Life is not a spectacle - A Screaming Man by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
"Be careful not to cross your arms over your chest, assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, because life is not a spectacle, a sea of pain is not a proscenium, and a screaming man is not a dancing bear." (Extract from Aimé Césaire's poem Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, 1939
Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's fourth feature tells the story of Adam, or "The Champ" (Youssouf Djaoro) as he is also known, a former swimming champion in his mid- fifties, who works as a hotel pool attendant; a job in which he takes immense pride. Adam's closest colleague is his son Abdel (Dioucounda Koma), a twenty year old who documents every day of his life with his camera. Father and son make a harmonious pair and their family is a happy one, despite an intensifying civil war and the plans to privatise the hotel where they work. That is until the day the hotel management's cutbacks hit the family and Abdel is made pool attendant in his father's place. The looming threats of armed rebels approaching the city offers an unfortunate opportunity for Adam to restore himself, or at least that is what he, whose identity is intrinsically tied to his job and his past achievements, thinks.
A Screaming Man talks about loss of self, not as a consequence of happenings beyond our control, but of the choices we make when life throws us off guard. "Life continues", says David (Marius Yelolo), the hotel chef and Adam's close friend who is among the first to be affected by the down-sizings. Both men struggle to come to terms with the realisation that their passion and zest for life is of little value to anyone but themselves. The problem, David concludes, is that we put our destiny in God's hands – a God he still believes in but in whom he has lost faith – thus implying that there is room for human intervention regardless of the magnitude of the challenges we face. That it is in fact up to ourselves to decide what kind of person we want to be and how to express and live up to the decision once it has been made.
Adam's wife (Hadje Fatime N'Goua) scolds both her husband for having changed when he meets danger with passivity, and the invisible neighbour who thinks nothing of asking for favours without ever offering anything in return. She knows that there is pride in cooking, in singing, and in caring and providing for one's family. In having a purpose, and in trying to be the best one can be. And she knows that inherent in pride is the sense of dignity that helps us to treat others and ourselves with respect. Just before we lose ourselves we lose the little things; the subtle detail, the unsaid and the almost unnoticed, like the acts of saying "thank you" after supper. Haroun evokes the ordinary, not horror or deprivation, which he merely illustrates by the absence of what used to be. The civil war, like the rationalising process at the hotel, is but a backdrop and a circumstance; not a defining factor.
In his characteristic careful and understated manner Mahamat-Saleh Haroun shares the secret behind a decent life with an audience who has time for the mundane and the slow unfolding of seemingly undramatic events brimful with meaning. A secret spelled dignity and pride, be it that of a father, a professional, or a frightened man who has decided that his best years are behind him.
Talented South African filmmaker Khalo Matabane once tweeted "Great art speaks to the essence of what it is to be a human being; not only material and physical aspirations but existential too." A perfect description of A Screaming Man; a brilliant work of art in its own right, and in the way the film relates to its characters' ability and need for full self-expression through cooking, singing, swimming or tending to a pool.
This and other reviews available on the blog In The Words of Katarina (wordsofkatarina.blogspot.com)
"You is kind. You is smart. You is important" is the mantra that "You is kind. You is smart. You is important" is the mantra that Abileen Clark (Viola Davis), a domestic worker in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960ies, uses to comfort and empower her employer's daughter. Neglected by a mother who finds her too chubby and cumbersome, and a constantly absent father, Abileen is the only caring adult in the girl's life, the one who's there for her through real and metaphorical storms.
Based on the bestseller by the same name written by Kathryn Stocket in 2009, the movie version of The Help, directed by Tate Taylor, tells the story of the young aspiring writer Eugenia (nicknamed Skeeter and played by Emma Stone). Skeeter is different from Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly), Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her other friends who spend their time playing bridge, organising charity events and being snooty. Instead of trying to find a husband, Skeeter's focusing on her career. She also believes that black domestic workers shouldn't be treated as subhumans; a radical view stemming from her relationship with her old nanny Constantine (Cicely Tyson), who raised Skeeter before disappearing without a trace.
After landing a job answering housekeeping questions for a newspaper column, Skeeter, who knows nothing about housework, asks Elizabeth to let her domestic worker Abileen help her. After a short time in Abileen's company, Skeeter realises that life as a black domestic worker isn't all rosy, and the idea is born to collect the stories of all the invisible hardworking black women surrounding her and her friends and write a book. Initially reluctant Abileen eventually succumbs and convinces her friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), an outspoken lady who has just been fired by Hilly to help Skeeter realize her dream. As the film progresses the audience is treated to various displays of racist stuck up behaviour, bad parenting, loyalty and silent resistance. "This isn't about me. It doesn't matter what I feel", Skeeter promises early in the film which turns out to be mainly about her, Elizabeth, Hilly and the ostracized housewife Celia (Jessica Chastain).
As New York Press' reviewer Armond White points out the main aim of the film is to entertain, which might explain the lack of engagement with the subject matter at a level that considers the changes that have influenced discussions about race, gender and power in America since the sixties. The approach makes for a dated film that requires the audience to ignore the most important change; that black American women no longer rely on white spokespersons to voice their concerns. Abileen's, Minny's and Constantin's primary function in The Help, a film that does little to challenge traditional racial power dynamics, and translates black agency into steeling and black pride into frying chicken, is simply to help us distinguish good whites from bad, coward and victim whites. The Help is a film that suffers badly from a shallow treatment of a complex subject matter and blatant slapsticky stereotyping (incl. Minny delivering one Chappellesque line about chicken after the other, among them "Frying chicken just makes me feel better about life. I just love me some fried chicken").
The ethos of the film is that of Skeeter; quite radical in the 1960s, less so in 2011. Black underprivileged women playing second fiddle to their white counterparts isn't the problem. It's just a pity that the white women, having forgotten how much they loved their black nannies as children, let the black help raise their children but not use their bathrooms. For someone in tune with this ethos it makes sense that Skeeter is the one who contributes with ambition and skills, and her informants (even if they, like Abileen, also are aspiring writers) with sensational stories about daily humiliation to be turned into literature by Skeeter. To assume, as Skeeter does when finding out what happened to her nanny, that the old woman, who at least until the day she disappeared had a brave and caring daughter by her side (LaChanze), wouldn't survive another minute without Skeeter isn't outrageous given the logical framework of the film, and similarly there's nothing strange about Skeeter's narcissistic reluctance to leave the thirty something informants in the racist town for an attractive job in New York. A concern that reminds me of a that of the man who approaches a group of girlfriends in a bar, asking them what they're doing there all alone.
Different approaches at different times; that's how to make any story relevant at any time. Nothing illustrates this better than the example of The Stepford Wives, the 1974 novel by Ira Levin which was adapted to the big screen in 1975 and 2004, and to TV in 1980, 1987 and 1996. Also dealing with oppressive and reactionary ideals, each version of the original story reflects the time in which it was made, with hypnosis being the tool of domination in the 1980 version, role reversal in 1996, and a woman being the master brain running the show in the 2004 version in which the women have become sex- and cash machines. In response to Taylor's dealing with The Help, nothing feels more appropriate than to conclude in the same non-innovative and slightly offensive manner that characterizes his take on the story:
You is patronising. You is irrelevant. You is out of touch. (This and other movie reviews to be found on the blog "In the Words of Katarina")
There are three things, Dee Rees told the audience of the 2011 Out In Africa South African Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, that they shouldn't say in a pitch: "black", "lesbian" and "coming of age"; a true but problematic piece of advice. To suggest that a film about a young girl coming out is not just a gay film is equally awkward as it implies that the label is a negative one, which is only true if instant box-office and mass-appeal is an absolute priority. It's just that, in one way or another, the message should be conveyed that Rees's debut feature Pariah is a film about the essence of being.
Alike (Adepero Oduye) is a teenage Brooklyn girl who is struggling to live up to her mother's expectations while trying to figure out who she is. Certain about her sexual orientation, she's insecure about where she fits in as a young lesbian woman and a budding writer in search of her authentic voice. While the local gay club is offering some respite, she finds it difficult to identify both with the studs who throw money at strippers, and the femmes waiting to be picked up by the likes of her close friend Laura (Pernell Walker). And caught up between a controlling, disappointed and worried mother (Kim Wayans) and a disillusioned, tired and caring father (Charles Parnell), Alike, just like her parents and sister (Sahra Mellesse), is stuck in a suffocating web of lies that is keeping the fragile family unit from imploding, while preventing the family members from becoming all that they could be.
Dee Rees and her phenomenal cast don't shy away from complexity and contradiction. Too courageous and curious to surrender to stereotyping, and in possession of the sensibility and wisdom required to capture not just the extraordinary, Rees relies on nuance and small gestures to convey the fears of Alike's father, the archetypal man who is as gentle, loving and sensitive as he is dominating, as well as the qualms of her mother, who with piercing eyes and a sharp tongue observes and comments on Alike's journey.
"Who I am will always be part of my work." says Dee Rees, who hopes that one day her sexual orientation will be the premise of her stories, rather than the story. Pariah relates to blackness exactly like that; as a premise and not a defining condition and problem to be overcome, which is far from the only reason why Pariah is such an engaging and unique piece of well-written, well-directed and well-acted storytelling. One that speaks to anyone aspiring to or dreaming of reaching their full potential as human beings.
This and other movie reviews to be found on the blog "In the Words of Katarina"
Deliberate or not, our actions seem to have a way of coming back on us. Some believe that ancestors, universe or gods are in control, holding us accountable and making us reap what we sow. Others consider everything that happens to be random events, some more significant than others. In the world of Viva Riva! money, the main reason for living and the principal cause of death, is the only thing that matters.
In Djo Tunda Wa Munga's Kinshasa every man, woman and child is for themselves. It's a place where solidarity and gain are, if not synonymous so inseparable, and likely to shift at any time. A place where everyone is doing what they can to carve out a unique space within which to operate and make enough money to survive, maybe even thrive.
One of the hardest working hustlers is Riva (Patsha Bay), who has returned to his hometown Kinshasa with a truckload of petrol that he's planning to sell. During a night out he meets Nora (Manie Malone) and falls in love with her (or decides he wants to own her, a distinction that's hard to make in a world where the line between purchasing and physical desire is severely blurred). Before becoming obscenely rich and winning Nora's heart (which is obviously not for free), Riva first has to deal with César (Hoji Fortuna), the crook from whom he stole the petrol, and Azor (Diplome Amekindra), Nora's gangster boyfriend, who isn't prepared to let go of her, more out of a sense of ownership than love .
One could maybe be forgiven for being tempted to regard both Nora and Riva as just entertaining comic books heroes inhabiting a surreal world, but not for ignoring that Munga is reminding us that whatever we do, and whomever we have become, we are still someone's daughter or son, thus offering his audience the opportunity to engage with this sexy existential action in all its complexity. Similarly, writing off Nora as a passive black Barbie and the enemy of emancipated women would be a rather uninspired interpretation of a film that, like the brilliant TV-series The Wire and Deadwood, is a poignant and vibrant comment on capitalism gone haywire. Viva Riva! could actually not have been released at a better time, when countries are crumbling and thousands of New Yorkers and others are marching against a rampant capitalist system that is leaving millions of wounded along its way.
Amidst news about a country in flames, where people in general and women in particular are falling victim to unparalleled cruelties, it's not always easy to remember that people still dance, laugh, make love and cheat on each other in Kinshasa. And out of misguided concern for those who suffer, we might easily be fooled into denying the existence of every-day concerns in the DRC and other troubled corners of the world. What we should remember however, is that the day we forget that the Congolese are individuals that cannot be defined just by the circumstances they live under, that's the day when we'll forget about our shared humanity, and when we'll stop caring about a people too often portrayed as one-dimensional victims or villains without a past and no real hope of a future.Too proud a Congolese, Djo Munga won't allow us to forget or reduce his people, and too accomplished a filmmaker, he's incapable of not reminding us in the most exciting and entertaining way.
(This and other movie reviews are available on the blog IN THE WORDS OF KATARINA)