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3000 Nights / 300 Layal / 3000 Layla, Palestine | France | Jordan | Lebanon | Qatar | United Arab Emirates 2015

Posted by keith1942 on March 9, 2017

This is a powerful addition to the growing body of Palestinian films. It seems that previously it has only been featured at the London Film Festival in 2015 and it has not been certificated by the BBFC. Now the Showroom in Sheffield, working with other exhibitors and some local Palestinian support groups, has made the film more widely available. I saw the film at the Hyde Park Picture House, supported by Leeds Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. The film is in colour and the dialogue is in both Arabic and Hebrew [and possibly some French] with English subtitles. The film is almost entirely shot within the confines of a prison. It was filmed in Jordan, unlike some of the recent titles produced in the occupied West Bank: the subject matter would have made that difficult.

The film opens in a van where blindfolded Palestinian prisoners are being taken to an Israeli jail. This is a suitably dark, noir sequence. An onscreen title informs us that it is 1980. Among the prisoner is Layal (English variant Layla – Maisa Abd Elhadi). She has been arrested on the charge of helping a Palestinian ‘terrorist’; The events are never fully explained but it seems that she gave a lift to a young man who is accused of shooting an Israeli. The Israelis never produce any evidence to support their charges.

Once in prison Layal is tortured, interrogated and denied access to friends and family. Then she is incarcerated in a large cell in a women’s prison with Israeli criminals; these include a drug addict and an obviously racist woman. Layal is immediately subjected to harassment by the other prisoners. The warder and the guards are not just unsympathetic but actively aid the persecution. Then Layal discovers she is pregnant. She is now moved to a cell with Palestinian women. However, the woman Governor tries to persuade Layal to have an abortion,. Her husband, when he is finally allowed to see her, adds his voice to this.

When Layal is bought before a military court there appears to be no convincing evidence against her. At one point the young Palestinian accused of the shooting is bought into court and Layal is pressurised to claim that he threatened her; she refuses. Her lawyer, a sympathetic Israeli, tries to get her release but she is declared guilty and given an eight year sentence.

The film follows her experiences of imprisonment. At first the other Palestinian women in the cell are suspicious of Layal, partly because she has been allowed family visits: a way used by the Israeli guards to pressurise prisoner into co-operation. On particular one prisoner, Sanaa (Nadira Omran), who is a freedom fighter locked up for fifteen years, suspects Layla of such co-operation. Despite these pressures, and those applied by the guards and her husband., Layal is delivered of her baby. This sequence shows her handcuffed and leg-cuffed to a bed for the delivery!

With the arrival of a son, Nour, her situation and the tone of the film brighten. The other Palestinian woman assist Layal in the care of her child. We watch this process as Nour passes his first two years. In 1982 the prisoners hear of the \Israeli invasion of Lebanon, followed by the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila camps. The women commence a hunger strike and also refuse to do the work for the Israeli guards. The Palestinian male prisoners, in a adjoining compound, follow suit. As the conflict escalates Layla is removed from the cell and locked up alone with Nour. A second Palestinian woman joins her and persuades her to drop the strike for the sake of Nour. When Layal realises that she is a collaborator she rejoins the strike. As punishment Nour is taken away; [we will realise later that he has been placed with Layal’s family’]. Despite this Layal continues to support the strike. There is a brutal sequence where the Israeli guards break up a protest and shoot a young Palestinian woman. Then they use tear gas on the prisoners and savage them in the cells. The woman continue to resist. Now comes news that the ‘resistance’ has kidnapped six Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. This leads to prisoner swap [six for over 4,000] and Sanaa is one of those released.

Layal has to continue to serve her full eight years. Finally she is released. The last shot shows her re-united with Nour outside the prison. On screen titles then inform the audience of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners who have been incarcerated by the Israelis, including currently six thousand men, women and children.

This is the first full length drama involving the treatment of Palestinians seized and locked up by the Israeli state that I have seen. There are other films where prisoners are manipulated by Israeli’s but these were part of larger stories about resistance and the Israeli response. The fact that the film focuses on women adds to the emotional power of the film. The treatment they endure is draconian and racist: but this is the staple of the Zionist occupation. The film also shows Layal’s growing strength, determination and resistance. The pregnancy and Nour’s upbringing add lighter note but also impact on Layal’s response to her situation.

The film offers many tropes of the prison film genre. There have been several films in recent years that deal with woman and children in prison. Leonera (Argentina 2008) is a particular fine example. there are distinct parallels between that film and 3000 Nights. Whilst the protagonist in Leonera , Julia, is in prison for a criminal act, there is a similar growth in strength and independence and the final moment of freedom for mother and child.

3000 Nights also uses other tropes from prison films. there are several short sequences where Layal watches the birds that fly around the cages of the prison: a motif for freedom denied the prisoners. And later in the film there is a shot of Layal as she stands in the pouring rain but imbued with her sense of independence.

The film offers fairly adult viewing given the violence perpetrated on the women. At the same time it has strong sense of the politics of liberation. The events involving the ‘resistance’ [the PLO] are one aspect: but the resistance of the women to their situation is another. Even by the standards of prison films, say those sited in the USA or in a country like Brazil, the treatment of the Palestinian  women is disturbing. But this is par for the situation of people in a colonised situation. A parallel would be a film from Apartheid South Africa, say Mapantsula (1988), where racist treatment is also faced by a growing consciousness and resistance.

This is the first film I have seen by the writer and director Mai Masri. It is extremely well done. The development of the story and of Layal’s consciousness is well paced and convincing. The Palestinian characters are more than stereotypes as are the Israelis. The latter are predominantly negative but the script includes both a Liberal Israeli lawyer and an Israeli prisoner who has a change of attitude after an act of assistance. Layal’s husband leaves for Canada and there is a hint of romance with a male Palestinian prisoner/ medical orderly, which I found unnecessary. The film  is based to on the actual experiences of Palestinian women i imprisoned by the Israeli state, including those who had children in prison. This reality shines through in the film.

The quality of the production is really good. there is excellent cinematography and sound. And there is judiciously judged music. The supporting vast are convincing.

There are more screenings arranged in the UK and the internationally the film has been released in at least eighteen territories.

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Rangoon India 2017

Posted by keith1942 on March 6, 2017

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The nearby Odeon programmes Hindi language films or ‘Bollywood’ as it is popularly known. In the last week they had the above title, described in their publicity leaflet as follows:

“Romantic war drama film … a period film set in World War II and supposedly portrays the life and times of Mary Ann Evans aka Fearless Nadia, Bollywood’s first original stunt-woman still remembered for her fiery role[s]…”

I am a fan of classic Bombay cinema and I have seen and enjoyed a couple of the titles starring Fearless Nadia. There was the added prospect of recreations of the Bombay Wadia Studio of the period. To my surprise my pleasure was enhanced when the film opened with black and white footage and stills [mainly in the correct ratio] of Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army. Bose led this army of Indians living in the captured Japanese territories or Indian prisoners of war in the conflict alongside the Japanese army and against the British occupation of India.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend”

Appropriately the original was in Sanskrit.

I have seen references to Bose and the INA in other films but this is the first [for me]  in which they played a substantial role in the plot. So this romantic melodrama offered over two hours of Indian song and dance, war-time recreations and a political and anti-colonial strand. On screen titles explained the situation of the INA, fighting under the umbrella of the Japanese: and the limitations of this situation for them. The film also drew attention to the female members of the army organised into the Jhansi ki Rani (“Jhansi Queens”) Regiment.

Bose and the "Jhansi Queens")

Bose and the “Jhansi Queens”)

The film’s central narrative opens as a Viceroy commissioned officer [i.e. an indigenous Indian] Jemadar Nawab Malik (Shahid Kapoor) is captured by the Japanese. We then moved to a Bombay film studio where Miss Julia (the Fearless Nadia character played by Kangana Ranaut) is performing a action-packed sequence for her latest film. The producer, an ex-film star and Miss Julia’s lover, is Rustom “Rusi” Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan). The two characters, Nawab Malik and Miss Julie, will meet later in the film and commence a romantic relationship.

The villains in the film are the British occupiers, personalised in the character of Major General David Harding (Richard McCabe). His is an Indiaphile: he speaks fluent Hindi and can play the harmonium whilst singing a classical Indian raga. He is however also a ruthless upholder of the Raj in its battle with the Japanese. He pressurises “Rusi” to let Miss Julia tour the front line, enthusing the troops; his weapon is the withholding of the rare film stock from the studio.

Harding and "Rusi"

Harding and “Rusi”

Much of the first part of the film, [which has an interval] is taken up with Miss Julia being parted from the military convoy. when Japanese fighter strafe the column, in which she is travelling to the front-line. She is rescued from Japanese soldiers by Nawab Malik. These two along, with a Japanese prisoner, travel through the jungle and are finally re-united with the British convoy. It is in this time that romance blossoms between Miss Julia and Nawab Malik.

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In the second part of the film we see Miss Julia’s concerts to the troops, who are enthusiastically dazzled by the star. At the same time ‘moles’ within the convoy are planning to smuggle a valuable sword to the INA troops; who need funds to buy military equipment. It is the latter plotline that leads to the climax and resolution of the film. The plot has to deal with the historical realities of INA failure. So the ending is partly tragic, but Harding is outmanoeuvred by the INA supporters and the film ends with a celebratory still recording that the INA actually occupied Indian soil and hoisted the flag of Independence in 1944.

Rangoon is a typical product of modern Hindi cinema. There is high melodrama, songs and dances, and the plot is interlaced with partly comic support characters, such as the Japanese prisoner Horomichi (Satoru Kawaguchi). The plot also twins a typical Hindi film romance with a period drama including the conventional Hindi hero. So whilst Miss Julia is a feisty heroine, at one point she carries out a dramatic train rescue clearly modelled on a Fearless Nadia film, at key points it is the male characters who wield the gun. The film seems to be more explicit in terms of sexuality than is common: we see “Rusi” and Miss Julia sharing a bathtub [with plenty of bubbles] and in bed together [though properly clothed]. The film finally essays an Indian unity over against the British in its resolution; all the key Hindi characters come together in support of the INA. A trope that I have encountered in other Indian films.

The songs and dance numbers are bravura sequences. there is an early number on a moving train that seems to have been inspired by Mani Ratnam’s film Dil Se (1998). And there are several exhilarant performances by Miss Julia for the front-line troops. in keeping with the techniques of them period we see Miss Julia performing to ‘playback’ singer, who appears herself to an actual playback artist. The dance and choreography seem more typical of contemporary cinema than the films of the 1930s and 1940s when Fearless Nadia was a star.

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The film was directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. I had seen his earlier films and enjoyed Maqbool (2003) adapted from ‘Macbeth’, and Omkara (2006) from ‘Othello’. He has also adapted ‘Hamlet’, Haider (2014), which I have yet to see. Bhardwaj started out as a composer and progressed to direction. He composed the music in this film and two of his regular collaborators, the lyricist Gulzar and the playback singer Rekha Bhardwaj, feature in this film. The cinematography by Pankaj Kumar  is excellent. I had already seen Kangana Ranaut  in Queen (20140, an impressive and slightly unusual film for which she won Best Actor at the National Film Awards. Miss Julia in Rangoon gives her a great part which she plays to the full. There are action sequences, great dance numbers, moments of high melodrama and moments of intense romance; all of which she performs with real aplomb. She is the key to the film.

The reworking of Fearless Nadia, not that close to the actual star and her films, works very effectively. It seems that the contemporary Wadia Studio took out a legal action because of the resemblance to their one-time star. They seem to have lost this suit. It also seemed ill-judged: one would think this film could/would arouse fresh interest in Nadia. But the most interesting aspect of the film is the focus and time and space that it gives to the Indian National Army. As noted the film both opens and closes with footage of the INA. And whilst the film is a romance the motivation of the protagonists, both heroic and villainous, revolves round the INA fight against the British occupation . The title of the film, Rangoon [Yangon], the old capital of Burma, only features in the dialogue and seems to be a reference to the INA command being based there during the campaign. Apart from documentaries I have not seen of another film that devoted this much attention to the INA. It seems that the forthcoming Raag Desh will deal with the trials of INA members by the British at the end of the war. Wikipedia has a number of references to both documentaries and feature films that include the INA.

In its espousal of the anti-colonial struggle the film clearly expresses an Indian Nationalist discourse. Given its mainstream conventions this would place it in First Cinema. Presumably for Indian audiences more familiar with the issues around the INA and with memories or awareness of Fearless Nadia’s stardom, the film is partly nostalgic. But as we also approach the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence there is the prospect of moments of increased consciousness.

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The film is in colour and 2.35:1 ratio with English sub-titles. Unfortunately the UK release seems to have been cut by about twenty minutes.

 

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Cuban Cinema?

Posted by keith1942 on February 12, 2017

The proper place to obtain Cuban films.

The proper place to obtain Cuban films.

Normally when I check ouit a Film Festival I recommend a couple of films. But I received a shock when I looked at the Webpages for the Harrogate Film Festival.

‘Experience screening: Cuban Cinema’ is offering the Hollywood thriller Scarface (1983). This film has a fine performance by Al Pacino in the title role and bears the hall marks of the director Brian de Palma. It is in fact a remake of a Howard Hawks film from 1932. This bore some resemblance to the Al Capone era and had a psychotic Italian-American gangster as the protagonist. In the de Palma’s remake Tony is now a Cuban exile and is certainly more violent than the 1930s model: plus he has progressed to marketing and consuming drugs.

From memory the entire film is set in the USA. And it is debatable in what way people who fled the progressive revolution in Cuba to seek reactionary shelter in the USA can in any sense represent Cuba. If I had the time and money I would take up the case under the Bruitish Trade Description Act.

The screening seems to be organised in conjuction with Revolucìon de Cuba and is to be held in a ‘Latin inspired Rum Bar and Cantina’. I suspect that the ‘Revolucìon’ here bears at much resemblance to the actuality as the title does to Cuban film.

Rather sad as we have been starved of Cuban cinema for over a decade. Apart from Festivals the last time that I enjoyed a screening of a Cuban film was in the 1990s. Yet  it in its heyday it was one of the most dynamic, and inspiring cinemas around.

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World War I Through Arab Eyes.

Posted by keith1942 on January 23, 2017

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This is another excellent documentary from Al Jazeera, broadcast in three episodes of 48 minutes apiece. The film was scripted by and is presented by Malik Triki, a Tunisian writer and broadcaster. The films uses much archive material, nearly all of it in black and white and presented in its proper aspect ratio. There are interviews with prominent historians, archivists and commentators. And we follow Triki as he researches archives, libraries and collections. At one point he stands in a London street with what appears to be the original letter of the Balfour Declaration.

The first episode treats off the military aspects of the war and the experiences of hundreds of thousands of Arabs conscripted into the differing and opposing armies in the war. On the side of the British/French alliance (together with Italy and Russia) were recruits from Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. Sometimes conscripted and forced into service, often recruited with the assistance of fellow travellers of the colonial powers. A separate tranche of  Arabs were recruited into the armies of the Ottoman Empire, allied with Germany and Austria, from  Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Syria. The casualty rates among these colonial troops was usually higher than that of the western troops. Arabs were especially high in the casualty lists at Gallipoli.

The Ottomans, episode 2, is a study of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The alliance with Germany led finally to defeat and collapse. The film looks at the rise of Ataturk and the Young Turk Government. This successfully saw off invasions by the erstwhile enemies and by Greece. The programme also showed how the Ottoman rule attempted to suppress the growing Arab Nationalism.

Episode three, The New Middle East, showed how the New Arab Nationalism was diverted and the suppressed by the colonial powers of Britain and France. The programme looked at the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement and at the carve-up of countries at the Versailles Conference in Paris. Much of Arabia was divided up in ‘mandates’ enjoyed by Britain and France. And both countries set about suppressing revolts whilst Britain maintained its control of Egypt.

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The programme also studied the notorious Balfour Declaration in which the British Government presented the Palestinian homeland to the Zionist Movement. As was pointed out this is possibly the longest lasting effect of the war in the Middle East. I should add that this year, 2017, sees the centenary of the Balfour Declaration: a letter dated 2nd November 1917. One of history’s ironies is that this was the eve of the October Revolution [November 7th in the New Style Western Calendar].

I read an excellent article by Robert Fisk in ‘The Independent’ that made the point about the imposed boundaries in the region after World War I. He described an early Daesh video that showed a bulldozer drying a gap in a long line of sand: one of the post-Versailles borders. Daesh’s appeal works on the legacy of that era in the region.

These programmes have seen shown a couple of times on Al Jazeera UK. They are also on the Al Jazeera Website pages on ‘Documentaries’. The advantage here is that there is no news strap line on the bottom of the image. These programmes are instructive on important history that is commonly overlooked or ignored.

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A United Kingdom, USA/UK/Czech Republic 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on December 18, 2016

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This is the latest film by Amma Asante. Her first film was A Way of Life (2004) which she both scripted and directed. It is set in a Welsh coastal town and focuses on single mother Stephanie (Leigh-Anne Williams) and her brother and two male friends. Whilst the film deals with what are often called the under-class, but which is more accurately defined as lumpen-proletariat, it is not strictly social realism. The social context is implied rather than spelt out. In fact it plays rather like a Greek tragedy without a chorus and with a moment of intended catharsis which does not quite work. [Incendies (200(0 is an excellent example of Greek-style tragedy on film). A Way of Life also has a televisual feel to it: there are frequent shots of the sunset over the local port, but these do not feel part of the visual development.

Asante followed this with Belle (2013) a period film offering the biography of an illegitimate mixed-race woman (Dido Elizabeth Belle – Gugu Mbatha-Raw) whose father was the nephew of the Earl of Mansfield, also Chief Justice. This film used a famous portrait of Belle and her cousin as a focus for the story. The film’s treatment added quite a lot of fictional elements to the tale. Asante used an existing script and developed this for the film that she directed. This led to her losing the screen credit as writer.

The film had a strong sense of the situation of a black woman in the C18th, part of but not accepted in aristocratic society. But it also followed many of the conventions of British film period dramas. Much of the film exhibited the decorum that goes with the genre. And this was accentuated by the well-written but recognisable music style. And the attempt to add to the limited biography of Belle with contemporary historical events [the famous or infamous Zong Case which involved Mansfield] seem peripheral to the issues.

Her new film fits into the same genre and also follows similar conventions: and the film is scripted by Guy Hibbert [his previous script is Eye in the Sky, 2015]. The story is another taken from real-life, the ‘mixed-race’ marriage of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamond Pike). Seretse is the prospective Paramount Chief in the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland [later Botswana]. The politics of the late 1940s, in particular the move to an apartheid state in neighbouring South Africa, made their marriage a very public affair. The current Labour Government and the succeeding Conservative Government both tried to effectively remove Seretse as the ruler of the Protectorate. The film chronicles the personal relationship, the struggles in both Britain and in Bechuanaland and, importantly, the support of their struggles by the ordinary members of the indigenous tribe and by liberal figures in the UK and the USA.

I thought the production values of the film were good and the cast excellent. David Oyelowo and Rosamond Pike are especially effective in their roles. As is common in this genre the music is well written but often obtrusive, signalling moments of particular drama or emotion.

But the film also exhibited the decorum that typifies this genre. There are moment so explicit sexuality, one shot in particular of a partially covered Oyelowo emphasises his blackness. But for much of the film I was more conscious of his class rather than his blackness. But the latter provides the focus for the overt story. Oyelowo also played the lead in the 2015 Selma. But that films has an intensity that this tale rarely achieves. It also used a pattern of light and shadow to illuminate the plot. This film failed to provide an equivalent. In an earlier period restraint in British films provided a potent sense of denial and lack, [e.g. Brief Encounter]. But the sense of good taste does not work in the same way contemporary dramas, even if when in that period. Moreover this is a melodrama of resistance, which works rather differently.

Some publicity suggests that the film is about crossing the barriers of “race” and class. Whilst this is true of the former it is not really of the latter. Seretse is heir apparent, partly educated at Baliol College Oxford and studying to be a barrister. Ruth’s father is n ex-army captain and worked in the tea business; the film uses the term ‘salesman’. Ruth herself works at Lloyd’s and indignantly tells one official that she as not just a typist. Seretse would seem to be a bourgeois, [rather like his African compatriot Nelson Mandela}. Ruth is most likely bourgeoisie. In social and economic terms they make a likely couple.

In the film we first see Seretse involved in a boxing bout. His white opponent cheats. When he meets Ruth we find both are avid fans of jazz and love dancing. I am not clear whether these biographical details are accurate but they seem to fit into conventional characterisations of black men on screen.

The political establishment in the film is conventional in its arrogance and prejudice. And the opposite characters, [such as Fenner Brockway and a young Tony Benn] are equally recognisable. But where I feel the film really falls down is in its treatment of Africa and the African people. These characters are much less developed, even Seretse’s uncle, a key character, and his sister. And the ordinary members of the Bechuanaland tribes are closer to cyphers.

The majority of the population belong to the Tswana or Butswana tribe, but there are also minority tribe. In the film they are just a uniform group. There have two important parts in the plot involving ordinary Africans. Firstly there is a traditional Tribal meeting [kgotlas] and in the film Seretse needs the acceptance of this forum to claim his chieftainship. However, it is unclear in the film how the assembly makes decision. Cleanly only small part of the population attend. And we do not actually see the decision process which apparently rested with a small group of tribal elders.

Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo portray Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana and Ruth Williams who caused an international stir when Seretse married a white woman (Williams) from London in the late 1940s.

Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo to portray Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana and Ruth Williams who caused an international stir when Seretse married a white woman (Williams)from London in the late 1940s.

Then there are scenes where local African women support Ruth through her travails. But the women are not well delineated and their function relates to Ruth’s character rather their own.

In the film Seretse is regularly referred to as ‘king’ elect. However, his actual position is a Tribal Chief and I suspected that ‘king’ is a western import which does not accurately reflect his position in an African context. With his western education, whilst the film shows acceptance by his tribal people, he seems part of the existing establishment. And there is a historical omission, even from the onscreen titles that end the film. When the British colonials took possession of the original lands they divided them. The Southern part of the tribal lands were placed with the Cape Colony and ended up as part of South Africa. I though this dispossession should have been in the film. Moreover, it was, presumably, a factor in the stance of the Apartheid government.

Despite its liberal intent, [worn on the sleeve so to speak] the film seems to fall within the dominant cinema. What it offers is a limited critique which criticises individuals or institutions rather than the whole colonial process. To an extent Africans, as in Eye in the Sky, are  there to support the drama led by Western characters. Added to this is the lack of dynamism which I felt when watching the film. Asante’s first film had a dynamism which is rather lacking in her follow-up films, perhaps because she did not fully control the scripts? It is a shame because there is an interesting and still relevant story which could work powerfully and politically in film.

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Fidel Castro 1926 to 2016

Posted by keith1942 on November 26, 2016

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The great leader of the Cuban Revolution and an iconic figure for progressives will be mourned by many: apart from a few reactionaries as in Florida USA. Whatever the failings of the Post-revolution society under Fidel it did liberate the Cuban people from US neo-colonial exploitation and was a beacon for other National Liberation struggles round the world.

There were many progressive aspects of the Cuban Revolution, notably the work of Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos / The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) founded immediately after the revolution in 1959.

At ICAIC Julio García Espinosa produced the key manifest ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’ (1969). And numerous films in the early stages illustrated how relevant this was. A key film would be, Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968) directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. A later and equally fine film by Alea is La última cena (The Last Supper, 1976). I particularly like Humberto Solás Lucía (1968). Then there are the newsreels and documentaries of Santiago Alvarez: notably Now (1965) and 79 Springs (79 primaveras, 1969). And there is the rarely seen work of Sarah Gómez including her final film De Cierta Manera (One Way or Another, 1974). Of more recent films there is the fine La vida es silbar (Life is to Whistle, 1998) directed by Fernando Pérez. Alongside the films went the vibrant and politically alive poster art work. And a number of films were graced by the modernist scores of Leo Brouwer.

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The progressive work from the Cuban film movement is part of the anti-colonial cinema in Latin America. Cuba provided a base for the Festival to celebrate New Latin American Cinema. They also supported progressive filmmakers of the continent as with Patricio Guzman’s three-part La batalla de Chile / The Battle of Chile (1975-1979).

A number of influences fed into the film work at ICAIC. But a key model for them was the classic Soviet Montage. We are nearly in 2017 and the centenary of the Great Proletarian Revolution. So the radcial Cuban films offer excellent accompaniment o re-visiting the masterworks from the 1920s.

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Old Stone / Lao shi, Canada/China 2016

Posted by keith1942 on November 20, 2016

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The English title of the film suggests its theme indirectly: ‘old’ as in traditional and ‘stone’ as resistant to marking. The Chinese title is the name of the main character (Gang Chen), a taxi driver in a provincial Chinese city. The basic plot involves him in an accident that results in the victim, a motor cyclist, being taken to hospital and subsequently needing long term treatment. The situation now is that medical care in China requires medical insurance, rather like the USA model. Because of this there are accepted ‘procedures’ following accidents: these define who is liable for the costs. So, Lao shi, instead of waiting for police and an ambulance, takes the severely injured man in his taxi to the hospital. He then finds himself liable for the charges. The key moment show shim at the cashier window with  staff demanding payment before the life-saving operation can begin. And there is a queue of people behind Lao shi, presumably facing similar demands.

His actions create problems with his employers and with the insurance company who cover the firm. It also causes problems with the police: in the latter case this results in an interminable wait for an accident report. But the most serious conflict is with Lao shi’s wife, a budding entrepreneur who runs a nursery. The nursery operates on minimal resources but the wife is hoping to expand. As Lao shi continues paying for the hospital charges she emptier their joint account to preserve their savings.

Lao shi fares no better with the family of the injured man. He has come to the city from the countryside. Lao shi’s repeated phone calls to them only engender claims that they have no money to pay for the charges. Thus we follow Lao shi as he is caught in a vicious circle of payments with no assistance.

Matters come to a head when the victim is finally discharged from hospital and Lao shi realises that he is deliberately maintaining ailments so that Lao shi’s contributions to medical bills will continue. Lao shi now changes gear and sets out to end his involvement through either an ‘accident’ or murder. Predictably it is Lao shi, the victim hero, who in the end suffers an ‘accidental’ death.

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This is a bleak tale which emphasises the alienation of ordinary Chinese citizen in their market driven economy. The filmmaker was inspired by tales of actual deaths caused in order to avoid the type of situation that afflicts Lao shi. There is one telling scene where Lao shi witnesses an older woman who collapses in the street, but no passer-by will assist her because of the fear of the very situation in which Lao shi find himself.

The film has a noir quality. The story is told in flashback, we open with a sequence where Lao shi is following the now discharged victim, and the film recurrently cuts between that present and the past events. Much of the film is show in an observational, almost documentary, style. Many sequences also have a grainy look which contributes to the downbeat feeling. The film has a compressed plot and is tightly edited, coming in at only 80 minutes running time. The downbeat often low-key look has one exception. A recurring shot, quite lush, of green billowing tress. These rise above the setting where the final events play out.

With the noir feel and the sense of large-scale alienation the film is reminiscent of some other Chinese drams-cum-thrillers. In particular I was reminded of Blind Shaft (2003) set among the illegal coal mining workers: and The World (2004) set in a Theme Park in Beijing. In all three cases ordinary working people suffer the cost of China’s developing capitalist economy. Several of the reviews of this film refer to ‘a taxi driver battling bureaucracy’. And this is one aspect of the process we witness. But the main force is the drive to force ordinary Chinese people to pay the costs of the social care that the capitalist forces no longer meet. This is where the theme of ‘old’ or ‘tradition’ is important. Whatever the failings of China’s Socialist Construction things are far worse now that profit is in control.

The writer and director, Jonny Ma, is Chinese-Canadian and this is a China/Canada production. His other film, The Robbery (2010), was set in Australia. So this is an example of the developing global film industry and of Diaspora filmmaking. The film was screened at the Leeds International Film Festival and, to date, it seems to have only enjoyed screenings at other Film Festivals. That also is typical of his type of film product. But it deserves to get wider releases and distribution.

 

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Leeds Palestinian Film Festival 2016

Posted by keith1942 on October 26, 2016

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After the series of films presented last year in Leeds the Festival returns with another set of screenings. The programme kicks off during the Leeds International Film Festival and continues until December 9th. As last year there are a number of different venues [see the Festival page]. Definitely catch as many as you can. If Leeds is not accessible the films are all available through distributors or the Internet.

Ambulance (Ambulance/Gaza, Norway, Palestine 2015) In Colour. In Arabic and English. Length 80 minutes.

While many young people dream of leaving Gaza, Mohamed Jabaly, 24, wants to help. When he hears the news of a new Israeli offensive on Gaza in July 2014 he decides he cannot merely “wait for death” but must do something. He joins an ambulance crew to document the war. This is a raw, first-person account of a country under siege. The film won a Sunbird Award at the recent ‘Days of Cinema’ Festival in Ramallah in the Occupied Territories.

The Great Book Robbery . In colour. In English. Length 48 minutes.

When Palestinians were expelled from their land in 1948, Israeli soldiers were accompanied by librarians as they entered Palestinian homes in many towns and villages. Their mission was to collect as many valuable books and manuscripts as possible. Using eyewitness accounts by both those who took part in seizing the books, and those whose books were taken, this film by Benny Brunner tries to understand why thousands of books still languish in the Israeli National Library vaults and why they have not been returned to their rightful owners.

The Promised Band (Israel/Palestine, Nepal, USA 2014). In English, Arabic, and Hebrew with English subtitles. Length 89 minutes.

This films follows the story of a fake rock band comprised of Israeli and Palestinian women who have decided that, despite their dubious musical talent, a music group is the best cover story to meet and interact with each other. Although their societies are kept apart by the Israeli separation wall, solid concrete 26-feet tall and 3-feet thick, the women connect on their sameness, and their lives become entangled in ways they couldn’t expect.

Epicly Palestine’d* (The Birth of Skateboarding in the West Bank, 2015). In colour.

This is the story of how a small group of teenagers created a skate scene from scratch in a place where you can’t even buy a skateboard, whilst facing the challenges of living under military occupation. One of the film makers, Phil Joa, will be there for a Question and Answers session after the film.

The Idol (Ya tayr el tayer, Netherlands , UK , Qatar , Argentina , Egypt , Palestine , United Arab Emirates 2015). In colour. In Arabic with English subtitles. Length 100 minutes.

Acclaimed Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad’s latest film is a moving, defiantly uplifting biopic of Muhammad Assaf, the Gazan wedding singer who became a worldwide TV sensation in 2013.

Rough Stage (Karmil pinnal,  Estonia, 2015). In colour. In Arabic. Length 74 minutes.

An artist at heart, Maher, electrical engineer and former political prisoner wants to stage a contemporary dance performance in Ramallah. His family disapprove, money’s a problem and cultural problems intercede.

Balls, Barriers and Bulldozers .

This documentary film is about a women’s football tour to the West Bank, Palestine. It’s about football, and so much more. The tour aimed to build solidarity with the women footballers of Palestine and for the UK teams to learn about life under occupation.

To be followed by a discussion with a member of the Republica women’s team and her reflections on the tour.

Speed Sisters (Palestine, USA | Qatar, UK, Denmark, Canada 2015). In colour. In Arabic. Length 78 minutes.

This film follows the first all-woman race car driving team in the Middle East. Grabbing headlines and turning heads at improvised tracks across the West Bank, these five women have sped their way into the heart of the gritty, male-dominated Palestinian street car-racing scene.

Flying Paper (UK 2013). In colour with English subtitles. directed by Nitin Sawhney and Roger Hill.

An uplifting story of Palestinian youth in the Gaza Strip on a quest to shatter the Guinness World Record for the most kites ever flown. A film co-produced with young filmmakers in Gaza.

Return to Seifa In colour. 10 Minutes.

Follows the progress of two siblings in the film, Flying Paper. Now young adults, they confront the aftermath of war, adapting to the harsh realities of yet another violent disruption to their hopes and aspirations.

Gaza from Within is a deeply moving story about the impact of war on communities, especially its youth. It includes powerful images taken by award-winning photographer Anne Paq, working closely with young Gazan journalist Abeer Ahmed.

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La Noire de… / Black Girl, Senegal 1966.

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2016

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This was Ousmane Sembène’s third film and his first of feature length. The couple of times that I was able to see the film it was on a rather worn 16mm print. Now the film has been restored under the auspices of The Film’s Foundation World Cinema Project. The restored film has been transferred onto a DCP and it was from this format that it was screened at the 2015 Il Cinema Ritrovato. This version is French with English subtitles. It is available in the UK from Aya Distribution, who specialise in African cinema.

The narrative follows the journey of Diouana (Thérèse Diop) with the French family for whom she works as a maid on a holiday trip back to France. Diouana’s journey is also one of consciousness as she experiences the casual and less-casual racism by the Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek). We the audience accompany Diouana on her journeys; from the slums of Dakar to the family’s home on the Riviera and to her last tragic decision.

The film presents this narrative both in scenes of the film present and in a series of flashbacks. The flashbacks are provided by Diouana, though her interior monologues that accompany these are not vocalised but presented by a narrative voice. We learn that initially Diouana was keen to work for a French family, both for the economic and the supposed social benefits. In the same spirit she was happy to accompany the family on their return visit to France supposing that she would enjoy aspects of this. In fact, she finds that her exploitation becomes notable and obvious there. And she is now divorced from her own society, family and friends.

Whilst the film presents this story from a subjective stance the film constantly provides ‘objective’ parallels: in the streets of Dakar and in the apartment of the family. Characters are delineated, including a rather unhelpful indigenous boyfriend (Momar Nar Sene) in Dakar. The French Madame is both exploiter and exploited, the latter in terms of her colonialist husband (Robert Fontaine). Thus class as well as racism is central to the film, as is also the extra exploitation of women. Here, and in Sembène’s other films, one can see how he follows the thought of Franz Fanon, especially in terms of culture and language.

Sembène and his team use black and white 35mm film and familiar techniques, including parallel cutting and various matching and point-of-view shots. But the effective cutting visually and orally also produces a variant of montage which questions what we see and hear. The film shows the influence of both neo-realism and the nouvelle vague, but combined in a manner which was to develop distinctively in Sembène’s work. As in Sembène’s other films language is important. So whilst the film is in French the technique of ‘translating’ Diouana’s thoughts makes us aware of the language divide. Equally Sembène uses symbols to reinforce aspects of the story: a traditional African mask, a gift from Diouana that hangs on an apartment wall, plays a key part in the films climax and resolution.,

The plot of the film was taken from a newspaper story. Sembène initially tried to produce the film in his native Senegal. The neo-colonial situation, mirrored in the film, led to his pitch being rejected. So, as with many of the African film, this was produced with French support. That is a process that Sembène and other filmmakers have had to fight consistently through their careers.

Sembène had originally translated these actual events into a short story. And his writings provide an equally important part of his work. The situation of a young women, also initially dominated by the hegemony of colonial culture, is an important facet in one of his major novels, God’s Bits of Wood (Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu, 1960).

Directed by Ousmane Sembène: Produced by André Zwoboda: Written by Ousmane Sembène: Cinematography Christian Lacoste: Edited by André Gaudier. Running time  65 minutes.

Screening at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds with a new documentary about Sembène on October 9th

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Two films about refugees

Posted by keith1942 on September 11, 2016

I have seen two films concerning refugees seeking safety in Europe which had interesting parallels. But what was most interesting were the differences, which were partly due to the filmmakers involved and the genre chosen, but which also seemed to relate to different pre-occupations and approaches in different national cinemas. One of the films was Dheepan (2015) which I saw earlier this year and which impressed me. The other was Grow Your Own (2007) which I saw on release but which I was able to revisit when the Hyde Park Picture House screened the film from a reasonably good 35mm print as part of the 2016 Year of the English Garden.

Dheepan was written and directed by Jacques Audiard with contributions to the screenplay by Thomas Bidegain   and  Noé Debré , The film follows the journey of Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), a refugee from war-torn Sri Lanka, who seeks safety in France. He is accompanied by Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), a young women who pretends to be his wife: also by Illyaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), who the couple pretend is their daughter. After various travails Dheepan finds work as a caretaker on a rundown housing estate. Yalini also finds a job caring for an invalid in one of the tower blocks. And Illyaal attempts to integrate in a local school. The trio suffer the problems of bureaucratic systems and endemic French racism. Added to this is the situation at the estate, where drug gangs rule the roost. The film thus sites this tale of refugees in the specific French genre of  the ‘banlieu’.

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Grow Your Own fits into a type of British realism which is both humorous but also dramatic. It is a form of film that harks back to at least the Ealing films of the 1940s and 1950s. Like the Ealing films one of its central preoccupations is community. The director, Richard Laxton, is new to me but the writer, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, is an established figure. He has worked several times with Michael Winterbottom, and his other scripts include Millions (2004), which shares some characteristics with this film. The setting is an allotment society in Liverpool, Boyce’s home city. The local social services have placed several refugee families here with the aim of working on allotments as a form of therapy. There is Kung Sang (Benedict Wong), with his two children, who is traumatised by the journey to the UK. . Miriam (Diveen Henry), an African refugee with her son. And Ali (Omid Djalili), an Iranian doctor with his family, waiting for a ruling on his refugee status. The local residents are a range of fairly stock English characters played by a range of convincing regular British actors.

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Dheepan is naturalistic but not realistic. The film starts off in a Sri Lanka refugee camp and there are recurring flashbacks to the Island during the film. But these are imaginative and dream-like images of the land and the conflict. The present, in a Parisian suburb dominated by drug gangs, is downbeat, dilapidated and brutish. In a parallel with the country of origin Dheepan and his ‘family’ are civilians caught in the crossfire: though Dheepan was actually a member of the rebel forces in Sri Lanka. It is his military experience that provides an unexpected turn in the narrative and a sequence of strong violence.

The film presents the tropes and motifs familiar in ‘banlieu’ films. The rundown tower blocks provide a harsh and unforgiving landscape. This appears to be a no-go area for law enforcement. It is the relationships and the violence between the gangs of the banlieu that fill the narrative. We see little of the ordinary inhabitants. Dheepan and his family are distinctive characters. The gang members are fairly stereotypical, though one leader is distinguished by his having an older relative who is the invalid cared for by Yalini. At times there is a noirish atmosphere to the setting: Dheepan has fallen into a world of chaos which parallels the chaotic world he left behind. Whilst the banlieu is a multi-cultural world, criminality rather than class or ethnicity binds the gangs together: secular administrative France appears mainly distant and bureaucratic.

In contrast the world of the Grow Your Own‘s Liverpool allotments is peaceful, if riven by tensions. The only violence is when immigration authorities raid and seize a refugee. The conflicts here are personal and small scale. Whilst there are tensions between the allotment holders, in the film these mainly arise from the arrival of strangers. We hear the word ‘gypo’ several times. But whilst Dheepan relies on violence to resolve the conflicts here it is personal relationships. And the landscape is one of plants, greenery and rustic cabins. The fallen into disuse plots are transformed by the refugee members into green, productive land. The discordant note is when one of these is laid waste for the mobile phone pylon. But, in keeping with the film’s mores, the owner moves to the plot left vacant by the immigration raid.

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Green and fertile produce.

The psychotherapist who sets up the situation is a sympathetic character, but other agencies seem as unsympathetic and mainly absent, as with those in France. Part of the plot involves a mobile-phone company seeking a site for an aerial mast. Underneath the bonhomie this is another exploitative agency.

Dheepan falls into the predominantly criminal genre that explores the worlds of segregated working class and migrant communities. Worlds where it seems that the lumpen proletariat are dominant. The violence provides dynamic plot developments but also illuminates French racism. One of the most potent and best-known examples of the banlieu film, La Haine (1995), ends of an unresolved note. Dheepan offers a resolved and upbeat ending, but one that seems as unreal as the flashbacks to Sri Lanka earlier in the film.

Dheepan amid the banlieu's desolation.

Dheepan amid the banlieu’s desolation.

Grow Your Own has less sense of class than of ethnicity. Its resolution binds together an enlarged community. This upbeat ending relies in part on the exclusion of one disruptive presence from the allotments. Whilst there are critical representations of various authorities, the tensions in the allotment society finally weigh on one character. Thus the ending is in some ways as idealised as that of Dheepan.

What is interesting is how genres typical of each society are used to address the common problem, coping with strangers. In fact neither film really offers a realist resolution. In Dheepan, the violence that brings the current conflicts to a halt is as melodramatic as that in ‘vigilante’ films. There is no integration on the central setting, and resolution requires the key characters to leave: { a trope from films set in the Third World]. In Grow Your Own the film harks back to a genre that developed to bridge social divisions in the 1950s. So the film does not really address the complexities of British society 60 years on.

These are both films that I would characterise as ‘second cinema’: the work of auteur in advanced capitalist societies. But the world addressed by Third Cinema enters and disrupts. The response in these films is to attempt to cope by placing the situations and conflicts in particular genre films.

 

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