Posts Tagged ‘African Cinema’

A work of consummate mastery, Idrissa Ouédraogo’s Tilaï (1990) is a film so quietly assured that it only gradually dawned on me just how purposeful and intelligent Ouédraogo’s direction really is. Nearly every shot has its own arc, and although the film contains images of astonishing beauty, no shot is only beautiful as Ouédraogo’s staging and mobile framing are always in the service of the narrative, which has the starkness and simplicity of myth. In the opening sequence, Saga (Rasmané Ouédraogo) returns to his village after several years of wandering to discover that his father has taken his sweetheart, Nogma (Ina Cissé), as a second wife even though he had promised her to Saga. To make matters more complicated, Nogma is still in love with Saga, and when the community learns of their adulterous relationship, it falls to Saga’s brother, Kougri (Assane Ouédraogo), to carry out the death sentence against him. Despite some hints in the mise en scène that the story takes place after the arrival of the European colonizers (Saga, for instance, carries a rifle that ultimately leads to his downfall), we neither see nor hear of any white people and the characters, living in clay houses surrounded by vast expanses of nature, act according to ancient customs handed down from time immemorial, giving the film a timeless, mythic quality that is counterpointed by Abdullah Ibrahim’s anachronistic score, performed by a jazz trio, which suggests a detached, modern perspective on the characters. Clocking in at a lean 78 minutes and dispensing entirely with the sort of superfluous technical wankery that directors like Darren Aronofsky and Alejandro González Iñaríttu have built their reputations on, Tilaï is so focused and economical that it makes you realize just how much unnecessary bullshit there is in most other films.


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Ousmane Sembène’s Xala (1975) takes a situation that might have been the inspiration for a comedy and then, as if out of sheer perversity, carefully sidesteps nearly every opportunity to exploit it for laughs, instead becoming increasingly enigmatic and disquieting as it proceeds. Based on Sembène’s own 1973 novel (which, after seeing the film, I very much want to read), it tells the story of a wealthy importer, El Hadji (Thierno Leye), whose life begins to unravel when he is cursed with impotence on the day of his third polygamous marriage. Frankly allegorical, the film makes few concessions to psychological realism. The characters are all generic types without much shading who behave according to their social position; El Hadji, for instance, takes a third wife not because he is in love or even because he is particularly lecherous but to signify wealth and status, and it is unclear what his new bride thinks about marrying a man old enough to be her father—or indeed if she thinks about it at all. Certainly the film does not attempt to make El Hadji at all sympathetic, but in the film’s final scenes, when the plot takes a turn towards the gothic, his punishment is so extreme that it is hard to take any pleasure in seeing him get his comeuppance. Nor, for that matter, are the other characters—with the sole exception of El Hadji’s university-educated daughter, Rama (Miriam Niang), who disapproves of polygamy and insists on speaking Wolof rather than French—much better. When the Dakar Chamber of Commerce excommunicates El Hadji for embezzlement, he points out that his accusers (who also take bribes from European businessmen) are just as corrupt as he is. Perhaps only a black African filmmaker could make such a scathing indictment of post-colonial Senegalese society.

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My report on the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Offscreen. Thanks once again to the editor, Donato Totaro, for agreeing to run it.

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Although causality is central to the vast majority of narrative films, there are other ways of telling a story. In Abderrahmane Sissako’s Heremakono (2002), the plot—if it can be called that—consists of a series of self-contained vignettes which are unified by the setting and a loose time scheme. (With the exception of a single flashback, the action is confined to a period of three weeks in a coastal village in Mauritania.) As a result of its relaxed narrative structure, and the often elliptical narration, the movie keeps the viewer focussed on what’s happening in the present rather than where the story is headed or where it’s been.

I don’t mean to imply, however, that the film is shapeless or undisciplined. The story can be broken down into two large-scale movements, each taking place over three days and two nights with an ellipsis of two weeks in between. (The first part is roughly forty minutes long, while the second runs about fifty minutes.) In addition to this palindromic structure, the movie’s numerous rhyme effects create a sense of symmetry between the two parts. To list only a few examples: At the beginning of the film, a westernized teenager, Abdallah, travels across the border from Mali to visit his mother in Nouadhibou, and in the end, Makan, a Malian living in Mauritania, takes the same taxi in the opposite direction. In one scene, Khatra (an orphan working as an apprentice to an ancient electrician) tries to teach Abdallah—who no longer speaks Hassaniya—some basic vocabulary, but when his mother introduces him to some local girls, he confuses the word for “nose” with the word for “mouth.” Early on, a hardware salesman promises to give Khatra his work clothes when the boy is old enough to wear them, and late in the movie, Khatra trades in his flowing traditional garments for a snug jumpsuit. Each scene has its place within the overall design, yet because causal relationships are so loose, on a moment-to-moment basis, the film has an uncommon immediacy.

Consider the sequence in which Abdallah goes to the hospital for a checkup. In a normal movie, this scene would have far-reaching consequences (the doctor could find something seriously wrong with him, or he might meet a cute girl in the waiting room), but here what’s important is how the drab colours and slow rhythms of the mise en scène, along with the subdued sound mix (the sequence contains no music and little dialogue), work together to create a mood. And since the scene is self-contained in terms of plot, the film can do without the exposition that would be obligatory in a more classical film. We’re never told why Abdallah has to go to the hospital, or for that matter, why he was in Mali or how long he was there. Similarly, not only are we not told why Makan’s friend Mickaël decides to emigrate to Europe, but when his carcass drifts ashore two weeks after his departure, we never find out what happened to him. The characters seem only to exist in the present moment.

Two important exceptions are the electrician, Maata, who in one scene tells Khatra a story about when he was a fisherman, and Nana, who tells Abdallah about a trip she made to Europe to see her ex-lover, Vincent, which is shown in flashback. On the soundtrack, we hear Nana’s voice as she tells her story, but her words don’t quite sync up with the images. Over a shot of Nana smoking silently on a hotel bed, we hear her say, “I told him our little girl was struck by a high fever. She didn’t make it through.” A few seconds later, as a white hand reaches into the frame to take a drag of her cigarette, Nana continues, “He said, ‘Why did you come?'” Then after another pause, “He took me to a hotel. He paid for a week.” Rather than the images illustrating Nana’s story, the film shows Vincent getting dressed after taking her to a cheap hotel to have sex—an event that’s not directly alluded to in the voice-over and which takes place after Nana informs him of the death of their daughter—in order to emphasize his callousness. (The movie purposefully doesn’t show us his face.) Unlike the rest of the film, which is single-mindedly focussed on the present moment, here the voice-over situates the images in terms of what led up to this point.

Heremakono is the kind of movie where people sometimes complain that “nothing happens.” (In a review for the website Combustible Celluloid, Jeffrey M. Anderson dismissed the film as “a moving picture that does not move.”) And while it’s easy to see why some one would think that, it’s not precisely accurate. The movie is full of events, although they don’t follow one another in an inexorable sequence of causes and effects. It’s therefore impossible to distinguish between major and minor events (Abdallah’s routine checkup is made to seem just as important as the discovery of Mickaël’s corpse), or say if the plot is moving slowly or quickly. While it’s obviously not an action movie, the film never struck me as being unduly protracted either. As much as it departs from the norms of classical narrative filmmaking, the movie never feels self-conscious or arbitrary. Each shot is unaffected, essential, and right.

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