Moolaadé- “African solutions to African problems”

Ousmane Sembene was for many, including myself, Africa’s greatest ever film director. His last work,  Moolaadé (the title means physical and spiritual protection) is a fine and brave work, set in an Islamic village in Burkina Faso.

On the surface, this is a cheerful, traditional community, clean, colourfully dressed, not prosperous, but getting by. A beautiful 17-year-old girl is awaiting the return from Paris of the headman’s son to whom she is promised in marriage. But her mother, Collé, the independently minded second wife of a weak, wilful husband, has refused to have her subjected to female circumcision. Then five 12-year-old girls come to Collé in flight from the regular ‘purification’ (i.e. mutilation) ceremonies and she gives them her ‘moulaadé’.

This unleashes powerful conflicts in the village. The elders turn on Collé, as do the team of red-robed women called the Salidana, who carry out the often fatal circumcisions. Her daughter can no longer marry her fiancé, who, despite his new Western ways, bows before his father’s demands.

Detecting the source of subversive knowledge, the males seize the women’s battery-operated radios and make a bonfire of them. An itinerant trader, a rebellious outsider, who has a background of insubordination in the army, takes Collé’s side when her husband whips her in public. That night, he’s driven out of town and murdered.

This powerful movie addresses female mutilation as both a cruel practice to be abolished and as a metaphor for the traditional subjugation of women in a society dominated by self-regarding men who stand idly by as their wives do most of the work, the thinking and the child rearing. It ends affirmatively with the women on the point of controlling their destinies.

The film has as its centrepiece a stomach-turning scene of a screaming girl being ritually cut, juxtaposed with an image of Collé’s husband enforcing his conjugal rights. Collé’s stand leads to a kind of martyrdom for her; the village elders order a totalitarian bonfire of radios, which are filling up the women’s heads with modern ideas – but it ends on a note of hope and change.

This is a movie about contemporary sexual politics in which there is something very real at stake. The final contrasted images are of an ancient ostrich egg that has stood atop the mosque for two centuries, and a TV aerial, a hopeful link to a future of information, education and a world elsewhere.

City of God – “If you run, the beast will get you. If you stay, the beast will eat you”

 This electrifying picture is part tender coming-of-age film and part gang-warfare epic from the Brazilian slum, or favela, told from the viewpoint of the children who manage to be both its underclass and its criminal overlords. It’s a movie with all the dials cranked up to 11, an overwhelming, intoxicating assault on the senses, and a thriller so tense that you might have the red seat plush in front of you – or even some unfortunate’s hair – gripped in both fists.

Amores Perros – increasingly the touchstone of the Latin new wave – began with a car chase and a dead animal. Director Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, co-produced under the aegis of Walter Salles, has something similar, but invests his images with more overtly mythic qualities, irresistibly potent from the very beginning. A swaggering gangster is about to slaughter a chicken in the middle of the favela; it escapes, and there is a hilarious but still oddly gripping chase sequence as the bird makes its bid for freedom.

As it exits an alley and scampers into the nearest the place has to a main thoroughfare, the chicken, with a hundred bullets and cleavers with its name on it, finds itself face to face with the movie’s leading character, 18-year-old Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who has every reason to think he is going to be murdered. Behind Rocket appear a number of law-enforcement officers in armoured vehicles making one of their periodic terrified and ineffective forays into the ‘hood; in front of him, the gangster and his courtiers all produce weapons. A wacky, black-comic interlude has morphed with appalling speed into a potential bloodbath.

The sacrificial purpose of the chicken conveys with the force of a blunt instrument how cheap life has come to be in the ghetto, and how victimhood and aggression have become fused together. The wiseguys, their cowering subordinates, their stoic womenfolk and the dead bodies around them are all chickens – and they are mostly all children.

Never before have criminals looked so young: pre-pubescent, in fact. The City of God is like one vast, dysfunctional family, neighbours from hell with no neighbours, with no parents or concerned adults. It is a cross between an orphanage and an abattoir.

The movie tells the story of this slum, a grim housing project for the poor, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s; it tracks the story of both Rocket, a would-be press photographer (and a character whose purpose is probably to ventriloquise the sensibility of Paulo Lins, on whose novel the film is based), and Li’l Dice, who follows his gangster vocation with the passionate severity of a monk – the latter renaming himself, having notionally grown to man’s estate, as Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora).

Crime and football are traditionally the ways out of the ghetto, and Meirelles raises this second option only to obliterate it. A bunch of kids gather round to play keepy-uppy; but this is abandoned when three hoodlums rush on to the pitch, seeking refuge from the police – and football, the commodity in which Brazil is an unquestioned superpower, is never mentioned again. What is left is the great game of violence, of intimidation and rape, of abject gang loyalty for children for whom the ties of family, church or nationhood are meaningless jokes: seething with rage, resentment and collectively enacting one continuous, unending scattered act of pre-emptive revenge.

The favela known as the City of God has been described as the film’s chief “character”, and as a location it looks unglamorously real in a way that cannot be approximated by set design. There are some scenes at the beach, but the familiar world of Rio is light years away. At first glance, the dreary rows of jerry-built sheds in the middle of nowhere look very much like sheds for factory-farmed animals, or an encampment for refugees or prisoners of war. It is seen in broad daylight, at night, and at one stage in a glowing crimson sunset. But nothing alleviates its grimness and inhumanity – at the very best it resembles a purpose-built suburb of poverty.

 

Crime has, in a nauseous reversal of liberal social thinking, almost been “designed into” the City of God, but any foreseeable conventional breakdown of law and order has evolved one or two steps further into the corruption and degradation of children. Li’l Dice, a tiny kid, plans a staggeringly audacious hold-up of a brothel, but in a fit of pique at being relegated to the status of lookout by his older comrades, returns to the scene of the crime to murder every single innocent customer and employee of the “motel” – it is a truly chilling moment of unalloyed evil.

Meirelles’s storytelling rushes forward at a full, breathless tilt, swerving, accelerating, doubling back on itself, amplifying the roles and experiences of incidental characters. A bravura narrative moment reveals itself when he discloses the history of one single apartment, showing how it becomes degraded and denatured as it ceases to be a family home and becomes a drug-dealer’s den. Meirelles’s film flashes and sweeps around you, dizzying, disorientating, intoxicating.

His mastery of his material consists not merely in the adaptation of Paulo Lins’s novel, but a direct engagement with the ghetto itself, and his triumphant recruitment of a veritable army of non-professionals is the result of an almost military raid on this dangerous territory. This is something that combines film-making with oral history. It is a compelling piece of work.

 

The Harder They Come -“Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail in shanty town “

Premiering one year after the release of Shaft and one year before Bob Marley and the Wailers’Catch a Fire dropped, Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972) combined blaxploitation fantasies with developing-world realities and in the process, brought reggae music to the world. The first feature-length film from Jamaica—which at the time of THTC‘s release had been an independent country for only 10 years after three centuries of British rule—Henzell’s debut, being shown in a restored 35mm print at the IFC Center, is the definitive postcolonial cult-movie musical. Raw and rough, The Harder They Come mixes vérité footage of Kingston privation (shacks, shanties) and exultation (rapt moviegoers taking in a western, swaying-to-the-spirit church attendees) with a rude-boy bildungsroman.

Henzell, who was born to a plantocratic white family in Jamaica’s north coast in 1936, and his co-writer, Trevor Rhone, a playwright instrumental in shaping the island’s indigenous theater, based the story on an actual cult hero: Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin, a prison escapee known as the “Jamaican Dillinger” who was shot dead by the police in 1948. Played by Jimmy Cliff, who had released four albums by the time of his acting debut in THTC, Ivan is introduced as a naif on a bus headed to his mother’s house in Kingston with a mango and news of a death in the family. Although the bumpkin—often addressed as “Country Boy”—is robbed of everything within his first hours in the capital, he still holds out hope he can make it big as a singer. He soon finds work doing odd jobs for a preacher—and acquires a new nickname. Peacocking in apple caps, skintight tees, elaborately patterned rayon shirts, and snug, pinstriped trousers (Cliff’s sartorial style in the film is almost as iconic as its soundtrack, electrifying nuggets made by various artists between 1967 and 1972), Ivan now answers to “Pretty Boy,” and he can’t help but wear down the resistance of the minister’s chaste ward, Elsa (Janet Bartley).

 

Ivan takes off with Elsa and finally persuades the corrupt music tycoon Hilton (Bob Charlton) to give him some time in the recording studio. His single—the film’s infectious, mercenary title track (“So as sure as the sun will shine/I’m gonna get my share now of what’s mine”)—becomes a smash, for which Ivan receives only $20. “Who’s makin’ all the money?” he asks after being stiffed once again during his short career as a pot dealer. Gunning down some cops—many involved in the ganja trade—Ivan lams it, his record in constant rotation, and his legend sealed.

There are almost no white faces in THTC, yet the dysfunctional legacy of 300-plus years of colonial rule is present in every frame. “I AM HERE I AM EVERYWHERE” reads the graffiti Ivan has sprayed to torment his pursuers—a tag that endears him to those powerless to fight against endemic corruption. The Harder They Come debuted the same year that Jamaicans had just voted out the conservative Jamaica Labour Party, but civil war between the JLP and the left-leaning People’s National Party would erupt shortly after. Henzell would make only one other film: the tourist-board-friendly No Place Like Home (2006), which premiered in Jamaica the day after his death. That project’s softness reflected the dilution of the music that his first film had been so instrumental in exporting.

A Soldier’s Story – “The day of the Geechee is gone”

On a night in 1944, a black sergeant is shot to death outside Fort Neal in Louisiana. Scuttlebutt around the base has it that he was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.), a military attorney, is sent by the Department of the Army in Washington to investigate. He is the first black officer that anyone at the segregated base has ever seen. Davenport causes further consternation by wearing dark sunglasses like General Douglas MacArthur’s.

After meeting with Captain Taylor (Dennis Lipscomb), the West Point trained white commanding officer of the black troops, and visiting his superiors, Davenport realizes his assignment will be even more difficult than he thought because of racial
tensions at Fort Neal and in the nearby town. Ordered to solve the mystery quickly, the black officer begins interrogating the soldiers who knew the slain sergeant.

This gripping movie has been adapted for the screen by Charles Fuller, who won a 1982 Pulitzer Prize for his drama A Soldier’s Play. Although the whodunit aspect of the story is engaging, the film’s real clout is in its telling observations on racism, black pride, and black self-hatred. Through flashbacks evoked during Davenport’s interrogations, the complex character of the murder victim, Sergeant Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar), emerges as the central factor of the drama.

The hard-nosed tough-as-nails Waters, who was decorated during World War I, sees it as his mission to transform “the lazy, shiftless niggers” under his command into soldiers capable of winning the respect of white America by proving their excellence fighting the Germans and the japanese. However, the men do not live up to his standards of perfection, and the black troops are not called to battle overseas.

Waters becomes the target of Wilkie’s (Art Evans) bottled-up anger when he demotes the soldier for drunkenness. He rides Private Melvin Peterson (Denzel Washington) for his insubordination, and he doesn’t like Private Henson’s (William Allen Young) attitude. All three men become suspects in Davenport’s eyes. His further investigations uncover an angry encounter between two racist white officers and Waters on the eve of his death. Perhaps they killed him.

Davenoprt eventually finds the key to the case when he learns of Waters’ humiliation and persecution of Private C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley), a popular singer/musician from Mississippi whose cornbread lifestyle is an affront to everything the sergeant holds sacred. Waters tells Wilkie: “I don’t intend to have our race cheated out of its place of honor and respect in this war because of fools like C.J.!” The steps he takes against this unfortunate soldier eventually set in motion the circumstances leading to his own death.

A Soldier’s Story contains outstanding performances by actors who appeared in the original Negro Ensemble Company production. Adolph Caesar’s portrait of Waters is a tour de force blend of idealism and misplaced fanaticism. Equally compelling is Denzel Washington’s black rage as Peterson. The drama contains a number of parallels to Herman Melville’s Billy Bud, but is most effective in its messages about the virulence of racism which makes both whites and blacks the victims of righteous indignation.

The Battle of Algiers- “The Revolt that Stirred the World”

The re-release of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 black-and-white film The Battle of Algiers, recreating France’s suppression of the 1950s Algerian uprising, is an extraordinary experience. Granted, the audio dubbing of gunfire sounds a bit rickety now, and the way the intertitles switch between Italian and French is eccentric, but everything else makes this a newer-than-new release. It is of its time in many ways, yet somehow more extreme, and more contemporary, than anything else around. Famously, the Pentagon arranged a special in-house screening in 2003, evidently fascinated by exactly the same qualities that have mesmerised the movie’s followers elsewhere: its icy candour on the subjects of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and the vital importance of torture in eliciting information. Those torture scenes are laid out in montage for us without any self-conscious emotional affect or drama; they include blowtorching the suspect’s naked torso, waterboarding, and clipping electrodes to the earlobes before hand-cranking the voltage. These scenes are presented without any of the internal humanising or dramatising conflict that would be considered vital now: they do indeed look almost like a military training film. Another sort of director, possessed of a more conventional liberal scruple, might have felt the need to show a torturer’s inner pain or the torturee’s hidden backstory. But Pontecorvo shows them in terms of strategy.

The anti-hero is Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin, the paratroop commander entrusted by the French government with putting down the Algerian revolt. He is a tough, wiry professional soldier of the sort adoringly imagined by Frederick Forsyth: a veteran of the French Resistance who shrugs his shoulders at any possible irony. He is the centrepiece to the most remarkable sequence, captured on the film’s poster. At the head of his troops, he simply leads a triumphalist, introductory parade down the main street, to reassure loyal citizens that the French army will crush the terrorists – and to face down the terrorists themselves. He strides easily, casually, with no sidearm on show, utterly confident in the power of the spectacle he has created. With his fatigues, beret and faintly sinister sunglasses, he looks like a cross between a top para in Northern Ireland and an IRA chief. Mathieu’s face moves in and out of shadow on this sunny day: the result of the natural light that Pontecorvo is using, and integral to his “newsreel” effect.

The French authorities first license a covert bomb attack in the casbah – “state terrorism” before the phrase was invented – but then, under Mathieu, they embark on a disciplined campaign of isolating terrorist cells, torturing them for the names of operatives further up the pyramid-chain until the key figures at the top are obliterated. No nonsense about hearts and minds: this is a military solution to a military problem. “The culprits are presumed to be Muslim …” Mathieu crisply briefs his men, and a 2007 audience holds its breath. “… so they will be able to hide more easily in the Arab quarters.” This film was composed in an era when Islamic identity was not as important as it is today: there are no mosques, no religion here. Then the keyword was “Arab” and it easy to forget that as recently as the first Iraq war in 1991, the question was whether a putative brotherhood of Arab nations would support Saddam. Mathieu’s campaign is crowned with Pyrrhic victory.

The terrorists are beaten, but a later popular uprising drives the French out, precisely as Mathieu had enigmatically appeared to predict, using Dien Bien Phu as his benchmark: the Indo-Chinese imperial burden which the French fatefully handed on to the Americans. Whatever they made of The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon, this is a must-see for everyone else now.