“Bus 174” – A Brazilian Tragedy (Documentary)

Janaina Lopes Neves moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1996 to study administration at the city’s Catholic university. For the next four years, she took the number 174 bus daily from the university campus to her flat. The bus route leads past the majestic palm tree corridor of the Botanical Gardens and towards the city’s heart-shaped lagoon. It’s a short and pleasant hop through one of Rio’s most attractive middle-class neighbourhoods. Yet mid-afternoon on June 12 2000, Janaina embarked on the most traumatic bus journey of her life.

A few stops after she got on, a man ran in, followed by a policeman. The man had a gun and grabbed a passenger hostage. Armed muggings are a daily occurrence on Rio’s buses and, sensing trouble, the driver and the conductor immediately fled the vehicle. After failing to persuade the gunman to give himself up, the policeman also left the bus. All of a sudden, Lopes Neves realised that she and a dozen other passengers were trapped inside – hijacked by an extremely agitated, apparently drugged-up young man.


By the standards of Rio’s urban problems – where violence levels approach those of a country in civil war – the incident was unremarkable. Yet it took unforeseeable dimensions and became one of the defining moments in recent Brazilian history. The bus was parked metres away from the news centre of TV Globo, the main terrestrial channel; and as police reinforcements arrived so did TV crews. The media circus spiralled out of control and, for the next four hours, the hostage incident was broadcast live throughout Brazil, reaching an estimated audience of 35 million people.


One of the Brazilians glued in front of his screen was the documentary-maker José Padilha, who was later to turn the event into a film. He was on the treadmill at his gym when the TV in front of him started to broadcast the siege. There was no way he could go home, since the traffic was log jammed, so for the following three hours he stayed at the gym watching the events unfold.

bus174pica hostage

Because the Brazilian police failed to isolate the area, cameras filmed everything that was going on inside the bus and all the police negotiations with the gunman. Thanks to the passengers’ mobile phones, the people in the bus knew they were on television. At one point, the gunman screamed through the window: “This is not an action movie.”


He was the protagonist in a much more gripping reality show and his behaviour became correspondingly theatrical. Viewers watched in horror as he marched Lopes Neves at gunpoint to the front of the bus and made her write with her lipstick on the windscreen: “He’ll kill us all at 6pm”.



It was immediately obvious to Padilha that the bus siege would make a great documentary. “I think it’s the best filmed hostage situation in history,” says Padilha, whose office is 200 yards from where the event took place. “Normally you never see the hostage-taker and the hostages. Here you see everything. And the bus 174 incident went on for so long.”


But there was another important factor that gave the event wider resonance. During the live broadcast, it became clear that the gunman was not an anonymous delinquent. “Didn’t you kill my friends at Candelaria?” he shouted at the police from the bus window. “I was there.”

The TV pundits covering the story knew instantly what this meant. In 1993, police opened fire on 72 street children sleeping by Candelaria church in the centre of Rio, killing seven. The massacre had international repercussions, bringing the plight of Rio’s street children to a global audience. The gunman, 21-year-old Sandro do Nascimento, was one of the survivors.


Padilha’s outstanding film Bus 174 is as much a bio-pic about Nascimento’s life as it is a true-crime documentary about the hold-up. “Nascimento took part in the two events of recent years that have most come to symbolise violence in Rio,” says Padilha. “How does someone who began at Candelaria end up on that bus? Where was the state?”


Nascimento lived on the margins of society. He had no personal documents and Padilha traces his life through police and prison reports. He discovered the newspaper article that describes how his mother was stabbed to death in front of him when he was six years old. To his surprise, Padilha discovered a remarkable amount of video footage of Nascimento, from newsreels and street child charitable organisations. Nascimento was not as invisible as all that.


When it turned 6pm on the bus, Nascimento covered Lopes Neves’s head in cloth and started counting down from 100. She crouched on the floor. He put the gun to the back of her neck and shot. To TV viewers, it appeared that she had been killed. In fact, he had whispered to her that he was not going to shoot her and told her to pretend it was for real. Lopes Neves, now 27 and still living in Rio, says that at first she was convinced she would die. Then she realised that Nascimento was not a killer. “I was more scared that the police would shoot than that he would shoot. I didn’t have that much fear that he would shoot at all.”


Such fears were well-founded. After she spent two hours as Nascimento’s hostage, he grabbed another girl, Geisa Gonçalves. With his gun pointed at her back, the two walked out of the bus. When they were on the pavement, a police marksman immediately jumped out from behind the bus. He shot Nascimento at point-blank range – but missed and hit Gonçalves. Nascimento instinctively pulled his trigger and shot her twice more. With two bullets in her back and one in her neck, Gonçalves died .


As a mob of hundreds of onlookers and cameramen broke through the cordons and surrounded the bus, Nascimento was lynched by police and suffocated to death. All live on prime-time TV. The bus 174 incident became emblematic of modern Brazil: it captured all the fears about urban violence and the authorities’ inability to deal with the problem. The documentary does not apportion blame, although it is largely sympathetic to Nascimento and the police are shown to have been incompetent.


Padilha left hardly a stone unturned in interviewing all the relevant people, although he did not interview the officer who shot the hostage. “I didn’t want to personalise [the tragedy] and blame the marksman. I wanted to do a film that institutionalised the error.”


To understand the police side, Padilha contacted Rodrigo Pimentel, a former captain of the Bope, Brazil’s elite Swat team. Shortly after the bus incident, Pimentel had gone on national television and criticised how the force handled it. He was imprisoned for 30 days, then sacked. Pimentel, who now works in a bank, eventually became Padilha’s co-producer.

He doesn’t blame the marksman for killing the hostage: “The man was up at 4.30am. He had spent the morning in an operation in a favela. He has been thinking all day, ‘Kill, kill, kill.’ You can’t expect him to change his mentality. The Bope should be about saving lives, but its raison d’être has been changed to killing bandits.”


Pimentel blames politicians for turning the police into an army that rewards the killing of criminals. He has further ire for the state governor, who refused to authorise snipers to shoot Nascimento when he was leaning out of the bus window. The governor, an evangelical Christian, did not want the political consequences from his flock of sanctioning a death on live television. “A shot from a sniper at the beginning was the best solution,” adds Pimentel. Padilha’s film was premiered in Rio shortly after City of God and both are attempts to portray the cycle of violence that has come to define urban Brazilian life. Padilha says that if there is a lesson in his film it is that “when you subject a person to such violence in their childhood, it is likely that he will become violent back”.


Horses of God – “No One Is Born a Martyr”

This movie is based-on-true-events tale with an acute sociological discernment, Horses Of God, presents a dramatized account of the young men who, on May 16, 2003, committed suicide-bombing atrocities throughout Casablanca. By the end, 45 lives had been claimed (including those of the perpetrators), but Nabil Ayouch’s film is ultimately less interested in the planning and execution of that plot but the path that led the suicide bombers to their doom.

The residents of Sidi Moumen, a sprawling shantytown on the outskirts of Casablanca, Morocco, live in tin-roofed shacks without electricity, running water or modern sewage disposal. The area sits atop a garbage dump where boys run wild in packs and engage in fierce football (soccer) matches that often burst into violence. Aerial shots paint this slum as a putrid, desiccated wasteland, in which the pickings are thin, even for foragers. The movie, inspired by Mahi Binebine’s novel “The Stars of Sidi Moumen” is not about politics or religion but about poverty and a society steeped in a deadly machismo. In its demystification of these youthful slum dwellers, the film makes their embrace of terrorism frighteningly graspable. Because it follows its main characters over 10 years, from childhood into adulthood, it gives their fates a sense of tragic predictability.

Yachine (Abdelhakim Rachi), depressed and introverted, lives in the shadow of his older brother Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid), the pair spending their days scrounging for money, starting fights, and roughhousing with their peers. Their mother, with three sons, has only enough love for one, and she showers Hamid with praise and affection until the day he’s hauled away for smashing the car window of a corrupt cop. When Hamid returns to the slums two years later, he’s found religion and brotherhood with the most extreme of conservative Muslims.

“Horses of God,” a wrenching social-realist drama from the French-born Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch, offers a powerful example of the depth of debate about the root causes of terrorism within the Arab world. This feature film traces the origins of an infamous attack few Westerners even know about, because it didn’t happen in London or Madrid or New York but in the heart of Casablanca, perhaps the most tolerant and cosmopolitan city in the North Africa. It would be easy to default to “they hate us for our freedom,” to interpret the Casablanca bombings as an ideological attack on the Westernized culture of Morocco’s largest city, where women walk the streets alone without headscarves, alcohol is widely available and the long-standing Jewish community, although much reduced in size, has not entirely vanished.

For the cynical mullahs who masterminded the attack, those may have been the reasons, although even that may be an oversimplification. It’s just as likely that al-Qaida-affiliated local radicals were pursuing their usual strategy of causing maximum disruption and turmoil at minimal cost, and of trying to shock a governing regime into military overreaction and/or widespread repression. As Ayouch’s film makes clear, the young men who carried out the attacks were desperately poor kids from the slums who had never even seen the skyscrapers and glamorous restaurants of the central city before, let alone encountered any Jews or Westerners except the ones on TV. Whatever “Islamic extremism” they may have absorbed had been recently implanted by opportunistic evangelists who filled the gaps in a failed state and a divided society, offering a measure of self-respect and discipline to dead-end kids who had none.

“Horses of God” – a phrase the Prophet Muhammad uses to describe those who fight for jihad – opens in the early ‘90s, when the four boys at its centre are just street ragamuffins out of classic European neorealism, running wild in the garbage-strewn alleys of Sidi Moumen, a sprawling shantytown across the highway from Casablanca proper. It’s a brutal world of drug dealers, corrupt cops and prostitutes, captured in exciting, intimate and claustrophobic detail, where a neighborhood soccer game can abruptly degenerate into gang violence and a party with a bottle of purloined wine can end with a rape. Throughout the film, our focal point is the likable Yashine, a good-natured, irrepressible kid who takes his nickname from his sports idol, the legendary Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashine. His older brother Hamid (played by Abdelilah Rachid, real-life brother of Abdelhakim), is both his protector and a troublemaker who’s clearly bound for a bad destination, with his backward Yankees cap and affected hip-hop mannerisms. Hamid drinks, deals drugs, shoots pool and openly defies the township’s crooked cops, until the day he goes too far and disappears into Morocco’s notorious penal system.

Suddenly, their lives have a noble purpose. They are expected to die for the glory of Allah, having embraced a cause larger than themselves. Unlike other movies about jihad, “Horses of God,” doesn’t concentrate on the terrorists’ grandiose indoctrination and the rituals of their final meals, prayers and preparations, which can attach a perverse glamour to suicide. Even after Yachine is chosen to lead one operation — the bombing of an Italian restaurant — he is shown shaking with fear, and his eyes do not burn with heavenly fantasies.

The tragedy is that their youth is so rarely a source of that kind of innocent joy. Instead, it’s their Achilles’ heel, a weakness that makes them easy prey for men—and sometimes other boys—on the prowl. The first of many men who exploits them, Ba’Moussa, earns their hatred (and ours) for stealing their labour while treating them with bullying contempt. But he turns out to be just the warm-up act for the real villains, the jihadi zealots who steal the boys’ lives. Hamid, Yachine, Habil, and Fouad all seem to buy into their vision of redemption through martyrdom, after years of inculcation, though their transformation is presented not as an epiphany, but as a long process of blind indoctrination. Fed by boyish longings like the desire to impress a girl, it’s grounded in the same thinly veiled threats of violence and insistence on unquestioning obedience to male authority as the rest of their lives have been. They never actually choose to become terrorists; they’re led to that point in a series of well-rehearsed steps and then told they must follow through or be killed for refusing. As the camera lingers on the revered leader who issued the order after he bids them goodbye, his coolly appraising gaze undercuts all his unctuous talk about brotherly love and respect. In the end, these poor doomed young men are just so many pack horses.

“Eyes on The Prize” – America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1985)

Eyes on the Prize recounts the fight to end decades of discrimination and segregation. It is the story of the people — young and old, male and female, northern and southern — who, compelled by a meeting of conscience and circumstance, worked to eradicate a world where whites and blacks could not go to the same school, ride the same bus, vote in the same election, or participate equally in society. It was a world in which peaceful demonstrators were met with resistance and brutality — in short, a reality that is now nearly incomprehensible to many young Americans.

Through contemporary interviews and historical footage, Eyes on the Prize traces the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Voting Rights Act; from early acts of individual courage through the flowering of a mass movement and its eventual split into factions. Julian Bond, political leader and civil rights activist, narrates.

The driving force behind Eyes on the Prize and Blackside, Henry Hampton (1940-1998) won numerous awards for this landmark series including the duPont-Columbia Gold Baton, the Peabody Award, and Academy Award nominations. He set out to share his vision of what he called “the remarkable human drama that was the Civil Rights Movement” through the Eyes on the Prize documentary and a book of the same title by Juan Williams. In recent years, a number of key figures who appear in the films (including the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott; Coretta Scott King, wife of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and an activist in her own right; Kwame Ture, also known as Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and George Wallace, the 1960s Alabama governor who resisted integration) have died, making this record of their testimony all the more valuable.

Programs in the series:

1- Awakenings (1954-1956)

Individual acts of courage inspire black Southerners to fight for their rights: Mose Wright testifies against the white men who murdered young Emmett Till, and Rosa Parks refuses to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama.

2- Fighting Back (1957-1962)

States’ rights loyalists and federal authorities collide in the 1957 battle to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School, and again in James Meredith’s 1962 challenge to segregation at the University of Mississippi. Both times, a Southern governor squares off with a U.S. president, violence erupts — and integration is carried out.

3- Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961)

Black college students take a leadership role in the civil rights movement as lunch counter sit-ins spread across the South. “Freedom Riders” also try to desegregate interstate buses, but they are brutally attacked as they travel.

4- No Easy Walk (1961-1963)

The civil rights movement discovers the power of mass demonstrations as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerges as its most visible leader. Some demonstrations succeed; others fail. But the triumphant March on Washington, D.C., under King’s leadership, shows a mounting national support for civil rights. President John F. Kennedy proposes the Civil Rights Act.

5- Mississippi: Is This America? (1963-1964)

Mississippi’s grass-roots civil rights movement becomes an American concern when college students travel south to help register black voters and three activists are murdered. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenges the regular Mississippi delegation at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.

6- Bridge to Freedom (1965)

A decade of lessons is applied in the climactic and bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. A major victory is won when the federal Voting Rights Bill passes, but civil rights leaders know they have new challenges ahead.

7- The Time Has Come (1964-66)

After a decade-long cry for justice, a new sound is heard in the civil rights movement: the insistent call for power. Malcolm X takes an eloquent nationalism to urban streets as a younger generation of black leaders listens. In the South, Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) move from “Freedom Now!” to “Black Power!” as the fabric of the traditional movement changes.

8- Two Societies (1965-68)

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) come north to help Chicago’s civil rights leaders in their nonviolent struggle against segregated housing. Their efforts pit them against Chicago’s powerful mayor, Richard Daley. When a series of marches through all-white neighbourhoods draws violence, King and Daley negotiate with mixed results. In Detroit, a police raid in a black neighborhood sparks an urban uprising that lasts five days, leaving 43 people dead. The Kerner Commission finds that America is becoming “two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” President Lyndon Johnson, who appointed the commission, ignores the report.

9- Power! (1966-68)

The call for Black Power takes various forms across communities in black America. In Cleveland, Carl Stokes wins election as the first black mayor of a major American city. The Black Panther Party, armed with law books, breakfast programs, and guns, is born in Oakland. Substandard teaching practices prompt parents to gain educational control of a Brooklyn school district but then lead them to a showdown with New York City’s teachers’ union.

10- The Promised Land (1967-68)

Martin Luther King stakes out new ground for himself and the rapidly fragmenting civil rights movement. One year before his death, he publicly opposes the war in Vietnam. His Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) embarks on an ambitious Poor People’s Campaign. In the midst of political organizing, King detours to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis, where he is assassinated. King’s death and the failure of his final campaign mark the end of a major stream of the movement.

11- Ain’t Gonna Shuffle No More (1964-72)

A call to pride and a renewed push for unity galvanize black America. World heavyweight champion Cassius Clay challenges America to accept him as Muhammad Ali, a minister of Islam who refuses to fight in Vietnam. Students at Howard University in Washington, D.C., fight to bring the growing black consciousness movement and their African heritage inside the walls of this prominent black institution. Black elected officials and community activists organize the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, in an attempt to create a unified black response to growing repression against the movement.

12- A Nation of Law? (1968-71)

Black activism is increasingly met with a sometimes violent and unethical response from local and federal law enforcement agencies. In Chicago, two Black Panther Party leaders are killed in a pre-dawn raid by police acting on information supplied by an FBI informant. In the wake of President Nixon’s call to “law and order,” stepped-up arrests push the already poor conditions at New York’s Attica State Prison to the limit. A five-day inmate takeover calling the public’s attention to the conditions leaves 43 men dead: four killed by inmates, 39 by police.

13- The Keys to the Kingdom (1974-80)

In the 1970s, antidiscrimination legal rights gained in past decades by the civil rights movement are put to the test. In Boston, some whites violently resist a federal court school desegregation order. Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, proves that affirmative action can work, but the Bakke Supreme Court case challenges that policy.

14- Back to the Movement (1979-mid 80s)

Power and powerlessness. Miami’s black community — pummelled by urban renewal, a lack of jobs, and police harassment — explodes in rioting. But in Chicago, an unprecedented grassroots movement triumphs. Frustrated by decades of unfulfilled promises made by the city’s Democratic political machine, reformers install Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor.

Study guide:


“Timbuktu” – (The forgotten victims and heroes)

Abderrahmane Sissako‘s adoring and visually stunning film Timbuktu is a cry from the heart – with all the more moral authority for being expressed with such elegance and such consideration. It is a portrait of the country of his youth, the state of Mali, in West Africa, and in particular the mythic  city of Timbuktu, whose opulent and humane traditions are being crushed, as Sissako perceives it, by fanatical jihadis, very often from outside the country. The story revolves around the death of a cow, caringly named “GPS” – a most suitable emblem for a country that has lost its path.

These Islamist zealots are banning innocent pleasures such as music and football, and throwing themselves with cold relish into lashings and stoning for adultery. The new puritans horrify the local imam, who has long upheld the existing traditions of a benevolent and tolerant Islam; they march into the mosque carrying arms. Besides being addicted to cruelty and bullying, these men are enslaved to their modern devices – mobile phones, cars, video-cameras and, of course, weapons. Timbuktu is no longer “tombouctou la mysterieuse”, the dreamlike place of legend, but a strict, grim, unforgiving place of intolerance and fear.

Sissako creates an interrelated series of characters and images giving us scenes from the life of a troubled nation, historically torn apart and prone to failures in communication between its three main languages: Touareg, Arabic and Bambara. At the centre of this is the tragic story of one family: a herdsman Kidane, his wife Satima and their 12-year-old daughter. Kidane angrily confronts a fisherman who has killed his cow, with tragic results. Mali’s new theocratic state must now rule on something that has nothing to do with infringements of its own proliferating religious laws – and its crass callousness and immaturity as a system of government is horribly exposed.

There are some brilliant photographic moments: the panoramic image of the river in which Kidane and the fisherman wobble apart, at different ends of the screen, is superb, composed with a flamboyance that David Lean might have admired. When a jihadi comes close to admitting he is infatuated with Satima, Sissako shows us the swelling dunes with a strategically placed patch of scrub. It is a sudden, Freudian vision of a woman’s naked body, which is then made the subject of a bizarre, misogynist attack.

Elsewhere, young men carry on playing football after football has been banned by miming the game. They rush around the field with an invisible football, earnestly playing a match by imagining where the ball should be. It is a funny, sly, touching scene, reminiscent of anti-Soviet satire. In another scene, a young man is being coached on how to describe his religious conversion for a video (for an awful moment, it looks as if it might be a suicide-bomber “martyrdom” video). The boy talks about how he used to love rap music, but no longer. Yet in the face of the intimidating and gawky direction, the boy lowers his head: he finds he cannot mouth these dogmatic banalities.

Sissako’s portrait of Mali is comparable to Ibrahim El-Batout’s portrait of Egypt and the Tahrir Square protests in his film Winter of Discontent. It is built up with enormous emotion, teetering between hope and despair.  The world of the reddish desert, the limestone houses and the people’s flowing clothes, suggest a harmony with nature that is utterly at odds with the foreign fundamentalists with their confusion of accents and loud technology. Sissako’s point, while never heavy-handed, but so often forgotten in the West:  Muslims are by a very large margin the world’s biggest victims of Islamic terrorism.

“Live and Become” – (Ethiopians Jews)

In 1985 the  Mossad, Israeli secret services, with considerable assistance from the United States, ran the clandestine Operation Moses to airlift thousands of famished and ill-treated Ethiopian Jews to Israel from refugee camps across the border in Sudan. These ‘indelible immigrants’, to use a term coined by historian Daniel Boorstin, also  known as the Falasha, are still not fully assimilated into Israeli society. And more than 30 years after the first Ethiopian Jews fulfilled their dream of coming to Jerusalem, their children and grandchildren found themselves protesting in Tel Aviv, at one of the most violent demonstrations the city has ever seen. Anger and frustration that has built up over decades exploded in a way few expected.   , in response to the brutal and unprovoked police beating of an Ethiopian Jewish soldier.

This movie begins, with a mother bidding farewell  to her terrified son,  with the words that gives the film its title: ‘Go. Live. Become.’ ‘Go’ is the urgent instruction to find security in Israel. ‘Live’ is her counsel to seize a sudden chance to survive and prosper. ‘Become’ is more problematic, and the movie is constantly alert to what it means in a world of emigration and immigration, asylum seeking and economic migration, where identities are assumed, imposed, blurred and recreated.

The opening section is full of suspense and danger. Can Schlomo convince the Israeli authorities that he’s a Jew? After his interrogation on Israeli soil, a boy a few years older has his cover blown and is roughly escorted from the reception hall, shoved into a car and driven away to be repatriated. Schlomo gets by, but his ailing surrogate mother dies.live_and_become3

Burdened by guilt and loneliness, he fails to adapt to life in various orphanages. Finally, he’s adopted by a kindly Sephardic Franco-Israeli couple, extremely well played by French actor Roschdy Zem and celebrated Israeli actress Yael Abecassis.

These foster-parents, left-wing, semi-secular Jews who initially think the newcomer has been raised in the orthodox faith, draw the boy out and encourage their son and daughter to make him welcome. They represent much of what is best in the state of Israel and protect him from the prejudice, some of it truly ferocious, to which the Falasha are exposed. These sequences are subtly handled, with moral force and without sentimentality.

The years pass, Schlomo takes on a new identity, has a Romeo and Juliet-style love affair with a Jewish girl, works on a Kibbutz, experiences the tensions engendered by the Gulf War and the Intifadas and, as part of his journey of discovery, attempts to contact his mother. At times, melodrama looms and the film becomes schematic. The years Schlomo spends studying medicine in Paris, when he becomes aware of how he might transcend his problems and give practical assistance to his native Ethiopia, are condensed into a couple of minutes with voice-over dialogue.

live_and_become 2Live and Become is a powerful and engaging film. Director Radu Mihaileanu ambitiously tackles themes of identity and love as reflected in the racial, social, political, and religious problems of immigration and assimilation. In his struggle to survive in Israel, Schlomo  finds many allies beyond his parents. His grandfather (Rami Danon) provides moral support and visits him at a Kibbutz that he helped found. Schlomo comes to rely upon the wisdom of an Ethiopian rabbi, Qes Amhra (Yitzhak Edgar), who meets with him regularly and counsels him when he enters a debate and comes up with a spiritual interpretation of the skin-color of Adam. At a turning point in his life, Schlomo encounters a tolerant and positive-minded policeman who admonishes him to rebuff those who would deny his dignity and human rights.


The filmmaker does a masterful job conveying the guilt this Christian Ethiopian bears for living a lie. But he is carried by the nurturing love of four women: his birth mother, his surrogate mother, his foster mother, and Sarah (Roni Hadar), a feisty young woman who pursues him for ten years before they marry. The closing scenes in Live and Become are poignant because they deal with Schlomo’s final coming to terms with his past and his own special gifts to the world.


Rue Cases Nègres (Sugar Cane Alley) – “Ye krik! Ye krak!”

Sugar Cane alley poster”Sugar Cane Alley” (Rue Cases-Nègres) unwraps with what looks like a series of sepia-tinted, picture-postcard views of Martinique as it was in the 1930’s and, to a certain extent, as it still is today. These postcard shots are ”official” souvenirs of a world inhabited by anonymous, mute people, or what Frantz Fanon would called the “wretched of the earth”; their existence seem to serve solely for the purpose of providing subjects for the cameras of the tourists and a backs of support of an exploitive system.

This film seems to grow so directly out of old memories that it’s a surprise to discover that the director, Euzhan Palcy, based it on a novel, an autobiographical testimony of Joseph Zobel; however it feels so real we assume he based it on her own life. The film tells the story of a young orphan who was born on the French-speaking island of Martinique in 1930s, and, when the story begins, is a carefree 11-year-old playing with the other kids in Sugar Cane Alley — a row of shacks by the cane fields.

The first scenes get right inside a child’s point of view, they are left alone all day while their parents work in the fields, and they make up games, get into fights, and poke about where they’re not supposed to be. When one of them breaks a precious sugar bowl, the depth of the tragedy underlines the poverty of these people.

M’Man Tine, a wonderfully tough, pipe-smoking old woman who is raising the orphaned Jose on the sugar plantation where she has been a cane-cutter all her life. This role is played by an actress named Darling Legitimus with a no-nonsense sweetness that, like the movie itself, makes itself known only gradually. The measure of the actress, as well as of the role, is only fully evident by the end.

Jose is a smart kid — gifted, likable. He makes friend with a very old man, a man so old that he remembers the days of slavery, and tells Jose that the work in the fields is just a new form of slavery. He dreams of going back to Africa someday, and Jose says he’ll join him.

Euzhan Palcy
Euzhan Palcy

But, meanwhile, Jose is doing well in school. His grandmother works long hours to support them, so that he can break out of the fields and get an education. And the movie follows Jose as has sits for an exam, and is accepted by an intermediate school in the island’s capital. He gets a scholarship, but it’s not enough money, and in one of the great scenes of the movie his grandmother moves them to a packing case on the outskirts of the city and does laundry to support them both.


The film’s director, Euzhan Palcy, knows she’s dealing with many of the conventions of a rags-to-riches story here, but she avoids a lot of possible stereotypes by making everything very particular, by making Jose into an individual instead of just a good example. When a woman hires Jose and then makes him late for school, for example, Jose conceives a brilliant plan to sneak back and get even with her — while maintaining a perfect alibi. “Sugar Cane Alley” sees its world so clearly because it’s an inside job; Palcy grew up on Martinique. At the same time, she doesn’t lean on their heart-warming story. She’s are making a movie here, and it’s smart, sometimes hard-edged story that earns its moments of sentiment.



This film is a splendidly life-enhancing and even a life-changing classic, but sadly underappreciated gem. While not openly political, it is an extremely moral picture, yet not so intentionally educational as to opaque the flawless artistry with which it is directed.

In the end of the film, José says: “I will take my black shack alley with me,” reminding us to remember where we come from, no matter where we end up in life. He urges us to spare a thought for “all the black shack alleys all over the world,” to think of the sidelined, the ostracized and the oppressed wherever they may be, those whom society has cast out and deceitfully discarded, very often the African Diaspora. This movie entreats us, by appealing to our humanity and compassion, to be our brother’s keeper.



Mother of George – “Marriage and Infertility”

This movie opens during a lavish and colourful wedding party, but even in the middle of that jubilant occasion, it is obvious that we are heading towards tragedy in a Shakespearean proportion. As soon as the couple, Ayodele and Adenike, get married, Ade is pulled aside by her mother in law, perhaps the only villain in the film, and told that she must have a baby, a son, evidently, and that his name must be George.


Andrew Dosunmu, film director, portrays a world that many would judge straightforward. The premise of the story is an African couple living in Brooklyn and having trouble conceiving a child – a problem that defies cultural expectations and leads Adenike to make an outrageous decision that could either save or ruin her family.

The stereotypical notions that many have regarding the role of women in African societies are constantly challenged in this movie. Elusive but distressing in its intimacy, “Mother of George” focuses rather in the global, all inclusive, clash of traditional and modern beliefs.

Dosunmu’s colours in “Mother of George” are nothing short of stunning, as if in every shot, we are given its own resolute consideration – from the traditional clothing the characters wear, to the home decor to the unadorned contrast of New York’s streets.


Ade’s desperate attempts give birth brings the drama to a head, and it’s a credit to the clear-cut work of writer Darci Picoult and director Andrew Dosunmu.

During the film, we are able to recognize the conflicting choices everyone needs to make, but my empathy with Ade’s remains resilient until the end. Danai Gurira, who plays Adenike, carries the movie with a  stoical majesty. She’s out of focus at the beginning and ending of the shot, but for a brief moment, her face comes into focus as she stares right at us. In a way it is like we are been told that the answer is intangible as the dilemma she is embroiled. Mother of George is dazzling!The main actors and director need to be highly praised for bringing to life this distressing but yet unpretentious tale.