The Woyingi Blog

Documentary Review: These Girls by Tahani Rached (Egypt)

Title: These Girls

Director: Tahani Rached

Year: 2006

Country: Egypt, Cairo

Language: Arabic

Genre: Documentary

These Girls by Egyptian Canadian filmmaker Tahani Rached is an intimate portrait of the lives of several street-involved girls in Cairo who range in age from 10 to 22. The film opens with a shot of a teenage girl in jeans and a t-shirt riding a horse in the middle of day time downtown Cairo traffic. The girl riding the horse is named Fatma, but her nickname is Tata. Tata is really the star of this film. She is a vibrant, obnoxious bad-ass who makes it clear that she will fight with whoever gets in her way or threatens her friends. She doesn’t care if it’s police or a father dead-set on committing an honour-killing. All the girls in Rached’s film are tough and sometimes downright brazen in their assertions that they can defend themselves against violence with violence. And violence is a daily reality of their lives on the streets. The girls face violence from each other, their parents, the police, and particuarly men who want to rape them. The girls live with the constant threat of being kipnapped and gang raped and share stories of girls being taken and held captive for days by men who have dragged them off the street.

A lot of the violence these girls face is similar to what street-involved youth around the world, and even here in Canada face. A significant difference is that if these girls become pregnant out of wedlock, they face the possibility that a member of their family might hunt them down and kill them in order to maintain the family’s honour. Abeer, who doesn’t know who the father of her baby is because she was gang raped, ends up having to hide from her father, who Tata attacks with a razor to protect her friend. Abeer’s baby is born without a birth certificate because Abeer can’t produce a marriage contract indicating who the father is.

Abeer’s situation is one of the many problems the girls face that Abla Hind, a middle-class woman who, desipite not being a social worker (she states she only has a dipolma in tourism), is in many ways an important support for the girls and someone they turn to for advise when they are in trouble.  Hind’s relationship with the girls is quite fascinating and she admits that she feels she needs them more than they need her. The girls are clearly struggling with poverty, lack of family support, and violence much of which they try to cope with by smoking joints, sniffing glue, and popping pills. But it is clear that they love and support one another and so have become a make-shift family. Although the film is heartbreaking, the girls’ fiereness and resilience is inspirational.

However, as with many documentaries of this type, I had the sense of being a voyeur and wondering if, even unintentionally, if documentaries like this are not unavoidably exploitational unless they are used to concretely address the social problems they depict. As Jennie Jediny writes in her review of the film:

These Girls is a nauseating experience, and understandably so — these women appear not only powerless, but destined for an inevitably short and miserable life. They live in poverty, have little chance of escaping the street and give birth to children who are recognized by neither the state nor their families. Rached doesn’t avoid this reality — by the end of the film, many of the girls have admitted they are relentlessly sad and depressed, and that their laughter comes from a very hollow place — but she backtracks too often to a false sense of hope. Perhaps it’s easy to see the girls’ bond with each other as encouraging or as a symbol of unity, but it is also rather inevitable that a connection will be made between people forced into any particular situation, whether positive or negative. The repeated shots of Tata, one of the strongest personalities, riding in the Cairo streets on a stolen horse, is not necessarily an image of joy or freedom, but rather the very lack of it.

The subject matter documented in These Girls is undeniably crucial, and Rached’s effort at not only finding these girls, but also gaining their trust and their stories is commendable. What remains in question is her ability to convey not only the dire situation of these women, but also the political implications involved in presenting a cultural issue that affects women on a global level. While the women in Rached’s documentary had my complete attention, I had not so much the feeling of participating in a dialogue as that unfortunate tendency of not being able to avert my eyes from a car wreck.

As someone who works in the social services field with Arab girls and young women struggling with issues of violence, I found the film educational and quite relevant to my work. But I also understand where Jenny is coming from in her review. However, as the film was produced by Studio Masr, an Egyptian company, I feel that the target audience is Egyptians and the filmmakers’ intent is to humanize Cairene street girls in their eyes. As Tahani explains in a 2007 interview about the film:

Because I meet these girls in the streets like everyone else in Egypt does and I see them, I wanted to decode their private world and I started to prepare for that movie from 1997 and began filming in 2004. It was produced by Studio Misr.

Prior to the filming I did a field study with the production group that lasted for six months in order to build trust between us and the street girls. Through them I came to know a lot about the charity organizations that provide for them as well as the psychological support they receive through organizations such as Amal (Hope) to which Abla Hind was one of its members. She is featured in the film with her compassionate personality radiating love and humanity; she assumes the multiple roles of friend, surrogate mother and gives them all the love that they have missed.

In my mind, I wanted the viewer to interact with the girls, to come to love them and empathize with their down-trodden condition. These girls live hard lives; they are victims to circumstances such as broken families which they escaped from the moment they could get a chance.

After that another set of circumstances spirals into effect and that is the oppression of society to these girls and we are all responsible for that. In a sense, they are victims of a society that also suffers from poverty and need, a society where making a living has become difficult as is the preservation of one’s humanity and dignity.

Unfortunately, because of the girls use of “bad language” in the film, it was banned in Egyptian cinemas. But Tahani felt that she should not have been expected to censor the girls’ speech. She explains:

When I shoot a documentary, a realistic film, I cannot ask the girls to speak in a limited vocabulary, these are words we hear on the streets every day. I believe that reality and truth should be exposed without any intervention or censorship. I am happy that my film is being shown in festivals and various cultural centers throughout this country which proves that there are venues and other possible options to show the movie apart from the commercial outlets.

In the same interview, Tahani reflects on the girls’ plight and what is needed to improve their lives.

Personally, what they lack is love; these girls need love and warmth such as one would find in the character of Abla Hind; she does not attempt to change the circumstances of these girls and offers pragmatic advice. These homes and welfare organizations should basically change the way they operate; they also need funding from the government and support from society at large beyond the mere slogans. Each one of us should reconsider the way we treat these girls; the film screams to solve their problem.

These Girls has won critical acclaim and made the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, and New York Film Festival.

Director Tahani Rached was born in Egypt in but settled in Quebec in 1966. She worked as a National Film Board of Canada staff filmmaker form 1980 to 2004. Rached never studied film but learned by doing with the support of other filmmakers.

Further Reading:

Review of These Girls in Slant Magazine available online

Review of These Girls in Al Ahram Weekly Online available online

Interview (2012) with Tahani Rached by Mai Serhan available online

Interview (2007) with Tahani Rached by Nelly Youssef available online

Film Review: Le silence de la forêt (2003)

Film: Le silence de la forêt (2003)

Director (s): Didier Florent Ouénangaré and Bassek Ba Kobhio

Countries: Central African Republic, Cameroon, Gabon, France

Language (s): Diaka, Sango, and French with English Subtitles

Genre: Drama

Le silence de la forêt (2003), which goes by the title The Forest in English, is the first film to come out of the Central African Republic. It is co-directed by Central African filmmaker Didier Florent Ouénangaré and Cameroonian filmmaker Bassek Ba Kobhio. The film is an adaptation of the 1984 novel of the same name by Central African writer Étienne Goyémidé. The story begins with the return of Gonaba, played by French-Cameroonian actor Eriq Ebouaney best known for his portrayal of Patrice Lumumba in Raoul Peck’s film Lumumba, who has been away studying in France, to his home in the Central African Republic. He is idealistic and hopes to use his education to improve the lives of his countrymen. The film then fast fowards to ten years later and Gonaba is now a civil servant in the Central African Republic’s corrupt bureaucracy. As Michael Dembrow describes him:

Gonaba is now the regional Education Inspector for one of the Central African regions, and his voice-over commentary lets us know just how disappointed and frustrated he is with his inability to fulfill his dreams. The country is poorly run by a corrupt military, police, and education infrastructure. No one cares for the greater good, but only for ways to get ahead, which means somehow lording it over others. The ideals of Barthélemy Boganda (who led the fight for independence) and the trappings of traditional folklore are manipulated and corrupted towards this end.

So Gonaba has failed to “liberate” his countrymen with his education but he soon finds another group of people to “liberate”: The Baaka (Babinga) People, better known as Pygmies. While attending a party at the home of the regional governor (Prefect) Gonaba witnesses the ill-treatment of the Baaka people. As Dembrow writes:

For big shots like the Prefect, they are sub-human, natural resources to be exploited (as “tourist attractions” or as indentured servants) just like any of the country’s abundant natural resources. He sees them dancing (and treated like animals) at the Prefect’s party, then meets one while on a school tour (the man is serving as a virtual slave to the local chief). He decides that he has discovered his true vocation—eschewing the corrupt world of village and city, he will penetrate the forest and teach the Baaka how to read and write (in French), thereby giving them the tools to advocate for themselves and protect themselves from exploitation. It is a noble vision, but it can only lead to failure.

Gonaba goes to live with the Baaka people in what obviously seems to be an attempt to redeem himself. However, his perception of them as “noble savages” who simply need to be enlightened by reason in order to be freed of the superstitions that plague their romantically simple lifestyle soon backfires on Gonaba and ends in tragedy. I really appreciated how the film portrayed the forms of oppression that exist between African peoples, whether it be overt racism and exploitation, as we see with The Prefect, or the more subtle but equally detrimental paternalism of Gonaba. According to the review of the film written for California Newsreel: “The fact that this film is the first to focus on the exploitation and racism between more modern Africans and an autochthonous people, so ironically reminiscent of the attitudes of European colonists towards Africans, makes it even more unusual and fascinating.”

The Baaka, like many of the world’s indigenous peoples, are seeing their way of life destroyed by the increasing deforestation of the regions they call home. The film was actually filmed in a Baaka village and many of the actors were villagers with no theatrical training. In an interview Didier Florent Ouénangaré discusses working with the Baaka:

The initial idea was to draw attention to the Pygmies, an ethnic minority ignored by the politicians, the administration, and the world in general. When you go into the heart of the forest, you realise that deforestation is making it impossible for them to live from hunting, gathering, and nature as they used to. They are at risk of being wiped out like the Native Americans, only they wont even be confined to reserves! Gonaba’s role serves to hold a mirror up to show the Central Africans what they are doing.

It’s not only racist; it’s a human catastrophe too. I have had several opportunities to make documentaries about the Pygmies. Catholic nuns are trying to integrate them into the civil population by sending the youngest members of the Pygmy population to schools, but it doesn’t work because they go about it the wrong way. You can’t take someone who has lived a life firmly rooted in the forest and ask him to live like a Westerner. It isn’t for us to impose what we want. It’s true that Westerners came and imposed the way in which we live today on us, which isn’t only negative, but it’s better to ask people what they want.

I am the first to be fascinated by the Pygmies. Two had already gone on tour in folkloric dance troupes abroad, but the rest had never left their village! I told them that we were going to film a tale and that they needed to think that they were in the tale itself. But when I wanted to marry two actors in the film, they refused for fear of the husband’s reaction… But with some cigarettes, a drink, and a good long discussion, they agreed.

We looked for a site that wasn’t too far from a town, but at the same time was sufficiently far away. We built a village to house the Pygmies, and another for the studio. Everything that you see in the film is a village-studio, built according to the screenplay. They lived in an adjoining village built specially for them.

Trivia: In the 2003, the film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the non-competitive Directors’ Fortnight. It was the only African film included in that year’s line up. It won the Jury’s Prize at the Namur Festival in Belgium. Eriq Ebouaney actually had to learn the Central African language Sango , which is the primary language of the country, in order to play the role of Gonaba. The film was scored by Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango.

Further Reading:

About the film Le silence de la forêt

Review by California News Reel available online

Review by Michael Dembrow available online

Review in French available online

Review in French by Valerie Ganne available online

Interview with Didier Ouénangaré in English available online

Interview with Bassek ba Kobhio in French available online

About Étienne Goyémidé

Profile in French available online

La dynamique des rapports interculturels chez Étienne Goyémidé by Francoise Ugochukwu (academic essay in French available online)

Goyemide on Slavery: The Liberating Power of The Word by Francoise Ugochukwu (academic essay available online)

About the Pygmies

Pygmies.org is a website dedicated to the hunter-gatherer peoples living in the Central African rainforests, commonly called Pygmies.

Are the men of the African Aka tribe the best fathers in the world? By Joanna Moorehead (article in The Guardian UK available online)

Film Review: Tabataba (1988) by Raymond Rajaonarivelo

Tabataba Film Poster

Film: Tabataba (1988)

Director: Raymond Rajaonarivelo

Country: Madagascar, France

Language (s): Malagasy, French with French Subtitles

Genre: Historical Drama

Tabataba (Rumour) is Malagasy director Raymond Rajaonarivelo’s first feature film, which was selected for the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. After Madagascar won independence in 1960, several Malagasy students were regularly sent to France to study cinematography, Rajaonarivelo among them.

The film follows the fate of a small Malagasy village in Eastern Madagascar as it gets caught up in the revolt for independence from France. French colonial forces brutally repressed this uprising, leaving 30,000 to 90,000 dead depending on your sources, and the subsequent famine led to the deaths of many women, children, and elders as well. Rajaonarivelo was told stories about this time by his father when he was a child and these stories influenced his screenplay for the film.  The horrors of the repression of this revolt were not readily acknowledged by France until recently when, in July 2005, then French President Jacques Chirac, during a visit to Madagascar, stated that the nature of the repression was “unacceptable” and “born of the excesses of the colonial system”.

Tabataba in Malagasy has many meanings beyond  “rumour”,  including “noise”, “trouble” or “political unrest”. It is probably best understood to mean the chaos that results from the spreading of rumours. As we watch the film, we see that the villagers, inexperienced in political resistance and not well-informed about the realities in other parts of their own country, let alone the world, are reliant on “rumours” as they make decisions about what actions to take during the revolt. We first hear the word used in the film when the village chief tells the villagers to stop making “noise” and listen.

The film opens with a stranger arriving in the village. He is a representative of Mouvement Democratique de la Renovation Malgache (MDRM) , a Malagasy political party established in 1946 in response to the island becoming a French Overseas Territory. MDRM wants full independence for Madagascar. The village’s teacher, Raomby, welcomes the stranger. The villagers are informed that they are now “free” and have the right to vote. He encourages them to vote for the MDRM so that Madagascar can gain its independence. However, some of the villagers do not believe that the French colonial officials will let them have their land back so easily and predict that it will only be able to be won back in battle. Raomby and the party representative believe that violence will not be necessary. One of the villagers who believe that war will be necessary is the young Lehidy, whose father we learn also died resisting the French. It is Lehidy’s little brother Solo who is the central character of the film, although he is unable to participate in any of the major action because he is a child, it is through his eyes that much of the narrative plays out. Bakanga is a village elder who throughout the film sits regally in a Louis XVI chair given to her, she says, by a colonial general. She passes advice to passers-by, including Lehidy, who she discourages from getting into conflict with the French. When it is stated that if the French invade the village, the inhabitants can flee into the forest and hide there, she warns that people will end up starving, which foreshadows later events.

When French colonial officials arrive in the village to run elections, we see an amusing case of miscommunication as the French colonial official must rely on his Malagasy assistant to translate for him. But we viewers can see that the words of the Frenchmen and the replies of the villagers are being mistranslated. We can see the theme of miscommunication, which runs throughout the film, beginning to develop. The French official informs the villagers that they are now allowed to have representatives in the French government as a reward for their colony’s service in World War II. When Raomby sees that MDRM is not on the ballot and asks why, he is informed by the French official that the MDRM has been banned and are considered a seditious party. Raomby refuses to vote and storms off. He is then arrested by the colonial authorities. Lehidy and other villagers who see this as a call to arms, attempt to rescue Raomby from prison but in the shoot out that ensues Raomby is shot and killed accidentally. Lehidy and his comrades flee the village. Lehidy reassures his little brother Solo that he will return with weapons from the Americans.

The villagers learn that the uprising is spreading across the country through various dubious sources, including a number of posters that wash on shore. These messages tell them that their side is winning. Solo is told that his brother Lehidy has become a general. However, when Solo spots a neighbouring village being burned by Senegalese Riflemen, he warns the village and everyone flees into the forest, except Bakanga who remains in her chair in the centre of the village until the Senegalese Riflemen and their French commander arrive and find her dead. They do not pursue the villagers into the forest but instead wait for them to return out of hunger. We watch as Solo and his mother struggle to find food and shelter in the forest. Solo becomes so ill from malnourishment that he begins to have hallucinations about fruits. Eventually, he and his mother return to the village to find that rations are being provided by the French colonial forces.

Solo still holds out hope that Lehidy will return with American weapons, but when the remaining resisters from the village are captured that hope dies. Solo and his mother learn that Lehidy has been killed and that their fellow villagers were trying to lead a revolt with wooden guns!Eventually, the French troops leave the village, but only after burning the teacher, Raomby’s, house down.

The film was cast mostly by the residents of the village it is filmed in, Maromena. Despite this, the cast is engaging, particularly the actors who portray Solo and the village wisewoman Bakanga.

One of the rumours that keeps being spread by the villagers is that the Americans will come to their aid. This may puzzle many viewers. American reviewer Thomas E. Billings, who reviewed the film in 1989 after watching the U.S. Premiere at the San Fransisco Film Festival, at which Raymond Rajaonarivelo was in attendance, explains:

At several points in the film, there are references to the fact that the Malagasy people believed that America would intervene on their behalf and send weapons. This was due to two things. First, the Malagasy heard that America had “saved” France in 1945 (liberation of France in World War II) and they thought that America was going to “save” the entire world, including Madagascar. Additionally, an American sea captain had given (in early 1947) a pistol as a gift to a native on the west coast of Madagascar, and this caused many rumors that America was going to help the Malagasy. The information above concerning the belief of the Malagasy people that America would help them is not explained in the film. As this was the U.S. premiere, the film’s director was in attendance, and chaired a discussion afterwards where this information was brought out.

Again, the villagers are relying on rumours that are entirely baseless to make life and death decisions. The death of Raomby is a turning point in the film, and as we see with the symbolic burning of his house, his role in the village as its educator was crucial. As an educated man, he could have helped the villagers discern fact from rumour. He also advocated peaceful resistance over violence.

However, as he was not like the villagers, as he was a man from the city, he perhaps did not fully understand the villagers’ anger against the French for taking their land. The villagers are farmers but what they are cultivating is coffee, a plant which is not native to Madagascar and which they don’t even use. The coffee they are growing is for export. Although not stated in the film, famine had become a regular occurence in Madagascar as less and less farmland was available to grow food and was instead used to grow useless products to satisfy colonial appetites. Of course, tea was similarly cultivated in Kenya by the British.

The French use of les tirailleurs senegalais (Senegalese Riflemen) to crush the revolt particularly disturbed me. The ways in which colonizers use colonized and marginalized peoples against each other never ceases to trouble me, whether it be the Nubians used by the British to suppress the Mau Mau Revolt in Kenya, or the Americans’ use of African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” to suppress resistance in the Philippines. Les tirailleurs senegalais were used extensively during World War 1 and World War 11 to defend France, and after 1945, were used by France to protect its colonial possessions in Indochina and Algeria.

Rajaonarivelo has continued to make political films in Madagascar, most recently the documentary Mahaleo (2005) about the Malagasy music group by the same name whose music was the inspiration for the 1972 uprising against the neo-colonial regime in Madagascar. In 2007, he opened a free online Film School in order to teach aspiring Malagasy filmmakers.

Other Malagasy writers have taken it upon themselves to write about the events of 1947, such as Malagasy Novelist Jean-Luc Raharimanana’s Nour 1947, written in French. Valérie Magdelaine-Andrianjafitrimo  discusses this novel as well as others in her essay Madagascar, 29 mars 1947, « Tabataba ou parole des temps troubles »

Further Reading:

Tabataba Film Review by Karine Blanchon

Tabataba Film Review by Thomas E. Billings

Trailer in French available online

Interview (2007) with Raymond Rajaonarivelo in French available online

Tabataba, un film malagache by Francoise Raison-Jourde (film review in French available online)

Madagascar, 29 mars 1947, « Tabataba ou parole des temps troubles » by Valérie Magdelaine-Andrianjafitrimo (essay in French available online)

Painful memories of the revolt of 1947: Nationalism or survival? by Philippe Leymarie (Monde diplomatique article in English available online)

African Filmmaker Profiles: Flora Gomes

Flora (Florentino) Gomes was born on December 31, 1949 in Cadique, Guinea-Bissau. Gomes was born to illiterate parents and grew up under Salazar’s oppressive Portuguese colonial regime. He supported the Bissau-Guinean resistance to colonialism led by Amilcar Cabral. Gomes left Guinea-Bissau for Cuba, where he completed his high school and went on to study Film at the Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography under the guidance of Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez. He continued his Film Studies in Senegal under the direction of Senegalese filmmaker and film historian Paulin Soumanou Vieyra. Gomes was inspired to become a film director after discovering the films of Ousmane Sembene.

Gomes had the honour of filming his country’s independence ceremony in 1974. Guinea-Bissau was visited by many socialist filmmakers and reporters after its independence and Gomes assisted many of them with filming. By the end of the 1970s, Gomes was working as a photographer and cameraman for the Ministry of Information. In 1979 he served as an intern with French filmmaker Chris Marker, whose film Sans Soleil is partly filmed in Guinea-Bissau. Gomes later co-directed three short films: “La reconstruction” (The Reconstruction), “Anos no oça luta” and “Regresso do Cabral” (The return of Cabral), these last two with fellow Bissau-Guinean filmmaker and Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography graduate Sana na N’hada, who would later be the assistant director for Gome’s film Mortu Nega.

In 1987, Gomes made his first feature film (It was Guinea-Bissau’s first fictional feature length film), Mortu Nega. After the film was selected for showing during Critic’s Week at the Venice Film Festival, Gomes was heralded as a great new voice in African cinema. Gomes has gone on to become one of Africa’s most internationally well respected filmmakers.

In 1994, Gomes was distinguished with the Order of Merit for Culture by the Tunisian government. In the same year, he was also named a member of the principal jury at the Tunisia’s Carthage Film Festival. In 1996, Gomes was knighted by the French government with the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres.

In 2002, Gomes was recognized in Portugal by the Guinean community for his services in making Guinean culture known around the world. In 2004, he was a member of the jury at the Amien Film Festival. Also in 2004, a retrospective of Gomes’ films was showcased at the first Brown University African Film Festival.

In 2005, Gomes received an award from the University of Lisbon in Portugal in recognition of his body of work. Also in 2005, Gomes was the president of the ECOWAS jury at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival (FESPACO)

In 2006,Gomes’ was a visting artist and professor in Brown University’s Africana Studies Department in 2006.

About the films of Flora Gomes

According to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies:

Flora Gomes has international stature as a distinguished filmmaker whose works are aesthetically innovative and historically significant texts of African and global culture. It is notoriously difficult for major African filmmakers to produce a sustained output of high quality, because of the historical legacy of profound funding and infrastructural deficiencies on the continent. Yet Gomes makes a point of residing in his native country of Guinea-Bissau, and despite the severe material constraints this poses to film-making, has completed a number of shorts, starting in 1977, as well as five full-length feature films, beginning with “Mortu Nega” in 1988. Filmed using local languages and shot above all in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, as well as France and Portugal, his features have won awards at prestigious international film festivals and are invariably discussed in textbooks on African cinema and post-colonial film. His work often deals with questions of history and memory, particularly regarding the national liberation struggle, as well as notions of modernization and the conceptualization of identity. Gomes’s films go beyond many conventional binomials. For example, his female characters depict a sophisticated African feminism , by turns militant and gentle, tragic and comic, seldom seen in representations of black women. His more recent work, especially “Po di sangui,” broaches the timely subject of environmental degradation , by using a complex layering of symbols, landscape and nature, drawn from indigenous African systems of knowledge and belief. Both the aesthetic quality and powerful narratives of these later works touch audiences everywhere.

Mortu Nega (1987)

Film Description from California Newsreel:

California Newsreel has released Flora Gomes’ now classic, Mortu Nega, to commemorate three starkly dissimilar events. 1998 marked both the 25th anniversary of the independence of Guinea-Bissau and the assasination of its leader Amilcar Cabral but it was also the year that country virtually annihilated itself in a brutal civil war.

Mortu Nega, as its title implies, is a unique kind of elegy – not so much to the victims of the liberation struggle as to its survivors….is a bittersweet eulogy to those veterans who gave so much yet often benefited so little from the struggle. The film poses a question facing much of Africa at the start of the 21st century: with the goal of independence achieved, what can serve as an equally unifying and compelling vision around which to construct a new society? Or as Chris Marker observed in his 1980 documentary San Soleil, coincidentally contemplating the decay of Guinea-Bissau’s revolution: “What every revolutionary thinks the morning after victory: now the real problems begin.”

Mortu Nega covers the period from January 1973 during the closing months of the war against the Portuguese until the consolidation of an independent Guinea-Bissau in 1974 and 1975. This tiny West African nation’s valiant struggle and eventual triumph over 500 years of Portuguese domination attracted international support and heralded the final anti-colonial wave culminating in the defeat of apartheid in 1994. The revolution’s charismatic leader, the Cape Verdean agronomist, Amilcar Cabral, was assassinated on the eve of victory in January 1973 by Portuguese assisted mainland nationalists. The fragile union between Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde islands itself was finally dissolved in a bloodless military coup in 1980 led by an old guerilla commander, the present president, João Bernardo Vieira. When the post-revolutionary generation in the military and the population as a whole began to oppose Vieira’s increasingly kleptocratic regime, he called in troops from Senegal and Guinea (Conakry) resulting in the carnage of June, 1998.

Mortu Nega can be divided into three “movements” each with a style reflecting a distinct stage in the revolutionary process. The film begins mysteriously someplace in the bush on the supply road from Conakry to the front. A convoy weaves its way through tall grasses camouflaging itself like Mao’s “fish in the sea.” Gomes’ portrayal of guerilla war is one of the most accurate on film, capturing its tedium, terror and heroism, its rhythm of fragile silences broken by helicopter fire from above or exploding landmines from below. In this war of attrition with the Portuguese, the exhausted militants press forward along a unclear, even circuitous path, directed only by their vision of a free Guinea-Bissau. Throughout this section, the emphasis is on the group over the individual. Only after five minutes, does a heroine, Diminga, emerge and the story of her unflagging loyalty to her husband, Sako, a wounded guerilla commander, serves to underline the sense of solidarity developed among the freedom fighters.

The first feature film that Gomes directed, Mortu Nega, which means Those Whom Death Refused, was selected for showing during the Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival in 1988. Mortu Nega won the Bronze Tanit and the Prize for the Best Actress at the Carthage Film Festival. It also was awarded the prize for the Best Film and the Best Actress at the 1988 Pan-African Film and Television Festival (FESPACO).

Trailer for Mortu Nega available online

Description of Mortu Nega from California Newsreel available online

Review of Mortu Nega by Professor Mustafah Dhada available online

The Blue Eyes of Yonta (1992)

Film Description from California Newsreel:

…Udju Azul di Yonta (The Blue Eyes of Yonta) is one of the few recent African films to make the disillusionment of the revolutionary generation its primary subject – and offer a glimmer of hope for the future. Flora Gomes (born 1949) is a member of the generation which fought for Guinea-Bissau’s independence. This director’s first feature film, indeed the first feature film made in Guinea-Bissau, Mortu Nega (Those Whom Death Refused), commemorates that nation’s arduous independence struggle, while hinting at its subsequent bureaucratization. Udju Azul di Yonta can be seen as a continuation and commentary on this film.

In Udju Azul di Yonta, the most compelling character is Vicente, a disenchanted hero of the independence struggle who has only grudgingly adapted himself to post-revolutionary society. He is a figure with whom many disappointed Western ’60s activists will identify. As “Comrade Boss” of a fish warehouse, he continues to work for the development of his country against staggering odds. A power outage (a recurrent motif in the film) has spoiled an entire catch of fish and the fishermen and fishmongers are furious. Corruption and kickbacks have become rampant in the city; unbridled free market capitalism is triumphant. Vicente confesses to an old comrade, “We thought the revolution was for everyone, but it is only here for a few of us.” Despairing at his own compromised ideals, he exclaims, “Vicente no longer exists; I am a vulture,” devouring the carcass of his revolutionary hopes.

Vicente is so despondent he doesn’t notice that Yonta, the beautiful daughter of two of his old comrades, is infatuated with him. Yonta represents the generation which has grown up since liberation whose heads are full of dreams of fashion, music and European affluence. In fact, one of the guilty pleasures of this film is noting how revolutionary culture has given way to stunning couture.

Yonta, for her part, is unaware of the attentions of a third character, Zé, a poor student from the country. He anonymously sends her love poems cribbed from a book written about a Swedish girl. One reads, “In the cold long nights when snow caresses your windows…the blue of your eyes is the immensity of the sky over my life.” The younger generation’s incongruous dreams give the film its striking title.

Flora Gomes identifies a fourth important character, “quite an unusual one, who gradually changes everything, the motion and color of the film: it is Bissau, the capital city of Guinea-Bissau, where I have always lived…For fifteen years, while I reluctantly grew older, I saw Bissau recovering its youth almost every day. I heard it switching to another language, another dream, another aim.”

Gomes’s second feature film, The Blue Eyes of Yonta, was produced in 1992. It was selected for the “Un certain regard” section at the Cannes Film Festival, and won the Bronze Tanit and the OAU (Organization of African Unity) prize at the Carthage Film Festival. “Os Olhos Azuis de Yonta” won also won the Best Actress Prize at FESPACO, and the Special Jury Prize at Greece’s  Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

Trailer for The Blue Eyes of Yonta available online

Description of the film from California Newsreel available online

Tensions of Modernity in Flora Gomes’ The Blue Eyese of Yonta by K. Ogunfolabi (academic essay available online)

Po di Sangui (1996)

Film Description from The African Film Library:

This film is a joint collaboration between several European and African countries, and is said to be among the most elaborate, high-tech films of the African film genre. Exquisitely photographed and filled with archetypal figures to create a poetic look at nature’s revenge against those who would exploit her, it is set in the forest village of Amanha Lundju, a place where the birth of children is celebrated by the planting of a tree. The trees are considered spiritual twins. But for every tree planted, the rapacious state destroys many more for firewood and lumber.

The beauty of Po di Sangui is the insight it gives into the nature of rural African culture. The veil between the world of the living and the dead is not absolute, as in Western culture. The living communicate with the dead through visions, conversing with trees, and signs. Conflict erupts when scientists arrive who neither respect nor believe in the power of rural culture. The people must decide if the solution is isolation from the modern world, embracing it, or a mixture of the two. Each viewing of this gripping feature provides deeper insights into the dilemma.

Po di Sangui, which means Tree of Blood, is Gomes’ third feature film, was screened in the official competition at Cannes in 1996 where it was nominated for the Golden Palm Award.  Po di Sangui  also won the Silver Tanit Award at the Carthage Film Festival.

Trailer for Po di Sangui available online

Description of the film available online

Nha Fala (2002)

Film Description:

Set in the gorgeous pastel cities of the Cape Verde Islands, the film avoids the usual grim images of Africa, locating itself instead halfway between Brazilian Carnival and African politics. Fatou Ndiaye (from the French TV hit series Fatou, The Malian) plays Vita, a young African woman who aspires to be a singer, but is prevented from doing so by a longstanding curse which she circumvents in an especially beautiful, ingenious, and musical way; seizing the chance to speak and sing as a woman for her generation. This may be the only musical that has rousing, danceable numbers that critique identity politics and ballot-box democracy. 2002, Portugal, France, Luxembourg, color, 35mm, in Creole with English subtitles, 110 minutes.

Nha fala, which means My Voice, is Gomes’s fourth feature film. It was an official selection at the Venice Film Festival competition. Nha fala also won the city prize at the Amiens Festival in 2002 (France), and the Grand Prize at the Vie d’Afrique Festival in Montreal in 2003. It was the only African film selected to be screened during the 2002 Berlin Film Festival.

Music for the film was composed by Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, the “grandpappy of Makossa soul“.

Flora Gomes had this to say about Nha Fala:

Whenever Africa is spoken about or depicted, it is always in terms of the aid we receive, war, people dying of starvation, sick people . . . These things do of course exist in Africa: Africans kill other Africans, and nobody knows why we go to war, yet it still goes on. But there is another side to Africa, and that is what I wanted to show. It is a side you never see on your television screens in the West. That is why I made this film. I wanted people to see our Africa, the Africa of my dreams, the Africa that I love and that I would like my children to know one day. It is a happy Africa, where people dance, where people can speak freely. It is my take on the future for a new generation.

In the fallout of Guinea-Bissau’s civil war, Gomes had to flee his homeland. Surprisingly, these events inspired him to make a film far brighter and more light-heartened than his earlier work-the musical comedy Nha Fala. The conditions in Guinea-Bissau after the 1998 war, also meant that Gomes would have to find another location for his film. He chose Cape Verde. In reality, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau are deeply linked. Cape Verde is the island nation just across from Guinea-Bissau. The Bissau-Guinean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral’s parents actually came from Cape Verde and he was also educated there. Both countries speak Portuguese Creole and from 1974 to 1980, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau were one nation. Therefore, the connections between the two small countries run quite deep. However, most of the cast and crew actually came from Guinea-Bissau, including Bia Gomes who has been in all of Gomes’ films. The film’s star, Fatou N’Diaye, is actually French of Senegale descent. Canadian film-goers would have seen her in the film adaptation of French-Canadian writer Gil Courtemanche’s novel A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. For Nha Fala, N’Diaye learned Portuguese Creole in two months.

Despite the more whimsical nature of this film, it is still political. The film opens with a dedication to Amilcar Cabral: “Father of Independence of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, assassinated in 1973”. Gomes wishes to evoke all the promise of Cabral’s struggle for independence, which he himself never lived to see. Despite all the disappointments and horrors of post-colonial Africa, that promise can still be a resevoir of hope for Africa’s younger generations.

Trailer for Nha Fala available online

Review of Nha Fala available online

 

Further Reading:

Flora Gomes

Flora Gomes on Wikipedia

Flora Gomes Profile from Brown University available online

Portuguese Colonialism in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde

Portuguese Colonialism in Africa: The end of an Era by E. de Sousa Ferreira, with an Introduction by Basil Davidson (UNESCO Press history text available online)

Image available online of a 1974 Demonstration in New York outside the Portuguese Consulate to commemorate the memory of Amilcar Cabral and protest against Portuguese Colonialism in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau

The History of Guinea-Bissau by LEAD International (webpage available online)

History of Cinema in Guinea-Bissau (article available online)

Guinea-Bissau: If a Boat Moored by P. Cardoso (article available online)

Amilcar Cabral

The Weapon of Theory (1966) (Political Speech available online)

National Liberation and Culture (1970) (Political Speech available online)

Amilcar Cabral’s theory of class suicide and revolutionary socialism by Tom Meisenhelder (1993) (Academic Essay available online)

Amilcar Cabral: an extraction from the literature (1998) (Academic Essay available online)

Critical Reflection on Amilcar Cabral’s Criteria for Citizenship by Victor Alumona (Academic Esssay available online)

Amilcar Cabral’s Vision of Diplomacy by Carmen Neto (Essay available online)

Portrait of Cabral by Ana Maria Cabral

Cabral’s Speeches and Writings available online in Portugese

Film Review: I Sing of a Well (2009) by Leila Djansi

Posted in African Film, African Filmmakers, African Women Filmmakers, Films, Ghanaian Film by the woyingi blogger on March 30, 2011

Film: I Sing of a Well (2009)

Director: Leila Djansi

Country: Ghana

Genre: Historical Drama

The film opens with the following words, written by Ghanaian actor J.O.T Agyeman, who also stars in the film, and  narrated by Jimmy Jean-Louis, the Haitian model turned actor, who is best known for his role as The Haitian in NBC’s Heroes.

In a time long ago, before Christopher Columbus, before the first ships made their way across the shores of Africa; before Asanteman and the Ashantehene, in the time of the Mali Empire and Mansa Musa, his influence and affluence. In the days when the dust of the ground rises with the crackling sound of the hoofs of horses and camels. When men flee the comfort of their homes for the deep of the forests. Torn from their holds and sent off into the sunset never to return. Running from the four corners of the earth, pursued by their own brothers. Their limbs severed from flesh to flesh in their bid to flee the hand of those who by-pass the will of the gods and make themselves gods. Through the darkness, their shadows encompass village after village creating widows and orphans. Emptying kingdoms of men and relieving kings of their stools and skins. In these times, the dry earth lived in fear. Everything, anyone, anything is an enemy. But in the kingdom of Kotengbi, a dwelling in the Ghana Empire, there are those whose spirit preserve in contentment and in soreness the instructions of reason about what he ought and ought not to fear. They are men of faith, men who still believe that will rule not in the space provided by the toil and suffering of their courage. Their fortitute exists not only in their resistance.

I Sing of a Well” is the first installment of the trilogy Legion of Slaves. Written, directed and co-produced by Leila Djansi, the film aims to give the African perspective on the West African slave trade. This first film is set in the Kingdom of Kotengbi, in the Ghana Empire, in the time of the rise of Mansa Musa in the Mali Empire. The Kingdom has begun to be troubled by slave raiders and the elderly king is at a loss about what to do and so decides to allow his son, Prince Wenambe (J.O.T Agyeman) to become king in the hopes that he will be able to find a solution. Prince Wenambe decides to build a stone wall around the Kingdom and pledge allegiance to Mansa Musa in the hopes that he will protect the Kingdom from slave raiders.

Within the Kingdom of Kotengbi, Soraya (Akofa E. Asiedu) and Dume (Godwin Kotey) are in love but Dume is a poor hunter and cannot afford the Bride Price that Soraya’s uncle Yohannes demands. From the start of the film, we meet the seer, Alaka, who has predicted that Dume will be the father of kings and Soraya will bear princes.

After saving her from being wiped for raising a false alarm about slave raiders, Prince Wenambe falls in love with Soraya and desires to marry her. Prince Wenambe is jealous of Dume and has him killed. Soraya, already pregnant with Dume’s son, is forced to marry Prince Wenambe. Prince Wenambe is driven to depression by Soraya’s indifference to him and the fact that his plan to protect his village has backfired now that Mansa Musa is enslaving his people.

I really enjoyed watching a historical drama written by Africans for Africans. It offers insights into the dynamics of the slave trade and resistance to the slave trade in West Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. We often do not discuss this aspect of our history and so I commend Djansi for taking the risk of exploring this subject matter.

The film, shot on a mini 35mm camera, was technically at a higher standard than is usually seen in Ghanaian films, bringing it closer to the level of cinematography seen in Francophone West African Art House films. The acting was excellent, although I felt that well-known Ghanaian actress Akofa Asiedu, who also co-produced the film, was miscast as the character of Soraya really should have been younger to make it believable that the Crown Prince would desire her from among all the possible women who he could marry.

There were also some serious historical anachronisms that troubled me. The opening narration clearly sets the story in the time before Christopher Columbus, during the reign of Mansa Musa, however, in one scene, Soraya’s mother is making cassava to eat, and even talks about cassava with Dume. But cassava is indigenous to Brazil and was only introduced to Africa by Portuguese traders, obviously after 1492. I also wonder if Djansi has made the common mistake of thinking that the Ghana Empire had anything to do with the present-day country Ghana-it doesn’t. The Ghana Empire was located in what is present-day South-Eastern Mauritania and Western Mali. The Ghana Empire had also fallen before the rise of the Mali Empire which actually contained the remains of the Ghana Empire.

Further Reading:

I Sing of a Well Website

I Sing of a Well Trailer available online

BBC The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms: Ancient Ghana (article available online)

BBC The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms: Mali (article available online)

About The Short Film Pumzi, an African Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic Morality Tale

I have recently stumbled upon the trailer for the short film Pumzi (Pumzi means ‘breath’ in Swahili). The film has been travelling around the US but I haven’t heard if it is coming to Canada. As a Sci-Fi fan, I would love to see more African Sci-Fi films. South Africa’s District 9 was visually stunning with a great plot but it had no Black African central characters. I want to see more Black African Sci-Fi heroes on film; they already are coming up in fiction, thanks to the work of writers like Nnedi Okorafor, a Nigerian American whose fantasy novel Zahrah the Windseeker I recently reviewed (See The Woyingi Blogger’s Review). 

From the short film Pumzi

The film is directed by young Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu who studied film at UCLA. Kahiu won Best Director at the Africa Movie Academy Awards for her film From a Whisper, about the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar el Salaam, Tanzania. I unknowingly had already seen her work as a director because she directed the behind the scenes documentary for Philip Noyce’s film Catch a Fire, which is based on a true story of a regular oil worker who becomes a freedom fighter in apartheid South Africa. She also directed a documentary about the Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai

Pumzi is a Kenyan/South African co-production. Its South African producers are Simon Hansen (who produced the short film Alive in Joburg which became the feature film District 9), Hannah Slezacek and Amira Quinlan of Inspired Minority Pictures. Kahiu was able to come up with the grant to finance the film from the Goethe Institut, Focus Features (which also produced District 9), and the Changamoto Fund. The film was shot over two weeks on location in South Africa. There were no Kenyan actors used. The film runs for about 21 minutes. It was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes, where it won Best Short Film. Kahiu is now working on trying to develop Pumzi into a feature-length film. 

South African Actress Kundzani Moswela with Kenyan Director Wanuri Kahiu

The film is set in East Africa 35 years after World War Three, the “Water War”. The war has caused large-scale ecological devastation. Put simply, “nature is extinct”. The land is uninhabitable so humans must leave inside specially sealed compounds. Humans only have recycled urine to drink. 

The central character of the film is Asha, played by Kudzani Moswela, a South African model and actress. Asha is a curator at a virtual natural history museum in the Maitu community, which is one of these compounds. One day she receives a sample of soil that is not toxic and she decides to use it to plant a seed she has in her possession. It starts to grow! Asha wishes to see if the soil sample is indicative that there is plant life on Earth again. In order to get permission to go outside she must apply for a visa from the authorities of the Maitu community. She is denied. Asha then decides to break out of the compound in order to see what is happening on the Earth’s surface for herself. 

Asha and the soil sample that might be a sign of hope for the future

Kahiu has written the following statement about writing and directing the film: 

DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT 

There is no part of myself that has not been involved in the making PUMZI. PUMZI has invaded my every thought, my dreams, my senses. PUMZI has been my heart and it’s rhythm. 

The film started as a joke. A friend and I pondered the possibility of living in a place where we paid for air. We invented the city, the virtual natural museums, the people. That was over 2 years, many tears, much frustration and several re-writes before the film was ready to go into production. At some point, the Universe (with help from Kisha Cameron) conspired and introduced me to the Producers of the film and it was a perfect fit. They were passionate about the project, profoundly knowledgeable about Sci-Fi and exceptionally generous with their expertise and resources. During pre-production one potential crewmember commented that making Pumzi (based on the budget and the ambition we had) was like pulling a rabbit out of a chicken’s ass’. Naturally he wasn’t hired, but the crew who were went above and beyond what was expected. 

A week before the shoot was scheduled to start we had not cast the lead character, Asha. And then Kudzani Moswela walked in. Her audition, her presence and her excitement for life dissipated any doubt. She was Asha. She breathed into the film unimaginable softness and courage. She became the heart of my heart. Her interpretation of Asha and the story was painfully tender and through it new, undiscovered layers of the film came alive. 

Now, years, months and many painful Visual Effects hours later, Pumzi is finished. More beautiful, more poignant, more charming than anyone expected. Pumzi is a visual ode to life. A life that (as described by Lorraine Hansberry)has within it that which is good, that which is beautiful and that which is love. Pumzi is the essence of all these. Pumzi is my breath. 

In an interview with Kenya’s Daily Nation, Kahiu states

Wangari Maathai has been talking about this issue for years and we never heed her advice so I am not here to tell people to conserve the environment alone, I am showing them what will happen if we don’t. 

According to Wired.com, Kahiu researched classic 1950s films to create Pumzi’s futuristic sets, comparing the processes of matte painting and rear-screen projection with indigenous African artwork. Kahiu states: 

We already have a tradition of tapestries and functional art and things like that, that loan a backdrop for films. 

Being a filmmaker in Africa is not easy. Not only is it hard to get financing for films, it is also not a respected profession. Kahiu, whose mother is a doctor and whose father is a businessman, still struggles for recognition even in her family. In an interview with CNN she said

I have aunts who come up and say ‘Oh, you’re still doing that thing?’ like I should move out of it, or it’s a phase I’m passing through. 

It is also particularly difficult to be a woman filmmaker. As Kahiu reflects

The success of Kathryn Bigelow shows how, even in 2010, it’s still like ‘Oh my gosh! A woman made a film that’s winning awards!’ It’s ridiculous. 

Kahiu is committed to building a profitable film industry in Kenya. She says

I would like to work and build an industry, so that everyone walks away well-paid, with great hours. 

Kahiu would advise young African filmmakers to do the following

To write their own stories. Their own experience as Africans. And to plant a tree. 

Further Reading: 

Website for the film Pumzi 

Trailer for the film Pumzi 

Interview (2009) of Wanuri Kahiu in the Kenya Daily Nation available online 

Interview (2009) of Wanuri Kahiu in Jamati.com available online 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu by CNN available online 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu in Wired.com 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu by Bird’s Eye View 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu in Vogue Black 

Website for Kahiu’s film From a Whisper 

Trailer for the film From a Whisper

Watch Kahiu’s short film Ras Star available online

Website of Awali Entertainment Ltd, co-founded by Kahiu 

Website of Focus Features’ Africa First Program

Website of the African Movie Academy Awards 

A particularly cool image from the short film Pumzi