Monthly Archives: October 2007

The colonial narrative (re Chocolat (France/ West Germany/Cameroon 1988)

I sense some tension in the group around whether or not we can take melodrama seriously. This is a pity since it is an important issue when considering films made by western filmmakers about stories set in African countries. Chocolat creates a familiar colonial narrative about the relationship between a white woman (the coloniser) and a black man (the colonised). This is the basis for the colonial melodrama which focuses on the emotionally explosive mix of sex and race. Interestingly, it more often features a white woman and black man than a black woman and white man — perhaps because the former is more threatening to the colonial/settler family. I’m not suggesting that Claire Denis sets out to make a colonial melodrama, but she consciously chooses its narrative and works to oppose it stylistically from what I saw in the extracts. In the films I have seen by African filmmakers, the colonial relationship is not dealt with as an emotional relationship — the colonists are simply there as representatives of oppression. There are several African films (mostly made by men, I’ve only seen one film by an African woman) which focus on the women as central characters and these are often careful to explore the status of women within distinct local communities.

Kim Longinotto attempts not to impose her sense of narrative on the events she records, even if she has to select and edit from her material. The melodrama that I found inherent in the court proceedings seemed to me to come from the performances of both the lawyers and their clients. Longinotto’s feel for the universal human stories she witnessed is certainly impressive, but I wonder how much her film was still an outsider’s view. I thought that the Denis and Longinotto extracts were very useful in posing questions about how women are presented in ‘African stories’.

If anyone is interested in the kinds of films which circulate in West Africa as part of Nollywood, there is an interesting UK centre for ‘Nollywood Studies‘ which offers a number of fascinating links.

Tough enough?

I was pleasantly surprised by Knallhart (Tough Enough) a German film from 2006 which sneaked out in September in the UK without my noticing it. I caught it at Cornerhouse in Manchester and was glad I did. It’s always good to see a film when you know nothing about it and this intrigued me from the off. The 15 year-old central character is well drawn and offers a range of emotions that seemed believable. It’s a film which in different ways reminded me of La Haine and Sweet Sixteen and I can’t think of higher praise.

Michael Polischka is a 15 year-old with an attractive mother of “only just over 30” as she reminds him. At the beginning of the story, Michael and his mother are thrown out on the street by her rich lover in the leafy suburbs. Michael finds himself in a tough inner city area of Berlin in a dismal flat and forced to attend an inner city school which seems rough even by UK standards. And the story moves on from there in quite conventional ways. The film makes the usual connections between crime and delinquent youth and recent immigrant communities, in this case two East European youths, who befriend Michael at school and take him home to chill out, and the ‘enemy’ gang, led by a Turkish youth. Eventually Michael gets involved as a drug-runner working for a suave and attractive young Turkish crime lord. He also casts envious eyes at Turkish family life (and a gorgeous young Turkish woman). The ending is well handled and explains the enigmatic beginning — all in all a well-executed youth picture/crime story which offers a view of the ‘New Berlin’. Well worth catching.

The name game

I blogged my reactions to The Namesake when I first saw it in May this year. You can check out the blog here. On a second viewing it worked just as well, but I got even more from it. I’ve softened a little on Kal Penn’s performance, but I’m now an even bigger fan of Tabu and Irrfan Khan (the star of Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, despite Angelina Jolie’s top billing).

This time I was more conscious of how clever the script is with the references to names and naming and also the extent to which Mira Nair pays hommage to Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak (and makes Bengali jokes). The central question is, I think, how the film creates a delicious tension between its focus on Ashima as against the father-son relationship. I’m still not sure who is at the centre of the story. What does anyone else think?

Who is The Brave One?

The answer to the question may be Jodie Foster who stars in The Brave One. It might be Neil Jordan for taking on the direction. Both of them risked a critical mauling, but seem to have been rescued at the pass by the great American audience. I’m not sure if it is the prospect of this audience or the film itself which frightens me more. I’ve rarely been so exercised by a film.

I’m a Jodie Foster supporter, though I haven’t seen that many of her films. I could say much the same about Neil Jordan, whose Hollywood pictures have never attracted me as much as the Irish/British ones. Putting the two together should promise something worthwhile. And indeed, for most of this film, Foster is excellent and Jordan provides several standout sequences. The script, however just isn’t up to the job for me. As several critics have pointed out, the problem lies somewhere in the film’s reference to genre repertoires. If The Brave One is judged as a ‘revenge’ thriller, it falls far short of the narrative economy and sheer drive of Abel Ferrara’s Ms 45. I’ve not seen Death Wish, but I’ve read suggestions that it too is superior as a genre/expoitation film (whatever may be the worries about its politics). The Brave One wants to be more than an exploitation film but it lacks the clear sense of purpose that a film like A History of Violence offers. Instead, it features various subplots like the potential romance between cop and victim/avenger (prompting references to Jane Campion’s In the Cut, a film which itself has genre problems, but which overall is more coherent) and the cod philosophy associated with a protagonist who is a very rare breed, a radio soundscape designer cum commentator. These aspects of the film mean it has the potential to be an interesting character study.

But I have to own up. My real problem is with American politics and gun control (the lack of it – the Jodie Foster character gets around it immediately). As a European, I just can’t take seriously a film with no sense of moral purpose whatsoever apart from the belief that this ‘good person’ can do whatever they need to do to regain their confidence after a brutal attack. So, people are killed as if they were not human beings and a supposedly liberal character and a police officer can ignore the law without any sense of loss or any impact on their sense of moral well-being or mental health. In 1983, Tony Garnett, best known as a producer for Ken Loach, directed his second feature, Handgun, set in America and featuring a woman who is raped and who buys a gun seeking revenge. I don’t remember the film in any detail, but I’m sure it was a considered argument against the use of firearms. In one of the more obvious role models for The Brave One, the Scorsese/Schrader Taxi Driver from 1976, there is a single major shootout, a psychotic protagonist and a deeply moral and disturbing take on American urban culture at the time of the withdrawal from Vietnam. In The Brave One there is a mention of Iraq and a character representing the terrors of wars in Africa where children are armed and trained to kill their parents (I’m assuming the character who makes this comment is from Sierra Leone). There are, I think, eight killings in The Brave One that are apparently ‘justified’.

If you want to get depressed, read the IMDB comments. The first one I read that made a concerted attack on the film’s politics as rightist ended up by claiming that it would be supported by “rabid feminists”. As the Americans say, ‘Go figure!’.