"The fact that we can think with certain films, and not simply about them, is the irrefutable sign of their value" - Nicole Brenez

Monday, 28 April 2014


End Credits

You can make a case for any film regardless of its shortcomings, or in the case of Sweet Sweetback’sBaadasssss Song, its disregard for craftsmanship in favor of uncontrolled and coarse protest. Sweetback was written, produced and directed by Melvin Van Peebles. In the absence of a suitable lead, he cast himself as the titular Sweetback, a black hero resisting The Man, mostly by running away from him.

Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is a graphic, discordant, low-brow frenzy of noise believing itself to be a landmark, dissenting voice of its time.And it doesn’t ease into its rhetoric.We’re ushered in by a starving and destitute 10-year old Sweetback wolfing down a meal in a brothel while a group of prostitutes fuss over him. Moments later, he’s coerced into sex with one of them while a choral rendition of ‘This Little Light of Mine” plays. Audiences with the mettle to stay beyond that point are led to the (then) present day, where the adult Sweetback is now a sex showman displaying his generous genitalia and performing live porn shows for a living. He cuts his career short when he pummels two white police to death for beating down a Black Panther, and carries out an arduous escape to the Mexican border.

Van Peebles credits his cast as ‘The Black Community’ and dedicates the film to “all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man”. This cinematic offering however is a manic mishmash of footage passing itself off as “experimental” cinema. Melvin stated that he approached this film “like you do the cupboard when you're broke and hungry: throw in everything eatable and hope to come out on top with the seasoning”. He tossed everything in alright: cross dissolves, freeze frames, lens flares, shaky cam, dizzy cam, cuts to black, severed sound effects, negro spirituals, chants, and an Earth, Wind and Fire score played to within an inch of its life.

In the first act a mute and empty-eyed Sweetback fucks, fights and stares into space like he’d rather be in another movie, until the running starts. And then, on it goes. Looooong after we get what’s happening. For over half of the screen time he sprints and staggers, leaps and crawls through streets and alleyways, crackhouses and storm drains, hills and deserts. All along, he staves off thirst (by drinking from puddles!), hunger (by decapitating lizards and eating!), injury (by sanitizing his wounds with his baadasssss urine!) and the trigger-happy police (by running faster! and leaping from bridges! and f*cking some more!).When we gratefully get to the end, where Sweetback crosses the Tijuana, and warns of his return to collect his (still unspecified) dues, the narrative has been simple enough. The Man subjugates the black man, and the black warrior rises to fight back. How? By murdering, and f*cking, and running.

Coarseness and effrontery aside, however, this film possesses a categorical value. Van Peebles committed an act of unheard-of audacity by depicting the brutal murder of white bad guys by a black good guy in 1971 America. He’s an obnoxious and unafraid filmmaker despite—and likely because of—his unrefined sensibilities. What he lacks in proficiency, he compensates with abstraction and consciousness. The policemen’s murder is jaggedly juxtaposed with solarized footage of a hulking oil derrick, like a vast machine is under threat. A preacher appears to offer up‘black Ave Marias’ for Sweetback, and by extension, all black people. Peebles even displays pragmatism by introducing a group of Hells Angels who not only spare Sweetback’s life (after he beds their white female leader, no less), but also grant him the chance to make good his escape, an offer he benevolently passes on to the Black Panther he had earlier rescued.

This film has fought its way into history. It continues to be studied as an epoch-making work. It grossed millions, shifted perceptions about blackness, spawned a film genre, and sparked conversations that 1971 society desperately needed to have. Still, here we are decades later, in Post-Baadasssss, Post-Rodney King, Post-Treyvon Martin, Obama-led America, and the jury is still out on how much progress has been made.

Just because it made the statement it was meant to make, Sweet Sweetback’sBaadasssss Song cannot be passed off as a carefully crafted piece of art. Brash and uncultured work cannot be celebrated as auteur or innovative. Melvin Van Peebles has entered into cinema history because he was a filmmaker of great courage, relevance, and innovation. But not because he was any good.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

"THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS" a collective review by the workshop's participants

"Our Day Will Come!"

“Once their rage explodes, they recover their lost coherence, they experience self-knowledge through reconstruction of themselves; from afar we see their war as the triumph of barbarity; but it proceeds on its own to gradually emancipate the fighter and progressively eliminates the colonial darkness inside and out."

- Franz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth

The second decade of the 21st century has marked a period when most African countries are celebrating the golden jubilee of their independence from colonial masters. Consequently, stories on historical heroes from across the continent told over and over again are being revived by the protagonists of the independence struggle. By now, we are aware of how men spent cold, endless nights in the jungle fighting, and of how women made them food and secretly passed them crucial information about the white colonizers. Most films on this subject have corroborated this part of the story. Enter The Battle of Algiers, a film about Algeria’s fight for independence from the French and all the generalizations made about the fight for independence in Africa gets challenged on so many levels it makes your head spin. Gillo Pontecorvo’s film gives you a story of a war fought in the jungle, a concrete one, Algiers, the capital of Algeria. It tells the story of women who were at the fore-front of the struggle. Moreover, this story has something that you do not hear every day when independence stories are being told: the children’s contribution to the liberation movement in Algeria.

From acting as message carriers between the FLN (National Liberation Front) members, to spreading resistance newspapers to the Algerians, the children were in the thick of it.  The image of the jolly kid distributing papers with instructions about the eight-day strike, and his cheeky wink while he is at it with the threat of arrest and detention always hanging over the city, is incredible. That act of courage, however, would pale in comparison to the small boy that sneaks around and steals a microphone from the French soldiers and uses it to encourage the people of Algiers to continue with the strike. Just to show that the children who participated in this struggle were in it to win it no matter what, one of them chooses to die along with Ali Pointe, one of the leaders of the resistance, rather than surrender to the French.


Rather than take the point of view of a singular protagonist, The Battle of Algiers is a holistic story about a significant event. We are treated to several points of view, allowing us to step into the shoes of both the leaders of the resistance (La Pointe and Jaffer) and the commanders of the French authorities. This is a welcome break from the widely deployed ‘hero’s journey’ format of storytelling, where we see and experience events from the point of view of one or little more than one central character; it allows us to form alliances with the oppressed, while understanding the point of view of their oppressors.

Because of our history as the ‘colonized’  and the education we get in school as far as colonialism is concerned, we tend to view this subject from a certain fixed angle – the colonial master was swindling, exploiting and killing us. But The Battle of Algiers presents us with a totally fresh point of view: the possibility that Africans are not completely untainted when it comes to colonialism, and that, in a battle field, everyone walks wounded. In the case of The Battle of Algiers, the master and the subject alike suffer from the deeds of the other. The attacks and crimes against humanity that are committed by both the French and the Freedom Liberation Movement are soberly portrayed and resisting the temptation to romanticize the protagonists of The Battle of Algiers is one of the qualities that sets this film apart and makes it a must-watch. Its fair-mindedness, objectiveness and balance in looking at the deeds of the people during colonial times is a major selling point of the film especially in this time and age when the single story that was sold to us about colonialism no longer holds.

Saadi Yacef appearing in the film as himself

 Few stories like this come in the history of a people. The Battle of Algiers is a strong story about the struggle for independence of the Algerians from the French. Lately films have been using true stories as a gimmick to get more viewers. This has been successful since audiences get more attached or emotionally inclined to feel a film if they know that it was a true story. This is also true for this film, but it does not negate the emotional impact of this film. The fact that this film was a true story was anything but a gimmick. The film was made only two years after Algieria gained independence as a way for the freedom fighters to tell their story. Being a film based on a book written by one of the fighters The Battle of Algiers feels genuine and authentic.

As it is still today, Algeria was a Muslim majority country between 1954 and 1957 when The Battle of Algiers is set. It is not by chance that religion plays a vital role in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film as it gives a strong foundation for the struggle for independence. One of the ways it is represented is at the start of the film, where rebels state that they want to establish an independent Algerian state based on Islamic principles. Again, in a prison scene where a rebel is about to be executed, he proclaims “Allāhu Akbar” (“God is great”), showing that as much as the fight in the film was about independence, religious beliefs existed. In Islam, after a couple marries, families usually hold a public wedding party. That is not the case in The Battle of Algiers, where Islamic weddings are seen to be taking place "underground". A character even says that they hope to have weddings in the open one day. The women in The Battle of Algiers predominantly wear hijabs and veils: religious symbols of modesty, privacy and morality in Islam.

Moreover, when a French guard attempts to touch a woman, a colleague of his tells him, “Never touch their women”. The teachings of Islam say that touching members of the opposite sex you are not related with is not allowed. The use of “ethnic” music helps to enforce the fact that Algeria was seeking independence as a nation and culture of its own. It works to enhance the story, although is not a strong feature of the film.

The Battle of Algiers is a film that relied heavily on the director’s notes and personal recollections of the resistance he had carefully gathered. The film is a case study in urban guerrilla warfare, with its terrorist attacks and the brutal techniques used to combat them. Shot on the streets of Algiers documentary style, it features a heavy use of handheld camera. Wide panoramic shots revealing the beauty of Algiers’s and vivid close-ups zooming in to the heat of the battle, make the cinematography an integral part of the emotional wiring of the film.

For once, we get to see history from the side of the oppressed (though the film carefully avoids oversimplification) and violence is put into context. The armed insurrection of the Algerian people is in fact understood as the only possible means of liberation from a violent and ruthless administration; rather than the violent vagary of few extremists thugs, violence is the outcome of the colonial condition and the only way to overthrow it. As the great German playwright Bertold Brecht would say: "violence helps where violence rules."

Wednesday, 16 April 2014


Lovely Bridge

LOVE: A four letter word that has different meanings to different people. To some, it is blind. To others it is the epitome of life upon which humanity rests. If it wasn’t for love, many fairy tales would not have the infamous closing quote “and they lived happily ever after”. Love is the adhesive that keeps relationships together. So when a story of a man and woman was told, about their love, so strong that to keep it alive they chose not to be together, I was captivated. 

"The Bridge of Madison County" tells the story of a recently deceased mother of two who leaves behind a box that will change her children’s lives. A box that contains instructions on how she would like to be cremated, but most importantly, a diary narrating the story of a man she once deeply fell in love with. That man was not their father. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Robert James Waller, the Bridge of Madison County touches closely on what we perceive relationships should be.  The plot of the movie is told through the voice of Michael (played by Victor Slezak) and Carolyn (played by Annie Corley) who embark on reading a diary that baffles them and alters their perception of the mother they thought they knew. 
As they continue reading, we are taken back in time to when the story actually took place. It is there and then that we are introduced to Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) and her average “perfect” family. The husband and children leave for the Illinois State Fair. It is during this time, the children would eventually find out, that their mother had a four-day affair with Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood), a photographer who had come to Madison County, Iowa, to shoot a photographic essay for National Geographic. Being new to the area, he finds himself lost and ends up at the Johnsons. The mysterious, adventurous and well-travelled aspects of Roberts’s character are very intriguing to Francesca. It takes no time at all for the two to fall madly and deeply in love; a love that will impact not only them, but the relationships of her children, both of whom are having marital problems of their own at the time of the discovery. 
Directed by Clint Eastwood, The Bridge of Madison County is a simple well told story and yet it is very difficult to explain why the movie is also very moving. Is it the idea that despite being married for a very long time and seemingly happy with two children, there really could be no love existing between husband and wife? Is it the idea that despite being a woman in your 50s, a stranger can show up and give you those heat flushes and make you forget everything that is important and consequently make you feel and behave like a teenager? Is it the idea that, despite finding true love, we at times settle for less and not take the risk of pursuing our dreams because of what society might think? Is it the idea that someone might come and change your life completely?
With a story arch that slowly develops to a climax that sees Francesca opting not to open the door and run away with Robert, The Bridge of Madison County is perhaps one of those love stories that do not have an happy ending. The story however does not portray Richard Johnson (Francesca's husband) as a bad husband raising questions as to how easily can a lasting marriage be threatened.  

Merly Streep once again proves why she is one of the best actresses to ever grace our screens. I however find objectionable how she overplays her character with overly done sighs, hot flushes and reflective moments that you’d expect a 13 year old in love would have. Perhaps the fact that the film is being directed by a man contributes to this. Men have different perceptions as to how love should be compared to women. We tend to see love in the physicality while women’s love is more emotional and expressive. Despite having known Clint Eastwood as the western cowboy character, it was refreshing to see him take up the mushy, sentimental role which he executes well with a touch of his bad boy masculinity. I found the dialogue a bit over the top in some scenes. With cheesy lines like "This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime….I don’t want to need you because I can’t have you” says Robert to Francesca. There are moments I wanted to scream “get a grip people”. So moving is the film though that it makes you reflect if such love does exist or are the relationships we have come to accept a fallacy. I rest peaceful with the fact that it is just a movie.
With long dialogue scenes and numerous close-ups but simple basic shots, the cinematographer Jack N. Green did a good job capturing those seductive moments especially with the scenes in the bathroom and bedroom with candle lights that set the romantic mood with slow music playing in the background.
Taken at face value, the Bridge of Madison County can easily be seen as condoning unfaithfulness in relationships and justifying it. It is however much deeper and reflective about the fact that life is not always about what you want and that happiness can be sacrificed in the name of those you love. Truly, the meaning of love does have different definitions to different people.

Movie rating: 7/10

"SWEETBACK" by guest blogger Emukule Ekirapa

The Black Panther Party dedicated a whole issue of its newspaper to Van Peebles' film

"Sweet Sweerback’s Badass Song" is a foreign taste that is best consumed with some knowledge of race relations in 1960’s America. It is unapologetic and raw in its depiction of hypocrisy. Police brutality mixed with communal laughter. Sexual exploitation mixed with religious comfort. From the beginning, the black man in America is defined as a performer. A numb, sexually charged puppet.The protagonists’ life seems destined for this. This is not a story about a black man in America, but specifically the assumed journey of a black boy raised in the ghetto streets of white-dominated America. This is an airing-out session. A mirror of self. Visuals screaming to its black audience, “Look how fucked up we’ve become!” Everyone outside this black ghetto family is just an observer. 

Director Melvin Van Peebles is very clear about his depiction of conflict – it’s good vs bad. Bad is the white man and his law of oppression. Good is any response that goes against the white man and his law of oppression.Bad is not the little black boy forced to have sex with an African American whore. Bad is not the protagonist profession as a phallus for hire. Bad is not the act of talking directly to a guest while taking a shit with the bathroom door open.  These are not bad habits but rather consequences caused by white oppression. 

Black manhood is core to the story of sweetback. Physical brutality is the only response to physical brutality. And despite the endless cat and mouse hunts, dialogue and reason are not welcome. The only ‘good’ black men are those working for the corrupt city police force – an awkward relationship depicted so well in the film. Women are purely used for sex.

The film is visually unconcerned from both a technical and aesthetic viewpoint and works well in depicting the disorganized life of black ghetto culture. One will most likely leave this movie confused, annoyed, intrigued, curious, and satisfied. It’s not often you get to see an honest self-assessment of black culture on film.