Monday, February 13, 2017

25th Annual Pan African Film Festival - Los Angeles - Part 1

Among the films that played recently at the 25th Annual Pan African Film Festival - Los Angeles, held at the Cinemark 15 Baldwin Hills Theater at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, I was able to view and review the following:

The Voice of the Kora [2015] (directed and produced by Claudine Pommier) proved to be a lovely / fascinating CANADIAN documentary about a traditional West African stringed instrument called the kora which is mostly commonly played, sitting down like a harp but nevertheless contains characteristics of the lute / guitar and drum. The traditional "acoustic" kora, _like_ the lute / guitar contains a resonating / amplifying sound box, but _unlike_ the lute / guitar and more like a drum said amplifying sound box is not made of wood but rather of stretched animal / cow skin).  The result is a versatile stringed instrument with a characteristic sound that would fascinate many music lovers as well as music technologists.

Indeed, one of the joys of attending Film Festivals such as this one has been the opportunity to attend screenings of various music themed documentaries where one can learn about some aspect of often beautiful regional music that one might not have known before.  In years past, I've attended excellent screenings of documentaries on traditional music from Cuba and the Andes.  This one is about traditional music from West Africa using this particular particular instrument, and then about many of the interesting fusions and developments that this instrument has undergone as musicians / music technologists from the world over have discovered its possibilities / sound.  Yes, there's a Colorado based hipster who builds "Electric Koras" now ;-) -- 3 1/2 Stars.

'76 (directed by Izu Ojukwu) is a fairly _gripping_ NIGERIAN HISTORICAL DRAMA / THRILLER about a group of relatively low-level Nigerian military officers and their families stationed at a fairly "random" (though "near to the action") Nigerian military base at the time of an aborted (failed) military coup in 1976.

If you've EVER wondered what it would be like to be (or find oneself to be) involved in something like this then this would be an excellent film to look up.  (Basically, being / finding oneself involved in such a high stakes endeavor is NOT for the fainthearted ;-).

To the filmmakers' credit, they make it clear that "the Coup" was BUT ONE of _many other things_ going on in the lives of the quite "small fish" officers involved:

Captain Joseph Dewa (played by Ramsey Nouah), the film's central protagonist, has a pregnant wife named Suzy (played by Rita Dominic).  Their marriage was a sort of "modern Nigerian" one, that is, they married across traditional tribal loyalties, so neither is particularly liked / trusted by each others' in-laws.  In particular, her "always asking for money brother" is, well, an annoyance that most Viewers would understand.  Then, next to the Dewa's on-base home, lives a fellow junior officer with a fairly loud recently "picked-up" "off-base" live-in girlfriend who clearly likes her newly achieved status -- she "bagged" a (junior) officer (and "who knows how far HE can rise ...") -- but also, as yet, doesn't know the first thing of "on-base residential etiquette," to say nothing of having compassion for the expecting couple in "all windows open" hot / steamy coastal Nigeria living next door.  Captain Dewa also has an old "from the OTS" army buddy who "just shows up" in these days (because he's involved, somehow, in the coming Coup).  And in the midst of all these competing forces and distractions, the still late 20-something / early 30-something Captain Joseph Dewa comes to realize that he has to choose sides in a coming conflict that he did not ask for, but carried the risk, no matter which way he chose, to end "with a bullet in his head."  Ay, one thinks, of course, "choose wisely" but ... -- 4 Stars.


Scent of Oak (orig. Roble de Olor) [2002 [IMDb] []* (directed and cowritten by Rigoberto López [IMDb] []* along with Eugenio Hernández [IMDb]) is a CUBAN HISTORICAL DRAMA of the class of the similarly quite excellent film Belle [2013], that is, though inspired by actual historical persons / events, nevertheless an imaginative (re)construction (due to the paucity of historical material.

The current film, set in the early 19th century about a great love between Cornelius Souchay (played by Jorge Perugorría [IMDb] []*) a rich German born immigrant to Cuba and Ursula Lambert (played by Lia Chapman [IMDb] []*) a quite well educated (dark skinned) immigrant / refugee from Haiti after the 1803 Revolution there who together setup a highly successful coffee plantation in Western Cuba, is based at least _in part_ on historical fact: The two really did exist, they really did operate a successful coffee plantation in Western Cuba and Cornelius Souchay really did put in his will the request that an all black chamber ensemble play at his funeral.  Hence, it is clear that Cornelius Souchay and Ursula Lambert did have a quite unique love for the time and they also understood their African descended compatriots (probably still at least nominally slaves) to have talents / capacities that other landed Cuban aristocrats of the time would probably have not believed them to have.  Yet as in the above mentioned film Belle [2013], much of the rest of the story was constructed around the quite meager historical points given above.  Yet such it often is when it comes to the personal histories of non-aristocratic women, let alone slaves / former slaves.  As in the case of Belle [2013] and the current film here, there are truly _tantalizing_ glimpses of _great stories_ present, but alas they remain glimpses.  What to do?  I do believe that the makers of Belle [2013] as well as the film here, did do their subjects justice.  The most likely alternative would be to not tell these stories at all and that would definitely not do these people justice either.

In any case, I did like this film, even if it came from (still) Communist Cuba.  I would note also that the Catholic Church plays a role in this film, and (IMHO) a surprisingly _positive one_.  For a film coming from a Communist country, I was honestly surprised by this.  The film's director Rigoberto López [IMDb] []* was present at the end of the screening for Q&A and in said Q&A I did ask him about this (because it did surprised me).  He answered that Cuba is not necessarily what Westerners might think it to be.  And I would note that the film was made in the years following (Saint) John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba in 1998 after which there was a clear improvement in the Communist Regime's treatment of the Catholic Church / Christianity in general (For one, following Pope John Paul II's visit, Christmas (!) was reinstated as an official holiday in Cuba after its observance was officially "abolished" by the Communist Party in 1969 ...).  In any case the Catholic Church was presented quite fairly / surprisingly positively throughout the film.  All in all -- 3 1/2 Stars.

Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red in It (orig. Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai) [2015] (written and directed by Christopher Kirkley) is a fascinating music themed film from NIGER what's been billed as a "West African tribute to the African American superstar Prince."  Set in the dusty streets / surroundings of the South Saharan Niger-ian town of Agadez, it's about the South Sahara's _youth oriented_ music scene (!).  Indeed, the film stars Mdou Moctar a young Taureg speaking Central African superstar from  Abalak in southern Niger.

Now honestly, one of the first things that came to my mind, as I watched this movie was "OMG ... 1/2 the guys in this film look like they're from AL QUEDA / ISIS (!)"  But the ever smiling (when he's not wearing his head scarf) sings not about Jihad but simply about life and love and loss, LIKE ANY SENSITIVE MUSICIAN OR POET from ANYWHERE and ANY TIME.  Honestly, this VERY LITTLE FILM could do MORE FOR PROMOTING PEACE AND MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING than just about any film that I've seen since I've begun my blog five years ago.  Outstanding, and honestly beautiful job! - 4+ Stars

Forward Ever: The Killing of a Revolution [2013] (written and directed by Bruce and Luke Paddington) is a SURPRISING and remarkably _well done_ documentary about what would for most people otherwise be a true footnote in Cold War / World History -- the rise and fall of the Revolutionary Government of Maurice Bishop in the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada.  

I went to the film in most part out of simple curiosity.  I certainly knew of the 1983 U.S. Invasion of Grenada, which I always understood to have been a perhaps inevitable / necessary Cold War chess move on the part of the Reagan Administration, but also one motivated in good part by cynicism / a perceived need "to change the story" (a few days earlier, two Shiite suicide bombers had breached the U.S. Marine Compound in Beirut Lebanon killing 241 U.S. Marines, 58 French Peacekeepers and six civilians.  Since there was no ready way to retaliate in Lebanon, the invasion of the tiny but annoying / Marxist aligned nation of Grenada offered a simpler "change the story" alternative).

HOWEVER, as this documentary pointed out, the _deteriorating situation_ in Grenada was far more chaotic than perhaps perceived in the U.S. at the time AND I HONESTLY LEFT THE THEATER WITH THE MORE-OR-LESS CERTAINTY THAT THE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION ACTUALLY DID THE RIGHT THING IN GRENADA.

What happened then in the lead-up the U.S. invasion?  That's then what the documentary is about, and to its credit, it seems to be REMARKABLY HONEST:

Basically, the always idealistic, if certainly Marxist government of Maurice Bishop simply COLLAPSED.  A more radically left-wing clique tried to oust him.   He and his supporters then stormed one of the 18th century forts on the island (the fort apparently contained a radio transmitter from which Bishop could declare to his supporters / the outside world that "he" / "all was okay" (he / they were not).  Grenada's armed forces, arguably _not aligned_ at this point, tried to send three armored personnel carriers to said fort to "restore order."  THE ARMORED PERSONNEL CARRIERS WERE FIRED UPON by Bishop's supporters, where upon the military unit, of course, fired back.  By the time the dust settled, the survivors of that military unit apparently just lined-up Bishop and six of his top aides against a wall and shot them dead (the soldiers had lost their own friends in the fighting ...).  Subsequently, the remainders of the Grenadan military (who was leading them?) declared "martial law."  There were 600 American students on the island, memories of the still recent 1978-1980 Iranian Hostage Crisis were fresh.  Given THAT LEVEL of CHOAS on that tiny island nation, it made TOTAL SENSE to for the Reagan Administration to send in the 82nd airborne / Marines to restore order.

Anyway, the documentary really could serve as a reminder to young idealists radicals that guns and politics are a REALLY VOLATILE MIX (and Marxism did / does advocate violent Revolution ...).  This island nation nearly descended into something resembling "The Lord of the Flies" [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] ... Excellent documentary / cautionary tale - 3 1/2 Stars

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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