommend it.

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26 women's history fictional films

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 10, 2009 11:06pm | Post a Comment
 
 

   

     

   

   

   

   

   


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Cinema of Burkina Faso

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 1, 2009 01:27pm | Post a Comment

Background on Burkina Faso

What is now Burkina Faso has been continuously inhabited for at least 14,000 years. The main indigenous population of this Sahelian region were the Yonyonse, who remained for thousands of years until they were displaced by the Mossi people of what is now Ghana only a thousand years ago. The Mossi established several kingdoms; the first, Tenkodogo, was founded in 1120 and ruled by Naaba. The Dogon, who'd inhabited areas in the north, left between the 15th and 16h centuries. Two more Mossi Kingdoms followed and dominated the area for about 800 years until 1896 when France invaded and established a colonial occupation. Upper Volta, as it was then known, gained independence from the French in 1960. As is the case with most post-Colonial countries, the years since have been dominated by dictatorships, wars and coups.


Yet despite being plagued by poverty, unemployment and strife, Burkina Faso inarguably has one of West Africa's most vibrant cultures. Literature, primarily transmitted orally until collected in the 1930s, has long been a central part of Burkina Faso's culture. A strong theater tradition owing to both Burkinabé traditions and French influences has also been a major aspect of Burkinabé's cultural life. With over 60 ethnic groups, no one sort of music has yet dominated Burkina Faso's musical scene, although American and European pop are the most popular. Since 1969, Burkina Faso has been one of, if not the, dominant powers in Africa's film industry.

 
History of film in Burkina Faso
Although Burkina Faso’s film output is relatively small, their role in African film is large and they’re arguably central to the West African Film Industry. Burkina Faso are co-hosts of the Pan-African FESPACO film festival (alternating with Tunisia), which largely determines the few African movies that get distributed in the US and released on DVD. Even before Burkina Faso had produced any films, the status-conferring festival was established in Ougadougou in 1969.

 

Although many Americans have recently become aware of the popular Nollywood scene in Nigeria, FESPACO (and by extension the Burkina Faso film community) has shut out West African neighbor Nigeria’s prolific output of movies on the basis that that they aren’t “films” since they're shot on video. However, as more and more quality films are made on video, that argument holds less water. The real reason that Nollywood films aren't shown at FESPACO is because they're about as arty as an episode of Martin shot by public access crew. Even Nollywood fans wouldn't generally argue that they're great films, merely enjoyable star vehicles. At the last FESPACO, however, the Étalon de Yenenga did go to a Nigerian filmmaker, Newton Aduaka for Ezra. Judging from the trailer above, it's neither Nollywood nor typically arty FESPACO fare and perhaps a bit of a concession to the growing power of Lagos's film industry.
 

Despite the fact that most westerners assume that most Africans live in huts on a savannah, fighting over millet tossed from a UN aid truck, Burkina Faso has technologically modern film production and distribution facilities. In fact, they're probably the most advanced on the continent, with the likely exception of South Africa. But whereas South Africa tends to churn out glossy, soulless product that’s often aimed at nondiscriminating audiences such as Stander and Critical Assignment, or alternately, Western festival-baiting/liberal guilt-assuaging "poverty porn" like Wooden Camera or Tsotsi, Burkina Faso’s film industry remains steadfastly disinterested in commercial or Western trends.

Heavily indebted to Soviet technique, Burkinabe films tend be highly visual, thoughtful, formalistic and didactic. Some critics argue that, though targeted toward Pan-African audiences, they're only enjoyed by a small group of intellectuals, the implication being that African audiences are too simple to enjoy them, I guess. If they are targeted at all toward Western audiences, they're largely unsuccesful since African art films are almost impossible to see in the western hemisphere. It seems unlikely that, with little potential to reach audiences outside of Africa, African directors would cater their films to the tastes of outsiders.

At Los Angeles's Pan-African Film Festival, the program directors have used the "African diaspora" umbrella to move away from actual African films and toward "African"-American (and British) romcoms and thrillers, at the complete exclusion of actual African directors. Last year's PAFF, for example, featured not one African feature film. Even DVD companies that specialize in arthouse and foreign films usually ignore the dark conintent. The highly regarded Criterion label seems to have a strict policy of not releasing African films, in fact, since their catalog includes multiple works from every other inhabited continent, but not one African film. It's a shame. Having bred a large following of indiscriminate pretentious consumers willing to buy anything they release, they could use their power to shed light on the world's most ignored cinematic treasures. How an acclaimed director like Med Hondo can have a directorial career that spans 42 years and not one film available in America on DVD whilst Criterion releases Chasing Amy and Armageddon is frankly beyond me. I did write to them several years ago to ask but they still haven't replied. They can argue in Armageddon's defense all they want but that movie was like watching a four-year-old play with action figures for three hours, only slightly more nonsensical.
 

Burkinabe directors
Burkinabé cinema began with Mamadou Djim Kola (born 1940), who directed Le conflit (1972), Le Sang des parias (1972), Cissin... cinq ans plus tard (1976) and Kognini y Toungan, les étrangers (1992). He studied in film in Paris and, back in Burkina Faso, he served as president of L'association Nationale de realisateurs de cine de Burkina Faso between 1980 and 1987. Unfortunately, none of his films have been released in the US.

 Gaston Kaboré

Gaston Kaboré (born 1951 in Bobo-Dioulasso) is probably the most internationally well-known and highly regarded Burkinabé film director. Originally, he studied history at the Sorbonne, focusing on the history of Colonial racism. His studies led him to examine the way stereotypes are propagated in film and he attended film school after getting his Master’s in history. After receiving his degree in Film Production in 1976, he returned to Burkina Faso where he became the director of the Centre Natinal du Cinéma.

                      Lumiere & Company DVD

His debut, Wend Kuuni (1982), was only the second Burkinabé feature. It was put released, like most African films, by the no-frills Kino label. I was once asked by a random customer if I'd seen it. I said, "yes" and he pointed out Rosine Yangolo (Pongere). Pretty obscure "celebrity" sighting, eh?


 

In 1997, Kaboré won first prize at FESPACO for Buud Yam -- the same year he ended his twelve year term as Secretary-Genaral of the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers. He’s also directed Zan Boko (1988), Rabi (1992), a segment in Lumière and Company (1995).


Idrissa Ouedraogo
was born 1954 in Banfora and is, perhaps, the most prolific Burkinabé director. He's earned awards in many film festivals. He graduated from Institut Africain d’Etudes Cinématographiques in Ougadougou.


 

In 1981, working for Direction de la Production Cinématographique du Burkina Faso he made several shorts: Pourquoi? (1981), Poko (1981), Les Écuelles (1983), Les Funérailles du Larle Naba (1984), Ouagadougou, Ouaga deux roues (1985), Issa le tisserand (1985) followed by a feature, Yam Daabo (1986).

 
Yaaba

After studying in the USSR and Paris, he returned to Burkina Faso. He directed Yaaba (1989) and Tilaï (1990). I found the latter (released by New Yorker Films) rather formulaic and perhaps one of the better examples of a film seemingly crafted to appeal to western notions about what West African cinema is... as small of a group as that might be. But then again, it won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, so arty Francophiles are included, I guess.

Ouedraogo's made a slew of features, shorts and television programs since, including: Obi (1991), A Karim na Sala (1991), Samba Traoré (1993), Cri du cœur (1994), Gorki (1994), Afrique, mon Afrique (1994), a segment of Lumière et compagnie (1995), Kini and Adams (1997), Les Parias du cinémas (1997), Entre l'arbre et l'écorce (1999), Scenarios from the Sahel (2001), Kadi Jolie (2001), a segment of 11'09''01 September 11 (2002), La Colère des dieux (2003) and Kato Kato (2006).

 
Sarah Bouyain was born in 1968. Obviously, that's her on the left, then. She has directed two films so far, Niararaye (1997) and Les enfants du Blanc (2000).


Fanta Régina Nacro
was born 1962 and received her film education at INAFEC and the Sorbonne.



She made her debut, a short film, Un Certain Matin in 1992. Since then she’s made many shorts: Un Certain Matin (1991), L'Ecole au coeur de la vie (1993), Puk Nini (1995), Femmes capables (1997), La Tortue du Monde (1997), Le Truc de Konaté (1988), Florence Barrigha (1999), Relou (2000), Laafi Bala (2000), La bague aux doigt (2001), Une volonté de fer (2001), La voix de la raison (2001), Bintou (2001), En parler ça aide (2002), Vivre positivement (2003) Her feature debut is La Nuit de la vérité (2004) and is available on DVD through First Run Features, who've released several African films on DVD.




 Adama Roamba, director of Garba (1998)

S. Pierre Yamégo has directed two films so far, Silmande Tourbillon (1998) and Delwende, lève-toi e marche (2005).

          

I love that Drissa Toure is rocking what looks like old time prison garb. His only film so far, Haramuya (1995), is available on a double feature with a Malian film, released by Facets, yet another small label who puts the bourgeois-favored Criterion to shame.


Daniel Kollo Sanou
's Tasuma (2003) and Dani Kouyaté's Sia, le rêve du python (2001) are also availble from Facets on a Burkinabé double feature.


With Burkinabé films being made by numerous directors and film crews, it's difficult to effectively characterize its film language. Since there are so many languages spoken in Africa, it tends to rely heavily on visual techniques developed in the silent era -- relying less on dialog which, even if subtitled, would still only reach those literate in the chosen language. Burkinabé films also tend to eschew western devices like calendar sheets blowing to suggest the passage of time or scrolling computer letters to notify the viewer of the setting, instead prefering to make their points more subtly and assuming that the viewer is intelligent enough to get it. This can be jarring to audiences used to the kid-gloved/heavy handed treatment they're used to, even mistakently being viewed as a defect by some who assume it's the result of incompetence. This isn't the case. Burkinabé's other main influence is the French New Wave, whose spirit of cinematic deconstruction is evident as well in its thorough, considered approach to cinematic language. So, put back your French/Italian/Japanese film. It'll be there tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. But if you pass on that Burkinabé film, you've probably missed your only chance at enjoying something completely different.

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Cinema of Mali

Posted by Eric Brightwell, December 22, 2008 08:36pm | Post a Comment
Backrground of Mali

 

            750 - 1076                                   1230 - 1600                                              1340 - 1591

Historically Mali was part of three Sahelian Kingdoms. The Soninke-dominated Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire (which established Timbuktu and Djenne as major cities) and the Songhai Empire. These kingdoms controlled Trans-Saharan trade of gold, salt and other precious comodities. It collapsed following an Imazighen (aka Berber) invasion. When the European nations established sea routes for trade, the Trans-Saharan trade economy collapsed. To make things worse, the region grew increasingly desertified. France invaded the weakened nation and occupied Mali from the early 1800s until independence in 1959. Today, Mali is economically one of the poorest countries in the world.


Malians outside a cinema

Culturally, however, it's quite rich. Like its West African neighbors, it's also highly diverse. Most of its people are Bamana. There are also large populations of Soninke, Khassonke and Malink are all Mandé. There are smaller numbers of Peul, Voltaic, Songhai, Taureg, Bozo, Dogon, and Moor.  Altogether, more than 40 languages are spoken. 

 
                                Tellem (Mali)                                                                 Hohokam (Arizona)

The famed Dogon people based their calendar on Sirius B, a star not visible to the human eye. Their awareness of Jupiter and Saturn's rings preceded the invention of the telescope. They also lived in cliff dwellings, not unlike the aboriginals of America's southwest. What would Erich Anton Paul von Däniken  say?


Cinema of Mali

Mali's cinema is comparitively less known than the world famous movies of its neighbors, Senegal and Burkina Faso. But it's not for want of excellent films. Almost all of its key filmmakers were born in Bamako, the capital and largest city. After over a century of exploitation at the hands of the French, Mali initially cozied up to the USSR. Many of Mali's directors honed their craft at the world's oldest film school, the Всесоюзный государственный институт кинематографии (also known as VGIK, the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography) in Moscow. The school is the alma mater of Tarkovsky, Iosseliani, Eisenstein, Parajanov, Bondarchuk and Sokurov. The faculty included Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzchenko and other noteworthy figures. Many Malian films incorporate Soviet-developed visual techniques to make films that are sometimes nearly wordless pieces of visual poetry which can overcome illiteracy and Mali's over 40 spoken languages.

Malian Directors

Souleymane Cissé with Fatih Akin and Marty Scorsese

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