The most colorful African movie we’ve seen – well-acted, a high-quality production with a timely subject. Shame about the weak and obvious script. At least that was my position before reading Sarah-Tai Black’s Cinema Scope article, which basically says to shut up about the conventional structure and narrative, since it’s a groundbreaking film in other, important ways.
Kena (right) and Ziki should’ve known better than to hang out near these spies:
Kena’s dad is a shopkeeper who recently ditched Kena’s very religious mom to start a new family, and he’s in a political race against Ziki’s dad (Dennis Musyoka, a small role in Sense8). Kena starts ditching her would-be-boyfriend Blacksta and the daughter of the local gossip when she meets Ziki, and the two start growing closer until, inevitably, they get caught, beaten, arrested, preached-at and prayed-for, and permanently separated. I’m pretty sure Kena becomes a doctor at the end and Ziki moves away.
Kena hashes things out with Blacksta, but spies are everywhere:
Katy and I have also seen Kahiu’s awesome dystopian short and her feature drama about people connecting in the wake of Kenyan embassy bombings, and will be sitting tight waiting for the next one.
Shula is not a witch, but is tied to a leash and sent to live in witch camp, with other women who are actually not witches but have proven inconvenient to keep around. From the enraging first section (mob superstition meets government corruption) and the tragic/triumphant ending, it’s a beautifully shot movie, and our first from Zambia.
Really there were only a few crowd-pleasing hits at this year’s T/F, which was interrupted (for us) by a snowstorm and fouled by some too-late nights and difficult film picks. This was one of them, despite being a two-plus-hour crackpot investigation into unprovable murder cases. I caught up with Brügger’s The Red Chapel shortly before this year’s festival slate was announced, and this was the #1 Sundance movie I was pulling for.
Some good uncomfortable laughter, some twisty investigation and humor in construction/presentation offset the ultimate topic: power grabs, espionage, mercenaries, murders, white supremacy, attempted genocide – US and UK governments blatantly destroying Africa’s hopes of self-sufficiency. Göran sparks off the investigation and does all the background research, and Mads provides context, theatrical antics and the overall sense that we can’t tell how much of this is true.
Opener was River Arkansas again, but with new songs, and we grabbed a juice at Main Squeeze beforehand.
All marvel movies are about sibling rivalries and father issues, aren’t they? Twenty-some years ago, New Black Panther Chadwick Boseman’s dad T’Chaka (who later died in a Civil War-era explosion) killed his brother/Boseman’s uncle N’Jobu (This Is Us star Sterling Brown), and now N’Jobu’s son has grown into the revenge-seeking Michael B. Jordan. But first, Boseman has to become Black Panther so we’re familiar with the rituals and clans… Winston Duke challenges and loses, Daniel Kaluuya is a Boseman buddy who joins Jordan and feels ambivalent about it (he’s this movie’s Karl Urban), Forest Whitaker is a wise man (of course he is). Jordan shows up with a dead enemy of Wakanda (Andy Serkis as “Ulysses Klaue”) and proof of his noble birth, so he’s accepted and allowed to challenge, then after he wins and Boseman loses his Panther powers, the alliances get all twisted.
Boseman has very capable help from his gearhead sister Shuri (Letitia Wright of the Black Mirror season I keep forgetting to watch), his ex Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and Kaluuya’s girl, the bald warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira of Mother of George, whose costar Isaach De Bankolé appears here as an elder and I didn’t recognize him because of the huge distracting lip-plate), and improbably, CIA agent Martin Freeman. Besides the whole cynical “The CIA is actually doing good things for Africa” message and some typical CG-cartoon fight scenes, the movie’s Africa-influenced sci-fi and badass warrior women make for some striking imagery that we’ve never seen before. This and Thor 3 and Guardians are finally taking all this blockbuster superhero money and producing things that are fantastic to look at instead of ever-larger monsters destroying ever-larger cities.
The most narratively straightforward film of the fest – it’s a process doc, showing a man at work, effort and result. It’s also the one movie we saw (until American Animals) that you could watch without guessing it’s a documentary, because the photography is so precise. We chose this one as a different view of Congo than the city-set Kinshasa Makambo, not expecting it to be one of the fest’s most beautiful films.
but this was the only scene I could find to screenshot:
Kabwita chops down an entire tree and burns it under a blanket of earth to create charcoal, which he loads into bags, which are strapped to a bicycle, which he walks thirty miles to the city. He stops at his wife’s sister’s place, drops off shoes for his daughter who lives there. Along the way he loses bags when his bike is knocked down by passing cars, and more bags to bandits. There’s no charcoal wholesaler once he arrives – he has to roam the streets to find a buyer. His goal is to make enough to buy medicine for his youngest child, plus sheet metal to make a roof for his new house, but the metal turns out to be far more expensive than he’d imagined. Before the long walk home to start the whole process again, he stops at a prayer tent, the only time he’s allowed some relaxation and release.
I thought Kabwita was a solitary mad genius with his charcoal-strapped bicycle until one amazing shot on the road when we see other men pass by with the exact same rig – it’s a local industry! The economics are different than here, but it’s still upsetting when Katy calculates each bag of charcoal netted him $1.50. Gras won the top prize at Cannes Critics Week, where this played alongside fellow T/F selection Gabriel and the Mountain, and Ava and Tehran Taboo, and one hopes that after his cinematic victory, he sent our man some sheet metal.
Tim Grierson in Paste:
Observation elevated to the level of poetry — but not at the expense of dramatizing Kabwita’s plight — Makala is a powerfully meditative film that’s also highly sensitive to the struggle of those in impoverished circumstances … Work is slow and grueling in the film, and Gras strips it down to its essence, encapsulating a lifetime of drudgery into Kabwita’s arduous journey to the market … With no interest in prettified poverty porn, Gras is drawn to the man’s stoic diligence, and soon so are we.
After a light opening scene, we’re suddenly plunged into a street protest that turns violent, in high-color, stuttery shaky-cam. The filmmaker follows protests against Congo’s presidential government (which promised open elections but keeps postponing), primarily following three young guys. Christian is a fiery youth leader. Ben returns from exile, shares his individual ideas with the protest organizations. Jean-Marie was captured and tortured by the secret police, recently released. They have the same goals, just don’t always agree on tactics, and they’re getting nowhere but always feel like they’re close. All their hopes are pinned on an aging Lumumba-era politician – this is who they’d vote for, though his own positions in the present day aren’t clear. At the end of filming, Ben’s back in exile, Jean-Marie is nabbed again, and their politician has died, but the struggle goes on. This year at True/False we saw more than one movie that puts the film crew and their subjects in harm’s way, but this is the one where you feel it the most urgently.
Vadim Rizov in Filmmaker:
Preparations alternate with regular counterpushes of violence, the feeling that something must be done repeatedly butting up against the reality when attempts are made and nothing changes. This is not an excuse to just give up, simply a record of grim odds. Towards the end, we see one subject, bullhorn in hand, dropping truth in the middle of a market, but no one’s listening — they all have shopping to do, and lending an ear might be dangerous anyway. It’s a brilliant micro-image for the oft-futility and necessity of activism; a title card tells us elections delayed in December 2017 were delayed once again in December 2018. That date has yet to come, but a colleague noted the particular poignancy that the card will probably be true by then.
Picturesque and moody, which is to say it’s slow in that 1980’s arthouse sort of way, with drone music which put Katy briefly to sleep. This is a mixed blessing, since she missed the siamese twins separation surgery scene.
Abena (Tania Rogers of a Dr. Who two-parter) is a journalist returning to Ghana after having fled for decades. She’s here to track down the film set of Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde and shame them for misrepresenting Africa, and also incidentally to reconnect with her former communist revolutionary friends, who remained in country and seem withdrawn and broken and not especially glad to see her. In end Abena seems to have taken responsibility for her part in the communist experiment failure – I’m not sure this was the intention, but it’s what I thought was happening. Either way, this makes a good follow-up to In The Intense Now. And she does track down the Cobra Verde set in the end, lingering on all the skull imagery and saying that Europeans have always been better at leaving testaments.
Daniel Kasman on Mubi, from where I also stole the above image:
The soundtrack, flush with ambient synths, simmering orchestrations, and local songs of lament and longing, as well as the brilliantly and variously interpolated archival footage from across Ghana’s post-independence history, is unique to the collective. The result is an elegantly mournful story where this specific woman becomes something more grand, a conduit not only for a personal history of exile and political dismay, but a national and perhaps even continental one.
In the 1960s, they’d all, in different parts of Africa, effectively lost a war of independence, one which had started with them as radicals, Marxists and socialists who wanted to take their countries in a certain direction. As the decade ground on, one by one those countries had been turned around, overthrown, or coups had been planned. Many of these people had left Britain or Europe to go back to Africa to plan these new anti-colonial moves, and, irony of ironies, had to run back to the countries they’d left. They were now back in the so-called mother countries begging for refuge … If you were from one of those exile families, like me, that melancholy was the overwhelming feeling that your childhood seemed to be suffused by. I knew I wanted to do something around that feeling of exile as a sort of space of emotional stasis.
After waiting years to watch this, it was finally pretty disappointing… even if the political/social criticism is on point, the movie felt slow and obvious. Former swimming champ Adam has worked at the same hotel pool for decades, along with buddy David (a miniaturized Danny Glover) and now his son Abdel. Adam pays off a local government dude to keep Adbel out of the civil war – we thought Dry Season took place post-civil war, but apparently this is a new civil war, which ended a few months before the film premiered in Cannes (winning third place to Uncle Boonmee and Of Gods and Men).
Parents and son at home:
A Chinese company buys the hotel, notes that there isn’t enough pool work to justify employment of these three men, so fires David and demotes Adam to gatekeeper. He claims he can’t afford to pay anymore – maybe true, or maybe he is mad about the job situation – so Abdel is quickly drafted and Adam gets his pool job back. All is well for a few days, then Abdel’s previously unseen pregnant girlfriend moves in, the town is evacuated as the rebels advance, and Adam goes off to an army hospital to kidnap his mortally wounded son and give him a river burial.
Adam was the baker from Dry Season, looking convincingly less weathered (or maybe it’s been too long and I’d forgotten what he looked like, because I thought they must be two similar-looking actors). Abdel had small roles in Caché and Indigènes. David was in Grisgris and Haroun’s lesser-known Sexe, gombo et beurre salé, and the chief was in Africa Paradis and a passenger in Night on Earth. The girlfriend Djénéba Koné, a singer who cries a lot, was in Bamako as the sister-in-law of that film’s crying singer.
The film is beautifully shot with strong performances, particularly from the soulful Youssouf Djaoro in the lead role, but his life changing decision… never quite rings true. It does make the second half dramatically powerful and moving, and it even makes sense on a thematic level, but it is hard to believe his character would ever make such a callous choice.
Maybe I’m just in a mood, but this seems like one of the greatest documentaries ever. In filming eight locations (four sets of antipodes – places on land directly opposite the globe from each other), much fun is had with lenses and camera orientation. The music and sound design is terrific as well as the cinematography, and the movie’s gimmick and structure aside, he is filming absolute magic and wonder. In fact, the antipode concept is only mentioned in some opening titles, and from there it’s just observation of the chosen locations, left to viewer’s imagination and his excellent visual transitions between locales to draw geographic connections.
Won an award at the 2012 True/False Fest. We hope to attend next year, so we’re catching up on some docs we missed.
I looked up a little about Kossakovsky. He teaches a documentary class – among the rules he presents to students:
– Don’t film if you can live without filming.
– Don’t film if you want to say something – just say it or write it. Film only if you want to show something, or you want people to see something. This concerns both the film as a whole and every single shot within the film.
– Don’t film something you just hate. Don’t film something you just love. Film when you aren’t sure if you hate it or love it. Doubts are crucial for making art. Film when you hate and love at the same time.
– You need your brain both before and after filming, but don’t use your brain during filming. Just film using your instinct and intuition.
– Story is important for documentary, but perception is even more important. Think, first, what the viewers will feel while seeing your shots. Then, form a dramatic structure of your film using the changes to their feelings.
– Documentary is the only art where every esthetical element almost always has ethical aspects and every ethical aspect can be used esthetically. Try to remain human, especially whilst editing your films. Maybe, nice people should not make documentaries.