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Med Hondo – Rebel African Film-maker

Posted by keith1942 on July 17, 2022

A documentary on this important film director recently aired on Al Jazeera World; a series broadcast on Al Jazeera in Britain which offers’ a weekly showcase of one-hour documentary films from across the Al Jazeera networks. [I assume there are equivalents on other Al Jazeera channels]. The documentary is now on the English-language Web pages; it runs for 46 minutes and includes English language sub-titles for the commentary which is predominantly in French. The director is Bassel Samir, a film-maker born in Egypt. His on previous film is a short Life Simply [USA 2017).

Med Hondo (Mohamed Abid Hondo) was born in the Atar region of Mauritania in 1936. He migrated to France in 1959, working in various jobs, first in Marseille and then in Paris. He studied acting and then worked in the French theatre. In 1966 he formed his own theatre company, Griot-Shango; a ‘griot’ is an African story-teller and ‘Shango’ the Yoruba god of thunder’. He also started working in small parts on television and in films; for much of his life he supported himself as a ‘voice-actor’ in films dubbed into French.

His first film was Soleil O (1965). Shot in black and white academy this was a docu-drama that presented the experiences of African migrants in France. It was made on a shoe-string; using friends and acquaintances of Hondo. The film created a stir, was nominated in the Cannes Film Critics week and won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival. It set the tone and style for Hondo’s later films; caustic, ironic, politically outright and using distinctive visual and aural techniques.

Hondo made a further eight films before his death on 2nd March 1919. He also continued working as an a actor, especially in voice acting roles and occasionally in theatre. His output is a significant part both of the African film heritage and of European Political cinema. However, his films have never been easy to see, as he works outside the dominant film industry. Thankfully in the last few years some of his films have been restored, partly in the World Cinema Project ‘s  African Film Heritage Project; these titles have been screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna and have had occasional screenings elsewhere.

This documentary in part provides a brief biography of Hondo and also discusses his film output. There are a variety of voices: friends, colleagues, journalists, a festival organiser, critics and there are also extracts from several interviews with Hondo himself. He explains that his parents were ‘Haratines’ or freed slaves; and that his grandfather was a griot who went round villages in the region where they lived recounting traditional stories. In the 1940s Mauritania was part of the French colonial occupation in North West Africa with the attendant exploitation and racist oppression. When Hondo, like many  other Africans then and now, left to seek opportunities he smuggled himself on a ship from Morocco to France. He talks about his early job as a chef and then how he came to join a theatrical class run by the French actor Françoise Rosay.  She was both an opera singer and film actor and important in the French Cinema of the 1940s and 1950s. Hondo stood out as the only working class member of the study group.

Hondo described the worlds of theatre and cinemas as world of magic and illusion. He also regarded them,  especially cinema, as a ‘weapon’; fully aware of the exploitation and racism that  were the lot of African migrants in France.  One of his friends and colleagues of the time recalled this theatre group working on radio plays for a Radio France competition.

When we come to Soleil O there are interesting reminiscences by François Catonné. Catonné worked on Hondo’s first film and subsequently on Les Bicots-Nègres vos voisins and West Indies. Soleil O was his first film as a lighting cameraman. Subsequently he worked on a variety of films, predominantly in the French film industry and French television. He also worked with Hondo on theatrical productions as lighting designer.

Les Bicots-Nègres vos voisins / Arabs and Niggers; Your Neighbours (Mauritania / France 1974)  was shot in colour and in Arabic and French. This film has a more developed and sophisticated narrative. Different sequences addresses the representation of Africans on film: the history that over-determines this: a representation of colonial hegemony: the conditions of Africans as migrants: and the role of cinema in this. The film uses dramatic and ironic sequences along with documentary style records. From the opening when an African addresses the viewer direct to camera: through a series of experimental cinematic presentations: on to the analysis addressing past and present: this is a challenging and dynamic film. Originally a three hour epic in 1988 a shorter version was produced and this was the version screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2019.

Hondo’s next film was : The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty (France / Algeria / Mauritania, 1979), in colour and 1.85:1 widescreen. A musical treatment of a central part of French colonial history which benefitted from an unusually high budget. The film was shot in a disused railway station, Gare d’Orsay; also used for  Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962) and now a fine gallery featuring the collection of impressionist art.

Hondo in an interview commented;

“I wanted to free the very concept of musical comedy from its American [i.e. USA] trade mark. I wanted to show that each people on earth has its own musical comedy, its own musical tragedy and its own thought shaped through its history.” (2017 Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue).

This is a vibrant film with fine colour and a dramatic presentation; at time finny: at times moving: at time shocking. The plot of the film was adopted from a novel titled “Les Negriers” (The Slavers) which was written by Daniel Boukman. The narrative relates the history of slavery in French colonies to the oppressive treatment of contemporary Afro-Caribbean citizens to the metropolis. The documentary offers stills of the production and extracts. A 35mm print was screened at the 2017 Cinema Ritrovato in the The World Cinema Foundation programme.

There follows what is in many ways Hondo’s major film work; Sarraounia (Burkino Faso / Mauritania / France 1986). This film was produced in colour and cinemascope; the latter a first for an African film. The narrative presents the resistance of  Azna people, led by Queen Sarraounia, to French military colonialism. Hondo adapted a novel by Abdoulaye Mamani to the screen. This is actual history charting the African resistance to the infamous Voulet-Chanoine Expedition of 1898. Set in what is present-day Niger, the expedition aimed to conquer Chad and unify French possession across north Africa. Most of the African leaders sought compromise with the French military; Sarraounia and her people stood out against this colonial invasion. The film presents the horrific brutality of the French military leading an army of indigenous natives; it dramatises the brilliant strategy of Sarraounia in combating the French with their superior modern armaments; and includes impressively staged battle scenes.

The documentary emphasizes the importance of the support of Burkino Faso and its then leader, Thomas Sankara. He was later assassinated in a coup likely promoted by colonial interests. The film uses both soldiers from the Burkinabè army and local people as extras.

In an interview with Francoise Pfaff Hondo commented:

“I wanted to illustrate authentic historical facts to show that the African continent was not easily colonised and had a history of resistance to colonialism.” (Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue 2017).

There were difficulties with the distribution in France and the film has not received the availability it deserves. It did win honour at the Fespaco Festival. In a similar manner records of the Voulet-Chanoine expedition rarely give proper space to the exploits of Sarraounia and her people.

Hondo’s next film waited eight years to accomplish; 1994: Lumière noire (Black Light, France 1994). It was adapted from his own novel by Didier Daeninckx. The plot involves the attempt to find eyewitnesses to the murder by two policemen. This involves travelling from France to Mali; a country which suffered colonial exploitation and continues to endure a neo-colonial relationship with France. The extracts shown in the documentary include the very downbeat ending. There is also illustrative material about how Hondo and his team coped when they were barred from  using some French locations.

The final film treated is Fatima, l’Algérienne de Dakar / Fatima, the Algerian Woman of Dakar  (Mauritania / Tunisia / France / Senegal, 2004). The story is by a Tunisian writer Tahar Cheriaa. The film uses French, Arabic and Wolof [an indigenous language in Senegal]; it was filmed in colour and widescreen. Fatima is raped by a Senegalese officer darting the Algerian War of Independence. But the father of the officer insists that his son fulfil his obligation to ‘his sister in Islam’. The narrative move to Algeria but the son of the union is of mixed race and experiences serious prejudice as he grows up. Hondo was refused production in Algeria and the film was shot in Tunisia. In the documentary, for the only time, there are brief shots of a screening of this film in a cinema. Presumably either in Senegal or Tunisia, the only territories where the film was screened.

There is also coverage of a theatrical production directed by Hondo at the Gerard Philippe Theatre in St Denis, including parts of the performance. Written by the Algerian writer Kateb Yacinne the dramatic work addressed the history of Algeria and included the issue of the occupation of Palestine.  François Catonné worked on the lighting and there was a cast of about fifty. In a now familiar trope the Algerian state funding for the play, as part of a cultural year, was withdrawn and it was only the commitment of the theatre that enabled the play to be performed.

Following the film and theatre work we learn something of Hondo’s career in film dubbing. For much of his career this was his economic mainstay. Among his more well known roles were for Ben Kingsley in Gandhi: Morgan Freeman in Se7en: and, most famously, for Eddie |Murphy in Shrek. It took the intervention of Murphy himself to keep Hondo dubbing for the latter role.

It is worth noting that there are several other films by Hondo not discussed in the documentary. La faim du mondeSahel, la faim, pourquoi? (1975), a feature length documentary on the effects of neo-colonialism on African agriculture: Nous aurons toute la mort pour dormir (1977), a feature length documentary about the liberation struggle in the Western Sahara against Spanish colonialism: Watani, un monde sans mal (1998) a feature film that deals with the experiences of two very different characters who suffer a similar crisis in life.

Hondo died on March 2nd 2019 in a Paris hospital. His sister, Zahra, recalled rushing to the hospital but Hondo’s life support systems had already been turned off. He left behind his impressive film works; a series of supporting roles in films and on television: and his dubbing work in films. A number of the participants in the programme praised his contribution to international and African cinema but also lamented the lack of recognition he has received. This includes much of Africa which provided the political centre of his cinema. One comment argues that this lack of recognition extends to his home country of Mauritania. This is likely more complex that the comment suggests; quite a number of his films were supported from Mauritania through his own  company Les Films Soleil, M.H. Films Productions; and for at least one title by National de Cinema Mauritanian. But I have not found more details than this.

The documentary is a welcome contribution to Hondo’s legacy. However, it does suffer from some of the limitations common in contemporary television. All the film presented in the programme has been reframed to 16:9; some from academy ratio and some from different widescreen formats. This is especially notable with the extracts from Fatima, where the cinema screening is in 1.85:1 but other extracts from the film are in 16:9. This includes newsreel footage used as back projection behind contribution; it clearly originates in the academy ratio and has been digitised with a flat patina that sometimes results from this process. The other limitation is at time there is a tendency to ‘talking heads’; a series of very short clips from interviews strung together. I find this distracts from what is offered and in many cases it is clear that the participant was making a fulle5r comment which likely was more effective.

Still the commentary is available on the Al Jazeera web-pages; presumably in different territories with appropriate sub-titling. And the World Cinema Foundation has already brought  out a number of his films to public attention and their project on African cinema continues. When Hondo directed these films there were significant interventions in the political discourses in Europe and Africa. And in an age when outright colonialism, and more common neo-colonialism continue in that continent and also continue to oppress the migrant communities in Europe and North America their relevance remains.

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International Workers’ day

Posted by keith1942 on May 1, 2022

Greetings on May Day 2022

 

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On Imperialist War

Posted by keith1942 on March 20, 2022

This is a ten minute video by journalist Peter Oborne to be found on ‘Double Down News’ [on You Tube] and also on the WebPages of The Jewish Voice for Labour. Oborne is a conservative British journalist and he states his opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and to the likely war crimes committed by the Russian military. But he is also concerned to expose what he sees as both double standards and hypocrisy of the political elites and mainstream media in members of the US-led NATO. This includes most European countries, a range of other states under US hegemony, and, notably vocal and supportive, the British State and media.

Certainly in Britain it is difficult to find alternative voices. In the mainstream media there is only Al Jazeera. In Britain the Stop the War Coalition has criticised both Russia and NATO for what is effectively an inter-imperialist war. But you do not see or hear their point-of-view on the mainstream media. One such viewpoint, George Galloway, did appear on RT but that channel is now banned; just as in Russia opposition voices are banned.

Oborne video is interesting but also limited by his own set of values. He draws parallels between how the western media treats the Ukraine war with the treatment of wars in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. He also includes a brief reference to an earlier war which appears to be the British colonial war against the Kenyan resistance to occupation . His comments  are about what he sees as moral issues; that is different treatment for peoples who are

“non-European and non-white”

and he picks up on the different treatment of wars against Muslim peoples. This is fine but that does not address the actual underlying causes, capitalist competition and the drive for imperialist domination.

He does single out the British Foreign Secretary Liz Trust in order to make an unflattering comparison with Margaret Thatcher. A comparison deflated in one of the comments on the Jewish Voice for Labour page. All the British leaders since World War II have supported Yankee imperialism and, frequently, war crimes as well. And this includes Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Keir Starmer and the official Labour Party.

Oborne also includes  an extract from a US television show, ‘Saturday Night Live’; a musical skit titled ‘Kandahar’. I was puzzled by the inclusion of this bizarre piece ‘; entertainment’? I could not find anything on ‘Double Down News’ to amplify his comment but he sees it as another example of media racist depictions. It is certainly that certainly, and also to my eyes, pretty naff.

Oborne justified critique has the tone of critics who use the term ‘Euro centrism’. This is a term that fails to address the actual social reality and social relations. The issue is colonialism and neo-colonialism. Commentators often use the terms ‘authoritarianism’ or even ‘Fascism’ in such situations. But what seems shocking in a European context is the norm in colonial states, in colonial/settler states, and are still present to a degree in neo-colonial states where the trapping of the ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ exist. It is worth studying just how many US allies have authoritarian structures.

Lenin rightly quoted Marx on the occupation of Ireland by the British State when he developed his theory of Imperialism:

“no nation can be free as long as it enslaves another nation,”

Yet the occupation of a part of Ireland by the British state and a settler community continues. An issue that even leftist critics tend to forget. In the same way the criticism of Russia’s military tactics, and breaches of rules against war crimes, ignore the use of such tactic in Lebanon and in the Zionist invasions of Gaza. Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, the responsbility of NATO, goes largely unreported. So Oborne’s video is a small hole in the jingoistic response of the British media.  The historical parallels are numerous but the Crimean War [1853 to 1856] seems particular relevant. It was supposedly fought over the rights of Christian minorities in Palestine, but actually was about the dismemberment of the crumbling Turkish empire. It involved Russian aggression but also a reactionary European alliance and, even by C19th standards, a excessive level of criminal butchery. It was accompanied by a wave of jingoism in Brittan that fed into a long-term xenophobia against Russia; equivalent to the long-term xenophobia against China.

Marx and Engels wrote a series of ‘letters’ to the New York Tribune in 1853 which followed the developing crisis and war. One of the comments  seems peculiarly apt today:

“The revolutionary party can only congratulate itself on this state of things. The humiliation of the reactionary Western governments, and their manifest impotency to guard the interests of European civilisation against Russian encroachment, cannot fail to work out a wholesome indignation in the people who have suffered themselves, since 1849, to be subjected to the rule of counter-revolution. The approaching industrial crisis, also, is affected, and accelerated quite as much by this semi-Eastern complication as by the completely Eastern complication of China. While the prices of corn are rising, business in general is suspended, at the same time that the rate of exchange is setting against England, and gold is beginning to flow to the Continent.”

The Jewish Voice for Labour introduction also makes the point about

“We must also note the difference in treatment of Ukrainian refugees who are – finally and rightly – being made welcome in the UK,  being given the immediate right to work which is denied to other categories of refugee.”

The entitlement to work is only one aspect of the glaring differences.

An earlier post discusses films about refugees from outside Europe. There are, it seems, a host of short videos on social media about the war and about refugees. The ones noted in the medias appear to be calls for help and assistance and of outrage, understandable; but not generally about the values involved on all sides. We can hope that independent film-makers will be preparing to present intelligent and critical images and sounds on the whole contradictory situation. The new BDS statement provides a political position for this.

 

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Twenty Five Years of Al Jazeera

Posted by keith1942 on November 3, 2021

This week has seen congratulatory broadcasts and programmes on this International Television News channel and its associated websites. The congratulations by the channel and from other media organisations are well deserved. Whilst it values and interests remain within the global capitalist system it has fairly consistently provided a wide range of news, opinions and faces and importantly offered a ‘voice for the people’.

It was set up in and by Qatar on November 1st 1996 as an Arabic language television platform. It has championed democratic movements, much to the chagrin of the mainly authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. It has also championed the resistance of popular movements to those regimes and of popular movements resisting the continuing neocolonial control over the region. One of its innovatory stances in the television media world was a constant variety of people in live and recorded interviews from a different viewpoints on any given issue or contradiction. This has had a marked effect on competing international broadcasters.

One factor in its founding was the demise of the BBC Arabic Service. At one time the BBC World services were seen as an independent and liberal voice round the world. Now Al Jazeera offers a more internationalist, more varied and more critical voice than any part of the BBC or the major broadcasters in Europe and North America. When the US attacked Iraq Al Jazeera was the only major broadcaster not embedded with the military forces of the invading coalition. In 2011 it was the voice of the many popular democratic movements across the Middle East and suffered repression, notably in Egypt. And its coverage of the several Israeli attacks on Gaza and on the continuing Palestinian resistance to Zionist occupation also stands out.

In the early 2000s it branched out into English language web provision and then English language television broadcasting; first in Europe and then in North America. As the services developed Al Jazeera has become a producer and distributor of independent and critical documentary. Many in the international audiences now see their ‘films’ on satellite television and streaming services. And the programmes broadcast on Al Jazeera remain available through their web sites.

This blog has reviewed and praised a number of these:

Al-Nakba (2008)

World War 1 Through Arab Eyes (2017)

Blood and Tears French Decolonisation (2020)

The Lobby (2017 – posts charting attacks on Ken Loach by Zionist fellow-travellers in Britain).

The documentaries frequently features archive footage that is rarely seen in other media. And much of it avoids Television’s tendency to reframe archive film to poor effect.

So what ever the limitations in the editorial policy and presentation on the channels Al Jazeera is an important resource for anti-colonialists and anti-imperialists.

The Arabic services can be seen at ‘aljazeera.net’ and the English-language services at ‘aljazeera.com’. In Britain the television Channel is on Freeview 235. Let us hope they continue for another twenty five years and longer.

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African Apocalypse, Britain 2020

Posted by keith1942 on June 28, 2021

Femi, a witness, Amina

This is an Arena title funded in part by the BBC and the BFI and transmitted on BBC 2 on the 25th of May; due to be available on the BBC I-player. Essentially the documentary is a journey both politically and geographically. This is made by the protagonist and narrator Femi Nylander. Femi co-scripted the film with Rob Lemkin who produced and directed this production. Femi is British with Nigerian heritage. He recounts how he read Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ and how he then researched a real-life parallel of the Kurtz character in the book, Captain Paul Voulet, the leader of a French expedition in West Africa in 1899. This is, of course, the same story as presented in the film Sarrounia.

This title presents extracts from the novella alongside a physical journey by Femi, with two guides, following the march of Voulet’s expedition through what is present-day Niger. At the start he recalls Conrad’s fictional descriptions which were fictionalised accounts of actual events. The merit of the documentary here is that it shows photographs of the atrocities committed in the holocaust inflicted on the people of the Congo under the Belgium occupation; something that is rarely seen in the western media. On his journey he recounts the record of the Voulet-Chanoine expedition and present local people who recount the oral tradition of Voulet’s brutal actions, including numerous massacres of people; men, women and children. These indigenous voices are one of the positive aspects of the presentation of the documentary. This is also illustrated by material from the French archives recording the expedition [indicated by titles] and what seems to be found footage [not credited], some from Niger and some from other apparently unrelated sources.

The story he presents is graphic and the point is made that whilst it is often described as an aberration it is, like the activities described by Conrad, an essential aspect of Europe colonisation of Africa; and indeed of other oppressed peoples. The oral testimonies show how the local peoples retain a strong sense of the aggression perpetrated and a strong resentment to present day neo-colonialism.

However, to my surprise we never hear about Sarrounia and her people’s resistance. There is a description of the resistance by the Sultan of Beni Konni but this results in a massacre reliant on the superior French military technology. At the end Voulet is killed by native auxiliaries and the expedition falls into chaos. It should be noted that other French expeditions continued the subjugation and violence in the area around Lake Chad and succeeded in instituted a Military control.

Why is Sarrounia missing? Given the research that is shown in the film the film-makers must have been aware on her actions. It is worth noting that she is referenced on the Wikipedia page; but not in the main record but in a subsequent paragraph ‘The Mission in Literature and cinema’ which mentions the novel and the film. There is also a record of Sarrounia on a web page on ‘Sarrounia Mangou’ and, indeed on a BBC web page.

This raises the problem of how reliance on European records of events tend to sharing the stance of the colonialist. However, this film also uses indigenous oral history; did they actually find people who talked about Sarrounia? I suspect that there are two reasons for the failure to present Sarrounia and her people’s feats. There is the parallel with Conrad’s novella, which structures the film and I think is intended to provide  a hook for viewers in Britain and Europe. Connected to this is the presentation of the treatment by colonialists of African peoples. At the end of the film we see Femi attending a ‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstration where he speaks briefly about his journey to uncover the violence against Black people under colonialism. Like the film overall, he reiterates that this continues under contemporary neo-colonialism.

My problem with this is that this seems to produce a representation of the African peoples as victims of colonialism. However, Sarrounia‘s exploits show an African people who resisted and retained an autonomy against the colonialists. This is very much the stance that Sarrounia director Med Hondo took. With this is also a representation of the autonomy and resistance of women., expressed in the portrait of the warrior queen.

In fact there is a parallel problem of the latter in the film itself. There are two featured guides for Femi on his journey. Assan Ag Midal Boubacar and Amina Weira. To learn more about the one needs to visit the ‘African Apocalypse’ web pages. It turns out that Amina is a film-maker in her own right. One of her films, La Colere dans le vent (2016), is about the exploitation of miners in Niger’s uranium mines; until recently controlled by France. It was produced by Vrai Films, an independent film and audio-visual company producing social documentaries and with an emphasis on films from Africa. In ‘African Apocalypse’, among what seems to be found footage, are shot of men working in an uranium mine whilst the exploitative nature of this is commented upon. It seems likely that this is footage from Amina’s documentary but the only credit is for Amina and Vrai under ‘Archive’. Her film has had a French video release and featured at a number of Festivals; there does not seem to have been a screening in Britain.

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International Workers’ Day

Posted by keith1942 on May 1, 2021

Greetings for the Day of the International

Working Class.

This year we also celebrate the anniversary

of the heroic Paris Commune of 1871 but

also mourn those who died in this historic

revolutionary action.

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Pomegranates and Myrrh / Al Mor Wa Al Rumman (Palestinian Territories-France-Germany 2008)

Posted by keith1942 on April 30, 2021

Kamar visits Zaid in prison

This was the first feature of a young Palestinian film-maker who has subsequently made two more features; most recently Between Heaven and Earth (2019). She studied in the USA, a common route for Palestinians who still lack a autonomous homeland. Her features rely on funding from abroad, mainly Europe; a common limitation for Palestinian film-makers. Her features dramatise family relationships and traumas that typify the experiences of a people under occupation.

The film opens with the wedding of Kamar (Yasmin Elmasri) and Zaid (Aashraf Farar) in Ramallah, in the occupied Palestinian territories. Zaid owns an olive grove and an olive press. Kamar’s own interest is a local dance group. Shortly after the wedding Israeli soldiers turn up on Zaid’s land with a notice of confiscation. There is a scuffle and Zaid is arrested and imprisoned under ‘administrative detention’. Most of the film follows Kamar as she copes with the situation but also attempts to continue her own life, in particular her membership of the dance troupe. There are periodic visits to Zaid in prison, and at one point he is held in solitary confinement. Kamar’s life becomes more complicated when Kais (Ali Suliman) joins the troupe. He is a choreographer whose family was exiled to Lebanon at the start of the occupation in 1948. By the end of the film the troupe have performed a dance event supervised by Kais, ‘Pomegranates and Myrrh’: Zaid has finally been released from prison and there is tentative reunion between him and Kamar: but the olive grove remain under Israeli occupation.

The film deals with an important issue for Palestinians, the creeping theft of their land under a variety of guises by the Zionist regime. The soldiers claim that the confiscation is because ‘boys threw stones’ from the land. The soldiers then claim that Zaid ‘threatened and attacked’ them to justify his imprisonment. Zaid imprisonment lasts several months and we glimpse the bureaucratic methods used by the Israeli’s to delay any possibility of justice. At the same time Jewish settlers start to occupy the confiscated groves, and at one point vandalise the disused olive press.

However, the prime focus of the film is the situation of the young wife, Kamar. Along with the pressures of the confiscation and her husbands imprisonment are those of friends and family who believe that her dance activities and growing friendship with Kais are unseemly. Eventually the Director of the troupe, incensed by Kais’s interest in Kamar, cancels the planned event that Kais is rehearsing with the dance troupe. The dance finally takes place in a disused playground. And it is during a performance that Kamar and Zaid exchange smiles that suggest their future together.

The film makes an interesting comparison with the 2008 film, Lemon Tree (Etz Limon, Israel, Germany, and France). There is not only a common plot problem, in this case the confiscation of a Lemon Grove, but also shared actors. In Lemon Tree Haim Abbass plays the widow, Salma Zidane, whose grove is under threat because an Israeli Minister moves into the adjoining house: in Pomegranates and Myrrh she plays Umm Habib, the owner of a small café. The café hosts an important scene as Kamar and Kais are forced to spend a night there during an Israeli curfew. Ali Suliman (Kais in Pomegranates and Myrrh) plays the Zaid Doud, the young Palestinian lawyer who conducts Salma’s case. Lemon Tree is clearly the more didactic film: [not a weakness despite the claims of certain mainstream critics]. For me the main weakness was that this didactic tone was rather one-note: it did not develop all the complexities of the situation. For example, Pomegranates and Myrrh has a much stronger sense of the wider context and Palestinian communities. An aspect of the one-note tone is the recurring use made of the folk song, ‘Lemon Tree’, which I felt did not stand frequent re-playing. Lemon Tree also offers a closer look at the Israeli protagonists; the film ends without Salma recovering her land, but with Mira Navon (Rona Lipaz-Michael) leaving her ministerial husband, Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) out of disgust for his oppressive actions. In Pomegranates and Myrrh the Israeli soldiers are almost faceless, and the settlers are uniformly shown in long shot. This is a trope that goes back at least as far as Goya.

Umm Habib

Pomegranates and Myrrh seem to me to subordinate the political issue to the personal. So much of the plot focuses on Kamar’s personal difficulties and the developing relationship with Kais. This is reinforced by the film’s ending, when the audience are left with what seems to be a re-united husband and wife without a clear reference to the confiscated land. The writer and director commented on her approach to the issue and the story:

“The idea for the film started with the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada. …When violence, hate and anger became the only life around me, it almost broke my spirit and soul, and my faith in humanity. I needed to find a way to survive, to find hope in what seemed to be a hopeless situation, to breathe again despite the suffocating weight of frustration. Yet in this search I was also confronted with barriers in a Palestinian society – those which can hinder individual development, dreams and aspirations but none as challenging as those which force people to turn to losing themselves when despair, uncertainty and loss prevails. Writing offered me the escape I needed and a way to release my frustrations. The result was ‘Pomegranates and Myrrh’. I took the story of a Palestinian female dancer trying to fulfil her dreams in a conservative society…. The film is in some ways a prediction of how a worsening political climate and the consequent lack of hope can directly affect Palestinian daily life, pushing the society to further isolate itself and the individual to regress into conservative traditionalism and religion if there isn’t hope, determination and a continuation of life. … It is my hope [that this story] will ultimately deepen the understanding of the present Palestinian story, transcending the barriers of culture and language.” (Leeds Festival Catalogue).

I have to question how far the emphasis of the film on the personal as to the political really does ‘deepen understanding. It is a staple of the commercial, entertainment film, even when it addresses contemporary political contradictions, to focus on the emotions of individual protagonists. This tendency {I believe] weakens and dissipated political issues. This is not a criticism that I would apply to the earlier Lemon Tree.

There is an interesting comment by a ‘reader’ on the Internet Movie Data Base site. One writes, “Although not explained, it is maybe interesting to note that pomegranates were eaten by souls in the underworld to bring about rebirth. Hellenic mythographers said both Kore and Eurydice were detained in the underworld because they ate pomegranate seeds there. Myrrh was traditionally an aphrodisiac.” In this sense the film’s title reinforces the personal issue.

Cinematically Pomegranates and Myrrh is more interesting than the earlier film. There are occasional long shots, usually for establishing a scene or as transitions between scenes. Much of the movie is shot in mid-shot and close-up. This relentlessly emphasises the enchainment of the Palestinians: also present in the mise en scène in the frequent use of bars and enclosures. The films’ opening follows the wedding party on their way to an Orthodox Church for the ceremony. Their journey perforce is through an Israeli checkpoint and alongside the ‘apartheid wall’. This style also reinforces the sense of the restrictions that are laid on the heroine.

However, I felt this style was rather over-done: the continuing close-ups do feel very oppressive and frequently frustrate the viewer’s view of the settings. Another quirk I thought not completely successful was the frequent shots of feet, especially during the dancing by the troupe. A colleague told me that Film Schools advise students that shots of feet make a useful transition, and I have this sense that they are often excessive in contemporary cinema. Despite these reservations Pomegranates and Myrrh is an absorbing film and it generates emotional involvement both around its central issue and the involved protagonists.

Palestinian Territories, France, Germany 2008.

Screened at the 23rd Leeds International Film Festival 2009.

Running Time 95 minutes.

Languages, Arabic, Hebrew, English with some English Subtitles.

Director: Najwa Najjar, Screenwriter: Najwa Najjar.

 

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On representation

Posted by keith1942 on April 2, 2021

I subscribe to the Radical Film Network. You get a lot of notices, more than I can handle. However, you also get some excellent recommendations like this one:

“Following on from Adam Curtis’ “Can’t Get You Out of my Head” I was delighted to watch the latest film on the RFN Film site this morning ‘What is Representation” by sub.Media. For me it’s an excellent analysis of the problematic definition of representation and should be screened to all media students. Being only 11 minutes long as opposed to Curtis’ 6 hour production, it probably says as much in that short time.

So thank you sub,Media for putting it on our site – I hope you’ll get lots of viewings.”

Here is the link: https://vimeo.com/groups/radicalfilmnetwork/videos/521521533

‘What is Representation’ is part of an ‘A for Anarchy’ series on sub.Media;

“sub.Media is a video production ensemble, which aims to promote anarchist and anti-capitalist ideas, and aid social struggles through the dissemination of radical films and videos. Founded in 1994, subMedia.tv has produced hundreds of videos on everything from anti-globalization protests to films about shoplifting. Our films have been screened around the world in social centers and movie theaters and have been watched by millions on the internet.”

In eleven minutes this short video manages to pack a lot of analysis and comment on a term that is bandied about in media studies; frequently without it being clear what exactly it means, covers or indeed ‘represents’.

The video offers a stream of moving images from many sources; mostly the mainstream media. I did find the stream had a rapid pace, rather too rapid. Being able to play it in slow motion, [like Jean-Luc] would be interesting. However, viewers who are used to the tempo of much modern video will probably find it fine. The majority of clips are moving images with sound but the sound is not heard; rather two songs play behind the commentary. Given how important sounds are in representations and that noise rather than the dialogue or commentary frequently receive less attention, I think it would be helpful to address this.

The commentary that runs over these images is excellent and it comments on the underlying social relations of representations, an aspect often overlooked. There are a number of references to ‘ideology’, another term that seems to have multiple meanings and which in any particular case it may not clear which is meant. It did seem to me that this video treated ideology as something which applies to nearly all intended communications. This term, unlike representation, is undefined and I could not find among the sub-Media titles on its web page one that dealt specifically with ideology.

What is ideology. I follow a key definition and usage by Karl Marx; that ideology is not just the dominant ideas of the ruling class in a social formation but a viewpoint that treats the surface aspects rather than the underlying social relations. This video tends to treat ideology in the first sense though the commentary does emphasize that any representation disguises the real relations involved. It also appears to see all representations as of this character. I tend to think that there are communications, like this video aware of the underlying social relations, which, to that extent, are not ideological.

There are indeed two meanings of representation in the video. In its early part the emphasis and examples are of portrayal of people and people’s actions that re-present our world. Towards the end the commentary addresses the ideas that actual people in power are seen to represent those not in power; that is they claim our voice and our consent for the activities of the state. Both meanings of representation interact in what is called hegemony; the dominance of the ideas of the ruling class. This takes a very particular form under the capitalist mode of production. Whilst the video addresses the sense of capitalist societies I think there is a need for a accompanying video about the commodity that lies at the heart of this mode of production. Another entry in ‘A is for Anarchy’ is ‘Property’ which refers to commodities but this is a commentary that I think needs development. A second title in the series is ‘Class’; this I thought good on the working class but that it needed development in its commentary on the Capitalist class.

The commentary ends with a generalised call for the anarchist movement; something which also does not seem to be set out in any video in ‘A for Anarchy’. So sub.Media’s ‘representation’ of the way that these cultural transmissions work itself needs to be critically viewed.

I note that the recommendation also referred to the new set of titles by Adam Curtis. I have watched earlier series by Adam Curtis and find his work extremely problematic. This seems to be the case as well with ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’. I only watched the first episode; that was enough. Curtis tends to use ideas expropriated from other thinkers but not always credited. He espouses a type of fast editing [Montage] which is typical of the modern media but fails to draw critical attention to the representation itself. And in this title he criticizes what is termed ‘individualism’ but which itself relies on individualist values.

Sub.Media is definitely a better use of your time.

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Blood and Tears French Decolonisation

Posted by keith1942 on December 18, 2020

This is a three part documentary; episodes run just under fifty minutes. The production was directed by Korn Brzoza and Pascal Blanchard for the Cinétévé audio-visual company. The narrative covers from the 1930s up until the 1960s; the period in which the world-wide empire of the French State gradually escaped the bonds placed on peoples and lands. This was the great period of oppressed peoples and nations throwing off the shackles of predominately European colonial powers and achieving some form of independence and freedom . The process saw widespread and often brutal violence inflicted on people struggling for freedom. However, the French State offered the most intransigence and the most extreme violence in response.

The documentary provides interviews with people from both sides of a number of the conflicts: liberation fighters: ordinary indigenous people: settlers: French military and critics in France. There is a substantial amount of archive footage, both film and television material. And there is a commentary that is broadly critical of the French resistance to decolonisation and of the French strategy and tactics.

There is focus on the well-known struggles in Vietnam and in Algeria. But there is also a focus on less well known struggles and the less well-known violent spasms by the French State and military. The French empire included peoples in North and North-West Africa, South East Africa, the West Indies, Indo-China and the Pacific. The account includes massacres in Madagascar and in the Ivory Coast. There is the appalling brutality used in the construction of a railway in Senegal. And there is the more Machiavellian strategy pursued in some areas, such as the West Indies.

The interviews, film material and commentary probe both the way that the French State operated and the way that Independence movements worked. There is also comment on the response internationally, especially to the French actions in Indo-China and Algeria. Most of these present responses in the United Nations. There is not much coverage on other colonial powers. The commentary seems to imply that the French were far more violent and more intransigent than other colonial powers. This is only partly true. The example of British responses to independence struggle was frequently as violent as the French; check their actions against the Mau-Mau in Kenya. And, to take another example, the British role in enabling the French to re-occupy Vietnam at the end of World war II is overlooked.

Another issue is the continuing neo-colonial role operated by the French State, especially in North and North-West Africa. The commentary does mention this and there are examples of French neo-colonialism in the 1960s. But it is really stressed how this continues in 2020. The French State continues to operate economic, military and political activities in an number of apparently independent states. In this sense, like the British State, it continues the exploitation and oppression of the colonial era.

The history presented in this documentary is one that is rarely treated in film or on television. Al Jazeera in recent years have produced a number of such titles, presenting stories and issues that the mainstream media in the European colonising states have ignored. So this is welcome opportunity for viewing. The documentary has its limitations as I suggest above. There is also an issue about the style and technical form of the episodes. Al Jazeera has in recent years, unfortunately, followed the conventional treatment on television of mishandling archive film material. As with other recent documentaries the archive material, mainly filmed in academy ratio, has been re-framed to fit the 16:9 screen. This three part title has now gone even further in colourising the predominately black and white archival footage. Some of it looks pretty bad and the whole treatment is anachronistic. The problem is highlighted by a couple of instances where film material is presented in its original aspect ratio: one short clip is from Afrique 50 (Africa 50) René Vautier | Niger/Côte d’Ivoire 1950. I assume that the film’s copyright holder insisted that the film’s original form be respected.

Still the series is worth watching. It is available on the Al Jazeera web pages where it can be viewed without the interruptions that occur in broadcasts.

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Leeds Palestinian Film Festival 2020

Posted by keith1942 on November 18, 2020

This year’s programme is, as with so many events, an online or virtual festival. It runs from November 14th until November 28th. The programme is structured through four themes:

Annexation, Occupation Defiance

Roadmap to Apartheid is a 2012 US documentary. It was made by Ana Nogueira who is a white South African with Eron Davidson who is a Jewish Israeli. They use their knowledge of the two states and their settler regimes, [the South African is past] to explore the parallels between them. They provide information and testimonies that show the similarities and differences of the two states. The testimonies are provided by Israelis, Palestinians and South Africans. The parallels are emphasized visually by running archive footage of both systems in split screens.

The parallels include occupation, enforced separation, violent suppression, ID controls, housed demolition and bantustan-type areas. The South African testimonies also comment that the Israeli system includes actions that were not used in South Africa; these include the separation wall, armed helicopter surveillance and open warfare against Palestinians. On the last point it is worth noting the South African Apartheid regime invasion of Angola and surreptitious invasion in Mozambique. Alongside this the investigation highlights the military co-operation that existed between the two regimes fin the 1970s and 1980s.

The documentary ends with the argument that the only way to resolve the conflict is a ‘one-state’ solution; an argument that so many people resist.

Naila and the Uprising is a 2017 documentary produced by Just Vision and like their other title, Budrus, explores grass roots activism. Much of the story it tells takes place in the first Intifada in the late 1980s. Naila is a young Palestinian woman who marries a fellow activists. But their marriage coincides with increased Israeli repression. Naila becomes a leading figure in a popular movement in which women play an important part. She becomes a target for the Israeli surveillance and security. During one spell in prison she suffers a miscarriage. Later she suffers further imprisonment, now accompanied by her young son. On release her partner is deported and the couple are once more separated. Naila’s story provides an example of the heroism and the cost of activism among Palestinians. The film uses interviews, archive footage and animation; and it provides a chronicle of the Intifada and of how ordinary Palestinian organised resistance.

The latter part of the film presents the US sponsored talks, [a rare US action sympathetic to the Palestinians] between Israel and Palestinians and the Oslo accords that followed. These show how the out-of-touch PLO leadership made an agreement without the participation of the activists who led the struggle. Predictably the agreement merely placated the US and it international partners whilst giving little to the Palestinians. This is a fine and at times moving record.

Jews Step Forward is a US documentary from 2015 that features a series on interviews with Jewish US citizens who at one time supported, in some way, Israel but now are part of the opposition to the Israeli occupation. The interviews are presenting in clips and the presentation cuts from one person to another. What adds power to their recollections and comments is that these clips also alternate with footage and images of Palestine, its history and its present.

The first half -an-hour presents people’s personal history and their involvement in Jewish culture and Zionism. Then for about 45 minutes they detail the history and impact of Zionist migration. Here we see footage from the early days of migration: the Nakba: 1967 and the enlarged occupation: the settlement movement: and the wars inflicted on Gaza.

In the final half-an-hour we see and hear the ways that they support the Palestinian struggle and, in particular, the Boycott – Divestment – Sanctions campaign. There is also comment on the responses, both from Israel and in the wider Zionist camp,

The whole offers a powerful testimony on the issues. Some of the illustrative material is pretty shocking; I do not remember this amount of brutal action in one title.

My main reservation is regarding the editing strategy. In the first part the interviewees’ comments are often extended. But as the documentary progresses the comments seem to be shorter and the cutting between people faster. This appears to follow the conventional editing style on television of ‘talking heads’. I find this approach does not provide space for complex comments and I do find that it subverts my attention. The documentary runs for nearly two hours but the treatment of the US role and interest in the Zionist State is rather underdeveloped; yet it is the main factor in perpetuating the Zionist occupation. Of course, this is all before the Trump administration.

But it is a powerful viewing with convincing testimonies.

Budrus is a Palestinian/Israeli documentary produced by ‘Just Vision’, an organisation supporting grassroots film-making. The village of Budrus, like much of the West Bank, suffers from  the construction of the Israeli ‘apartheid wall’. The film charts the non-violent resistance organised in the village and how, eventually, it was successful in producing some changes in the line of the wall and the impact on the village. However, during the resistance  many of the local olive trees were uprooted, residents were attacked by Israeli military as were supporting Israeli citizens who oppose the state policies. The film includes voices of the Palestinians, the Israeli’s and one Israeli member of the border police. The last appears to have emerged from the experience with the same irredeemable prejudices.

I saw the title when it was released in Britain in a 70 mninute version in 2009, the version available here is 82 minutes produced for a DVD release. It is a powerful testament to the quality of Palestinian resistance and the vicious nature of Israeli violence against Palestinians. The film, unusually, ends with a victory for Palestinians; but this is only one battle as the Wall and the occupation continue.

As Seen by Annemarie Jacir

AnneMarie Jacir is a talented and distinctive Palestinian film-maker.  When I Saw You / Lamma shoftak (2012) was her second feature as both writer and director.  It was released in Britain in 2014 and screened in Leeds that year. The story is set in 1967; the year of a further ‘Nakba’ for Palestinians as Israel added to the lands stolen and occupied in historic Palestine. The setting is Jordan and a Palestinian refugee camp but there is a hidden fedayeen base nearby. The fedayeen moved into Jordan when they lost their bases in the Jordanian holdings of Palestinian territory.

The two central characters are Mahmoud Asfa  as Tarek, a young boy, and his mother played by Ruba Blal as  Ghaydaa. Their husband and father is lost, presumably during the Israeli invasion of the same year. Both long, as do the other refugees, to return to their homeland. Tarek is consumed by the wish to see his father and as well as  returning  to their home. The wandering Tarek finds his way into the fedayeen camp where he becomes a sort of mascot. And his mother joins him there later. Much of the film presents a group of fedayeen recruits training for longed-for action against the Zionist.

The representation of the refugee camp and the fedayeen camp is completely convincing. And the situation of the mother and son is full of sympathy. Among the fedayeen there is a strong sense of optimism that they will regain their homeland. All through this Tarek’s desire to return is acute. At the climax he attempts jus this.

The nearest we come to sight of the zonists is a border land rover slowly patrolling fencing. They are, as in innumerable western and war films, an unseen enemy; the other. Here the film’s sense of space, finally visualised throughout, provides a moving and ambiguous note.

The film essayed a subject that has not featured so far in the Palestinian ‘new wave’. And the characters of mother and son are finely drawn. This offers an impressive, interesting and absorbing feature. Shot in colour and with English sub-titles for the Arabic songs and dialogue.

Wajib (2017) is the second title written and directed by AnneMarie Jacir in the Festival. The title translates as ‘duty’; the duty here is the traditional delivery of wedding invitations by hand. A father and his son, who now lives and works in Italy, drive round Nazareth with the invitations. They meet friends and relatives, drink innumerable cups of coffee, have a specially cooked meal, and, on a couple of occasions, are offered alcohol. Their journey is punctuated not just the numerous calls bit also by the conflicts between parent and off-spring. We learn that the wife and mother of this pair left them years before. Shadi, the son, lives with the daughter of an exiled PLO leader. That Shadi lives abroad and their different set of values cause repeated irritation between them. We also meet the daughter, Amal, in a sequence where they have to help her select her wedding dress.

Their whole journey and lives are dictated to by the Israeli occupation. This does not produce a direct confrontation, but constant pressure. Shadi is also incensed by the compromises than his father, a teacher, has made under the occupation.

The detail of life and of rituals among Palestinians is fascinating. The family conflicts are for a time amusing but also develop some serious drama. Jacir has a well honed ability to capture the ambience of life and of a particular culture. This is a fascinating study and always absorbing. And whilst the style is low-key very well done.

As Seen by Children

As Seen Through Creative Eyes

All told there are fourteen features that include both dramas and documentaries. In addition there are several supporting videos. As with earlier Festivals there are a range of views and experiences from amongst Palestinians and the few critical voices found among Israelis

The Festival is available on line through ‘InPlayer’ which is an online streaming platform. It claims to be ;

‘the world’s leading pay-per-view and subscription solution’.

It appears to be based in Britain and be an independent company. It relies on the Vimeo provision. There does not appear to be a test video to check reception but when I looked both the image and sound were of a reasonable quality. I have viewed two titles. both of which ran at 720 and there was some buffering.

You can check yourself on the Festival WebPages by looking at one of the ‘free’ videos like ‘Through the Eyes of Others – Launch Event’. This is useful as there is an introduction and a conversation regarding grassroots film provision.

You can buy a festival pass, but only if based in Britain, or buy tickets for individual titles. Note, with the latter your viewing window is 48 hours. The pass enables you to view right through the period.

Note: sadly the London Palestine Film Festival is running to almost the same dates with a different set of titles.

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