Took a van trip to Filmstreams and watched with Katy’s class. Set in Mali but shot in Mauritania, Sissako continues in his style of portraying a central character conflict (a murder over a dead cow) while frequently cutting away to daily life and smaller events in the surrounding town. In this case, the daily life segments involve their own, larger conflict: an invasion of the town by militant islamists attempting to impose their own laws. Inevitably these things collide as the invaders’ court decides to execute the herder who killed a fisherman, as well as the herder’s wife and another guy who seems to have simply given her a ride.

Promo screenshots stolen from Film Comment:

Wonders and horrors abound. An adulterous couple is buried then stoned to death. A Rooster Lady does inexplicable things. The local imam engages the invaders in futile discussion. Music and soccer and smoking are outlawed and punished with whippings, though the invaders are shown to be hypocrites in many of these cases, enjoying the same past times on the sly. Sissako makes them seem absurd, and could’ve made a comedy with some of the same material (a man is ordered to shorten his pants so he removes them; a jihadist can’t get through his propaganda video), but their frequent, meaningless acts of violence maintain an air of menace. As in Bamako he stages a song as an act of rebellion.

The movie keeps returning to the doomed herder and his beautiful family. Despite the repression and crime of the jihadists, it’s the herder Kidane’s murder of a fisherman who killed his prize cow which is shot as a cosmic event, ending with surely the greatest wide shot of the year as Kidane runs across the waist-deep water leaving a trail of silt, the mortally wounded fisherman struggling to his feet on the other side.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani shot Blue is the Warmest Color, which had a very different look. The only actor I think I’ve seen before is Fatoumata Diawara, a star of Genesis, as the lashed singer pictured above.

G. Kenny:

The really killing thing about all the conflict that tears this place and its people apart is how calm everyone is about it. Nobody raises his or her voices; nobody raises a hand in impulsive anger. Violence, when it occurs, is done in a very deliberate way. The jihadists need to conduct themselves “properly,” as this conveys their rectitude. But their stance only barely disguises their old-fashioned bullying. The treatment of women in particular is just misogyny with unconvincing window dressing. The jihadist who wants the young woman in marriage expects no argument; the girl is his right. And the fact that he asks for her politely, in the logic he lays out, only underscores his alleged right. It doesn’t matter anyway; if he is refused, he calmly states, “I’ll come again in a bad way.”

P. Labuza:

There is a critique here, and it is the failure of jidhadism as a cultural translator. This comes in literal form, as numerous scenes feature the jihadis having to work through translators to make their demands. … Numerous sequences feature characters simply trying to explain their point of view to one another, but the sides clearly aren’t listening. When one man confesses his deepest and most personal want to the jihadi leader, the leader asks his translator to stop. He knows that in order to continue his fight, he cannot listen. These jihadis only see prey.

The Pilgrim (1916, Frank Borzage)

A little western two-reeler with a good piano and violin score, starring Borzage as the humble, good-natured title character. Shadowplay: “I can think of few westerns where a good bit of the plot is devoted to healing a bad guy, who then departs the story without being bad again.” D. Sallitt: “The Pilgrim focuses on expressions, on using cinema to stop time and ponder the feelings that people can only half communicate.”

Jerks, Don’t Say Fuck (2001, Zhao Liang)

A punk-industrial music video with thrashy editing, military images and other weirdness. Video glitches, super-fast motion and repetition.

Bored Youth (2000, Zhao Liang)

Shirtless dude in blurry night vision breaks a lot of windows, just a ton of windows. the sound starts to go out of sync and echo. Editing slows way down, showing off the glorious digital video artifacts in low light. This goes on for seven minutes. Then: repeated shots of a squid catching a fish, the sound of machine-gun fire, and a demolition crew the next morning.

Four Women (1975, Julie Dash)

Music video for a Nina Simone song. Backlit dancer wrapped in a sheet for the intro, then different dances and clothes during the four parts of the piano-and-vocal section, all danced by Linda Young.

Bauca (2009, Albert Serra)

Fullscreen washes of color, edited to a symphonic piece. Cutting follows the music, but rarely right on the rhythm. Song ends suddenly and picture goes white.

Dignity (2008, Abderrahmane Sissako)

Interviewer asks different people to define dignity, and each does so silently.

Sissako: “I think it’s very difficult to deal with such sweeping concepts as justice and dignity in the allotted two or three minutes, so I looked for an idea that actually asked the question ‘What is dignity’ rather than answering it.”

My Heart Swims In Blood (2011, John Gianvito)

A veteran does not sleep well. Voiceover tells us horrible facts about the current wars while the camera shows everyday scenes and watchful owls. This is his section from the omnibus Far From Afghanistan, which I hope comes out soon. I think Andre (My Dinner With Andre) Gregory played the old man in bed.

Walker (2012, Tsai Ming-liang)

Monk carrying his lunch walks through the busy city in extreme slow-motion. Just wonderful.

Torture Money (1937, Harold S. Bucquet)
Caught on TCM’s Oscar Month – this beat out Deep South and Should Wives Marry? for best two-reeler. A cop from the Bunco Squad goes undercover to investigate a ring of scammers who beat a guy up in a back room then fake a car accident complete with paid “witnesses” to fraud insurance companies. The scammers purposely run over a little girl, just in case insurance fraud wasn’t enough of a crime to get our attention. Our officer blends in successfully thanks to his knowledge of 30’s street slang and his ability to fake a hatred of cops. He’s chosen to be the “accident victim” (that’d be the titular torture), manages to contact his men, spring the trap and send the baddies to jail. I don’t recall the character names, so our cop was either George Lynn (I Was a Teenage Frankenstein) or Edwin Maxwell (The Great Moment, His Girl Friday). The director went on to better things (a Katharine Hepburn feature, the Dr. Kilgare series), as did the writer (T-Men, Robinson Crusoe On Mars).


Three half-hour shorts from the 1997 Africa Dreaming series:

Sophia’s Homecoming (Richard Pakleppa, Namibia)
Sophia arrives in town after years in South Africa and finds that her husband, kids and sister aren’t so happy to see her. Turns out the sister and husband are in love… Soph tries to break it up, but when the sister says she’s expecting the husband’s baby, Sophia packs up her kids and returns to S. Africa. Other than a solo dish-destroying kitchen tantrum, there’s surprisingly little screaming and fighting, considering the situation.

Sabriya (Abderrahmane Sissako, Tunisia)
Hot, uninhibited, waterfall-loving foreign woman comes to town and shakes up the home life of a local chess-playing tavern dweller. He falls in love, but I think she leaves town without him at the end… I was too busy staring at the nice visuals and trying to remember scenes from Waiting For Happiness.

So Be It (Joseph Gai Ramaka, Senegal)
Doctor arrives in town (people are always arriving in town in these movies), sees a mute retarded kid who hangs around. Everyone seems to dump on the retarded kid… finally outta nowhere (actually I predicted it, but I was kidding) the townsfolk come with torches to kill the kid. Why? I dunno, but the doctor is right upset. The written description on the box calls it an African Heart of Darkness (although I would prefer an African Heart of Darkness to concern an adventurer from the Congo on a dangerous mission to England to retrieve a countryman who’d encamped in a rural British village up the Thames and established himself as a god among the locals). The box seems to know a lot that I couldn’t figure out from the movies. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention?


Egged On (1926, Charley Bowers)

Charley invents an overly-complicated machine in his girlfriend’s parents’ barn which makes eggs unbreakable (rubbery, you open them with scissors) and aims to sell it to the egg-shipping industry. The investors are coming, but Charley has no eggs for the demonstration, so he fails to gather some in various ways. Finally gets an egg from a hen who’s been eating dynamite… test goes well until he hits the egg with a hammer to prove its indestructibility and destroys the whole barn. Worth watching for the scene shown below in which a batch of eggs, incubated by Charley’s car engine, hatch into hundreds of little cars in a massive and delightful stop-motion display.

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He Done His Best (1926, Charley Bowers)
Another one involving eggs, and complicated machinery, overall more entertaining then Egged On. Charley needs his girl’s dad’s consent for marriage, ends up working at his restaurant. Gets dad in union trouble, so invents an automatic server/cook machine (powered by stop-motion, natch). Dad is cheered immensely, girl holds wedding at the restaurant, but she’s marrying some other guy which is supposed to be a funny surprise but is instead kind of an anticlimactic ending after a great movie, a la Chaplin’s One A.M.
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Azur and Asmar (2006, Michel Ocelot)
Not supposed to be a short, but we ditched after 45 minutes because this was so bad. I can’t even think when’s the last time I walked out on a movie (though I remember itching to leave Sam Raimi’s The Gift). The critically-raved-on animation looked to me like weakly-puppeted low-detail Flash, and the story was going nowhere we couldn’t easily predict, so there seemed no point in staying. As a rule, I don’t put half-seen movies on the website, but I’m making an exception here and I don’t need a reason, nyeah.

Euro/African kids grow up with same mum/caretaker, Euro kid is sent away to become classy, African kid/mum is kicked out of house, sent back to whatever country to become super-rich merchants. Eurokid goes to africa, hides his blue eyes, runs into his mum and a hunchback liar fellow, and sets out to locate the three keys and marry some mythic fairy. Africa stuff is all Eurocentric wide-eyed wonder, and the other kid disappears for huge chunks of the movie, so the idea that we were seeing some kind of African tale faithfully told by a Frenchman went out the window.

Then we snuck into the animated shorts program and caught Varmints (Marc Craste) – wordless depresso-short with very good CGI about a bunny in a polluted Wall-E world trying to use his potted plant in order to get captured by giant floating jellyfish to live in meadowy heaven with the girl he met in the elevator – Gopher Broke (Blur Studios) – slick, commercial-looking animal comedy, unlucky gopher upsetting trucks on their way to the farmer’s market in order to get himself some food – Skhizein (Jeremy Clapin) – guy is hit by an asteroid and finds that his consciousness is some number of centimeters to the side of his body, neat premise but in the end it turns out he is just deranged – and Hot Dog and John and Karen which I’d already seen in The Animation Show 4 but played better with a crowd.

Watched again, this time on film, and confirmed that it’s one of the greatest movies I’ve seen this year. Fiery badass political in a more artful way than Michael Moore could ever dream, the culmination of Sissako’s filmmaking styles from Waiting For Happiness and Life On Earth merged with a long, deep-seated desire for change. Too bad it’s almost impossible to recommend as good art and entertainment to people not already interested in African cinema… they’ll never believe me. Jimmy liked it too!

Technology of choice for this movie is electric light (was the telephone in Life On Earth and microphone/loudspeaker in Bamako). Of course there are radios prominent in all three.

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BBC website:

Waiting for Happiness is a film about exile and displacement, based to some extent on Sissako’s own life experiences. Yet what makes it so remarkable is the way in which the director translates the psychological aspect of these issues to screen.

Having left Mauritania to study film in Russia, Waiting For Happiness seems to be Sissako’s therapy for his own time spent in exile. He describes his work as “…a portrait of people in departure, who have to a certain extent already left, without having actually yet moved.”

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Another portrait of a town, like Life On Earth, but poetically far beyond that one. An east asian man sings English karaoke songs and wanders on the beach… a man (Abdallah) returned from another country wears different clothes from everyone else, doesn’t speak the language and tries not-too-hard to fit in… a boy tries to learn an elder electrician’s trade while a girl about his age is learning to be a singer… and on the beach, a man drowns and his death is investigated.

Visually, lot of people looking through windows, some looking through cameras. Static shots of static people who pause before moving offscreen, or sometimes leave the scene silently during a cutaway. The pace never lags and there’s always something interesting going on, even when the characters themselves aren’t too interested.

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New Yorker Films: “Set in Mauritania, in northwest Africa, Waiting for Happiness is Mr. Sissako’s nod to a small hamlet’s ability – no, its need – to greet encroaching advancement with a shrug; eventually, the little place will be overtaken by the currents of modernity anyway.”

If this one didn’t cement A. Sissako as one of the best current African filmmakers, I’m sure Bamako did/will. New Yorker suggests that “Mr. Sissako is also using the movie as a way of dealing with the possibility that he’s being hailed as Africa’s next big thing. It’s a momentous responsibility to shoulder, and like Abdallah, the director is still in the process of establishing who he is.” If that’s true then maybe Bamako was Sissako’s way of accepting that responsibility, and using his status to create something of political importance, since he knew he had everyone’s attention.

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This is the second African film this week for which I’ve read reviews comparing it to Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. Slant Magazine says the movie shows the people of this city struggling against foreign cultural invasion. “The old man walks into the desert with a light bulb in his hand. He dies and the bulb gradually lights up: a devastating transference of power between a spirit and the outside culture that sucks on its marrow.”

The same cinematographer shot the other two Sissako movies I’ve seen, along with Little Girl Who Sold The Sun, and a somewhat acclaimed 2004 movie from Angola. All actors were non-professional except for the Asian guy.

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IMDB says it won two awards at Cannes, grossed almost two thousand dollars theatrically in the U.S., and they recommend the similar films Exils (Tony Gatlif), The Intruder (Claire Denis) and Lethal Weapon 2 (Richard Donner).

Sissako also made a 1998 documentary in Angola (it played the New York African Film Fest this year), a 30-min short for television, and a “medium-length feature” called October in 1993 when he lived in Russia, which is available on the British DVD of Waiting for Happiness. There’s one film that predates October called Le Jeu, a short about kids playing at war that hardly anyone online has mentioned (thanks Village Voice).

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Sissako: “Aime Césaire has been a support for me most of my life. He is the author that I read and reread. But another very important author to me was Frantz Fanon. The introduction of Black Skin, White Masks is very close to this new film [Life On Earth].”

Sort of a slice-of-life movie set on the last day of the century (which is summer in Africa). Has a Bamako-village feel to a few of the scenes. Slight, but a nice movie. Kept returning to the idea that “it’s difficult to contact people; it’s a matter of luck”, with townspeople visiting the post office to use the telephone and try calling others, usually unsuccessfully.

Otherwise, there’s a boy kicking a ball, a pretty girl on bicycle, a guy (who likes the pretty girl) returning to his hometown for new year, this guy’s father writing him a letter (descriptive at times, poetic at others), farmers chasing birds off the crops, and of course, some scenes about radios.

I like how Sissako shows the passage of time with a group of men sitting in chairs in the shade from a building, out in the street… later sitting closer to the building, then right next to it, then standing against the building, and finally (no more shade) picking up their chairs and going home.

I think there were six or eight of these last-day-of-the-century movies done by different directors as part of a Y2K film project. So far, this is the better of the two I’ve seen (vs. Hal Hartley’s Book of Life).

Katy remembers more than me:

“This is an ensemble film, with Dramane, played by Sissako, composing a letter to his father in the village of Sokolo. Dramane lives in Paris but decides to visit his village at the dawning of the new millennium because he misses the life of the village.”

“The film opens in a brightly lit supermarket in Paris, with rows and rows of cheeses. Dramane’s voice over begins there, and we switch to the village which shows people working for their food: drawing water, out in the fields. The colors also change. The brightness remains, but the yellow mud homes and the yellow sand of the village dominates the color palette.”

Black Book (2006, Paul Verhoeven)
Nice, twisty little nazi suspense drama. Watched on the plane, a little drowsy, so IMDB will help remember the plot details: “When the hiding place of the beautiful Jewish singer Rachel Steinn is destroyed by a stray bomb, she decides with a group of other Jews to cross the Biesbosch to the already liberated south of the Netherlands. However, their boat is intercepted by a German patrol and all the refugees are massacred. Only Rachel survives. She joins the resistance, and under the alias Ellis de Vries manages to get friendly with the German SS officer Müntze. He is very taken with her and offers her a job. Meanwhile, the resistance devise a plan to free a group of imprisoned resistance fighters with Ellis’ help. The plan is betrayed and fails miserably. Both the Resistance and the Germans blame her. She goes into hiding once more, with Müntze in tow. Together they wait for the war to end. Liberation does not bring Ellis freedom; not even when she manages to expose the real traitor. ‘Every survivor is guilty in some way.'” Edit April ’07: saw again in theaters – a real interesting movie. I definitely like it, glad Verhoeven is directing his talents away from stuff like The Hollow Man these days. Awesome final shot, with Rachel living in Israel, having moved from one besieged state to another. I don’t think Jimmy or George liked it much.

Jackass Number Two (2006, Jeff Tremaine)
Watched in the plane right after Black Book, when everyone around us was going to sleep. KLM didn’t censor it as far as I know. Completely awesome, hilarious movie. A masterpiece in its own way. Katy says I laughed too much/loud and annoyed my fellow passengers. Most other people watched that Kevin Costner movie with Ashton Kutcher for some reason.

Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick)
After a few days at the World Social Forum, finally one evening Katy and I were both awake enough to sit through a movie. I suggested Badlands, which we both ended up enjoying. Sheen kills Spacek’s father (Warren Oates) and they go on a little shooting spree before getting captured. Another quiet and beautiful movie by Terrence Malick. EDIT: JUNE 2007: after reading a great Adrian Martin article in Rouge, I realized that Malick is the only director I’ve seen whose EVERY film I would consider great… Charles Laughton excepted.

My Migrant Soul (2004, Yasmine Kabir)
On the last day at the Forum, I found the movie tent. Watched this half hour doc about a guy from Bangladesh who got a job in Malaysia in order to send money home to his family. But the guy who sends him gives him a forged passport, and he gets hard work for short periods of time, then sits idle the rest of his weeks, unable to find other work or complain to anyone without a legitimate ID, finally gets sick and dies. Sad.

Words on Water (2003, Sanjay Kak)
They’re building dams in India that destroy small towns, I guess. I fell asleep in the first ten minutes, then left the movie to wander the Forum and listen to the drumming, so I can’t tell you much more than that. Got back just before the credits when some protestors from the village are being arrested. Sad.

7 Islands and a Metro (2006, Madhusree Dutta)
I was drowsy and it didn’t make a strong impression. Some overlong shots (because the longer you hold a shot, the artsier it becomes) and some disconnected stories about Mumbai/Bombay. The director came out and said the movie reflects how people from all over got together to form this big city, and now the city is splintering into smaller communities again, without a firm focus or center (which of course reminded me of Atlanta), and told many stories of displacement, of trying to make a home in an overcrowded metropolis. I was disappointed that so many of the stories were made-up, and some of the actors were really overdoing it, as if in a soap opera. Decent enough movie I guess. Sad.

Early in the Morning (2006, Gahité Fofana)
The next day we went to the Alliance Francaise, checked out an excellent photo exhibit and saw some free movies. This one retells the true story about two kids from Mali who froze to death in the landing gear of a plane to Europe, having written a letter to Europe’s heads of state explaining that they’ve got it bad in Guinea and need some help. A well done movie, underplayed, not sensationalistic, quietly calling attention to the country’s problems without setting up some overbearing horror of war. The kids don’t even experience the war firsthand, so we don’t see it either, just hear about it in a single scene. Sad.

Bamako (2006, Abderrahmane Sissako)
Next up at the French Alliance was this awesome movie, which we wanted to see all week and surprisingly made it out to. Good thing the Alliance was walking distance from our hotel. A (mock?) trial is being held in the center of town and broadcast on the radio, with the people of Africa (Mali in particular) versus the European powers (the IMF and World Bank). A plea for debt forgiveness, for Africa to maintain its identity and stop to think how it wants to deal with foreign countries without getting exploited. Meanwhile small-town life carries on around the trial, the central story being about a family with a husband who can’t work, a wife who sings at a nightclub and their sick child. Wonderfully and humorously shot, with strange collisions of culture and a much talked-about bit where a TV movie starring Danny Glover suddenly takes over the screen. Must see again.

Garden State (2004, Zach Braff)
Katy watched on our last night in Nairobi, after the safari. I was just listening to the dialogue and music, and finally watched the second half with her. It’s an easy movie to make fun of after the fact, but while it’s playing, it’s very convincing.

Fighting Elegy (1966, Seijun Suzuki)
An action/comedy from Suzuki! Extreeeeme sexual tension leads Kiroku (lead actor from Tattooed Life) to join a fight club, and finally form his own gang and have huge fights with other groups of kids. IMDB guy says “a satire of the militaristic attitude that eventually lead Japan into WWII”. Wonderful. Watched this and 39 Steps on the portable DVD player on the flight home.

The 39 Steps (1935, Alfred Hitchcock)
Watched twice in a row, the second time with commentary. Robert Donat, a very capable leading man, gets caught up in a plot to smuggle government defense secrets out of the country when a woman he meets at a show is murdered in his apartment. He runs all over, never believed or trusted, Hitchcock’s original “wrong man”, predicting North By Northwest in structure and the final theater scene of the Man Who Knew Too Much remake during the great ending when, about to be captured again, he shouts to Mr. Memory onstage “what are the 39 steps”, revealing the plot to everyone. Very easy to watch… one of the better Hitchcocks I’ve seen, even if completely unbelievable.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, Wes Anderson)
For some reason, I thought about this one during the whole safari. Is it the boar’s head that Royal rehangs on the wall? I don’t know, but I was itching to see this again, and watched it as soon as we got home. One of my favorite movies ever.

The Lion King (1994, Allers & Minkoff)
Of course we thought about this one too, and watched it the next night. Didn’t finish it, though. Best not to.