The five members of the Sudanese Film Group in Khartoum reenact scenes from classic movies, pretend to film each other, hold public screenings of Chaplin’s Modern Times – and almost Django Unchained, until the authorities find out.

A warm little movie, slow-paced but engrossing. Played this year’s True/False with director in attendance, but it didn’t fit into our schedule.

Our first movie of 2020 was this hazy, ghostly thing. Ada is being tailed by Detective Issa, who suspects her of setting fire to her new husband Omar’s house, but at night Issa is being possessed by the spirit of Ada’s lover Souleiman who died at sea seeking work in a country that didn’t constantly rip him off.

Great synth music by Fatima Al Qadiri, who has released records on Warp and Hyperdub, and cinematography by Claire Mathon, who shot both the Guiraudie movies I’ve seen, and is currently winning awards for Portrait of a Lady on Fire. No screenshots because we cancelled netflix since watching.

“There’s a problem with your films. I don’t understand it. It’s not clear at all.”

A Belgian movie, watched for the Shadowplay thing, but I opted to cover Ferat Vampire instead because this one seemed… more difficult. As the red curtains open and the film begins, diorama-like, full of seared memories and dream logic, I tell myself “don’t call it Lynchian, that’s what everyone has said about it,” but Goodreads tell me that Smolders wrote a book about Eraserhead and Vimeo says he made a video called Lynch Empire, so nevermind, it’s Lynchian. This is his only feature to date, in a 35-year career of shorts.

Kids walk towards the camera, a bug is pinned to the wall, twin Poltergeist II preachers are flashback-puppeteers, causing a wolfman to kill the girl to big choral music, like hymns with some Thin Red Line mixed in. The girl lives again, only to be killed with scissors. Then the doctor, who is viewing these memory-plays by peering into our suit-wearing protagonist’s ear, says he’s fantasizing and he never had a sister, let alone a murdered one, and he needs to chill out.

Our man has an a static Crispin Glovery intensity, and a facial birthmark so we can conveniently tell who plays him in flashback, living in a city under near-permanent eclipse (the second time in 24 hours I’ve thought of Dark City). He works as the bug guy in a museum – a zoo worker in a room full of film cans – and we’ve seen multiple sets of identical twins at this point, making this the second movie this year after the Mandico short to be strongly reminiscent of A Zed & Two Noughts.

Enough with all the comparisons to other films – we go into overdrive when a black woman (the museum security guard) appears, sick and naked and pregnant, in his bed. We hear her thoughts, untranslated (at least on my DVD), while he deals with his stress by watching anthropological films of a beardy colonialist white man (his father, and the museum director). She make him promise not to leave, he immediately runs into the hallway while she gets killed by the ghost of his dead sister, then turns into a cocoon that births a white woman who goes to the museum, naked but for a leopard-skin coat, and murders a taxidermist, the sun comes out and everyone gets annoyed, and now the allusions/symbolism are out of my league.

Anyway, the closeup of leaf insects are great. This would seem to be a cult movie in need of a cult. Smolders was reportedly born in Kinshasa, says in the extras that his film’s vision of Africa is “a fantasized territory based on stories written by … large museums which … fanatically classified a universe that they didn’t understand.” He also says that the story’s logic is based on the rule that “what happens to a character is exactly what he most fears, yet desires at the same time.”

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.