Daily Archives: December 3, 2009

Kolkata IFF screening 5: Black (France 2009)

Mata Gabin as Fatoumata with the community of wrestlers in Dakar. This image effectively represents the 'African-ness' of the film.

This was the one screening that I attended without any foreknowledge and it proved to be very enjoyable with an interesting subtext. It’s a conventional genre film in a new setting and with some interesting extra elements. I thought it only fell down (like Landscape No. 2) because of a single character who seemed to belong to another movie.

‘Black’ is actually the name of the central character, an African-French bank-robber of Senegalese extraction played by the music star MC Jean Gab’1 (i was too slow to spot that his name is a reference to Jean Gabin, doh!) . He’s a bit like Vin Diesel but with charisma. The film begins with a traditional African elder in full ceremonial gear (he reminded me most of the grandfather in Souleymane Cissé’s The Wind) wandering through the streets of suburban Paris and stopping before a refuse truck driven by Black. On seeing the scar on Black’s face, he proclaims that it is the ‘sign of the lion’ and that the lion and the panther must work together to defeat the snake. It’s easy to forget about this scene because the narrative then swings into action mode and the refuse truck is revealed as cover for an armed robbery which goes spectacularly wrong. Black escapes in dramatic fashion and is recovering in his room when he gets a phone call from his cousin in Dakar suggesting that he fly out to Senegal and raid a bank where a bag of diamonds is stashed. The inference is that this will be easy for sophisticated Parisian crooks. So he rounds up three local hoods and boards a flight. This is a French re-working of Shaft in Africa (1973). But, of course, things have changed since the 1970s and Dakar is not a city of naive country boys. Black finds himself in competition with at least three other groups – the diamond smugglers themselves, a local arms dealer and an Interpol agent. So far, so conventional. The terrific official website (in English and French) actually declares the film to be a form of hommage to the blaxploitation films of the early 1970s – something reflected in the excellent music score with its nods towards Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield. The website also explains the sense of familiarity with several of the cast. The African elder is a Sembène Ousmane regular and others have appeared for Jacques Audiard and Mathieu Kassovitz.

I haven’t found out much about director and co-writer Pierre Laffargue (it’s his first feature at 42) or about the rest of what seems to be a French crew, but there must be some Senegalese input since the scenes in Dakar have a very authentic feel. The executive producer is listed as Ndiouga Moctar Ba who also has a production credit on Bamako (Mali 2006). Perhaps it is his knowledge? The website is more helpful as it points to an original writer who sadly died before the production, but who knew African stories.  It also reveals that Pierre Laffargue has worked in animation, TV, web and games production and that his film director muse is Jacques Tourneur – not a bad pick. Some critics have likened the film to the Bourne trilogy, but that seems to massively underplay its sense of place and feel for local culture. I’ve not been to Dakar but I’ve watched enough of Sembène and Djibril Diop Mambéty to recognise the city. Somebody on the production side knows these films.

I don’t want to give too much of the entertaining plot away, but in the third section the film shifts into what some scholars of African Cinema have called the ‘return to source’ mode. This is a reference to folklore, African religions and African history pre European colonisation. The image above points to this in the appearance of a troupe of wrestlers wielding machetes and working initially for Fatamatou – a woman with interesting powers. In order to survive Black has to be ‘reborn’ as the lion. At this point I was reminded of the old Paul Robeson movie from the 1930s, Song of Freedom, in which an African in London returns to Africa to fulfil his destiny. Black plays this much more lightly and tongue in cheek, but that authenticity is still there.

The character which doesn’t work is a Russian mercenary leader. The playing of Anton Yakovlev seems wildly out of kilter – which is a shame as I realised later that I’d seen the same actor as highly convincing in Jacques Audiard’s The Beat that My Heart Skipped and also the Dardennes Brothers’ The Silence of Lorna.

The film has played at various horror and cult film festivals internationally and it had a French theatrical run in July 2009, but doesn’t seem to have troubled the box office. I’m surprised as it seems to have the makings of a cult hit. It seemed to me both intelligent and highly entertaining and that’s not always a common combination.

Here’s the trailer from the South by SouthWest Festival:

Satyajit Ray: Abhijan (The Expedition) (India 1962)

Waheeda Rehman as Gulabi

I don’t remember this getting a release in the UK and I only came across it with the release of the Masters of Cinema DVD a couple of years ago.

The protagonist of the film is ‘Singhji’ a taxi driver in West Bengal who holds dear his Rajput ancestry as a descendant of traditional warriors. He considers himself to be a warrior amongst drivers and it is fitting that he should drive a glamorous car – a 1930s Chrysler. The film is presumably ‘contemporary’ but Singhji comes across as a stylish character despite his ancient vehicle. His status also includes command of a faithful retainer – a mechanic, come watchman, come conductor – who perches on the running board as Singjhi drives across the eerily barren landscape (reminiscent in some ways of the river bed/plain in Ghatak’s Subarnarekha). The DVD tells us that this is actually the Bengal/Bihar border. The local landmark of two stones balanced one on top of the other is quite well-known as the ‘Uncle and Nephew’.

The disrupting incident is a rash action by Singhji which leads to his licence being revoked. Forced to look elsewhere for work, he gives a lift to a businessman who recognises the possibilities of using his services and offers him a deal – to become his part-time driver. In return, the businessman will help him get a new licence. Clearly the deal will involve something illegal but Singhji decides to stay and take up the offer after he meets an old acquaintance from his village – a low-caste man who has converted to Christianity in order to escape the constrictions of caste. This man’s family and the other characters that Singhji meets are the catalysts for a series of moral dilemmas that the warrior-rebel must face.

The film feels like a humanist character study and I could imagine it as the kind of story that might have interested Kurosawa. I’ve seen analyses that discuss the film as an ‘action’ film or as something akin to the generic stories of popular cinema. However, there is relatively little action spread across the film’s 150 mins. Certainly there are some chase sequences and some scuffles that may indeed be inspired by John Ford, but this is still basically a character study, albeit one framed in a structure that fits the Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars scenario with Singhji as the stranger in town who confronts the existing relationships in the community and takes sides.

According to the excellent support documentation that comes with the DVD, Abhijan was the most popular of Ray’s films in Bengal. It began as a commercial film that was chosen as a directing project by a group of Ray’s acquaintances. Ray initially supplied the script, but when they decided that they couldn’t manage the shoot, Ray stepped in to direct and as the MoC blurb has it his “mastery turned a starkly conventional plot into a subtly nuanced story”. Abhijan is an adaptation of a novel by the Bengali writer Tarashankar Banerjee. Ray had already made one film based on a Banerjee novel – Jalsagar (The Music Room) in 1958. One reason for the Abhijan‘s popularity might have been the presence of Waheeda Rehman, one of the great stars of Hindi Cinema in the 1950s and 1960s, often in association with Guru Dutt as actor or director. She plays a prostitute who in different ways challenges Singhji’s misogyny and his self-despair. As well as his sense of failure – a warrior reduced to a driver’s role – Singhji has ‘lost’ his wife and turned to alcohol. The role is played by one of Ray’s best known players, Soumitra Chatterjee. The beard that he wears for the role of a Rajput changes his appearance profoundly and I didn’t recognise him. Most of the rest of the leading players in the cast also appeared in other Ray films before or after Abhijan.

Ruma Guha Thakurta as Neeli (sister of Singhji’s Christian friend) and Soumitra Chatterjee as Singhji

I found the film fascinating, not so much for the character study itself, but for the formal, aesthetic qualities. The opening is striking with a carefully framed medium close-up of a man commenting on Singhji’s predicament – with Singhji himself seen only in the mirror located behind the man’s head. I’ve already commented on the use of landscape which inevitably made me think of Ford and Kurosawa, but also of one of the earliest neo-realist films, Ossessione (Italy 1942) set in the flatlands of the Po Valley. Perhaps this is the key to Ray’s early cinema. A blending of different but related realist visual styles using Black and White cinematography produces something which in the end is not realist as such but does carry a powerful sense of a ‘lived in’ landscape. Cinematographer Soumendu Roy had already worked on Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961) for Ray and would go on to shoot several more films for him. I also feel compelled to mention the music – composed by Ray himself as it usually was from the early 1960s onwards.

Looking for comments on the film, I turned to Richard Roud’s Critical Dictionary of Major Filmmakers published in 1980 by Martin, Secker & Warburg. I was immediately taken aback by the stance of John Russell Taylor who wrote the long entry on Ray. This was the period before serious attention was paid to Indian Cinema by Western critics. Taylor dismisses all the rest of Indian Cinema as “trashy, theatrical, sentimental and fantasticated”. Ray is a singular figure who stands outside such nonsense. But Abhijan shows what might happen if Ray sullies himself with the commercial Indian Cinema. Commenting on the fact that Abhijan has been little seen in the West, Taylor opines that this seems “reasonable in the case of Abhijan, a picaresque adventure story centring on a taxi driver, his romantic and dramatic entanglements . . . and which has little to commend it apart from the interest of seeing him handle a subject much closer to the Indian commercial norm than any of his other films”. This seems to me a good example of how prejudice clouds judgement. For Taylor, any suggestion that the film was ‘commercial’ automatically places it beyond the pale. Presumably he simply didn’t see the strength of performances, camerawork, music and overall direction? ‘Picaresque’ suggests a protagonist who has a series of adventures – not necessarily linked by anything other than the central character. This isn’t the case with Abhijan. Singhji only has one ‘adventure’ as such and although he responds to several characters, they are all in the same story.

Unlike the 1970s critics, I’m reluctant to jump to any immediate conclusions about Ray’s films. I am struck though by the thought that in one sense Singhji is a modern/modernist character who slides around issues of class and caste (and religion). He allows an individualist focus in the narrative and I return again to that Yojimbo/Man With No Name conception. And I still don’t really understand the English title of the film.

The MoC DVD is very good and well worth the money. The print has been digitally restored.