Jus Lyk Dat (Guyana, 2014); Bal Kan (Kosovo, 2016)

I’m back! Sadly, in the intervening time since my last post, the Uzbek short film The Dog has been taken down from YouTube, and I cannot find another way to access it. Because of that, this post will only be discussing two short films: Jus Lyk Dat and Bal Kan. Both of these films deal with the theme of betrayal.

Jus Lyk Dat

Directed by Errol Chan, Jus Lyk Dat is a relatively rare example of a locally-produced Guyanese film. (One person on YouTube left the comment: “Keep it coming we need more Guyanese production instead of those played out Nollywood and Bollywood movies,” which provoked the ire of at least one diehard Nollywood fan.) At the beginning of the movie, we’re introduced to Tyrone (Terrence Giddings), who is something of a card shark and a jackass. He steals money from his friend Asher (Stephon Wills), who in turn tells his partner Esther (Joyann Crandon): “This is the third time he thieve from me!” He recounts: “The other day, I left me money ‘pon the table and gone outside. Two thousand dollar missing.” However, “I refused to believe that he would do a thing like that. But I set a trap fi him. Two thousand dollar gone again. Now, just now, he thieve two thousand dollar.” Esther merely chuckles, unimpressed: “I guess only two thousand dollars he done fo thieve” (which, of course, isn’t strictly true, but nevertheless…).

Jemma (Marita Weatherspoon), Esther’s sister and Tyrone’s partner, owes Esther money. “Babes,” Esther pleads to Asher, “you know it’s two months now Jemma owe me money, and she won’t pay me back.” Instead, “all she does do, is give Tyrone fi gamble or she ga lets him dance.” As a result, Esther refuses to lend Jemma any more money. This sends Tyrone into a rage: “Hey Esther! Don’t come in here with your flapping mouth, girl!” Again, Esther is unmoved: “Or else what? You can’t do me nothing.”

Upon this, Asher enters, accusing Tyrone of thievery. “Is who you calling thief?” Tyrone replies incredulously. The argument comes to fisticuffs, before being broken up by Andy (Andy Henry), one of Tyrone’s gambling buddies. But this does not end the feud. Later, Tyrone chases Asher down the street, until—jus lyk dat—the argument takes a fatal turn. I’m not sure if the scene is supposed to be comic or not. It reads that way to me—the melodramatic orchestral stings, the “uh-oh Spaghettios” look on the killer’s face. And yet, the brief aftermath plays out in a serious tone. There are some apparent issues with continuity. At one point, Asher seems to refer to Esther as his sister, and Esther calls Jemma “Jenna” at least once. By most definitions, it’s not a “good” movie, but I think in some ways it is, not least of all because of its cultural significance: like the YouTube commenter said, it’s a locally-produced (albeit ultra-low budget) Guyanese alternative to foreign films.

Bal Kan

The title says it all—this is a film about the fractured and factious political climate of the Balkans. Directed by Kriks Dumo, it begins in Kosovo in 1988. Ilir and Emil, Albanian and Serbian respectively, are two boys who, despite their ethnic differences, are close friends.

Fast forward to 1999. Things have changed. Emil, now grown, spraypaints a Serbian cross on a building. The former friends are now on opposing sides of a bitter and violent ethnic conflict. When the Serbs murder several Albanian children, it seems they’ve finally taken things too far, prompting a bloody shootout between the town’s Serbian and Albanian factions, including Ilir and Emil. Soon, Ilir and Emil are the only two combatants left. Only when Ilir recognizes the marble that Emil is wearing on a necklace do they realize who each other is. They tearfully embrace, before reaching for their knives, bringing the film to its ending, which is somehow both foreseeable and shocking.

The video has approximately 40% thumbs-down reactions on YouTube—not because of the quality of the film, which is impressive, but presumably because of the content. Comments include: “KOSOVO IS SERBIA!!!”; “KOSOVO IS ALBANIA        MACEDONIA IS ALBANIA BIG ALBANIA IS COOMING [sic]”; what a lie and propaganda, everything in this movie is lie”; “Albania us [sic] the one that started conflict at at Kosovo Wikipedia”; “fuck analbania”; “will they show albanians selling organs?”; and “Kosovo? You mean that not independent province of Serbia?” However, some of the comments offer a more positive response: “im albanian and i love serbs”; “Why cant you Shqiptars and Cetniks just shut the fuck up about the ‘Propaganda’ and take e leason [sic] from this. They where [sic] playing togheter [sic] and then they killed each other. Seriously look at them in the end. Fuck politics and fuck religion. We are the same. And yes im Yugoslavian! Not Serb, Bosniak, Kroat, Sloven, Makedon, or Alb. Fuck religion and nationalism. B A L K A N / J U G O S L A V I J A”; “Kosovo is Kosovo! Serbia is Serbia! Albania is Albania!”; and “Oh Kosovo… A land where brotherhood died and was replaced by hatred. Kosovo isn’t Serbia, Kosovo isn’t Albania, Kosovo is Kosovo and it can only exist as such. Tito invited Albania to join Yugoslavia, if it did it wouldn’t be like this. We are all to blame, we killed brotherhood. Albanians and Serbs are brothers, not enemies. Long Live Yugoslavia!” Other comments are more ambiguous, including: “Guys i was looking koments……this is sad how people stupid are P.S. Russia please bomb whole balkan with 5 tsar bombas please…..” Admittedly, it’s probably a bit unusual when the content of a film is overshadowed by the comments section of YouTube, but nevertheless, the movie itself is pretty good.

Up Next…

In the next post, I’ll be discussing two short films that address sexual education, as well as a third educational film that promotes financial literacy:

The Story of Mariama (The Gambia, 2013)

Yu No Save Ronwei Lo Lav (Vanuatu, 2016)

Maudabak (East Timor, 2016)

Footsteps (Cook Islands, 2014); ‘Aho’eitu (Tonga, 2015); Maisa the Chamoru Girl Who Saves Guåhan (Guam, 2015)

Each of these three brief films depicts a traditional Oceanian story. Footsteps, directed by Lennie Hill, tells the story of One Foot Island, a tragic tale featuring real-life father-son duo Quinton Schofield Sr. and Jr. ‘Aho’eitu, a joint project from directors Jeremiah Tauamiti and Vea Mafile’o, presents the myth of its titular character’s ascent to apotheosis. Finally, Maisa, directed by Michael Q. Ceballos, is a story-within-a-story, told by a present-day grandmother to her grandchildren.

Footsteps

With almost no spoken dialogue, Footsteps is a spare and at times surreal film. It opens with an unnamed boy and his father fishing on a raft. In the distance, they spot an uninhabited island (later called One Foot Island). When they come ashore they smilingly deposit a bounty of fish before returning to the sea.

The father sees more canoes in the distance and frantically paddles back to the island. After his son runs into the woods, the father hesitates, then carefully steps over each of his son’s footprints in the sand. Thus, when the enemy rafts come ashore, they begin chasing after what they suspect is a lone man, passing by the tree in which the boy is hiding before spotting the father.

With the swing of a club, the boy is left alone on the island, alone in the world. He prepares his father for a burial at sea, as a storm rises on the horizon. Before letting go, the boy grabs his father’s necklace, putting it on as he watches the body float away. We—or at least, those of us who are unfamiliar with the story—are left to wonder whether the father’s sacrifice was in vain.

‘Aho’eitu

The film begins with the titular character asking his mother Vae’popua about his father. For a moment she is silent; she hadn’t told him sooner  because she knew he would leave when he found out. “As sure as the sun rises from morning,” Vae’popua sighs, “I knew this day would come. Do you know why you are different? Do you know why you are loved differently? Why you are respected differently by everyone else? Because you are the son of Tangaloa,” a powerful god who “resides in the skies above” and “created everything.”

Sure enough, ‘Aho’eitu decides that he must leave to meet his father. The villagers bid him farewell as he begins his ascent up the Toa Tree into the sky, and Vae’popua looks on anxiously. Tangaloa is an older man sitting by the sea, wearing a robe and carrying a staff. He immediately recognizes his son, and treats ‘Aho’eitu affectionately and on equal terms, like a father rather than a god. He even gently chides ‘Aho’eitu when he addresses him formally.

‘Aho’eitu learns that he has five brothers—Talafale, Matakehe, Maliepo, Tu’i Loloko, and Tu’i Folaha, all of whom live together in the sky world. They regard him suspiciously, except for one, and challenge him to a spear-throwing contest, which ‘Aho’eitu wins handily. Furious, Talafale rallies his brothers to seek vengeance against ‘Aho’eitu. “We are the only sons of Tangaloa,” he tells his newfound brother. “But you? You are nothing. You have no father.”

That night, the brothers feast upon ‘Aho’eitu’s body. They awaken to find an angry Tangaloa demanding to know where ‘Aho’eitu is. (Of course, he already knows the answer.) Only by vomiting into the Kumete can they bring their brother back to life. A triumphant score signals ‘Aho’eitu’s twilit rebirth. The penitent brothers crawl to their father, seeking forgiveness. Tangaloa declares: “You will all go down to the land to him, but know this, he will not be your brother again. From this day on, ‘Aho’eitu will be a King, and when you go down to Earth and meet him you should understand that he is now your king.” Finally, he gives his erstwhile sons new names and designates them the eternal servants of ‘Aho’eitu.

Maisa the Chamoru Girl Who Saves Guåhan

This animated film, the first Chamorro-language film of its kind, begins with a telling of the Chamorro creation story, followed by a live-action sequence depicting a grandmother telling her grandchildren the story of Maisa. “I may be retired,” she remarks, “but I can still teach.”

We are introduced to Maisa and her father Asinan, who are floating on a canoe in Pago Bay. They approach what appears to be an unknown island, but it turns out to be a bizarre monster who begins ravenously devouring the island of Guam (then called Guåhan). Understandably, the other residents of Guåhan are skeptical when they hear what Maisa and Asinan saw, even when they notice the shape of the shoreline changing. Their leader A’ot asserts that it’s just “a trick of the tides.” But Asinan protests: “If Hagåtña Bay is also shrinking, then the beast must be eating our island from both sides.” A wise woman named Hesna announces that she is familiar with the beast. “This beast is powerful and devious,” she says. “It will split Guåhan apart and separate our people.” Thus, Maisa suggests that the islanders work together to defeat the beast. So, A’ot rallies the men, while Hesna gathers the women together at the spring. (“They say the spring is a special place filled with the powers of our ancestors.”)

But the men’s spears are no match for the beast. Horrified, Maisa exclaims: “But if the warriors couldn’t stop it, what could we [the women] possibly do?” Hesna replies that “men can be hasty. Quick to kill. Women are measured. Givers of life. We can use our heads.” Maisa devises a plan for the women to weave a giant net out of their hair, a “sacrifice, woven together from our combined wisdom and strength.” Unsurprisingly, A’ot scoffs at the women’s plan and their confidence. Asinan, apparently sharing some of A’ot’s skepticism, wants to accompany the women, but Maisa denies his request: “The men of Guåhan have tried. Now it’s our turn.”

It turns out that things don’t go exactly according to Maisa’s plan; Hesna’s warning about the beast splitting the people of Guåhan in two almost came to fruition, though perhaps not in the way the villagers anticipated. Even so, a very humbled A’ot commends Maisa upon the beast’s defeat: “I’ve never seen such bravery and strength. From man or woman.” But “it’s the strength of our people that did this,” she reminds him, “not my own.” Instead of killing the beast as A’ot would have it, Maisa and Hesna release it, commanding it never to attack Guåhan again.

Back in present-day Guam, the grandmother finishes up her story. She concludes with the moral that “if we forget our culture, our taotaomo’na, and our way of life, or we do not stay united as a people, the beast will come back to Guåhan.”

Up Next…

In the next post, I’ll be discussing another three short films that deal, in one way or another, with the theme of betrayal:

The Dog (Uzbekistan, 2013)

Jus Lyk Dat (Guyana, 2014)

Bal Kan (Kosovo, 2016)

The Forest (Central African Republic, 2003)

Directed by Bassek ba Kobhio and Didier Ouénangaré, The Forest is a Pan-African co-production set in the Central African Republic. A twist on the white savior complex, the film presents the story of a man named Gonaba, who has returned to the CAR from France with a Western education, set on helping his country.

The Prodigal Son’s Return

Upon Gonaba’s return, a ferryman teases him, calling him a “white man” and saying how stupid it is to return to a country where there’s “a new set of ministers every month,” and where all they have for every meal is manioc. Ten years pass, and Gonaba is now an education minister. He fashions himself a benevolent master to his conscientious servant, Paul. During an Independence Day parade, Gonaba’s internal monologue reveals the extent of his scorn for his home country: “Tackiness and ostentation is what the country’s all about, 40 years after Independence. Heavy jackets under the hot sun, because it’s modern, even in a country of superstition and black magic.” He lists all of the participants in the parade: “policeman corrupted to their bones; war veterans forgotten by France and even by ourselves, brought back to life just for the parade; young, barely pubescent girls, selling themselves to those who can afford young flesh; students, well raised from the cradle on, praising on command, a benevolent government, while their teachers strike six months a year because they’re not getting paid,” all on display for “the massive unconscious partiers who just love this kind of noisy boasting.”

Afterwards, at a reception for prominent figures, Gonaba meets a glamorous bar owner named Simone. There’s a palpable connection between them. Some of the bigwigs throw scraps of food to a group of Biaka (“pygmy”) dancers performing for their entertainment. When Gonaba chooses to join in the dancing instead, he is called “a shame to our government.” The Prefect refers to the Biakas as “a tourist attraction for our country” and “a natural wealth we should exploit.” Gonaba disagrees: “Their strength has always fascinated me,” he confides in Simone. “Slavery, colonization, the sole party has deprived us of our personality, our soul, while centuries of humiliation didn’t change them a bit.” She replies: “You read too much. You dream with your eyes open. I don’t care if you’re right or wrong. You’re different. I like that.” Things move fast between them, because after all, “long courtships are for white men”—at least according to Gonaba. He seems eager to prove to Simone that he’s not white.

Gonaba’s “Civilizing” Project

Gonaba continues to be appalled at the treatment of Biaka servants at the hands of his constituents. In order to effect change, he resolves to join the Biakas. Simone is aghast: “Why go live with these savages? To educate them? So they can rebel?” To educate them, yes, but “to fight injustice,” he says. Disillusioned by Simone’s attitude, Gonaba tells her that the way she looks at Biakas is the same way that many whites look at Africans. His bridge to Simone thus thoroughly burnt, Gonaba befriends a Biaka servant named Manga. He tells Manga that, according to both Rousseau and Barthélémy Boganda have said that everyone is equal. Gonaba sees the relationship as mutually instructive; he will teach Manga to fight injustice, while Manga will teach him “the secret” to Biaka resilience.

The patriarch of Manga’s village initially thinks that Gonaba is the Gwati, or Great Spirit, until he realizes that Gonaba has Manga’s necklace. As Gonaba imperfectly adjusts to village life, he doggedly tries to “teach” the Biakas, giving them lessons in French, but they are unenthused. But Gonaba doesn’t give up; he continues to disrupt village life. He tells the villagers that he’s going to build them a large, well-ventilated, rectangular hut; the problem is, it’s on the ancestor’s land, and thus it’s forbidden for him to build there. “You shouldn’t do things out of habit,” he tells them. He just doesn’t get it, does he?

The patriarch tells Gonaba “The children don’t need your white man’s knowledge. They want to know the truth of the world.” He explains to Gonaba the story of why gorillas don’t have tails. It looks like Gonaba is beginning to understand. He falls in love with a Biaka woman named Kali, who later gives birth to their son, occasioning a village-wide celebration. “The ancestors could accept him now,” say some of the village men of Gonaba. Gonaba tells Kali that they will go live in the city, so that his son can be “the first Pygmy to go through higher schooling,” but she will have none of it: “Our life is here.” Seemingly conceding in his efforts to “civilize” the Biakas, Gonaba, now united with the villagers by blood, begins teaching the children Biaka folklore instead of French literacy. Finally satisfied, the patriarch says “You are now a son of this village.” First, though, he must undergo an initiation ceremony—and here is where we learn that Gonaba’s change of heart is quite superficial. During his initiation, it begins raining—a bad omen, they tell him. But Gonaba refuses to end the ceremony just on account of a little rain. And indeed, tragedy strikes, prompting Gonaba to leave the village, where he no longer feels welcome.

Gonaba’s Burden

What makes The Forest an interesting film is how it recasts Kipling’s “white man’s burden,” placing the imagined burden of the civilizing project on the shoulders of a European-educated African. Through this unconventional narrative, the film underscores the aftershocks of colonialism in a post-colonial Africa—which, like other post-colonial places, is not fully free of its colonial past—and how the specters of colonialism continue to contribute to ethnic divisions within African nations. During his education in France, Gonaba imbibes the ideas of Rousseau and, presumably, other Western thinkers. Seeking to uncritically bring these ideas to life in the Central African Republic, he fails to understand the lifeways of the Biakas, and unwittingly delivers death upon a Biaka village. But importantly, the film isn’t all about the inability of a European-educated Central African to understand the Biakas; it also showcases Biaka culture in what is ultimately a remarkably respectful way.

Up Next…

For the next post, I’ll discuss three short films, each depicting a traditional Oceanian story:

Footsteps (Cook Islands, 2014)

‘Aho’eitu (Tonga, 2015)

Maisa, the Chamoru Girl Who Saves Guåhan (Guam, 2015)

Blood of the Condor (Bolivia, 1969)

First off, apologies to my faithful few for the long gap between entries! School has been busy lately…

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s discuss Blood of the Condor. Directed by Jorge Sanjinés, it’s a primarily Quechua-language black-and-white film featuring the “peasants” of Kaata, a small Bolivian village. It depicts the deleterious effects of the neo-colonial presence of the “Progress Corps” (a thinly veiled stand-in for the Peace Corps) in 1960s Bolivia.

Cursed Womb

The film opens with the chilling juxtaposition of two passages, the first by Martin Bormann regarding the occupation of Ukraine: “We are the master race. Slaves must work for us. When no longer needed, they can die. They need no medical attention. Let them use contraceptive methods and abort as often as possible. Education is dangerous. An educated person is a potential enemy. Let them practise their religion only as a diversion. They should receive only enough food to keep them alive.” The second, an excerpt from a speech to CIT by the scientist James Donner, reads: “The developed world does not identify with the hungry of India or Brazil. We see them as a different species, and, in fact, they are. In the next 100 years we will find appropriate ways of dealing with them. … They are simply animals. They constitute a malignant disease. … Result: The rich and strong nations will devour the poor and weak.”

After this, we are introduced to Ignacio and Paulina, a couple whose three children have all recently died. “Now I’m alone,” Ignacio says, telling Paulina that she is unlucky and the cause of the deaths of their children. He’s quite intoxicated. The next day the pair treks to the top of the mountain to bury symbolic dolls and other objects; Paulina sports a nasty black eye.

Turns out, Ignacio is the leader of the community, and he has beef with the local police chief, who orders him to be shot. Paulina and Sixto, Ignacio’s brother, attempt to save him, taking him to the city for a life-saving blood transfusion. An eerie Bergmanesque score accompanies their arrival amidst the skyscrapers of La Paz. Unfortunately, their blood is not compatible with his, and they can’t afford the 350 pesos needed to purchase a transfusion. The doctors don’t speak Quechua, and they’re not exactly willing to help them, either, prompting Sixto to observe that “they’ve forgotten the gods in the city.”

Gringos Bring Disaster

A series of flashbacks, interlocking with scenes of Paulina and Sixto’s quest in the present, fills us in on how Ignacio came to be in this predicament. Their three children died during an epidemic, right around the time Ignacio was elected as village leader. Trying for another child, he and Paulina seek the advice of a soothsayer, who tells them that “something’s blocked inside her. It stops children.” Paulina and her friends and family then discuss why she might not be able to have children. A spell from an enemy? A lack of proper supplication to the gods? One of them suggests that “the evil was brought to our community by the gringos. Gringos bring disaster!”

The gringos referred to are the aforementioned Progress Corps, a group of bumbling, culturally illiterate young upper-middle-class white Americans with New York accents. (They’re names are Tom, Jim, and Kathy, incidentally.) They want to purchase the eggs that Paulina is taking to market, but she refuses to sell to them, much to their consternation. Ignacio asks around the village to see where some of the village women had their last children, and for many of them, that turns out to be “at the maternity centre run by the foreigners.” The police chief attempts to put his constituents at ease: “These gringo gentlemen have come to help your community, so please cooperate with them and listen to them. I’m asking you as the government representative in this community.” Furthermore, he says, “they want you and your wives to go to the centre for treatment.”

But the townspeople aren’t ready to welcome the Progress Corps with open arms. A religious leader from the town performs a ceremony dedicated Pachamama (the Earth Mother figure in traditional Andean religion) to ask for the continuation of their people and of the fertility of their women. When Ignacio investigates the maternity centre, the police chief tells him that he has to be more cooperative with the Progress Corps, but Ignacio refuses to have anything to do with them. Uh oh…

When one of the local women dies in the centre, the villagers realize that “something very evil is happening in that centre.” And indeed, neighboring villages are suffering the same lack of fertility as Kaata. The soothsayer divines that “the gringos are sowing death in the bellies of our women”—in other words, they’re performing forced sterilizations. Armed with the truth, the villagers collectively approach the maternity centre that night, seize the Progress corps members and tell them that they know what’s going on. “They seem to know everything”—Tom, Jim, and Kathy are terrified. “Tell them, we only sterilize women who have too many children!” Kathy exclaims. But now the shoe is on the other foot: “It’s because of you that our women don’t have children. We will do to you what you do to us.” The film ends with the image of several rifles pointed to the sky, heralding the beginning of a revolution.

Up Next…

The Forest (Central African Republic, 2003)

The Wind (Mali, 1982)

Directed by Souleymane Cissé, The Wind depicts the political and generational divide of late-twentieth-century Mali through the story of the friendship and romance between Bah, the grandson of a powerful chief, and Batrou, the daughter of a military governor.

In Their Forefathers’ Shadows

Batrou’s father, Sangaré, plans to send her to France for her education. She’s less than enthusiastic about the idea. Meanwhile, Bah is stressing about an important exam, so his friend Seydou gives him some pills to help study. Bah thinks the exam goes well, but when the results are read out, he is crestfallen to learn that he has not passed. Seydou didn’t pass either. Afterwards, Batrou comes to hang out with Bah, Seydou, and their friends. They sit around smoking pot and drinking; some of them get pretty incredibly toasted. But while they’re high, something is budding between Bah and Batrou. In a later scene, as Bah and Batrou bathe together, Bah is reluctant to undress. “I’ve never done it in front of a woman,” he admits sheepishly. “I get undressed and you refuse?” Batrou teases, splashing him playfully. It’s pretty cute.

Bah’s grandparents are horrified to learn that he’s been taking pills, but his grandfather Kansaye is even more furious that Bah has been seeing the Governor’s daughter. For his part, Sangaré disapproves of his daughter’s association with the depraved, pill-popping grandson of a village chieftain; he even threatens to dissolve his marriage to Batrou’s mother if she doesn’t ensure the “improvement” of Batrou’s behavior (meaning, of course, her connection to Bah). Meanwhile, Sangaré’s third wife Agna threatens to leave him if he takes a fourth wife. This, along with her other “insubordinate” actions, provokes his ire. But “Papa loves you,” Batrou assures her. “The proof is he beats you but doesn’t divorce you.”

More Than Just Teenage Rebellion

Conflict is brewing on another, bigger front as Sangaré learns that he is facing political opposition. Even more worrisome, it’s begin led by Bah and his friends (including Batrou), who print pamphlets underground. But some of the protesters don’t trust Bah due to his closeness with the Governor’s daughter. When the military teargasses the opposition’s headquarters, that only makes the student protesters more committed to their cause and more militant in their tactics. The military then responds, as you might expect, with excessive force. Bah is among those arrested, while some of the village women protect Batrou and are themselves arrested. Batrou pleads for the women to be released, but instead, she is also arrested. The witch-hunt is spiraling out of control; Sangaré even authorizes his men to kill Batrou if they see fit.

Sangaré calls the rebel prisoners “stateless sons of hell,” saying that “no one will care if I kill all of you.” He tells them that if they sign a document pledging their faith to the military government, he will release them. Bah protests. “Why sign it? You can kill us, you don’t need our signature.” Sangaré informs him that a refusal to sign would mean being committed to hard labor, to which Bah replies “I prefer hard labor.” When none of the other prisoners seem as steadfast as Bah, Batrou says to them: “Aren’t you ashamed? You let him defend us alone.” She addresses her father: “Governor, if you will allow me, I am now aware that we see things very differently, and I wonder if I am really of your blood.” Sangaré replies coldly: “What Marx taught you is no help here.” But for Batrou, this goes beyond politics: “You forbid me to see the man I love.” She leaves, and the other prisoners sign their souls away.

Kansaye is incensed at the treatment of his grandson. Batrou apologizes to him for what she has gotten Bah into. He accepts her apology and says he has nothing against her—it’s the fault of the Governor and his goons. Kansaye prays to a sacred tree for his grandson’s release. The god of the Tree responds that there is nothing that divine powers can do: “From now on, act upon your own initiative.” Taking the message to heart, Kansaye approaches Sangaré and tells him: “When I return home, I want to find my grandson there.” Sangaré is both annoyed and somewhat amused. He shoots Kansaye, but Kansaye merely chuckles and walks away unscathed. Upon returning home, though, Kansaye receives gut-wrenching (though perhaps less-than-accurate) news, prompting him to burn his ceremonial garb in tearful outrage. He pledges his support for the young rebels. As the film draws to its conclusion, the Minister of the Interior orders Sangaré to release the prisoners. Sangaré complies with the order, albeit with a look of fear on his face.

Up Next…

Blood of the Condor (Bolivia, 1969)

Cage (Malta, 1971)

Filmed by Mario Azzopardi in 1971 while he was still a film student, Cage was not commercially released until 2007. It tells the story of a young Maltese man living at the cusp of independence, both his own and that of Malta from the United Kingdom.

Family Matters

In the opening scene, a pair of lovers (Fred and Roza) are cavorting in the meadow before being interrupted by the arrival of Fred’s boss, the parish priest. When he returns home, his mother demands of him: “Who were you with? With that slut? Don’t be a fool my son. Don’t have anything to do with her. Leave her.” Fred looks toward her as thunder booms and lightning flashes through the window (comical, but probably unintentionally so). According to Fred’s mother, Rosa is from an infamously bad family, and since Malta is such a small country, everyone knows it. But for our benefit, she explains their sins anyway: “Are you aware of their political beliefs? They are all enemies of the Church! They have rebelled against God!” Not to mention, they have nothing to offer for a dowry.

The townsfolk are debating whether the parish priest should be allowed to run for office and meddle in politics; this is a major issue in the turbulent and contentious climate of Malta in the late 1960s. Fred’s parents are staunch supporters of the parish priest’s political endeavors. When the election comes, the Nationalists achieve a plurality of the votes. Independence is on the horizon. And yet Fred is still imprisoned in his parents’ (and the church’s) “cage.” (Get it?) At night, a ghostly voice calls out to him: “Beware of death! You will be eternally damned. Death will come and you’ll burn in Hell!” The priest stands outside the window, clad in a hooded black cloak, Seventh Seal-style.

Generational Conflict

At the humorless family dinner the next day, Fred’s sister Filumen is dressed much too immodestly for their mother’s liking. But, Mom says, shouldn’t Filumen’s husband Karmenu be the one correcting her? So why doesn’t he? Doesn’t he know he’s only inviting scandal by allowing his wife to dress in such a manner? Fred’s father is perhaps not as unabashedly hard-nosed as his mother, but he does give Fred the ultimatum: Do as his mother says, or leave. So, Fred goes to see Roza. She gives him the lavender sweater that she knit for him. But Fred, tortured soul that he is, tells her they cannot meet anymore. Roza is shocked that he is treating her “as if I were a slut.” So they split up. But he takes the sweater. He’s really sending mixed signals…

Shortly thereafter, Fred’s mother is taken ill with angina. Veffa, a maid, is tasked with looking after her. Fred starts getting really handsy with Veffa; by this point, I’m realizing that he has this mildly creepy Anthony Quinn vibe to him. “It’s better if we control our own future,” Veffa opines to Fred as they … discuss the election results in the backseat of his car. Later, Fred’s father tells him “I know that you had fancied that girl [Roza]. I hope you now realize why we were against your relationship. She comes from a low class family.” But Veffa, on the other hand—she’s a real catch, his father says. Little does he know that Fred is already way ahead of him; Veffa is currently pregnant with Fred’s child.

Moving On

When both of Fred’s parents die, his sister and brother-in-law invite him to stay with them in Sliema. (Fred packs the lavender sweater.) As he prepares to leave, religious and political processions have him surrounded. Seems like pretty standard film student symbolism. Nothing out of the ordinary here. In Sliema, Fred gets a job as a typist. Sliema is very different from Fred’s hometown; his coworkers speak English peppered with Maltese, true to form for Sliema residents. When Veffa marries his boss, she leaves him a note: “If you have some decency in you, just leave and find another job. If you stay I’ll make your life hell, the same hell you made me go through. You have two weeks.” This ultimatum inspires in Fred a paroxysm of regret at leaving Roza, just as the Union Jack descends and the Flag of Malta replaces it.

All things considered, Cage is pretty impressive for a film school thesis. But something weird happens in the final scene, and I’m not sure whether or not it was intentional. We see the crew, lights, camera, etc., as the actor playing Fred (Ray Camilleri) stands, out of character, receiving last minute instructions for the upcoming scene. The guy with the clapperboard comes forward and says “171 take 4,” then the scene commences. Is this a narrative tactic, functioning as some kind of forceful reminder that we’re watching a film? Is it film student symbolism? Sloppy editing? Who knows.

Up Next…

The Wind (Mali, 1982)

Wea Nao Mi? (Solomon Islands, 2012); Looking for Nelao (Namibia, 2015); Icimonwa (Zambia, 2016)

As I said in the last post, this time I’ll be discussing three short films that deal with issues of identity and memory. In each of these films, the main character awakens to find himself lost in one way or another, and we watch him try, successfully or unsuccessfully, to regain his bearings.

Wea Nao Mi?

Directed by a team of artists (Charley Piringi, Moses Au, Kerrie Jionisi, Neil Cassidy, Regina Lepping, Francis Bele, Glen Deni, and Sosimo Narasia) from a collaborative filmmaking group called Wantok Stori, Wea Nao Mi? (“Where Am I?”) begins with a man named Wane (played by Moses Teikai) walking through the Solomon Islands forests of yesteryear with his uncle. Along the way, Wane finds a golden pocket watch. His uncle gives him a Subi (a traditional Solomon Islander protective weapon), but Wane is more interested in the watch.

Entranced by it, he lies down and places it over his heart before sinking into a dream. When he awakens, he finds himself in an unfamiliar city, twenty-first-century Honiara, surrounded by Pall Mall packs and gravel, speaking a language (Pijin) with which he is equally unfamiliar. Baffled, he stumbles into a dance-off with some krumpers. After his humiliating defeat, a young woman (Alice, played by co-director Regina Lepping) follows Wane to a nearby gazebo, where she apologizes for the way her friends razzed him.

Alice quickly understands the improbable situation in which Wane has found himself and offers to take him to a museum gift shop full of Kastom objects. Wane spots the Subi that his uncle gave him, and takes it. Of course, the shop owner accuses him of stealing, but Alice tells her that it’s his. And suddenly, we’re back in time, where Wane’s uncle wakes him up. Confused, Wane asks “Where am I?” this time in his native tongue. As his uncle beckons him to keep following, Wane leaves behind the watch and grabs the Subi.

Looking for Nelao

Directed by Oshoveli Shipoh, this film depicts the struggles of a young man, Edward, to piece his life back together after awakening from a coma. The sole survivor of a horrific car accident, Edward has been in a coma for nearly a year. Upon his release from the hospital, he wanders through the city streets holding a picture of a young woman—his girlfriend, Nelao.

There’s no spoken dialogue, only subtitles. To me, this highlights Edward’s derealization upon coming out of the coma after so long. His isolation is only compounded by the fact that nobody seems to recognize Nelao’s picture—until he comes to a village in the countryside. A woman washing clothes recognizes Nelao’s photo and tells Edward that she lives in a neighboring house. Edward knocks on the door, and when Nelao answers she is ecstatic at their long-awaited reunion; Edward is, too, until another man walks up behind Nelao, that is. Heartbroken, Edward leaves, but Nelao follows him, telling her new boyfriend “I can’t do this anymore.” Edward will have none of it: “I don’t want to hear what you have to say.” We see Nelao’s flashbacks to the happiness of their former relationship. The brilliant colors contrast sharply with the washed-out filter of the rest of the film.

We learn that Edward’s family didn’t approve of Nelao; when she went to visit him in the hospital, Edward’s sister prevented her from entering. “I thought I told you to stay away from my brother!” she exclaims. “He’s in there fighting for his life and your ghetto ass is always showing up here!” It seems that her disdain for Nelao was exacerbated by the fact that Edward was on his way to visit Nelao when the accident happened. Edward, of course, was unaware of this argument. When he finally understands, he accepts Nelao into his arms. I’ve never been a huge fan of happy endings, but this was a nice change of pace, I have to admit.

Icimonwa

This film is by far the most bizarre of the three. Directed by Bennie Chibwe, Icimonwa stars rookie actor Philip Mutika as the unnamed main character. We see him lying apparently lifeless on the sand in a canyon before suddenly waking up, as if from a coma. He stares around at his surroundings in utter bafflement.

The ensuing seven minutes track his attempts to piece together what happened and, more importantly, who he is. Clues are littered throughout the sands: a fro pick, a small mirror, a purse, the Zimbabwe flag, among others. We get the sense that he’s not alone. And, it turns out, he isn’t. One line of angry dialogue suddenly cuts through the unsettling soundtrack.

But who is the mysterious assailant? And is he indeed responsible for what happened to the main character? The brief film is hallucinatory, blurring reality and dream, and by the end, few questions are answered. I’m not even sure what Icimonwa means. Is it the main character’s name? It’s also the name of a song sung by the Precious Angels Church Choir, also of Zambia, but other than that my search turned up no clues. Any tips would be much appreciated.

Up Next…

The Parade (Serbia, 2011)

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)

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)

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.”

Chaffinch_(fringilla_coelebs)_male.jpg
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.

Up Next…

Good Morning, Luang Prabang (Laos, 2008)