Saturday, March 19, 2022

The Films of Férid Boughedir

1. Death Disturbs / La mort trouble (1970, co-directed with Claude d’Anna)
2. Caméra d’Afrique (1983)
3. Caméra Arabe (1987)
4. Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces (1990)
5. A Summer in La Goulette (1996)
6. Villa Jasmin (2008)
7. Zizou and the Arab Spring / Sweet Smell of Spring (2016)

It was a pleasant surprise to recently come across Férid Boughedir’s 2016 film Zizou and the Arab Spring because almost two decades had passed since I last saw a film by him, A Summer in La Goulette. The release of Zizou means Férid Boughedir has now directed 6 features in his career, 7 when including 1970’s La mort trouble which he co-directed Claude d’Anna. The quality of Boughedir’s films more than makes up for the lack of quantity as each film is a delightful treasure.

Boughedir started his career as a film critic covering African cinema at the onset of the Carthage and Ouagadougou Film festivals in the late 1960s. In last year’s discussion with the African Film Festival (NY), Boughedir described how he was fortunate to witness the emergence of African cinema due to these film festivals and how that changed his conception of what African cinema was and could be.

Boughedir was inspired by the pioneers of African cinema and that led to him directing the vital documentary Caméra d’Afrique (1983) which looks at 20 years of African cinema. He followed that up with Caméra Arabe (1987), an insightful documentary that looks at the development of Arab cinema and its rise against a background of turbulent political pressures. Three years later, he made his fictional feature film debut with Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces (1990), the award-winning film that thrust Boughedir into the global film festival limelight. After another 3 year gap, the lovely A Summer in La Goulette arrived but it would be more than a decade until his next film, Villa Jasmin (2008). Zizou followed 8 years later.

This long passage of time in between his movies also changed the medium of how I viewed his films. I saw Caméra arabe and Halfaouine on VHS tapes which I rented from a video store. Next, I saw A Summer in La Goulette on cable TV via Showcase channel’s weekly foreign film series (note: it was also on Showcase that I used to watch Cameron Bailey introduce cutting edge foreign/indie films on a weekly basis). And now, I have seen Zizou and the Arab Spring via streaming (Kanopy). This progression of watching films via different mediums feels appropriate when discussing Boughedir as he has been there to document the rise of African films from the initial days of 35mm film to digital streaming.

Coming of Age

Férid Boughedir’s critical coverage of African and Arab cinema in print and via film are essential for providing a gateway to understanding how cinema came of age in these two cinematic regions. In the above African film festival interview, Boughedir mentioned that he felt he had to document African cinema and their initial masters/pioneers first before he could even consider making his own first film even though the script for Halfaouine was already written before he directed Caméra d’Afrique. The wait proved worthy because Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces (1990) proved to be a watershed moment for his career and by extension Tunisian cinema itself. Based on some elements of Boughedir’s life, Halfaouine is a beautiful coming-of-age story that respectfully depicts the arise of sexuality, curiosity in a young boy.

Halfaouine is shown from the perspective of the young boy and as a result, political or sexual topics are rendered with a child like innocence. In the film, young Noura (Selim Boughedir, the director’s son) has been going with his mother to the local Hamam since he was a little boy but the mother has not realized Noura is growing up fast and developing an interest in girls and women. Noura’s eyes are wide open because he is staring at the naked girls and women around him and new feelings arise in him. Of course, he doesn’t understand these feelings nor does he fully grasp the world around him. In his case, ignorance is indeed bliss. Noura doesn’t understand anything about the dictatorship, or why people are getting arrested, why some are disappearing, or the writing of harmless slogans on the wall could get someone arrested. Noura’s goal in life is to understand the female species and to that end, he accomplishes his goal. 

After depicting the sexual awakening of a young boy, it appears natural that Boughedir’s next feature A Summer in La Goulette tackles the coming of age of teenage girls, aching to fall in love or having their first kiss and more. A Summer in La Goulette is bold, witty and funny. Again, Boughedir keeps political commentary on the fringes (the charged atmosphere leading to the 1967 war) while focusing on the quest of three teenage girls. The girls and their families all live in close quarters to each other and are mutual friends despite belonging to different religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism). The film smartly shows that no matter what religion the girls follow, their fathers are equally stressed and worried about their daughters; the fathers want to protect their daughters from the eyes of the local boys at all costs but they don’t realize that it is their daughters who are the ones eyeing boys with equal passion and lust in the first place.
Boughedir’s smart satirical style and coming-of-age elements that worked beautifully in Halfaouine and A Summer in La Goulette shine through in Zizou and the Arab Spring. Even though the main character Zizou (Zied Ayadi) is an adult, he has this child like innocence about him. This is because Zizou is from the village so he lacks any knowledge about the corrupt, crime laden city life and is oblivious that he is being lied to, or he is going to get robbed and as a result, he doesn’t even know which political side he finds himself on. At different points in the film, Zizou helps the president’s henchmen or the revolutionaries wanting to take the government down. He easily trusts people even though there are glaring warning signs. Through a series of events, Zizou finds himself working repairing satellite dishes. This allows him to be present on the roofs of people’s houses. As a result, one of the character addresses him as the king  of the terraces, which is a tribute to Halfaouine. In fact, one can easily believe that the Noura from Halfaouine would exactly be like Zizou. Another nod towards Boughedir’s film comes when characters are seen discussing a plan to visit La Goulette.

The political commentary that was on the fringes of Halfaouine and A Summer in La Goulette certain takes center stage in Zizou. In those earlier films, the political revolution and six-day war references are heard on the radio or via dialogues but in Zizou, the main character accidentally becomes the poster boy for the Tunisian revolution and in turn for the Arab Spring. There is plenty of charm and romance in the film and the comedic style is clearly a Boughedir signature. The satire and comedy is Zizou is not like the deadpan style of Aki Kaurismäki or Jim Jarmusch because in the film, the joke is only on Zizou. The other characters are clearly duping him and the audience is also in the know. It is a film that deserves a happy ending and thankfully Boughedir doesn’t disappoint.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Top African Films of All Time

The challenge in making any top films list from a country or region is accessibility to quality works from that specific country/region. The problem of accessibility to quality African films has certainly gotten better over the last two decades but it is still not enough. Many African films (contemporary and classics alike) are out of reach due to lack of proper distribution or a proper quality transfer with adequate English subtitles. Still, this is my attempt at highlighting some of the remarkable African films I have seen over the last few decades.

Note: almost all the films in this list are co-productions but I had to leave out some co-productions due to the source of main production funding. For example, Rungano Nyoni’s stunning I Am Not a Witch would have made this top 10 but it was UK’s entry to the Oscars so it couldn't be included. Jessica Beshir’s hypnotic Faya Dayi is an American-Ethiopian co-production but it appears to be ineligible for inclusion and the same goes for Abou Leila, a personal favourite. The Battle of Algiers is included in my Italian films list.

Top 10 African Films of All Time

1. Touki Bouki (1973, Senegal, Djibril Diop Mambéty)

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s landmark film Touki Bouki gives a good slice into an emerging African nation complete with street shots dripping with poverty, heated arguments at the market, youths looking for jobs and trouble, a young couple dreaming of a better future, corruption and payback lurking around the corner with a club in hand and unflinching slaughter shots. The relaxed lingering shots, mixed with carefully spliced scenes give this movie a surreal feel. In addition, plenty of symbolism in the movie with a cow's capture and slaughter being the most commonly used symbol to echo the mental and physical entrapment of the citizens. An incredible film that was ahead of its time.

2. Soleil Ô (1967, Mauritania/France, Med Hondo)

At its core, Timbuktu is about the centuries old problem of people from one nation/culture using violence/force to impose their ways onto another culture. As the film shows, violent exchanges often results in victims not getting justice and creates a perpetual circle of violent reactions to avenge the violent act. As a result, the film has an an air of inevitability around it.

Even though the film rejects any notion of a happy ending, Sissako has infused his film with plenty of dark satire which results in a few comical scenarios, yet the implications are nothing to laugh at. For example, in one scene, the militants want the local women to cover every part of their body, including wearing gloves on their hands. Yet, as one fish seller points out, she cannot handle the fish if she is wearing gloves. Her protests draw attention to the absurdity of the situation yet similar situations happen everyday where people are killed for not listening to the absurd demands of their invaders. Another such absurd moment happens when the militants forbid the local boys from playing soccer. This results in one of the most beautiful scenes in the film where the kids play soccer without a ball. The kids move around pretending they are passing an invisible ball or taking a shot at goal. This scene is one of the most powerful political protests ever filmed in cinema.

4. Black Girl (1966, Senegal/France, Ousmane Sembene)

Ousmane Sembene’s sharp debut feature is just over an hour long but it packs a punch. The film manages to draw a line between colonialism and post-colonial life and the associated discrimination, racism, prejudice that goes along with it.

5. Moolaade (2004, Senegal co-production, Ousmane Sembene)

Ousmane Sembene's brilliant Moolaade highlights oppression of women by depicting a village’s old practice of female circumcision. Problems arise when a local woman supports the decision of a handful of girls to avoid the ritual. Her defiance leads to a mini revolution which shakes the patriarchal society.

In order to oppress the villagers and regain control, the elders decide that radios should be banned because they are influencing the minds of the people and exposing the villagers to dangerous foreign ideas. So an order is issued to collect all the village radios and burn them. This scene echoes the burning of books depicted in Fahrenheit 411.

6. Atlantics (2019, Senegal/France/Belgium, Mati Diop)

A haunting film that adds a new dimension to examine the reason why people undertake risky journeys across treacherous waters and the emotional impact on those who are left behind.

7. Félicité (2017, Senegal co-production, Alain Gomis)

Alain Gomis’ lovely film gives a pulsating tour of the Congolese capital Kinshasa complete with lively sights and electric sounds. We see the extremes in the city from the poor who are trying to make ends meet to the wealthy. The film is powered by an incredible performance by Véro Tshanda Beya who plays the titular character Félicité. Music is a core part of the film and there are scenes which feature live performances by the Kinshasa Symphonic Orchestra which lends a poetic feel to some of the sequences.

8. This is Not a Burial, it's a Resurrection (2019, Lesotho/South Africa/Italy, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese)

Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese's film is a cinematic wonder, both in form and content. Visually, the film evokes Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela while the topic of a dam and destruction of a village in the name of progress recalls Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life. However, Lemohang’s film has its own unique tone and rhythm enhanced by the setting of the film in landlocked Lesotho.

9. Tilaï / The Law (1990, Burkina Faso co-production, Idrissa Ouedraogo)

The air of inevitability that hovers over Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Tilaï is similar to that in Sissako’s Timbuktu. The reason for the similarity is due to human’s need to maintain their honour and traditions. The film’s alternate title ‘A Question of Honour’ emphasizes that as well. The need to maintain this honour comes at all costs and including killing of family as shown in the film or the taking of one’s life.

10. Yeelen (1987, Mali co-production, Souleymane Cissé)
Souleymane Cissé's Yeelen beautifully depicts an ancient Malian myth about a battle between father and son (Nianankoro). Set in the 13th century Mali Empire, Nianankoro must tackle an entire cult group along with his wizard father while trying to restore his family name. The folk story is peppered with elements of magic and witchcraft in depicting the family battle. Because Nianankoro holds the power of magic, he is equally feared and respected.
Top 10 by Country:

Senegal: 5
Mauritania: 2
Burkina Faso: 1

Lesotho: 1
Mali: 1

Safe to say, Senegal easily wins this.

Honourable mentions (alphabetical order):

Abouna (2002, Chad co-production, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)
Adanggaman (2000, Ivory Coast, Roger Gnoan M’Bala)
Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul (2005, Tunisia co-production, Nacir Kemir)
Cairo Station (1958, Egypt, Youssef Chahine)
Hyenas (1992, Senegal, Djibril Diop Mambéty)
Life on Earth (1998, Mali/Mauritania/France, Abderrahmane Sissako)
Son of Man (2006, South Africa, Mark Dornford-May)
A Summer in La Goulette (1996, Tunisia co-production, Férid Boughedir)
Viva Riva! (2010, The Democratic Republic of Congo co-production, Djo Munga)
Waiting for Happiness (2002, Mauritania/France, Abderrahmane Sissako)

Top 20 by Country:

Senegal: 6
Mauritania: 4
Tunisia: 2
Burkina Faso: 1
Chad: 1
Democratic Republic of Congo: 1
Egypt: 1
Ivory Coast: 1
Lesotho: 1 
Mali: 1 
South Africa: 1

Senegal holds on for most titles per country. Mauritania finishes close courtesy of 3 titles by Abderrahmane Sissako.

Sunday, March 06, 2022

Top Indian Films of All Time

A ‘Top/Best Indian Films of all time” list is a very tough order for me due to the sheer quantity of quality titles to choose from. This is because the selection of titles consist of a diverse set of criteria, ranging from multiple languages (such as Bengali, Hindi, Tamil to name a few) to production types (Bollywood, Parallel Cinema) to various regional industries. It is extremely hard to leave out many worthy films from directors I cherish.

Top 20 Indian titles ranked roughly in order of preference:

1. Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959, Satyajit Ray)
2. Uski Roti (Our Daily Bread, 1970, Mani Kaul)
3. Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother, 1986, John Abraham)
4. Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray)
5. Pyaasa (1957, Guru Dutt)
6. Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960, Ritwik Ghatak)
7. Sholay (1975, Ramesh Sippy)
8. Ankur (1974, Shyam Benegal)
9. Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963, Satyajit Ray)
10. Om Dar-B-Dar (1988, Kamal Swaroop)
11. Black Friday (2004, Anurag Kashyap)
12. Ek Din Pratidin (And Quiet Rolls the Dawn, 1979, Mrinal Sen)
13. Awaara (The Vagabond, 1951, Raj Kapoor)
14. Titas Ekti Nodir Naam (A River Called Titas, 1973, Ritwik Ghatak)
15. Kaagaz ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959, Guru Dutt)
16. Garm Hava (Hot Winds, 1974, M.S. Sathyu)
17. Ek Ghar (Mane, 1991, Girish Kasaravalli)
18. Dharavi (1992, Sudhir Mishra)

19. Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002, Aparna Sen)
20. Party (1984, Govind Nihalani)

It wasn't my intention to split the titles across the decades but this is what the top 20 looks as per the decades:

1950s: 5
1960s: 2
1970s: 6
1980s: 3
1990s: 2
2000s: 2

Seeing the most number of titles from the 1970s isn't a surprise as that decade marked the growth of Parallel Cinema in Hindi language films and ushered in many auteurs such as Mani Kaul. In addition, the 1970s marked the fictional film debut of Shyam Benegal.

10 Honourable mentions (in alphabetical order):

Many of these films were comfortably placed in the top 20 but after multiple iterations of making the list, they ended up getting knocked out.

Anand (1971, Hrishikesh Mukherjee)
Aparajito (1956, Satyajit Ray)
Charulata (1964, Satyajit Ray)
Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction, 2015, Gurvinder Singh)
Chhoti Se Baat (1976, Basu Chatterjee)
Elippathayam (Rat-Trap, 1982, Adoor Gopalakrishnan)
The Great Indian Kitchen (2021, Jeo Baby)
Maachis (Matchsticks, 1996, Gulzar)
Nayakan (1987, Mani Ratnam)
A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021, Payal Kapadia)

Update to Decades list after top 30:
1950s: 6
1960s: 3
1970s: 8
1980s: 5
1990s: 3
2000s: 2
2010s: 1
2020s: 2