AFI FEST Presented by Audi
Two Invisible Wars
Ensconced in the mountains of the Southern Caucasus, a disputed breakaway enclave within Azerbaijan, the small republic of Artsakh (formerly Nagorno-Karabakh) is a minuscule dot in the world’s consciousness: 4,400 km2, about 150,000 inhabitants – 99.7% of them being ethnic Armenians, a people for whom being forgotten is embedded in the texture of their identity and long-time struggle. The 1915 genocide has still not been recognized by the Turkish government and by most Western nations. Largely ignored as well is the fractured history of the Republic of Armenia. Forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922 as one of the Socialist Republics after a brief attempt at independence at the fall of the Russian Empire in 2018, Armenia re-declared independence in 1991, shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union – as did the Republic of Azerbaijan that was following a similar track. Even more ignored was the fate of the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Technically a part of Azerbaijan, it declared independence in the midst of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988-1994) that ended in a cease-fire brokered by Russia (the latter having backed Azerbaijan’s claims on the territory). And, ignored to the point of invisibility is the existence of the Stepanakert International Airport (SAI), where no plane has flown since 1990. Officially within Azerbaijan’s territory, yet administered by the Republic of Artsakh, it is not even on the IATA (International Air Transport Association) list. Flying to and from SAI would involve huge security risks, as the airport is built too close to the cease-fire line. International regulations demand that a plane loops around an airport before landing. If the loop is too large, the plane will go over the cease-fire line and will be shot, “even a civilian plane”, explains the airport director (David Hakobyan) to international auditor Alain (Grégoire Colin) in Si le vent tombe (Should the Wind Drop), the remarkable and prescient first feature by Yerevan-born, French-based Nora Martirosyan. The film was part of Cannes 2020 selection, shown in the Cannes ACID screenings and, bearing this prestigious stamp, it went on to festivals such as Angouleme, Toronto, Tokyo Filmex, Tallinn Black Nights as well as the New Auteurs section at the AFI FEST. Focusing on micro-history (the surreal case of the airport, fully equipped, with no plane to fly), Martirosyan crafts an insightful way to invoke a troubled macro-history, that involves not only Artsakh’s fight for self-determination and for its very existence, but how hard it is simply to be Armenian. The prevalence of a huge diaspora (about 8 million people) that largely outnumbers the inhabitants of Armenia proper (about 3 millions) and of which Martirosyan is a part, since she left Yerevan at 23, has been a response to the fear of being erased from history, both physically (war, ethnic cleansing, genocide) and symbolically. Yet the airport stands, with its modern design, sticking out like a sore thumb in the midst of this arid, fragile, semi-pre-industrial mountainous landscape, still littered with the ruins of previous conflicts. The auditor, sent from Paris, Alain (“Alain Delon?” says his driver) is also ill-matched with the décor, and, gently stoic in his collared shirts, Grégoire Colin is splendid at expressing the mixture of upper-class easy politeness and internal up-tightedness that characterises a French technocrat. Arriving in Artsakh, he is confronted with an array of shifting meanings. Which language to speak (French or English or, with a translator, Karabatsi, Armenian or Russian)? Does the airport director really think planes will be allowed to fly? And how close is the cease-fire line? Different maps advance different figures, and by trying to find out (in a haptic, obscure scene at night, where events are heard and felt, without being seen), Alain becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Through fine touches and haunting mise-en-scène – avoiding talkative confrontations and melodramatic developments (the beautiful TV anchor does not become an object of desire for Alain) – courting melancholy or ironical silences – Martirosyan evokes the atmosphere of a brewing conflict. Every misstep could create a fatal incident. The first public screenings of the film in the fall 2020 encountered hostile political pressure, as war erupted, once again, in the region.1. Since then, a new chapter of the conflict has been written. Unlike the first Nagorno-Karabakh war that ended with an Armenian victory, this second conflict, uniting Artsakh and Armenia against Azerbaijan supported by Turkey, costing several thousand lives, was a defeat for Armenia. It made the headlines in the West – for a short time, before returning to invisibility. “They’re never going to let us fly planes.”
AFI FEST 2020 took place entirely online 15-22 Oct., and presented more than 120 films from around the world. In a post-mortem press release, it boasted of having “welcomed” “over 200 filmmakers and guests” for Q&As and panel discussions, and having attracted “an audience… joining us online from all 50 states… of more than double from last year.” The jury is still out for the latter contention, as what was counted was not the actual number of audience members but – in our internet age – the number of clicks the site received. As usual AFI FEST was as much a festival of festivals and a place for Oscar contenders to test the water as an occasion for premieres or original discoveries, so, as usual, it was an excellent forum to catch up with exceptional films we may have otherwise missed… such as Should the Wind Drop, or another Cannes selection entry, Dieudo Hamadi’s En route pour le milliard (Downstream to Kinshasa). It is exhilarating to see a filmmaker whose work you have followed refine and expand their style and mise-en-scène. Downstream is more generous, more confident, and – in spite of its sombre subject matter – more playful as well. Hamadi continues to explore the tropes that marked his previous work – notably the much-acclaimed Kinshasa Makambo (2018): keen attention to political unbalance, sympathy for those who resist, immersive cinema, personally hand-held camera and intimate collaboration with his subjects. He also returns to the same subject: the ongoing history of economic and physical violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the parallel history of resistance triggered by this violence and the abuse of power by the politicians and the military. Kinshasa Makambo followed the fight waged by three young activists and the people in their militant groups against the refusal of the country’s president, Joseph Kabila, to step down after two terms in office. With Downstream to Kinshasa, Hamadi goes back in time (the film starts under Kabila’s presidency and ends with the election of the opposition candidate, Félix Tshisekedi), but also back in history (including his own) and deep into the recesses of the Congo. As a teen, in 2000, he witnessed the killings taking place during the Six-Day War in his native city of Kisangani… and then he forgot…
Located on the Northwestern part of Congo, at about 1,200 kilometres from the capital, Kinshasa, accessible mostly through the Congo River, Kisangani is a thriving metropolis of over 1,5 million inhabitants, that became the theatre of some of the bloodiest operations of the Second Congo War (1998-2003), in which Rwanda and Uganda, each in support of a different rebel faction, were fighting each other. Due to its strategic position between the East and the West of the country, and the natural resources (including gold and diamond mines) that surround it, Kisangani became a major stake, and, during the Six-Day War (5-10 June 2000), a “war within a war”, several hundred civilians were killed, and many more maimed. Twenty years later, the victims still have not received compensation, and live without limbs, stumbling on crutches or imperfect prostheses. They have founded an association, and perform pieces of experimental/musical/protest theatre, which, filmed by Hamadi, provide the most seductive moments of Downstream; the line between performance and real life is often eradicated, allowing the viewer to get a glimpse of the desires and dreams of the protagonists, and imbuing the piece with a dreamlike, surreal touch – as the film starts with one of these performances: a young woman learns how to wear prostheses; an older man claim “We were not born that way.” Even a protest march through the streets of Kinshasa is performed in bright, colourful clothes, and accompanied by dancing and music.
Having made contact with the association, Hamadi learnt that a delegation of twelve victims were intending to bring their demands for compensation to Kinshasa, and he decided to join them on the perilous journey by boat over the Congo River. Between the two cities, the majestic river loops toward the North, before resuming its course “downstream” toward the capital, so the journey is pretty long – almost two months due to the length of the course, as well as various chance mishaps (getting stuck in the sand, facing violent storms, experiencing engine trouble). The delegates and Hamadi boarded a large barge, under the flimsy cover of coloured canvases (red-orange, deep blue and white), and they hurdled on the deck with the other passengers, cooking (even the paraplegic woman cheerfully pounds her rice), chatting, socialising. This is immersive cinema at its best, especially since Hamadi was aware he was taking the same risks as his subjects. This didn’t prevent him from falling under the spell of the natural beauty surrounding him – the dark blue of the water at dusk or in the early morning, the paler hues of the sky, streaks of orange and indigo…
For most of the world, the Congo wars have been forgotten, if not ignored. Even in the RDC, “many people [the politicians and the economic upper-class, responsible for the war] have a vested interest in having [the Six-Day war] be forgotten,” says Hamadi, who adds that cinema can accomplish “the work of memory”… If not, we are fated to live in repetition…” For, “in the West, people still get massacred on a daily basis.”2 While Martirosyan resorted to metonymy to evoke the plight of Artsakh, Hamadi assigns an allegorical value to the fight of his protagonists. Maimed, ignored, victimised by the authorities… and still they rise.
Like Downstream, Nasir, albeit a fiction film, was born out of a desire to bodily espouse the plight of people from an area the director knows well. To decipher the traces of past and present conflicts Hamadi and Arun Karthick went back to their hometowns – the city of Coimbatore, famous for its cotton production (at 20kms from his native village) for the latter.
Both films lead to one last shot: in Hamadi’s documentary, his serendipitous encounter with Sola – the young woman whose (re)staging of the fitting of protheses on her legs opens the diegesis – as she is dancing; and a carefully planned, almost two- minute-long one-shot sequence, composed of harrowing fragments of the eruption of violence we had felt brewing under the deceptively quiet texture of Karthick’s film. A winner of the NETPAC award in 2020 Rotterdam, shot (in Tamil) in the populous state of Tamil Nadu in Southern India, Nasir was inspired by the short story “A Clerk’s Tale”, by noted Tamil writer-cum-bookshop owner Dilip Kumar (who contributed to the screenplay, a process that took about two years, the two men inhabiting and exploring the locations in which the fiction is taking place.) To suggest a congested space – as fate is gradually, unbeknownst to him, closing down on the title protagonist, a sales clerk in a cotton emporium (theatre director and theatre group founder Koumarane Valavane) – Karthick shot in super-16, in the “almost square” 4.3 ratio.
Since its partition in 1947, India has experienced sporadic yet numerous instances of communal violence against the large minority of Muslim population (14.3% while the Hindu population reaches over 80%); in the Q&A Karthick mentioned that about 200 people were mob-lynched in the last 6 or 7 years. The violence’s origins are complex, rooted in both pre-colonial history, colonial misadministration, the overall raise of Islamophobia and contemporary electoral politics – as it is used by political parties with ties to the Rashtriva Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing Hindu nationalist volunteer organisation. After an unremarkable day of working at the store, delivering jackets to college students, quietly praying at the mosque and beautifully expressing his longing for his wife, Tal, who is away for a few days (our protagonist is a folk poet), Nasir’s fate is sealed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The senselessness and unpredictability of the attack will remind viewers of some of the few documents produced in India on the subject – especially Anand Patwardhan’s eight-part fresco, Vivek (Reason, 2018), in which a man is burnt alive and his house ransacked after a rumour accusing him of having eaten the flesh of a sacred cow (which turned out, after examination of his refrigerator, to be a cut of mutton!).
Subdued in its sense of outrage, Nasir builds on the qualities already visible in Karthick’s first feature, the minimalist, wordless Sivapuranam
(The Strange Case of Shiva, 2015, world premiered in Rotterdam), evoking the inner life of his protagonist through a series of subtle touches and expressing a sense of tension through the saturated colours of the claustrophobic background, and through an insightfully designed sound. Confessional violence is another, ongoing, hidden war in India, and, in Nasir, a face emerges from the statistics.
The cold war was far from being invisible, but, as generations come and go, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 appears as an obscure moment of history to millennials who were mere children or maybe not even born when it happened. Originally premiered in Berlin 2020, The American Sector is a smart take by co-directors Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez about the fate of historical monuments when they are dislodged from their original settings. They end up as commodities, as mere kitsch, especially if they find their way to the United States – which, if one is to believe Baudrillard, is filled with simulacra signifying the end of history – particularly in Los Angeles, the city that made forgetfulness and erasure both a form of art and a way of life3 (and where, the filmmakers explained in the Q&A, one can find the biggest concentration of remnants of the Wall). So, what happened when the Wall was dismantled? Slabs of grey concrete, most of them painted over by protestnik folk artists, were shipped abroad, as mementoes of a bygone era. Nostalgia (oh, the good old days when we had an über-enemy to hate and people to rescue from oppression) or triumphalism (Communism is dead, and now Western democracy prevails)? A bit of both, and then more.
Stephens – who signs here her first feature-length film – and Velez – for whom The American Sector is a third collaboration with a female filmmaker, after Manakamana (2013, co-directed with Stephanie Spray) and The Reagan Show (2017, co-directed with Sierra Pettengill) – may not be household names in the mainstream US film industry, but they are known quantities in the independent/alternative world. Stephens is a noted director of (often sassy) experimental and found footage shorts, named one of Filmmaker Magazine‘s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2019 – as well as a curator: she organised a series of experimental films for the Flaherty and New York’s Museum of Moving Image, and, in Los Angeles, is the co-founder of the alternative screening space Veggie Cloud. Velez’s Manakamana won a Golden Leopard in Locarno, and his films have played in the most prestigious venues, from the New York and Toronto Film Festivals to AFI FEST and CNN.
The American Sector is a conceptual project: making a catalogue of the US locations (about 60) where pieces of the Wall have been imported and erected – lone markings of the passing of time, with a shape vaguely reminiscent of the opening sequence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), offered to the contemplation of tourists or the blissful ignorance of passers-by – signifiers torn from their original signifying chain (a partition) and now reinserted in another chain whose meaning is to project an inverted mirror to the United States. Conceptually and metaphorically, the film is a sort of endless reverse angle. We’ll never see Berlin but we’ll see, shot most often with a fixed camera, various locations – museums, presidential libraries, university campuses, shopping malls, private residences, hotel lobbies, corporate headquarters, street corners, even the Florida Universal Studios walk, behind the Hard Rock Cafe! – that allow us to look at these slabs of concrete from the vintage point of United States. Berlin is definitely occulted in the process (I am not even sure whether the name is pronounced); what these fetishised fragments are about is the United States. While Velez was manning the camera, Stephens, recording the sound off-screen, was asking questions and engaging conversations with the subjects captured in the frame; what we hear is a fantastic and sobering array of projections from the speakers. The film was mostly shot during Trump’s presidency, and the theme of the greatness of America, her role as a leader of the free world, how lucky they are to be citizens of the land of the free and the home of the brave, reoccurs again and again. Discordant voices are heard from African American subjects. While two black female students explain their polite disinterest in the wanderings of the Wall’s segments – at the time of Black Lives Matter, there are more urgent things to deal with on campus – while an African food vendor and an older African American reflect on the meaning of liberty in their lives.
About half-way through the film, doubt started to creep in me. The Wall was indeed very long (147 kms), but how many pieces of it have been shipped to the US? Do they come with a certificate of authenticity? The home of the brave is also the home of the make-believe (simulacra), i.e., the home of gullibility and its corollary, fraud. Systems of belief always produce blindness, and, even before the Mayflower landed in New England, trafficking of saintly relics was going strong in Europe. Many an Italian church boasts of keeping a piece of the True Cross. Couldn’t inventive entrepreneurs manufacture and paint over these concrete slabs and sell them at a hefty price? Not that it matters. Except in JF Kennedy’s famous speech, Berlin is, in the mind of many Americans, an American figure of speech. It matters very little there was a real Berlin divided by a wall. The film is an engaging, often humorous, portrait of Americana.
And “The American Sector”? It’s not, as our memories of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) would suggest, the section of Berlin administered by the Americans after the war, but the name of a café-restaurant located on the ground the WWII Museum in New Orleans. It advertises that “freedom tastes better here”, and, over the picture of a double cheese-and-bacon burger, French fries and Coca-Cola, invites you to “enjoy victory with every bite with our victory garden-to-table menu for lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch. Open Sunday–Friday, 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m., and Saturday, 11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.”4
Turning Invisible Fights into Cinematic Objects
For decades, the struggle of LGBTQ subjects, especially black subjects, for the right to live and love the way they wanted to, as well as for the right to investigate and decipher their own history was either invisible and ignored, or belittled and repressed – which is why it is always exhilarating to see the AFI FEST collaborate with one of the main instances where such history is preserved and honoured, the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project, which is holding over 41,000 items of LGBTQ media history.5 This year, pioneer Cheryl Dunye was the it girl – as two of her titles resurfaced: the HBO-produced Stranger Inside (2001), the first film to star an ensemble cast of powerful black women, was showcased in August 2021 at Outfest, Los Angeles LGBTQIA Festival,6 AFI FEST presenting The Watermelon Woman (1996), the first feature film directed by an African American lesbian, the first also in which the protagonist says proudly “I am a black lesbian filmmaker”. Dunye plays Cheryl, a Philadelphia video store clerk and budding filmmaker, who likes shooting the breeze with her colleague Tamara (Valarie Walker), another black lesbian (the owner of the store is often overwhelmed when having to deal with these two powerhouses of women!). Having studied black history, Cheryl develops a fascination for 1930s actress and blues singer “Fae Richards” who had been confined to playing “Mammy” roles in Hollywood movies before acting in the films of the similarly fictional “Martha Paige” (obviously patterned after Dorothy Arzner) she probably was lovers with. Simultaneously, Cheryl starts a hot romance with an upper-class white woman, Diana (played by Guinevere Turner, the ever-alluring femme fatale of lesbian cinema).
Both Cheryl-the-protagonist and Cheryl-the-director share a level of frustration about the invisibility of black women – and black lesbians – in early Hollywood. So, since Fae Richards and her sisters couldn’t be found, Dunye commissioned New York artist Zoe Leonard to create the “Fae Richards Photo Archive” for the film. Leonard shot cleverly constructed still images of Richards (played by several actresses) at different stages of her life. and in the process (re)invented a counter-history.7 Now an ageless classic, The Watermelon Woman was a revelation at the time; it was awarded the Teddy at the Berlinale and the Outstanding Narrative Feature Award at Outfest, while generating the ire of right-wing politicians. It makes you feel good to watch it again and again, maybe every few years, to see what we have gained, and what we have still to fight for.
Not all queer subjects, not every brave woman had the good fortune to have been born in 1966 and to start their careers in the early ‘90s, like Dunye,8 and the AFI FEST devoted some screenings to often invisible fights. Based on archival footage and talking head interviews (with the subject’s loving wife as well as with carefully chosen “witnesses” such as the famous trans-artist/curator Zachary Drucker and the genial black trans-person Marquise Wilson), Aislin Chin-yee’s and Chase Joynt’s No Ordinary Man is the portrait of the talented jazz musician Billy Tipton (1914-1989) who, after his death was, at the surprise of all, revealed to have been a woman posturing as a man. Leaving more questions open than answered (was Tipton another Brandon Tina9 or was it “just” easier to pursue a musical career if people thought you were a man?), the Canadian film won accolades at TIFF and the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival.
AFI FEST programming provided a welcome resonance to Tipton’s trajectory, as it presented the world premiere of Lisa Rovner’s Sisters with Transistors, an exhilarating examination of the contribution of female musicians to electronic music – from the pioneers Suzanne Ciani and Clara Rockmore, to Eliane Radigue, Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveiros, Marianne Amacher, Wendy Carlos, Laurie Spiegel and many others. Exhilarating if you listen to the compositions thus created – until you realise that the “sisters” were less visible than the “brothers” – and listen to what some of them have to say, alluding to their long struggle not only for recognition but for access to the electronic tools they needed (some ended up fashioning their own instruments): “the history of women is a history of silence” or, echoing Virginia Woolf’s mock question “why has there no been great women composers?”
It was a female director, Miwa Nishikawa (a former collaborator of Hirokazu Kore-eda, who produced her debut, award winning film, Hebi ichigo/Wild Berries, 2003) who found the just tone to evoke the silence, the loneliness, the frustration, anchored in the muscular, tattooed body of her protagonist, in her sixth feature, Subarashiki sekai (Under the Open Sky). After the opening credits, Masao Mikami (charismatic actor Koji Yakusho, who gives what is probably the best performance of his illustrious career), an ex-driver for the yakuza, is released from the prison where he has served thirteen years for murder – a mixed blessing if any for “prison is the only place that won’t kick you out no matter how badly you behave”, he remarks wryly, as his long struggle to belong has only started. As an ex-con, he is viewed with suspicion by “nice people” further alienated by his occasional outbursts of anger, his record precedes him whenever he’s applying for a job or for assistance from public agencies, he finds himself exploited by the TV producer who wants to do a “story” on him against the hollow promise of helping him find his mother. For – without being heavily psychoanalytic – Mikami’s desire to belong is also connected to his longing to be reunited with his mother, a geisha who abandoned him when he was a child. Here the records – that have so plagued his attempts at reinsertion – are missing. The only ones with whom he can communicate or form a sort of family unit are either a washed-out yakuza who melancholy assesses that his time is gone, or simple, regular people almost themselves on the outer margins of society, such as the manager of a convenience store and a junior welfare civil servant.
The Lure of the Hypervisible: the Other Side of the Coin
Indeed, lonely men fight obscure struggles. Both terms may seem
inappropriate to describe the über-seducer and shamelessly self-styled promoter Timothy Leary, the High Priest of LSD, but a film by Errol Morris never falls into conventional wisdom. He is the one who managed to suggest loneliness and doubt within the man we love to hate, Robert S. McNamara (The Fog of War, 2003) and to extract a soulful (masculine) aura from the idiosyncratic hobbies of the subjects interviewed in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997). Leary had his share of solitude, having spent three and a half-years in Folsom Prison, mostly in solitary confinement, between 1973 and 1976, and then (depression and fear may have played as much a role as crass opportunism) took the risk of becoming a pariah by turning FBI informant. Yet he is not the object of Morris’s interrotron10 and his subject to talk to each other through the camera lens itself. He explains the device as follows: ‘Teleprompters are used to project an image on a two-way mirror… I put my face on the Teleprompter or, strictly speaking, my live video image. For the first time, I could be talking to someone, and they could be talking to me and at the same time looking directly into the lens of the camera…’.” William Rothman, “Introduction” in W. Rothman, ed., Three Documentary Filmmakers: Errol Morris, Ross McElwee, Jean Rouch, SUNY Press, Albany, 2009, pp. 3-4, accessed 14 January 2021.] and multiple cameras in My Psychedelic Love Story, a Showtime production whose world premiere closed the festival, but one of his lovers, Joanna Harcourt Smith, met in 1972 when he was in-between his fourth and fifth marriages and on the run from the police.11 He was 52, and she 26 (what else is new?). Smart, beautiful, passionate, Harcourt-Smith was one of these poor little rich (Jewish) girls that the Warholian sixties manufactured by the dozens, and who partied, danced, took drugs and travelled, savouring every moment of their 15 minutes of fame until the night came to take them away… to some suburbs where nobody recognised them.
Clearly seduced by Harcourt-Smith’s charisma, Morris lends a willing ear to her memories, sometimes self-aggrandising (“I was the greatest love of his life”), often funny and entertaining when she describes the travels the couple took together, from Switzerland to Afghanistan, and the colourful or outrageous people they met on the way, sometimes saddened by what didn’t happen (“I don’t understand why it ended!”). Coming less than two years after Nick Broomfield’s Marianne and Leonard (2019), My Psychedelic Love Story also adds a little tone to the history of the “Great Men” that have shaped popular consciousness, reminding us of the invisible women who were standing behind them. Contrary to Broomfield, who keeps an upper hand on the narration, Morris, without judging or explaining, allows Harcourt-Smith to speak for herself.
The American Film Market (AFM)
More Invisible Conflicts
AFM took place at a safe distance from AFI FEST; as both events were accessible remotely there was no need to take advantage of the presence in town of exhibitors and buyers who’d be tempted to attend both events. My experience of online markets is that they are usually well organised, in particular as far as film screenings are concerned. Instead of having to go to the exhibitor’s stand to beg for a ticket, to try to fit a screening in your schedule, to schlepp to one of the screening rooms on the Santa Monica Promenade, you would have access, sometimes for a limited duration, sometimes for several months, to more than a hundred or so films on demand. This was of course much cheaper for the exhibitors (organising a screening in a theatre being costly, with a limited return, as most of the films would play in almost empty theatres… who has the time to watch films when you could be networking?), so it’s quite possible that the “on demand” solution (that had started, but only for a limited number of titles, in the last few editions of the AFM) might be extended beyond the pandemic.
In spite of the lack of direct contact, the AFM remained a good place to gauge the trends of the film industry. Hong Kong companies, which had been vibrant attendees in the past, were mostly absent, as production had been halted for months. The only Chinese film available on demand was presented by a French-US-Hong Kong company, All Rights Entertainment: a predictable take on the Ip Man franchise, directed in the PRC by a filmmaker I had never heard of, Li Liming: Ip Man: Kung Fu Master (2019). The film wouldn’t be worth mentioning except as an element of the tug-of-war between Chinese and Hong Kong productions. To make a profit, films made in Hong Kong have to either be shot on a modest budget, emphasising Hong Kong themes and locations and target the local market while hoping to be picked up by the international art house circuit (such was the case, recently, of Suk Suk/Twilight Kiss, 2019), or aim for the huge China market – which comes with its set of restrictions and regulations. Conversely, Chinese production companies are wooing Hong Kong spectators as well as the Chinese spectators fond of Hong Kong cinema by shooting Hong Kong-inspired stories and casting Hong Kong stars: Dennis To and Michael Wong in the case of Li Liming’s film.
In 2008, the first Ip Man film, Jip Man, directed in by Wilson Yip and starring Donnie Yen in the title role, was a major event in Hong Kong. Shot in Cantonese, focusing on the Foshan years of the Wing Chun martial artist that was to become Bruce Lee’s master after he moved to Hong Kong in 1949, it was a subject of Hong Kong pride, a tribute to Hong Kong culture and ingenuity, as Ip Man (1893-1972) really carved his niche in history when he moved to the territory. The film inspired a 2010 sequel, Jip Man Ji: Zung Si Zyun Kei ( Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster) as well as two more films directed by Yip and starring Yen in 2015 and 2019, with a 2018 spin-off, directed by Yuen Woo-ping – all successful at the box-office.
Meanwhile, in 2010, another Hong Kong director, Herman Yau, made, also in Cantonese, Jip Man Cin-zyun (The Legend Is Born – Ip Man), starring the young wushu champion Dennis To (who had played minor roles in Ip Man and Ip Man 2). Conversely, Ip Man: Kung Fu Master represents a case in which a Hong Kong myth is “swallowed” by the Chinese film industry. The film is shot in Putonghua and Ip Man (Dennis To), instead of a being a Hong Kong hero, becomes a cop keen on anti-corruption (a major concern for President Xi Jinpin), a beacon of Chinese national pride, and a hero of the anti-Japanese war (one of the staples of commercial Chinese cinema).
A premiere at the Market – even though there were no African films On Demand – two panels were organised around issues pertaining to African cinema; a minor drawback is that they were dealing only with English-speaking countries and therefore not addressing the rich tradition of filmmaking in the former colonies of Belgium, France and Portugal, nor with FESPACO in Burkina Faso or the Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia (to name two of the most important events that have brought African cinema into the eyes of the world). Yet, organised at the time of the pandemic and part and parcel of a series of events interrogating how different film industries were dealing with the situation, these conversations were fascinating and informative. Instead of rehashing platitudes on Nollywood, the panel on Nigerian cinema exposed the fractures that have been defining their film industry. In a country with the fastest-growing population in the world, and where the average age is 18, the majority of the population live under the poverty level. Some speakers represented outfits incorporating luxury movie theatres (and their large, plush seats allowing social distancing) with upscale dining experience for the bourgeoisie of Lagos, who, in the time of Coronavirus, also enjoys glamorous entertainment units and home theatres. For the majority of the population, crowded movie theatres represent one of the few opportunities for entertainment, yet for a population estimated at 206 millions in 2020, there are only 54 cinemas. Discussion on resources available were all the more poignant that Nigeria was just recovering from more than two weeks of deadly unrest. On 20 October, the police shot at people who had been demonstrating against the violence and exactions of the special police unit SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad). The next day, gangs burnt and vandalised public buildings and small businesses. The violence, burning and looting spread from Lagos to other part of the country.12 What had triggered it was not only a reaction to police abuse, but anti-government feelings about the way the Covid crisis was handled – poor people feeling the rules of social distancing prevented from working, and also to gather in the only places that were “theirs”, including the few local cinemas.
The second fracture alluded to in the panel was between Nigeria and the world – that still considers it as a Third World country. “A number of established streaming platforms do not have a presence in Africa”, said one of the panellists – the exception being Netflix, and, marginally, Amazon Prime. Platform are two way-streets, as they not only bring features to Nigeria, but they also buy Nigerian features. The Covid crisis has brought changes. It is now “the local content that is driving the business, in Asia, Europe and Africa, due to the lack of Hollywood content”. Not only is Netflix buying “local content”, they have started to commission films: the first one being about human trafficking; four other projects have been commissioned. While Nigeria is producing more and more films with a strong narrative, which get shown in international film festivals, a great number of films, said the director of the Cinema Exhibitors Association of Nigeria, go directly to DVD or VCD.
Similar concerns were discussed in the panel “Made by Africans”, which was mostly about South Africa. A main goal was to be able to produce films with an African content, made in the local language rather than in English that can be shown internationally. Here the international festival circuit can play an enormous role. Since 2017 SXSW has welcomed South African films, and the panel detailed a number of successes, where filmmakers had “stuck to authenticity” in their choice of themes and language and added English subtitles to reach international audiences, such as Number 57, Elmina Castle or Seriously Single. The genres that sell the best, reflected one of the panellists, are romantic comedies, action comedies and African horror. Here also, Netflix plays a role. Buying a film where the protagonists are black can be either an “issue” or a “niche.” Here again, the pandemic is reshuffling the cards. To be continued…
Two More Forgotten Wars
Most present at the Market were companies and films from Eastern Europe (Poland and Czechoslovakia in particular) and Russia or former Russian territories, too numerous to mention all. From this plentiful crop, two films emerged.
Konferentsiya (Conference), the fourth feature of young Russian auteur Ivan I. Tverdovskiy, made some ripples when shown in Venice Days in the fall 2020 (since then, it has won Best Film at the Cottbus Film Festival in Germany). A stout woman, Natalia (Natalya Pavlenkova)
dances and sings a ballad to soothe her ex-husband, rendered paraplegic, aphasic and incontinent by a stroke; her grown daughter, Anna (Natalya Tsvetkova) bursts into the bedroom and kicks her out. Natalia is a nun, estranged from her family, who has lived in a distant monastery for 17 years, and Anna harbours a deep resentment against her, to the point of refusing to let her stay in the apartment that is still, technically, her home, and of forbidding her to play and interact with her grandson. Natalia has been tasked by the Abbot of her convent to organise a “Conference” in memory of the 24 October 2002 terrorist attack on Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre, during which Islamist Chechen separatists took 850 hostages (who had come to attend a representation of the popular Russian musical Nord Ost) to demand the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. Almost 250 people were killed (including the 40 assailants) – either from direct violence or from the gas pumped into the theatre by the federal security forces.
Seventeen years later, some of the survivors are dead, some others have moved on and don’t want to be reminded of their ordeal. To help fill out the huge theatre’s empty rows, Natalia brings the participants inflatable dummies, of three different colours, one for the victims, one for the witnesses and one for the terrorists; she asks them to remember who was sitting, or standing beside them – and then prompts them to recount their memories of that night. Tverdovskiy’s direction is efficient; sometimes a sound taking place during the Memorial – food being brought from the foyer, disruptions caused by the technicians of the theatre when the ceremony lasts too long, destruction of the stage floor ordered by Natalia to block the interference from the theatre authorities – echoes similar sound heard by the hostages at the time, but then sometimes the effect is a tad obvious, a tad overstated. Two women had managed to escape from a window of the ladies’ room, and Natalia surprises everyone by revealing the identity of the second woman – whose young children and husband were in the theatre.
Tverdovskiy views the attack as a national Russian tragedy, whose memory dissipates in the collective consciousness. The terrorists, entirely perceived from the point of view of the survivors, have no identity, and their motivations are not mentioned. Terrorist attacks open unanswered questions, especially since thinkers like Genet have posited militant terrorism against the terrorism of the state. The Chechnya war, in which Russia quelled insurgent separatist movements, is another of these forgotten wars, whose history remains to be told in film.
One of the most impressive films I saw both at AFI FEST and the AFM was Pohani dorogy (Bad Roads), a first feature by the Ukrainian stage and TV writer Natalya Vorozhbit that was shown in Venice’s Critics Week where it received the Verona Club Award. Adapted from the stage (the original play ran at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2017), it is a four-part composite portrait of what it is to live in the Donbass region during the Russo-Ukrainian war, an ongoing (and gradually unmentioned) conflict unfolding since 2014. In the first episode, a schoolmaster (Igor Koltovskyy), stopped at a checkpoint by Russian soldiers, can’t find his passport; as tension escalates in a nerve-wrecking pace yet slightly humorous manner, he claims to have seen, off-screen, one of his female students, a troubled kid, but “she’s no whore”. “You come and fuck our children”, he says angrily. The soldiers assert there is nothing to see, he is delusional. We’ll never know. In the second, the longest and most disturbing episode, a woman (Maryna Klimova), a sort of Dostoevskian character, cooped up in the location of a derelict spa, lets men, one at a time, abuse her, have rough sex with her, piss on her, each time insisting, with an angelic smile, that her abuser is “a good man”. “Good man, me!”, sneers one of them, “I am a sadist.” All until the surprising ending. Vorozhbit holds off from any metaphorical interpretation, letting us receive the full blast, the disquieting opacity of the woman’s desire and agency. The third episode starts with three teenage girls (the only non-professionals of the cast, the others being seasoned Ukrainian stage actors) trash-talk about boys: What kind of present should you expect? How far can you go? Which of them has a better boyfriend? Then one girl is left alone on the empty town square, and sits in a deserted bus stop, waiting for her man. She is joined by an older woman who stands for whatever family she seems to have, brings her hot soup and entreats her to go home with her. The girl still wants to wait – until she learns that the man won’t come: the Russian army unit to which he belongs has been dispatched for a “special operation” that night. Equally disturbing is, in the last episode, the encounter of a young middle-class woman (Zoya Baranovskaya) with a couple of rough, older peasants, whose chicken she has accidentally ran over with her car. A price is settled, but the woman, who does not have enough cash on her, promises to come back the next day. And she does… and this is when the situation becomes menacing.
Shooting mostly in long takes, with few cuts, to preserve the intimacy of the interaction between actors she had created on-stage, Vorozhbit masterfully extracts tension from seemingly innocuous lines, from half-perceived gestures. The war is never seen, but pervades each of the self-contained vignettes, contaminating every human relationship.13 Reminding me of a conflict I had almost forgotten, Bad Roads is a film I didn’t expect, and this is precious.
AFI FEST Presented by Audi (virtual film festival)
15-22 October 2020
Festival website: https://fest.afi.com/
American Film Market (virtual film market)
9-13 November 2020
Market website: https://americanfilmmarket.com/
- Naman Ramachandran, “‘Should the Wind Drop’ Defies Political Pressure With Cannes, Tallinn Support, as Ceasefire Takes Effect in Nagorno-Karabakh,” (EXCLUSIVE), Variety, 18 Nov., 2020, accessed 14 Jan., 2021. ↩
- RIDM Dialogue “En route pour le milliard”, 12 Nov., 2020, accessed 18 Jan 2021. ↩
- See Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, Verso, New York & London, 1997. ↩
- https://www.nationalww2museum.org/visit/plan-your-visit/dining, accessed 15 February 2021. ↩
- https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/collections/outfest-ucla-legacy-project, accessed February 17, 2021 ↩
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orC20p1gUVEee , accessed 17 February 2021 ↩
- Leonard subsequently exhibited the pictures at the Whitney Museum
- Dunye was born in 1966 and her first short, Janine, was completed in 1990. ↩
- See Danielle Antoinette Hidalgo: “Brandon Teena”, Encyclopedia Britannica, 18 July 2016:, accessed 12 February 2021. In addition to Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and the documentary The Brandon Teena Story (1998) by Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir, the story inspired an Internet art piece commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Brandon (1998-99), by queer independent Taiwanese-born filmmaker/artist Shu Lea Cheang: https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/15337, accessed 12 February 2021. ↩
- “To conduct interviews, Morris invented a machine, called the Interrotron, which allows [him ↩
- My Psychedelic Love Story was released on Showtime on 19 November 29 2020. The title is borrowed from Joanna Harcourt-Smith’s unpublished book. ↩
- See “SARS: Why are tens of thousands of Nigerians protesting? Tens of thousands of Nigerians have been taking to the streets for more than two weeks to protest against police brutality”. Aljazeera, 21 October 2020, accessed 14 November 2020. ↩
- “I was struck by the speed with which situations can change. At first, people are talking, they are still people, there is a dialogue happening between them, and there is a hope for mutual understanding. But then, something goes very wrong. Under the conditions of war, mistrust and anxiety increase tremendously. The whole psyche of a person breaks down, and without warning, you can be punched in the nose or thrown to the ground, and a completely different reality begins – one that can only come from some terrible dream”. Marta Balaga: “Interview with Natalya Vorozhbit – director of Bad Roads” in Cineuropa, 3 September 2020: accessed 20 February 2021. ↩