Kolya (Czech Republic, 1996)

Directed by Jan Svěrák, Kolya is, I believe, the first film on the list to have won an Academy Award, in this case for Best Foreign Language Film. The film also won the Golden Globe in the same category.

Making Ends Meet

Louka (played by the director’s father) is a cellist and inveterate womanizer living in Prague in 1988. He never plans on marriage, claiming it isn’t compatible with the life of a musician. Instead, he calls up each of his lovers one by one, telling them: “I suddenly felt lonely, so guess who I thought of? You, of course!”

Louka’s clearly struggling financially; he has holes in his socks, asks his fellow musicians to lend him money, and moonlights as a headstone restorer. So when his friend Broz tells him of a moneymaking venture to the tune of 40,000 crowns, you’d think he’d snatch it up right away. However, the plan would involve entering into a sham marriage with a Russian family friend named Nadezhda, and Louka is “against marriage in any shape or form”—not to mention the fact that he is staunchly opposed to anything Russian (which, incidentally, makes him vulnerable to political persecution—more on that later).

Nadezhda doesn’t speak a word of Czech, and to make matters worse, she has a young son named Kolya. Tamara, Kolya’s grandmother, tells Louka and Broz: “Do you have any idea what bribes cost in Russia?” indicating that she had to find some poor Czech rube to marry Nadezhda. Besides, Nadezhda is primarily trying to get to West Germany to stay with her boyfriend, which requires becoming a Czech citizen. (Russians couldn’t enter West Germany, but Czechs could.) So, shortly after their fictive marriage, Nadezhda absconds, leaving Kolya behind with Tamara.

Naturally, Broz is terrified that the cops will be suspicious of Nadezhda leaving so soon. But Louka has more pressing concerns: when Tamara has a stroke, he has to look after Kolya, much to his displeasure. Like his mother, Kolya speaks nary a word of Czech, making communication difficult between him and Louka. Kolya is understandably frightened and upset to be away from  his mother and grandmother, and no doubt confused as well. But Broz is thrilled: “Looking after your wife’s child makes your marriage look genuine,” he gleefully tells Louka.

Two Revolutions

Slowly, Louka settles into life as a surrogate parent. Unfortunately, Tamara dies, meaning Kolya is stuck with Louka for the foreseeable future. We watch Louka and Kolya grow closer—the latter even calls Louka “dad.” But much to Louka’s mother’s horror, Kolya is Russian. “First you show no interest in children and then it’s a Russian,” she sighs. Uncharacteristically, given his political leanings, Louka defends his decision to look after the child. But a woman from social services tells him that the Soviets will probably take Kolya back to the USSR and put him in a home, so Louka and Kolya leave their Prague flat to stay with a friend of Louka’s named Houdek.

The end of the film witnesses the beginnings of the Velvet Revolution. Perhaps unwisely, Louka brings Kolya to the protests, inciting a chain reaction that quietly unravels over the final minutes of the film. Thanks to his time with Kolya, Louka is changed (presumably) indelibly. Kolya is an immensely enjoyable film, as its many accolades can attest to. While watching the film, the thought struck me: “Finally, a comedy!” (albeit one that essentially ends with the word “goodbye”). In reality the film straddles the line between comedy and drama, dealing with heavy topics in a witty and often touchingly lighthearted manner.

Up Next…

Things are going to be a little different in the next post. Instead of writing about one film, I’ll be discussing three short films—very short, actually, each under fifteen minutes—that deal with similar topics and follow similar storylines.

Wea Nao Mi? (Solomon Islands, 2012)

Looking for Nelao (Namibia, 2015)

Icimonwa (Zambia, 2016)

Beats of the Antonov (Sudan, 2014)

Directed by Hajooj Kuka, the film opens with the literal beats of the Antonov, dropping bombs as it flies over a village. Eerily, the sounds of explosions and crackling fire are overlaid with the laughter of children. The voice of Jojah Bujud, a Sudanese musician, tells us: “The laughter is always there. People laugh despite the catastrophe because they realize they are not hurt. Laughter is like a new birth.” With these words, the beats of the Antonov are replaced by beats of a different kind: the music of drums, singing, and the Rababa, a North African stringed instrument. “When you play the Rababa,” Bujud says, “people forget their hardships for a moment. They enter a state of happiness.” The music plays another function as well; at night, the children of the village sing and play the Rababa until the plane passes, so no one is asleep when the bombs come.

We Want What Is Ours

The Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains region of South Kurdufan state wanted to join South Sudan but were denied the right to vote to secede, and thus remained part of the north. Although administratively part of the Republic of Sudan, people of Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains culturally identify with South Sudan and differentiate themselves from “Northerners.” Northern Sudan remains Arab-centric. Thus, in the words of Muna Abdallah, a young refugee: “For you to be part of these people you have to be fluent in Arabic. Your failure in the Arabic language means your failure in the education system as a whole. That’s why you find that most of the educational gaps are among those for whom Arabic is not their mother tongue.”

“War is good and bad,” explains Insaf Awad, a Sudanese refugee. “It makes people attached to their culture.” The cultures of the Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains are not taken seriously by Sudanese national media. “Why?” Seif Alislam, another refugee, asks rhetorically. “Because my people’s music is categorized as pagan where the two sexes mix, and the girls are immodest, girls and boys dance together, the boys are too feminine.” According to Sudanese human rights activist Albaqir Elafeef, “the war is caused by the Northerners’ identity crisis. The war is against all the African elements in Sudan”; in other words, it is “a war actually waged in the subconscious of Northerners against its own black element.” At the a political training institute run by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in Nuba Mountains, SPLA officers prepare trainees to help fight against the arbitrary racial divisions imposed by the state. Yunis Elahaimar of the Institute explains that the government imagines the Nuba Mountains region as an African enemy threatening to take over Sudan.

An Alternative Sudan

Sarah Mohamed, a Sudanese ethnomusicologist, explains: “Despite this racist war being waged and these people fighting to keep their culture alive, knowing that others fight them because their color and roots are different, I came here and found that the girls are no different. They use these creams on their faces and tell you because redness is more beautiful.” She continues: “The idea that ‘Black is beautiful’ has not reached us, although we are all black. Why did it not reach us? It is baffling, right? The whole country are Africans, and everyone wants to paint themselves white.” According to Elafeef, “inside every Northerner there’s a tiny Arab,” and it is this interior voice that drives channels Sudanese self-loathing toward the racial “other” of places like the Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains. Sudanese refugee Rabha Awad condemns state-sponsored aggression against the border states: “We want him [Omar al-Bashir, president of Sudan] to send his own kids if he wants war. But he doesn’t. He only pushes the Black people to die.”

Beats of the Antonov is a beautiful film that highlights, as Sarah Mohamed puts it, “an alternative Sudan.” Scenes of warfare—sometimes graphic—are interwoven into the film, but refreshingly, Kuka focuses on resilience of the people of southern Sudan and their cultural tenacity in the face of civil war. This is not your typical war documentary.

Up Next…

Kolya (Czech Republic, 1996)


The Rose Seller (Colombia, 1998)

Here we have the first South American film on the list! Based on “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen, this film by Victor Gaviria depicts the street life of Colombian children.

Visions of Christmas Past

It’s Christmastime in Medellín. Thirteen-year-old Mónica makes a living selling roses on the street and in nightclubs; her less-than-faithful boyfriend Anderson sells drugs. Mónica meets a ten-year-old girl, Andrea, who has run away from her abusive mother. With Mónica’s coaching Andrea calls her mother on a payphone and tells her: “Tomorrow I’m gonna pick up my clothes and I’m gonna go and take a break from you and that other idiot. Get lost you motherfucker ass face! Goodbye bitch!” When Andrea briefly returns, her mother threatens to beat her again. A neighbor overhears and cautions Andrea’s mother to treat her daughter better, lest she leave for good and end up falling in with the wrong crowd on the streets: “She’s better off at home.”

Back on the streets, a police officer witnesses Anderson huffing glue and tells him: “Smoke all the grass you want, but lay off this shit. What the hell are you thinking?” He throws the bottle on the ground and lights the spillage on fire. “That’s what will happen to you.” Indeed, glue wreaks its havoc on Monica’s brain. She begins hallucinating, seeing her dead grandmother dressed as the Virgin Mary and pleads with the vision: “You came for me? You won’t leave again! Why did you leave, why didn’t you take me with you?” Monica returns home to discover that her house was almost torn down, and her grandmother’s room was demolished, though the contents are still there. She goes through her grandmother’s trunk with her sister Bibiana, who offers to let her stay there for Christmas. In the old photos, Monica looks so happy; it’s heartbreaking to compare that face to the one we see now. We witness a flashback to a clean, sober, and smiling Mónica drinking agua de panela with her grandmother.

Crafting Joy Amidst Hardship

Meanwhile, romance blossoms between two of Mónica’s friends, Cheeky and Claudia. Cheeky’s father shows up to take her home, but she refuses to go with him. After they have a private talk, she finally agrees—though it isn’t stated why. Claudia is devastated: “Just remember that if you’re gone too long I’ll give your spot to someone else.” Cheeky implores: “No, wait one week. If my dad beats me, I’ll come back here to you.”

Mónica buys 20 thousand worth of fireworks for Christmas Eve using the money she and Andrea have earned from selling roses and such. That evening, Mónica and a very stoned Claudia (“Where did all that blood come from?” she asks deliriously) light up the fireworks in an alley. However, Mónica saves a few sparklers; she returns to the remains of her grandmother’s home and huffs glue from a bag while she lights a sparkler. She imagines herself in the house as it used to be, on Christmas Eve, surrounded by her grandmother and extended family. Entranced by her visions, she loses sight of the terror and violence around her, with dreadful results.

The film emphasizes, with unflinching realism, how children grow up fast on the streets of Medellín. My advice for prospective viewers of this film: like Mónica and her fellow street children, cling onto every joyous moment in the film, because such moments are few and far between.

Up Next…

Beats of the Antonov (Sudan, 2014)

Trollhunter (Norway, 2010)

This isn’t my first time seeing this André Øvredal film, and anyone who’s seen it can understand why I had to watch it again: it’s just that good.

You’ll Believe It When You See It

Set up as a found-footage mockumentary in the spirit of The Blair Witch Project, the film follows a group of three intrepid film students from Volda College shooting a documentary on bear poaching. They focus on an elusive and enigmatic man named Hans who is rumored to be hunting bears illegally. We meet Kalle the cameraman, Johanna on sound, and the lead filmmaker Thomas.

As they travel from Volda to Sogn og Fjordane County in pursuit of Hans, he repeatedly tells them to back off: “It isn’t very smart to follow me.” When he reveals that he’s a trollhunter, the crew understandably doesn’t believe him, but he allows them to keep filming as long as they promise to do exactly as he says. “No one here believes in God or Jesus?” he asks them. They all affirm that they do not. (Of course, it wouldn’t be much fun if they were all telling the truth, would it?) Only when Thomas, Johanna, and Kalle see the trolls for themselves do they begin to grasp what they’ve gotten themselves into. However, once they make it through the first night, their fear turns to excitement as they realize that the bizarre world they’ve stumbled upon is a documentarian’s dream.

Government Secrets

It turns out that Hans works for the TSS—Troll Security Service—a division of the Wildlife Board, who put him in charge of troll control. He’s the only trollhunter in Norway. He explains: “My job is to kill any troll that breaks out of its territory and comes near people.” This bureaucracy aspect lends a touch of humor to the film. Indeed, Trollhunter is a masterful blend of fantasy, comedy, and horror. (Otto Jespersen, the actor who plays Hans, is a noted—and controversial—Norwegian comedian.)  “Fairy tales don’t usually match reality,” Hans tells the filmmakers, to which Thomas cheekily replies: “They seem to in this case.”

Glenn Erland Tosterud, who plays Thomas in Trollhunter. (Image: Simon Guirlinger, distributed by CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Science works alongside bureaucracy to cast a disenchanting mundaneness on the troll-laden fantasy in which Thomas, Johanna, and Kalle find themselves. A veterinarian named Hilde (who is hinted to be Hans’s love interest) informs us that “the trolls’ main problem is that they can’t convert Vitamin D, from the sunlight, into calcium. So when they are exposed to bright sunlight, their bodies overreact. Their stomachs expand. Gases are forced into their intestines and veins. This becomes unbearable.” Older ones, however, suffer a different fate: “Their veins are too constricted, so the expansion occurs in their bones. In a matter of seconds, everything calcifies and they turn to stone.”

We learn that there are an unusual amount of trolls moving around at this time. But why is Hans letting them watch what he does? “Because I’m tired of the shitty job. I have no rights whatsoever. I get no night bonus. No overtime. No nuisance compensation. Maybe it’s time for change in troll management. So if you could get this on TV…” We learn that there are an unusual amount of trolls moving around at this time. Conflict between mountain trolls and woodland trolls, as well as a rabies epidemic, have led to increasingly erratic troll behavior, possibly compounded by effects of global warming. Bigger trolls are breaking out of their territory and coming closer and closer to human settlements, making more work for Hans. The film’s ending is brilliant; the group’s final showdown with the enormous 200-foot-tall Jotnar troll is a nail-biter, even when you’ve seen the film before, but in the end, it turns out that it might not be the trolls that they have to worry about…

Up Next…

The Rose Seller (Colombia, 1998)

Confusion Na Wa (Nigeria, 2013)

Directed by young filmmaker Kenneth Gyang, Confusion Na Wa (which I think translates to something like “Holy shit! Confusion!”—if I’m wrong, let me know) begins with a mysterious narrator, whose identity is not revealed until the final scene, telling us that “some things don’t happen for a reason. Some things just happen.” Over the course of the film, each of its several subplots begin to collide. That’s where most of the intrigue—as well as the story’s darkly comic moments—come from. As the lives of the characters intertwine, the drama unfolds. Their lies and façades unravel, and in the end, not all of them escape alive.

Things Fall Apart

In the opening scene, we see Emeka, a wealthy light-skinned man from Abuja, receive a text from his mistress Isabella. Shortly thereafter, Emeka’s phone is stolen by two street hustlers, Charles and Chichi. In contrast with Emeka’s proper Nigerian—almost British—accent, Charles and Chichi speak Nigerian pidgin. Charles and Chichi are no simple pickpockets. For his part, Chichi is prone to philosophizing. He tells Charles: “Lion King is a neo colonial history of Zimbabwe from a European perspective. The whole film is a white conspiracy! Initially there is apparent order in the pride lands which are ruled by the light lion King with a minority of other light lions. But this is because he excludes the darkly colored hyenas, who he considers to be inferior and not worthy of any of the wealth generated by the land. This represents colonial Rhodesia, and the light Lion King is Sir Cecil Rhodes.” But even more horrifying, he says, it’s a vision of the European dream for the future of Africa: a restoration of power to the light-skinned lions. A very astute interpretation, it strikes me. Charles doesn’t really take Chichi’s interpretation seriously, though. Anyway, he’s more concerned about extorting money from Emeka in exchange for his cell phone—and in exchange for not informing his wife about his affair.

Isabella’s husband is a man named Bello, a conscientious but impotent office worker who believes that he “should” be promoted soon. “Should. Should?” Isabella asks incredulously. “Is that your favorite word? Should doesn’t mean shit.” “You’re a loser,” she continues. “I wonder if you even have enough balls to make children.” And it turns out that perhaps, in a way, she’s right. When Isabella tells Bello that she’s pregnant, he suspects that the baby is not his. His suspicions are confirmed when he reads a text that she received from Emeka (actually from Charles, pretending to be Emeka): “The nile is a very long river indeed can u imagine how good it wld feel flowing inside ur lush African valley? I want to fertilize ur plains. Luv from the lion king [sic].” Isabella tries to turn Bello into the bad guy, telling him that “now that I tell you that I actually am pregnant, you have the fucking barefaced shitbrain nerve to accuse me of adultery! Only you won’t actually say it because you don’t have the balls! Go to hell, Bello! Go straight to hell and rot there!”

Confusion Everywhere

Elsewhere in the city, a young man named Kola argues with his father, Babajide, who blames the moral corruption of Nigerian youth for the country’s rising crime rate. Kola forcefully disagrees, instead placing the onus on government corruption and its aftereffects. Babajide is virulently homophobic. He has a bumper sticker that says “I am an ideal citizen. What about you?” He tells Kola that criminal behavior correlates with homosexuality. Kola finds this assertion ridiculous, asking his father if he committed a crime now, would that make him gay? “I need the clarification on this father. I mean, your definition is so confusing. I don’t even know myself anymore. Am I gay? I don’t even know.”

This bombshell provokes Babajide to action. He takes Kola to be “cured” of homosexuality by having sex with a “nurse” (prostitute). Importantly, while the film is not exactly pro-gay, it’s anti-anti-gay; Babajide basically comes off looking like a jackass. We learn that, despite his denunciation of Nigeria’s moral degeneration, he drives a stolen car and is friends with Charles’s and Chichi’s weed-dealer—who is also apparently a pimp.

I highly recommend the film. Importantly, Gyang was educated in both Jos and Ouagadougou. Thus, Confusion Na Wa is an excellent piece that combines, as Gyang explains in this interview, elements of standard Nollywood fare with the heavy-hitting French-inflected style of Francophone African cinema. Before watching, though, be warned that the film contains a scene depicting the lead-up and aftermath of a rape. At least, however, it’s not graphic, and spares us from seeing the rape itself take place.

Up Next…

Trollhunter (Norway, 2010)

SistaGod (Trinidad and Tobago, 2006)

I can say without any exaggeration that SistaGod is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Written and directed by Yao Ramesar, it’s the first in a trilogy of experimental films about an enigmatic young Trinidadian woman named Mari, whose dreams herald death and destruction. Set over an eerie soundtrack and jerky camerawork, SistaGod is as unsettling as it is compelling. The tempo of the film is strange, at times slow, at times fast, making the film seem disconnected from time altogether

Endings and Beginnings

SistaGod contains almost no dialogue, relying mostly on Mari’s narration to tell the story. Indeed, the first twenty minutes or so are a monologue delivered by her. Her narrations are powerful and poetic, so please forgive me when I quote them at length. Mari tells us that her father was an American Marine sniper who served in Desert Storm. He suffered brain damage, and “My mother, his caregiver, nursed him back to health.” She continues: “I was conceived in the cemetery next to our house. I was born a throwblack, came out darker than expected,” so her father suspected that she was not his child and left. As a result, “My mother spent most of the rest of her life in the asylum, or madhouse, thumbing through the memories of her one great romance. She tried her best to salvage some status, making sure I spoke and thought in standard English, making sure that even though I only had one dress, it was a good dress.”

Mari is surrounded by death from the start: “Living on Cemetery Street, my next-door neighbors were dead people, their restless souls threatening to possess us all.” Perhaps it is her familiarity with death that enables her to cheat it at an early age: “On my ninth birthday, I picked some poison berries. I don’t know who or what made me pick or eat them, but they stained my tongue black and nearly killed me, or so my mother claimed.” Regardless, this experience gives her supernatural and clairvoyant powers: “When I was 18, a spirit entered me telling me I was God, to prepare for the end of life as we knew it.” Mari’s mother orders that she be exorcised, but the exorcism only strengthens her newfound spiritual powers.

The Coming of SistaGod

Mari soon reveals that she is pregnant, presumably with the child of God (or perhaps, in a less fanciful interpretation, the child of the man who administered her exorcism). “When my mother found out that I was pregnant,” we learn, “she threatened to kill herself, jump off the waterfall. After they subdued her, she started sewing a Carnival costume for me.” We see the main character, fittingly enough, dressed as a Carnival character known as Baby Doll, an unwed mother. (The backstory of Baby Doll is explained here.) In the lacy white costume, Mari looks ghostly and frightening. And with this costume, she transforms into SistaGod.

Only SistaGod knows that this Carnival would mark the end of the world—the Apocalypso, as she calls it. “While we were waiting on the next epidemic, or the next World War,” she narrates, “we went out with a whimper: ‘Save the Earth.’ The earth survived. People disappeared, everybody in the blink of an eye. At least they went out playing mas. They all took their final vows before the mass [or mas!] destruction.” Some of the masquerade dancers faint and then begin flailing. Is it an act? Is this the work of SistaGod? Nothing seems certain in this movie.

All that is certain is that, following Carnival, SistaGod finds herself alone: “Then they were gone. Even those in Hell and beyond. I alone survived the Apocalypso. I looked at all the names in the departure lounge. Only the gods were left standing.” Wikipedia calls the film a fantasy. I guess that’s accurate. I’m really not sure it fits into any genre, but fantasy is as good a category as any. (Oh, and one other thing is certain: This is a phenomenal film and you must check it out, if possible!)

Up Next…

Confusion Na Wa (Nigeria, 2013)

A Brief Sidenote

As I mentioned in my introductory post, this blog will be including some films from non-sovereign states in order to help me get from 197 up to a nice, round 200 films. And, since I’m missing films from six nations (Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Seychelles, Tuvalu, and of course Vatican City), it turns out I’ve had to fill in six extra gaps, for a total of nine.

So, to avoid confusion and cries of “Hey, that’s not a nation!” here’s a list of the non-sovereign states that will also be represented on my blog (chosen based on a combination of political status, cultural distinctiveness from its parent country, and the existence of a film industry, however small):

  1. Cook Islands
  2. Curaçao
  3. Faroe Islands
  4. Greenland
  5. Guadeloupe
  6. Guam
  7. Hong Kong
  8. Niue
  9. Puerto Rico

Considering the unlikelihood of finding a film from any of the six nations I’m missing, I imagine that this is how the list will remain. However, on the off chance that anyone does know a film from Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Seychelles, Tuvalu, or the Vatican City, please let me know!

Does the President Have AIDS? (Haiti, 2006)

From director Arnold Antonin, this film tracks the trials faced by HIV-positive Haitians as they struggle to maintain their reputations and careers, while balancing their health with pursuits of sex and romance. The titular “president” is Dao (played by Jimmy Jean-Louis of Heroes), a superstar Compas musician and the “President” of the Haitian music scene—“the only president who can’t be overthrown,” as he puts it. To his manager’s chagrin, though, Dao is also a drug-user and inveterate womanizer, prone to unsafe sex.

Lifestyles of the Poz and Famous

Although HIV is a global health crisis, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Haiti is one of the highest in the world, with approximately 1 in 50 adults being HIV-positive. Historically, HIV has been closely associated with Haiti; in fact, HIV used to be called the “4H disease,” since it seemed to predominantly affect Haitians, hemophiliacs, heroin users, and homosexuals.

Even as Dao continues to have frequent unprotected sex in the midst of the AIDS crisis, he refuses to believe that he could possibly become infected. He tells himself in the mirror: “You are not ill. Nothing can happen to you.” And yet, he continues having frequent unprotected sex in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Despite his sexual behavior, Dao espouses respect for women. During one of Dao’s concerts, a man (Larieux) begins assaulting a woman (Nina), and Dao stops the concert to tackle Larieux. Following this “humiliation,” Larieux vows vengeance on Dao.

Like Dao, Nina comes from a poor family, but she maintains a confident and independent attitude. She tells her friend: “I don’t need a man to solve my problems, Carline! Why does it have to be a man to solve my problems?” Nina refuses to have sex with Dao unless he wears a condom, to which he reacts indignantly: “But I’m the biggest, the best—I’m Dao!” he cries. “Are you implying that I may be sick?” Nina responds: “Who’s to say I’m not a high risk girl myself?” Later, Nina implores Dao to see a doctor to “do yourself a favor, do us a favor.”

Matters of Faith

Vodou is a strong undercurrent in the film. Dao maintains an altar to the Erzulie family of lwas, including Erzulie Freda, the lwa of love and luxury. As he begins to fear for his health, he kneels before the altar and prays: “Oh my goddesses! Don’t let your lover down! Come to my rescue!” He tries to hide his illness, but those closest to him—his manager, his mother, and Nina, for example—suspect that he’s unwell. Dao’s mother suggests that he speak to her cousin, Bayawon, a houngan. At the ceremony, she cries: “Whoever the dead, lwas, spirits, whoever the invisible may be that eat away the body and soul of my child, I order you to go. Leave now if you don’t want to suffer as much as my child.”

An example of a Haitian Vodou altar. (Image: Calvin Hennick, distributed by CC BY 3.0 license)

The film takes a decidedly anti-Vodou stance. At one point, Bayawon tells another houngan that, by treating Dao, “We are emptying out his pockets. His illness doesn’t depend on us.” Later, he tells Carline that in order to win her boyfriend back, she needs to have a “threesome” with Bayawon and the spirits inside of him.

Indeed, Dao’s Aunt Ninon is horrified to learn that Dao’s mother took him to see a houngan: “Dao was brought inside the devil’s lair. Oh, heavens no! The world has forgotten that Christ is the only answer.” Nina agrees, calling Bayawon a bokor, or sorcerer willing to perform evil deeds. Ninon frantically takes Dao to see a pastor to heal him.

In the end, however, it is Western medicine in which the film places its strongest faith when it comes to dealing with the AIDS crisis. Following his diagnosis, Dao declares that after all he’s been through his music will have a new, “sensational” sound. He shocks his fans when he announces: “I have AIDS. It’s unfortunately a disease that lots of Haitians have and they must go on with their lives like the others. They must respect themselves, avoid contaminating others, and continue living in harmony.”

Up Next…

SistaGod (Trinidad and Tobago, 2006)

Good Morning, Luang Prabang (Laos, 2008)

First things first, a brief disclaimer: I didn’t realize until after the DVD had been delivered from Cornell’s library that it didn’t have English subtitles. Since I don’t speak a word of Lao or Thai, I found a couple articles about the film and followed along as best as I could. Here are the links to those summaries:

“Good Morning, Luang Prabang—and Hello to Laos’s Film Industry” by Andrew Buncombe

“Thai & Lao Culture in ‘Sabaidee Luang Prabang'” by Sirinya Pakditawan

A Tale of Two Countries

Directed by Sakchai Deenan of Thailand and produced by Anousone Sirisackda of Laos, Good Morning, Luang Prabang was actually a joint production between the two neighboring countries, and the first commercial release in Laos since 1975, when the country adopted communism.

The film begins in Bangkok, as Thai photographer Sorn prepares to travel to Laos to visit his grandfather. His culture shock as he begins his travels is evident. As Pakditawan observes (and as Sirisackdan confirms, based on Buncombe’s article), the film highlights differences between Thai and Lao culture—between, for instance, bustling Bangkok and comparatively quiet Laos. In another example of the contrast between Thailand and Laos, Sorn tells his (English-speaking) mother on the phone while in Pakse: “The weather’s nice, but the food takes some getting used to.”

But Good Morning, Luang Prabang also emphasizes how Lao culture differs from Western culture. When a white tourist asks to have his picture taken with the female lead Noi (a Laotian tour guide), he puts his arm around her. She tells him multiple times not to do this, signaling the inappropriateness of such physical contact, especially between strangers, in Laotian etiquette.

A Break with the Past

At first I thought to myself, “Wow, this film isn’t exactly heavy on plot.” But then I realized how ridiculous it was of me to think that; since I don’t speak Lao or Thai, about 90% of the film’s plot—any lines not spoken in English and anything not captured in meaningful glances or the musical score—is essentially lost on me. That’s why the plot summaries provided in the links above were so essential to me as I prepared to watch the movie.

A view of Luang Prabang, the film’s titular city. (Image: Thomas Drissner,distributed by CC BY-SA 3.0)

Even so, based on what I can tell, and corroborated in Pakditawan’s essay, the film is essentially a tourism film—a more benign form of propaganda than standard Laotian media. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the primary goal mostly seems to be the promotion of tourism. The movie highlights the historic sites and tourist attractions of Pakse and Vientiane as well as the title city, three of the most culturally significant cities in Laos.

That said, Buncombe notes in his article that Sakchai himself admitted that “We wanted a soft storyline so it would not be too hard to get approval from the Lao government.” Furthermore, the Laotian government had some control over the film’s portrayal of their nation, redacting any content they found offensive. To be fair, though, their concern was not completely unfounded; Buncombe describes a history of Thai films ridiculing Laos and Laotian culture. With its vaunted release, Good Morning, Luang Prabang signaled a strong break from that tradition.

Up Next…

Does the President Have AIDS? (Haiti, 2006)

Black Bread (Spain, 2010)

Based on a novel by Catalan novelist Emili Teixidor, Black Bread is a dark and unsettling film from the get-go. Although its director, Agustí Villaronga, is from Majorca, the film is set in the contentious political climate of rural Catalonia following the Spanish Civil War.

Unresolved Conflict

Even though the war is over, it still haunts the landscape and rages in the minds of survivors. When the main character, a young boy named Andreu, discovers the bodies of the republican Dionís and his son in the woods, Andreu’s mother Florència tells him: “The woods are cursed since the war.” Andreu’s father Farriol, himself a communist and republican, is a prime suspect in the deaths; the mayor, a staunch falangist, tells Farriol that “There are still a lot of reds to purge. You don’t want to end up like Dionís.”

Florència, outraged by the mayor’s bullishness, excoriates him: “Black bread and red sugar, with the ration book and waiting hours in line! That’s all you’ve given us. Bread with no soul or virtue; dead, like all of you, because of this goddamn war that killed us all.” To escape the target on his back, Farriol goes into hiding, and Florència sends Andreu to his grandmother’s farm, owned by a wealthy family, the Manubens. Andreu’s grandmother, Àvia, inhabits a world full of ghosts and monsters, just as Andreu himself does. Also living in the farmhouse are two of Andreu’s aunts, as well as his cousins Núria and Quirze.

The film highlights the corruption of postwar Spain, but also the widespread support of nationalist and falangist ideology among influential sectors of the population. Andreu’s teacher, Mr. Madern, in addition to being both an alcoholic and a pedophile, openly espouses extreme nationalist ideas to his students: “The defeated have no right to even a small footnote in the great book of history, because history is always written by winners. But I am always in favor of victors because they’re more worthy,” he explains to the class, “because they’ve known how to win. And only those who know how to win can win. Like the rich are more worthy than the poor.”

“Portrait of a Bird-Killer”

Although the motif of bread, unsurprisingly, figures prominently in the film, birds occupy an even more central thematic role. Beyond their shared politics, Farriol and Dionís shared an obsession with birds. Prior to going into hiding, Farriol tends to the birds in his aviary with intense devotion. To Andreu, he compares himself to a restless chaffinch, and says that “birds are meant to be free and fly. Like angels, they have no borders. We can cage them, but can’t change the way they are.” Núria, strange as always, remarks to Andreu: “I’d like to set a bird on fire one day. A ball of fire flying in the air, squawking, until it falls to the ground. A shower of ashes is all that would be left of it.”

A male chaffinch, Farriol’s favorite bird. (ImageCharles J. Sharp, distributed by CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Shortly after going to live with his grandmother, Andreu befriends a strange, consumptive boy who runs naked through the woods and believes he has wings. The boy remarks: “You fly too low, Andreu. So low it seems like you’re just walking. Fly high and don’t let anyone catch you.” Quirze tells Andreu that consumptives are “infected by vice. They look like angels but I bet take up bed-hopping at night.”

Much of the film’s plot revolves around a mysterious figure named Pitorliua, whose monstrous, half-bird/half-man ghost is said to haunt the Baumes caves outside of town. As Andreu learns more about the circumstances surrounding Pitorliua’s death, and concurrently learns the truth about his parents, he takes out his rage in the only way he can: on his father’s birds.

The film is terrifying, it is gloomy (to say the least), but above all, it is spellbinding. It’s one of those rare films for which the ending is truly unforeseen. If you don’t want to take my word for it, just check out its accolades: it basically swept the Goya and the Gaudí Awards in 2011.

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