Makibefo (Madagascar, 1999)

This brilliant and unusual film takes the plot of Macbeth and relocates it to the shores of Madagascar. Makibefo was directed by Alexander Abela—not himself from Madagascar, though since the film has an entirely Malagasy cast, I thought it would work well as Madagascar’s entry for this blog. (Malagasy films are not terribly easy to come by.)

What’s Done Is Done

Set in a small Antandroy village in the far south of Madagascar, the film is the story of a couple’s treacherous hunger for power. It’s recognizably Macbeth, to the point that viewers familiar with the story would probably hardly need subtitles to understand what’s going on. But it’s also something entirely different. This is hardly an adaptation—it’s more of a reinvention. The sonorous narration of the storyteller, played by Guadeloupean actor Gilbert Laumord, is the only real Shakespearean holdover.

Early in the film Makibefo’s wife, Valy Makibefo, murmurs: “To become king you’ll need to call upon evil.” This is a sentiment that Makibefo understands well: “Know that if we commit this horrid crime,” he tells his wife, “there will be no turning back.” Indeed, the tragedy of Makibefo unwinds in just the manner you’d expect if you’re familiar with the Scottish play. Makidofy finds Valy Makibefo catatonic, holding a knife as if about to plunge it into someone’s breast. The gravity of her and her husband’s crimes has rendered her essentially paralyzed. And, of course, their bloodlust snowballs from there. In another scene, the witch doctor tells Makibefo to beware Makidofy. When Makibefo sees Makidofy fleeing the village in a boat, he executes Makidofy’s family within Makidofy’s view.

Sound and Fury

At only 73 minutes, the film is brief, but powerful—one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen. Before watching the film, however, do be warned that it contains the unsimulated slaughter and butchering of an ox. A message at the end of the film explains that “The Zebu ox in the film was sacrificed in our honour according to the customs of the Antandroy people and was distributed to the families involved in the making of Makibefo.” The scenes of the butchery are interlaced with segments depicting Bakoua’s death. Makibefo proudly raises the ox’s head above his own, proclaiming “I am your new king!” Just like the Thane of Glamis, Makibefo is haunted by the silent ghost of Bakoua, to the consternation of Valy Makibefo.

The film concludes with the following message: “The Antandroy people of Madagascar who played the characters and helped in the making of this film are an ancient tribe with a truly great sense of pride, honour and tradition. A poor people in what is already a poor country, they have few possessions and little knowledge of the outside world. As simple fishermen, they live off of the ocean that crashes against their unchanging shoreline and take one day at a time. The majority of the actors have never seen a television let alone a film, and have never acted before in their lives,” Laumord being presumably the sole exception. I like the vibe that such casting decisions lend to films like this; Travellers and Magicians was also cast with mostly first-time actors, and in both cases, it works.

Up Next…

Black Bread (Spain, 2010) was

Beyond Silence (Germany, 1996)

Directed by Caroline Link, Beyond Silence is the story of a hearing girl named Lara Bischoff, whose parents, Martin and Kai, are both deaf. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the film lives up to its hype, presenting a picturesque narrative brimming with understated beauty interrupted by uproars of turmoil percolating beneath the surface. The opening scenes show Lara alerting her parents to sounds, like the sound of her father slurping his coffee. “Lightning is silent, like the moon,” she tells her father during a storm. “It’s thunder that’s loud.” The family’s life is almost picture-perfect—until Lara receives a clarinet from Martin’s sister Clarissa.

Two Worlds

Like Anita, Lara’s conflict with her stubborn father threatens to rend her family apart. As Lara shouts at her father, “You don’t know what’s important! You’re deaf! You don’t even know what music is!” we see the enormity of the strain that Lara’s clarinet playing places on the family. Unlike Anita, however, Lara has her equally headstrong aunt Clarissa to help support Lara’s musical endeavors that her father cannot understand. Martin tells Kai: “I’m going to lose her,” to which Kai responds: “Only if you make the same mistake your parents did.” “What do you mean?” Martin asks. Kai clarifies: “Accept her for what she is. She can hear, and we are deaf.” “She is my child,” Martin protests, and Kai responds: “But she doesn’t belong to you.”

We learn that Martin’s upbringing was not as happy as Lara’s. “I really envy you,” Lara’s grandmother tells her after watching her sign. “You speak that magic tongue as if it were a game. If I hadn’t listened to that pighead, my hands might be able to fly too.” Clarissa later explains to Lara that, during her childhood, she and Martin “made up our own sign language. But the doctors said it was a mistake—that sign language apparently kept him from learning how to speak,” thus driving a wedge between Clarissa and her deaf brother. Their relationship further deteriorated when, at Clarissa’s first clarinet performance in front of a large group of people, Martin begins laughing uncontrollably, disrupting the performance.

After hearing Clarissa say that “sounds are very important for babies,” Lara leans in close to her mother’s stomach, whispering to her unborn sibling: “Hey, you in there, don’t be afraid. Out here, life isn’t completely quiet. When you come, I’ll be here, and I’ll play a song for you on my new clarinet.” In fact, it does turn out that Lara’s new baby sister Marie is also hearing, and Lara is very excited to learn this. She spends as much time talking to Marie as she can.

The Music Inside

Fast-forward to nine years later. Lara is eighteen, a gifted clarinetist, and contemplating a move to Berlin to attend a prestigious music school. Martin is adamantly opposed to the idea, but Clarissa—with characteristic lack of tact—exclaims that “Lara shouldn’t be handicapped just because her parents are.” The ensuing tension drives Lara’s relationship with her father to its stormy nadir. She shouts at him at breakfast one morning: “The silence here, the noise you make when you read the paper—when you eat, when you brush your teeth. This house is like a cage.”

Kai is more understanding of her daughter’s infatuation with music. She gets two tickets to a clarinet concert for her and Lara, and tells her: “When I was little I believed all grown-ups could sing. I also thought I’d be able to when I was a grown-up. I’d stand in front of a mirror and move my mouth and pretend that wonderful sounds were coming out—sounds that made people look so ecstatic, so happy—music!”

At the concert, Lara stands before a giant projection of a Chagall painting. The clarinetist approaches her and tells her, in English: “Listen, the sound of the picture. Can you hear it? He’s a great artist, Chagall. He knows that el mundo is music. You want to know the truth of music?” he asks her. “You don’t need it, you have it inside. Listen to the song inside.” She takes his advice, and at her audition for admission to the music school, she explains to the judges why she prefers klezmer music: “Inside it’s joyful and wild, and at the same time it’s sad and not free. It’s a feeling I understand well.” Her explanation, like the film as a whole, is simple yet moving. Music carries Lara to a world beyond silence, a world that her father might never be fully able to inhabit.

Up Next…

Makibefo (Madagascar, 1999)

Travellers and Magicians (Bhutan, 2003)

This film, directed by the Nyingma lama Khyentse Norbu, tells the story of Dondup Norbu, a government officer in a small Bhutanese village called Khumbar. Secretly planning to apply for a visa to the United States, Dondup is highly Americanized; he is visibly different from his neighbors, with a shag haircut, an “I Heart NY” shirt, and a denim gho. In order to apply for the visa, he has to be in Thimphu within four days, and it’s a two-day journey from the isolated Khumbar.

On the Road

While waiting for the bus to Thimphu he meets an old apple peddler and a monk. The monk tells Dondup: “There’s no point staring at an empty road. You know, Buddha said hope causes pain.” It’s as easy to sympathize with Dondup’s restlessness amid such isolation as it is to scorn him for his obsessive desire to leave his post.

ThimphuView.jpg
A view of Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. (Image: Douglas McLaughlin, distributed by CC BY 2.5 license)

 

Finally, after missing the bus, Dondup and his fellow travelers hitch a ride on a truck, where they meet a drunk, a rice paper maker, and his nineteen-year-old daughter Sonam. Sonam didn’t do well enough on her exams to get into college—or so her father thinks. In reality, she did excellently, but she decided to stay and help her father with his failing livelihood. As she tells Dondup, “Isn’t it our duty to look after our parents when they’re old?” These words must have stung deeply for Dondup, considering his plans to essentially abandon his family for better things in America. And yet, a shy, unspoken romance develops between Dondup and Sonam, complicating his American aspirations.

The Monk’s Tale

The film contains a story-within-a-story, told by the monk to the other travelers. Tashi is a young man studying magic in a tiny village. However, Tashi thinks less about magic than he does about women. He yearns to leave the village, and one day, after getting drunk, he mounts an unbroken horse that carries him to a house in the middle of the forest. There he meets an old man named Agay, and his much younger wife Deki.

When Tashi asks why Agay and Deki live so far away from town, Agay refers to his wife’s youthful beauty. Agay tells Tashi: “We may grow old, but our minds don’t age. Our jealousy stays young.” Living among other (and younger) men, he suspects, would jeopardize his marriage. In fact, Agay’s paranoia is justified; Deki and Tashi begin a secret affair. Deki confides in Tashi: “I’ve tried to leave many times, but he always finds me.” In order to preserve their budding relationship, they concoct a gruesome plan, revealing the terrible lengths to which illicit lovers can go in the name of love.

Loose Ends

When the next bus finally arrives, there’s only one vacant seat. Dondup lets the apple seller take it, presumably because he doesn’t want to leave Sonam. The monk remarks to Dondup: “The minds of human beings are so convoluted. What we hoped for yesterday, we dread today.”

Or, perhaps, the things we hope for are closer at hand than we might think. Travellers and Magicians is a classic iteration of the merry band of misfits trope, exemplified by films like The Wizard of Oz. As Dondup and his fellow travelers follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City of Thimphu, each treks with their own purpose in mind. In Dondup’s case, that purpose is not to return to his own personal Kansas, but rather to reach his ultimate Oz: America. However, the film’s abrupt ending leaves many questions unresolved. This seems particularly fitting, given its overall dreamlike quality. Which pull ends up stronger for Dondup: America’s, or Sonam’s?

Up Next…

Beyond Silence (Germany, 1996)

Anita, the Insect Hunter (Honduras, 2001)

First of all, I’ll preface this by saying that I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of this film with English subtitles, so I hope my interpretations are valid. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, this film, directed by Hispano Durón, is the story of a teenage girl, Anita Fernandez, with an apparently idyllic life, told primarily through the recollections of her younger brother Anibal. Anita is celebrated for her intelligence and beauty, “until one day,” her brother remembers, “she gave it up to hunt insects.”

Great Expectations

We first glimpse Anita’s anxieties through her strained relationship with her short-fused and overbearing father. He wants her to be more like the “Turks,” a Honduran term for Palestinian immigrants and their descendants, stereotyped as wealthy businesspeople and social climbers. (See this article for more info.) Anita’s brother tells us that “Papa had contracted many debts. He wanted to have more than he could. From time to time it made us remember who we really were.” When Anita plans her quinceañera, her father is concerned about making a good impression on her friends. In order to improve the family’s financial situation, he has an affair with a Palestinian credit manager.

During the party, Anita’s father sees some “Turks,” including Anita’s crush Fernando, hanging out at a gas station, apparently up to no good. Anibal recalls that “Papa was furious that day,” because Fernando and his friends had not come to Anita’s party. Her father screams at Anita in front of her friends, cursing her for not associating with the “Turks.” Anibal says: “And so it was then that Anita changed, never again to be the same.”

A World of Her Own

After her father’s blowout, Anita becomes obsessed with insects, especially moths and butterflies. In religion class, she begins reading from Deuteronomy 28, her recitation growing louder, faster, and more fervent. As she concludes, a large moth appears in the room, causing a commotion. Anita reaches out nonchalantly and catches it in her hand, to the amazement of her classmates and teacher. When Anita witnesses her father’s infidelity, she retreats further inward. She begins dissociating, acting like an insect at dinner, shutting out the world. To Anita’s horror, her father burns her insect collection, rendering her almost catatonic. “Anita,” her brother laments, “she was no longer with us.”

Anita’s parents seek medical advice, prompting her to run away from home. While hunting for insects, she meets a drug dealer who gives her an insect larva as a gift and asks her “Are you crazy?” He tells her there are many more insects at his place and takes her there. While she remains catatonic, he undresses her. He admires her body as he washes her feet and bathes her. She remains more or less catatonic, even as he rapes her.

Back at home, Anita’s family comes to grips with her absence: “At first it seemed that there was nothing more important than finding the culprit. Guilt lingered like a ghost prowling around the house. Nobody wanted to be touched by it. We hid behind grief or behind rage.” Over time, “The ghosts of guilt had disappeared. We only had to deal with shame.” Where did the shame come from? Their failures toward Anita? Their inability to keep up appearances as a happy family? Did Anita’s disappearance serve as yet another reminder of who they really were?

Connections

Like Ruba in Third Person Singular NumberAnita is a bright girl whose promising future is dashed by the constraints placed upon her by a demanding patriarchal figure, as well as society at large. Anita and Ruba both find solace within worlds of their own creation, Anita’s populated by insects, Ruba’s by younger versions of herself. Anita, the Insect Hunter is difficult to watch at times; despite its unique and engaging premise, the unending sequence of tragedies the film’s protagonist faces can be difficult to stomach.

Up Next…

Travellers and Magicians (Bhutan, 2003)

Hollow City (Angola, 2004)

This film was the first directed by an Angolan woman—Maria João Ganga—as well as one of the first feature-length Angolan films released following the Angolan Civil War. The main characters, N’dala and Zé, have grown up and lived their entire childhoods surrounded by war. Living in Luanda, Zé has been shielded from some of the worst conflict in the Angolan countryside, whereas N’dala, having lived in the thick of the Civil War in the Bié Province, experienced the deaths of his family. In the film, he struggles to reconcile their deaths with his absence from Bié, where he longs to return.

Life After Death

The story of an Angolan folk hero named Ngunga is woven throughout the film. Zé is preparing to play the role of Ngunga in his class play. Quoting the play, he tells N’dala that Ngunga “wanted to know if men were the same everywhere, only thinking of themselves.” Like Ngunga, N’dala is a wandering orphan, looking for a place to stay; unlike Ngunga, perhaps, N’dala has a destination in mind: his home in the Bié Province, from which a nun has taken him and several other children.

One particularly poignant conversation between N’dala and Zé reveals precisely why N’dala is so desperate to return home, despite the death of his family. N’dala states that “I have to go back to find them.” Zé asks: “But what if they were killed?” N’dala replies: “I’ll find them all. They died but they’re up there in the sky. That’s what the Sister said, that they’re in the sky.” Zé tells him that “they are, but you can’t see them anymore,” to which N’dala explains: “Not here. Only in the sky in Bié.”

White Savior Complex

All of the characters, at least early in the film, are pretty sympathetic. Even the white nun who frantically searches for N’dala at first seems genuinely concerned about his safety: “This child came from the bush, he’ll never be able to survive. He’s walking around in the city! The city is a wild place!” However, she later implies that she’s also worried about saving her own soul from the guilt of losing him. She seems to exemplify the self-serving “white savior” archetype so frequently embodied by white Christians working in sub-Saharan Africa, channeling her inwardly directed guilt toward seemingly benevolent actions. No doubt that was Ganga’s intention: to present a critical portrayal of such figures.

Life Before Death

Importantly, this film does not present an unrelentingly tragic portrayal of Angolan life; N’dala and the other characters experience joy within the film. At times, in fact, it’s easy to forget that war is always lurking in the background. Above all, the tragic, sudden ending drives home the fragility of happiness (and life) during wartime, especially during a civil war like that of Angola, when desperation can drive otherwise decent people to brutality.

Up Next…

Anita, the Insect Hunter (Honduras, 2001)

Third Person Singular Number (Bangladesh, 2009)

Here we go—my reactions to the first randomly selected film on the list…

A Woman Alone

From director Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, Third Person Singular Number highlights, above all else, the precarious and vulnerable situation of young, and especially single, women in Bangladesh. The protagonist, Ruba Haque (Nusrat Imrose Tisha), faces ostracism and hostility from her community and family for her unconventional lifestyle. To make matters worse, her live-in boyfriend Munna (Mosharrof Karim) is serving a prison sentence for murder, leaving Ruba effectively alone.

In the opening scenes, we see Ruba walking through the city alone at night, which prompts both incredulous and antagonistic questions from (male) passersby. A motorist stops his car beside Ruba, propositioning her: “How much?” he asks. At one point she encounters the ghost of a young woman named Shima Chowdhury, who was raped and murdered at the police station, dramatically highlighting the lack of formal protection offered to young Bangladeshi women. In a later sequence, Ruba fruitlessly tries to find a room for rent; each proprietor angrily dismisses her, refusing to rent to a single girl (and, in some cases, to anyone who is single). In the words of one landlady, “How can one person be a family?” Her rhetorical question points to the importance of conventional family structure and kinship ties in Ruba’s Bangladesh.

Despite the veneer of monogamy, Ruba consistently faces the sexual advances of older, often married, men. With few exceptions, the only “helpful” figures that Ruba encounters are primarily only interested in extracting sex from her in exchange for favors. One man, Siddiqui, offers her a job, before professing his interest in “loving” her. He assures her, “I never jump on anyone, never apply force. I want people to jump on me. I don’t accept anybody if I’m not attacked,” though the film implies (we aren’t shown) that he rapes or assaults her. Finally, Ruba lands a job as a copywriter; her employer, a man named Dicon, tells her what she (and we) already know: “When a girl urgently needs a job, people take advantage.” Such is the perilous condition of a life like Ruba’s; her desperation only augments her vulnerability to sexual violence.

Tenuous Ties to the Past

The relationship between past and present is an important motif throughout the film. At several points, Ruba converses with 13-year-old and 6-year-old versions of herself, both of whom castigate her for her budding romantic involvement with Bangladeshi pop singer Topu (played by himself) and her consequent unfaithfulness to Munna.

Nusrat_Imrose_Tisha_at_Third_Person_Singular_Number_film
Present-day Ruba (left) with her two past selves. (Image: Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, distributed by CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

Ruba tells her psychiatrist that she refuses to believe that the younger versions of herself do not still exist, frozen in time. To her, the doctor’s diagnosis of multiple personalities implies that the past is not real. Similarly, when Munna is released from prison, he tells her: “The jail-doctor told me that the prisoner’s time gets stopped, while everything else moves outside.” Munna accuses Ruba of changing, and essentially leaving him behind, during his prison sentence, but despite his protests to the contrary, it seems—and this is hardly surprising—that prison changed Munna as well. Both Munna and Ruba cling, with almost desperate futility, to past versions of themselves. Once the pair uneasily readjusts to life as a couple, the sense that their present selves are not longer in sync with one another in the way their past selves had been becomes painfully apparent.

All in all, the film is a touching account of a young Bangladeshi woman’s struggles to find happiness amidst sometimes oppressive societal conventions. While most of the film maintains a kind of understated realism, its occasional dreamlike scenes—particularly those involving conversations between the three Rubas—lend the story a mystical, indeed spiritual quality perfectly suggestive of the intangible tendrils uniting past with present.

Up Next…

Conversations on Serious Topics (Lithuania, 2012)