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Sarraounia, Burkina-Faso, France 1986.

Posted by keith1942 on August 26, 2017

This was the third feature by Med Hondo presented at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017. I was slightly disappointed as it only had one screening and I was planning to chivvy friends and colleagues who missed that one to come along to a second. It is also a shame as this is a magnificent example of African cinema and one that adheres to the maxims of Franz Fanon, ‘a fighting film, a revolutionary film and a national film’. Though with the latter concept we are talking about a Pan-African art.

The film was introduced by the director Med Hondo. He explained how the story is taken from historical events in ‘African resistance’. The scenario is adapted from a book by Abdoulaye Mamani which chronicles how Sarraounia Mangou, a chief/priestess of the Azna subgroup of the Hausa, fought French colonial troops in 1899. [Wikipedia has pages on this]. The film sets this in the context of the French imperial drive to bring unity to the colonial possessions in West Africa. The majority of tribal leaders either submitted to the French army or co-operated with them.

In an interview in the Festival Catalogue Med Hondo explained:

“I wanted to illustrate historical facts to show that the African continent was not easily colonised and had a history of resistance to colonialism. There were a number of African women involved in the fight against colonialism. Queen Sarraounia in Niger, Jinga in Angola, Ranavalona in Madagascar, Beatrice of the Congo, to name a few. We never speak of the role of African women in history but they headed kingdoms and had an important status in matriarchal societies.”

Hondo also recounted the problems associated with the production. It took several years to raise the finance, about one million Francs, not a large sum for the period. Then permission to film in Niger was withdrawn. It was then that Burkina Faso came to the rescue with some funding and locations and extras. But the travails were not ended. When the film premiered it Paris it had a very limited release, possibly [but unprovable] political pressure. Fellow African filmmakers like Ousmane Sembène and Souleymane Cissé protested on behalf of the film, as did progressive European filmmakers like Constantin Costa-Gavras and Bertrand Tavernier. But the film did not receive the wide distribution of the audiences it deserved though it was honoured at Fespaco [Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou]. I think it only had a few screenings in Britain and when Channel Four aired the film [in a season of African films] it was cropped from widescreen to Aacademy ratio.

Unlike most of his other films this title has a linear narrative, is presented in broadly dramatic terms and has much less of a sardonic tone. This follows from its function as a celebration of a people’s story: whilst Sarraounia is the leading character in the film this is very much a drama about the conflict between Africans and colonising Europeans. The film does use editing not only to draw parallels and contrasts but to point up themes and contradictions in the situations.

In a sense the film offers a number of worlds that are participants in a fundamental cultural and military conflict. The leading characters are to a degree psychologically drawn but they also function as ‘types’ and this is the main focus on the large array of supporting characters. Quite a few listings [IMDB for one] do not include all of the actors playing African characters.

At the centre of the film is Queen Sarraounia (Aï Keïta), chief of the Azna tribe. We meet her first as a young girl when we follow her education in the indigenous culture by the older teacher, Dawa (Tagara Yacouba Traore). He instructs her in military matters, medicinal and herbal recipes and importantly in the characteristics needed by a Queen.

“don’t confine your beauty. No selfish man will ever control you” [English subtitles].

This is demonstrated when we encounter Sarraounia as an adult and Queen. An early scene shows her consort, a skilled general, Baka (Aboubacar Traore or Ben Idriss Traore) angry and leaving the city because of her insistence on autonomy. This is also a sequence where we witness her status among her people,. After a display of wrestling a singer [griot] offers the song,

“Sweet Sarraounia”.

At various stages of the film we see Sarraounia organising and leading the resistance to the colonial army. She is a skilled strategist and also an inspirational leader. Importantly her forces are increased when the estranged Baka returns with his warriors, And, against the grain of other rulers, Dan Zarki (Jean-François Ouedraogo) , a young prince, brings his Moslem men to fight with the Aznas. After the military defeat but a successful resistance she celebrates the diversity but common interests of the people.

Other scenes present the various leaders of other tribes. It is clear that there is a common antagonism to Sarraounia, described as a ‘witch’. But almost uniformly these tribal leaders are suborned by the French or in some cases act as active collaborators. A prime example if the Emir of Sokoto (Sekou Tall), who with his advisers advocates,

“let the Europeans crush the devil witch”.

And there are Tuareg slave-traders, benefitting from French actions whilst not overtly co-operative: and apparently an addition to the story presented in the original novel.

We also see the ordinary Africans including the members of the Aznas tribe who fight under Sarraounia. And we see the sufferings of other villages unable to resist the colonial firepower. This includes the Fulani tribe, traditional enemies of the Aznas. There is a violent scene where the French and their colonial troops massacre an entire village, even after the leaders pleaded for mercy.

The French invaders are central to the story. The leaders are a group of white officers led by Captain Voulet (Jean-Roger Milo) and a large number of African troops, tirailleurs. The officer are full of racist disdain for the Africans. Voulet is an imperious leader, who increwasingly suffers from hubris as the expedition continues. An important element in the story is his increasing contempt and differences with his command, sited back in Timbuktu.

The ordinary soldiers are under direct supervision of an Arab aide. To a degree they are dominated by the colonial ideology, thus as one point they sing

“We are children of France”.

But their main motivation is material acquisition. So after battles or massacres they are allowed to loot and pillage, and captured women are available for rape. There is also an element of fear. Late in the film  one officer remarks,

“If they find out we are men like them …..!”

The film constantly cuts [usually in parallel edits] between the various forces. However, the prime focus of the story is between Sarraounia and her people and the French invaders. The film spends an amount of time in the development within the French army. Captain Voulet’s leadership leads to increasing and brutal violence: it also leads to increasing dissensions. Whilst the French are able to defeat Sarraounia and her army in pitched battle the guerrilla warfare that follows is harder for them to handle. And the dissensions within the army lead to a breakdown in the dominance that the French officers exercise over the African mercenaries. Finally, the French h army is destroyed by psychotic leadership and sectarianism. Vices usually assigned to the African enemy.

The film also contrasts the culture of the invaders with that of the indigenous people. So even when the French Officers dine in the open-air they ‘enjoy’ all the accoutrements of the affluent European mealtimes. There are some telling cuts between the cloth covered dining table of the Officers and the cooking pots and wood fires of the soldiery. Whilst the Officers obviously regard the Africans with contempt at the same time they also sexually exploit the African women. Their often inappropriate military behaviour and arrangements are exemplified when a storm strikes the camp and they struggle to maintain order amidst the chaos.

The contrast is the city and the people ruled by Sarraounia, a community composed of several tribes.. Here the Queen exhorts her people to respect each other’s cultures, beliefs and mores. Their cultures are exhibited the film through activities like the wrestling, through their clothing, precious objects and their rituals Fine production design by Jacques d’Ovidio and supporting craft people in costumes and props. Most importantly they are presented through the ‘griots’, the traditional story-tellers and singers. At key points they record and celebrate the deeds of the Queen and the people. In the final song of the film they praise ‘our signers’.

” What great deeds would survive without our songs.”

The film was shot on Fuji colour stock and in Techovision; the cinematography is excellent. The colour and widescreen give full range to the epic scope of the story. The battle scenes and massacres are violent but less so than the historical reality. Whilst the key characters are individualised in performances the film devotes as much attention to groupings: both the dominated tirailleurs and the indigenous people who fight with Sarraounia. And the editing and cross-cutting draw forth parallels and contrasts in a way that brings illuminations beyond the central story. The continuing relevance of the events and character is drawn out in the final contemporary shot that closes the film.

We enjoyed a good 35mm print from Havard Film Archive with English sub-titles. In fact, there is a mix of languages in the film. Med Hondo, in an interview in the Monthly Film Bulletin (January 1988) explained.

“Language is a very big question, a contradictory and complex question. It’s a historical reality that, in various countries, because we were colonised, we speak French, English, Spanish, Portuguese and so on. Of course, language is not neutral. But also language is not be itself revolutionary. …

In Sarraounia, there are three African languages; each group speaks its own language. The Queen and the people speak Djoula, the Emir of Sokoto speaks Peuhl, and the Tuareg speaks Tamashek. They speak exactly the language that would have been spoken in that area at that time. Of course, there is also French. And pidgin French, petit nègre (little nigger). And when i was shooting, I said no, it’s not petit nègre, it’s petit blanc.”

Hondo also stressed how the production had a parallel coming together and variety that is presented in the film.

“I tried to involve people from many countries. First, to learn, because it was the first CinemaScope film from Africa south of the Sahara. Second, to show and educate people in the realities of the cinema. The writer of the book is from Niger; I worked with another Mauritanian, whom I’m training in filming; the editing woman [Marie-Thérèse Boiché) was from Cameroon; the set was built by people from Benin; the music was made by people from Burkina and Gabon (Pierre Akendengué, Abdoulaye Cissé and Issouf Compaore). “

James Leahy, in his Monthly Film Bulletin Review praised the film as

“a landmark in the history of African cinema … [and suggested] It would be nice to think it might become a landmark in world cinema.”

Hopefully The Film Foundation’s World Cinema project will quickly move on to a restoration and distribution of this film so it can achieve that objective,

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West Indies, France, Algeria, Mauritania, 1979.

Posted by keith1942 on August 5, 2017

The film was adapted by Med Hondo from a stage play by Daniel Boukman written in 1972, ‘The Slavers’. Boukman is a Martinique writer, apparently little known outside the Caribbean as it would seem is his play. He is noted for using a carnivalesque form, full of irony and parody, and aiming at ‘distance’ in the sense theorised by Bertold Brecht. Boukman receives a credit for dialogue in the film so it would seem that the film relies extensively on the theatrical original. To what degree the film also follows the staging of the play is unclear but certainly it also relies on a carnival atmosphere and on ironic detachment. It is suggested, [in ‘Daniel Boukman : A Poetics of ‘Detour’] that Boukman’s narration resembles the function of the ‘griot’ in African cultures. And that too applies to the film. Hondo had already staged the play in 1972 with the theatrical company he had co-founded before commencing work in film.

The screening at Il Cinema Ritrovato was introduced by Med Hondo himself. He advised us that this print ‘used the final cut’, which suggests that the filming suffered from restraints by producers or by censors. Th. Mpoyi-Buatu [in an article in ‘Film & Politics in the Third World’, edited by John D. H. Downing, 1987] writes that it took seven years to raise all the funding, including individual contributions from Africans. He also gives

‘The film’s full title is this: West Indies or the Nigger Maroons of Freedom.”

Attributing g the main title to the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén and explaining the term ‘maroon’ as

“a term used in Jamaica for slaves who ran away and founded their own independent villages and settlements in remote areas as far from the Europeans as possible.”

I did not note any reference to this sub-title at the screening but the film certainly refers to the phenomena cited by Mpoyi-Buatu.

The setting for this historical parable is a sailing ship, one that is of the type that carried the kidnapped Africans across the Atlantic to slavery. A colleague thought that Hondo had had this set created in the Gare d’Orsay where Orson Welles filmed much of his 1962 version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. 1978/9, the time of filming, was just before work started on converting the disused railway station  into what is now a prime art gallery, Musée d’Orsay.

“The ship’s different levels indicate rather well the strata of Caribbean society: the slaves, the people, in the old; the middle classes, the assimilated, on the lower bridge; the masters, the colonists, on the upper bridge.” (Th. Mpoyi-Buatu).

Like his earlier Soleil Ő this film relies on a form of montage, cutting between different sites and periods and with a tone that is both ironic and sardonic.  The film commences in the 1960s or early 1970s and on a Caribbean Island: not identified but clearly one of those colonised by the French [Guadalupe, Dominica, St Lucia, ….Jamaica, Trinidad, Haiti are directly named in the commentary]. The narrative then moves back and forth to various stages in the development and exploitation of Africans kidnapped into slavery and transported to both the Caribbean and mainland Americas. Dates, names and places are indicated by titles onscreen. A narrative voice both provides information and comment. The chronology runs from 1640 with the arrival of the sugar cane crop on the Islands; the development of an enslaved labour force transported from Africa by the British, French, Dutch and Danish; the events following the Revolution of 1789; the subsequent uprisings, including the successful rebellion in Haiti; the re-imposition following the Napoleonic coup-d’etat; the gradual abolition of the trade and of slavery; and then the post second World War reverse movements up until the 1960s.

Whilst the cast act, speak, sing, dance and perform in various guises, they appear as ‘types’ rather in the style of early Soviet cinema. These song and dance sequences are vibrant and colourful, sometimes celebratory, sometimes dramatic. There are both crowd scenes and individual actors, though the latter are not psychologically individualised.

The opening of the film introduces the audience to a group of bourgeois Caribbean politicians and bureaucrats meeting in a large cabin below deck and this is intercut with footage of ordinary African slaves working on harvesting sugar cane. The bourgeois meeting is concerned to avoid economic problems by encouraging emigration from the Caribbean to metropolitan France: a reversal of the voyages of transportation that bought the Africans across the Atlantic. This is the basic premise of the film, an inversion of the original enslavement.

The upper bridge offers a succession of French colonial rulers and French settlers who lord over the central deck space. Here are the masses of the people, and here are presented the songs, dances, mimes and crowd actions. The dancers frequently used masks and the props vary but include both torches and at one point machetes. Below them,  in a stairwell, are a small group of radicals who constantly oppose the dominant politics above with lines of resistance. Their props include machetes and a candle; the extinguishing of the candle light is a sign of the triumph of the dominant values.

Intercut with the varied performances on the several decks are footage of the slaves transported across the oceans; and of ‘maroon’ settlements where some autonomy is possible., One particular ‘maroon’ is an old man seated by a tree; the tree has a particular resonance from African culture.

“The Ancestor, in West Indies, is the tribe’s legitimacy figure. He does not possess the secret of survival, but a least he demonstrates the positive existence of an opposition force.” (Th. Mpoye-Buatu).

This character uses ‘peasant Creole’, and the film also features ‘immigrant Creole’, ‘pidgin-English’ and French: the languages marking, along with other devices, the classes and strata presented in the film.

The time and spatial span of the film together with the intercutting between these settings makes for a more complex film than Soleil Ő. The film also enjoys higher production values, fruits of the long pre-production work . The staging, in the single and impressive set, is excellent. There is no credit for the choreography, and presumably this was also directed by Hondo.  François Catonné’s cinematography captures the vibrancy of the performance, both in the use of tracks and dollies and at certain points fluid long takes. The editing by Youcef Tobni is at times relatively fast but maintains a coherent if elliptical narrative line. The music offers composition by Georges Rabol and Frank Valmont whilst also using traditional and popular songs and music.

It is difficult to take in all the aspects of the film at one viewing: it is certainly a film that would/will repay further viewings, if and when possible. What it does do is draw together sets of social action of domination that, at a surface level, appear discrete but which are manifestations of the same underlying exploitation and oppression: the manner in which colonial relations have transformed into neo-colonial relations. Importantly the film is constructed to prompt viewers to reflect as they witness the drama unfold. Th. Mpoye-Buatu finally comments:

“So, then, the aesthetic intention is sustained by a critical process of a kind which neither mystifies that process, nor the spectacle presented, nor those to whom it is presented. It is for that reason that … West Indies is a film of ambition, both in its magnificent spirit and in its aesthetics: its corrosive quality only matched by the effectiveness of its strategy. The strategy itslef is simple: to know all the devices of slavery and to combat them by every means.”

The screening was a 35mm colour print running 110 minutes. this was the French version with English sub-titles from the Havard Film Archive.

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Soleil Ȏ / Oh, Sun, Mauritania 1970.

Posted by keith1942 on July 25, 2017

This key film and the filmmaker Med Hondo featured at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017. The film has been restored as part of the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. As is their practice the new version has been restored from existing 35mm and 16mm prints and made available on a DCP in the original French and Arabic with English sub-tittles. The digital version is presumably to aid distribution though whilst I have seen a number of their restorations at Festivals they do not seem to reach ordinary exhibition in the British/Irish territory.

The filmmaker Med Hondo was also invited to the Festival and we also had the opportunity to see two of his other films. He received a warm reception and was visibly moved by this. He also retained and voiced the passionate political commitment which is apparent in his films.

Hondo’s film work is experimental, didactic and sardonic. His tone is exemplified by the opening of Les Bricot Negres in which a smiling black African man, in close-up, addresses the camera directly:

“So you have come to the cinema —But certainly we all love the cinema very much, don’t we? … the camera, the film, the projectors, the techniques, who invented all this? Not us certainly. —

So, to provide us with entertainment – and also to take from us a little dough – sorry, a little money – the “Toubabs” [Westerners] have built theatres for us, they installed their machines,, and we, curious as we are went to see the CI-NE-MA.” (Prologue printed in ‘Framework’ Spring 1978).

It is clear that Hondo’s film provide a directly oppositional cinema to that kindly provided by the benefactors from Europe and North America.

1970 was the release date of this film when it played at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Hondo, who wrote the story and directed the film, had commenced it in 1965 and completed it by 1967. But finding distribution was as difficult as it had been earlier to find funding. Hondo and his collaborators basically made the film on their own for about $30,000. Much of the money was raised buy Hondo who worked dubbing US films into French. Hondo later wrote of the production:

“it was purely by chance that we ended up being artists ‘of colour’ as the term usually used. In Paris together for basically the same reasons, Bachir, Touré, Robert [Liensol] and I found ourselves right in the middle of a country, a city, where we had to get by, for lack of better words, where we had to work: being an actor, a musician, a singer. And where we realized immediately the doors were closed […]. As a solution we thought of creating a theater group and, in the meantime, we all made Soleil Ȏ.” ( Med Hondo in 1970 quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

The film is best conceived as agit-prop. Whilst the narrative is fictional, it is expresses the experiences of black Africans in Paris and is predominately shot in actual locations. The film weaves of complex tapestry of characters, settings, scenes and actions and discussions. These are not presented in a linear fashion; the film constantly cuts between separate scenes, many of which we return to several times. The basic form of the film is montage in the sense developed by the Soviet pioneers. So not only does the film constantly cut between separate characters and settings bit it is full of discontinuities. Equally the sound follows the manifesto produced by Sergey Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Grigori Aleksandrov,; whilst dialogue scenes mainly used synchronisation the soundtrack frequently features dialogue, music and noise that appears asynchronous. This is especially so as the film moves towards its climax.

The film opens with ma pre-credit sequence of Africans playing and communing by a river followed by a cut and film of Africans in Paris. This sets up the contradiction between Africans own cultures and their experiences under colonial domination, be it at home in Africa or when they sits the ‘mother-country’.

After the credits there is an animated section. Then film set in Africa with a dramatised but symbolic treatment of the oppression of Africans by European cultural forms. Africans are shown dominated by European religion: they are accorded identities through baptism and naming with European names. This is followed by  a procession with wooden crosses. In a sardonic move the crosses are inverted and Africans become soldiers/servants in military service: a service that involves fighting amongst themselves. This is pure agit-prop and sets up the cultural dominance that the film portrays.

We then move to a large city, Paris where an African migrant arrives, The rest of the film is a series of dramatised sequences but shot in actual locations and, at times, using actual footage both of the white French natives and the visiting Africans. These separate sequences are constantly intercut and for most of the time a particular action or discussion is not completed, but returned to later in the film.

So we have an African seeking a place to live: mainly suffering racist rejection.. An African seeking work: and suffering racist responses that range from outright rejection to paternalistic employment. The latter is represented by a factory class for African recruits where the white teachers assume that these ‘foreign’ workers re naïve and possibly illiterate. There is a recurring discussion between an African man and a an employer where the latter appears at times sympathetic but take position that such exploitation is necessary.

Later in the film we examples of African workers being housed in Gerry-built buildings, in excessive numbers and the profits that exploiting landlord can make. There are also scenes where sexual exploitation is addressed. There is a sardonic episode where a visiting African President, clearly corrupted by the colonial situation, uses a white French prostitute.

There are signs of solidarity. At a garage regarding a vacancy the proletarian working there advised and assists the African. But later another sardonic episode shows the competing left groupings, basically sectarian, offering rhetoric rather than actual support for African fighting racism.

Actual solidarity occurs in a sequences where we see African socialising together. There are several set in a restaurant where the Africans eat, drink and socialise. There is also a singer there: note, not all the lyrics are translated. One is ‘Soleil Ȏ’, a song from slaves in the West |Indies, which provides the title of the film.

The film develops a crushing weight of racism, discrimination and oppression alongside the exploitation which is the norm in a capitalist society. As we watch the end of the film the protagonist runs through a series of settings, desolate waste land, railways, motorways and more desolation in a forest. Flames appear on the screen and images are superimposed on the frame, of Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Mehdi Ben Barka and Patrice Lumumba. The protagonist grasps and armalite rifle. This is accompanied by increasingly strident screams, drums and percussive noises. The film ends with the onscreen title ‘To Be Continued’.

That continuation could be seen in the other titles screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Soleil Ȏ set up a radical discourse that continued in West Indies (1979) and Sarraounia (1986). The film shares a common influence from the ideas and writings of Franz Fanon found in other African directors, for example Ousmane Sembène. There is also the influence of Soviet montage, Neo-realism and European Cinéma vérité. All are combined in a distinctly radical cinematic expression.

Hondo later critically commented, in an article ‘The Cinema of Exile’ (in ‘Film & Politics in the Third World’, edited by John D. H. Downing, Automedia 1987).

The approach in Soleil Ȏ had been constructed from a very elaborate script, and improvisations had remained limited and always under constraint.”

He comments more generally,

“Were I to make a film in Mauritania tomorrow, my film language would not be the same.”

And developments can be seen in his later films screened at the Il Cinema Ritrovato. So Soleil Ȏ is a film of a certain time and place. But it is also a key film in developing an African and African Diaspora cinema. The good work of the World Cinema Project is welcome: let us hope the film is widely seen and discussed.

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The Film Foundation World Cinema Project – 2017

Posted by keith1942 on July 9, 2017

Med Hondo introducing his film

The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project is now an established event at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Over a number of years we have enjoyed fine restorations of key films at this Festival. The Foundation has now embarked on a project to restore fifty key films from Africa: there are now eight features restored and available . So, as a real treat, we were able to see three films by Med Hondo. Born in Mauritania Hondo worked elsewhere in Africa and then in France. He took up acting and founded his own company in 1966. Then, working in television and film he moved into cinema. Like some other notable filmmakers he has funded his film direction by his work as an actor: he has done extensive work dubbing voices in films. Since 1967 he has been able to make nine films, seven features and two documentaries: like his fellow African film pioneer Ousmane Sembène his output has been limited by the commercial restraints in world cinema and especially in Africa.

The Foundation has produced a restoration of his first, Soleil Ȏ (Oh Sun, Mauritania, 1970 – DCP). Shot in black and white the film uses avant-garde techniques but it is better described as an ‘agit-prop’ documentary. Whilst it has a dramatised plot line the film presents the experiences of black people in Paris in this period.

“All the scenes were based on reality. Because racism isn’t invented, especially in film. It’s like a kind of cloak put on you, that you’re forced to live with.” (Med Hondo, 1970 quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

It is powerful document and stands up as relevant forty years on.

The programme also included two of Hondo’s later films in 35mm prints from the Harvard Film Archive. West Indies (France, Algeria, Mauritania, 1979) could be described as a period musical. The film presents

“a giant slave ship that symbolizes the triangular relationship between Africa, Europe and the Caribbean – as it explores the parallels between the forced migration of the Atlantic slave trade and the contemporary migration of Afro-Caribbean subjects to former colonial metropoles.” (Aboubakar Sanogo in the Festival Catalogue).

Sarraounia (Burkino Faso, Mauritania, France, 1986) dramatised the historical record and the successful resistance to a French colonial expedition in the late C19th led by Queen Sarraounia in the Niger. The film  had a more conventional linear narrative and was shot in colour and Techovision. Using African locations [but Burkino Faso not Niger], African songs, griots and cultural artefacts , the film celebrated both African culture and African resistance. It also inverted the stereotypes of mainstream cinema with the psychotic French commander reduced to brutal sectarian violence.

Med Hondo was present to his introduce his films. He was clearly moved by his reception and by the re-emergence of his cinema. Hondo also was passionate about his films and the radical political content. The writings of Franz Fanon would seem to be central to his standpoint whilst stylistically the films use montage, both visual and aural, to create their effect.

The Foundation, as is its custom, has produced the restorations on DCPs. I assume this is to assist in circulation. However, to date, there seems to have been few cinematic screenings in Britain. I think only Soleil Ȏ has been screened cinematically in the UK. Channel 4 screened the three films in its ‘Africa Film’ season in the 1980s, but Sarraounia was cropped to Academy ratio.

The Foundation also continued its work in restoring Cuban classics. This year we had Lucía (1968). The film, directed by Humberto Solás and also scripted  by him together with Julio Garcia Espinosa and Nelson Rodriguez, is a fairly epic work with three stories and running 160 minutes (DCP). The three tales present three women of the same name, from 1895, 1933 and in the present.

“Lucia is not a film about women, it’s a film about society. But within society, I chose the most vulnerable character, the one who is more transcendentally affected at any given moment by contradictions and change. ” (Humberto Solás, quoted in the Catalogue).

There were also two films by Tomás Gutiérrez Aléa restored by the Academy Film Archive: Una pelea Cubana contra los demonios / A Cuban Fight Against Demons (1971 – DCP) and Los Sobrevivientes / The Survivors (1970). The latter film bears some comparison with films by Luis Bunuel, though without his visceral tone. Here a bourgeois family attempt to avoid the expropriations bought about by the 1959 revolution and retreat into their plantation. The results are as sardonic as many presented by Bunuel.

The programme was rounded off by a selection of ICAIC Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano (1960 – 1970): the complete series has been restored and digitised by ina.fr and is available on their website. This is clearly a welcome archival source: my main  reservation is that it seems that INA have bought and hold possession of the archive, which would be better retained and controlled in Cuba.

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Sangre Negra [aka] Native Son Argentina 1950

Posted by keith1942 on August 12, 2016

Hunting a slum rat.

Hunting a slum rat.

This film, whose title literally translates as ‘Black blood’, was screened in Il Cinema Ritrovato programme ‘An Alternate History of Argentine Film’. It was only when we had an introduction that I realised that the film is an adaptation of the famous novel by Afro-American writer Richard Wright, published as ‘Native Son’ in 1940. Wright himself was involved in the making of the film and playing the main protagonist Bigger Thomas. Wright’s novel, which both attacked the then prevalent racism of the USA but which was also influenced by the association of Wright with the Communist Party USA, was not filmable in his own country. He met the man who would partly script and also direct the film, Pierre Chenal, in Paris. Chenal had been an émigré in Argentina during the war and had seen the stage version created by Orson Welles in Buenos Aires. Since they could not arouse interest in Europe the pair produced the film in Argentina through Argentine Sono Film.

Wright’s seminal novel traces a series of events in which young black man Bigger Thomas is inadvertently involved in the killing of a white woman. The hysterical and racist outcry leads to his imprisonment, trial and execution. One gets a sense of Wright’s portrayal in the diatribe delivered by the prosecutor  at the trial which includes the following:

“Every decent white man in America ought to swoon with joy for the opportunity to crush with his heel the woolly head of this black lizard, to keep him from scuttling on his belly farther over the earth and spitting forth his venom of death!” (1972 Penguin edition).

Bigger is not portrayed as innocent, in his flight from pursuit he kills his black girlfriend Bessie to protect himself. But there is no balance between his acts and the response of the predominately racist white population: indeed he is charged with both murder and rape, despite the lack of evidence for the latter. Wright’s purpose in the novel was not just to depict and attack white racism but also to portray the effect on the negro [the term then used] population. In his introduction ‘How ‘Bigger’ was born’ Wright writes of one model:

“The Jim Crow laws of the South were not for him. But as he laughed and cursed and broke them, he knew that someday he’d have to pay for his freedom. His rebellious spirit made him violate all the taboos of intense elation and depression. “

One of the most powerful aspects of the novel is that Wright provides a running commentary on Bigger’s thoughts and emotions, from his family life in a slum, through his conflicted contacts with white people, his crime and subsequent flight and the trial and sentencing.

The film condenses the novel greatly, one section left out is the extended plea by the defence lawyer at the trial: that seems more didactic than the sequence in the film. It does retain the opening scene of the novel as Bigger hunts a rat that is terrorising the family slum. The film does eschew the subjective element, there is no attempt to present Bigger’s mental state nor any voice-over. So we see a fairly conventional cinematic narrative following Bigger through the few days as the events unfold. The filmmakers manage to recreate a sense of the Chicago of the book, though not the snow, with the book set around the New Year. They cut between studio sets in Buenos Aires and stock footage of the actual Chicago. The film has at times a strong expressionist and noir feel, especially in the sequences in which Bigger is hunted down. There is an impressive rooftop pursuit which ends under a looming water tower.

Bigger and Bessie

Bigger and Bessie

In the novel Bigger is 20 years of age but Wright in the film is clearly much older. And he is better at the fear than the anger of his character. Bessie seems more of a good-time girl than in the novel. Several US film actors appear in the film including Jean Wallace as the victim Mary Dalton together with amateur black actors. This did not assist the release in the USA; 14 minutes were cut from the film. It seems that the UK release was the cut version.

The film has something of a hybrid status. The Argentine film programme basically slotted into the category of a national cinema, with some level of critical engagement. But there is no sign of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist standpoint that emerged only a few years later with the work of Solanas and Getino. However, Santa Negra, with its US setting and engagement with the situation of negroes/Afro-Americans is essentially a film about civil rights. It was the most oppositional of the films that I saw in the programme, but of a different ilk from them. The full-length version, screened at the Venice Film Festival, was thought lost. But a film historian found a 16mm print which was used to reconstruct the 35mm version by the Library of Congress. Whilst it is a lesser work than the original novel, it is a powerful representation of the period and situation and hopefully will receive wider circulation.

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Anti-colonial films at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2016

Posted by keith1942 on August 1, 2016

memories poster

This year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato featured  more restorations from The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. These included an important title from anti-colonial cinema, Memorias del Subdesarollo / Memories of Underdevelopment (1968). The film is a key example of the new and revolutionary cinema in Cuba after the liberation. It was directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and scripted by him with Emundo Desnoes, who wrote the source novel. The filmmaker Walter Salles is quoted in the Festival Catalogue on his memories of first seeing the film:

“… watching it was alike a shock to me. The film navigated between different states – fiction and documentary, past and present, Africa and Europe. The dialectic narrative took the form of a collage, crafted with uncommon conceptual and cinematographic rigour. Scenes from  newsreels, historical fragments and magazine headlines mixed and collided. In Memories of Underdevelopment, Alea proved that filmic precision and radical experimentation could go hand in hand. Nothing was random. Each image echoing in the following image, the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

The film was restored at L’Immagine Ritrovato laboratories in association with ICAIC.

Adieu_Bonaparte

Another restoration at the Festival was Adieu Bonaparte (1985) written and directed by the Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine. The film was  French-Egyptian production. But it got an extremely unsympathetic reception at the Cannes Film Festival.

“… the film received a lukewarm, if not downright hostile, reception: several journalists judged the project ‘anti-French’…” Frédéric Bonnaud in the Festival Catalogue.

This is not surprising since the film deals with the ultimately ill-fated Napoleonic invasion against Egypt in 1798. This is a key event in Edward Said’s great study of Orientalise (1978). This provides one of those opportunities one finds in Chahine’s films, where history as a past and the present as unfolding illuminate the complexities of his country and of the wider Arabia.

“Chahine is simultaneously a historian and a prophet. … he multiples the characters and points-of-view so that none of them is ever completely wrong or completely right.” (Festival Catalogue).

Both films originated on celluloid but were screened at Il Ritrovato from DCPs with English subtitles. One advantage of this format is the greater ease of circulation. Let us hope these two major works get a wide and varied release.

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Al Momia / The Night of Counting the Years, Egypt 1969

Posted by keith1942 on April 14, 2016

Al_Momia_01

This is a classic Egyptian film that was restored by the World Cinema Foundation at the Cineteca di Bologna and screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2009. It was the only feature film to be made by the writer and director Shadi Abdel Salam, though he did make a few short documentaries. The film credits bear the title ‘sponsor Roberto Rossellini’. Apparently Salam visited Rossellini and asked him to direct the film, but Rossellini persuaded Salam to direct it himself.

The film dramatises events that occurred in 1881, when it was discovered that precious archaeological treasures from one of the tomb of an ancient Pharaoh were being sold to foreign collectors. This was the Deir el-Bahri cache, a tomb shaft that contained over 50 mummies, unusually, from five separate dynasties. These had originally been moved and secreted by priests to prevent looting as the Egyptian Empire collapsed. The cache was sited in cliffs away from the famous Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of the Nile. It is worth noting that 1881 was the year that a nationalist rebellion broke out against the colonial domination of Egypt. In 1882 the British fleet first bombarded Alexandria and then occupied the country.

Salam turned the events surrounding the hidden cache into an evocative and haunting tale. In the film a local tribe, the Horabat, are secretly raiding a lost tomb near Thebes. The Egyptian Archaeological Society sets out to disrupt this illegal trading and find the actual location. However, the bulk of the film focuses on the activities of the Horabat tribe and dissension amongst its members.

The film is slowly paced and has a poetic feel. Martin Scorsese writes:

Frequently an event seems disconnected from its predecessor. The film often uses tracking shots, mainly forward or reverse, which are grimly slow. The colours are mut

“Al Momia has an extremely unusual tone – stately, poetic, with a powerful grasp of time and the sadness it carries. The carefully measured pace, the almost ceremonial movement of the camera, the desolate settings, the classical Arabic spoken on the soundtrack, the unsettling score by the great Italian composer Mario Nascimbene – they all work in perfect harmony and contribute to the feeling of fateful inevitability.” [Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue 2009).

The scenes are presented one by one, without transition shots. ed and many scenes are fairly dark. Daylight is opaque and night-time or interiors have great blocks of darkness. The use of classical Arabic is unusual, even in Egyptian films. There is an almost dreamlike quality, appropriate to the themes of death, memory and the past.

The English language title of the film is set out in the first scene at a meeting at the Cairo Museum. Professor Raspére presents a quotation to his colleagues from the 3,000 year old ‘Book of the Dead’. He offers an incantation that:

“. . . restores to the dead the power to remember his name. A spirit without name is doomed to wander in perpetual anguish.”

This sets up the major themes of the film, names and identity, memory and the past. It is worth noting that a number of key characters in the film are not identified by name. These include the leader of the Society’s expedition: one of the brothers in the tribe, his mother and the elders: and the officer of the Egyptian militia.

Professor Raspére also shows his colleagues a parchment that has been illegally trafficked to the West and which relates to an unknown tomb of a Pharaoh. This leads to the Archaeological Society visiting the valley near Thebes, out of season, hoping to catch the grave robbers unprepared. The only support for these effendi [as the locals call them], after a steam journey up the Nile, is a group of the Guards of the Mount of the Dead.

The viewer’s first encounter with the Horabat tribe is the funeral procession for the dead leader, Selim. The procession ends at a circle of white funeral obelisks. Here, Selim’s two sons are taken apart by tribal Elders and informed that they must take responsibility for a secret held by their father. This is the secret cache, which is regularly raided for valuables that are sold to a middleman, Ayoub. The sales appear to be the main source of income for the tribe.

Al-Momia_01_pdp

The stealthy journey to the cache leads us through a chain of mazes and labyrinths. Such labyrinths recur throughout the film, in rock defiles, caves, and ruined palaces. At the end of these is the treasure. However, there is also a monster – desecration of the dead motivated by greed – which leads to the death of the elder brother.

This brother had told the elders that they should ‘leave the dead in peace’, and refuses to continue the robberies. The younger brother, Wannis, is confused and uncertain. But their mother sides with the elders, and tells the older brother, ‘I no longer have a name to give you.’ This brother attempts to leave Thebes, but is killed on a boat, which bears a mysterious sign, ‘two hands in the shape of a butterfly’. This probably has some meaning in Egyptian culture, but certainly for foreign audiences it feeds into the overall ambiguity that envelops the film.

For much of the film the younger brother Wannis is torn between loyalty to his tribe and his revulsion at the grave robbing. He is subjected to a series of temptations, by the elders, and by Mourad, an accessory of Ayoub, who wants to take up dealing himself.

Finally Wannis visits the Society’s steamer and discloses the site of the cache. Guarded by the guards the 40 odd mummies are transported to the steamer, which then sets off to Cairo and the museum. The ending resolves the problem of the film in one sense; the cultural treasures are passed into safekeeping. And it resolves one problem regarding names and identity.

“Rise you will not die out. You will be called by your name. You are given new life.”

However, the film’s ending has a desolate tone. Still bruised from an attack Wannis wanders away along the banks of the Nile. And the gulf between the tribe and their desolate area and the elite in their metropolitan city appears as wide as ever.

In colour. Arabic with English subtitles.

 

 

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Redes, (The Wave, Mexico 1936.

Posted by keith1942 on April 28, 2015

Muriel_Zinnemann_Redes_bn_1

This 61 minute docu-drama was restored by The World Cinema Foundation and then screened at the 2009 Il Cinema Ritrovato.

The film was made by Mexican and US filmmakers for the Secretaría de Educación Pública of the Mexican Government. The story is set amongst a small fishing community and shot on location in Mexico at a river mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. The film is in black and white, with Spanish dialogue and English sub-titles. The film was among the early credits of Paul Strand and Fred Zinnemann.

Strand was a photographer who had worked in the National Film and Photo League. He had also worked on two experimental silent films. He was to become the central figure in a group of progressive filmmakers in the USA committed to politically informed documentaries. His later work included the photography for The Plow That Broke the Plain [1936] and the radical Native Land [1942].

Zinnemann had migrated to the USA from Germany where he had worked as an assistant cameraman, and was part of the team that produced Menschen en Sontag [1929]. Redes was his first directing credit and he later achieved success in this role in Hollywood. The two Mexicans who were important in setting up the project were Carlos Chavez, who was a noted composer, and Narciso Bassols, the Secretary of Educación Pública.

The simple story follows a fisherman, Miro, who is exploited by a local entrepreneur. The latter controls the fishing boats and access to markets. Miro becomes more radical when his son dies because he cannot afford medical care. He leads the fisherman in a revolt. But he becomes a martyr when his death is organised by a politician in the pay of the entrepreneur. The end of the film suggests the fisherman will fight on.

We enjoyed a 35mm print when the film was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2009. The Catalogue included memories of Zinnemann on the film:

The film – the first and last of its kind – was expected to play a small part in the Government plan to educate millions of illiterate citizens throughout the enormous country and bring them out of their isolation…

We had recruited practically all “actors” from among the local fisherman, who needed to do no more than be themselves. They were splendid and loyal friends, and working with them was a joy. In addition to acting, they carried all the equipment, rowed the boats and did a multitude of other jobs, earning more money than ever before – forty-five cents per day, per man – and enjoying themselves hugely …”

Muriel_Zinnemann_Redes_bn_2

Visually the film is in a style already familiar in Mexican cinema: using the landscape to create a sense of belonging. The figures are frequently posed against water, clouds, their thatched huts and the implement of fishing. The use of camera angles suggests the influence of Sergei Eisenstein, who had worked in Mexico on the unfinished Que Viva Mexico between 1931 and 1932. This is also true of the editing which cuts between characters and actions to create meanings after the style of Soviet montage.

The film’s social consciousness is presented in a narrative that follows many conventions of the Hollywood model. We have an individual hero, and a linear plot, with clearly delineated morals. This is the limitation of a certain sort of cinema. I felt that the film did not present the indigenous culture in the way that [for example] Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1947) manages. The key filmmakers are the two from the USA, though a number of the team are Mexican. In this period colonialism was still a major contradiction round the world, along with a developing neo-colonialism. In the case of Mexico the USA exercised dominance in line with its infamous C19th ‘Monroe Doctrine’. But in this film the exploitation and oppression of the fishermen is vested in an individual capitalist and a corrupt politician: the film lacks a sense of the wider capitalist mode or indeed of the neo-colonial relationship between Mexico and the USA. In fact Mexico already had a vibrant national cinema. It would be interesting to know the factors that governed the choices made by Educación Pública.

From that point-of-view of workers struggling against both exploitation and oppression the film seems to look forward to another set of filmmakers, Herbert Biberman and Paul Jarrico. Their Salt of the Earth, [1953] was set in New Mexico and dramatised a strike by Mexican migrants working in the mines. My memory of the latter film is that it has a more developed sense of communal struggle. The pair of films would make an excellent double bill.

Recently some of the restored films have featured on multi-DVD collections. Unfortunately for reasons to do with copyright the UK version from Eureka does not have Redes included. The French version does but lacks English subtitles. There is a US version which I have not yet been able to check.

Directors: Fred Zinnemann, Emilio Gómez Muriel. Scenario: Augustin Velázquez Chávez, Paul Strand, Emilio Gómez Muriel, Fred Zinnemann, Henwar Rodakiewicz. Photography Paul Strand. Editing Emilio Gómez Muriel, Gunther von Fritsch. Sound Roberto, Joselito Rodriguez. Music Silvestre Revueltas.

Cast: Miro – Silvio Hernández. Entrepreneur – David Valle Gonzalez. Politician – Rafael Hinojosa. El Zurdo – Antonio Lara. With a supporting cast local fisherman.

 

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