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and also incidentally to reconnect with her former communist revolutionary friends, who remained in country and seem withdrawn and broken and not especially glad to see her.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.

Akomfrah:

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.

Or, Django Chained… and raped and tortured, branded, starved and left for the vultures, raped some more, and whipped and whipped and whipped.

A desperately unpleasant slavery movie with a slight framing story (present-day photo model shooting on a historic slavery site gets sent back in time by a meddling drummer named Sankofa to experience slavery). At least it has a happy ending, as the remaining slaves (after some are killed or sold) attack their masters with machetes. It’s all very well-shot for an indie movie, and the actors are playing their hearts out. But Gerima is trying to make an Important Statement Here, and so the story becomes a humorless exercise in tedium.

Precautions Against Fanatics (1969, Werner Herzog)
“Have you ever seen a dishonest man with a chest like this?”
Said to Werner’s cameraman by a one-armed man in a suit: “What are you doing here? Go away!” It’s not clear who is supposed to be here where they’re filming, in the training area of a horse racetrack. Some guy is repeating himself and karate-chopping flat stones. This cannot actually be happening! It is all pretty wonderful, a parody of a behind-the-scenes documentary. Made in between Signs of Life and Even Dwarfs Started Small, both of which I need to catch some day.
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Organism (1975, Hilary Harris)
Time-lapse footage and readings from biological textbooks portray a large city (New York, of course) as a living organism. The dated 70’s sound design is unfortunate but otherwise it’s completely wonderful. Makes me wish I had a classroom of kids to show it to. He worked on this for years, inventing a time-lapse camera in the 60’s for the purpose. Bits from Scott MacDonald “As late as 1975, Harris apparently felt that time-lapsing imagery was unusual and high-tech enough to justify his frequent use of science-fictionish electronic sounds as an accompaniment. … Hilary Harris shot some of the New York City traffic shots used in Koyaanisqatsi, though apparently Reggio didn’t see Organism until after his film was well under way.”
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L’Opéra-mouffe (1958, Agnes Varda)
Somehow I missed this during Varda Month – one of her earliest shorts hidden amongst the copious features on a Criterion DVD. Varda films either herself or another pregnant nude women, then goes on a rampage through the marketplace, mostly capturing the faces of people shopping there, with interludes featuring actors (incl. Varda regular Dorothée Blank, as nude here as she is in Cleo) clowning around. Sections highlight public drunkenness, anxiety and affection. I want to say this is my favorite of her shorts so far, but then I remember they’re all so good. Delightfully scored by a not-yet-famous Georges Delerue.
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“I was pregnant. I felt the contradiction of expecting a child, being full of hope, and circulating in this world of poor, drunken people without hope, who seemed so unhappy. I felt tenderness toward them, especially the elderly. I imagined them as babies, when their mothers kissed their tummies.”
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Silent Snow, Secret Snow (1966, Gene Kearney)
A boy named Paul starts to obsess over snow, allowing the snow in his mind to filter him from reality. Creepy and well shot. Later remade as a Night Gallery episode with Orson Welles narrating. Makes me think of the Handsome Family song “Don’t Be Scared,” with its line “when Paul thinks of snow, soft winds blow ’round his head,” except it’s one of their very few comforting, happy songs and the movie is anything but.
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Une histoire d’eau (1961, Truffaut & Godard)
A girl wakes up and the whole town is flooded from melting snow. She meets a guy (a young Jean-Claude Brialy) who offers to drive her to Paris before nightfall. Music is weird – gentle flute or horns punctuated with bursts of percussion. Ooh, a Duchess of Langeais reference… in fact there are a ton of references in her quick monologue narration, which ends with spoken credits.
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The Forgotten Faces (1960, Peter Watkins)
Revolution in Budapest. Nice reconstruction, convincingly documentary-like – where’d Watkins get all those guns? No sync sound, a TV-sounding narrator. One part, the reading of a communist speech turns briefly into a dramatic propaganda montage – don’t see that happen much in Watkins’ films.
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The Perfect Human (1967, Jorgen Leth)
“Today I experienced something I hope to understand in a few days.”
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I like the British narrator. “What does he want? Why does he move like that? How does he move like that? Look at him. Look at him now. And now. Look at him all the time.” There’s no diegetic sound, but if this was dubbed in a studio, why does there have to be so much tape hiss? A fake documentary and a stark white delight, with slow zooms in and out, gentle string music, and a general sense of serious absurdity. Only saw, what, a third of this in The Five Obstructions.
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Les Maître fous (1955, Jean Rouch)
Document of a group in Ghana called the Hauka doing something involving wooden toy guns, red ribbons, chicken sacrifice, dog-blood-drinkin’ and having lurchy foaming-at-the-mouth fits. I’m not ever quite sure, because the French narration has been auto-subtitled by google – whatever they’re doing, the subs call it “having.” After they’ve had, the film crew catches up with them at their day jobs, not freaked-out cultists anymore, just working hard, smiling at the camera. This is one African film that Katy didn’t want to watch, because Rouch is an exoticizing anthropologist. So what’s going on that this film makes the best-ever lists? A Rouch tribute page says he popularized direct cinema/cinema verite, that he was known for rethinking ethnography, and a documentary surrealism (sounds like Jean Painleve). Ian Mundell says the film “drew plaudits from the Nouvelle Vague, in particular from Jean-Luc Godard. They liked the fact that Rouch’s fiction emerged from an encounter between the actor (professional or non-professional) and the camera, and his willingness to break the rules of cinema.” Paul Stoller says Rouch crisscrossed “the boundaries between documentary and fiction, observer and participant,” but I take it that’s more about his later films, which I’m thinking I would like better. So it’s seeming like this film gets awarded because it’s one of the most-seen of his films and because of its influence, not because it’s Rouch’s best work.
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Nicky’s Film (1971, Abel Ferrara)
A mysteriously silent possibly gangster-related 6-minute film. I can’t imagine even a Ferrara scholar gets much out of this.

The Hold Up (1972, Abel Ferrara)
Super-8 production made when Abel was 21, seven years before Driller Killer. A few minutes in, I realized it’d be much better with the director commentary turned on. “And away we go. Wait, it’s the other way. Which way is she looking?” Um, some guys get fired from factory jobs, hold up a gas station, get caught. The song “Working on a Building” is heard.
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My taunting of Katy for complaining about long movies (“long” > 105 minutes) bit me in the ass today. After an hour delay the movie started, and after 2.5 hours I was the first to moan about how LONG that damned movie was.

The project may have been initiated by the country of Namibia, but it says Burnett wrote and directed, so I’m laying the blame at his feet. So what went wrong? The other Burnett movies I’ve seen centered around small communities, so maybe his style can’t support stretching out to epic scale with ten countries and a hundred characters. Katy points out that Danny Glover had the only character with any depth, and Burnett said in an interview that Glover’s character was fictional, a blending of three or four real people, so maybe Burnett has problems with writing history and his strength is in fictionalization. After the recent reissue of Killer of Sheep, every film critic fell over himself to declare Burnett an American treasure, so maybe the combined weights of feeling like he has to live up to his reputation and deliver a high-quality picture, and feeling like it’s his duty to truthfully deliver the story of Namibia to the rest of the world led to too much compromise.

Plot: Young Sam Nujoma grew up in “South West Africa” (aka Namibia), a country governed by nazi… i mean Germans and occupied by South Africa. Sam always dreamed of a free Namibia. He met some guys who also wanted that, and started a political/guerrilla movement called SWAPO. He went to church and met minister Danny Glover. Then he pissed off to the United Nations and stayed there for twenty years, finally returning as president of his newly-independent nation. Yay!

I didn’t realize that Carl Lumbly (who played grown-up Sam Nujoma in a series of fake beards) was also the easily-manipulated slacker Junior in Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger.

Quoting myself in an email:
Movie feels long, and yet each scene feels too short. Tries to tell the *entire* story of Namibia AND of [Nujoma] without leaving anything out, so it’s an epic and a biopic crammed into 2.5 hours. Script feels like a wikipedia article. And story problems aside, it’s full of traditional epic-sounding music, and traditional cutting and camerawork… doesn’t feel like the idiosyncratic artworks that the other Burnett films I’ve seen (Sheep, Wedding, Anger, the shorts) felt like. Disappointing. BUT it’s got some great shots and some fine acting, and the stories of Namibia and Nujoma are interesting, so it was at least worth sitting through. It’s not total crap (like Amazing Grace), just not the great movie I was hoping for.