Monthly Archives: May 2011

Meek's Cutoff (US 2010)

Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and Michelle Williams as the three women on the trail

Beauty is suddenly back in the cinema. Following Norwegian Wood this is another film to invite the audience to experience the beauty of landscape. This is a harsh beauty in terms of its inhospitable face presented to travellers, but the magical light of early morning and evening sun is breathtaking – reminding us of films with similar settings (although in different landscapes) such as Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.

Kelly Reichardt’s film (she co-wrote, directed and edited Meek’s Cutoff) recounts a journey by hopeful settlers across the wild country of the Cascades in Oregon territory during the 1840s. Three couples have hired a guide with local knowledge called Stephen Meek to take them on a route that will shortcut the main Oregon trail – thus Meek’s ‘cutoff’. Other than a boy, who is the son of one couple, and their oxen and horses, this is the totality of the party – until they come across a lone Cayuse ‘Indian’. At this point they fear that they are lost and they are suspicious of Meek’s ability to get them through this country. Emily Tetherow  (Michelle Williams) is particularly assertive within the group and her contempt for Meek and his reaction to the Cayuse becomes an important narrative element.

The print I saw was digital and the detail of the image was at times breathtaking. In one early scene a character leans forward towards the camera to fill a water container and the effect is almost 3D-like. I felt that I could reach out and put my hand in the water. It was only later that I realised how important that water was going to be in the narrative. This high level of visual realism is framed in Academy ratio (1:1.33). An unusual choice in modern cinema and Reichardt has explained that it represents the restricted view of the female characters – i.e. from beneath their bonnets. This is an interesting idea and it certainly serves to mark a difference from the films which have presented the Western landscape in CinemaScope since the mid-1950s (as well as the earlier Fox Grandeur widescreen The Big Trail from 1930 – one of the first representations of the wagon trains on the Oregon trail). Academy means vertical compositions and a feeling of containment rather than the ‘open-ness’ of ‘Scope. Two technical issues raised questions for me. The first was simply to wonder how multiplexes have got on projecting the film since I remember seeing Academy prints of classic films which had been ‘topped and tailed’ to fit onto the 1:1.85 screen in many cinemas. (Most good independent cinemas are properly prepared to show Academy ratios.) The second was to query the sound design. I had some problems with the dialogue and the directionality of some of the sound effects – as if the Academy ratio was a problem with stereo sound design. Has anyone else experienced this?

This classic Western composition resembles the opening of Ford's The Searchers when Martha watches Ethan riding in the distance.

Ford's imagery in The Searchers presents the iconic landscape of Monument Valley in a widescreen frame (VistaVision). In both these images the woman is visually in the 'home' and the man is in the landscape. Reichardt can't alter this spatial arrangement easily (the women don't ride), but she can frame the action in the domestic space so that the women are less marginalised.

As to the film’s narrative, I’ve read that Reichardt and her collaborators were not particularly familiar with previous films on the same topic. (See the Sight and Sound coverage (May 2011). The film was motivated more by Reichardt’s discovery of the landscape when she was researching an earlier film – and by her co-writer Jon Raymond’s research into the local history of the region which turned up the Meek character. But Reichardt certainly was aware of the ways in which Westerns have traditionally marginalised women and her focus on the three women working together is clear. In some ways however I think that film pushes more towards allegory than social history. It made me re-think my own experience of watching Westerns and why I didn’t more forcefully resist the casual sexism and more blatant racism of so many Western narratives. In a typically solid summary of women’s roles in Westerns by Ed Buscombe (in the same issue of Sight and Sound), he mentions both Ford’s Wagonmaster and the TV series Wagon Train which I watched regularly in the 1950s. As Buscombe points out, the series format and the need for new narrative material meant that the TV representations of the wagon train were more likely to feature domestic scenes and it is interesting to see how Reichardt’s vision makes the collecting of kindling, cooking, sewing etc. much more realistic and much more part of the trail experience. The framings also emphasise this with the women often in central positions when the group is viewed in relation to the landscape (i.e. when they are discussing which way to go). Her women are clearly part of the survival discourse of the film and the interaction between Emily and the Cayuse demonstrates this. She is repelled by his stench, but she mends his moccasin. She explains this as a pragmatic decision but it is also suggestive of her humanity, her compassion and perhaps her sense of justice because of the way he is being treated by Meek. Jon Raymond refers to Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian as an inspiration and I can see that in some of the interactions between characters and with the landscape.

I suspect that some audiences will struggle with the film, partly because of the otherness of its look but mainly because of its narrative. In the goal-orientated fictional worlds of Hollywood, the ‘end is always in sight’ but Reichardt is much more interested in the journey itself. But I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I hope she either makes another Western or that she has inspired others to explore similar territory. More please!

Here is the film’s trailer illustrating some of the points presented above:

A Screaming Man (Un homme qui crie, Chad/France /Belgium 2010)

Youssouf Djaoro as Adam, disconsolate in the gate attendant’s uniform

A Screaming Man is Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s third film about fathers, sons and conflict. Unlike the two earlier films, Abouna and Daratt, this new film features the war in Chad directly. Civil wars have been a feature of Chadian life since soon after independence. Since 1965 there have been only around 19 years of ‘peace’. Chad’s wars are connected in various ways with wars in Sudan and the Central African Republic. Since the third regional player in Chad’s affairs is Libya, Chad is in a very unfortunate position in the ‘dead centre’ of Africa. France held Chad as a colony for just 40 years between 1920 and independence in 1960. 1,000 French troops are still in the country, supporting the present regime in its fight against ‘rebel insurgents’.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is a Chadian by birth who now lives in Bordeaux but visits Chad regularly to make films. He has an arrangement from his previous film Daratt which provides a Chadian producer on the ground and a Belgian partner for the French company he worked with this time. With a host of other soft money sources the production rustled up €2 million for a six week shoot. The result is a visually stunning ‘Scope production. It has a very simple story which is powerfully told (and performed). It is, however, accessible on many different levels, some more difficult than others and aspects of the film’s narrative still puzzle me.

Outline (some Spoilers – it’s a simple narrative)

Adam is a man in his late 50s still working as a swimming pool attendant in a western hotel in N’Djamena, the Chadian capital. His friends call him ‘Champ’ since he once won a Central African swimming championship. Adam’s 20 year-old son Abdel works with him and enjoys teaching swimming to children. Adam’s only immediate problem is that the local ‘chief’ of his community is pressurising him into making his contribution to the funding needed by the regime in power to fight the rebels threatening the city. Adam has no money, but he knows that the chief has already been forced to send his own son to fight in the civil war. But then Adam is called in to the hotel office to learn that the Chinese owners of the privatised hotel have decided that his son can do the swimming pool job and that he has been demoted to attendant on the hotel gate, letting cars in and out. Adam is devastated. The pressure from the chief is still there and we aren’t too surprised when the Army come to take Abdel, telling him that he is drafted. By this stage Adam is barely speaking to anyone. What will he do when Abdel’s pregnant girlfriend turns up?

Commentary

The film’s title is taken from a poem by Aimé Césaire, born in the French colony of Martinique and one of the founders of the Négritude movement – the promotion of Black culture through the intellectual and cultural life of Francophone Africa and the Caribbean. The supporters of Négritude see it as an anti-racist and anti-colonialist movement validating African identity, but the great Senegalese writer and filmmaker Sembène Ousmane was opposed to it, particularly as advanced by the Senegal President at the time of independence, Léopold Senghor. Sembène saw the movement as backward-looking and subservient to Francophone culture in Africa. It’s significant, I think, that whereas Sembène, once able to make his films without a controlling French producer, always sought to make his films in local Senegalese languages, Haroun’s characters generally speak French and Arabic – the ‘official languages’ of Chad. Apart from anything else, this makes class positions difficult to determine. Adam is broke but he runs a motorbike and sidecar and has a house and yard. Is he working class or is he privileged in this society?

The poem by Césaire has the title ‘Return to My Native Land’. I can’t find the whole poem online but the relevant section includes the lines:

“And above all, my body as well as my soul, beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of miseries is not a proscenium, a man screaming is not a dancing bear . . .”

The meaning of this seems reasonably clear. We are being urged not to be spectators of misery but to become involved. At least that’s how I read it – other interpretations, especially by those who know the poem, welcomed. I seem to remember reading that Haroun has said that Adam is ‘screaming’ at God for not intervening in the tragedy that is befalling his family.

I’ve read several reviews that suggest that Adam ‘sold’ his son to the Army to get his job back. I don’t buy that. Adam is devastated when he loses his job and devastated further when he realises that he will lose his son. As often happens, I think it depends on who you identify with in these stories. If you are older you are bound to feel more keenly for Adam. As the gatekeeper in a uniform far too small for him, Adam is reminiscent of the figure played by Emil Jannings in Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Germany 1924). 55 in many poorer African states is an age beyond the average life expectancy. The African world is for the young (which makes their sacrifice in war even more terrible). Haroun shows this in many ways but perhaps most powerfully simply by taking away the power of speech from the father.

One other aspect of the narrative intrigues me. Adam is called ‘Champ’ by his colleagues. How ironic is this? In 2000 at the Sydney Olympics a swimmer from Equatorial Africa called Eric Moussambani was nicknamed ‘Eric the Eel’ by the tabloids in the UK and elsewhere because he entered on a wild card and swam the slowest 100m race anyone at the games had seen in an international event. Of course there were accusations of racism towards the journalists/sub-editors who puffed the story – but on the other hand something similar had happened with the British ski jumper Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards at Calgary in 1988. I have no knowledge of the Central African Swimming Championships but I suspect that there are few pools for swimmers to train in and that those that do exist are probably in luxury hotels. So, I’m still not sure what the ‘Champ’ nickname means except as an ironic reference to Adam’s declining status. I won’t spoil the film’s ending but it does have a connection to the water. (Chad, I’ve learned from researching this also has a large lake in what is a country with significant areas of desert.)

I enjoyed the film very much and I’m glad that Haroun is able to make films that get an international release (and in this case a Cannes Prize in 2010). He and Abderrahmane Sissako are the only African directors who have regularly had their films shown in the UK in the last few years. I think that a couple more titles by directors from elsewhere in Africa are going to appear soon. Much as I admire Haroun’s artistry, I hope other titles also refer to contemporary African popular culture.

If I have one criticism of Haroun it is that the women in this film are almost completely marginalised. That’s a shame, especially as the welfare of pregnant women in Chad and the high levels of mortality of both babies and mothers during childbirth is something that has been recognised in Europe. So if you go and see this film (and you should), how about also giving a donation to ‘Safer Birth in Chad‘?

Here’s a subtitled trailer to whet your appetite (the beautiful song is by Djénéba Koné the young woman who plays Abdel’s girlfriend):

See also our entries on Daratt and Bamako and on an earlier report on A Screaming Man at Cannes and African Cinema Now.

Psalm 21 (Sweden 2009)

Henrik Horneus (Jonas Malmsjö) is the Stockholm priest who has much to learn in Psalm 21

Psalm 21 is a Swedish horror film released on DVD by Revolver and via LOVEFiLM and iTunes on May 30 in the UK. I presume that the distributor hopes that the film will attract fans of Let the Right One In. I wish that Revolver had also organised a cinema release as this is a handsomely mounted CinemaScope movie with strong effects that I think would look good on a big screen.

In some ways it is a conventional horror film displaying many of the familiar tropes – but instead of ending with the vanquishing of evil, its story carries on and offers a different message, seemingly about the Swedish church.

The central character Henrik is a priest and we first meet him in his own church delivering a sermon that appears to entertain his audience of comfortable families from the Stockholm suburbs. But this is only after a prologue featuring a small boy who seems to terrify his mother just by looking at her. We are reminded of this when the clergyman is visited by a parishioner desperate for help who says that she can see the souls of the dead, one of whom stands behind the priest. The flashback to Henrik’s childhood will be re-visited later. He fobs off his parishioner but when he returns home we are aware that all is not well in his household. His own small son ignores him and is soon being taken away by his estranged wife. Then his housekeeper (who may be much closer to him) answers the phone and tells him that his father has died. Against her advice, he decides to drive that night to the small village where his father had been the local priest.

‘Any fule kno’ that in a horror film you don’t go out on your own in the middle of the night and of course he begins to see apparitions and is then forced to seek refuge in a dark house in the woods when his car refuses to go any further. From here on Henrik will uncover the story behind why his father died, what connection he had to the family in the dark house and, eventually, about his own childhood (memories of which he might have suppressed). I’m not sure if Psalm 21 is a ‘scary movie’. It’s more of a psychological horror than a ‘splatter fest’. The effects work (by a company that works on the Harry Potter films) is there primarily to create interesting ghost figures who appear at various points, mostly in Henrik’s dreams. All of the ghosts are known to Henrik or are associated with his father. The ‘horror climax’ features an admonition by his father about Henrik’s behaviour as a child. The father, Gabriel, is played extremely well by Per Ragnar, the older man who acts as a servant to Eli in Let the Right One In. This is a powerful scene.

The film is nicely shot with a muted colour palette and compositions that are reminiscent of both Let the Right One In and the J-horror cycle (and the US remakes) in which ghosts often materialise behind characters. Writer-director Fredrik Hiller is an established Swedish actor (he has a small role in the film) who also appeared in the Hollywood film Beowulf. Psalm 21 has taken some time to complete – it was in production at the same time as Let the Right One In and first emerged at a festival in 2009. IMdB suggests that it was released in Sweden in November 2010 but it doesn’t seem to have made the Swedish Top 20. Perhaps this means only a limited release before DVD? Hiller put his Hollywood earnings into the production and he’s now working on a Swedish zombie movie.

Here is an international trailer that gives a pretty good impression of the film’s style and tone:

As the trailer suggests, Biblical texts are as important in the film as the title implies. ‘Psalm 21’ is short and has two parts. The first is a thanksgiving to God for supporting King David. The second part celebrates God’s power and exhorts him to smite his enemies. This psalm has been interpreted and re-interpreted many times. The crux of the film’s narrative is that Henrik reads it primarily via the first part and sees it as validating a generous God, but Gabriel focuses on the second part and seems obsessed with the ‘smiting’ element. The film also suggests that in the 1970s the Swedish Church (Lutheran but not that far away from Anglicanism if I understand Wikipedia!) renounced traditional views on hell and damnation. Gabriel is presented as diehard supporter of the old view and it is this that he foists upon Henrik in response to their family issues. I won’t give the film’s ending away, but we do learn something about Henrik’s vocation and whether or not his views change after his ordeal.

Psalm 21 is an intelligent psychological horror film which will be scary for some and unsettling for all. I enjoyed watching it.

The website for the UK release is www.psalm21.co.uk

Amreeka (US, Canada, Kuwait 2009)

Nisreen Faour as Muna (left) and Hiam Abbass as Raghda

This is a conventional family melodrama with a ‘feelgood’ ending (though a few narrative strands are left open) and plenty of laughs. There is nothing new or surprising about how the film is shot (though the filmmaker cites Mike Leigh and Robert Altman as influences on the camera style) and much of the story is predictable. But . . . everything in the film is enjoyable, it is well acted and ingeniously produced and, most of all, it tells us something about a particular experience for a group not often represented in cinema – Arab-Americans.

‘Amreeka’ is the Arabic for ‘America’ represented here by Illinois during the invasion of Iraq. The story starts in Bethlehem where Muna, the divorced mother of 16 year-old Fadi is struggling to get to her job through the Israeli roadblocks, to pay for son’s private school and look after her demanding mother. One day, unexpectedly, she receives a letter telling her that her application to travel to the US to stay with her sister has been approved. She takes off with Fadi and the narrative outlines how the two of them fare in the ‘land of the free’. Some Americans are surprisingly friendly but a minority treat them like stereotypical ‘terrorists’.

Amreeka is the first feature by writer-director Cherien Dabis who was born in Ohio to Palestinian-Jordanian parents and she has lived in Jordan as well as the US. Many of the scenes are based on her own experiences as a teenager during the first Iraq War. She had previously made a prize-winning short and acted as a writer and co-producer on the TV series The L-Word. Amreeka was possible because of various awards and sponsorship schemes involving film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin and Tribeca. In fact the production acts as a fascinating example of how specialised films manage to get made. Although clearly a low budget production, the cast has a couple of well known faces and the crew is highly experienced. The production eventually came together with final funding from a Kuwaiti company and significant Canadian input. The production included shoots in Ramallah and Chicago but I’m guessing it was the array of ‘soft money’ support from various Canadian sources that prompted the move to Manitoba standing in for small town Illinois. In the production notes on the official website Cherien Dabis tells us that they had no budget to decorate a typical Arab home in North America until they found a family in Winnipeg who had come from Ramallah and who were willing to lend their house for the shoot. They also received support from the White Castle hamburger company who kitted out a set for them – this has the added advantage of linking the film to those popular Asian-American characters Harold and Kumar.

One of the great strengths of the film is the casting of Nisreen Faour, a talented performer from Haifa as Muna. She is hugely engaging and convincing. Cherien Dabis suggests that she is at once childlike but also is able to convey pain and suffering behind her sunny smile. She is ably supported by Melkar Muallem from Jerusalem/Ramallah as Fadi. Hiam Abbass is a familiar face from both American and Israeli/Palestinian films and she plays Muna’s sister perfectly, reigning in the power that makes her so often a formidable presence. Good to see as well is Alia Shawkat who was so impressive in Drew Barrymore’s début as a director, Whip It, made at roughly the same time as Amreeka. Her father is an Iraqi actor and she has spoken about wanting to support Arab-American culture. The other cast members all contribute strongly – though I did feel that the cops in the police station were clearly Canadian not American.

Amreeka often teeters on the edge of predictability but then manages to step back, e.g. the school principal who becomes supportive to Muna almost inevitably announces that he is Polish-Jewish but this turns out to be not such a big deal. The film handles the other religion question quite carefully. We are expecting that Muna and Fadi will be targeted as ‘Muslim terrorists’ but early on there are clues to their Christianity. They come from Bethlehem which makes it possible but Raghda’s crucifix necklace confirms it. The script also has the best ‘occupation joke’ I’ve heard for a while. The film plays with the balance between how difficult life now is on the West Bank but also how difficult it can be in small-town America when the news from Iraq is on every TV screen. Raghda wants to go back to Palestine – she doesn’t understand how it has changed. Muna doesn’t really understand what is happening in America. There’s a lot everyone needs to learn.

Overall I think there is a good balance of ‘comfortable’ and ‘uncomfortable’ moments and it’s a melodrama so the music is good as well. I’m just left wondering why it took so long for Amreeka to reach the UK.

Outside the Law (Hors la loi Algeria, France, Belgium, Italy 2010)

Roschdy Zem as the brother who was in the French Army in Indochina and now finds himself as the ‘enforcer’ for the FLN group. This image makes clear the reference to Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime/Resistance films.

I was looking forward to this film and it didn’t disappoint. I was on the edge of my seat for over two hours and emotionally engaged throughout. I’m amazed at the lukewarm reaction by many UK and US critics. The film was controversial in France where the right protested at something close to the reality of what happened. It was interesting to view the film after working on colonialist films about Africa. Writer-director Rachid Bouchareb makes two profound points in the opening sequences of the film which impressed me immediately. I’ve seen the film criticised as ‘too conventional’ which although not inaccurate is rather a crass comment. There is a place for an epic action film representing the personal sacrifice that many Algerians clearly made in fighting for their independence from a vicious colonialist settler regime.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

The film begins in 1925 when the land held by an Algerian family is seized by the colonial regime and given to a settler. It then moves forward to 1945 and VE day followed by the massacre by settlers and colonial security forces of Algerians demonstrating in the city of Sétif. Eight years on the three brothers who were children when their land was seized are now separated. One is in a French gaol, one in the French Army losing the war against the Vietnamese in Indochina and the other has taken his mother to Nanterre where Algerians are now beginning to get work in the Renault factory. From here on in we follow the three brothers as they come together and split again. Two become senior organisers in the revolutionary campaign of the FLN (National Liberation Front) carrying out actions against the state in France. The other brother pursues his own aim of producing a boxing champion. The film ends at the moment of Algerian Independence on 5 July 1962.

Commentary

The two points Bouchareb highlights at the beginning are the stolen land – the solid basis for the moral right of the independence struggle – and the moment when the Vietnamese appeal to the colonial troops in the French Army in Indochina to rebel and fight for their own freedom. This representation of solidarity is too rarely seen in historical films and needs to be commemorated. In this respect, Hors la loi follows Bouchareb’s previous film Indigènes which looked at the sacrifices made by both North African and West African colonial troops in the liberation of France – something not appreciated by the French at the time. However, despite featuring the same three stars as the earlier film (Roschdy Zem, Jamel Debbouze and Sami Bouajila), Hors la loi turns out to be rather different. The three brothers are not together in the same way (in the earlier film they are friends not real brothers) and they are engaged in actions where they are having to operate within metropolitan France without any official sanction.

Inevitably this film has been compared to Battle of Algiers. Bouchareb does pay hommage to that iconic film in two scenes – the demonstration on the streets of Sétif and a scene when Abdelkader looks out of his prison cell to see one of his prison comrades being executed by guillotine. There are other possibilities where parallels could have been drawn. Gillo Pontecorvo in Battle of Algiers spends nearly as much time with the colonisers as with the colonised. Bouchareb gives us only glimpses of the French security forces and only one, Colonel Faivre (brilliantly played by Bernard Blancan who was also in Indigènes), is significantly ‘individuated’. I think that this is to give us the chance to make the moral connections between a character who was a Resistance hero in France, fought in Indochina and finally became involved in the ‘secret army’ operations against the FLN in Paris. In this sense Faivre is like the Colonel Mathieu character in Battle of Algiers – but less charismatic and more tragic perhaps. Bouchareb also declines to spend too much time on the torture scenes (by the police on Algerian suspects) but the key ‘omission’ is the role of the women in the FLN.

I think Bouchareb is caught in a trap here. He has decided to focus on the three brothers in order to show the personal sacrifices and level of commitment of each of the three to family and independence struggle. This is the main difference between this film and Battle of Algiers with the latter dealing with the overall battle across the city and the collective struggle. One of the most famous scenes in that film is the preparation of Arab women as ‘Europeans’ to enable them to penetrate the French part of the city and plant bombs. Not only is this a key passage in terms of ‘identity’ but it shows the bravery of the women in pursuing the struggle. In Hors la loi, the women are much less visible. The brothers lost their sisters in the massacre in Sétif. Mother remains as the focal point of the family but only one of the brothers marries and he barely sees his wife and child. The other brothers appear not to have the time or inclination for relationships.

Sami Bouajila as the brother who becomes the organiser of the FLN cell (his role signified by his Malcolm X style glasses?). Here he buys a ticket for the boxing match promoted by his younger brother.

The trap is concerned with realism, history etc. and the kind of message that Bouchareb wants to construct. He opts for a mix of the historical and the symbolic (the only option I think) so that partly the narrative explores the procedures of armed struggle within metropolitan France and partly it focuses on the personal struggles of the three men – the sickening effect of being forced by circumstance to kill (anybody, but especially your colleagues who falter in revolutionary zeal), the personal discipline required to follow orders from the party heirarchy and the need to repress all personal ambitions in order to work for the cause. The irony is that the only woman who has a significant active role in the campaign is a white Communist Party member. I’m assuming that her role is based on a historical figure. The brother who chooses boxing as his way of promoting the Algerian cause is the most conflicted over his support for the FLN and in the end it is family ties rather than party which determines his actions.

Bouchareb has spoken about his debt to Jean-Pierre Melville in constructing the narrative and it is very clear in several scenes. Melville, the ‘father of the New Wave’ and one of the greatest directors of the polar in French Cinema. Melville had been in the Resistance and in two of his films he used the iconography and characterisations of the gangster/polar in representing the Resistance fighters. In an interview in Sight and Sound (June 2011) Bouchareb explains how a scene in Hors la loi, in which the newly-formed FLN group struggle to assassinate a leader of the rival Algerian political organisation the MNA, was based on a similar scene in Melville’s L’armée des ombres. The Melville connection points to what I think is most successful in Hors la loi – the way in which Bouchareb invites us to feel the struggle of each of the brothers. But I think this only works if you share at least some of their political views. I’m not sure I could ever ‘obey’ any political party as these men do but I found that the film immersed me in the personal responses to issues in much the same way as I Killed Ben Barka (2005) and (on just a couple of occasions) Carlos (2010).

I would recommend Hors la loi to anyone who wants to know something about the Algerian history of independence struggle, so if you are still wondering about the ‘secrets’ in Michael Haneke’s Hidden, here is your chance to find out something. My only slight reservation is that the title is not helpful. Outside the Law puts too much stress on the gangster iconography and it is the politics that is most important.

If you can ignore the terrible voiceover, this trailer gives a sense of the epic feel of the film.

Everywhere and Nowhere (UK 2011)

James Floyd as Ash in Everywhere and Nowhere

Everywhere and Nowhere is in some ways a new kind of British Asian movie. (C0)-writer-director Menhaj Huda is something of a veteran of UK TV but he is best known in cinema terms as director of Kidulthood (2006), the movie which helped to introduce the idea of the British ‘urban film’ featuring multiracial urban youth in films involving a mix of sex, violence and music. In his new film Huda turns to a more traditional British Asian narrative about family, education, ambition etc. with mixed results.

The venerable Philip French in the Observer compared this film to the Loach/Laverty production Ae Fond Kiss (2004). In one sense this is accurate in that the central character Ash is an accountancy student who would rather be a DJ and he encounters various family issues about how to behave in a proper manner and what it means to be a Pakistani in Britain falling in love with an Irish music teacher at his sister’s school. But that’s really as far as the comparison goes. Huda’s film is both potentially more interesting in plot terms and less satisfying as a family melodrama.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Ash (James Floyd) is a 20 year-old student working part-time in his older brother’s shop during the summer break – but really focusing on his DJ skills mixing classic Hindi film music with various forms of dub and techno. Ash has an older sister who has yet to tell her traditionalist older brother about her Black boyfriend. She has her own place but Ash too is keeping quiet about his DJ aspirations as he still lives with his brother’s family as their parents have retired to Lahore. His three friends also have various ‘issues’ about dealing with their families. Cousin Riz is a devout Muslim who tries to control his more ‘liberated’ sister. Jaz is a womaniser faced with the prospect of arranged marriage while Zaf has to look after his sick father who dreams of ‘home’ in Bangladesh.

Commentary

The strength of the narrative is in its exploration of identity and lifestyle faced by a variety of characters. All the younger characters are faced with becoming hypocrites in some way – trying to please family and be modern ‘British’ Asians. The older brother, Ahmed,  is the only real ‘villain’ in the sense that he is dogmatic. Everyone else recognises that identity is something to work at and that nothing is easily labelled as ‘appropriate’.

What’s new about the narrative is that Huda brings together the generic youth narrative of the urban movie and the familiar South Asian family melodrama. The casting of those icons of British Asian film and TV from the 1980s, Saeed Jaffrey and Art Malik makes this melding clear. The family set up (which mirrors that in Shifty, with an older brother putting pressure on the central younger character) is explained in a voiceover during the credits in which we are told that the parents were born in ‘British Occupied India’ and then came to the UK where their children were born over a 17 year period. The end credits reveal that the film is dedicated to someone born in Bangladesh in 1942 who died in 2010 – presumably someone close to the director or writers. But for the Khan family in the film the dates don’t really stack up. It feels a bit like Huda re-working his own biography (he’s now in his 40s) and Saeed Jaffery as Zaf’s father finds himself switching roles in Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette (1986) from successful business-man uncle to bed-ridden father talking about ‘home’.

Kidulthood was a fast-paced and ‘vital’ movie but here Huda struggles to make the family melodrama work. The best parts of the film involve the four young men and the scenes in the nightclub where Ash eventually gets to play his music. In some of the family relationship scenes I found the dialogue a bit clunky. I think that this is going to be a problem for the younger audience. The film is being sold as a music film/youth film. The sister’s boyfriend (the DJ) is played by Simon Webbe (of the ex-boy band Blue, this year’s UK Eurovision entry) and Zaf is played by Adam Deacon, the ‘face’ of Kidulthood, Adulthood and Anuvahood. These names will attract audiences who perhaps won’t have the patience for the family drama – as the first IMDb posting suggests. I think that is a shame. The drama is worth exploring and I certainly enjoyed the film overall. Although it isn’t as flashy as in Kidulthood, Brian Tufano’s cinematography is very good and I actually enjoyed the music. Both music director ‘The Angel’ and Tufano worked on Kidulthood.

I shouldn’t end without mentioning James Floyd as Ash. Checking IMDb, I note that as well as various TV appearances he appeared in the British horror film Tormented. I can’t say I recognised him but checking back I find he had a form of blonde Mohican haircut in that film! The trivia on him reveals that he is of mixed Singapore Indian and white British parentage and that he ditched a philosophy degree at LSE to go to RADA. This has given him a certain element of freedom to play a range of roles and he’s one to watch out for. Perhaps he will eventually give the excellent Riz Ahmed some competition?

A Colonialist Film? The African Queen (UK/US 1951)

Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn (Blu-ray grab by DVD Beaver)

We watched this film recently as part of an event with the title ‘Colonial Africa in British Cinema’. The African Queen has recently been re-released as a restored digital print. It looks fantastic and the cinematography by the great Jack Cardiff can now be fully appreciated. The only downside is that, as with most films of this era, the back projection becomes more obvious. I was also much more aware of the use of models and body doubles in certain shots. Perhaps the clarity of the image made these more visible?

Production context

The African Queen is an adaptation of a novel by the British writer C. S. Forester first published in 1935. The film was produced by the independent producer Sam Spiegel (under his pseudonym S. P. Eagle) for Horizon Pictures (the company he had formed with John Huston) in partnership with the British company Romulus Films. John Huston and Humphrey Bogart were keen to work outside Hollywood at this time because of the fall-out over the ‘blacklisting’ caused by the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). This was the first of three films that Huston made with Romulus (the others were Moulin Rouge (1952) and Beat the Devil (1953)). The film co-starred Katherine Hepburn and the adaptation was partly written by James Agee. Production took place on location in the Belgian Congo and on studio sets at Shepperton Studios outside London.

Outline

The ‘African Queen’ is a small steamboat plying its trade on behalf of a Belgian mining company on a river in Central Africa in August 1914. When the boat’s captain, the mechanic Charlie Allnut arrives in a small village in German East Africa, he surprises a British missionary and his sister Rose (Robert Morley and Katherine Hepburn) with the news that Britain is at war with Germany. After Allnut has left, German ‘native’ soldiers arrive and on the orders of their European commander, burn down the village. The British missionary dies from the shock of the event and the villagers are rounded up. Allnut returns a little later and offers Rose an escape by boat – but she wants to take action and persuades Alnutt to undertake (with her) a dangerous mission. She proposes to go down river on the Queen and enter Lake Victoria with the intention of sinking the German ship that controls the vast lake. To do so the couple must navigate rapids and pass under the guns of a German fort.

Commentary

We watched the film in the context of a study of the ‘Colonialist Film’. This gave a completely different perspective on a film which has achieved classic status. Bogart won an Oscar for his portrayal and the film is now preserved by the US Library of Congress. Our discussion suggested that the film does indeed conform to many of the conventions associated with the colonialist film. On the other hand, we also noted that the film could really have been set in many other locations. Ostensibly this is the story of two people, both of whom are perhaps disappointed in how their lives have turned out. Although they appear initially to be ill-matched, in the face of adversity they ‘find’ themselves and each other. On this basis, setting is fairly immaterial. But the film is set in East Africa and in 1951 the future of European colonies in Africa was uncertain with independence movements beginning to organise.

In his book Modernity and the African Cinema (2004, Africa World Press), the Nigerian scholar Femi Okiremuete Shaka proposes eleven conventions of the colonialist film. He also offers a specific critique of The African Queen as a colonial adventure film. Here is a precis of Shaka’s eleven points:

1) Prolonged shots of the African landscape – the ‘safari shot’. The ‘wildness’ of Africa served up for the sedentary pleasures of European audiences. Such shots include river scenes as well as panoramic views of animals in landscapes.

2) Africans presented as cannibals (i.e. as ‘other’ in terms of dealing with enemies)

3) Africa as a symbolic ‘Garden of Eden’ – with diseases.

4) Binary oppositions in which Africans are characterised by the negatives of European values, e.g. Europeans are cultured, educated, sophisticated but Africans are primitive, child-like, simple etc.

5) Africans as sexually perverse with attitudes and behaviour considered only by European value systems.

6) African kings/leaders as despots.

7) The African environment viewed metaphorically as something to be overcome symbolically by heroic European adventurers/leaders.

8) Two contrasting African protagonists, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ where the ‘good’ is defined by a willingness to conform to British ways.

9) Narratives which present the heroic deeds of a European male as a key factor in ‘civilising’ the natives.

10) Depiction of pre-colonial Africans as spear-carrying and war-painted warriors.

11) The display of traditional African dances and rituals purely for the pleasure of European audiences – i.e. not as necessary for the narrative.

(Shaka, 2004, 220-223)

We applied this classification in studying several films and it proved to be very useful. I’ve picked out the four most important conventions in the case of The African Queen and discussing these certainly opened up the film for analysis. Numbers 3 and 7 should probably be merged as they refer to more or less the same urge to reduce the African location to an exotic fictional world against which the white adventurer must be tested. The ‘African Queen’ herself is a symbolic prize. As Alnutt says, the Germans would be pleased to capture the boat, just as they would to expand their African possessions. The aim is to sacrifice the Queen in order to save British East Africa (i.e. by taking out the German ship which controls Lake Victoria). The ‘Garden of Eden’ visual metaphor is apparent from the opening shot when the forest cover is parted by the camera to reveal the settlement – and by later scenes in which repeated images of the river and vegetation lead Alnutt into admitting that he hasn’t been anywhere more beautiful. But there is also the tension around the idea of the ‘Heart of Darkness’ drawing on Joseph Conrad. The Europeans who travel to the centre of Africa risk losing both their sanity and their physical health (visualised in the film by the swamps and mosquitoes/leeches).

The environment (so expensively ‘captured’ and presented through via Technicolor camera on location) is thus presented as idealised Eden (with many ‘safari shots’) or as mythical Heart of Darkness. In both cases the Africans who live there are simply ignored – literally kept out of the picture. In fact there are just three sequences in the film where Africans feature. At the beginning of the narrative we see the congregation in the mission, singing with little regard for words or tune and completely alienated (or bored). Outside the mission, another group of painted men are lounging before being turned into a squabbling rabble when Alnutt appears and tosses his half-smoked cigar amongst them. The inference is clear. Africans are child-like and ignorant and when the Germans arrive and burn down the village, Alnutt’s African crew desert him. In the other two later sequences German native troops are shown to be either comically incompetent or simply cowardly. By contrast of course, the two European leads are brave, resolute, resourceful, heroic etc. This is the classic binary divide between coloniser and colonised. The colonised Africans can only be represented as the negative in terms of personal characteristics shown positively by the colonisers. I’ve rarely seen a story in which this is presented so simplistically. As Shaka’s list of conventions suggests, most colonialist narratives utilise a range of African characters, some characterised as evil, despotic etc. but others as potentially ‘good’ (prepared to submit to colonisation and engage with it). The absence of the ‘good’ or ‘evil’ African character raises two issues.

First, this absence makes possible the conventional romantic relationship between the European couple. In other colonialist narratives, specifically the colonial melodrama, such a relationship would be problematised by the presence of a powerful colonised character threatening the development of a taboo sexual relationship. The white female/black male pairing was the greatest taboo. Nothing like that could happen in The African Queen. Instead the emotional impact of the narrative has to be channelled into our fear that the couple will not survive their mission. The adventure/the ‘mission’ becomes the whole concern. This is why the narrative could have happened in any other setting with a dangerous environment (not necessarily colonial).

Secondly, this absence is interesting given the date of production. Attitudes towards the ‘Empire’ in 1951 were beginning to change in the UK in the post-war period. India and Pakistan had already gained independence, the term ‘Commonwealth’ was replacing ‘Empire’ and British colonial policy was adapting to the probability of eventual independence of other colonies. It’s also worth remembering that although there had been ‘Imperial’ troops fighting in the 1914-18 War, the Commonwealth servicemen who fought in the 1939-45 War were much more visible to British forces and indeed to the population in the UK. I’m not suggesting that Britain’s colonial policy was all sweetness and light, simply that mainstream cinema seemed slightly behind the times in terms of its choice of colonialist adventures. This might be something to do with Hollywood and its naïve perception of a changing Africa. In 1950 MGM had taken its two new British stars, Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr, to East Africa to make a new version of King Solomon’s Mines.

Much more attuned to the times were films that looked at the question of how colonies were moving towards independence – and what white settlers/planters/mine-owners thought about this. These narratives certainly would involve African characters and Shaka refers to one such narrative type as the colonial burden film. It’s worth noting that despite the contemporary status of The African Queen as a classic film, it was matched, if not exceeded in terms of box office response by another British film set in East Africa. The Ealing production of Where No Vultures Fly (1951) was the Royal Film and opened in January 1952 before The African Queen in March. Also shot in Technicolor, Where No Vultures Fly is a contemporary story about one man’s fight to open Africa’s first game reserve in opposition to the interests of safari hunters, ivory poachers – and, of course, the local African communities who might have other ideas for their land.

Largely forgotten now, Where No Vultures Fly combined the ‘safari film’ with the ‘colonial burden’ film – and looked forward to ‘settler conflict’ narratives. Although directed by the celebrated documentary filmmaker Harry Watt, the film did not impress critics. However, audiences liked it and it offered a film which seemed to look forward when The African Queen looked back.

We’ll try to discuss more colonialist narratives in future and develop a section of the blog to ‘postcolonial film studies’.