The 22nd New York African Film Festival, as usual, offers films of great creativity, some spectacular, fascinating, and visually arresting. The films run from crime thrillers to art projects with forms varying from the near Brechtian to the sharp pop visual. If you didn’t go this year, go next year and every year. This festival showcases, always, some of the most original and entertaining talent in cinema today.
SOME FILMS TO SEE:
THE NARROW FRAME OF MIDNIGHT (ITAR EL-LAYL)
Dir: Tala Hadid
This is the New York premiere of The Narrow Frame of Midnight, produced in part by Louverture Films. Joslyn Barnes and Danny Glover, who created and run Louverture, have produced work by Abderrahmane Sissako, Elia Sulieman, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lucrecia Martel, James Longley, and many others. Hadid is a like-minded director, also interested in alinear narratives and experimentation with space and pacing. As Glover, in interview, said of The Narrow Frame of Midnight, it’s a film “where almost every frame has the whole story.”
Hadid has accomplished something remarkable. Influenced by cartography, she conceived the film as a map because a map has ever revising frontiers and it “can change” […] “depend[ing] on who is seeing it or when.” Set in Morocco, Turkey and Iraq (the Iraq scenes were shot in Jordan), The Narrow Frame of Midnight intersects two storylines through one character, a Moroccan-Iraqi man, Zacharia, and his return to Iraq to search for his brother who had joined radical Islamists and deserted his wife and children. On his way, Zacharia becomes involved in the life of a seven year old girl who is being trafficked out of Morocco. The film reveals the violence of these situations by offering almost no violence. It’s there because it’s obvious, especially in the film’s Iraq sequences, where the film slows. There is little action but the presence of place becomes stronger and the war’s presence becomes stronger. The still but explicit scenes, with little dialogue, such as one in an open morgue, filled with bodies, on a hot day or another of two men in a small room barely talking about the missing brother, bring up the flesh and blood world of life and the film becomes less about ‘story’ than about not being able to tell a story. Cinematographer Alexander Burov, who worked with Alexander Sokoruv, moves his camera in a constant slow pushing motion, in every direction, so that the film feels like a floating grid. Through what could be described as an episodic narrative, this ever present, barely noticeable camera movement draws the film together visually, or perceptibly, in a way that overrides, or at least rivals, the stories themselves. Equally, the sound, entirely diegetic and often silent, on which Hadid and her sound editor, Jamie McPhee, spent five months working, is also a greater presence, in some sense, than the stories.
The title is taken from a Walter Benjamin line, in his essay, “Trauerspiel and Tragedy” in The Origins of German Tragic Drama, where he describes “midnight” as something that becomes, in the human imagination, neither a time nor a place, but is appointed a role where structures fall away, momentarily, and events slip through. Benjamin sees this “narrow frame” or, what he calls, an “opening in the passage of time” as both theater (whereby history is dramatized as tragedy) and living moment. The narrow frame brings together structure (drama) and its dissolution (life) and allows both to inhabit each other at the same time. Hadid applies Benjamin’s thought as almost a éminence grise. Rather than take the line as an epigraph, she tries to open the idea itself through her own structuring devices and bring into the film a sense of unknown possibility as well as one of fear.
Remarkable, perceptive, brilliantly executed film. Must see.
This is the US Premiere of Dube’s intriguing 2011 documentary on Robert Sobukwe, one of the South African anti-apartheid movement’s leading figures [19xx- 1977]. Originally made for SABC, a South African television station, for their series on Great Icons, Sobukwe: A Great Soul was then re-edited into a feature.
The films reveals not just the story of Sobukwe, at one time a man known around the world from heads of state to villagers, but the mystery of his disappearance from the archives and memory of current culture. Dube and his team spent almost a year searching for data and found that even Sobukwe’s prison records have been excised and, though considered one of 20th century’s great orators, any audio recordings of his speeches were also impossible to find.
Dube thinks that Sobukwe is erased in part because he is still too radical a thinker. Sobukwe, who militantly stood up to the South African pass laws, was imprisoned on Roben Island and endured years of house arrest, held an equally militant egalitarian conviction that divisions of race were divisive. He felt that there was one race, the “human race,” that integrity and commitment were the soul of a person, and that acceptance of humanity without hierarchy into groups was the only way forward.
Dube, whose has had a career in commercials and music videos, used his experience in art and advertisement, to move out of the conventions of the bio-doc and portray Sobukwe through a vitalized visual structure. Through video formats, split screens, contemporary interviews (including Ahmed Kathrada, Cornell West, Andrew Young, Pik Botha), video diaries, re-enactment vignettes of varying lengths, solarizations, and real footage and photographs, Dube crafted a deft film that moves seamlessly inside the difficult and jumbled history of a long, very violent, very peopled movement, without a sense of hurry. To get a real life feel for Sobukwe, Dube utilized re-enactment scenes that are punchy, simple, attractive and somehow, though done in period, still contemporary. He asked his costume designer specifically to costume the actors in 50s or 60s clothing but to create an atmosphere that felt accessible, real. In the Q&A at the New York African Film Festival, on opening night, he said that he wanted to “attract youth” and used devices that suited a culture hyped on short bursts of information. This film is an important addition to the historicization of the anti-apartheid movement. Dube has gripped Sobukwe as both a real person and as a political character and made an accessible, impressionistic image of him that will help to bring Sobukwe out of his strange obscurity and to a new audience.
Fascinating, smart & exuberant documentary on Robert Sobukwe. Must see.
Unique, piercing, subtle and, at times, funny film that takes the complicated, strife ridden reality of Ethiopian Jews trying to live within the prejudices of Israel [see links], and focuses, in an almost Brechtian manner, on the ordinary story of an old man, who, believing himself his family’s entitled patriarch, is forced into the real society around him when he tries to live with his various children. The film begins in a low roofed animal pen, with a hand held camera closely shooting a man trying to grab a goat. It ends with the old man in a dry, sunlit open lot in a city. Gete films with a tight framing throughout even to the point of cutting off parts of his figures, either close or far, so that they are always too fully in the frame, such as having the top of a head cut off or seen in body profile or leaning together or in a doorway. This gives both a sense of intimacy and claustrophobia and, oddly, is part of the devices that keep the story moving swiftly even without much dialogue. Something in Gete’s method feels like Frederick Wiseman or early John Cassevettes and, though it doesn’t seem like cinema verité, this creates a sort of Brechtian but subtle short hand. We come to see the obvious from scene to scene as the father leaves one household in contempt or rage only to be unable to fit into another. The incidents, which cause his outbursts, are small but are recognizable. Gete uses this obviousness to great effect and his actors play out the details very well, especially Ruti Asarsai, the lead. The film resonates as both acted and documentary-like, politically polemical and comfortably familiar, and both closed and open. The film begins with the old man’s certainty in his crowded household and ends with him in the open, as stateless, disoriented, lost.
In Gete’s film the Ethiopian Jews’ life inside Israel is barely referenced but Gete adds in something that suggests this back story. He stated in the Q&A that he chose the title Red Leaves because he wanted something simple, one “without layers,” but the layers were implied once he revealed that he had “adapted” William Faulkner’s 1930 entangled short story Red Leaves. Set in colonial, rural New Orleans, Faulkner’s story is mysterious but his context is clear. It is about people out of sync - African American slaves, native Indians, and slave owners where identities, personally strong, are constantly weakened, malleable, and interpreted. It’s a story about land appropriation, power seen from different perspectives, barricades, and the violence and artificiality of entitlement. By proxy, this use of Faulkner’s story of shifting tiers of enjoinment, abuse and acceptance pulls up the rife larger contemporary world of family, prejudice and concepts of ownership into which Gete’s Red Leaves fits.
A powerful film made by a canny, straight-forward and artistic filmmaker. Must see.
Krampelhuber interviews artists, singers, musicians, fashion designers, graffitists and more, many of whom have transitioned from one art form to another, who are part of the vibrant Dakar art scene. Though a simple film, Krampelhuber creates an encompassing sense of how this scene lives within the city and, as such, she begins the film in the street and ends in the street, having woven through clubs, dressing rooms, studios, and corridors, to reveal how these Senegalese artists perceive themselves, their art and their ideas about marketing their skills in a world markets. There is little support from Senegal subsidies, not enough customer support in Dakar and difficult export laws in Europe/ US trade. There is something both grounded and loose about the film, which makes it accessible to an outsider audience.
An intimate, absorbing look at Dakar’s current art scene.
Filmed in Cape Town, this is a delightfully funny story of the loves of four people, a couple who have trouble understanding their personal sense of committing to one another, a recently rejected man who can’t let go of his ex and a teenage boy who is in the ex girlfriend’s family and wants to stay friends with the ex-boyfriend, who intertwine suddenly. Bass’s intercutting between these people creates a rhythm that keeps the film moving swiftly but the details, of how each person begins to see life differently and inconclusively, are on the mark, lighted-hearted and still soulful.
In order to draw attention to the pollution that is ravaging the world, and Senegal landscapes in specific, photographer Fabrice Monterio collaborates with designer Jah Gal to build wild, gigantic, grotesque, sculptural costumes. They create them from waste, such as oil, plastic bags, and other trash, found on the land and along the shorelines, and fix them to the bodies of live models. The women either pose, swim or walk and Monterio photographs them in situ making images that are stunning, beautiful and sickening. Juzga’s short film, charting their progress and their ideas, is succinct and gripping.
Gripping, exotic short film on two inventive artists’ art project on world pollution.