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Anytime I’ve wondered about the pandemic’s impact on my relationship with cinema – a depressing exercise I’ve indulged in far too often over these godforsaken two years – it’s the changes in how I watch films I tend to focus on, not which films I watch. And yet my movie-going habits hardly differ from what they were like before early 2020. Headquartered in a city with no access to press screenings and only one theatre playing non-dubbed titles, the Theatrical Experience was something I seldom got to savour, long before COVID, a fantasy I could only play out at festivals or live vicariously through friends from bigger, far-flung places. But the films I’ve been watching since hell broke loose – the kind of stories I’ve been attracted to and sought refuge in, wave after wave – those have changed. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I seem to have developed a proclivity for ensemble casts, films stashed with multiple characters and multiple gatherings – the more the merrier – ones that celebrate the idea of “community” not as an abstract entity but an actual living thing made up of people and objects and places. A rejuvenating state of mind; a way of being in the world.

I’m saying all this because the epiphany took a while to strike, and when it did, I was at the Viennale, my last physical festival of 2021, and likely the last for the foreseeable future. It was late October; while the city tinkered with stricter COVID regulations and the threat of Omicron loomed large, the Viennale unspooled in its own bubble, showcasing once again some of the finest titles of the year. Sure, there was still distanced seating to be observed, and vaccine certificates to be shown, and masks to be worn. But as with the few other festivals that managed to escape the ether and take place in the real world, walking in and out of theatres around Vienna came with a wistful, enjoy-it-while-you-can aftertaste that made the experience all the more special. I longed for people, groups, get-togethers – one of the many reasons why the first film I caught, Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance, was such a balm.

Straddling auto-fiction and documentary, the film draws from Asili’s experience in a West Philadelphia collective where he lived for the best part of his twenties, and from where he acquired his political education. Borrowing in style and approach from Godard’s La Chinoise –where a group of French youth try (and fail) to lead an anti-capitalist life in accordance with the teachings of Mao – The Inheritance doubles as a genealogy of decades of Black activism in and beyond Philly, and a look at the ways these speak to the crises of Black life of the past few years. It’s a dense, intricate maze of conversations, readings, debates, poems and pamphlets – but the symposium it conjures never feels didactic. People talk plenty in The Inheritance, yet the exchanges always feel welcoming, the tone lilting and playful throughout. It’s a case of theory over praxis, where the theory bristles with a contagious fervour that will make you want to look up names, faces, dates – a rare film that manages to be erudite and accessible, radical and humorous.    

It all starts when twenty-something Julian (Eric Lockley), having inherited a house in Philly from his grandmother, finds a chest stashed with radical Black literature. A sprawling collection (featuring, among others, writings by Malcolm X, Charles Mingus, James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde), the books persuade Julian to turn the place into The House of Ubuntu, a collective that ends up housing eight other tenants – including Julien’s girlfriend Gwen (Nozipho Mclean) and his best mate Chris (Chris Jarell). Forced to live in close quarters, the group must wrestle with the logistical nightmares of a single bathroom as well as more existential questions surrounding the house’s purpose vis-à-vis the world outside its doors. The solution? Open the place to the public, and turn it into a community centre. Intersecting The Inheritance is the history of MOVE, a Philly-born Black collective run by John Africa from the 1970s until his assassination in 1985, when the Philadelphia Police Department bombed a house he’d occupied with other MOVE members, leaving eleven casualties – six adults and five children. Asili doesn’t stress the point, but this is the inheritance the film and its characters grapple with: not the bequeathed row house, but a whole History of resistance and violence, its legacy and relevance in the present. 

Built in a performance studio at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York, its walls painted in bright, confrontative prmary colours, the house’s stage-like looks dovetail with the film’s interest in performances. Spoken word poetry, readings, speeches… at the heart of The Inheritance is a radical proposition, the idea that art may not just illustrate our tragedies but suggest ways to overcome them together. Not everything works: some segments overstay their welcome, some scenes stretch longer than they need to drive their point home. But it’s a minor quibble. The rhythm may be uneven, yet it never threatens to stall. “I learned about events I didn’t know,” a member of the collective tells the camera, in a moment of reflection that aligns The Inheritance with the coda of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961). That’s no doubt true for those watching, too, yet what stuns me about Asili’s film is not so much the sheer volume of information it passes on, as the special kind of hunger it transmits – an urge to seek out and know more, to uncover new genealogies, histories, connections. For John Africa, and Foucault before him, to resist is first and foremost to “take care of yourself.” The Inheritance interprets that lesson as a need to learn your History, your community’s, and the place you ought to occupy within it – and turns that need into an exhilarating, infectious quest. 

They Carry Death

Community-and-resistance is also an interesting prism to look at Samuel M. Delgado and Helena Girón’s period piece Eles transportan a morte (They Carry Death). I had, admittedly, already seen the film when it premiered in Venice, where it left the Critics Week sidebar with an award for technical contribution. I remembered it as one of the festival’s finest, but was unsure as to when I’d be able to watch it next (at the time of writing, it’s yet to secure international distribution; here’s hoping 2022 will grant it the visibility it deserves). A reimagining of History that’s also a reimagining of the medium itself, They Carry Death unfurls for large parts as if it were plucked out of a dream – a tale that’s simple enough to summarise, but bristles with otherworldly mystery.

The year is 1492, and the ship we see anchored off the Canary Islands, as the film opens, is Christopher Columbus’. We’re a few days away from the discovery of the Americas, but that’s a feat They Carry Death isn’t concerned with; in Girón and Delgado’s revisionist fantasy, this is the tale of three sailors who bring the voyage to a premature halt. Sentenced to death back in native Spain, the three escaped their fate by enlisting for a journey to the ends of the world, but deserted early on; having stolen one of Columbus’s sails, they swim with it to the rocky Canaries, knowing the man won’t go any further without it. Echoing the dream-western aura of a fellow Viennale highlight, Alessio Rigo De Righi and Matteo Zoppis’s Re Granchio (The Tale of King Crab), They Carry Death charts a voyage into the unknown, an odyssey that swells into a kind of hallucination. When Columbus’ men reach the islands and begin hunting the three runaways, the film seems to crouch in anticipation, holding its breath as it waits for something to burst. Instead, in one spell-binding sequence, we’re shuttled back to the Old World, and introduced to a handful of women mourning old lovers who, like our three unlikely heroes, left for an unknown destination across the Atlantic, and never came back. 

They Carry Death thus unfolds as a diptych, a mesmerising conversation between these two stories that run parallel to each other and only intersect in those fleeting moments when José Alayón’s granular 16 mm cinematography turns to the landscape as a kind of vessel between two worlds. We watch footage of volcanic eruptions around the islands. Streams flowing in the woods. Bleached-bone grasslands. Lava crawling to the sea. The frame turns dark, trembles, crackles, as the film traces a path from the terrestrial to the spiritual. The sense of community invoked here isn’t emblematised by the three men so much as the women they’ve left behind, and, in absentia, the indigenous peoples Spanish colonisers would wipe out from the Canaries – and beyond. For all the surreal touches, Girón and Delgado never lose sight of the anti-colonial message running through their fantasia, charting an invisible lattice of solidarity for all victims of imperialism.

Less confrontative but similarly committed to rescuing identities and histories from oblivion, Rhayne Vermette’s Ste. Anne was another Viennale highlight. Thin as it is, the film’s plot centres on Renée (played by Vermette), a woman who returns to her native town in rural Québec after a four-year absence. That’s “half a child’s life,” her brother mutters as he drives her home to meet the daughter she left behind, and whom he raised with his partner. Why did Renée choose to return, all of a sudden? And what prompted her to leave in the first place? Ste. Anne doesn’t confront so much as circumvent these questions, parcelling out clues in the shape of whispers, rumours, photographs segmented by light flares – flashes of memory that burn through the frame like incandescent shards. No sooner has Renée returned than the film splinters into a series of close-ups, anticipating the visual grammar that will govern its bewitching eighty minutes. We see Renée hang out with the people she fled from, see her re-negotiate her role with former friends and family, while the camera punctuates the reunions with shots of sun-punched leaves, billowing curtains, chain-link fences and grass fields, a sequence of images whose origins are deliberately left blurred (are these things Renée is seeing for the first time, or souvenirs that come back to haunt her?). 

Ste. Anne

So obsessed with memory is Ste. Anne that there are times the whole thing seems to veer into a kind of ghost story. To the best of my knowledge, the film is set in the present, but the absence of temporal markers – there are no phones, no screens, the cars themselves look like they’ve been yanked out of period films from decades back – makes it hail from a nebulous region where time has seemingly lost its sway. And it’s telling that hands should feature so prominently all through Renée’s journey. Remembering, in Ste. Anne, carries a distinctly corporeal dimension; time and again Vermette treats us to shots of palms caressing old photos as if they were relics, fingers rubbing old albums, letters, mementos… Bodies serve as conduits, foraging the illusion that the past isn’t just something one can recollect, but touch—and, through touch, bring back to life. As in They Carry Death, the film’s circular, non-linear narrative gestures to an anti-colonialism of sorts. A Métis woman, her ancestry part indigenous part European, Renée (like Vermette herself, and the family members she cast) straddles two worlds and two cosmogonies. Perhaps that’s how we are meant to read the film’s resistance to a three-part scaffolding: a rupture that defends both a storytelling tradition and an identity against those laminated under foreign influences.

 

If Ste. Anne left such a lasting impression, I like to think it was because it seemed to say something about the beauty of the medium itself – it was the kind of film that could only be a film. Same goes for another standout, Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi, which, incidentally, also opens with a field shrouded in mist, and hangs in that same oneiric realm all through its entrancing two hours. Inspired by an Ethiopian Sufi legend, which hails khat – a leaf that triggers a stimulant effect when chewed – as a means to achieve eternity, Faya Dayi trails after those who produce and consume the crop in and around the highlands of Harar, a walled city in eastern Ethiopia. Again like Ste. Anne, the film is unmoored to any semblance of plot, unspooling instead as a series of visions, of images, of episodes and fragments only loosely connected. Here too, the three-point narrative is shattered, although to a possibly more enthralling effect – courtesy in no small part of Beshir’s black-and-white, shallow-focused cinematography, turning characters into spectral silhouettes drifting in the mist.

Faya Dayi

It’s a tapestry of stories and faces that billow to life with the smoke of khat leaves burning, a stylised succession of images, some of which grace the screen for a few seconds only, others which we circle back to (my favourite, a stunning shot in a film that’s full of them, shows a boy floating in a lake, eyes shut under the scorching sun, the water cocooning his skin like amniotic fluid). Yet for all the evanescent plot there are threads Beshir etches more clearly than others: we meet a young man who fled the country illegally only to return and look after his old mother; another whose mother died trying to reach Europe; there’s an impossible love story, imams and adults dispensing wisdom to the youth. Could a stepmother ever love you as much as your real mum? “It’s the same with a country that’s not your own.” The beauty of Faya Dayi is the beauty of a torrid summer afternoon, a beauty that lulls you into a state of wide-eyed somnolence, a warm stasis. The youngsters Beshir trails after are all itching to leave; it’s the grownups who insist they should stay, who sit around to chew khat and pray (and how curious that their litanies should invoke God as if to justify their impasse: “we can only go as far as He will take us” are among the first words we hear.) 

Animating Faya Dayi is a tension between different generations, between restless teens and resigned adults, but also a subtler one between the celestial and terrestrial, between sky and soil. Everyone here is marooned in an existential purgatory, dying to leave and forced to stay. Another documentary would have mined the anthropological and socio-economic aspects of the leaf’s industry more fulsomely; but this was never Beshir’s goal. Faya Dayi mixes documentary and narrative elements to conjure its own kind of vision, a walking dream through stories, myths, hopes and fears. The elemental grace of Beshir’s images and the hypnotic score by William Basinski have an ethical import too: they bestow on these aimless drifters and their struggles the dignity of art. 

Viennale
21 – 31 October 2021
Festival website: https://www.viennale.at/

About The Author

An Italian-born, UK-raised film critic, Leonardo Goi is a regular contributor to MUBI, Senses of Cinema, The Film Stage, and others. An alumnus of the Locarno Critics Academy and Berlinale Talents, he currently coordinates the Berlinale Talent Press, an international platform for emerging film critics.

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