8

While ostensibly a horror, because the mystery is explained early on and the main villain is so sympathetic, you could also see 8 as a supernatural drama. Set in 1970s South Africa, Mary is an orphan living with her aunt and uncle, as they move back to their family farm. There she meets Lazarus, a wandering man with a kindly disposition, and the two strike up a friendship. But there is a dark evil in this place, and it draws both their lives into its design.

The plot follows that of a traditional ghost story, but with in a manner stylistic enough to keep the audience engaged. The performances are strong, especially that of Tshamano Sebe playing Lazarus, who infuses the character with such tragedy and vulnerability that it warps the good versus evil binary that such a straightforward ghost story should tell.

Poppie Nongena

Poppie Nongena is about a woman, who finds out the week before Christmas that she has now been deemed an illegal immigrant in the country of her birth. The film is set 1970s apartheid South Africa, when the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act deported black South Africans to territories the government had assigned to each ethnicity. As a Xhosa woman, Poppie is scheduled to be deported to Transkei, a place she has never been.

I didn’t even know about the Bantu Homelands scheme, it was just one of the many atrocities that get wrapped up and buried in the word ‘apartheid’. The history that its beneficiaries now sell of apartheid is one of separate buses and doors, as though it was merely an inconvenient unfairness. Not living in a state of permanent terror that the government, and police, and pretty much any white person with a mind to, could do anything they wanted to you with impunity.

Poppie Nongena is a film about a woman coming to the end of her strength. Of having worked and struggled and swallowed all she can take in a world that is perpetually set against her existence, and having weathered each wave of hatred over the years, as it takes new forms, new laws, waiting to see if this one will be the one that drowns her. And finally she has met the wave that is about smash her family to pieces.

Poppie’s husband is disabled and can’t work. If he was working, she could apply to stay, and he spends the film frustrated and desperate to save the family he has seen her carry on her back for years. She tries to get her employer to intervene, and tries to get help from anti-apartheid activists, and begs her friends. All want to help her, but the juggernaut is unstoppable.

While she’s trying to keep her family united in the face of this adversity, it is falling apart. Her eldest son has joined organised radical resistance against apartheid, who take direct action to destroy government property and halt government activity. Their worldview is simple and clear, because they are ideological and young. They resent the accommodations the older generations have made, which has bartered their children out of a future. The necessary sacrifices their parents have made, their daily negotiation through apartheid, is seen as collaboration, which must be ended, by force if necessary. They spend almost as must time policing their own people as they do fighting the source of their oppression.

As the younger generation seem born in fire to fight without compromise, Poppy feels her own strength waning. She feels like she is coming to the end of a very long fight she no longer believes she can win, and is about to blow away like leaves.

This film in a way is about the strength that got generations through apartheid, not just worked to overturn it. The generations of women who held their families together. That provided for their families. That got their kids their schooling. That passed down the sense of self-respect and dignity necessary to survive in a world determined to tell you you were entitled to neither.

Kmedeus

I wanna go to Sao Vicente, it looks amazing chill. Also weird. A place where everyone is an artist, everyone has a passion, everyone is creative. People are never introduced as storekeeper, but storekeeper/cinephile, their engagement with and contribution to the cultural life of the island is acknowledged and validated.

Kmedeus is a film memorialising a ‘street lunatic’ who made outsider art in Sao Vicente. Since little remains of his life or his origins, the film is made of interviews with people who knew him, who were influenced by his art, and tributes to him in dance and painting.

It is equally a film about Sao Vicente, a place Kmedeus drew inspiration from and where he found a community of sorts. I think that is what is heartening about this film. This is a film made by the artists of Sao Vicente to acknowledge the contribution this mentally ill, homeless person made to their community and their work. That despite the immovable maladies of this world, a place could be made in the community for everyone, and their differences respected and accepted.

Antonio Tavares, a local musician, dancer and choreographer, links the unique perspective of Kmedeus (a name that means Eat God), with the movement to decolonialise both the art and the mind of the artist. In a world where sanity and sense is defined and handed down by the oppressor, there is resistance in insanity and nonsense. In speaking in his own individual voice, Kmedeus was an inspiration to Tavares to reach for an authentic sense of self.

While art is so often used to immortalise the artist, street art, like the street artist, is so often transient. Much of Kmedeus’s art has been whitewashed over, or lost or unrecorded. Instead we trace its ghost as it moves through the work of others.

I think Kmedeus’s art meant so much to the people of Sao Vicente because it chimed with character of the place. It was at once playful, with a sincere searching for meaning. Fused with syncretism, yet wholly authentic to itself.

And weird. Sao Vicente seems very weird.

How To Steal A Country

How To Steal A Country is a documentary on the Gupta state capture scandal that ended Jacob Zuma’s presidency. I remember hearing about the state corruption reports at the time, but watching this, it was so much worse than I remember. Apparently almost 1 trillion rand was funnelled out of public coffers under Zuma’s tenure.

The Guptas were Indian-South African businessmen, who inserted themselves into Jacob Zuma’s inner circle, and used their power and money to manipulate contracts and procurements for nearly every public works. This film does a good job of explaining what can at times feel like overwhelming and confusing machinations, just for the sheer number of complex scandals. They effectively hollowed out government over the course of a decade, where the running of all public services, from transport to security to energy, were within their control, and being run for their profit.

The real heroes here are the journalists and activists who fought tirelessly to expose these crimes. The uncovering of this corruption could not have been done without activists willing to fight for their democracy, voting to replace Zuma’s crony as president of the ANC, and protesting and taking to the streets to keep pressure on for action. What Zuma and the Guptas underestimated was the vigilance the South African people have over their democracy. It’s creation happened within their lifetime, and many remember what it was like before its inception. There is less complacency and more political engagement than you see in some countries where corruption has already destroyed people’s faith in their system.

Also, in a world where we are increasingly seeing journalists being branded enemies of the people for questioning the narrative of those in power, it was really refreshing to see a film with journalists braving abuse and attacks to get the truth out – that the people were being robbed, and their democracy sold out from under them. It shows how integral their role can be in mobilising against the erosion of democracy.

If you like this …

The Psychosis of Whiteness

The Psychosis of Whiteness is a film essay analysing the movies Amistad, Belle, and Amazing Grace for how they create a false narrative around transatlantic slavery, in which white people are the central protagonists acting as saviours to agency-less black people, in order to propagate and perpetuate the myths and delusions around those historic crimes, and their continued affects through racism today, to a white audience.

Now. Here’s why those films are important. While some people may have seen more accurate depictions of slavery in films like 12 Year A Slave, or on tv like Roots, the first, biggest budget, and most widely promoted films are those three films. If you are new to the subject of slavery, either because you’re young, or because you’ve never been exposed, you are far more likely to have seen trailers for and ads to go see Belle and Amazing Grace, than you are to have been encouraged to see Roots. So it’s important that this is the message that is reaching people first, and creating their impressions of what slavery was about.

Secondly, it is important to reflect on these movies and ask ourselves why are we pouring so much money into telling this kind of story over and over again? What purpose does it serve? And what are its effects?

There is also then tendency to dismiss criticism of historical films for inaccuracy. By virtue of being a recreation, people expect historical films to be inaccurate, and are mostly just going along for the story. No one cares if it is a button or a popper on the guy’s lapel in Peaky Blinders, even though one would be historically inaccurate, why should they care about this? Well, because it’s not about inaccuracies in dress or location or set design that we’re talking about. We’re talking about racist propaganda being given millions of pounds to be spread as widely as possible. And that matters.

So what do Amistad, Belle, and Amazing Grace have in common? They all focus on court or governmental procedures relating to slavery in which abolition is billed as the end point of victory. They all focus on white protagonists in a largely white cast, where black people are represented as being ‘done to’ and helpless. The black actors are frequently silent, unintelligible, or in the case of Amazing Grace, spending just under 1 and half minutes speaking out of the 2 hour runtime. The eventual victory of the films’ heroes is seen as a full-stop, in which racism and the exploitation of black people becomes a thing of the past.

They are also largely fictional. Even when they cherrypick an exceptional case, like that in Amistad, where the court ruled in the favour of slaves, they still have to alter the substance of the arguments to be moral condemnations of slavery, as opposed to what was actually put forth, which was a very technical matter of law. The case of the Amistad was not an argument against slavery, nor did it lead to abolition as the film implies, as slavery continued for another half century in the US.

In Belle, the decision to rule in favour of an insurance company over the captain of a slave ship is depicted as pivotal in acknowledging the humanity of black people and valuing their lives, again supposedly laying the foundation for abolition. Truth is it was a ruling entirely in keeping with the status quo, a decision that made the continuance of slavery easier, and contrarily, had the opposite happened, and the decision been found for the ship’s captain, it would have actually thrown more of a wrench into the workings of slavery.

In Amazing Grace, the British Parliament passes legislation to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, supposedly due to the efforts of one man, William Wilberforce. No mention is made of the historical context in which this change took place, where Britain was essentially getting squeezed out a market America was better at, that the Haitian Revolution had made slavery in the British West Indian colonies a much greater financial risk, nor that the slaveowners were compensated in the biggest government payout to a civilian endeavour ever in its history, while slaves themselves were given nada. Nor is any mention made of the fact they are sitting surrounded by the wealth that the slave trade has made them, and they’re just going to keep that, thank you very much.

In all three movies, black people are passive observers in a drama about white people’s consciences. The violence against them is minimised, either taking place in brief flashbacks, again emphasising their place in the past, or happens not at all. They are not shown as central, active in their fight for their freedom, or leading the charge against slavery, or even speaking at all much of the time. They are props in a story about whiteness to a white audience. Their pain and oppression is merely the playground in which the white protagonist can play saviour.

While it is easy to dismiss Amistad, Belle, Amazing Grace as three crap films that don’t get it right, it is important to note that these are the stories being promoted. They are not all accidentally identically inaccurate in a racist way, they are deliberately created and promoted because they are the story a white audience wants to hear about itself.

Time for them to stop getting what they want.

I Am Samuel

Beautiful and intimate documentary about Samuel, a gay Kenyan, who is considering coming out to his family now that he has met the love of his life, Alex.

This film for me was about the universalities and uniqueness of queer people’s stories. Every queer person watching this can identify with growing up receiving the message that straight is the only way to be, and thinking you are the only person you know who is queer, and having anxiety about parental rejection when you come out. Across the world, queer people can identify with that.

Yet this film is also about Samuel’s story in particular. He grew up in a rural, religious family. The family is very close. As a teenager, to try to conform to being straight, he slept with and knocked up a local girl, and now is raising a daughter as a single dad. She stays with his sister while he goes to work in the city, in order to earn the family a little money, and pay for his daughter’s schooling. But in Nairobi, he had a complete awakening. He realised he is not the only gay person, that there is in fact numerous gay people, and plenty right there in Nairobi. He made a crowd of friends, met and fell in love with Alex.

Kenya is a very devoutly Christian country, and being gay is illegal there. Homophobic violence is a constant source of worry.

But what was really encouraging about this film was there, like here, things are changing. Just because you can’t see them on the surface, in the penal code, on the tv screen, doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. And it’s happening as it happens all around the world, another universal queer experience: things change when people live their truth openly, and when people choose love over hate.

If you like this …

Beyond My Steps

This film is fucking gorgeous. Beyond My Steps in a documentary following the Contemporary Dance Company of Angola as the dancers rehearse for the performance of the piece (De)construction. Choreographed by Monica Anapaz, the piece deals with construction and deconstruction of central cultural themes of identity, place, tradition and change.

The cinematography of this film is just spectacular. It is sumptuous to watch, bringing alive with sharp clarity this vibrant, bright and colourful place, people and performance. The score is also excellent, all tying together with film’s focus on communication through art.

The dancers reflect on what they are bringing to the performance, and what the piece means to them. They are predominantly from the provinces, and are now working and living in the capital, so urban alienation is a factor, with the divide of the rural and urban mirroring the tense negotiation between tradition and increasing globalisation. The different way of life can often be jarring, with increased access to technology, tv and social media often existing side by side with less community cohesion and interconnectedness.

And nationally, there is a struggle for cohesion, especially with the legacy of the decades-long civil war. CDCA is the first professional dance company in Angola, and they want their work to speak to the diversity of the country, but also bring that together, as one performance by complementary performers.

For the dancers, how this piece finds a way to incorporate traditional Angolan dance forms syncretic with contemporary modern, and its deconstructive process, speaks to a continual lived experience in which we carry who we are forward in our lives, collectively. While trying capture the choreographer’s unique vision, they nonetheless create a universal message.

Just beautiful.

If you like this …

I Loved So Much

I Loved So Much is a documentary about Fadma, a 75-year-old woman who has lived an incredible life.

Firstly, I LOVED Fadma. She is an absolute legend. There is nothing better than a wee auld granny who tells it straight. She shies away from nothing, and calls everything as she sees it. She has such enthusiasm for living, she’s more alive than most of us. She always laughing, or smiling, and takes every opportunity to dance when music is on the go. She’s warm-hearted and kind, and everyone in this film agrees they are better for having known her. A woman of great spirit.

When I read the synopsis about this film, I thought it was going to be grim, very serious, and controversial. Fadma left Morocco at age 20 to become a prostitute in the French army as they headed off to fight in Vietnam. Now, she wants a pension, same as the soldiers, for the work she did in the war. Anyone reading a synopsis like that would be prepared for a sobering film, but that’s because you haven’t met Fadma. Her story is one of adventure and joy. Even now, in the hardships of poverty, she can’t believe her good luck at having had such a life.

She travelled the world, she’s had numerous lovers, she was wounded in war, and she was able to adopt two wonderful sons. She considers herself to have had many blessings. And now she’s the star of a film all about her!

While she tells plainly the unfairness of her lack of pension, of her abusive ex-husband burning the papers she might have used to make her claim to the French government, and of the hardship of her current situation, she tells all as part of the adventure of her life. She begs on the streets now, and it is what it is, but even there she makes friends with a busker, and uses it as an opportunity to dance.

If only we could all face our hardships with such grace. A really inspiring woman. She deserves every cent of that pension.

The Mayor’s Race

The Mayor’s Race follows Labour politician Marvin Rees’s journey to becoming elected mayor of Bristol. This made him only the third Black British mayor in the UK, and the first to be directly elected by voters.

It’s hard to talk about this film without getting into a whole conversation about politics, and I mean what politics is, not just parties and votes. That’s not really the purpose of a film review, so I’ll try to keep it brief and relevant. The first impression Rees gives is one of profound naivety. His optimism, hope, and genuine belief that more representatives from marginalised communities will translate into power being use for the benefit of those communities, is almost not credible. It’s like, have you seen THE WORLD before? You can’t possibly think, as a grown man who’s paying attention, that this is how this works. It made me think of Mamadou Ngela from This Is Congo, where you’re like, do you know what game you’re playing?

Secondly, you watch how much work and emotional labour goes into running one of these campaigns and you just think, imagine if this much energy went into directly solving the problems, instead of going through the roundabout route of party politics. Think of how much time and effort goes into each political campaign, not just the winner’s, and not just from the candidate, but from the volunteers, staff, journalists, activists, and voters themselves. Then think about what might be achieved if that effort went on direct work solving community problems, instead of a competition in which the majority of it will be wasted as only one candidate can win, and even then their job will be to seek permission for the problem to be solved.

Finally, it does seem to dawn on Rees as the movie goes on, that there are widespread systemic issues, that are not solved by changing the face on the front of the machine. The film shows rallies by the EDL, who are the convenient and accepted face of racism in British consciousness, as if they and only they are racist, and the rest of us needn’t worry about racism beyond their monopoly. But then it also shows the police protecting the EDL rally, but attacking the anti-racism counter-protestors. Is that going to change under a Black mayor? Our survey says no.

But. BUT. I don’t think it can be underestimated what it means to have public figures who represent unrepresented or underrepresented communities. Why do we expect one black, working-class politician to change the world, and scrutinise him according to that standard, but are completely indifferent to an upper-class, white political hegemony that is entirely self-serving, and maintains a status quo that is to the detriment of the vast majority of people? Party politics held in such low regard, that we just expect it not to work, and not to represent us, and only save our ire for someone selling an attempt at its elevation.

Perhaps because the film follows Rees and his perspective, it does generally come away with a feeling of hope. Rees is kind of pleasantly surprised by how little is made of his race during the campaign, and how his political rivals don’t use it as part of their campaigns. This was not always the case in Britain, as I probably don’t need to tell anyone. It also doesn’t seem to be much of an issue with the electorate, with class seemingly more of a factor in their mind, and his background as a poor, working class kid from the rough area of the city resonating with a lot of voters.

Which is not to say there isn’t pushback from racist groups, and racist abuse and threats sent by them. Unfortunately those fuckers are a constant cancer.

What’s kinda more interesting is the city of Bristol, who is the second major character in this film. I feel like I really got to know the city through this film, its people, places, and history. In some ways, this story is about Rees as a part of the city’s history, rather than about him himself.

The best parts of this film are with him and Paul Stephenson, a British civil rights leader from Bristol. Rees sees himself as part of the same lineage of change as Stephenson, and he looks upon him as an elder of experience and a bit of a mentor. Stephenson is so fascinating and impressive, he campaigned for civil rights in the UK, worked with Mohammed Ali setting up opportunities for kids from black, working class neighbourhoods, did work against apartheid, and set up an archive of Black British history. Made me wanna see a movie about his life too!

That’s the thing about racism in Britain. Racism is described as an American thing. Americans had slavery, Americans had segregation. And because only Americans have racism, only Americans had civil rights campaigns. Any British child could tell you who Martin Luther King or Malcolm X were. But ask them to name a single British civil rights campaigner, and you will struggle. Because Britain attempts to erase its long history of racism, it equally erases its history of anti-racist activism. Watching this film, I’m seeing footage of Paul Stephenson’s achievements for the first time. Why is that?

Anyway, this is already a screed. Really interesting film.

Day of the Flowers

Day of the Flowers is about two Scottish sisters travelling to Cuba to scatter their estranged dad’s ashes. Rosa is a crunchy activist, who has taken all the idealism of her father’s early years, romanticising his time spent doing solidarity work in Cuba when her parents were first married. Ailie is a stylish good-time girl, who got used to the middle class lifestyle their dad drifted into as he aged and their mother died. The hurt and rejection they both feel from their father’s estrangement after their mother’s death, and his remarriage to the quintessential evil stepmother, stands as a barrier between them, and they struggle to rejoin for this last filial duty.

Rosa is kinda the problem character in the movie. She’s a passionate advocate for social and economic justice, but a real arseache with it, self-righteous and judgemental of others. She espouses collectivism but won’t take help from anyone, is stubborn and defiant in her mistakes, and goes on the attack to hide a deep loneliness and a fear that she may have lost the ability to trust anyone enough to love again. Her pig-headedness drives a lot of the plot, starting with her stealing her father’s ashes to stop him being made into a golf trophy (lol!)

Carlos Acosta plays her love interest, the obviously right choice who is everything she wants, that she spends most of the movie running away from. She spends all her time proving that she doesn’t need him, to the detriment of no one but herself.

The film is kind of her journey demythologising Cuba, and demythologising her parents. Coming to realise that she has heavily invested in her self-image and based it on flawed assumptions, and set her sister up as the antagonist in a story Ailie never agreed to join in on. As she begins to see Cuba for what it is, beautiful, but a place, not a paradise, she can begin to be more forgiving of the actuality of others and herself.

Also, and this doesn’t get said enough, Carlos Acosta is smoking hot in this. I mean, and absolute PHWOAR! of a man.

If you like this …