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April 29, 2007

The Stilts, 1984

stilts.gifA somber, despondent, middle-aged university professor and respected playwright named Ángel (Fernando Fernán Gómez) returns to a large, empty country cottage that has been covered and secured for the season, perhaps the first time that he has returned since the untimely death of his wife and children. Restless in his sleep and haunted by the memories of his lost family, Ángel impulsive decides to burn his manuscripts (whose authorship undoubtedly contributed to his estrangement from his family, even in life) - a figurative act of self-erasure that soon escalates to a suicide attempt. Locking himself in the propane tank storage room at the base of the house and opening the valves of all the cylinders, Ángel prepares to light the fatal match as the room fills with gas when he is caught in the act by his new neighbor, a school teacher named Teresa (Laura del Sol) who has coincidentally stopped by to introduce herself and borrow a bottle of wine. Inviting him over to meet her husband, Alberto (Antonio Banderas), an artist and aspiring actor from a traveling performance art troupe called The Stilts (named after their idiosyncratic use of prop stilts in their performances) who stage commissioned, harlequin, experimental street plays to entertain the public, Ángel is immediately captivated by the genial and attentive Teresa, drawn together by the shared intimacy of her respectful silence over his suicide attempt, and Antonio's sincere entreaties to author a script for the troupe for an upcoming children's engagement at a local park. Gradually emerging from his loneliness by a renewed sense of purpose, and deeply touched by their struggling, but seemingly idyllic, bohemian existence, Ángel begins to insinuate himself into the couple's life in an attempt to win Teresa's heart, a seemingly impossible, quixotic quest that drives him further into the darkness of his despair. Revisiting the themes of emotional displacement and projected desire of his earlier films, Peppermint Frappé and Carmen, and evoking the generational disconnection and rootlessness of Deprisa, Deprisa, The Stilts is a dreamlike and surreal, yet pensive, articulate, and understatedly resonant portrait of loss, grief, and healing. Juxtaposing the stilt performers' whimsical, absurdist fantasies with the moribund immediacy of Ángel's melancholy and isolation, the film becomes a lucid parable for the human imperative to reconnect with its own collective soul in the wake of profound tragedy - a metaphoric shedding of aloof and distancing escapist stilts that inevitably becomes a symbol for Ángel's own figurative return to the process of life on earth - a spiritual re-engagement with the travails and rapture of an imperfect, but redemptive but existence.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 29, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Carlos Saura Retrospective

Carmen, 1983

carmen.gifIn an early episode in Carmen, Carlos Saura's second dance film with renowned flamenco artist Antonio Gades (in what would inevitably prove to be the second film of their collaborative Flamenco trilogy), a group of musicians rehearse at a large, open dance studio within earshot of the choreographer, Antonio (Gades) as he struggles to find the proper tempo suitable to adapting the Seguedilla from Bizet's opera for a flamenco performance. Reinterpreting the operatic work from a waltzy, 3/4 timed vocal piece to a sprightly, improvisational bulería, the musicians perform their rendition to the receptive Antonio who, along with his studio partner - and perhaps, erstwhile paramour - Cristina (Cristina Hoyos), begin to re-envision Carmen, not as a French composer's projection of the fiery gypsy seductress - and more broadly, a foreigner's stereotypical notions of Spanish culture - but rather, as an indigenous adaptation of Prosper Mérimée's novel, disconnected from the now iconic flourishes of Bizet's opera. But the process of casting Carmen invariably proves to be a more difficult task. Unable to find his envisioned Carmen from their stock company of highly talented dancers, and having implicitly rejected the idea of lead bailaora Cristina for the role in favor of casting a younger, more intriguingly mercurial performer, Antonio decides to broaden his search by visiting local dance schools, unconsciously setting his sights on an inscrutable student coincidentally named Carmen (Laura del Sol) after making an unconscious impression on him by arriving late to a castanet class. From the onset, Antonio's personal selection of the undisciplined Carmen seems ill conceived. Unable to properly follow Cristina's instruction to articulate gestures and project the necessary intensity demanded by the challenging choreography, Carmen initially seems relegated to return to the mediocre performances that have defined her earlier career as a flamenco side show dancer at a local restaurant that caters to a predominantly tourist clientele. However, as Antonio becomes increasingly consumed with the idea of molding Carmen into both the image of his envisioned, tragic heroine and ideal romantic interest, truth and fiction begin to blur in the intoxicating haze of passion, possession, jealousy, and betrayal. Anticipating the interwoven Pirandellian narratives of Abbas Kiarostami's Koker trilogy (especially the young couple of Through the Olive Trees), Carmen is also an insightful and provocative exposition on the interpenetration between reality and performance. However, in contrast to the theme of elevated humanity through the performance of the quotidian that is inherent in Kiarostami's trilogy, Saura's perspective is integrally rooted to a cultural interrogation on the underlying nature - and perception - of Spanish identity. At the heart of the discourse is Antonio's deliberate attempt to divest the story of Carmen from the cultural caricatures inherent in Bizet's opera (a rejection that is crystallized in the troupe's parodic performance using the opera as a soundtrack for Antonio's birthday party), and consequently, re-infuse the authenticity of native performance. It is interesting to note that through Antonio's deliberate dismantling of cultural myth, Saura incisively defines his character as an implicit embodiment (or more precisely, a de facto authority) of Spanish cultural authenticity. Juxtaposed against his increasing obsession towards his protégée through the unifying narrative of Mérimée's tragic tale, Antonio's integral role is invariably - and paradoxically - both underscored and subverted by his increasingly self-destructive acts of objectification and machismo, and trenchantly exposes the unconscious, dark side of Spanish identity as well.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 29, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Carlos Saura Retrospective

April 25, 2007

Deprisa, Deprisa, 1981

deprisa_deprisa.gifInasmuch as Hou Hsiao Hsien's Goodbye South Goodbye, Nagisa Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth, and Theo Angelopoulos' The Beekeeper capture the rootlessness of a morally stunted, lost generation that has come of age at a time of profound political and cultural transformation, the reckless, thrill-seeking, young anti-heroes of Carlos Saura's Deprisa, Deprisa also indirectly bear the scars of a life lived in the periphery - paradoxically insulated from the tyranny of institutional rule, but also divorced from the inured resilience engendered by its imposed sense of order. The film opens to the metaphoric image of imposed separation: the perpetration of a car theft by a seemingly experienced hotwirer Meca (Jesús Arias) and designated lookout Pablo (José Antonio Valdelomar) as the two, caught in the act by the owner, roll up the windows and lock the doors to prevent intrusion. Helplessly trapped inside the troublesome vehicle by a mob that has now closed in around them, the pair forces a clear path through the crowd by brandishing a gun, before inevitably making their escape into the street. But the stolen car only proves to be the first step in a more elaborate scheme. Spotting an attractive waitress named Ángela (Berta Socuéllamos) at a local cafeteria, Pablo is immediately captivated by the receptive (and equally restless) young woman, who soon becomes his lover and subsequently, inducts her into their gang after an afternoon of makeshift target shooting (and a reluctant agreement from a third accomplice, Sebas (José María Hervás Roldán) who questions a woman's capacity for ruthlessness). Alternately spending their idle time at discotheques and video arcades, acting on their impulsive whims, and succumbing to the intoxication of drug use, the emboldened quartet begins to stage an ever-escalating series of hold-ups throughout the city, with increasingly lucrative, and inevitably tragic results. Revisiting the recurring themes of machismo and displaced aggression that pervade Saura's oeuvre (and first introduced in his groundbreaking allegory, The Hunt) into a provocative exposition on the legacy of disenfranchisement, violence, and arrested development (a theme that also pervades Cría Cuevos) in contemporary, post-Franco Spain, Deprisa, Deprisa is also a raw and sobering portrait of a generation at an existential crossroads, struggling to find mooring and direction in an uncertain climate of transformative, social revolution, as the nation emerged from the repression of fascism towards the liberalization of democracy. Inevitably, it is this dichotomy that is reflected in the recurring image of passing trains that bisect the horizon - a perennial view from the public housing suburb outside the city where Pablo and Ángela live - a visual bifurcation that illustrates, not only their socioeconomic marginality, but also exposes their irreparable moral fissure.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 25, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Carlos Saura Retrospective

April 23, 2007

Blood Wedding, 1981

blood_wedding.gifIn a sense, Carlos Saura's first foray into filming classical dance, Blood Wedding, may be seen, not as a stark departure from the immediacy of his narrative films, but rather, as an oblique return to form towards the social interrogations implicit in his earlier work on the fundamental question of Spanish identity - a particularly timely and relevant re-assessment in the aftermath of a contemporary history marked by institutional repression, creative censorship, and historical revisionism. It is within this framework that the selected adaptation of the seminal "rural trilogy" play by Spanish playwright, Federico García Lorca - a writer who was executed by Falangists in the early days of the Civil War and whose work was generally banned throughout Franco's regime - seems particularly suited to this post Franco-era cultural introspection in its dark and tragic tale of passion, betrayal, and revenge. Ushering the beginning of Saura's collaborative work with internationally renowned Flamenco dancer and choreographer Antonio Gades, the film eschews the theatricality and polish of a fully staged performance and instead distills the dance to its elemental art form: the repetition, the preparation, the warm-up, and finally, the uninterrupted dress rehearsal. This sense of quotidian grace is also intimated in an early, seemingly anecdotal episode of the dancers preparing backstage, as Gades describes in self-deprecating manner his youthful aimlessless in moving from one meaningless job to another until a friend suggested that he take up dance - a profoundly life-altering advice that, as he humorously realized in hindsight, had actually been a simple goading by his friend to get into the lucrative profession of cabaret dancing. It is instinctual sense of chance, coincidence, and inscrutable - and inescapable - destiny that inevitably lies at the core of Gades and Saura's adaptation as well - a universal, humanist tale of star-crossed love destroyed by a culture founded on rigid traditions, repression of free will, male aggression, and ritualized violence.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 23, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Carlos Saura Retrospective

April 22, 2007

Mama Turns 100 Years Old, 1979

mama_100.gifReturning to the dysfunctional family dynamic and generational saga of Anna and the Wolves in its psychological exposition into the root of ingrained human cruelty and repression, Mama Turns 100 Years Old is a wry, eccentric, and provocative, if underformed satire on the latent trauma and moral repercussions of emotional subjugation, manipulation, and corruption. On the eve of the indomitable family matriarch, Mama's (Rafaela Aparicio) centenary, former domestic servant Ana (Geraldine Chaplin), now the happily settled wife of a devoted, bohemian husband named Antonio (Norman Briski), has received a personal invitation from Mama herself to stay as a guest in the secluded family estate and celebrate the festivities - an unexpected request that, as Mama subsequently reveals, stems from the inescapable conviction that her family, goaded in part by her conniving daughter-in-law, Luchi (Charo Soriano) and enabled by her dotty, gullible son, Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez), has been underhandedly plotting to kill her before she reaches the all-important milestone. However, as Ana and Antonio alternately settle into their awkward roles as accommodating guests of absurd, idiosyncratic rituals and bemused observers of a deeply rended (if superficially intact) familial intimacy, the couple, too, inevitably becomes caught up in the corrosive atmosphere of petty infighting, superficial civility, aimless distraction, nebulous alliances, and emotional deception (a figurative entrapment that is visually encapsulated in Anna accidentally stepping into a rabbit trap within the estate grounds). As in Anna and the Wolves, Saura seamlessly interweaves oneiric images (including the addition of excerpts from the preceding film) and elements of magical realism to illustrate the integral correlation between psychological trauma and physical (and behavioral) manifestation. Concluding with the truncated shot of Mama figuratively casting out the scheming relatives from her immediate circle, the surreal parting image becomes that, not of banishment from paradise, but a reluctant liberation from the performance of a grotesque, dehumanizing charade.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 22, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Carlos Saura Retrospective

Elisa, My Love, 1977

elisa_my_love.gifMarking Carlos Saura's first film following the death of Franco in 1975 as Spain emerged from the shadows of fascism towards democracy, Elisa, My Love also represents Saura's creative transition from allusively political to integrally personal filmmaking, resulting in one of his most intimate, captivating, emotionally lucid, and profoundly introspective works on loneliness, aging, passion, reconciliation, and legacy. The film opens to a curiously apparent disjunction: a male narrator recounts an impulsive decision to embark on a haphazardly arranged trip organized by the family from Madrid to the country upon receiving word of their estranged father's deteriorating health and compromised recuperation after a recently undergone surgery - a reluctant journey to a distant parent that had only been made palatable by the idea of spending time away from home, and providing a convenient distraction from ongoing marital troubles with a (presumably male) spouse named Antonio. In hindsight, the assignment of the masculine voice - later illustrated to be the father's, a writer and school teacher named Luis (Fernando Rey) - for what is subsequently revealed to be the unexpressed sentiments of his vulnerable and emotionally fragile daughter, Elisa (Geraldine Chaplin) proves to be an incisive trompe l'oeil (or rather, trompe l'oreille) that prefigures the profound, almost instinctual connection between absent father and lost child. Having left his wife (who, uncoincidentally, bears striking physical resemblance to the now adult Elisa) and the family home when Elisa was still a child (Ana Torrent), Luis has broken from his past - not to embark on a new adventure or in search of something better - but to escape its emotional burden, retiring to the country to lead a humble life of solitude writing his autofictional stories from a rented cabin. Encountering a deeply introspective, unfinished, diaristic manuscript among the work-in-progress papers on her father's desk, Elisa is immediately drawn to her father's pensive isolation, and accepts his invitation to spend a few days at the cabin where gradually, past and present, reality and imagination, dream and anxiety converge to give form to Elisa's ephemeral, unarticulated despair over her parents' traumatic separation and her own failing marriage. Saura's perceptive juxtaposition of the dark and cramped cabin against the vast, open fields of the rural landscape (a contrasted visual framing that is also underscored in the bookending long shot of the family automobile traversing the unpaved road that leads to the cabin) proves especially suited to the film's alternating realms of physical and psychological realities - a paradoxical metaphor that encapsulates Elisa's emotional and existential limbo (and perhaps, more broadly, an indirect allusion to the state of post-Franco Spain itself) between captivity and liberation, terminality and perpetuity, death and transfiguration.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 22, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Carlos Saura Retrospective

April 21, 2007

The Garden of Delights, 1970

garden_delights.gifIn The Garden of Delights, Carlos Saura infuses his now familiar, archetypal elements of financial crisis, physical disability, infirmity, and game hunting that were introduced in his seminal film, The Hunt as subversive, iconic symbols for the rigidity of Francoist corrupted ideology, with a healthy dose of blunt, tongue in cheek - and pointedly allegorical - Buñuelian absurdity to create a perversely wry, acerbic, and trenchant indictment of the bourgeoisie, whose unwavering support of General Franco enabled his ascension to (and retention of) power in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. The prefiguring title sequence depicting a derelict, primitive, experimental workshop set to curious, otherworldly sound of a variable shortwave, analog noise provides an idiosyncratically appropriate introduction to the film's surreal fusion of reality, dreams, interpreted recreation, and fleeting memory, creating an atmosphere of deliberate construction that is subsequently reinforced in the establishing sequence of a re-enacted childhood trauma involving a parental scolding that escalates to a trapped encounter with a large, rambunctious pig (note the comical sighting of the farm animal being scuttled through the kitchen that evokes the thwarted, unspecified "entertainment" of Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel). At the heart of the privileged Cano family's cruel and bluntly coercive elaborate staging and grotesque charade is a crude attempt at immersive psychotherapy designed to mentally rehabilitate (or at least shock) the partially paralyzed, amnesic, recovering accident victim and sole family bread winner, Antonio (José Luis López Vázquez), whose faltering memory holds the key, not only to the secreted family fortune, but to his company's - and in turn, his family's - financial viability as well. Recreating transformative encounters and indelible events as a means of re-introducing Antonio to the essential elements of his life - or rather, the family's superficial perception of his life - in what Antonio's father, Don Pedro (Francisco Pierrá) earlier describes as the importance of reinforcing its symbols, what is invariably revealed is the pervasive dysfunction, hypocrisy, and greed inherent in Antonio's empty, coddled, and self-absorbed life. As in The Hunt, Saura obliquely equates the specter of Francoism with social degradation through allegorical contamination, this time, through its most formidable ally: the church. Juxtaposing Antonio's first communion with the advent of the Spanish Revolution (note the incisive cameo of franquista hero, Alfredo Mayo, who played the role of Paco in The Hunt), the priest's sermon, "From a tree with diseased roots, what fruit can we expect?" becomes, not a cautionary tale for the young communicant, but a corrupted prophesy that exposes the church's own complicity and moral paralysis in the institution of Franco's repressive regime.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 21, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Carlos Saura Retrospective

April 20, 2007

The Hunt, 1966

hunt.gifAnticipating Theo Angelopoulos' The Hunters in its allegorical dissection of a dysfunctional, polarized, contemporary society engendered by the incestuous and repressive, right-wing regime, Carlos Saura's taut and subversive magnum opus, The Hunt is a harrowing and potent exposition into the pervasive moral corruption that has surfaced under a corrosive combination of Franco-era class entrenchment and bourgeois entitlement, and a collective consciousness deeply ingrained by an endemic culture of machismo and violence. A seemingly unassuming hunting excursion on a sweltering, summer day that has been arranged by middle-aged aristocrat, Don José (Ismael Merlo) sets the stage for Saura's fiercely uncompromising indictment of the country's inexorable path towards self-destruction in the wake of its own rigid and inhumane ideology. Hosting a rabbit hunt for his longtime (if largely estranged) friends, the recently divorced Luis (José María Prada) and self-made businessman, Paco (Alfredo Mayo) - former Nationalist soldiers who, coincidentally, once fought the Loyalists during the Civil War in the same parched and desolate terrain that is now their hunting grounds - José's nebulous motivation for arranging such an idyllic outing is intimated through vague, private conversations between business partners José and Luis that allude to their mutual interest in gaining Paco's favor, as well as through conversations between the skeptical Paco and his young brother-in-law and protégé, Enrique (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) who immediately suspect an ulterior, financial motive behind their host's unexpected, generous invitation. Chronicling the quartet's idyllic summer outing as the exhilaration of the free range morning hunt invariably gives way to the restlessness of idle waiting, alcohol consumption, exploration, and target practice as José's dutiful games keeper, Juan (Fernando Sánchez Polack) prepares his pet ferret to enter a rabbit's lair for another round of hunting, Saura's austere and clinical gaze - a visual aesthetic that is also reinforced in the film's high contrast black and white photography - inevitably transforms from the role of social observer to behaviorist as the hunters' own cultivated habits of desperate, economic (and social) self-preservation are refracted through the scampering rabbits' own traumatized (and often, fatally predictable), instinctual behaviors for survival against the confused brutality of the hunt. The implicit correlation between the hunters and the hunted - an integral sameness that alludes to the superficiality of an artificially imposed hierarchical order - is also manifested through Paco's pathological aversion towards the crippled Juan (who may have sustained the injury by stepping into one of the many rabbit traps that riddle the area) that is subsequently echoed in his underlying obsession with a myxomatosis epidemic among the hunted rabbits (an intolerance for weakness that is further reinforced in his presumption that Juan has eaten the infected rabbits). Illustrated though the rampant contagion that has ravaged the rabbit population, Saura paints a provocative and harrowing allegory for the cultural death of post Civil War, Franco-era Spain, not through the imposed violence of systematic extermination, but rather, through the implosive, decadent intoxication of self-inflicted, arbitrary privilege.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 20, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Carlos Saura Retrospective

April 12, 2007

Max and Mona, 2004

Max_Mona.gifDuring the introductory remarks for Max and Mona, filmmaker Teddy Mattera indicated that the inspiration for the film came from two parallel thoughts: a romanticization of death stemming from the traditional belief that the souls of the recently deceased are not able to cross over to the spiritual realm unless their passing has been properly grieved on earth, as well as an autobiographical context over his own family's ancestral heritage as village mourners who were often called upon to assist in funerals (especially for those who left few, if any, surviving relatives). What unexpectedly emerges from this droll and eccentric concoction of interconnected ideas is an idiosyncratically offbeat, charming, if slight comedy that subverts deeply cherished, old-world traditions into a modern-day confidence game - exploiting the resigned certainty of death into a lucrative specialty service of ushering the souls of the all-too-humanly flawed and not-quite-so-virtuous for transcendence into the hereafter. At the heart of the popular (and profitable) enterprise is the naïve, village son and aspiring medical student, Max (Mpho Lovinga), a sensitive young man with a natural ability for turning on the emotional waterworks during funerals... a talent so unparalleled throughout the country that the he has served as the town's official mourner for several years, and who, in gratitude, has been sponsored by the villagers to go to Johannesburg and fulfill his lifelong dream of studying medicine, enabling him to retire from his ancestral trade. However, when Max is forced to spend the evening at the home of his layabout uncle, Norman (Jerry Mofokeng) after arriving late to the university for matriculation (a delay inadvertently caused by an errant sacrificial goat - the titular Mona - that he has agreed to transport for an upcoming wedding), he is soon forced to once again tap into his former career as a professional mourner in order to set things right. Alternating humor and pathos, over-the-top situations and understated moments of connection and humanity, Max and Mona is a good-natured and delightfully unassuming tale of community, familial obligation, and inescapable destiny.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 12, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival

April 11, 2007

NYAFF Short Films: Women of Zimbabwe

Spell My Name, 2005

In the opening sequence of Tawanda Gunda Mupengo's Spell My Name, a self-assured schoolteacher from the city, newly arrived into the village school and appearing immediately out of place in the rural farming community in her sharply tailored dress, encounters an introverted girl under a tree who ignores her request for directions and continues to busily sketch in her notebook. Immediately put off by the girl's apparent disrespect and the relatively primitive conditions of the school, the teacher is quick to articulate her displeasure to the schoolmaster, and requests an immediate transfer to another district - a transfer that will take a month to process. Resigned to the immediate task of fostering the children's education during her abbreviated tenure, the teacher continues to be frustrated by the girl's impenetrable aloofness and increasingly distractive, troubled drawings, often sending her to the schoolmaster's office for discipline, until the girl's desperate, tale-tell gesture betrays the cause of her inarticulable torment. Shot in episodic ellipses that create a distilled, yet essential framework for the evolution of teacher and student's relationship from resigned frustration to profound empathy, Spell My Name is an intelligently conceived cautionary tale on the perils of stereotype, silence, denial, and blind obedience.

At the Water, 2005

zimbabwe_water.gifA collaborative film from the Women Filmmakers of the Zimbabwe Production Skills Workshop, At the Water is an acute and poetic allegory for the often colliding moral dilemma between imposed religion and entrenched superstitions in seemingly progressive, yet still deeply traditional cultures. Opening to the image of a devout Christian woman, Netsai who, as the film begins, accompanies her husband to the main road one morning as he goes off to work and who, along the way, crosses path with an enigmatic stranger dressed in a dark suit only moments before witnessing her husband's sudden death in an automobile accident, the film chronicles Netsai's emotional - and psychological - descent in the aftermath of the tragedy. Withdrawing from the community, Netsai and her young son retreat into a life of insular, if devoted quotidian ritual, until one day when her son vanishes without a trace near the riverbank. Unable to find solace in her faith, she turns to the village spiritual healer, who reveals that the river god exacts an inhuman price in exchange for the child's safe return. Filmed in digital video, the striking, high contrast color palette of At the Water proves ideally suited to the film's overarching themes of testing faith, divine silence, and moral absolutes in a time of spiritual crisis and profound desolation.

Growing Stronger, 2005

Framed as an inspiring and provocative collage on the changing face of HIV and AIDS, Tsitsi Dangarembga's Growing Stronger presents an illuminating (and empowering) profile of two remarkably courageous Zimbabwean women living with HIV from opposite ends of the socioeconomic ladder who defy the stereotypical image of HIV infection and AIDS, and use their first hand experiences with the disease as a forum for public education and awareness. The documentary primarily focuses on well known celebrity, Tendayi Westerhof, a former fashion model and businesswoman (and ex-wife of former Zimbabwean professional football manager, Clemens Westerhof) who, in 2002, broke the commonly held silence among sufferers of HIV and AIDS (whose deaths were often nebulously attributed to secondary, AIDS-related illnesses or simply euphemized as succumbing to death "after a long illness") and publicly disclosed her HIV positive status. Founding the organization, Public Personalities Against AIDS Trust (PPAAT), Westerhof now devotes much of her time to erasing the stigma of the disease, not only through personal projects such as Models against AIDS which seeks to bring awareness to the younger generations, but also through living by example, constantly emphasizing the importance of nutrition, exercise, and regular medical monitoring in her public and personal life. A similar message of healthy living is also articulated by Pamela Kanjenzana, a working class HIV positive woman who comments on her occasional difficulty in obtaining proper nutrition and medication with her limited income, but nevertheless, copes as best as she can, and who, unlike previous generations, is able to see a real future, even living with HIV. It is interesting to note that by focusing on Westerhof over Kanjenzana, the film also reinforces the idea of HIV as an indiscriminate, cross-cultural disease. Ironically, it is through this relative subordination of Kanjenzana's story over Westerhof's that Dangarembga illustrates, not a preferential treatment of celebrity, but rather, the paradoxical collapse of socioeconomic boundaries in the constant threat - and everyday reality - of HIV and AIDS.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 11, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival, Tsitsi Dangarembga

April 10, 2007

Rostov-Luanda, 1997

rostov_luanda.gifSomething of a cross between an autobiographical road trip and a personal essay on the untold, residual legacy of Angola's turbulent twentieth century history as the country continues to struggle to recover from Portuguese colonization and a protracted civil war, Abderrahmane Sissako's Rostov-Luanda is an understated, yet pensive and illuminating rumination on the pervasive state of political and economic (and moral) stagnation that continues to shape the collective psyche of modern day African countries. A well worn, decades old class photograph composed of multi-ethnic students studying abroad in Soviet-era Moscow that has been obtained from a Russian friend provides the indeterminate, organic roadmap for Sissako's cross-country journey into the sublime, yet desolate landscape of postwar Angola. Recalling his shared hopes and youthful idealism for the cultural resurgence of a post-colonial African continent with fellow African student Alfonso Baribanga, Sissako embarks on a trip to his colleague's homeland in the aftermath of a devastating, Cold War-fueled, civil war. Encountering a series of strangers from the country's rich and diverse spectrum of ethnic and economic social strata who collectively define the face of modern Angola, Sissako's informal interviews with local residents inevitably take on the form of personal reflections and human testimonies that illustrate the country's deeply factional (and fractured) contemporary history even as it successfully cultivated a color blind, heterogeneous, assimilated society between Portuguese settlers and indigenous people (enabling a literal cultural interrogation that anticipates Khalo Matabane's own "road movie" approach to capturing the sentimental landscape of post-apartheid South Africa in Story of a Beautiful Country) - a resigned intellectual and former student radical who punctuates the intrinsic irony of her former comrades' patriotism and impassioned politics by noting their emigration from the country (a comment that also alludes to Africa's chronic "brain drain" of highly skilled and well educated workers); a gregarious barfly who watches the world go by peripherally from an outdoor bench near the entrance of Biker's, Luanda's most popular bar and tourist hotspot, having been thrown out for disorderly conduct; an orphan who once preferred to survive in the streets, but is now content to live with his uncle and attend school; a taxi driver who once received a house and automobile from his Portuguese benefactor, then gave away his legacy in the uncertainty of civil war; a mixed race businessman who fled to Portugal during the war and has now returned in order to contribute to its rebuilding; a genial patriarch of a large, extended family who is deeply moved by Sissako's interest in their humble stories, and sees the filmmaker's arrival as a greater sign towards endowing a voice to the marginalized; an elderly couple, originally immigrating from Brazil in order to seek out opportunities in the construction of their town's infrastructure, recounts the painful decision to send their children abroad during the war, and their own determination to remain in their beloved adopted village despite personal risk. But perhaps the most symbolic testimony of the country's resilience is reflected in an elderly woman's humorous account of her friends and family's mistaken belief that, often seen sitting on the front porch of her house, she must have been maimed by a landmine (an all too common scenario that is also depicted in Zézé Gamboa's The Hero) before subverting their expectation and breaking out into her fancy footwork. Far from a defeated, impoverished nation, what inevitably emerges from Sissako's reverent and compassionate gaze is a people ennobled by struggle, determined to rise from the ashes of war and colonialism through tolerance, hard work, resilience, and community.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 10, 2007 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2007, Abderrahmane Sissako, New York African Film Festival

April 9, 2007

NYAFF Short Films: Fanta Régina Nacro

Un Certain Matin, 1991

A farmer named Tiga's seemingly uneventful trip to the woods sets the stage for an unexpected collision between truth and fiction, reality and celluloid, that is illustrated to wry, comic effect in Fanta Régina Nacro's first feature, Un Certain Matin. Setting out one morning from his native village on the Mossi plateau in Burkina Faso to the tranquility of nearby woods in order to build a chair in peace, away from his children's calls for attention and other villagers' solicitations for gardening advice, Tiga's relaxing pastime is soon interrupted by the chaotic sight of a woman crying for help as she is chased through the plains by a machete-wielding man, and who, in the midst of a struggle, appear to reconcile and walk away together. However, when Tiga again encounters the woman frantically running away from her pursuer, his well-intentioned attempt to come to the aid of the damsel in distress leads to unforeseen consequences. During the Q&A for the program, Nacro commented that she had intentionally used an all female crew for the film in order to reinforce the idea that women are capable of working in technical capacities in Burkina Faso's almost exclusively male film industry. In creating an implicit parallel between the fictional metafilm and the reality of the film's production, Nacro subverts the notion of a male-dominated industry into an equally fascinating behind-the-scenes realization of solidarity and empowerment.

Puknini, 1995

The coincidental intersection of a beautiful Senegalese woman's taxicab ride arrival into Ouagadougou, and a happily married professional couple's public display of affection in front of an appliance store display window while shopping for a new washing machine (a seemingly indecorous act that inadvertently causes the traffic to stop) sets the symbolic stage for Nacro's humorous and ironic satire on the seven year itch and the elusive nature of seduction and desire in Puknini. Chronicling Salif 's indiscretions through Isa's increasing suspicions (and curious observations) over her husband's fidelity, Nacro subverts the hackneyed cinematic convention of scandalous confrontation (a thwarted scenario that is suggested in a mob's aggressive behavior towards the woman) and ménage à trios complicity through an anticlimactic encounter, mutual respect, and unexpected solidarity.

Konaté’s Gift, 1998

In Konaté's Gift, a profoundly relevant and contemporary social issue - AIDS awareness - comes in the unexpected form of a traditional, tale-teller styled, lyrical adventure. Upon returning from the city after a visit, Konaté's second wife, Djénéba receives a package from her brother that, as he subsequently explains, is a life-saving gift for her husband: a box of condoms. Arguing that the threat of AIDS is only a myth created by Westerners, and egged on to refuse to succumb to his wife's entreaties by the men of the village who, baffled by the application of the curious object, are convinced that such an alien contraption could only diminish his virility, Konaté refuses to yield to Djénéba's request and instead, makes an out of turn visit to the home of his first wife. Rebuffed by the women in his life, Konaté desperately turns to the village healer. Advised to return to the origin of the object that had caused such personal turmoil and touch the roots of the tree that had borne the strange fruit in order to make peace with it, Konaté embarks on a long and enlightening cross-country journey, where he becomes a first-hand witness to the ravages of ignorance and disease that have rended families and decimated villages. Told with humor and pathos, Nacro's thoughtful, yet humorous modern day fable idiosyncratically channels the effervescent, yet droll spirit of Jamie Uys' The Gods Must Be Crazy in its whimsical tale of human absurdity, and infuses a sobering dose of social realism to create an engaging, yet potent public discourse on AIDS education.

Bintou, 2000

bintou.gifThe age-old struggle between gender roles, rigid (yet inevitably shifting) traditions, and women's liberation plays out as a light-hearted, yet astute domestic comedy in Nacro's Bintou, the 2001 Best Short Film Prize award winner at FESPACO. Unfolding through the eyes of a village housewife, Bintou's efforts as she resolves to start her own business - and persevere against overwhelming odds - despite her husband Abel's petty attempts at sabotaging her fledgling sprouted millet cottage industry (invariably fueled by the villagers' implicit insecurities over their own domestic dispensability) and her mother-in-law's strenuous objections over the rightful place of women in the home, the film is also an insightful universal tale of the everyday cultural struggles between tradition and modernity and the often slippery process of gender equality that characterize contemporary society. At the heart of Bintou's seemingly insurmountable task is her determination to single-handedly raise money for her daughter's education after her husband, a gainfully employed carpenter, decides to only provide school tuition for their two sons. Chronicling Bintou's evolution from desperate mother, to resourceful businesswoman, to reliable marketer, and finally, to inspirational leader, the film is a refreshingly light-handed exposition on community, family, and women's empowerment.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 09, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival

Death of Two Sons, 2006

death_2sons.gifThe coincidental, near parallel deaths of unarmed Guinean immigrant (and innocent victim), Amadou Diallo in the hallway of his apartment building at the hands of over-aggressive police officers in 1999, and American Peace Corps volunteer Jesse Thyne on the treacherous rural roads of Guinea en route back to Diallo's ancestral village, serve as a potent and thought provoking framework for Micah Schaffer's trenchant, impassioned, and deeply moving social interrogation on the nature of economic imperialism, racial privilege, marginalization, and cultural arrogance in Death of Two Sons. Far from the terse, tabloid encapsulation of Diallo's tragically cut short life as a common West African street peddler, the film traces Diallo's often under-emphasized privileged upbringing, globetrotting, and enrollment in some of the finest schools as the son of an international businessman who, rather than stay in Guinea where he would have undoubtedly coasted through a high ranking career and become one of the nation's emerging leaders, went against his family's wishes to instead forge a new life in the U.S., seeing his struggle as building the rudiments of an instilled work ethic that would build character and ensure his future success I his adopted country. Similarly, Jesse Thyne, the adopted son of a California pastor, lived a life of middle-class comfortability, an uneventful upbringing that, as his parents surmise, may have been deeply marked by his childhood experience with abandonment in the early years before his adoption into their family. Unable to find his birth mother, Jesse would later join the Peace Corps, perhaps as a means of embracing all of humanity as his interconnected identity, where he was assigned to work in Diallo's ancestral village as a teacher, often dining with Diallo's extended family, and subsequently, was invited to attend to his funeral. A few months later, as a passenger on a taxi hired to transport several Peace Corps volunteer back to their villages after a holiday outing, Thyne and a fellow volunteer, Justin Bhansali would also perish, this time, at the scene of a high impact vehicle collision. However, as Schaffer incisively captures, what inevitably characterizes the uncanny coincidence of Diallo and Thyne's proximal deaths is not the eerily karmic connection between these two young men who have never met, but rather, the profound disparity in the way that justice was carried out in the aftermath of their deaths. Contrasting the acquittal of the four New York City police officers on all charges - including the lesser included offense of reckless endangerment - with the three year prison sentence handed out by the Guinean court to the taxi driver as punishment for an analogous vehicular offense for speeding (and subsequently led to a nationwide road safety campaign in memory of the Peace Corps victims), the inescapable sentiment of inequitable justice is precisely articulated in a comment by Thyne's father that, while "Jesse's death was a tragedy, Amadou's death was a tragedy and a travesty."

Posted by acquarello on Apr 09, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival

April 8, 2007

Teranga Blues, 2007

teranga.gifMoussa Sene Absa's epic and sprawling urban tale Teranga Blues appropriately opens to the shot of a Senegalese musician, Madiké "Dick" Diop (Lord Alajiman) being escorted by French authorities in handcuffs before a brief, procedural handover with local immigration officials releases him into their custody, and back out to freedom into the streets of Dakar with little more than a 20 Euro note in his pocket. The image of the deported, down and out musician in restraints would prove to be a prescient metaphor for Dick's figurative bondage upon returning to his native land. Reluctant to return home with unrealized dreams of wealth and fame, Dick falls into the nefarious company of a childhood friend, Maxu (Ibrahima Mbaye), an ambitious gangster and low level toadie to a well connected black market arms dealer named Zéka (Zéka La Plaine), who arranges to furnish him with a lavish loan in order to project an image of success for the native son's triumphant homecoming to his mother, Soukèye (Yakhara Deme) and sister, Rokhaya's (Rokhaya Niang) shantytown home. Borrowing heavily from his newfound underworld associates in order to endow his family with the financial means to leave the impoverished village and build a new home in a more affluent community, and persuaded into an unholy alliance with promises to help establish his music career, Dick invariably becomes indebted to the pragmatic and enterprising Zéka who, in turn, sees in Dick's directness and integrity a veritable potential to move up in the ranks as his trusted lieutenant. In its elemental fusion of universal, cautionary tale on the lure of easy money with a compassionate social commentary on the endemic cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement, Teranga Blues transforms from seemingly idiosyncratic amalgam of lyrical romance, carnivalesque (sur)realism, gangster film, slice-of-life portrait, and portentous tragedy into a sincere and impassioned, larger-than-life contemporary urban opera on star-crossed fate and inescapable destiny.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 08, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival

Clouds Over Conakry, 2007

conakry.gifFollowing a lively introductory performance by a traditional African griot, the 14th annual New York African Film Festival officially opened with the film, Clouds Over Conakry from Guinean filmmaker Cheick Fantamady Camara, a selection that seems ideally suited to the festival's commemoration of Africa's 50 years of independence and (indigenous) cinema - a humorous, lyrical, and engaging, yet thoughtful and impassioned cautionary tale on the intractable social dichotomies between tradition and modernity - the personal (and cultural) struggle to find moral balance between upholding indigenous customs and embracing progressive ideals - that continue to shape contemporary African society. At the heart of the conflict is a talented political cartoonist and artist, Bangali, affectionately known as BB (a homonymous nickname that alludes to the film's catalytic cultural collision, an out of wedlock baby) who pseudonymously signs his newspaper with a rudimentary glyph in order to conceal his life's vocation (and passion) from his father, a superstitious, and deeply old fashioned marabout. In love with his mentor and editor's beautiful daughter, Kesso, a web designer who, on a whim, entered the audition for the Miss Guinea pageant and now unexpectedly finds herself competing for the title, BB's hopes for a life together with his beloved Kesso and a professional career as an artist is soon dimmed when his father, having experienced a dream that he believes was guided by the spirit of their village ancestors, decides to bypass his religious, older son's wishes to study abroad and become an imam, and instead, chooses his visibly disinterested younger son, BB, to succeed him in their ancestral vocation. But when his father is summoned by a government official to lead a prayer service on a pre-appointed day and time to help end the city's unseasonable drought - a divine invocation that seems all too conveniently effective - BB begins to question the integrity of the often conflicting advice offered by well-intentioned people around him. Beyond the often explored territory of cultural contradiction, perhaps what makes Clouds Over Conakry particularly insightful is Camara's ability to capture the moral nuances and shades of grey that appropriately - and relevantly - capture the complexity of contemporary existence: the father's infusion of tribal fetishism with Islamic worship is confronted through the older son's orthodox scholarship of the Qur'an, and who, in turn, is confronted with the inhumanity intrinsic in his more fundamentalist views towards the (mis)treatment of women; a woman's reproductive rights paradoxically brings tragedy to both sides of the ideological debate; the idea of a free press is compromised by the editor's self-censorship approach to the reporting (and suppression) of information in order to avoid controversy and maintain the paper's access to influential leaders (and implicitly, uphold the status quo); the separation of church and state is blurred by the political cultivation of alliances with influential spiritual leaders in an attempt to rein in loyal, faith-based voters into their political campaigns.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 08, 2007 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival

NYAFF Short Films: Young Rebels

The Train, 2005

A chance encounter between a young student, Giusseppe and a recently paroled ex-convict, Ahmed provides the framework for Brahim Fritah's distilled and muted, yet thoughtful existential allegory on humanity and modern day cultural identity in The Train. Set against the backdrop of a transcontinental train compartment that curiously resembles an apartment living room (perhaps a reference to Jean-Paul Sartre's The End), an unexpected connection develops between the two travelers when the studious Giusseppe offers to read the letters for the illiterate Ahmed, whose wife had continued to send his letters throughout his eight year imprisonment, and one day, had inexplicably stopped. An awkward situation resulting from Giusseppe's seeming inability to read Arabic, coupled by a subsequent embarrassing transaction with the train's café attendant (played by Bamako actress, Aïssa Maïga) when Giuseppe attempts to pay for his order with francs, and a missed train stop perhaps best encapsulate Fritah's understated illustration of the indigenous problems of globalization, homogeneity, and cultural assimilation in the aftermath of colonialism and the borderless, Schengen Zone European Union.

Mama Put, 2006

In an unassuming neighborhood in Angola, an impoverished young family headed by an pious and indomitable widowed mother, already struggling to make ends meet and obtain proper medical attention for her sickly, youngest child, receives an unexpected visit from a band of armed bandits one evening. Placated into letting them go and leaving the children unharmed by cooking a meal for them, the family soon finds itself receiving tacit protection and a share of ill-gotten gains from the robbers who begin to make nightly visits to the apartment for their customary meal, unable to extricate themselves from the burden of harboring the presumptuous fugitives. Ever teetering between compassionate humor and dark satire, Seke Somolu's Mama Put is a thoughtful and infectious exposition on the amorphous nature of obligation, charity, and consequence.

Meokgo and the Stick Fighter, 2006

meokgo.gifTeboho Mahlatsi's sumptuous, atmospheric, and gorgeously shot contribution for the New Crowned Hope festival, Meokgo and the Stick Fighter, recounts the tale of Kgotso, a reclusive rancher, lone wolf stick fighter, and virtuous nomad who wanders the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho. Orphaned since infancy, Kgotso was cared for by a village elder and traditional healer, inheriting her treasured concertina upon her death. Watching over his adopted village, and often coming to the aid of poor, defenseless shepherds who are constantly being terrorized by a roving band of ruthless cattle thieves, Kgotso leads an idyllic pastoral life pursuing the art of combat and music until he encounters a beautiful, enigmatic noble woman who, enchanted by the vibrant melodies of his concertina, begins to haunt his solitude. Mahlatsi's evocative, poetic fable sublimely fuses the rich, ancient traditional of indigenous African tale-telling with the universality of expressionist imagery to create a timeless and transcendent tale of longing, connection, and destiny.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 08, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, New York African Film Festival