Angola: Hollow City

(2004, dir: Maria João Ganga; language: Portuguese; original title: Na Cidade Vazia)

Hollow City is set in 1991, during the Angolan Civil War that had been raging since the 70s. The film follows 12-year-old N’Dala (Roldan Pinto João), who has just witnessed the murder of his parents and the destruction of his rural village Bié. Although traumatised, N’Dala is rescued along with some other children by a missionary nun and brought to the capital city, Luanda. There, he runs away and begins wandering the city, seeing its various sides and meeting diverse inhabitants, including the kindly fisherman Antonio, the fiery and selfish Rosita, an impulsive older boy Zé (Domingos Fernandes Fonesca), and Zé’s friendly but dangerous cousin Joka.

I chose Hollow City partly because it is one of the first Angolan feature films to be directed by a woman, and because I was intrigued by the intentions Ganga said she had for the film, namely to depict everyday life in Angola without sensationalising war:

N’Dala is an orphan and a refugee of war. He travels in a world devoid of prospects, living at the fast and reckless pace of survival… N’Dala’s story is fairly common in the everyday life of Angola and it would be too easy to fall into the sensationalism of war. Our good conscience, eased, will survive the gunshots, but N’Dala will not… As an Angolan woman I saw the day-to-day turbulence of Luanda, which, despite the recently-established peace, will continue to see for years to come, many children in its streets.

Watching the film, Ganga achieves this ambition through showing us the psychological violence of war, rather than action scenes. Throughout the film, the war is a threatening atmosphere, not totally stopping people’s everyday activities, but colouring them with fear and pessimism. As for N’Dala, his blurred and confused PTSD-flashbacks provide in many ways a more powerful idea of what it must actually be like to have lost your family through violence than if the viewer had simply seen them killed outright.

For me, another strength of the film was how it managed to take on what Ganga calls “the turbulence of Luanda”, exploring some of the more depressing sides of the city, without inviting any kind of patronising pity on the part of the viewer. Honest depictions of many of the problems facing African countries can easily play into popular European images of Africa as either inherently backward or irrevocably and unambiguously screwed up. It was one of the things that bugged me about Blood Diamond – the repeated phrase “TIA, this is Africa”, and the notion that the only way Africans can improve their lot is by leaving! Not only do these notions homogenise an entire continent, and the complex web of historic and contemporary causes and effects that shape the lives of its people today, they allow non-Africans to reduce these people to objects of suffering, rather than people who still, day after day, eat and sleep and make friends and meet challenges and solve problems and tell stories, etc. In Hollow City, however, the audience is guided by N’Dala – a charming, vulnerable, resourceful, loyal, daring, and strong-willed protagonist who leads a cast of other characters who each deal with life’s problems and pleasures in their own way. The viewer is presented with a city of landscapes and characters not so different from those to be found on other continents. In this way, the problems facing Angola are disassociated from the “This is Africa” narrative, and make room for a story that is fully human.

The film’s evocative cinematography made the most of the urban setting, to the extent that Luanda almost became a character in its own right. In contrast to films such as Algeria’s Chronicle of the Years of Fire (reviewed last week), which gloried in pastoral motifs as a symbol of national identity, Hollow City confronts both the viewer and N’Dala with a confused jostle of environments and identities. N’Dala misses his village, and prefers to sleep on the beach in Luanda with the fisherman, surroundings that remind him more of home. But Bié is gone and there can be no return. In the city, soldiers are juxtaposed with school children, Christian saints with an Angolan sea goddess, lively parties with empty streets after curfew. It’s hard to know how everything fits together, or what people really believe. It’s hard for N’Dala to find his place there (in a heart-breaking insight into the sorrow of refugees, N’Dala is bent on ‘escaping’ back to his decimated village, believing it to be the only place he can reconnect with his parents’ souls). If Chronicle was trying to construct an Algerian national identity, Hollow City depicts the scramble of a urbanising country torn by civil war, with cities flooded by internally displaced people trying to cope with their trauma and sorrows and make a new life; a country exploding with possibilities and lacking in security.

While the film was excellent cinematically, the weaknesses of the film are in many ways the somewhat muddled script. Attempts to draw some kind of parallel between N’Dala and N’Gunga are confusing and ineffective, and occasional cutaways to the desperate search of the nun for runaway N’Dala are more distracting than anything else. Further, the end left me wondering what the film was actually saying, if anything. Without giving away too much, what begins as a lively adventure of the country boy in the big city (a feeling boosted by a decidedly jaunty soundtrack), gradually becomes more sinister – revealing perhaps the answer to N’Gunga’s question: “are people the same everywhere, thinking only of themselves?” And yet not all the people N’Dala meets are like that – the nun, the fisherman and especially his friend Zé all take pains to care for him. Or was the message that the war has destroyed the whole country – that Luanda is no safer for the internal refugees than the massacres they have fled from? Or is it just a portrait of a country in turmoil, shown through the eyes of one of its inhabitants?

As a final note, I will say that this film was fascinating for me personally, as I have (as of yet) never set foot upon the African continent. It was wonderful to get a rich glimpse of a living and breathing African city, in contrast to all the grass huts and refugee camps that a lot of Western media seems to insist are the only structures to be found below the Sahara. Knowing about the rapid urbanisation many African countries is one thing, but seeing it is another. It also really brought home the bizarreness of colonialism – hearing this European language, from a country that isn’t exactly prominent in today’s Europe, and seeing all this colonial architecture – somehow seeing it in a new place brings the wrongness of it home again.

Final verdict, a thoroughly enjoyable and involving film, which compensates for a somewhat flawed script with powerful cinematography, lively music, and above all a well-acted and charming protagonist.

Algeria: Chronicle of the Years of Fire

(1975, dir: Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina; language: Arabic, French; original title: وقائع سنين الجمر or Chronique des Années de Braise)

Chronicle of the Years of Fire is an epic 177-minute film set in the lead-up to the Algerian War of Independence against colonial France. The film follows Ahmed, a peasant, through his frustrated attempts to make a life for himself in a country devastated by brutal colonisation, to being unwillingly conscripted into World War II on the side of France, to joining a resistance movement against the French colonial regime.The film focuses on the gulf between the drought- and famine-stricken Algerian peasants and the wealthy and sheltered French colonists, as well as the power of colonialism to divide and conquer.

In selecting this film, I was torn at first between this and Rachida, another highly-regarded Algerian film. While my desire to support the work of female directors was initially pushing me towards the latter, it being Easter I felt like giving a full-blown epic a go. Other points in Chronicle‘s favour were it being made in the 1970s, in contrast to many of the more modern films I’ve got lined up, and it being the only Arabic language film (or film from the African continent) to haven won the Palme d’Or. (Rachida remains on my to-watch list, however.)

The film certainly was epic – cast of hundreds, guns, horses, sabres, costumes, lingering wide shots of the forbidding and beautiful desert landscape – and yet like many older epic films the pace was quite slow. Over three hours (and 15 years in narrative time) the viewer sees Ahmed turn from an aimless peasant into a revolutionary leader. As well as allowing for this gradual and natural maturation (a metaphor for Algeria itself?), the slow pace allowed the repeated abuse from the French colonial system to build up for the viewer, at the same time as we watch the Algerians debate amongst themselves about what action to take. I liked how the barbarism of colonialism was portrayed as larger effects on the individual and society, rather than focussing too much on one particular French “baddy”. The typhoid outbreak was particularly gruesome, where French citizens were evacuated immediately and the rest of the Algerian city just left to sicken and die. But perhaps more interesting to me was the building up of the resistance movement, from a divided peasantry fighting over the few resources left to them by the colonisers to a full-blown revolutionary war. Certainly the take-home message, other than that violence begets violence and violence is needed to free oneself from violent oppression, seemed to be the need to reclaim and construct an Algerian identity separate from French control. These are not messages I necessarily agree with, but watching them build and unfold was an interesting insight into the history of a particularly bloody colonial occupation and war of independence, which can also some shed light on the mentality of occupied people today.

As an epic polemic, the film works well, I think. But the director’s use of archetypical, and predominantly male, characters made it harder for me to get into it. I’m the kind of viewer that likes watching people more than fight scenes, gorgeous landscapes, and rousing instrumental score (this is not to say that I don’t enjoy these things); so I didn’t personally feel very engaged with the film. The strong pastoral and domestic focus of the film and its cinematography especially made me want to see and hear more from the few women in the film, particularly as the hasty research I did about the Algerian war of independence suggests that around 11,000 women were involved as active participants in the resistance. To be honest it was the character of Miloud that kept me going with the film – a madman in the style of the Shakespearean fool, who guides the viewer with exposition and the other characters with the cutting truths that you’d have to be crazy to say out loud.

In sum, a landmark, well-constructed and epic film with a lot to say. It’s well worth seeing to get a small sense of the devastation caused by colonialism, and an introduction to a significant but under-discussed chapter in African and colonial history.

Australia: Ten Canoes

(2006, dir: Rolf de Heer; language: Yolngu Matha, Gunwinggu, English)

Ten Canoes is beautiful, hilarious, moving and fascinating, and difficult to categorise. The multiple-award winning film is presented as a story, with lively narration by the iconic David Gulpilil, telling of a party of goose-hunters in a time before European colonisation. The young, impatient Dayindi (played by Gulpilil’s son, Jamie) covets his older brother Minygululu’s beautiful youngest wife. In a story-within-a-story, Minygululu tells Dayindi a tale from even further back in Australia’s past, in an attempt to teach the young man about the virtues of patience, and that getting your hearts desire may turn out to be more than you bargained for. What at first proves to be a simple tale grows, as they say in the film, “like a tree”, incorporating a magician, a kidnapping, and a case of mistaken identity before everything draws together again. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, with it’s beautiful cinematography, talented cast, elegant structure, and humorous camera-work.

While Australia has a sizeable film industry and there are a lot of well-regarded films to choose from, I chose Ten Canoes because it’s something I’ve been wanting to see for ages, and had finally recently bought the DVD off my dear friend Hayden (who blogs here about all kinds of weird and wonderful films from various corners of the globe). But I thought it was especially appropriate for this project as it is the first film to be filmed entirely in Aboriginal Australian languages. I watched the version with narration in English, but on the two-disc DVD set you can also choose to watch it with the narration too in Aboriginal languages (with or without English subtitles). Some people have voiced concern about the film being directed and co-written by a white Australian, a concern which is definitely worth addressing. De Heer has responded by saying “[The People of Ramingining] are telling the story, largely, and I’m the mechanism by which they can.” Certainly, the credits has a promising list of Aboriginal names (although not so much in the higher-level production roles), and the documentary DVD extras that I watched showed de Heer (and the English language) taking a decidedly backseat role, but the fact that international and even local recognition of indigenous stories comes only through the lens and privilege of a white film-maker is something worth reflecting on in itself.

For me as a viewer, this film gave some rich glimpses into the language, culture and mythology of a people all too often forgotten, marginalised or outright silenced since Australia’s brutal colonisation. Aborigines in Australia are still abused and oppressed by the Australian government as well as large numbers of other Australians that interact with them. As a showcase of their Australia, before its invasion by Europeans, this film highlights the importance of language and stories as a political force, as a means to take control over the representation of one’s surroundings and to remember what has been lost.

It was also a pleasure to have an intimate encounter with the amazing landscape of Arnhemland, and learn about the ingenious ways that its inhabitants adapted to the challenges and resources of the local environment. Australia is a huge and diverse continent in terms of geography and ecology, of which I have only seen a little in person. The film’s soaring shots over the swamplands, and elegant movement through the trees, were as satisfying to my desire for new landscapes as any travel documentary.

Finally, the film was a comforting, funny, and joyous reminder that – trite as it may sound – people are people. Sometimes I find it difficult to imagine the internal lives and thought processes of people removed from myself by time or space. What did people think and feel 1,000 years ago, or 5,000 years ago – when the premises on which society was based seem so different? What goes on in the heads of people living today in surroundings so different from mine? These questions are one of the reasons that I’m pursuing this project, as I firmly believe that one of the best ways to challenge these barriers to empathy and understanding is to listen and learn from what other people are willing to tell. Films like Ten Canoes are excellent for this purpose – although the narrator of the film makes it clear that it is his story, not ‘our’ (the viewer’s story), the viewer can nevertheless find elements of themselves in these historic/mythical characters, and vice versa. Farts are, and it appears always have been, universally hilarious. Young people are and always have been hotheaded, overeager, and blinded by sexual/romantic desire. We are and always have been concerned with what happens to our poo. Relationships and responsibility are and always have been wonderful, worrying, and complicated. (Of course these are generalisations, but that’s the point – social aspects that have been recognisable throughout human history, if not necessarily true for each and every individual.)

Shoutout: More from Australia

For those interested in more Australian films, although most with a more white Australian focus, I can recommend the following favourites: The Castle (1997, comedy), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002, drama about Australia’s stolen generation); Looking for Alibrandi (2000 teen drama); The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994, comedy-drama and pretty much a must-see); Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, gorgeous mystery drama); and The Slap (2011, drama TV miniseries). High up on my to-watch list from Australia are: Lantana (2001); The Cars That Ate Paris (1974); My Brilliant Career (1979); Shine (1996); Walkabout (1971); and Mad Max (1979, no, I haven’t seen Mad Max. I’m sorry.).

Andorra: No pronunciarás el nombre de Dios en vano

(1999, dir: Josep Guirao; language: Catalan; title in English: Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of God in Vain)

A tiny country wedged between France and Spain, it is perhaps understandable that Andorra doesn’t have a long list of locally produced films to its name. This film was chosen because it was literally the only one I could source that fit the local production criteria.
Writer and director Josep Guirao is apparently an experienced director, but I have to say that this film felt amateurish and poorly conceived.

No pronunciarás… is a gangster thriller short set in the year 2046 (although this date doesn’t seem to actually affect the action in any way). The film kicks off with a powerful and well-connected gangster boss interrogating a collection of religious leaders about how to recognise a true messiah. The viewer later discovers that the gang boss is holding captive a rival crook, Emmanuel, who claims indeed to be the first coming. Apparently the film is based on the science fiction novel The Branch by Mike Resnick, which I have not read but which sounds a lot more promising than this film turned out to be.

For the first five minutes or so, I was sort of enjoying the film. There was something comically jarring about the hammily-acted gangsters and disreputable looking ‘religious leaders’ (who looked a lot more like a collection of the film-maker’s friends than actual religious representatives) arguing heatedly about the finer points of Judaism vis-à-vis Christianity and their relationship to the concept of the messiah. Is this film going to be a send-up of the gangster genre, I wondered, or of theology, or both? By the time the theological debate hit the 20 minute mark, with no variation in pace, subject matter, or character, I was starting to get very bored and was no longer sure what the ambitions or point of the film was.The gruesome climax, when it finally came, also felt drawn out and tedious.

Overall the film felt uneven, overblown, and – at a running time of 32 minutes – at least 20 minutes too long. More than anything else, it felt like a group of friends had decided it would be cool to make a film about religion and gangsters and stuff. Not that I have anything against amateur film; indeed this film did an admirable job of eking the most out of a presumably tiny budget through strategic lighting and basic props. My criticism of the film is more that if it did have a point, it didn’t do a very good job of communicating it.

As far as enlightening me about the country of origin, this film was probably not such a good choice. It was interesting listening to the Catalan language, but other than that I didn’t get the impression that the film would have changed much if it had been produced in another country. I wonder how the film was received in Andorra, a largely Roman Catholic country, and if seen from that context the film might have had another meaning? Any Andorrans out there want to weigh in? Also, I understand that the central Jewish-Christian debate was based on the subject matter of the original story, but it did feel a bit strange to have the Muslim representative in the film so totally sidelined (did he even talk or have a line?), especially in a country like Andorra where Muslims greatly outnumber Jews (according to Wikipedia, at least). I mean, I know the film isn’t trying to be representative (or is it? who knows…), but the presence of the silent murdered Muslim just felt like tokenism. Not to mention the bloodthirsty atheist henchman…

Ultimately all I learned about Andorra from watching this film is that they have very little of a native film industry. If anybody out there knows of a better film produced predominantly in Andorra (with an Andorran director and cast), please let me know and I can revise this post.

Albania: Slogans

(2001, dir: Gjergj Xhuvani; French co-production; language: Albanian; original title: Parullat)

Slogans is an ironic/black comedy set in 1970s Albania, when the country was gripped by poverty and a repressive Communist regime led by Enver Hoxha. It is based on an autobiographical story by Ylljet Alicka. I chose it partly for its subject matter, and partly because it was the only Albanian film available at the city library.

The film is about Andrea, a young teacher from the capital who arrives in a small and poor Albanian village to teach at the local school. His first task is to choose a communist slogan for his class, out of two party-supplied alternatives. Choosing the shorter one, he learns that each class of students and their teacher must inscribe their slogan on the surrounding hillsides using whitewashed stones. A physically demanding task meted out and monitored by the school principal and the party representative, longer slogans are used as punishments for (perceived or actual) transgressions or disloyalty towards the party. As the film progresses, the paranoia and demands around party loyalty are revealed to Andrea in their bleak idiocy, and there’s little or nothing he can do about it.

The film did a great job of conveying the pettiness, emptiness and futility of the required exhibitions of loyalty to the party above all. The children seemed to learn little in the school apart from communist doctrines and propaganda on a level of abstraction and language well above anything that makes sense to 10-year-olds, and indeed many adults. One of the young pupils accidentally refers to the USSR as socialist and China as revisionist, instead of the other way round (contemporary Russian communism being out of favour with Hoxha’s regime), and this sparks a kangaroo-court trial at the schoolhouse where the boy is accused of deliberate subversion, his family punished, and the child left in tears. A similar trial falsely convicts the boy’s illiterate herdsman father of destroying the stone slogans, where Andrea’s character comes to the man’s defence saying, “the slogans are meaningless… for him, I mean, for him.” But they are essentially meaningless – the film isn’t actually about Communist ideologies, about the content of the slogans, but rather about the slogans themselves as political and social capital. Another villager has carefully maintained his stone slogan, “Vietnam will win!” for the past decade, faithfully following his original orders, without anybody having informed him that the war had ended.

These are all absurd, of course, and that’s where the wry comedy of the film is found. The slogans are meaningless, but their maintenance is paramount – when they fall down the hill in a mudslide, then, Sisyphus-like, they must be replaced. The climax of the film, where the town is getting ready for a high-ranking official to drive through, sees the whole town labouring to adequately perform to the high standards of adulation required of them by the local party representative, and yet the official, when he comes in his fancy black car, just drives past the village without slowing or acknowledging the people cheering him. Nobody seems to care about their efforts, except for the party rep who was happy to punish those who did not seem to be cheering and clapping with enough enthusiasm.

The film, for me, was one about people and the different ways we have of gaining and exerting power over one another. The village, where they had so little, was nevertheless mainly concerned with its own microcosm of power – where the length of a slogan built from stones (the only thing the village seemed to have in abundance) could tell you more about your place in society than the actual content of the words. The film-maker has stated that with Slogans he aimed for something other than a simple critique of Hoxha’s Communist regime, but to hold up a mirror to what life was like then:

“Albanian people want films that explain their life. They’re tired of the films and the culture of propaganda,” Xhuvani says. “For me the best thing to do is show how things were, not just to say that communism was bad, but to make films like a mirror. Some film-makers want to show democracy as a miracle – but it’s not a dream, it’s not a miracle, there are a lot of problems.”

I get the feeling that Slogans has achieved that. While predominantly financed by France, the film seems to put Albanians first, presenting them not as lumpen proletariat stooges under the yoke of a communist dictatorship, but as human individuals with a variety of responses to and strategies for coping with the reality of their situation.

As a film, Slogans is attractively produced, sharply written and engaging. If the topic seems bleak, the execution is nevertheless wonderfully wry, with enough moments of pure comedy to keep the viewer upbeat. Indeed, it is in some sense a typical fish-out-of-water comedy, where the city boy comes to the little isolated village, falls in love with the local ‘bad girl’, and shakes things up with his new perspectives and lack of knowledge of ‘how things have always been done’. It’s just that in this film, the girl gets sent away, and the shaking up has no effect other than to see some liquor, cigarettes and garlic change hands, and the protagonist get sentenced to 6 months hard labour, before returning to the unchanging village.