This is Congo


In the Congo even amenities we take for granted are corrupted.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Mamadou Ndala, Joseph Kabila, Colonel Kasango, Matenga, Hakiza Nyantaba, Paul Kagame, Isaach de Bankolé (voice), Mama Romance. Directed by Daniel McCabe

 

One of the most beautiful places on Earth is Congo, the Republic formerly known as Zaire. It is the 11th largest nation on Earth and has mineral wealth that is absolutely staggering. Of course, none of that wealth filters down to the people of Congo. What does filter down is the nearly continuous state of Civil War that has been underway in that region for more than 20 years.

First-time feature filmmaker McCabe focuses on four people to tell his story; Mamadou Ndala, a charismatic colonel in the Congolese army who is idealistic and passionate. He loves his country genuinely and defends it without hesitation. Colonel Kasango is another army officer who in order to protect himself and his family has taken on anonymity (he is photographed in silhouette, uses a false name and his interview is voiced by noted actor Isaach de Bankolé.

Then there are the civilians; Hakiza Nyantaba is a tailor who ekes out a living with a battered sewing machine. He has been forced to flee his village six times, taking only what he could carry. Finally Bibanne, known as Mama Romance, sells gems on the black market in Kenya. It is a highly risky move that could lead to arrest but she has to take care of her kids somehow.

McCabe intersperses their stories with the history of the Congo, from Emperor Leopold II of Belgium’s brutal and ruthless colonial reign to the hopeful prime ministry of Patrice Lumumba, the coup that led to strongman Joseph Mobuto that dominated the Congolese political landscape. It is a history of corruption, brutality and nonstop violence.

Much of the film takes place during the 2012-13 assault by the rebel group M-83 in the South Kivu region, one of the richest in minerals in the country. Ndala would defend the regional capital of Goma from rebel troops which brought him great popularity among the people of the Kivu – and the nervous eye of the army officers who were concerned about someone being so popular and renowned.

This is not a feel-good documentary; there are no quick fixes, no answers. Since the events shown here war has continued to drone on and their current president Joseph Kabila who is as corrupt and as ruthless as any dictator in the world (and who just suspended all presidential elections, essentially making him President for life). Life for the Congolese continues to be miserable with no end in sight and the world has essentially abandoned them. While I suppose one may say “well why bother watching this then” the reason is that the more people who see what’s happening the more people will start demanding action to protect the Congolese who are caught in the crossfire and to demand the removal of Kabila and his cronies. The depressing reality though is that in all likelihood the replacement would just be business as usual.

REASONS TO GO: The film is very compelling and very sad. It’s a very beautiful country.
REASONS TO STAY: 20 years of non-stop war; we can only imagine…
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence as well as a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The genesis of the film came when McCabe was sent to Congo as a photojournalist in 2008 documenting the CNDP rebellion.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Enclave
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Coverage of the 17th New York Asian Film Festival begins!

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They Will Have to Kill Us First


Songhoy Blues has the blues.

Songhoy Blues has the blues.

(2015) Documentary (BBC Films) Fadimata “Disco” Walett Oumar, Moussa Agbidi, Khaira Arby, Songhoy Blues, Jimmy Oumar, Nick Zinner, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, Marc-Antoine Moreau. Directed by Johanna Schwartz

Mali is a West African nation that most Americans probably have never heard of, let alone pick it out from a map. It has been beset by a civil war initiated in 2012 by the MNLA, or the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a group ostensibly fighting for the ethnic Tuareg minority to create their own state in the Saharan northern portion of the country. In order to further their own ends, they made a deal with the devil – fighting along with jihadist separatists who were determined to institute Sharia law and a religious totalitarian government. You can guess which group got their way.

The broadcast of music was thus forbidden in the territories that the jihadists, some of whom were linked to ISIS, controlled. For the people of Mali, who had developed their unique style of music that included hip-hop, rock and roll, folk styles and to a very large extent the blues, this was tantamount to surgically removing their souls. Music was part of the national identity of the country.

All of this was told in a clever rap song at the beginning of the film which immediately links the importance of music and the story of this country’s misery. Harsh punishments were instituted in the jihadist territories, with a graphic video depicting a man’s hand being amputated. Rape became common in the area and infractions such as not praying loud enough triggered brutal reprisals.

Two of Mali’s biggest musical stars are women; both of whom are best known by a single name. Disco (a nickname bestowed on the Madonna-loving artist as a youth) is a more modern artist and Khaira more traditional but both have huge audiences. Both, like millions of Malians, have been displaced from their homes – one to a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, one to the capital city of Bamako in the South, away from her beloved home of Timbuktu. Guitarist Moussa Agbidi from Gao is also in a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, but his wife remained in the city of Gao where she was arrested. He was trying to eke by playing at what venues he could find work at or whatever occasions (weddings, parties) that required musicians.

Also in Bamako, a group of young musicians calling themselves Songhoy Blues were writing some wonderful songs, one of which plaintively called the displaced back to Mali to help rebuild the country. Ironically, they themselves would end up leaving after being discovered by a French producer and English musicians Damon Albarn of Blur and noted minimalist Brian Eno as well as American guitarist Nick Zimmer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They moved to London to record a critically acclaimed album and went on tour to support it.

The stories here are raw and wrenching. The ability of man to be completely and utterly inhumane to his fellow man is going to make you shake your head in sorrow at the very least. There are moments that are hard to watch as we’re shown news footage of bodies and body parts strewn about the rubble of a small town that has felt the brunt of the war between the government, the insurgents of the MNLA and the jihadists.

But then there’s the music and oh my goodness, it’s incredible. I expected African music that was more rural and rhythmic with chanting and gorgeous harmonies but this is very close to what I would consider Indie Rock. The musicianship is incomparable and the songs plaintive and longing. The lyrics are thoughtfully translated through subtitles – much of the dialogue is in French which is what the Malians mostly speak. It’s not often I urge readers to buy a soundtrack to a documentary, but this one is worth it; it’s on Atlantic Records and should be available through most vendors who sell music either digitally or in the rarest of the rare, CD stores.

The film ends with a concert in Timbuktu organized by Keira and Disco. We don’t really get a sense of being there, although it IS beautifully photographed. The ending should be uplifting, cathartic or depressing but here it’s only kinda meh. It left me feeling that I was missing a few minutes of ending. The narrative does tend to meander a little bit as we bounce from subject to subject but then again that is true of most documentaries.

Still, the movie is plenty powerful throughout, the ending notwithstanding. Most of us here in the west know little or nothing about Mali’s suffering. We get an inside glimpse at it, the frustration of those caught in between warring factions who just want to live their lives in peace. Most of these people are Muslim and they despise the jihadists who have so disrupted their lives. One of the best sequences in the film shows a group of men and women in full dress dancing enthusiastically. One look at that and that might change some minds about the people who follow that religion. This is a movie full of vitality and joy – and also frustration and despair. The human condition in 90 minutes.

REASONS TO GO: The music is amazing. The stories are heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The narrative is disjointed and meandering occasionally.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some gruesome images of civil war, a little bit of profanity and some of the themes here are pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Schwartz’s first cinematic feature film (she previously directed a made-for-TV documentary Mysterious Science: Rebuilding Stonehenge).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timbuktu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: 45 Years

Children of Men


Clive Owen isn't a swinger anymore.

Clive Owen isn’t a swinger anymore.

(2006) Science Fiction (Universal) Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Huston, Charlie Hunnam, Maria McErlane, Michael Haughey, Paul Sharma, Philippa Urquhart, Tehmina Sunny, Michael Klesic, Martina Messing, Peter Mullan, Pam Ferris, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Gary Hoptrough, Maurice Lee, Dhafer L’Abidine, Bruno Ouvard, Denise Mack, Jacek Koman, Joy Richardson. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

]If the world is indeed going to hell in a handbasket, it follows that it will end with a whimper rather than a bang. Worse than everything ending in a moment is the thought that humanity will die a slow, lingering death.

In 2027, that seems to be the case. It has been 19 years since a human baby has been born and the world teeters on the edge of anarchy and chaos. Only England has a functioning government and it is barely holding on with its fingernails, resorting to a brutal totalitarian government that has banned any immigrants from entering the country, a chilling thought that resonates even more in 2015 than it did when this was made.

Theo (Owen) works at the Ministry of Energy in a London that is beset by terrorist attacks and open revolt. Immigrants are captured by draconian police, put in cages and forcibly deported. Plagues and famine have made things even worse. One morning he barely escapes a bombing in a cafe that shakes him to the core. He is then kidnapped by the Fishes, a radical Immigrant’s rights group that is led by Julian (Moore), Theo’s ex-wife from whom he separated when their child died 20 years previously.

She offers him a large sum of money to use his connections to get transit papers for Kee (Ashitey), a refugee. He obtains these from his cousin Nigel (Huston) but the papers require someone to accompany her, so Theo is paid to do this. Accompanied by Kee, Julian and her right hand man Luke (Ejiofor), they head for the coast but are attacked. In the chaos, Theo gets Kee to the home of his old friend Jasper (Caine), a former political cartoonist living out his days in isolation, caring for his wife who was left catatonic by government torture.

Pursued by both terrorist forces and the government, Theo and Kee must make their way to the coast and meet a ship from a group of scientists calling themselves the Human Project who would take Kee to safety. Getting there, they must run a gauntlet of hatred as armed conflict breaks out between the government and the refugees with Kee and Theo both caught in the crossfire. Kee however carries a secret that may mean the revival of hope, something that has been thought completely lost.

While the movie was an unabashed critical success (many ranking it on their ten best lists that year), it only received three Oscar nominations mainly for the technical end. That’s a shame, because Owen gave what is to date the best performance of his career. Far from being a typical action hero, he careens from situation to situation, often frightened by what was happening to him, trying to survive by his wits in a situation that was rapidly disintegrating. It is to be noted that while bullets fly in the movie, Owen never even touches a gun.

Moore, a perennial contender for Oscar gold, showed why she continually is in the mix for Best Actress or Supporting Actress. Julian is a strong leader with an iron will, not above manipulating someone she once cared about for the greater good of her cause. Still, the movie does reveal a softer side to the character and Moore plays both well. Caine gets a meaty role as a hippie-like character who smokes a lot of strawberry-flavored pot and has removed himself from society, yet brims with wisdom. It’s as charming a role as Caine has ever played and he’s played some good ones.

The tone here is almost uniformly grim, although the movie really is about hope. Its absence is what plunged the world into chaos; the merest glimmer that it might reappear leads people to sacrifice everything. The ending is open-ended and leaves the viewers to decide whether the ending is bleak or the opposite; I suppose that how you interpret it will largely depend on whether your outlook tends towards optimism or pessimism.

The production design is one of decay, crumbling buildings and streets of fear. There isn’t a lot of gleaming, futuristic set design here; this is a world that is falling apart and the sets show it. The fact that it looks real and familiar is a testament to the production design team and Cuaron. Also, some of the action sequences here are absolutely scintillating, particular the attack on the car alluded to earlier and a final battle between the government and the rebels. They are realistic and for the most part shot with a single camera, lending even more of a “you are there” feel to the film, which many have described as a documentary of things that have yet to happen. There is definitely that kind of feel here.

This is not a masterpiece in my opinion; the mood can get oppressive and considering the state of the world, it can truly make you question whether humanity is worth saving. But questions like that are important to ask, even if we all agree the answer is “yes” (which most of us, I would hope, do). This is a truly impressive movie that may not necessarily be the sort of thing you’ll want to watch as light entertainment, but it’s one that will give you pause. Movies like this are what make science fiction a compelling genre, particularly when it rises above space battles and monsters. Here, the only monster is ourselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Smart and chilling. Fine performances by Owen, Moore and Caine. Extraordinary action sequences.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too dark and dystopian for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, brief nudity, some drug use and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: P.D. James, author of the book the movie is based on, makes a cameo as the old woman in the cafe with Theo in the opening scene.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on the questions raised by the movie, some of which also appears in the featurette The Possibility of Hope which examines how the current global situation (circa 2007) was leading to the future of Children of Men.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $70.0M on a $76M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Chaperone

Miral


When a schoolgirl looks at you with that kind of intensity, you're in trouble.

When a schoolgirl looks at you with that kind of intensity, you’re in trouble.

(2010) Drama (Weinstein) Freida Pinto, Hiam Abbass, Omar Metwally, Vanessa Redgrave, Willem Dafoe, Makram Khoury, Alexander Siddig, Yasmine Al Massri, Rana Al Qawasmi, Ruba Blal, Stella Schnabel, Donald Liddawi, Shredi Jabarin, Dov Navon, Liron Levo, Yolanda El Karam, Rozeen Bisharat, Iman Aoun, Lana Zreik. Directed by Julian Schnabel

Woman Power

The West Bank conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on virtually since the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. There seems to be no end to that fight and even today no compromise between the two seems within reach.

Shortly after Israel became a nation in 1948, Hind al-Husseini (Abbass) finds a group of 55 children, orphaned by the fighting, sitting in the street with nowhere to go. She takes them in, founding an orphanage and school that came to be called the Dar Al-Tifel Institute. Quickly, 55 refugee children grew to over 2,000.

Nadia (Al Massri) is a woman who has suffered brutal sexual abuse, eventually running away from home. She is eventually sent to prison for slapping an Israeli woman who called her a harlot and shares a cell with Fatima (Blal), a former nurse who set a pipe bomb in a crowded theater. The two women grow close and Fatima sets Nadia up with her brother Jamal (Siddig), a kind man who doesn’t hold with his sister’s terrorist beliefs. Nadia eventually gives birth to a daughter named Miral, named for a desert flower common in Palestine.

As a young girl (El Karam), Miral is sent to the Dar Al-Tifel Institute to study under Hind who sees something special in Miral. Hind preaches that education is the way to eventual peace and at first, Miral is inclined to agree with a woman she has grown to admire very much. However, as Miral (Pinto) grows into a young woman and sees that outside the walls of the Institute the Israelis are treating her people so poorly, she begins to have doubts. And when she is sent to teach children in a refugee camp, she falls in with Hani (Metwally), a young man part of a terrorist organization, her point of view begins to radicalize.

Schnabel who is an American of Jewish descent has received a good deal of critical adoration for his film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Here, he continues to apply his artistic sensibilities (Schnabel is also a noted painter) to the silver screen although here with mixed degrees of success. He and his cinematographer Eric Gautier pull forth some really beautiful images, but in order to make some of them more compelling there are a lot of over-exposed shots as well as extreme close-ups or oblique camera angles that make the image unidentifiable until the camera pulls back or changes angle. That’s okay as an occasional trick but it happens a bit too often for my taste.

He also employs the hand-held camera a bit too much. Shaky-cam as it’s popularly known can lend a sense of immediacy to a movie, giving the viewer the perspective of being amidst the action but too much of it can be vertigo-inducing. It’s like driving a dirt road for too long in a car with bad suspension.

Pinto, best known for her work in Slumdog Millionaire captures the essence of the Miral of the novel that the movie is based on. While some have criticized her casting (she is from India rather than Palestine and speaks with a pronounced accent), I find that kind of criticism invalid. Either she’s right for the part or she isn’t, and she clearly is.

Most of the first third of the film belongs to Abbass who is simply put one of the greatest actresses on the planet, although she is largely unknown in the United States because she works mostly in the Middle East. She plays Hind with compassion and gravitas, but always with a life that shines through. She swamps most of the actors here and there are some pretty darn good ones, like Siddig who in his post Deep Space Nine career has turned into a fine actor and is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film.

The middle third is Nadia’s and Al Massri captures her fragile nature nicely. She’s a woman whose life is pervaded by the terrible things that have happened to her and she can’t escape her demons, ultimately succumbing to them. She is a tragic figure who is a sympathetic one in the pages of the book but here we have a harder time sympathizing with her.

The story is told with lots of flashbacks and with seemingly random events that are without initial context until something in the film gives them that. It can be very confusing to the casual viewer and requires a great deal of focus to really follow it – reading the book beforehand was helpful to me, I have to say. I do like that Schnabel takes the Palestinian view which is so rarely seen in the United States, although that is changing as there have been more films shown from the Palestinian viewpoint as of late although mostly from independent distributors. I also found it unnecessary to make all the Israeli characters but one essentially monsters. You can show the Palestinian point of view without reducing it to a cartoon of good guys versus bad guys.

This is a movie about women coping with an impossible situation; two are strong, one damaged and all of them come out changed. While this received little critical love when it came out and was essentially given little support by the studio when it came out in limited release, it’s still a compelling film to watch if you have the patience to do so.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully filmed.  Abbass is a force of nature. Unusual for Hollywood, presents Palestinian viewpoint.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit chaotic and occasionally confusing. Too much shaky-cam and image modification.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a sexual assault as well as some other violence and adult thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Journalist Rula Jebreal who wrote the screenplay based on her semi-autobiographical novel was dating Schnabel at the time (the director, not the actress).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a post-screening Q&A with Julian Schnabel as well as a tour of his production office.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $900,647 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Incendies

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Woman Power concludes!

Mission Congo


Not so much humanitarian aid.

Not so much humanitarian aid.

(2012) Documentary (C-Colony) Pat Robertson, Robert Hinkle, Jessie Pott. Directed by David Turner and Lara Zizic

Florida Film Festival 2014

In the interest of transparency, I’m not a big fan of organized religion. Any human agency that acts as a middle man between the believer and whatever God they worship is highly suspect as far as I’m concerned. I’m suspicious of anyone who tells me they have an inkling of God’s plan, particularly if God’s plan includes my checkbook.

In 1994, the Rwandan genocide was in full force and millions of refugees poured out of that country and into what was then known as Zaire, the neighboring country. Establishment of refugee camps was initially highly disorganized and soon the camps were beset by disease, starvation and overcrowding. Doctors Without Borders, the International Red Cross and other aid organizations immediately dispatched teams to help with the critical situation.

Televangelist Pat Robertson also sent out pleas for aid. He established the charitable fund Operation Blessing. He got on his television ministry program, The 700 Club to plead for immediate aid. That money, he told viewers, would be used to send out teams of doctors who would be boots on the ground helping those who needed it. Funds would also be used to send desperately needed medicine and supplies for the refugees.

As time went on, Robertson bragged how his organization had been a godsend in the crisis, among the first on the front lines of saving those in need, establishing a school in the nearby town of Dumi and setting up a farm to feed the surrounding area. Both entities, the website for Operation Blessing insists, are in full flower today serving the needs of the locals.

A story in the Virginia Pilot newspaper took a critical look at the funds for Operation Blessing and discovered that the claims being made on television weren’t backed up by the tax records for the charity. Documentarians Zizic and Turner decided to make a documentary on the subject.

Their assertion is that contrary to the glowing reports broadcast on The 700 Club and on the website of Operation Blessing (or OBI as it’s known as), OBI was not the presence it made itself out to be. Physicians from Doctors Without Borders don’t recall seeing a presence from the Robertson-backed organization, and what presence was there was usually accompanied by a camera crew.

In fact, the film alleges that Robertson was much more interested in his diamond mining operation through the African Development Corporation which he owned in partnership with a pastor in Zaire – what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In fact, planes carrying what were supposed to be shipments of aid and personnel to the refugee camp in Goma actually carried mining equipment, according to Hinkle who is characterized by the filmmakers as the Chief Pilot of Operation Blessing (although OBI denies he ever worked for them).

The filmmakers do show through broadcast footage from the Christian Broadcast Network (Robertson’s cable channel) and The 700 Club that doctors and medical personnel that they claimed had been flown there by Operation Blessing were actually from Doctors Without Borders and the supplies they showed were from the Red Cross. They do make a pretty compelling case.

The 2011 tax returns submitted by OBI list somewhere north of $120 million in revenue but are not specific as to where that money is going. The filmmakers make the reasonable suggestion that current laws protecting  tax-exempt charities (which the OBI is registered as) require them to show specifically how their money is spent.

We don’t get to see Robertson’s side of the story although apparently an invitation was extended to him and his organization to participate; they have threatened to sue the filmmakers (which apparently hasn’t yet come to pass as of this writing) and have issued press releases vehemently denying the charges leveled at them.

I would be the first to tell you that just because someone makes a documentary film doesn’t mean they are on the side of the angels; you can spin things about any way you want to so it behooves you to check into things more thoroughly before accepting the opinion of anybody on anything, particularly one with a very specific point of view. However, the filmmakers present their case so well using footage and testimony of people who were there, I can’t help think that if Robertson wasn’t guilty of outright fraud, he was at least complicit in misleading the public. Which one would think someone professing to follow the teachings of Christ would be loathe to do.

REASONS TO GO: Builds a well-ordered case against Operation Blessing in particular and televangelism in general.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks balance. Takes awhile to get going.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Tammy Faye

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Draft Day