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By SHARON RWAKATUNGU, CINEMA ESCAPIST

Released in 1966, just four years after Algeria’s independence from France, The Battle of Algiers has remained a classic of political cinema. It is one of the most powerful depictions of people’s struggle to be free; capturing the struggle, complexity, brutality and the pains of war in Algeria against French occupation.

In the 50 years since its release, Director Gillo Pontecorvo’s thrilling but tough documentary-style depiction of Algeria’s fight for independence has had a huge impact on all kinds of filmmakers. It also remains eerily relevant because many of the questions the film sought to address around decolonization and national liberation have haunted generations. In many ways, they still haunt the present.

Authenticity

The Battle of Algiers focuses on the years prior to independence (1954-1957) and how the French military disrupted the National Liberation Front (FLN) operations in Algiers to some success. The film is based on the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, a former FLN military commander. Yacef relived his experiences by portraying the character of El-hadi Jaffar, alongside a cast of other non-professional Algerians.

It meticulously demonstrates the grittiness of urban guerrilla warfare, highlighting the nature of the clash between the FLN and Algerian people against the French Army. It details the tactics of the revolutionaries like secrecy, manipulation, bombings and the evolution of the resistance. While also showing the French military counter-insurgency tactics like torture and killing of civilians.

Colonialism

The greatest art is able to stand the test of time because of how it continually excites people, inspires people and makes them think. The Battle of Algiers is a poignant telling of a particular event that effectively depicts a colonial imperialism, which can be seen as an allegory for political events which we still witness today across the world.

The film raises interesting questions about colonialism in regards to the French, who at that point have occupied Algeria for more than a century, maintained all its resources and considered it home. There are fascinating parallels to the likes of spiralling conflict between Israel and Palestine. When the Algerian freedom fighters rise up to take on their actions against the French colonizers, we look at their struggle and willingness to die at whatever cost 50 years ago in the same way as Israel and Palestine today. Should the various groups who take up arms, whose actions result in the death of innocents, be branded ‘freedom fighters’ or are they ‘terrorists’? This is the exact same debate that rages today.

It’s not too far a stretch to also draw similarities of the ownership struggles in this film to the political climate in South Africa, where the parliament recently passed a notion that could lead to the seizure of land from White farmers that was originally taken from Black people over a century ago.

Realism

Watching The Battle of Algiers in 2018 is both a fascinating and disturbing experience because the film shows brutal scenes of random bombings, military torture and rebellions which look like news footage that we see on TV every day.  The realistic aesthetics effectively show the brutality of war in scenes when guns are fired, bombs detonate or the camera shakes, which makes it feel like the events actually happened and tragedy was spontaneously recorded; there are close shots of bloodied bodies after a bombing that make every single death count.

One of the most iconic scenes of pure tragedy in the film is when a woman plants a bomb in a bar and she looks around at the crowd, obviously thinking about how in a few minutes they will all be dead and we get a shattering close up of a baby eating ice-cream.

Objectivism

But the story in The Battle of Algiers neither demonizes nor praises either side of the war and instead aims to reveal just the ugly facts objectively. We watch three women sneak through the crowds, and plant bombs in public places that kill innocent civilians, but the movie isn’t saying this is right or wrong; it’s asking you to think about the desperation that drove these ordinary people to commit such acts.

The French aren’t depicted as pure evil either, despite their torture and killings; their representative Colonel Mathieu (played by Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the cast) expresses admiration for the rebels. This balanced perspective explains why the film was closely studied by the Black Panthers as a training manual and roadmap to resistance upon its release. It also explains why, in 2003 following the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon infamously screened the film for the US military as a means to strategize the war on terror and counterinsurgency. Despite this, there is no denying that the film ultimately supports the rebel forces more than the French, because it documents a revolution that ended up being successful.

Legacy

The Battle of Algiers has not only stood the test of time because of its politics but also for its aesthetics and form. Since its release, the film has evidently influenced contemporary filmmakers who have used Gillo Pontecorvo’s hyperrealist style to give a sense of urgency and immediacy to everything on screen.

It has been used as a point of reference in all kinds of films- the use of shaky handheld camera in Jason Bourne movies; re-use of Ennio Morricone score in Inglorious Basterds; and the political maneuvering in Zero Dark Thirty. Pontecorvo has been an influence to several directors ranging from Steven Soderbergh and Mira Nair, to Spike Lee and Ken Loach, who have cited personal significance of The Battle of Algiers as a major inspiration for their films.

Gillo Pontecorvo never made a film quite as notable as The Battle of Algiers- he went to Hollywood and made Burn!; another anti-colonial film starring Marlon Brando, which turned out to be a massive flop. But his reputation can rest securely on this single piece of work. The Battle of Algiersregularly shows up on lists of the greatest war movies ever made, and indeed the greatest movies ever made, irrespective of its genre.

It’s hard to disagree with its canon status because the film remains not only a landmark of monumental filmmaking but also a template for historical and political resonance. No matter what continues to happen in the world, The Battle of Algiers will remain relevant as long as people are being oppressed and standing up to Imperialist powers.

This article was originally published in Cinema Escapist (www.cinemaescapist.com), a home for insightful commentary on global film and media

 

By TIMOTHY NIWAMANYA, CINEMA ESCAPIST

Lionel Rogosin’s 1959 docu-fiction film Come Back, Africa tells the story of Zachariah, a peasant African native who leaves his rural home for Johannesburg in search of employment opportunities that could sustain him and his family. Although optimistic about his chances early on in the film, he eventually comes to terms with the harsh realities of life for the natives in South Africa under the apartheid regime.

The film’s exploration of social and economic injustice experienced by Africans under apartheid, and the recurring juxtaposition of white South Africa with the vibrant township life in South Africa in the 1950s, makes Come Back, Africa a groundbreaking film in regards to the representation of Africans on film and the use of cinema as a tool for political discourse on the continent.

Lionel Rogosin’s experiences as a Navy officer during World War 2 had a huge impact on him- despite coming from a wealthy Jewish-American family, he decided to take a stand against fascism and injustice in any part of the world. The white minority-led apartheid regime that was in its early years piqued his interest.

Guerilla Filmmaking

Rogosin was not an experienced filmmaker, and in preparation for his exploration of apartheid on film, he made the 1956 documentary film On the Bowery that served as his crash-course in filmmaking. His use of non-professional actors playing fictionalized versions of their day-to-day life formed the stylistic template that Rogosin later used in Come Back, AfricaOn The Bowery also went on to earn a Best Documentary Feature nomination at the Academy Awards the following year.

Soon after this, he attained residency in South Africa with the intention of covertly making a film about apartheid. Rogosin desired to depict apartheid as authentically as he possibly could, and enlisted the help of two African journalists; William “Bloke” Modisane and Lewis Nkosi. Modisane and Nkosi wrote for Drum Magazine, arguably the first black lifestyle magazine on the continent, famed for its reportage on township life in 1950s South Africa. The trio worked out a simple storyline for the script, leaving out most of the dialogue to be improvised.

By Rogosin’s own admission in An American in Sophiatown, a 2007 making-of documentary commissioned by his estate that I highly recommend as a companion piece, Modisane and Nkosi wrote the majority of the script. It is important to note that prior to the 1960s, when a majority of the nations on the African continent attained independence, filmmaking was not practiced by native Africans due to oppressive colonial laws. This makes Come Back, Africa one of the earliest films authored, at least in part, by Africans- Ousmane Sembene, widely considered the “father of African cinema” didn’t make his first film until four years after the release of Come Back, Africa.

Life Under Apartheid

As the films begins, Zachariah (Zacaria Mgabi), the protagonist of the film, is introduced to the audience as one of the many native South Africans looking for work in the city. His search for a job leads him to the Johannesburg mines, where the low pay and harsh working conditions force him to seek employment elsewhere in an even less forgiving environment; the home of a white couple. To get the job, Zachariah needs a pass, which was a hallmark of the apartheid system in the enforcement of the segregation laws of the time and used as an excuse for the white authorities to harass and threaten the African characters throughout the film.

The white couple, played by Monty and Myrtle Berman, are part of the cast of white characters in the film who play the various antagonists giving Apartheid a face. However, in real life these individuals were political activists who were part of the white underground movement to bring down the apartheid system.

Zachariah’s stint with the couple does not last long and ends with him being fired by the wife after a misunderstanding. With nowhere to go, Zachariah returns to the township where a former work colleague connects him to other native South Africans struggling to cope with life under the regime. It’s through these acquaintances that Zachariah is able to find more work, but he loses his job each time for reasons that get more whimsical as the film goes on- one of them involving Zachariah walking in on a naked older white woman while delivering room service. All the while, his wife Vinah (Vinah Bendile) and children relocate to the township to be closer to him. By the end of the film, the frustration caused by the difficulty to make ends meet, coupled with a tragic loss, leads to Zachariah’s mental breakdown.

Capturing The Everyday

The most iconic scenes of the film happen in a shebeen, a local township pub supposedly operating illegally. It is in the shebeen scenes that we are blessed with the most colorful characters in the film. The characters in the shebeen, who are representative of the disenfranchised intellectual class of native South Africans, discuss a variety of topics, touching on everything from religion and the politics of skin complexion, to the use of force as a means to freedom. Zachariah, who is clearly not as well-read or expressive as the other characters, sits and watches on as the discussions happen, but with a clear admiration for what the characters are saying and the freedom of their expression.

William Modisane and Lewis Nkosi, who play characters in the film, are dead-centre of these discussions. In one memorable exchange, one of the patrons (Can Themba) runs his index finger over Modisane’s cheek, claiming “If I could get that much color off you, I could liberate you that much”.

It is also in one of the shebeen scenes that a young Miriam Makeba makes a cameo in the film, indulging the men in the shebeen in song and dance to powerful dramatic effect. Her appearance in this film catapulted her to worldwide fame, and though she passed a decade ago, is still affectionately referred to as Mama Africa for her trailblazing role as a popular African musician and mouthpiece for African resistance to apartheid in South Africa.

Taking Risks

Stylistically, the film is a hybrid of documentary and fiction by both design and circumstance. As I mentioned earlier, Rogosin used non-professional actors and worked with a small documentary type crew on real locations, similar to the modus operandi of the Italian neorealism filmmakers who Rogosin was influenced by.

As part of the ruse conjured up to get the film made, Rogosin lied to the government claiming he was shooting a musical that would showcase the vibrant culture of happy and content Africans in the country. Rogosin shot several hours of documentary footage, some of which got into the film. The most memorable being African street performers entertaining white onlookers with puppetry, gum-boot dancing and a glorious number by a ragged group of young penny-whistle musicians.

The film’s documentary aspect allowed it to enshrine a period in history, with the townships’ dilapidated housing constantly juxtaposed with Johannesburg’s urban sprawl.The unfairness of the apartheid system was put on display for the rest of the world to see. Due to the actors’ lack of experience in front of the camera, the acting is at times stiff but that does not take away from the richness of the fictional part story. The African actors bring an authenticity, informed by their life experiences, that none of the classically-trained actors of the time could have brought to the film.

Breaking New Ground

Come Back, Africa was restored by the Cineteca di Bologna, the laboratory L’Imagine Ritrovata, and the Rogosin family estate in 2005. But it remains a criminally overlooked film amongst the global community of film scholars and enthusiasts, in favor of the more renowned works of directors from the national cinemas of North and West Africa.

To this day, it remains arguably the most important film shot in sub-Saharan Africa. It is that rare film set on the African continent, with African characters portrayed with dignity, and presented with respect for their lived experiences. But beyond that, it is an artifact that captures the times vividly enough for future generations to catch a glimpse into the lives of their ancestors. It offers perspective on not only how far they have come, but how far they have to go in the struggle against socio-economic inequality in the world today.

Upon meeting Lionel Rogosin in 1969, Ousmane Sembene, who frequently bashed Rogosin’s much-revered French contemporary Jean Rouch for “observing Africans as if they were insects”, said: “For us the creators, we must not become desperate in front of the wall of silence. We know of works of art that have taken over thirty years to find their rightful audience. For us, in Africa, your film has embodied the problems and preoccupations of this continent.”

This article was originally published in Cinema Escapist (www.cinemaescapist.com), a home for insightful commentary on global film and media

By SHARON RWAKATUNGU, CINEMA ESCAPIST

There are several practical problems that limit filmmaking in Africa, and a major one is money. More often than, not big ideas never make it past the minds of creators who lack resources to make their vision. But a piece of work like Kati Kati, the feature debut from co-writer/director Mbithi Masya, looks like a definite sign of production and thematic progress from a growing artistic movement. Its visual effects for the fantastical elements in the film are thoroughly convincing and simple, creative makeup allows the world to be fully realized while exploring tragic themes of grief and forgiveness.

Kati Kati- which translates to “in between” in Swahili- refers to the film’s surreal, deserted, parallel universe between death and the real afterlife. This is where Kaleche (Nyokabi Gethaiga) wakes up, with no idea why or how she got there. She finds her way to a resort-like location occupied by a group of strangers and starts the journey of unraveling the mystery of how she died, why she’s there, and when she might move on to the afterlife. It’s later revealed that the reason people are sent to Kati Kati is to confront their bitter and painful past that got them killed. The only way out is by accepting their fate and acknowledging their guilt.

Throughout her soul-searching journey, Kaleche remains as ignorant as the audience. This is something Masya uses to thematic advantage, using her as vessel to explore the suspenseful mysteries and secrets of the other Kati Kati inhabitants, all of whom carry a unique burden.

We get intriguing emotional surprises and drawbacks from characters like Mikey (Paul Ogola), who is always wearing a graduation cap and gown because he died before graduation; Thoma (Elsephan Njora), the friendly leader of the group who has a shocking revelation for Kaleche; and even more shocking is King (Peter King Mwania), a former pastor who locked himself inside his church while his own parishioners cried out for help. Turning them away lead to their own deaths in a revenge-killing during the period of post-election violence.

Watching these characters in purgatory explore their own existential crisis makes Kati Kati a thoughtful and haunting story about letting go. When asked, Masya said he wrote the film while he was grieving the loss of a close friend. As the stories unfold, there is a sense of someone personally grappling with the thought of what happens next, and what baggage could possibly get carried over when someone’s gone.  But the tragedies confronted aren’t only personal, they culminate into a rich analogy of Kenya’s political struggle. The 2007 post-election violence that left thousands of people dead is used as a plot point in the film, and it presents an allegorical piece of what it might look like if the country was forced to confront its tragic past.

The details and circumstances of the film’s overall mythology remain speculative and ambiguous. We are presented with intriguing aspects of this surreal world, like food disappearing at the end of a lunch break, and any object that is desired appears at your doorstep if it has been written down on a piece of paper.

But the film is not concerned about what spiritual being is making this happen, or if its residents are headed to Heaven or Hell. Instead it’s focused on creating a thought-provoking examination of forgiveness and regrets through sensitive topics like suicide, religion and alcoholism. Ultimately, the film uses many conventional Hollywood tropes, but its unique, authentic simplicity brings a certain depth that makes it special.

Kati Kati was Kenya’s official submission for the category of Best Foreign Language Film at the 2018 Academy Awards but was not selected for the nomination. However, it won a number of accolades such as the the Prize of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) for the Discovery programme at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, New Voices/New Visions Award Special Mention at the 2017 Palm Springs International Festival and 2017 Africa Movie Viewer’s Choice Awards for East Africa. The film was co-written with Mugambi Nthiga and produced by Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer’s filmmaking initiative in Nairobi, One Fine Day Films and Ginger Ink. The companies that also co-produced another highly acclaimed Kenya film Nairobi Half Life.

This article was originally published in Cinema Escapist (www.cinemaescapist.com), a home for insightful commentary on global film and media

 

 

By JOEL TUGAINEYO

I’m ashamed to admit that I had no faith in this show going in.

My superhero fatigue was at an all-time high. Iron Fist & The Defenders had been absolute shit.

At its very best, I expected this show to be competent at going through the motions; another forgettable adaptation of a popular property to add to the landfill of Hollywood cinema.

Turns out, I was wrong…DEAD WRONG!

Instead of an endless barrage of action scenes with the illusion of a story that actually means something – *cough*theimmortalironfistdefenderofkun’lun*cough* – what we get here is a super-grounded and thoughtful story about a wounded man waging a one-man war to get justice for the people he loved.

Jon Bernthal earns his pedigree as a leading man here. He breautifully straddles the line between sympathetic man mourning the loss of his family & unstoppable murdering machine. Regardless of where you lie on the ethics of Frank’s methods, you like him and you want him to make it out in one piece.

While Frank is great, the real stars of the show are all the amazingly written side characters: Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Madani (Amber Rose), Stein (Michael Nathanson), Billy Russo (Ben Barnes of Prince Caspian fame) and so many others…thankfully, Karen Page’s appearances are kept to a minimum.

The casting in this is phenomenal. Every one of these characters is so well-developed & distinct that their appearance alone tells you a lot about who they are and what they’ve been through. The characters feel lived-in…they’re real everyday people thrust into a whirlwind of shit and you feel for everyone of them.

Micro was my favorite character in the show. He’s not just relegated to comedic relief the way Foggy is. Micro actually has a lot at stake in the story. He has his own personal tragedy to deal with too. He’s a very easy guy to root for.

Ben Barnes as Billy Russo was a fantastic choice. If you’re into comic books and no what’s in store for the character, it cam be really entertaining to watch this pretty boy saunter around like he’s going to make it out of all this without a “scratch”! Tee-hee-hee!?

And now for the important stuff: THE VIOLENCE! The real reason you come to watch a show called: THE PUNISHER!

OMFG is it good!

The action is brutal, brief, and shot for maximum impact! Frank is a ruthless, methodical killing machine with enough brains to match his fearsome brawn. In fact, the biggest delights in every action setpiece come from watching Frank systematically outwit and obliterate his enemies…oh, and when that music ramps up, you will lose your shit! FRANK IS BADASS, EVERY SINGLE TIME!

Doesn’t mean he doesn’t take a shit-ton of hits though! He’s not invincible. There is real danger in every altercation he is in. The baddies are well-trained and usally better equipped than he is…which makes it all the more satisfying when he takes them all down.

In the midst of all that badassery, the show still finds time to dive into big themes like: PTSD in war veterans; Domestic Terrorism; Gun Control; The Criminal Justice System vs. Vigilantism; War Crimes; Abuse of Power in Covert Government Agencies…the show effortlessly weaves these ideas into the tapestry of its plot.

Punisher is undoubtedly my favorite of all the Marvel Netflix shows. It is airtight in its composition and delivers on all its promises in a jaw-dropping way.

I can’t recommend it enough.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

By Sharon Rwakatungu

 

Beasts of No Nation is a 2015 war drama film written and directed by Cary Fukunaga popularly known for his work directing the 2014 crime series True Detective. The film, based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala follows the story of a young boy who is forced to become a child soldier. It was shot in Ghana and stars Abraham Attah as Agu, famous British actor Idris Elba as Commandant, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye as Strika and many others.

It’s important to note that this story is set in a fictional West African country, during a fictional war — the only real nation identified is Nigeria which provides the UN peace keepers we occasionally see. So this means there is no nitpicking of actual events, this place is not quite Sierra Leone, not quite Ivory coast, not quite Uganda but does borrow elements from those conflicts to paint an imaginary rebel bush war.

Beast of no nation first starts on a lighthearted note, showing us Agu’s playful and bratty character, his family, friends and how their hometown has changed during a time of war. From there, this young boy begins to lose everyone and everything he cares about one by one in a sequence of devastating losses. We are brought into the terrifying world of Agu, who is vulnerable and helpless in his situation as a child soldier. Here we meet Commandant (Idris Elba), who is a total asshole, he’s the man in power, who others are powerless against. Commandant takes a particular interest in Agu and we watch him lose his innocence as he is exposed to and participates in the war.

The entire movie is good, there’s gory violence which shows just how dark Agu’s circumstances are, the first life he takes is purely vicious. He forms a bond with my favorite character, child soldier “Strika”, a young boy like him, who I suppose is a mute because he did not say one word throughout the entire film but conveyed so much.

One of the noticeable things about this movie is its colors and cinematography, it takes place in a bush so there are plenty of beautiful shots composed of vibrant colours. The acting was also rather good. I liked Elba’s performance and had no issues with his accent, the performances of Agu and Strika were impressive, I was shocked to find out Abraham Attah who plays lead the character Agu did not have any prior acting experience.

However, like I said earlier, Beast of no nation is just good, it’s not great. I had issues with the way they handled Agu’s loss of innocence which is the main subject of the film. Before the war in his hometown, Agu is characterized as stubborn, but then once he joins the war, little more is done with his character. We simply see him gradually commit disturbing acts, but we only see a kid following orders and don’t get a detailed look into his emotional state. He is also favored by the Commandant for no apparent reason. The only look into his mind we get is delivered through narration describing obvious moral dilemmas.

Ultimately, Beast of no nation is a powerful movie, I hope to see Idris Elbatake on more roles like this, Abraham Attah get more attention and Cary Fukunaga do better than this.

8/10 would recommend!

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