Heliopolis

I didn’t know about the events in Heliopolis before seeing this film. That’s because we learn fuck all about Empire. True, this is France’s empire, but if there was room on the curriculum for me to learn about Schleswig-Holstein in the German Wars of Unification, there was time for this. A fucking degree I have in history, and never heard about this.

Heliopolis follows the story of one family as they live through the Second World War in Heliopolis, in French colonial Algeria. Mukdad is a kaid, a leader of the local people, someone who is responsible for an area, in Mukdad’s case, Heliopolis, Guelma and Setif. He inherited this title from his father, who always felt uncomfortable with his elevated status among his people and felt the burden of responsibility heavily. When the French arrived, he embraced the education they offered, and put a lot of emphasis on getting as much benefit for his people as possible. Mokdad feels the same and has sent his son, Mahfoud, to Algiers for a secondary school education.

Mahfoud has excelled academically and has done everything his father wanted of him. But his education comes to a screeching halt when he cannot get entrance to college. The reason? He is an Arab, and colleges only admit whites. He returns home, destined with menial work, and with a very different outlook on life as his father.

They argue over support for independence. Mahfoud supports the independence movement for obvious reasons, the equality, self-determination, etc. His father Mokdad is more conservative. He says independence is too radical a solution. Yes, there are things wrong with France, but who educated taught him, his father, his grandfather? Mokdad only completed primary, Mahfoud completed secondary. Things do move and change slowly, just be patient.

Before the war, there is a high degree of intermingling between Mokdad’s class and the white settlers. The ordinary Arabs, not so much. But Mokdad has several white friends, and Mahfoud is pally with Claude, a white settler his age. Yes, there are out-and-out racists, like Gervais, but they are left to just mouth off, that’s all.

The war changes all that. Algerians fight and die for France, but are still second-class citizens in their own country. France’s fall to the Nazis in 10 days makes it seem possible for the first time that France can be defeated. Algeria is then subject to Vichy rule until liberated by the Americans and Brits. In the first free elections after fascist rule, pro-independence candidates are able to stand. Despite the politicians’ attempts to speak in very measured terms, the settlers are enflamed by what they see as treason. There’s a lot of the familiar “My grandad died in the war for this country” bullshit, as though the takeaway from that is it should remain racist for all time.

Mahfoud has signed up with the independence party, and openly campaigned for them during the election. The whole way through, Mokdad warns, they’ll take this as a provocation. Mahfoud’s a bit like, So what? They take everything as a fucking provocation.

And then the Nazis lose! Europe is free! Peace and freedom forever, right? Right?

The day the Nazis surrender, in Setif and Guelma, the Algerians hold parades celebrating, and carry independence banners and sing independence songs. The police repression is swift and brutal. People are shot, people are injured, people die.

In the following days there are isolated revenge attacks on the settlers, which causes Paris to instruct the armed forces in Algeria to wipe out anyone deemed responsible for the attacks, including independence organisers. What follows is wholesale slaughter. They round up and shoot every independence campaigner they can find. Settler militias start shooting any Arab they come across. France sends planes to literally drop bombs on villages. By then end, almost 30,000 people are dead.

For Mokdad and his family, it changes everything. A brilliantly compelling historical drama, with an excellent score and beautiful cinematography.

Casablanca Beats

A retired rapper comes to work at an arts centre in an underprivileged neighbourhood of Casablanca, teaching the kids to express themselves through rap and hip hop. They start out a bit rough, but as time goes on they learn and grow, and each kid does a rap about what’s going on in their lives, and at the end there is a concert, and the teacher sagely nods, seeing how far they’ve come. So pretty much by the numbers.

I forgot, going into this, how much anxiety it gives me to watch folk perform on stage, even in a fictional film. And learning to rap, it just made me go, “Eeeeee!” That being said, all the actors were really good, the dancing was ace, and the film hung together really well.

Does exactly what it says on the tin.

If you like this…

Good Madam

Of all the films at this year’s GFF, this was the one I was most looking forward to. A South African horror, Good Madam focuses on multiple generations of women living in the house of the white employer of the grandmother. Despite being elderly, in failing health, and confined to her upstairs bedroom, Madam’s silent presence dominates the household.

Mavis has lived with Madam for the past 30 years, looking after her house and raising her kids. This work meant she had no time to raise her own daughter Tsidi, whom she sent to live with her own mother. She also had a son, who she gave to be adopted by Madam, so he could have a better standard of living.

Tsidi is pissed off. She’s argumentative to the point that people disengage with her, but she is almost always in the right, and knows exactly when she is being fucked over. When the film starts, the family’s great-grandmother has just died. Tsidi has nursed her through all her illness, living with her and looking after her, as she has been more of a mother to her than Mavis. Mavis doesn’t even get time off work to come to the funeral. When the rest of the extended family show up, Tsidi’s cousin lays claim to the great-grandmother’s house. Tsidi understandably kicks off, and to keep the peace a family elder tells them to share it. Tsidi is so affronted that this man who did nothing for his great-grandmother can walk in and claim the home Tsidi lives in, was raised in, has invested in and redesigned. Rather than ease everyone’s conscience by going along with the compromise, Tsidi storms out, taking her daughter Winnie, and the great-grandmother’s fur coat. A relative warns that leaving before they have concluded dividing the great-grandmother’s things is effectively leaving before completing the last of the funeral rites, and will cause her bad luck. Tsidi leaves regardless.

Mavis is not happy to see Tsidi and Winnie have come to stay, and keeps them crowded into her room, clearly a second rate servant’s room in an otherwise huge and comfortable house. Tsidi finds this ridiculous, considering there are multiple unoccupied rooms in the house, but Mavis points out it is Madam’s house, and Mavis’s room is the only one really at her disposal. Tsidi is incensed, how can this not be Mavis’s house if she’s lived her 30 years?

There is huge strain in the relationship between Tsidi and Mavis. Tsidi is still grieving, and all that pain and rage has been followed up quickly with her sudden and insulting dispossession, and being forced into an environment replete with the wounds of the past. She is angry that her mother chose to devote herself to Madam more than her own family. She is angry at the injustice she sees in the home. She is infuriated by Mavis’s unwillingness to stand up for her own interests. She hates going along with the numerous stifling rules of Madam’s house. She hates how Madam still seems to have all the power in the home, even now as a dozing invalid clinging to consciousness and life.

Then spooky stuff starts up. All is not well in Madam’s house. Mavis is insistent that everything is fine, but Tsidi is sure that malevolence is within their walls.

Sound and music are excellent, Madam literally has one line in this movie and is on screen for maybe a handful of minutes, but her presence is constantly felt through the sound work. Good and full characters with believable interpersonal relationships, spooky stuff has some creepy moments, tension is well built throughout. I feel like it could have done more to underline the exact nature of the peril towards the end, but otherwise was really pleased with it. Good exploration of themes of race and gender, labour and possession. Solid film.

If you like this…

Sambizanga

Sambizanga is the story of Domingos and Maria, a young couple in 1960s Portuguese colonial Angola.

Domingos is a good man, a dedicated father and husband, and is secretly an activist for Angolan independence. One day the police kick in his door and drag him out his house, beat hell out him and fling him in the back of a van. We follow three stories – the activists watching the prison in Sambizanga who see him arrive, and need to figure out who he is and where he’s come from to alert his loved ones and contacts; Maria as she goes from government office to police station to jail trying to find him; and Domingos, for whom time is running out, as he is beaten and tortured under interrogation.

What I liked about it was, that although this is a story about this young couple caught up in the horror of their times, the thread following the activists shows it’s not just the story of one misfortune or one man’s struggle. Many people co-ordinate to try to find out who this arrested man is, with nothing more than a brief glance when he is dragged from the car to the jail door. Lots of people are looking out for how they can identify him, so he is not alone and forgotten in there.

Made in the 1970s, this is the 4K restoration release. I can only imagine how powerful this would have been at the time it was made, while the Angolan war for independence was still going. Really pleased I got the chance to see it.

Once Upon A Time In Uganda

Once Upon A Time In Uganda is a documentary about Wakaliwood, where Isaac Nabwana makes low-budget, high-octane action flicks. Isaac is based in Wakaliga, a ghetto in the capital city of Uganda, Kampala. There he makes movies for as little as £200, and puts them out to his neighbours. When Alan, a superfan from America shows up, determined to make sure Isaac gets the recognition he deserves, will it translate into material benefit for Isaac and his crew?

Isaac is so impressive. Like, seriously. He’s put together a whole team of people, each as passionate and resourceful as each other. They need a lighting rig, they weld it; they need a camera jib, they weld it; they need a helicopter, THEY FUCKING WELD IT! It is unreal how they can build all their equipment, all their scenery, all their props from scrap metal, and whatever else is to hand.

I really wanna show this film to my stepdad. He has a deeply instilled drive to make-do wherever possible, and appreciates nothing more than someone who can make stuff out of anything.

Isaac’s films are inspired by the action movies of the 80s, Chuck Norris and Rambo. But he does them in a distinctly Ugandan way, with his own particular style. And they’re funny, and don’t take themselves seriously, and have a VJ – a video joker who narrates over the film with quips and exclamations.

However, money and recognition don’t come easily. There are big establishments in Uganda, tv and media outlets, but they have no interest in action movies, especially those made in the ghetto. As Isaac explains, nobody rates anything in Uganda unless it makes it big overseas. The racism pervasive in society says, for something to be good, white people have to want to buy it. And I’m sorry to say, the film doesn’t really dig into that any, just accepts it as a fact of life.

The film begins with Alan Hofmanis flying out to Uganda to be part of Isaac’s film crew, which to be honest I didn’t like. I don’t think the story should start with when the first white guy got involved. And I don’t need him taking me to Uganda like a tourist visiting and having the place explained to me. And I don’t need to see a white face endorsing the subject to think it’s worthwhile.

At the Q&A, this choice is kinda explained, as the director got involved in Isaac’s story through Alan, so that was their beginning to the story. But that just shows all the more why it’s problematic telling these stories going from the outside in. Fundamentally you’re telling a white America’s experience of this African story.

It actually does get better as the film goes on, as the documentary makers go to Uganda and continue filming even though Alan goes elsewhere. So at that point Isaac gets to take more centre stage without Alan.

Although, starting with Alan’s arrival does underscore the central relationship as their friendship. It’s their highs and lows which punctuate the film’s acts. You do root for this unlikely pair.

So Alan’s story pretty much starts with him having a mid-life crisis. He’s worked all his life in films, but has kinda lost the passion he started out with. He buys a ring to propose to his girlfriend and she dumps him. Then he sees Isaac’s films. And his mind is just blown, it’s like all the passion he once had, all the love for films, it’s right there on the screen. He pretty much sells everything, buys a plane ticket, and moves to Uganda. Which is a bold move.

He turns up on Isaac’s door and asks to be part of his film crew. They actually were looking for a white man to play the baddie in an upcoming film, so Alan was a wish granted. And because he was a white Westerner, he could be an advocate for Wakaliwood overseas.

And he was quite successful in this. Wakaliwood’s story went viral, appearing on the BBC, Al Jazeera and the Wall Street Journal among many, many others. But making that visibility turn into dollars proves more difficult than you’d think.

Once Upon A Time In Uganda is a movie which will remind you of why you love film. It’s about how people come together to make, to watch, to share films. Film is a global uniter.

Also loved the exploding heads.

The Gravedigger’s Wife

A simple and straightforward story. Guled is a gravedigger, his wife Nasra needs an operation to remove her kidney or she’ll die, he tries to raise the money for the operation. Beautifully shot, eschewing artifice for directness.

Other people might have made this film as a tragic story, about poverty and preventable illness in the oft-repeated depictions of Africa. But this isn’t that. Yes there is hardship and difficulties to overcome, but fundamentally this is a love story. It is about having someone who you would do anything for, and who would do anything for you.

Guled fell in love with Nasra at first sight, but she was from another village and her father had promised her to another man. They eloped, and to save face both their families disowned them. Now Guled must face his family’s wrath to plead for money.

Beautifully made, and by sticking to the essentials, keeps the focus on the the relationship between the two main characters, with you hoping against hope that love conquers all.

If you like this…

Blind Ambition

Blind Ambition is a documentary following the first Zimbabwean team to compete in the world blind wine taste testing championships.

Now if you’re like me, the most you know about blind wine tasting is that scene from Frasier where Niles is crowned corkmaster, and they all sing, “Hail corkmaster! The master of the cork! He knows which wine goes with fish or pork!” But Blind Ambition gives you a real appreciation of just how difficult it must be. You get a sip and 2 minutes and you have to say what grapes it was made from, in which country, in which region, by which producer, and in which year. That’s ridiculously specific. And the shit can be blends, the stuff can be pure obscure labels, they can throw anything at you.

JV is the dude who puts together the South African team, and in 2017 he noticed that he had 4 guys in his top 12 picks that were from Zimbabwe. South Africa has a sizeable community of Zimbabwean refugees, and JV asked them if they’d like to form a team for Zimbabwe.

The guys jumped at the chance to represent their country. Mugabe and his cronies may have run Zimbabwe into the dirt politically and economically, but ordinary folks, even those who live abroad still love their home. Being able to represent a positive aspect of it on the world stage made the guys swell with pride. Also, like in many places around the world, South Africa has seen vilification and scapegoating of refugees. To have a team of refugees show their talents, show how they are an asset to their adopted country, was also something that motivated them.

So you have Joseph, who literally went from hoeing the back garden of the restaurant to head sommelier. You have Pardon, who overheard Joseph while at the restaurant bar and was like, ‘Is that interesting work?’ You have Marlvin, son of a pentecostal minister, who had never even touched alcohol until wine became part of his career. You have Tinashe, who had to flee, but longs to return home and grow vineyards back in Zimbabwe. All are stories of unlikely success against the odds of poverty, migrant status, and racism. All of them should have their achievements celebrated.

And here we get on to the knife edge the film has to walk. Because these are extraordinary men, who have made extraordinary achievements. But as the only Black faces in a sea of white competitors, you don’t want to fall into the racist trope of the exceptionalism of your protagonists, as if they alone are deserving to leap into white spaces.

Blind Ambition has been described as Cool Runnings meets Sideways, which is great except Cool Runnings was racist as hell. We all loved John Candy, and I know your nostalgia holds it dear, but seriously. And you don’t want to be making the same kind of mistakes/bad choices in 2022.

Does it succeed in guiding away from that? Mostly. I mean, I figured the directors were white just from some of the choices. Like, it doesn’t explore the team’s families and support as much as I’d like, but it is full of white people who help them on their way. And I’m not saying these aren’t worthy people, they all seem lovely. The minister who took in over 30,000 refugees to feed and shelter them, the woman who crowdfunded the team’s entrance fee because she wants to fight for more people of colour in the wine tasting world, the guys who coach the teams and lend their expertise. They are all great people, and relevant to the story.

But does that have to draw focus? And I mean, it’s great there’s this woman wanting to increase Black representation at the world blind wine taste testing championships, but there’s no pause to question why wine tasting is so white. Like, it’s fine, but the focus is very much on the feel good factor of white people giving a hand up to these guys, instead of breaking down the barriers they face in the first place.

Anyway, overall it’s a great documentary, going into the ambition and teamwork that takes place in this global competition. And there’s a real sense of pride that comes from going on this journey, from being a beacon of hope, representing the talent and skill of Zimbabwe. They have every right to be proud.