Daily Archives: October 12, 2008

Black History Month: Introduction

October is ‘Black History Month’ in the UK. It’s a celebration of the importance of Africa and its peoples and diaspora around the world. The US has a month in February, but in the UK, October became established after an initiative by the late (and very lamented in these parts) Greater London Council in the 1980s. You can find out more at the Black History Month website. 

Having noticed the celebrations over the last few years, which now occur not only in London but across the UK, we decided to celebrate the month by focusing on some of the films from Africa, North America and Europe that deal with African culture and diaspora culture. We are compiling lists of interesting films and also intending to review one or two significant titles.

To kick off, we’d like to celebrate the latest film to receive the restoration treatment organised by the Martin Scorsese-backed World Cinema Foundation. This was announced at Cannes in May and a further news item appeared in the Observer today highlighting a screening at the London Film Festival. The film in question is Touki Bouki, directed in Senegal in 1973 by Djibril Diop Mambéty.

Touki Bouki

Touki Bouki

Touki Bouki is an important film for several reasons, but most of all because it proved that African filmmakers could make a diverse range of different kinds of films, including those that were seen as ‘avant garde’, but also as youth pictures with a ‘New Wave’ feel. A pair of young lovers attempt to leave Senegal and have adventures presented in an unconventional narrative structure. The pdf downloadable from the World Cinema Foundation website above has a short statement from the great Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé:

Djibril left his country with the dream of finding success and solace in Europe. He soon discovered, however, the cruelty of life. While his dream fell apart little by little Djibril found he was unable to leave “Europe”, his host country. That was when returning to Africa became the real dream for him. Ending his days in Africa was a dream he would never fulfill.

Touki Bouki is a prophetic film. Its portrayal of 1973 Senegalese society is not too different from today’s reality. Hundreds of young Africans die every day at the Strait of Gibraltar trying to reach Europe (Melilla and Ceuta). Who has never heard of that before? 

All their hardships find their voice in Djibril’s film: the young nomads who think they can cross the desert ocean and find their own lucky star and happiness but are disappointed by the human cruelty they encounter. Touki Bouki is a beautiful, upsetting and unexpected film that makes us question ourselves.

The restoration has involved a digital process to recover the colour range of the original. This is at the 2K international standard and a 35 mm interneg has been produced at the end of the process. The restoration was carried out by Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory. It sounds wonderful, so if you get the chance, check out the LFF. The film screens at 18.30 on 24 October.

A second film spotted in today’s Observer also deserves mention. Babylon is a British film from 1980 featuring a fantastic cast of young Black British acting talent, many of them also leading musicians. Brinsley Forde, lead singer of Aswad and former child actor plays a reggae DJ with a sound system. He and his crew face plenty of obstacles as they fight a ‘battle of the bands’, not least the racism endemic in London at the time. The music was overseen by Denis Bovell and the cast also includes Trevor Laird and Victor Romero Evans (as well as a host of other British TV regulars). For the last couple of years there has been an Italian DVD available of dubious provenance (not certificated for the UK):

Here is the trailer for the Italian version:

Now there is a new UK DVD from Icon Home Entertainment. In 1980 the film was rated ‘X’, now it is a ’15’.

If the film is not directed or written by a Black filmmaker, does that invalidate its status as a film to be celebrated as part of Black History Month? I don’t think so – my memory is of a film that felt authentic for the streets of London in 1980 and an important assertion of Black British culture. I’m looking forward to watching it again. There’s a useful Guardian plug for the film here, commenting on director Franco Rosso’s pedigree as a filmmaker representing the UK reggae scene on film.

The Duchess (UK/Fr/Italy 2008)

A fine hat for Georgiana

A fine hat for Georgiana

I wasn’t expecting to go and see The Duchess, but it was the only film worth seeing in a 40 mile radius on a Saturday night. It turned out not to be the film I’d expected and I did find it interesting and quite enjoyable – but it’s an odd film in many ways.

I first saw the trailer earlier in the year and I had it pegged as a film that attempted to present Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire as the 18th century equivalent of Kate Moss. Not being a follower of the Diana cult, I’ve been fairly oblivious to those connections, but Georgiana was a Spencer and this seems to have been the angle sold in the US. There is something of this celebrity culture discourse in the film, but more of several other genres as well. Some of the reviews I’ve read assert quite confidently that this is a ‘costume drama’. But what exactly is a costume drama, apart obviously from a drama in period costume? It isn’t enough to just assert a single genre. Keira Knightley has appeared in several earlier films in a variety of costumes. Is Atonement a costume drama – or Pride and Prejudice? Costume dramas could focus on personal relationships – as melodramas or romances – or historical/political events or even on action/adventure (often as a ‘swashbuckler’ in 16th-18th century settings).

The genre repertoires which this film should perhaps be expected to raid are the traditional biopic and the literary adaptation. But the film narrative seemingly draws on only around 18 years of Georgiana’s life (roughly from marriage at 17 up until 35). No attempt is made to age Keira Knightley or to date precisely the events that are represented, so historical/biographical accuracy is not a major concern. Overall, I thought Knightley did well with the material she was given, but I couldn’t really believe she was a mother of four children. In terms of make-up and hair, she cuts a very striking figure and she has the bone structure to go with the accent. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the body shape for some of the dresses. I haven’t read Amanda Foreman’s book, but I remember it being serialised on Radio 4 – it seemed a lot more interesting in terms of Georgiana’s actions than what was displayed in the film. So, I don’t think the film attempts to replicate the book. (The book is doing very well in the charts, so in that sense, the story is attracting an audience in similar ways to Jane Austen.)

It could be a melodrama certainly. There are all the family arguments and emotional turmoil that one could wish for and this period is definitely well-suited to melodrama (e.g. in all the sensationalist films in late 1940s British Cinema from Gainsborough Studios). (The real Georgiana was painted by both Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds.) There is plenty of music as well – far too much I think for a straight drama. But it doesn’t add up to a melodrama. Somehow the film is ‘cold’ where it should be passionate. Jonathan Romney complains about too much gawping at stately homes and he could be right.

If it isn’t a melodrama, it also isn’t a romance. The ‘real’ ending prevents the feelgood closure that a romance might want to present. My hope, early on in the movie, was that Georgiana would be presented as a proto-feminist, a catalyst for reforming (male) politicians. For a moment, it seems that she might be, but then it slips away. (For those outside the UK, you should know that the Duke of Devonshire (aka William Cavendish) was one of the richest men in England, oddly owning not Devonshire, but large chunks of Derbyshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire as well as property in London. I seem to have spent much of my life on streets named after the Devonshires/Cavendishes and I would have liked to have seen the family more exposed. Ralph Fiennes does a great job of portraying the brutal man who has the low cunning and inbred nous of the powerful and wealthy. He teeters on the edge of being a human being and the portrayal is ripe with possibilities that the script in the end does not exploit. You can see the problems. How do you explain the complicated politics of late 18th century Europe (and America) to a mass cinema audience? The real Georgiana got married in 1774 and Eliza was born in 1792 – you couldn’t work this out from a film in which the French Revolution is discussed as a probability, but then dropped (and the American Revolution is barely mentioned at all). (It occurred to me that the most common banana variety was probably named after the Cavendish family and I found this reference. I don’t know how the Cavendishes amassed their wealth, but it would be surprising if there were no American or Caribbean trading interests.) 

Saul Dibb does a pretty good job of direction (several US reviewers refer to him rather sniffily as ‘inexperienced’, despite his having made a successful feature in Bullet Boy, plus documentaries and a major TV series) and it’s nicely photographed by the Hungarian cinematographer of Fateless, Gyula Pados. 

I was intrigued by the production in a commercial sense. I’d expected there to be Hollywood money in it, but there are two small independents (UK and US) with BBC Films and Pathe as partners plus Pathé’s French partner company and BIM from Italy as distribution partners. Presumably, this guarantees French and Italian distribution and perhaps other European territories. I’m guessing the budget as relatively modest – perhaps $10-$12 million? It’s done very well in the UK with $10 million plus after 5 weeks of wide release. In the US it is ‘platforming’ and also doing well. After 4 weeks it is now on 1200 screens with $5.6 million so far. However, I don’t think it will manage the worldwide success of Pride and Prejudice.

Perhaps I’ll go back and watch Marie Antoinette again. It might make an interesting (but long) double bill with The Duchess and offer us two contrasting 18th century stories of young female celebrities.