Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Euro 2012: Croatian Films

Entry #1 of the Euro 2012 Book & Film Spotlight looks at the two Croatian films.

Buick Riviera (2008, Goran Rusinovic)

Buick Riviera

Buick Riviera starts off in the snowy American mid-west when Hasan’s (Slavko Stimac) car breaks down in the middle of a deserted road. He is fortunate to get a lift from Vuko (Leon Lucev). The two exchange jokes and things are quite pleasant especially after they discover they are both from the former Yugoslavia. However, Vuko’s constants remarks about Muslim behavior anger Hasan and he counters with observations regarding Vuko’s Serb identity. Immediately, hatred and distrust flare up. Hasan heads home and things appear to have ended. But Vuko shows up at Hasan’s door, determined to buy Hasan’s beloved car, the Buick Riviera. The car then becomes a battleground as the two men try to assert control over the other. Hasan needs to preserve his car while Vuko wants it at all costs. Watching the duo’s confrontation with confusion is Hasan’s American wife, Angela (Aimee Klein), who does not understand the historical context of the men’s argument. Still, her character is essential because she serves as a moderator who oversees a critical scene in Hasan’s and Vuko’s verbal battle at the dinner table. In this scene, Angela is seated at the head of the table, equidistant from Hasan and Vuko who are across from each other. However, the camera’s perspective is nicely altered in certain moments to make it look like Angela is sitting closer to Vuko thereby portraying Hasan’s inner feelings where he feels he is on the verge of losing both his car and his wife. But just as he feels things slipping from his hands, memories of bloodshed in his former land come to Hasan’s mind and he is determined to fight back harder.

Goran Rusinovic’s brilliant film illustrates how hatred can persist through generations and lay dormant until one day it is unleashed in a full fledged war. On the surface, the film appears to be about two strangers whose chance encounter leads to volatile consequences but it is clear that the film is about more than just two people. The two characters’ situation gives us one example of how hatred can suddenly flare up out of a seemingly harmless situation and result in bloody revenge. In this regard, the film provides an answer to the question of why fighting broke out in the former Yugoslavia or why most cultures/tribes are in a race to destroy each other. A simple answer can be that people just don’t like each other. However, when this answer is probed further, then one uncovers that sometimes causal gestures results in people’s dislike towards. For example, an unreturned smile can immediately label someone as an enemy. And sometimes, a nice smile can cause distrust. Add all these little things up and you build a catalogue of distrust and hatred, which if left to brew and ferment over centuries can eventually lead to horrific consequences.

Buick Riviera is essential viewing and one of the most relevant films to have emerged in the last few years. Unfortunately, it is also a film that is hardly known outside of a tiny film festival circuit.

The Blacks (2009, Goran Devic, Zvonimir Juric)

The Blacks opens with a shot of a cat quietly feeding its young one while ominous music hints at the plunge into darkness that awaits. The significance of the opening shot is hinted at later on in the film when the cat is seen wandering the hall alone but not before some blood has been shed. After the opening shot, we observe men sitting in the back of a truck silently holding their guns. The men are headed for a secret mission but they need to stop for some food and supplies. When their leader encounters closed shops, he smashes a shop window and grabs some bananas. The leader is not a thief and duly leaves some money just inside the smashed window. The men eventually reach a forest where their mission begins. However, Ivo (Ivo Gregurevic) leads his men in circles and after 2 hours, they end up back at the same spot where they started from. The men are frustrated at the lack of instructions or information about the mission. Tensions flare up and twenty minutes into the film, 3 men are dead, with 2 shot and one committing suicide. The rest of the film examines how and why the men were assembled and what their mission was.

The directors, Goran Devic and Zvonimir Juric, have made an excellent decision to squeeze out as much color as possible from each frame. The end result is a grey/darkish palette which befits the men’s mission that is not authorized and falls in a grey area between right and wrong. Information about the mission is provided to audience in snippets of overheard conversation or phone calls but it is clear that the men’s mission is not authorized at the highest level. The men’s mission appears to take place in a tense moment right after war when technically a ceasefire should have put a stop to all covert operations. However, in reality, as the film shows for some people the war machine cannot come to an abrupt halt. As a result, some operations continue to be carried out in the shadows and then subsequent operations are needed to perform cleanup and retrieve evidence of those initial unauthorized operations.

The Blacks manages to use silence effectively to depict the internal struggle the men are facing and only uses violence when the men reach a breaking point and cannot carry their burden anymore. The film covers a lot of ground in its brisk 75 minute length that still leaves some room for audience to fill in their own interpretation of events.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

2012 African Cup of Nations Film Spotlight

The conclusion of the 2012 African Cup of Nations film spotlight. In the end, I was only able to view films from 10 of the 16 African nations that took part in the 2012 tournament.

Group A: 2 films

Libya: The Message (1977, Moustapha Akkad)

A lavish production that balances the story and teachings of Prophet Mohammed along with the political struggle that took place in the name of religion. The prophet cannot be shown in front of the camera and that limitation does not take anything away from the film as characters address the camera and repeat the words they have heard from the Prophet, thereby continuing their dialogue with him. Also, there are some incredible scenes such as the moment when the first call to prayer is announced while the battle scenes leave no stone unturned in terms of production values. The film has a consistent feel which is remarkable given how the production had plenty of troubles eventually resulting in Libya offering to allow filming to be completed.

Senegal: Madame Brouette (2002, Moussa Sene Absa)

A drunk man in a red dress walks into a home where a young girl and woman live. A few words are exchanged, a shot is fired, and the man stumbles out of the home and drops dead. A crowd gathers, a tv crew arrives and debates begin about what really happened. The rest of the film uncovers the events that led to that killing. A few soulful musical numbers are smartly integrated in the film and give some background to a character’s plight or feelings. Also, the music manages to lighten the overall mood of the film because the story depicts harsh realities of society, including corruption. The opening number (shown in the trailer), repeated at various intervals throughout the film, is memorable and appropriate in the film’s context.

Group B: 3 films

Angola: The Hero (2004, Zézé Gamboa)

Vitoria (Makena Diop), a war veteran, anxiously waits at the hospital everyday hoping to finally get a prosthetic leg. Even though he is a decorated war hero, he struggles to find a job so he believes a prosthetic leg will finally help him rejoin the workforce. Unfortunately, his prosthetic is stolen shortly after he receives it and he has no chance to get a replacement. A few people try to help him recover his prosthetic leg including a local politician who misuses Vitoria’s situation to garner some votes.

The film is set in Angola but the issues related to the ignorance of war veterans apply to many nations where politicians are distant from the human cost of war. In such nations, politicians don’t think twice about sending their nation’s civilians to war but then are quick to turn a blind eye when these same soldiers return from war. Vitoria wears his uniform with pride but his uniform wears him down and ends up becoming a burden on him because he finds that his service to his nation means nothing to those around him. So it is not a coincidence that Vitoria is shown to be happy when he is not in his uniform. The absence of his uniform indicates that he has rejoined civilian life and his burden has been removed.

The name Vitoria is similar to that of Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves) and that similarity is justified as Vitoria’s prosthetic leg is his ticket to employment like a bicycle is critical to a job in Bicycle Thieves.

Burkina Faso: Dreams of Dust (2006, Laurent Salgues)

Mocktar (Makena Diop) arrives in Essakane looking to work in a gold mine but he is told by a local that he has arrived almost two decades late as the gold has dried up. Still, the workers continue to work in the mine under the desert hoping to strike it rich. Mocktar hopes to put his past behind him in his new surroundings but he finds that the locals in Essakane are haunted by the past. Laurent Salgues manages to depict the state of the workers nicely by smartly mixing enough silent moments with appropriate expressions.

There is a moment in the film when a gold mine caves in, leaving the workers trapped underneath. Even though the camera never ventures into the mine, the accident has echoes of Yash Chopra’s excellent Kaala Patthar (1979).

As an aside, it is remarkable that two films in this group feature Makena Diop in the lead. In both films, he perfectly depicts the right emotion required for his character.

Ivory Coast: Adanggaman (2000, Roger Gnoan M'Bala)
Adanggaman Ossei

Ossei (Ziable Honoré Goore Bi) is reluctant to marry as per his father’s wishes so leaves at night to go see his lover. While he is away, his village is attacked and everyone is taken as a slave, including his mother. Ossie manages to run away but decides to give himself up in order to save his mother. The story is based on true incidents related to slavery in 17th century when some African tribes captured other tribes and sold their prisoners as slaves overseas. The slaves that were kept alive and given enough food were ones that the captors felt could survive the long journey across the ocean. The brutal acts around slavery result in some powerful dialogues in the film such as

"The Whip will reign for a long time."
"Death lurks around us"
"Despair will shroud them, plunging them in horror."

Group C: 2 films

Morocco: Le Grand Voyage (2004, Ismaël Ferroukhi)

A father wants to make the pilgrimage to Mecca so he asks his son to drive all the way from France to Saudi Arabia. The son is initially not happy with his father’s decision but gradually gains a better understanding of his father as the journey progresses. The film manages to stand out from a traditional road feature by incorporating some engaging elements, such as the mysterious Eastern European woman the duo pick up. The woman’s mysterious disappearance and reappearance fits in perfectly as does the predictable actions of the Turkish man the son befriends. The journey ends up becoming a metaphor for life and each experience helps broaden the son’s mind. The end point of the journey at Mecca features the film’s strongest & most emotional moment.

Tunisia: Khorma (2002, Jilani Saadi)

Khorma (Mohamed Graïaa) is an easy going and friendly person but others around him often misunderstand him and look upon him suspiciously. In fact, others are just waiting for Khorma to slip up so that they can throw him into the fire. When circumstances result in Khorma making a mistake, the town waste no time in crucifying him. Yet, despite everything that happens to Khorma, he manages to shrug it off and dance freely.

Group D: 3 films

Botswana: The Gods Must be Crazy II (1989, Jamie Uys)

Growing up, I thought the concept of The Gods Must be Crazy was quite funny but unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the same formula in the sequel. This formula features multiple stories spliced together with an unseen narrator describing the actions of the local tribe. There is a cartoonish element to The Gods Must be Crazy II, highlighted by sped up frames, but the overall story is a weaker rehash of the first film.

Ghana: Life and Living It (2008, Shirley Frimpong Manso)

Shirley Frimpong Manso’s The Perfect Picture starts off with a marriage and looks at the quest of three friends to find a meaningful relationship in their lives. In Life and Living it, Manso explores at issues that come after marriage, such as affairs, conflicts, divorce and custody battle over a child.

Mali: Den Muso (1975, Souleymane Cissé)

Sekou, a young factory worker, wants to leave his job because after 5 years, he feels he has not made enough money. Even though his boss asks him to be patient, Sekou refuses to listen. Sekou turns out to be a womanizer and rapes Ténin, the boss’ daughter, and gets her pregnant. Ténin’s father disowns her because of the pregnancy as he believes she has brought shame to the family.

Den Muso (The Young Girl) is Souleymane Cissé’s first feature film and starts off with a thoughtful black and white sequence which shows men working hard at a construction site. The opening sequence contrasts with the rest of the film because Sekou wants to progress in his job but refuses to put in the hard work required. In this regard, Cissé depicts some aspects of a younger generation that demands things instantly without putting in the required effort. Also, the film sheds a light on treatment of women in society by its depiction of Ténin.

Top 4 films

None of the 10 films ran away with the spotlight but a few films had some worthy moments. In the end, the following is the final preference order:

1) Burkina Faso, Dreams of Dust (2006, Laurent Salgues)
2) Senegal, Madame Brouette (2002, Moussa Sene Absa)
3) Morocco, Le Grand Voyage (2004, Ismaël Ferroukhi)
4) Angola, The Hero (2004, Zézé Gamboa)

There was no overlap with the final 4 of the soccer tournament:

1) Zambia: Their remarkable 8-7 penalty shoot-out win over Ivory Coast was emotional given that the victory took place in the same city where members of the 1993 Zambian team were killed in an airplane crash.

2) Ivory Coast: They ended the tournament without conceding a single goal as the final ended 0-0. They won all their previous 5 games by a score of 1-0 (vs Sudan), 2-0 (vs Burkina Faso), 2-0 (vs Angola), 3-0 (vs Equatorial Guinea) and 1-0 (vs Mali).

3) Mali

4) Ghana