FILM REVIEWS – TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2013

REVIEWED BY BRIAN ZAVITZ

Films from Africa

Over last decade there has been a gradual but noticeable change in the films from Africa being brought to the Festival. While there are still the small-budget independent efforts, focussed on traditional life or its interface with city or foreign influences, there are more and more large budget productions appearing. These are not the products of big studios like Blood Diamond and their ilk, which use the backdrop of Africa merely as an excuse for the story, but “made in Africa” films. Even though they may benefit from some outside money and collaboration, and appeal to a wider public than the smaller efforts, they grow out of the artistic vision of African talent.

Tsotsi was perhaps the first of this genre to break into international prominence, but it was only the first sign of a growing wave. Of the 21 films and handful of shorts from various African countries on the programme this year, a larger percentage than ever were of this type.

 

 

Mandela: Long walk to Freedom

I am probably safe in asserting that there is no person alive today who commands such universal respect as Nelson Mandela. He is regarded with awe and affection around the world for the dignity and moral authority he embodies, born out of his righteous convictions and the personal suffering and triumph those brought upon him in his struggle against apartheid in South Africa. So it is particularly timely, just when the world’s attention is drawn by his failing health, for a major documentary about his life to be released.

Based on his autobiography of the same name, Long Walk to Freedom chronicles events both familiar and unfamiliar to those whose acquaintance with him has come solely from news reports. His early reluctance to become involved with the ANC and his eventual embracing of violent means, or his failings as a husband and father, are not usually incorporated in the hagiography of his imprisonment and release from Robben Island, and his subsequent rise to political office and international influence.

But this is the story of a whole life, an honest story about an honest man who made mistakes, learned and changed and grew, but who miraculously kept his ideals intact through events that would have crushed– or seduced– them out of any lesser man. In the end, fame and power did not undermine those ideals any more than torture did. And though this project took 25 years to bring to fruition, it remains the only film chronicle of Mandela’s life which has his personal blessing.

As Mandela, Idris Elba is entirely convincing, capturing the physical and vocal character of the man with surprising fidelity. With an excellent supporting cast (including Naomie Harris as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela) and high production values (relying on local talent wherever possible), this is an inspiring movie about one of the world’s greatest figures.

Footnote: as of this writing, Mandela is still alive, but with growing mystery and controversy surrounding his condition. Some evidence suggests he is being kept artificially alive until his family can overturn his chosen executors– a danger Mandela apparently foresaw and attempted to prevent. See  http://guardianlv.com/2013/09/mandela-legacy-betrayed-by-family-and-country

 

Half of a Yellow Sun

Based on a true story of a wealthy Nigerian family during the upheaval caused by the secession of Biafra and the resulting civil war, Half of a Yellow Sun was a prize-winning play by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This excellent film adaptation by Biyi Bandele does a masterful job of transferring a tale of epic character for a wider audience.

The story follows the lives of two sisters, Kainene and Olanna, each of whom has received education at distinguished Western universities. Coming home just as the country gains its independence from England in the mid-1960s, they embark on very different paths. Kainene marries a white journalist and steps in as a senior executive of her father’s business enterprises, while Olanna takes a position at a Nigerian university and finds herself in a troubled relationship with a fellow-Nigerian who also has a position there.

At first the characters, and the film, are pre-occupied with details of their personal lives, so the political events remain a backdrop until they can no longer be ignored. Social tensions between tribal groups– the ruling Ibo are resented for their monopoly on political and economic power– and the resulting political conflicts end with the southern portion of the country breaking away and forming a separate state. The ensuing waves of refugees create a humanitarian crisis, which is made much worse when war breaks out between the two states.

The parents flee the country, but the sisters and their husbands determine to stay, convinced that things will never get as bad as some predict. Sadly, they get much worse than anyone could have imagined. As the situation inexorably deteriorates, Kainene manages to hold on to some position of privilege for a time, but one day is caught up in the violence and disappears forever.

Olanna and her family find themselves fleeing the carnage, becoming refugees themselves.

It is a powerful story, powerfully presented, and surprisingly the only weak note in it is the star, Thandie Newton, whose character of Olanna is the pivot for all the relationships. While generally good, Newton cannot seemingly summon the depth of emotion called for by the events that transpire. But that is a slight dent in an otherwise fine production, and this directorial debut does Bandele, and the Nigerian film industry, credit

 

 

Rock the Casbah

With an entirely different glimpse into the lives of a privileged minority in Africa, Rock the Casbah presents a refreshing, if unexpected, tale of laughter and tears. A wealthy businessman, Moulay Hassan, has just died, and his family is gathered at their grand villa in Tangiers for the prescribed three days of mourning. But this is not your usual Moroccan family. Hassan was a cosmopolitan man, and two of his daughters are living abroad, pursuing acting careers. One is going through a divorce, the other has been estranged from the family for murky reasons. The third daughter married another wealthy Moroccan, while the mother remains at home, her bitterness over secrets of the past now bubbling to the surface. The grandmother is a smoking, drinking, straight-talking affront to every Muslim ideal of womanhood. And Hassan– well, his body lies in a parlour, smothered in ice to keep it from deteriorating in the heat, while his spirit wanders the grounds, striking up friendly little conversations with the American-born son of the middle sister.

Got that? Think Bergman meets Golden Girls. And in this, her second feature film, screenwriter and director Laïla Marrakchi handles the unlikely combination with verve and aplomb. Beginning with the humorous approach, she introduces us to the family through saucy and often hilarious conversation as they gather at home, catch up on each other’s lives, and target everything and everyone they discuss with irreverent commentary.

As we are introduced to more characters, the playful mood turns more serious. There are issues here– old hurts, old mysteries, old loves. And there is the old man, and an old fig tree which he proudly points out to his young friend as the first thing he planted on the now luxurious grounds.

Before the story is done, there are revelations, romance, rejections and reconciliations– a bit formulaic, perhaps, but filled with such intelligent love for its characters that it never becomes maudlin or trite.

The dead man is played with gracious dignity by Omar Sharif. The rest of the cast, drawn from a superb Levantine talent pool, includes Nadine Labaki (who directed and acted in the delightful Caramel), Lubna Azabal (Incendies) and Morjana Alaoui (Martyrs) as the sisters, and Hiam Abbass as the mother. The wide-ranging soundtrack is notable as well, especially for a perfectly, poignantly placed song by Antony and the Johnsons.

 

 

Under the Starry Sky

Not everyone who leaves Africa, of course, is a wealthy cosmopolite in pursuit of an acting career. Some are poor townsfolk, looking for a job, and a few of them are looking for the relative or friend-of-a-friend who preceded them.

In Under the Starry Sky, director and co-writer Dyana Gaye gives us a wonderfully conceived and perceptively elaborated meditation on the circumstances such people can find themselves in, and on the widely varied inter-relationships that develop as a result.

Young Sophie travels from Dakar to Turin to re-unite with her husband Abdoulaye, who had left for Italy in search of work. Once there, she cannot find him. Unknown to her, Abdoulaye actually has gone on to New York with his cousin Serigne, convinced that they will have better chances there if they can connect with Sophie’s aunt Rose, who left Senegal twenty years before and reputedly has prospered.

They find that indeed she has prospered, but she is unfortunately out of town for an indefinite period. In fact, she has returned to Senegal to attend the funeral of her husband. Her American-born son Thierno has travelled with her– he has never been to Senegal, and has never met the extended family there, including the dead man’s second wife and her children.

Using this circular chain of locations and relations allows Gaye to explore multiple themes about both leaving home and returning, about the emigrant experience at different stages. Sophie is experiencing the outside world and the immigrant life for the first time, and also discovering some troubling stories about her husband from the small group of compatriots she connects with. Abdoulaye is confronting the hard realities of life, along with the kindness of strangers, in the “promised land” of America, and like Sophie, is torn between returning or trying to stay and make things work. Rose does return, and finds that both the things that have changed, and those that haven’t, make for difficulties. It seems that only Thierno is making the transition gracefully. With no baggage from the past and no expectations, he takes things as he finds them, gradually making friends with his half-brothers, and catching the eye of the young girls around him.

It’s a thoughtful and sophisticated story-line–  though it reminds me a little too much of a soap opera with the tangled relationships and circular, episodic scripting. But there rewarding insights and quiet moments of truth along the way.

 

I was also fortunate to get to a collection of short films from a range of directors with sometimes unusual perspectives on contemporary African life.

In Homecoming, Jim Chuchu (Kenya) gives us a pithy and amusing glimpse of a young voyeur who gets an abrupt comeuppance. He’s an apartment dweller who is spying on a pretty neighbour and taking clandestine photos of her through her window, and has his fantasies shattered in one quick stroke.

 

Kwaku Ananse was a little gem about a young woman returning to her ancestral village in Ghana, confronting the mysteries she finds there, and the unexpected evasiveness of wisdom.

Even more compelling and unexpected was Berea, the story of an elderly and reclusive Jewish man living in a rapidly-changing neighbourhood in Johannesburg. He hasn’t left his apartment in years, having all his needs met by a series of housekeepers, and not only is he completely unaware of the new South Africa swirling around him, but is losing his grip on reality itself.

An accidental encounter with a black prostitute threatens to collapse his fragile mental state, but in a moment of grace the shock is transformed, breaking through to his heart, and he begins a painful, tentative journey to reconnect with humanity.

The story was written by Makgano Mamabolo and Lodi Matsetela, and directed by Vincent Moloi with clear-eyed compassion. As the old man, Wilson Dunster is perfect, conveying both the irritable, confused senility and re-awakened awareness with deft, understated skill

 

Unogumbe-Noye’s Fludde

 

When Cape Town’s Dimpho Di Kopane lyric theatre company brought its version of Bizet’s Carmen to the screen in 2005, it was a bolt out of the blue. Set in Khayelitsha township and sung entirely in Xhosa, it was a stunning, powerful and uplifting reworking of the classic opera.

They are back this year with an even more audacious work– a staging of the short Benjamin Britten opera Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood). Written in 1957, the opera is a dramatic re-telling of the Biblical story of Noah and the ark, and in Unogumbe-Noye’s Fludde the company (re-named as Isango Ensemble) pulls out all the stops. The slimmest of budgets forces them to be highly inventive in their presentation, and as sometimes is the case, here necessity is the mother of wonderful invention.

The ark, for instance, is a Rube Golberg contraption of fiberglass panels held together with insulating foam, but director Mark Dornford-May and the company approach it all with such conviction and joy that the rudimentary set enhances, rather than detracts from, the overall artistry.

The libretto is again translated to Xhosa (with sub-titles in the original mediaeval English), and the singers, while perhaps not world-class, bring a wholehearted energy to the work that is exhilarating. Pauline Malefane was a dynamic Carmen, and now, cast as a female Noah, she is again a power to be reckoned with. The woman is wonderful to watch, and to hear.

Mixing footage from studio practice with that shot on the primitive set and at a stage performance for children, the film is as visually arresting as it is musically exciting. Indonesian-style shadow puppets are brought in for the action scenes, and when massive special effects are required for the storm and the flood– well, it’s the children’s drawings from their art project after the performance that are pressed into service. The effect is magical,  and charming.

Altogether, another truly triumphant achievement for Dornford-May and the Ensemble.

 

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