This list, which includes the 100 greatest films I have seen from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean through 2007, proceeds chronologically. However, for a given year the films are given in order of preference. This is the second half of the list. Some films included on this list are more extensively considered in essays categorized as film reviews elsewhere on my blogsite.
54. QUARTIER MOZART. From Cameroon, Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s dazzling Quartier Mozart is set betwixt farce and fable. In Yaounde’s working-class district, various characters, both real and magical, interact. We begin with a schoolgirl called Queen of the ’Hood. “Which would you rather be?” she asks the local witch, “a man or a woman?” The sorceress responds, “A woman in the body of a man.” To help Queen learn Mozart’s gender politics, the witch zaps her into the husky body of Myguy, and, for a little impish humor, zaps herself into the form of a folk figure, Panka, who is able to divest men of their penises with a handshake. All this is fabulous; but underpinning the transformations are the indeterminate relations in a post-colonial society—a context that the name of the neighborhood, in addition to the French language that we listen to, underscores. (DeGaulle’s likeness also pops up on a woman’s tee-shirt.)
Mad Dog, the bull-headed, pot-bellied police chief, is an arresting figure. Tied to the ways of the tribal past, he wields power in the present, mimicking oppressive colonial rule while enforcing a continuity of male domination. He is laughably, though dangerously, irresponsible. Since taking a second wife, he fears his first wife, whom he wants nowhere near his bed but still around so that he can keep a watchful eye on her. (He has her tossed out, though, when the television set turns up missing.) How she has changed, he laments! It never occurs to Mad Dog that this “change” in her is his doing, a result of the second marriage that the local Catholic priest—like Mad Dog, wishing above all to retain authority—blesses. Meanwhile, Mad Dog has hired Panka to bolster his authority at home, and Queen, as Myguy, dates Saturday, Mad Dog’s independent young daughter.
55. SANKOFA. From Ghana, Burkina Faso, Germany, United Kingdom, and the United States, Ethiopian-born Haile Gerima’s bewitching Sankofa begins with African drumbeats and chants as the camera curves around the bronze sculpture of a bare-breasted mother looking down at the child who is cleaving to her: Mother Africa and her offspring, who will be stolen, put in shackles, taken away. An invocation follows: Lingering Spirit of the Dead, rise up and possess your Bird of Passage. With cunning irony, the lamentable past of enslavement shall impress itself in this instance on a chic visitor wrapped up entirely in herself: Mona, an African-American fashion model in Cape Coast, Ghana (because once a major slave post, now sacred ground), on a shoot. Sankofa, in Akan, means “We must go back and reclaim our past, to know how we arrived at where we are, so we can move forward.”
Gerima’s film, then, resembles A Christmas Carol, where the “offender,” instead of failing to heed the humanity of others (and losing his own in the process), has failed to embrace her heritage and therefore is stuck in an inhuman routine that passes for accomplishment. White Americans are loath to imagine the depth of anguish and deprivation that slavery wrought, reducing it to a mere past fact that black Americans should simply “get over”; but black Americans also have been loath to embrace the knowledge of this horrific experience, and their not doing so extends their victimization. Sankofa will remedy this in Mona’s case by sending her back in time so that she, as Shola, can experience her own slavery on a southern plantation. (When she is captured, she screams: “Don’t you recognize me? I’m Mona! I’m not a black African!”) The majority of this film is with Shola—a letter away from Shoah—in hell.
56. THE MAN BY THE SHORE. Haitian-born Raoul Peck’s L’homme sur les quais draws upon Peck’s memories, as an eight-year-old, of a frightening, brutal place, dictator François (“Papa Doc”) Duvalier’s Haiti, where Peck’s father was arrested twice and many others contesting the government were murdered. The better to emphasize childhood vulnerability, Peck has chosen an eight-year-old girl as his protagonist. Through Sarah, we take in an environment of daily political terror. Showing one of Duvalier’s vicious Tontons Macoutes, Janvier, terrorizing Sarah, Peck declines to sensationalize the scene and thus brutalize the character himself. Peck grasps he cannot credibly show how regimes dehumanize ordinary people if he himself dehumanizes the characters who represent these people.
We watch Sarah hide a pistol on her person, knowing that her father has taught her how to use it. She and her older sister ride to the shore on their bicycles, luring Janvier to mess with them. When Janvier pulls her sister by the hair in order to rape her, Sarah retaliates, her armed hand in closeup. There is a click; no discharge. A second click; discharge. Janvier falls to the ground dead. The camera moves screen-left to record the stunned girls’ escape; the camera now moves screen-right, revealing that someone else, Gracieux, the girls’ godfather, whom Janvier earlier sexually brutalized with his thick stick, delivered the lethal shot. Gracieux, as gentle as Sarah and nearly as innocent, has been perverted into becoming a killer, as Sarah herself might have been. The passage is structured so that not a drop of glee rises in our hearts over Janvier’s end. Implicitly punctuating the scene are the realizations that we bring to it: this death’s human cost to the innocent; the fact that Duvalier will promptly replace Janvier with another of his soulless army of Tontons Macoutes.
57. EL JARDÍN DEL EDÉN. On the Mexico-U.S. border, Tijuana is the principal setting for The Garden of Eden. Written by sister Beatriz and herself, María Novaro’s masterpiece follows a range of lives there.
A corrugated steel fence spans the area, attempting to keep Mexicans out of the U.S. Baleen whales, though, migrate into Pacific Baja waters, causing a Mexican child to wonder at such unfettered liberty. Frank, who is obsessed with the graceful gray creatures, relocated there long ago. His sister, Jane, visits; a would-be writer, she hopes to delve into Mexico. Jane’s friend Elizabeth is also there, trying to reconnect with her Mexican roots. Jane romances Felipe, an impoverished farmer making continual attempts to get to the U.S., “the other side.” Felipe has befriended Julián, a teenaged shutterbug, whose mother, Serena, recently widowed, has come with her children to start afresh. Only Frank seems past hope.
Felipe returns from the other side beaten to a pulp by thugs policing the barrier. The sight of Felipe in bed takes Julián back to the scene of his father’s death at hospital.
Felipe’s friendly habit of referring to Julián as “brother” misleads Jane, who sneaks both of them across the border in the trunk of her car. (Language and cultural confusions between characters abound in this film.) When the boy turns up missing, Jane and Felipe search for him, wandering into a funeral. There, Jane infuriates Felipe by contributing money to the pot to help get the body back to Mexico for burial. Felipe: “We may be poor, but we don’t need your charity!”
Novaro surveys the border with documentary attention both sweeping and minute. Her eye achieves great visual poetry, especially in long shots.
“Garden of Eden” turns out to be less than Paradise. It’s a motel on the other side.
58. THE SILENCES OF THE PALACE. We were taught one rule: Silence.
The death of an ex-bey who may have been her father brings Alia to the palace where she grew up in the 1950s. Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli creates a masterful blend of Alia’s own flashback and a more generalized and objective reclamation of the recent past touching on Alia’s life. Intermittently returning to the present ten years later, the film’s richly detailed, solemnly paced backward look focuses on young Alia and her mother, Khedija, one of the poor downstairs servants and a favorite, because of her beauty, in upstairs bedrooms. Eventually both Khedija and infant die in childbirth, orphaning Alia, who never learns her father’s identity.
A Twainian coincidence of births, Alia’s and the palace’s legitimate daughter, who is her playmate, has given Alia a precarious existence in two worlds. Khedija (Amel Hedhili, superb) worries that her teenaged daughter, as she has been, will be impressed into sexual slavery. Tlatli portrays the supportive community of women downstairs, but something else exists above. When Khedija is serving dinner, she is rebuked—an index of female discontent: fallout from the interest that she generates in the princely men. Upstairs women dare not speak against their husbands, so they take everything out on Khedija—an arrangement the men, guilty cowards, tolerate. For women, it appears, silence is the rule both downstairs and up.
With withering irony all this occurs as nationalists beyond palace walls rattle the French colonial cage for independence. The bey, we are told, gets flak from both sides: from the French, for listening to nationalists; from nationalists, for ceding to the French. Someone observes, “There are no strong men in the palace anymore.”
Samt el qusur views the oppression of women with profound melancholy. Tlatli is an Arab woman.
59. ARISTOTLE’S PLOT. From Zimbabwe, Cameroon and France, Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Le complot d’Aristote, a satirical gangster film indebted to early Godard, turns on a plea for post-colonialist Africa to come more fully into its own.
Gangsters gathered at the Cinema Africa bug out their eyes and brains on nonstop-action movies. Their leader is called Cinéma. Cinéma’s opponent is Cinéaste, who wants African films to liberate itself from cultural neocolonialism and express African cultures, not Hollywood, not U.S. popular culture. Hilariously, the government investigates the reappearance of characters who have already died in previous movies. Clearly, films can usurp, redirect and reinvent reality—a capability all the more dangerous when the “reality” that films serve is of the Hollywood sort, where the values, implicit or explicit, almost invariably support economic exploitation of the Third World.
Can Africa emerge from the shadow that made it “the dark continent” in Western eyes?
The scene of crossing railroad tracks that frames Aristotle’s Plot equally suggests African possibilities and African confusion, with the “civilized” Western view of Africa opposing a homegrown African view or, even, impulse toward such a view, inhibiting the latter from achieving clarity.
Bekolo’s film resists the narrative tyranny that charts a plot for complacent audiences. (Thus the film opposes complacency.) Things unfold in Aristotle’s Plot in a haphazard way. This tack accomplishes two seemingly contradictory things. One, it reflects the uncertain, ambiguous nature of existence, the absence in our day of clear definitions and categorical boundaries. At the same time, it contests rigidly plotted films in their seduction of viewers into accepting the most outrageous confections as reality. Like Godard’s, Bekolo’s filmmaking, indebted to Brecht, is much about distancing one’s materials in order to spur thought. Nothing ingratiates in his method, nor is there much that is likeable about this brilliant film.
60. WHO THE HELL IS JULIETTE? Argentinean-born Carlos Marcovich made ¿Quién diablos es Juliette? in Cuba, Mexico, and the U.S. He co-wrote (with Carlos Cuarón), produced, directed, (gorgeously) cinematographed, and edited the film, which fuses documentary and scripted material. Yuliet Ortega is an ebullient 16-year-old Havana prostitute. The film runs parallel/intersecting courses, attending also to Fabiola Quíroz, a Mexican model with whom Yuliet appeared in one of Marcovich’s music videos—in a sense, Yuliet’s alternative, better existence, but one hiding considerable misfortune. Marcovich records remarks by both and family members of theirs. Film scholar Brooke Jacobson has perfectly described the film as being all the more heartrending for being so lightly presented.
The film opens with a visual tweak: Yuliet’s wiping the camera that’s filming her as she addresses us. The gesture passes quickly; it may be meaningless—or does it show that Yuliet wants us to see her clearly? It possibly confirms Yuliet’s reality (for her, for us) by confirming ours. Its poignancy perhaps derives from its emotional location between both possibilities. Rather than interpenetrating, documentary and fiction in this film exist where either may be the other or is on the verge of becoming the other, underscoring the elusiveness of Yuliet’s reality even as she discloses specific facts about herself, such as her family’s abandonment fifteen years earlier by her father, an electrician whom we meet in New Jersey. (Yuliet’s younger brother, without irony, explains that their father is “slow in returning.”) Yuliet’s mother committed suicide. Yuliet’s phone call to her father brandishes anger and hatred that her brother describes as hiding love. The father and others very differently recount his killing the family dog after it attacked one of his sons. He feels that his wife abandoned him by not coming along with him.
Reality: unresolved, ambiguous, complex.
61. ROSTOV-LUANDA. Raised in Mali, Abderrahmane Sissako returned to his homeland, Mauritania, in 1980. Nearly twenty years later, he proceeds on a quest, which Rostov-Luanda documents. The adventurous road takes him much farther south, to Angola, also on Africa’s western (Atlantic) coast. Accompanied by his elderly former nanny and armed with an old photograph, Sissako is in search of a friend, Afonso Baribanga, a fellow student in Moscow whom he hasn’t seen in seventeen years. Rostov-Luanda is about the people Sissako meets along the way—and about Africa. Since gaining its independence from Portugal in 1975 (fifteen years after Mauritania had gained its independence from France), Angola has been beseiged by civil war. Sissako’s journey is into the heart of uncertainty—the difficult reality that replaced Africa’s post-colonial hopes.
Outside Biker’s, a brasserie, a man looks at Sissako’s class photograph, shrugs and declares, “One should speak only of what one knows for certain.” If Sissako had been missing, the man says while facing Sissako, then he could be sure, because Sissako has that kind of face. Inside, Sissako interviews cook and customers. One of the latter also was in Soviet Moscow. His conclusion: If he weren’t someone else, he could be the one for whom Sissako is searching. He, too, is “lost.”
An orphaned boy describes his war-disrupted life. He is determined not to run away from school again, not to be homeless again. A woman explains why she became a teacher. A man decries Soviet influence in Africa.
An older man looks at the photograph, shakes his head and, referring to Baribanga, muses, “I will probably meet him someday.”
Could be. Sissako learns that his friend is coming home, from the former East Germany.
Part of the film’s silent broken melody is the Soviet collapse.
Abbas Kiarostami’s “road”-influence is everywhere.
62. LIFE ON EARTH. In anticipation of the Millennium, Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako contributed La vie sur terre to the 1999 French-Swiss television series L’An 2000 Vue Par . . . (The Year 2000 Seen by . . .).
From busy, decorative Paris, on the verge of ebullient millennial celebrations, Sissako, playing himself, returns to his father’s rural Mali village to welcome the epochal event. A long tracking shot of an infinite number of cheeses in a Parisian supermarket dominates the film’s opening; thereafter, in Sokolo, life is simpler, and the year 2000 demarcates nothing new or noteworthy. One isn’t overwhelmed by nonsensical choices. Instead of the ether of consumerism, one experiences there “life on Earth.” “I’ll arrive there,” Sissako writes his father, “fresh and young.”
A measured zoom on the intricate network of a baobob tree’s bare branches against the sky marks the shift in geography. A cyclist’s upside-down image in the river goes one way; a paddled rowboat, carrying a passenger and her bicycle, goes the other way. The human result is mathematical: stillness.
Getting back to basics, though, isn’t all a Godsend. The one telephone, at the post office, doesn’t always connect. (“It’s hard to reach people. It’s a matter of luck.”) A local radio station is the only other technology. (A photograph of Princess Diana and Prince Charles adorns the wall.) Cameras are ancient. But the rhythm of life is set to the beating of the human heart, and the place is gorgeous beyond belief. Sissako’s film is gently satirical regarding both sides of human existence: the artificial and bourgeois; the natural and impoverished.
A boy kicks a soccer ball up a street of sand; heads of cyclists appear above stone walls. Expectancy attaches itself to more pressing matters than the Millennium. “We’ll be harvesting soon.”
63. ADWA. A nation, a people: this identity often coalesces around the memory, the history, of a monumental shared ordeal—if possible, victory. In 1996 Ethiopians celebrated the centennial of their ancestors’ defeat of the foreign army that invaded so that Italy could colonize Ethiopia. Haile Gerima decided to document the commemoration. (Gerima is currently working on a second part to this project.) The decisive Battle of Adwa is the focus of both the celebration and, hence, this film.
There are no live-action reconstructions; Gerima made this masterpiece on a shoestring—and an Ethiopian-born artist’s soul. Having learned about the Battle of Adwa from his own father, he interviews other Ethiopians, some elderly ones whose fathers fought in it, others who provide historical, cultural and political (both geopolitical and pan-African) perspectives. He surveys the terrain leading to and at Adwa. Children keep the memory alive, making it their memory, in rich song. Above all, Gerima sets his camera on extraordinary artwork—paintings, engravings, early photographs that depict the battle and the soul of a people. Adwa is among the greatest films to absorb art treasures into their being and make these come alive, both to the eye and the soul of the viewer. Gerima has made, in effect, a spiritual documentary.
Emperor Menelik may have seemed the hero, but it was always the people: vast numbers that gathered from distant communities to face their well-armored, well-weaponed Goliath with a stone and a sling—whatever they had. Those who had nothing took weapons from fallen Italian soldiers. Their victory grew into the sunlight of legend, inspiring movements—Pan-African; nationalist ones; the U.S. civil rights movement. In 1935 Fascism took its revenge by invading Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia) on a “civilizing mission,” resulting in guerrilla resistance that made Italy’s life hell.
64. GENESIS. The world is torn asunder . . . Each devours his neighbor’s flesh.
Although La Genèse will proceed in the Bambara language, it opens wittily with biblical text in French; France’s colonizing of Mali thus implicitly launches Cheick Oumar Sissoko’s stunning film loosely based on chapters 33-37 of the Book of Genesis. Its ancient drama, transposed to the vast Mali desert, reflects on contentious post-colonial Africa. We impute to Sissoko’s dedication, to all victims of fratricide, however, the widest possible reference.
Everyone’s complaint is rendered suspect. Exhorting himself, Esau shouts, “[D]o not forget to take revenge.” Having returned from exile with an army, he is referring to his brother, Jacob, whom he feels robbed him of his birthright; a later flashback shows that, exaggerating hunger, Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup. Meanwhile, Jacob’s protracted mourning for son Joseph, reportedly torn apart by wild beasts, has reached ridiculous proportions, causing Jacob to ignore his other sons, who are in need of control, as well as daughter Dinah. We later learn that Joseph is in fact alive. Meanwhile, Dinah crosses camps to bed Shechem, Hamor’s son; on no apparent basis, their sex is reported as rape. No one thinks to ask Dinah, since Jacob and sons feel that the relevant issue is family honor. The sons massacre the males of Hamor’s tribe (Hamor survives in this telling), including Shechem, causing Dinah to lose her mind.
Repeatedly Jacob is shown inside his dark tent indulging his mourning while sunlight dazzles outside; visually, the nighttime massacre thus becomes an extension of his mind-set, holding Jacob responsible. During the dark night of his soul, Jacob later does his celebrated wrestling—in this telling, with God. The final rush of reconciliations is moving beyond belief. It expresses hope for Africa.
65. THE LITTLE GIRL WHO SOLD THE SUN. Dedicated to persevering street children, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s La petite vendeuse de Soleil opens in the Senegalese city of Dakar, whose streets teem with children hustling newspapers and adults begging, selling. A merchant accuses a woman of having stolen something, and three officers, not bothering to check for the allegedly pilfered item, violently arrest her while she protests her innocence. Jailed, the woman resembles a caged animal. Has she been driven insane by the humiliation and rough treatment? She isn’t a thief but a princess, she shouts.
The scene shifts to a village, and the juxtaposition suggests a shared destiny between the seemingly indomitable “little girl,” Sili, and Dakar’s mad woman. It’s dawn; why isn’t Sili securely at home asleep? Her mission is to find a way to earn money so her family can survive. Sili is a cripple, each step a hardship. As she reaches the highway, one other sound breaks the silence: that of a man pounding rocks into pieces, to sell for construction work. Globalization has brought construction, including workers, while locals can break up rock. This is where Sili is starting from; the mad woman may be how she ends up. In Dakar, Sili also is wrongly arrested as a thief.
For all her apparent independence and self-sufficiency, we discover, Sili is reliant on others. She constantly requires rescuing. We speak of people not knowing their own strength. Upbeat, Sili may not yet know her own weakness.
When she tries selling newspapers, the competition—boys—assault her. Mambéty portrays the whole competitive atmosphere as a cauldron of madness. Debased by their environment, humans become beasts or the prey of beasts. Mambéty conveys a sense of the manipulation of people’s lives by capitalistic forces originating outside the upheaved African community.
66. MUNDO GRÚA. In Argentina, the disparity between rich and poor is deepened by a global economy that impoverishes much of the middle-class and sacrifices the poor to enhance the wealth of transnational corporations. This new eco-colonialism contextualizes Pablo Trapero’s black-and-white Mundo grúa (Crane World).
Divorced, in his forties, Rulo (Luis Margani, wonderful) does odd jobs in Buenos Aires such as selling tires and fixing trucks. Torres, a friend, gets him a job in construction operating a crane. The day that Rulo is to start work, however, he is let go in favor of a younger man, ostensibly because Rulo smokes and is fifty pounds overweight. But one wonders; in what may be a flashforward, the film opens with Torres, who is slim and fit, being fired from his construction job for not being “dressed right.” Intrusive impersonal forces, rationalized by “rules,” apparently determine employment. After Rulo is fired, shots of dormant equipment project his banishment from the work site.
Torres secures Rulo another crane job, as an excavator in Patagonia, in the southern desert. This means leaving behind friends, mother, teenaged son Claudio, and girlfriend Adriana, whose once profitable sandwich kiosk struggles against a backdrop of prodigious construction.
Fellow workers provide the only companionship in Rulo’s new environment. When one day food that the “bosses” are supposed to provide doesn’t arrive, in a spontaneous show of solidarity the workers refuse to work until it does. Later, their pay stops. Is the company that was bankrolling the construction pulling out? Everyone’s job evaporates. This time, static shots of abandoned equipment occupy a wasteland of vast sky and of sand composed of volcanic white shells. Each worker heads back to wherever he came from. Makeshift lives; transience.
Trapero: “I wanted a film that was like a hidden camera filming snatches of reality.”
67. HEROD’S LAW. Herod’s Law: Fuck people over before they fuck with you.
Luis Estrada’s brutal, brilliant film satirizes the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)’s stranglehold on Mexico’s politics and Mexican lives since the Revolution. The government succeeded in suppressing the film until adverse publicity compelled its release. The following year, the opposition candidate (National Action Party), former Coca-Cola manager Vicente Fox, was elected president.
Mild-mannered, naive Juan Vargas, a junkyard custodian, becomes mayor of a tiny rural patch, San Pedro de los Saguaros, whose non-Spanish-speaking indigenes have already lynched a number of his predecessors. Vargas begins idealistically and compassionately, intending to bring social justice and erase poverty, but the Party official appointing him, instead of allocating funds (which are being monopolized by the expense of the upcoming election), arms Juan with a giant book of federal and state laws, to squeeze fees and taxes out of the poor, and a gun, to buttress his authority. When the madam of the local brothel resists his attempt to extort money from her, he shoots her and her bodyguard dead and moves to frame a doctor who has threatened to have him removed from office. It is in this vein that Estrada’s film continues, frequently hilariously. Vargas ends up becoming a wife-beater, killing his mentor and publicly announcing the Party’s determination to stay in power forever: business as usual.
Some have complained about the film’s broadness and bluntness; farcical satire isn’t the worse for being unsubtle, un-Shavian.
The accumulation of plot twists and turns suggests the depth of political corruption and social inattention during so many decades of entrenched PRI rule. Estrada overlooks little; for instance, La ley de Herodes is withering on the subject of the contribution made by Mexico’s gringo northern neighbor to the host of woes routinely visited on Mexico’s poor.
68. FAAT KINÉ. Ousmane Sembène has fashioned a brilliant social comedy about three generations. Kiné (Venus Seye, spirited, poised) operates a gas station; tough at business, she is nobody’s fool. Her daughter and son have just graduated high school and, because of her sacrifices, will proceed to college, unlike her. (Kiné had wanted to be a lawyer.) Neither child’s father married Kiné, and neither helped. Indeed, one of them, Kiné’s teacher, impregnated her and then had her expelled just weeks before graduation. Disgraced, Kiné’s father attempted to burn her, but Kiné’s mother interceded, as a result of which Mommy’s scorched back became “stiff as a dead tree.” Kiné supported her family on her own, her independence a reflection of Senegal’s independence.
There is witty, sometimes hilarious conversation amongst Kiné and two peers. (Kiné, about forty, was born about the time that Senegal became independent from France.) But always there is a serious undertone to the women’s talk. For instance, Kiné advises her friend whose spouse has multiple wives to assert herself in the bedroom by enrobing the man’s organ in a condom—this, on a continent that is ravaged by AIDS. While the film is contemporary, it is riddled with Kiné’s flashbacks. We see the event in which Mommy is burned, and in the present we constantly see Mommy’s unbending back. At a red light, a procession of traditionally garbed women, holding up baskets, walk in front of Kiné’s car after Kiné has dropped off her jean-clad daughter at school and is herself proceeding to the office. Progress: a car radio announces that national school test results are higher than ever.
Jubilantly optimistic, the film romantically couples Kiné with a man who is not Muslim, but Catholic. They will not marry in a mosque or a church, but at City Hall.
69. THE EIGHTH DAY OF CREATION. Fifteen minutes long, the animated El octavo día de la creación belongs to a genre to which Mexican cinema lays great claim: violent fantasy-horror. (The opening credits list the master, Guillermo del Toro, as a “presenter.”) Directors Juan José Medina and Rita Basulto have imagined darkly both the Creator (who somewhat resembles del Toro!) and his creations. The animation itself, even apart from the particular form that the animation takes, reduces these to the absurd.
The Creator’s workshop is located in a dark dungeon. The film opens, though, with the Creator seated on a throne, asleep, beseiged by a nightmare of his creation thus far. The image is enrobed in black—the film’s predominant “color.” There’s a faint, sickly olive hue to the Creator’s clay “flesh,” and his hair, red and wiry, is agitated, as if possessed of a life of its own—like the beast that attacks him in his dream. In the dungeon he appears to be facing us; but when the shot is brought into focus, we see him standing in front of a mirror, engrossed by the swollen, grotesque thing—himself—in whose image he will create something new to immortalize himself. Bronze and browns give the dungeon a harsh metallic appearance; it is a loveless place. The Creator’s clay hand scoops out and squeezes an oozing glob of clay. On one level, the Creator represents the filmmakers; the glob, this film of theirs before it took shape.
Amidst the creepy-crawlies with which the workshop is infested, the Creator’s new creation comes to horrific life, a creature such as Goya might have imagined, and leads the creepy-crawlies in attacking the Creator, chaining him up, his manacled arms outstretched. Grunting/sighing throughout, the Creator no longer emits even a wisp of a sound.
70. ALI ZAOUA, PRINCE OF THE STREETS. At the outset of Parisian Nabil Ayouch’s Moroccan film about chemkaras in Casablanca, Morocco’s largest port, we hear the voice of fifteen-year-old Ali, one of these children, being interviewed for a television news segment. Why is he living on the street? He overheard his mother say she would sell his eyes. Translation: A prostitute, his mother holds nothing dear and would sell anything. What is his dream? To be a sailor, because he loves the sea.
Ali leads a foursome—Kwita, Omar and Boubker are younger than he—that has broken away from Casablanca’s main street gang, led by Dib. (Except for Dib, the kids are all played by current or former chemkaras.) The much larger group disputes the smaller group’s independence—some historical irony here—and in a confrontation one of their members hurls a stone at Ali, killing him. Dib punishes the stone-thrower by disfiguring him. (Most of the boys are permanently scarred. Real scars, these.)
After his death, his followers absorb Ali’s dream. Thus they deny the precariousness of their own lives that Ali’s death manifests. One of the boys approaches Ali’s mother to apprise her of her son’s death, but, with a john, she throws the child out before he can deliver the news. This establishes a pattern in the film—everything interruptus. In scene after scene, some urgent intention fails to come to fruition. This pattern reflects on the capacity of the boys’ dreams to translate into reality.
On occasion a billboard, other signs and wall graffiti come to squiggly, merry life, courtesy of animator Sylvie Leonard. Another animated passage encapsulates the dream of Ali’s that his comrades have adopted to give it a permanent home. Such childish imaginings are piercing counterpoint to the harshness of these children’s lives.
71. LA PERDICIÓN DE LOS HOMBRES. “You tried to kill him with his own pickax. That’s not right. You can’t kill a man with his belongings.”
Arturo Ripstein’s tart, absurdist comedy, appropriately filmed in black and white, begins with two men beating a third to death in the dirt. Who’s to blame? Listen to the lyrics of a popular song: “Damn women are the ruination of men.” Only, no woman has anything to do with the crime! The three men are members of the Black Gammoners, an amateur baseball team. The victim, however hard he practices, never succeeds, either in the field or up at bat. When he strikes out with bases loaded, deciding the game in favor of the Corn on the Cobs, his two teammates make good on their threat to dispatch him to that great diamond in the sky. One of them steals their former teammate’s snakeskin boots after snapping the corpse’s ankles. The victim is in no position to protest the call; but one of his “widows” recognizes the boots and whacks the wearer’s ankles with a baseball bat before making the poor guy lick her feet. After exacting this bit of justice from him, she allows the schmuck to hobble away.
The deceased’s two girlfriends fight over his remains at the police station; a coin toss resolves the conflict. All in all, the gals come off seeming fairer than the guys.
Ripstein began as an apprentice to Luis Buñuel during the shoot of The Exterminating Angel (see 1962). His target in The Ruination of Men is schoolboy competitiveness in grown men (baseball is a perfect occasion for blurring the age difference), which ends here in murder. Fans of the humor in Ionesco’s plays and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot should apply to this hilarious film at once.
72. A.B.C. AFRICA. As joyous as it is heartrending, as hallucinatory as it is real, A.B.C. Africa is by Abbas Kiarostami. The Iranian film was shot in Uganda, using two digital cameras, over the course of ten days. It documents both children who have been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic and the Ugandan women who have assumed their care. In addition to its struggle with HIV-AIDS, Uganda has been beset with civil war for two decades now. The AIDS crisis has left 1.6 million children without one or both parents. (While wreaking havoc in Iraq, the United States joined Russia and China in keeping the Ugandan crisis off the United Nations Security Council agenda.)
The film opens with the sound of the arrival of a fax, followed by the fax itself, to Kiarostami, from the International Fund for Agricultural Development, thanking him in advance for the attention that his trip will bring to the Ugandan crisis. This “outgoing fax” is being received: a symbolical reciprocation between Kiarostami’s familiar world and the unfamiliar one he enters, which the film documents.
The first caregiver we meet is an elderly woman who works to support herself and the 35 children under her care, most of them relations. All eleven of her own offspring are dead from AIDS.
Much of the film, however, simply observes the children. The younger boys interrupt their play to mug for the camera; they shout, dance and gesticulate. Teenagers, though, seem to penetrate the camera with a sullen gaze. Later, all dressed in yellow, kids clap and sing.
A brilliant shot traverses a wire fence on which colorful clothes hang, drying. The camera stops. Through the fence, we see a woman folding laundry on the lawn. The camera’s approach is stopped by the fence. So close; so far away.
73. MAIDS. From Renata Melo’s play and filmmaker interviews, Domésticas focuses on five domestics in São Paulo. (There are three million in Brazil.) Following a pseudo-documentary prologue suggesting it’s better not to have been born than to be a domestic, an upbeat montage shows different maids performing various chores. (One is atop a sloped roof adjusting a TV antenna.) One of these is Quitéria, whom Zefa constantly refers to new jobs because Quitéria keeps getting fired. The vase slipped out of her hands, she explains; but a quick insert shows that she smashed the thing. Why? Quitéria owns no such family heirloom; her family history does, however, include slavery, which her employment echoes. Quitéria shrugs as she explains the loss of another job: “The vacuum cleaner got stuck on the dog’s nose.” This seemingly cheerful young woman is seething with revolt. At film’s end, a(n actual?) domestic rages over all she has endured from employers, giving vent to feelings most domestics suppress. Early on, though, Quitéria seems to belong to a lighthearted comedy. Spirited co-directors Fernando Meirelles and Nando Olival never show an employer.
The black-and-white prologue introduces Quitéria. It consists of an overhead shot of her looking up—an ironical posture—and talking directly into the camera. Thereafter, similar black-and-white inserts of housemaids punctuate the film, encapsulating a more reflective mood than her busy life otherwise affords each woman. We also see the women at home. Each one harbors a dream; all hope for a better life. Their lives cross in employer kitchens and on the bus taking them from and to work—motion without progress. Relevant: Quitéria’s mother was also a domestic.
There is a stunning montage of domestic complaints (“They think we are all thieves”) and another of actual domestics, smiling, each doubtless making the best of things.
74. BOLIVIA. In grainy black and white, its style journalistic-cinéma-vérité, Adrián Caetano’s nonprofessionally cast Bolivia is sharply observant, finely expressive. It follows Freddy, a Bolivian father of four, who has separated from wife and family to work in Buenos Aires. He is a short order cook in a cheap restaurant. His pay is commensurate with the illegal status of his labor, and he must contend with Argentine bigotry at a foreign interloper. With Argentina reeling from its own economic recession, Freddy is seen as belonging to an army of “niggers” who are taking away jobs from locals. He is in fact keeping prices on the menu affordable.
Freddy had had a job at home, as a field worker, but, in its war on drugs, the U.S. scorched Bolivia’s fields indiscriminately, casting adrift the already impoverished in even worse poverty. Once hungry, Freddy’s family is now starving. Meanwhile, at night, the police stop and harass Freddy on the street, he is treated with contempt by everyone except Rosa, the waitress from Paraguay, and Enrique (Enrique Liporache, superb), the frazzled restaurant owner who is exploiting them, and it’s impossible to see how Freddy’s meager pay and tips allow for anything to be sent home. Poverty isn’t sentimentalized here, nor is it ignored to wax lyrical over the dignity to which the poor rise. Bolivia is about an ordinary human being who is simply doing his best. It recalls a fine West German film also set in a restaurant: Jan Schütte’s Dragon Chow (Drachenfutter, 1987), about an illegal Pakistani immigrant in Hamburg.
Freddy epitomizes the plight of his poor country, which is under the seige of globalization. Bolivia’s current fate also predicts that of the marginally better-off Argentina. Caetano’s film functions as a companion-piece to an Argentinian one: Pablo Trapero’s Mundo grúa (see 1999).
75. NADA. Carla Pérez is lonely in Havana. A postal worker, Carla contests the doldrums and habitual power outages at home by appropriating scores of letters, and reading and revising them before sending them on their way, to help out, she maintains, the people involved. (What Carla reads, we see imagined in priceless vignettes.) The bane of her existence is her supervisor, who suspects something is going on. This woman cuts the difference between terrorist and by-the-book bureaucrat.
Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti’s Nada+—the U.S. has adopted the title that Spain has given the Cuban film—is fresh, exhilarating and full of visual invention, in the manner of Buster Keaton’s 1924 Sherlock Jr. (to which Carla’s boyfriend’s flight from trouble on a bicycle in traffic pays homage) and Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966). Its black-and-white images are sparked by bits of color (an orange pencil, a yellow flower, etc.) until one late, full-color shot stuns with sudden richness and beauty. Bits of animation also (delightfully) figure in, as well as speed-motion and unexpected sounds in lieu of certain voices, but the actors themselves, along with Malberti, supply most of the film’s slapstick comedy. Satirizing bureaucracy, Nothing (or Nothing More) variously makes us laugh hard and thoughtfully chuckle.
Carla and a younger co-worker become girlfriend and boyfriend some time into the film. Life is looking up! However, Carla’s Castrotted parents, exiles in Miami (where else?), have entered her name into the lottery for an exit visa, and Carla eventually must decide whether to remain in Cuba or leave. She explains to her boyfiend, “I’ve never won anything before.” Malberti toys with our heart a bit (a minor lapse), but when Carla makes the right decision, choosing love, solidarity and some measure of self-determination over the alternatives, whatever your politics you cheer.
76. LIFE AND DEBT. Life and Debt is a tale of two Jamaicas. There is the bright, shiny Jamaica that caters to tourists. The other Jamaica consists of struggling Jamaicans. With narration by Jamaica Kincaid, based on her book A Small Place (actually, about Antigua), Stephanie Black’s documentary takes a look at the tiny nation that gained its independence from Great Britain in 1962, its economic difficulties ever deepened by the ruthless manipulation of its economy by outside corporations and financial institutions.
A focus is the relationship between Jamaica and the International Monetary Fund as, beginning with the 1970s world economic crisis, Jamaica borrowed heavily, at exhorbitant interest, in order to stay afloat after other banks refused to help. The film reminds us that the IMF, set up by Allied nations anticipating victory in 1944, was intended to rebuild Europe, not help the Third World, which came into existence later as states gained independence from colonial empires. Like the separate World Bank, the IMF additionally imposed economic restrictions, all to local detriment, in exchange for absolutely necessary financial assistance.
One segment addresses Jamaica’s once growing dairy industry, which is being squeezed out of existence in compliance with U.S. demands through the agency of the Inter-American Development Bank. The ideology of an “integrated global economy” will not permit Jamaican farming, including dairy farming, to feed Jamaicans and sustain local farmers. “Lower trade barriers,” this tiny country is instructed by the Megabeast; “compete with us on a level playing field.” Cheap imported powdered milk, subsidized 130% by the U.S. government (as one farmer puts it, “Nobody can compete with that”), has replaced actual milk in Jamaica. Recurrent images of wholesome milk in streams, discarded by mandate, are heartrending; or is it the fact behind them, that children are drinking powder & water instead?
77. JAPÓN. The protagonist of Carlos Reygadas’s nonprofessionally cast film has forsaken his home in Mexico City to venture into Mexico’s remote rural interior: a mountainously walled canyon. A painter in his fifties and lame, “El Hombre”—the Man—plans on committing suicide.
Reygadas erases sound to create a dreamlike silence and to emphasize the man’s inwardness, his romance with thoughts of death. At times the film is agonizingly slow. Near the end it achieves a perfect stasis: bereft of onward movement, a scene of huddled humanity—a “dead” spot that ironically signals the man’s rebirth. He has had sex with a very old, humane person, Ascencion, whose naked body, like his, is long past the firmness and suppleness of youth. This sexual intercourse that renews the man’s appetite for life represents the impact made on him by all the villagers. Mired in abstraction (the devil of our time, Reygadas feels), the painter had forgotten to take into account the antidote to his pessimism and despair, humanity, which therefore catches him unawares.
But at a terrible price. The film’s completion is a stunning traveling shot that records an inevitable yet unexpected catastrophe. Down from the mountains a cart carries a slew of villagers while the reborn stranger remains above. The death he brought with him is now projected onto people who combinately helped rescue him. Reygadas’s 16 mm. camera, achieving an awesome sense of gravity correlative to humankind’s burden of mortal awareness, bears down on pebbled railroad tracks at lightning speed. Again and again it swoops around 360º, picking up on or off the tracks this villager’s corpse or that: the upshot of both the stranger’s suicidal self-involvement and humanity’s interconnectedness, for even rural Mexico is not immune to the currents of discontent the cosmopolitan stranger represents. Hence the title: Japan.
78. WAITING FOR HAPPINESS. From Mauritania, Abderrahmane Sissako’s gorgeous Heremakono is set in the coastal village of Nouadhibou, where the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic Ocean meet. Seventeen-year-old Abdallah, visiting en route to Russia, is based on Sissako, who was born in Mauritania, grew up in Mali, lived for ten years in Moscow, where he studied film, and now lives in Paris. The housing in Nouadhibou is makeshift, as in Mali, where it is called heremakono, meaning, waiting for happiness. Theoretically, everyone there is in transit, en route to a happier life.
Happiness sometimes never comes. The film details a disastrous, tragic emigration. Maata, an older villager, long ago rejected the one opportunity he had to leave Nouadhibou with a friend. His mysterious death in the dunes ends a repressed, bitterly regretful life. Another man has been found dead, perhaps washed up on shore—perhaps someone, like Abdallah, bound for Europe. Meanwhile, Paris-educated Abdallah cannot even speak his homeland’s language, Hassaniya.
Melancholy: the persistent lapping sound of the ocean surrounding the isolated village. Backwardness: the momentousness of Maata’s purchase of an electric light bulb, which he tries mightily to wire up so that it works. For all this, there is something admirable about the villagers’ simple, largely uncomplaining lives.
A woman plays the kora, a lute-like West African folk instrument; a young girl listens and mimics. Such traditional education will likely limit the child’s prospects to the village; at the same time, it implicitly protests the invading karaoke music and, beyond that, the intrusion of French influence that, more than forty years after Mauritania’s independence from French West Africa, globalization has revived.
Abdallah’s experience at travel, hence exile, is shown by the proficiency with which he packs his suitcase before leaving his mother, with exceptionally little fuss from either of them.
79. FROM THE OTHER SIDE. From Belgium and France, Chantal Äkerman’s documentary De l’autre côté opens in Agua Prieta with interviews of Mexicans still mourning the loss of loved ones who managed to get across la frontera only to perish in the States. A coin toss determined which twin brother would cross the Mexico-U.S. border; now the burden of one boy’s life is his brother’s death. He recounts the fate of a group of undocumented aliens, all freezing and starving in the Arizona desert into which the design of impenetrable fences had forced them, each of whom died—part of a scattered, cumulative holocaust.
Äkerman’s Mexican border towns are parched, hazily sunlit, largely inert. Fixed, level long shots create placid scenes of dusty road and still sky. Sparse activity is correlative to the socioeconomic doldrums, the listless poverty, that provoke illegal immigration across the border despite the risk.
Repeated shots of the seemingly endless tall, striated metal fence prohibiting Mexican flight along that stretch find deceptive beauty. Behind this appearance, though, lurks an attitude of hostility, racism, and a casual U.S. disregard for human life.
Arizona ranchers have put up a sign: “Stop the Crime Wave. Our Property and Environment [I]s Being Trashed by Invaders.” With rifles and magnums, these vigilantes hunt down Mexican immigrants and transport them to the Mexican side of the border. “At times,” Äkerman has explained, “the ranchers have held more than four hundred people on their land, treating them like prisoners of war.”
The ranchers identify the Mexicans with “filth.” This fear of impurity and contagion bears for Äkerman, a Jewish European, a terrible echo.
The film is difficult. We end up investigating its silences and landscapes to glean shards of truth. Because Äkerman’s film never manipulates us, its constant accompaniment is our beating human heart.
80. NDEYSAAN. According to Senegalese filmmaker Mansour Sora Wade, Ndeysaan reflects his position that “belief [in the supernatural] and pragmatism co-exist naturally.” Contemporary Africa will drown if it drifts too far from its tribal past.
In a pre-colonial coastal village, waves of fog roll in, keeping fishermen out of the water and thus imperiling the village’s existence. Two best friends love the same woman, beauteous, dignified Maxoye, who loves only Mbanick. Mbanick is the son of the village marabount. In a trance, Mbanick fells the tree under which his father is buried, carving a canoe from the trunk, taking it to sea, disappearing into the heart of the fog. When he emerges, it is with a treasure: the countless fish that he caught. Mbanick now not only has Maxoye but everyone’s respect and gratitude for conquering the fog and saving the village. One night, at sea, Yatma, jealous, kills his friend, whose dying vow promises revenge. Maxoye, pregnant with Mbanick’s son, marries Yatma, knowing he murdered her beloved. The “price of forgiveness” is that theirs will be an unconsummated union and Yatma will have to raise his victim’s son, also named Mbanick. While Maxoye eventually relents and the couple have a child of their own, the sea exacts its own price. In effect, the sea’s forgiveness requires the forfeit of all our lives—and the tale’s survival.
As the tree falls in slow motion, villagers appear as a procession of phantoms—ghosts of the past, but also the ghosts the villagers will one day be.
Analytical and gorgeous, rigorous and haunting, Ndeysaan is narrated by an old man, the son of a griot. He prophesies the end of the African oral folk tradition. At the same time, the film itself underscores cinema’s capacity to keep the past, tradition, and hope alive.
81. BUS 174. Sandro do Nascimento never met his father. When he was six, robbers stabbed his hardworking mother to death before his eyes. On his own, Sandro survived the “unsolved” Candelária Massacre, in which probably off-duty police officers opened fire on homeless children in a makeshift outdoor shelter in front of a church. Thus Sandro lost a number of friends—another family. He robbed, to survive and to support a cocaine habit. Imprisoned in a filthy, teemingly overcrowded juvenile detention facility, the adolescent boy was starved and beaten. On June 12, 2000, armed with a gun loaded with a few bullets, Sandro hijacked a city bus and held its passengers hostage. At 18, he was one homeless youth who would be “invisible” no longer. Televised, the standoff between him and the police became a ratings hit, lasting a few hours. In camera view, Sandro’s life was foolproof against police assassination. Eventually, though, he left his safety zone, with one hostage in tow. Out of camera range, intending to shoot Sandro, the police are likely the ones who shot and killed his young hostage instead. The police had done what they were supposed to do: catch Sandro do Nascimento alive. However, in the police wagon en route to the station, they suffocated him. Rio de Janeiro rejoiced when Sandro’s murderers were acquitted at trial.
José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda’s Brazilian documentary begins with an aerial shot traversing water, shore, moneyed mansions and, on the other side of a hill, Rocinha, a teemingly overcrowded, vast favela—the juxtaposition of rich and poor, in a single sweeping shot. The bus footage is woven into contextualizing interviews, including the film’s zenith, in photographic negative a passage about other detainees in Sandro’s prison—a “hell-hole,” one guard calls it.
Ônibus 174 makes the invisible visible.
82. THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED. Hugo Chávez was elected Venezuela’s president in 1998, his support largely coming from the poor—80% of the population. In 2002, a coup very briefly deposed him. At the time, Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain were in Caracas, shooting a documentary about Chávez for British television. Their film deconstructs the coup and its aftermath—and electrifyingly records history unfolding on-the-spot, outside and inside the presidential palace.
Chávez aimed to free Venezuela from free-market policies imposed on it by the U.S. He did not, however, nationalize Venezuela’s oil. This industry already was state-owned, but run for private benefit by executives Chávez would replace. The poor had gotten nothing by Venezuela’s being the world’s fourth largest oil supplier.
Six private TV stations opposed the state-run one, questioning Chávez’s motives, sanity, sexual orientation. Once in power, “re-establishing democracy,” the opposition silenced the state-run station and dissolved the National Electoral Board, Supreme Court, National Assembly. With his presidential return following the coup’s collapse, Chávez addressed opponents: “Oppose me: fine! But you must not oppose the Constitution.”
Moneyed interests, backed by military elite (at least encouraged by the U.S.), organized a citizens’ march on the presidential palace to effect the coup. Snipers shot at Chávez supporters, but private media edited footage so it appeared that return fire was aimed at the opposition march that in fact had been safely diverted. Police went on a shooting rampage against Chávez supporters, further bloodying the streets.
Chávez, held captive, refused to resign; but the media/government lied, saying he had resigned. Chávez cabinet members communicated the truth to the international community, which got the message back to Venezuela by cable TV. The people rose up, pressuring the return of the president they had elected, whom only a referendum could constitutionally replace.
83. THE PASSION OF MARIA ELENA. Benefitting from scripted interventions, sociologist Mercedes Moncada Rodríguez’s La pasión de María Elena portrays a woman, her parents, their community.
María Elena Durán Morales is a divorced Rarámuri who, after the death of her 3-year-old son, Jorge, moves with son Luis from rural Rejogochi to a city in Chihuahua, Mexico, to find work and because her village is now haunted by memories of her dead child, the victim of a hit-and-run. The driver was Spanish Mexican.
María Elena has a Rarámuri trial, the purpose of which isn’t punishment but communal harmony: admission of guilt, forgiveness, reconciliation. At trial, the driver, Marisela, tearfully confessed and María Elena forgave her. At her official mestizo trial, though, Marisela denied having anything to do with Jorge’s death; “white justice” acquitted her. A Human Rights Commission attorney naively seeks to correct a doctored police diagram of the accident that helped exonerate Marisela. But the matter is never resolved; Mexico’s justice system isn’t attuned to the rights and grievances of poor, dark-skinned indigents.
María Elena’s pasión is not simply a grieving mother’s pursuit of justice; it is her spiritual dimension, spiritual resourcefulness. Visitations in which Jorge is flying hold out hope for María Elena that her deceased son will be reborn in another child’s body. After giving birth to a new son, María Elena says it has been easier to bring Jorge back from the dead than to secure justice from white people.
Subtle time-lapse photography assists in portraying one of María Elena’s visions, in which clouds pass over mountains that begin in sunlight and darken to dusk—intimations of spirit. By contrast, the city’s flat appearance and traffic noise suggest spiritual deprivation.
Situated betwixt reportage/observation and poetic fiction, Rodríguez’s film shows a mother’s passion for renewing her life-giving, life-affirming role.
84. MOOLAADÉ. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry 100.
85. DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE. See 100 Greatest German, etc., Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry 98.
86. ROLLING FAMILY. Familia rodante, one of the most brilliant films of the new century, finds Argentinean writer-director Pablo Trapero (Mundo grúa, 1999; Leonera, 2008) invisibly along for the ride on a family trip in a camper van. Four generations cram the van, ranging from an infant to Emilia, the infant’s 84-year-old great-grandmother. At her birthday celebration in a rural part of Buenos Aires, her sister telephones from Misiones, inviting her to a family wedding in her hometown. This sets up the trip, with the entire Buenos Aires part of the family participating at Emilia’s command, but Trapero’s virtually plotless film homes in on the transport, with a payoff at the end that is both emotionally sweeping and witheringly ironical. Trapero captures a rhythm of life and a bounty of familial disappointment—the predictability/unpredictability of life. In his early thirties, Trapero has created a masterpiece, richly deserving the prizes he won for it: best director, Gijón; prize of the international film critics, Guadalajara.
What then does Trapero give us in lieu of plot? Various activities along the way, including washing a family dog, the preparation of a meal, work on the vehicle after it breaks down, and so forth. One soul’s dental emergency accounts for a necessary detour; where at night is everyone going to sleep? We are also given, pressured by the vehicle’s mechanical problems, eruptions of ancient quarrels, and of old and new romantic realignments, one of which, igniting jealousy, sends a trip member into ignominious exile. Emilia herself, once the Buenos-Aires crowd makes it to Misiones, sees again an old boyfriend whose name she no longer quite recalls.
Trapero’s fiction, then, gravitates toward a dramatically heightened documentary-style presentation. At its center is a touching performance by a nonprofessional: Graciana Chironi as Emilia (best actress, Gijón).
87. TROPIC OF CANCER. A stark examination of post-NAFTA Mexico, Tropico de cancer considers how hard some people must work just to survive.
Charco Cercado is a small village. The parched region may once have yielded silver and gold, but the mines have long since been exhausted. Villagers illegally trap animals, including canaries, and sell them at roadside to tourists, who stuff them deep into trunks of cars to escape customs detection. These affluent passers-through pay little for a hideous amount of work. Meanwhile, the adjacent road is busy with commercial trucks: ironic counterpoint to the struggling black market—legal sales that will eventually fill corporate pockets with inexhaustible silver and gold.
The process of the capture and bagging of snakes is meticulously observed. At home a trapper’s wife skins a snake and dries the skin. Racks of skins will be part of the makeshift roadside bazaar at film’s end. In Mexico, incidentally, selling protected animals is punishable by up to nine years in prison and a $200,000 fine.
Earsplittlingly cacophonous birds are released into the desert. Who would buy such noisy creatures?
Children check countless traps—monotonous, necessary work. Father and son go off together in the afternoon, passing under a barb-wire fence to hunt rodents. The boy’s slingshot fells a rat. Cut to the big outdoor pot in which the mother cooks and seasons that night’s dinner: rat stew.
The suspenseful closing long shot, at roadside, encapsulates the precariousness of these people’s lives, how survival may depend on a sale. A car slows down; as the seller approaches the driver, the car speeds up and drives off. And the trucks keep rolling by.
Eugenio Polgovsky wrote, directed, digitally videographed, and edited this powerful documentary. A kid in his twenties born in Mexico City, Polgovsky is the future of cinema.
88. THE NIGHT OF TRUTH. “We are of the same clay. We have endured the same nightmare. . . . Your pain is my pain.”
Burkina Faso’s first feature by a woman, Fanta Régina Nacro’s La nuit de la vérité is a fable of the attempted reconciliation between opposing sides in a fictitious just-ended ten years’ West African civil war. A nighttime celebration shared by government Nayaks and Bonande rebels instances the classical motif of the “failed feast”; burdened by memories of the conflict, including of war atrocities, “war” erupts anew. Confessing an atrocity he committed against the President’s child, the rebel leader explains, “War opens up our souls, and demons drive their way in.” Tied above an open pit, the man is roasted to a crisp. More demons—more evidence that a peace treaty can punctuate a war but not erase it.
Nacro employs an artillery of Brechtian distancing techniques that at first gives the film a stilted, stagy appearance. Nacro doesn’t want her film to wash over us; we are snapped to analytic attention. By degrees, however, the film adds emotional force to its brilliant intellectual clarity as Nacro draws her material out of its distanced domain into a startling naturalism. Nacro’s first procedure encourages our thoughtful understanding; her second, our humane engagement.
Nacro is an ironist. The film’s opening long shot tweaks Monet; but it is a procession of souls—presumably enjoined Bonandes and Nayaks—whose reflection we see in the water below rather than the Impressionist’s luxuriant Nature. But are these reconciled beings or ghosts of the war dead? The President later gets over his wife’s murder disconcertingly easily; is there more blood to pay? There’s a “happy” schoolroom conclusion that relegates the war to the nation’s past; but isn’t this punctured by the film’s ironical procedure?
89. YESTERDAY. HIV/AIDS has spawned more bad, sentimental movies than any other category of sickness—and two wonderful movies: A.B.C. Africa (see 2001) and Yesterday. While the former is a documentary, the latter is fictional—an attempt to humanize the statistics. White South African writer-director Darrell James Roodt focuses on a single couple in a rural Zulu village; John works in the mines in Johannesburg, though, staying away much of the year. Yet this pair provides a window onto the vast African AIDS pandemic. Beauteously cinematographed by Michael Brierley (he and Roodt orchestrate light to suggest hauntingly the passing of life), this spare film encompasses a full draught of the human tragedy involved.
The protagonist is Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo, marvelous), an illiterate young woman who, feeling ill, takes two dauntingly long foot-journeys, along with her daughter, Beauty, to see a doctor at the nearest clinic; both times she is turned away and told to return in a week’s time because of the number of patients the place serves. Finally, a blood test reveals the problem. Alone, Yesterday makes another long journey, by bus, to inform John, who beats her, unable to face the truth. Soon, though, he succumbs to the illness, wastes away and dies under his wife’s committed care in the “hospital” that she has built outside the village—ignorant about AIDS, their neighbors do not wish them to remain there—because the actual hospital is too crowded to admit him. “Beauty?” John asks as he wanes. “No,” his wife answers at his bedside. “It is Yesterday.”
According to Roodt, his is “a film about the heart and mind of an ordinary person trying to survive against an extraordinary circumstance.” Yesterday hopes to live long enough to see her daughter, unlike her, start school. After all, tomorrow is Beauty’s day.
90. SALVADOR ALLENDE. We’ve all read accounts arguing that Allende’s administration created such economic chaos as demanded the military coup of September 11, 1973. However, Chilean exile Patricio Guzmán’s documentary is as much about himself as about Allende. Visiting his homeland, Guzmán explores what drew his heart to Allende and stiffened his spine against those who deposed him.
Salvador Allende begins powerfully—with Guzmán. We watch his hands carefully go through Allende’s effects (wallet, watch, etc.); the camera slowly approaches broken eyeglasses ensconced in a museum case—a record of violence (“suicide,” the Pinochet regime reported). During Pinochet’s rule, “[t]housands of Chileans were assassinated or tortured.” This is the one time that a film’s opening has moved me to tears.
Guzmán delves into the past—Allende’s childhood in Valparaiso: old photographs; an elderly surviving relation; a former mayor, a communist, who recalls that Allende opposed one-party rule and dictatorship of the proletariat. In medical school, confronted with poverty, Allende became a socialist—one who believed, according to Guzmán, that “real democracy leads inevitably to socialism.” Allende’s daughters speak of the people’s love for the pacifist senator, the presidential candidate. Old news footage from the campaign does nothing to contest this claim. (Constitutionally, Allende was voted president by Chile’s National Congress after the nationwide election secured him a scant plurality of votes—a fact Guzmán omits.) Equally moving as the opening is footage recording the celebratory crowds in the street upon news of Allende’s victory—the encapsulation of working-class hopes. This follows a passage that renews Guzmán’s focus on hands; we follow one hand after another as each carries a vote to a ballot box and deposits it—movement that recalls earlier shots down train tracks: progress.
Everything fits—and Nixon’s quest to still Allende and the hopes he embodied angers afresh.
91. LOST EMBRACE. Ariel Makaroff’s father, Elías, abandoned his wife, Sonia, and two sons to go fight in the Yom Kippur War, after which he chose to remain in Israel rather than return to Buenos Aires.
Ariel works in his mother’s lingerie shop in a downscale mall. His, he feels, is a stalled life. Ironically, in El Abrazo partido, the boy is shown always on the go. Hand-held shots abound of Ariel rushing here or there—implicitly, nowhere.
Globalization has imposed economic hardship on Argentina. The paucity of patrons and closing of shops at the mall imply the squeezing out and lowering of the nation’s middle class and the further financial debasement as well of marginal consumers.
Daniel Burman is a Jewish Argentine of Polish descent. His wonderful comedy is also about the city’s Jewish community, which seems remarkably secular. The one time we see Ariel in synagogue it is for nothing religious, and the sight of the boy wearing a yarmulke comes as a pleasant shock. Tellingly, Ariel’s ritual circumcision—the film’s one religious event—appears not as a clear filmed flashback but as a murky family videotape recording.
Long ago, Ariel’s maternal grandmother had sung professionally; but, after the war, she stopped singing, even at home, because her singing reminded her now deceased husband of all that the Nazis had taken from them. It is Grandma (Rosita Londner, heartaching) who assists her grandson in embracing his Jewish identity by her reminiscing about the Nazi ordeal; and the resumption of her professional singing, despite her advanced age, epitomizes the resurgence and indominability of human spirit that lend the film some of its most poignant notes.
But nothing in the film is quite so shattering as the reconciliation of father and son, Elías and Ariel, after an initially rocky reunion.
92. HOLLOW CITY. About a young life uprooted by war, Maria João Ganga’s Na cidade vazia, from Angola and Portugal, is set in 1991, during the Angolan civil war. N’dala’s family is slaughtered in rural Bié. The 12-year-old is among the children airlifted by the Red Cross to Luanda, Angola’s capital city. However, N’dala eludes the nun in charge and goes off on his own, misled by her religious twaddle into believing that his parents still exist back in Bié “in the sky.” Like E.T., N’dala wants to go home.
Based on a novel by Artur Carlos Maurício Pestana dos Santos, Ganga’s script is not among the film’s assets. The occasional shifts away from N’dala, to follow the nun’s unlikely search to recover the boy, are irritating, and the several attempts to force a parallel between N’dala and a national hero being played in a school play by Zé, who befriends him, fail to convince. Add to these distractions the academic irony that the script pursues: that Luanda proves as unsafe for the child as was Bié.
Rather, two things account for the film’s extraordinary achievement, in addition to Roldan Pinto João’s beautiful performance as N’dala: the film’s visual design and procedure, its series of highly defined shots rather than narrative scenes, this, correlative to N’dala’s profound impressions and quick perceptions; the richness of his solitary wanderings—this is a “road picture,” by foot, that is confined to a single location—as these intersect with various characters who befriend N’dala, including Antonio, a poor, protective, elderly fisherman who refreshes the boy’s recollection of home. There is also a hypnotic portrait of the half-world of night prostitution. Indeed, N’dala’s journey introduces him to a wealth of urban experiences that fill him with wonder but only sharpen his fruitless yearning to return home.
93. LA SIERRA. “We’re in the hands of kids with guns.”
Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez’s documentary about the armed struggle between Colombian Leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries for control of Medellin’s hillside barrio of La Sierra contemplates the contorted relations among youth, poverty, desperation, violence. Shortly after opening pages of script (“In the past decade, over 35,000 people have been killed in Colombia’s bloody civil conflict”), we see a shot-dead youth on the ground, his bloody corpse a magnet for flies. His girlfriend is beside herself. This will be a film in which other teenaged girls are stricken with identical grief over the loss of their children’s young fathers.
One member of the paramilitary group Bloque Metro notes that he worries not about harm coming to him but to his family. We think: Your being killed—that will harm your family.
Dalton and Martinez focus on three persons: Edison Flores, the 22-year-old commander of Bloque Metro, who has six offspring with six different girls; Cielo, the 17-year-old girlfriend of an incarcerated Bloque Metro member; 19-year-old Jesús, who is under Edison’s command and who has lost a hand to his own grenade: a natural metaphor that plays out through the film, encapsulating the self-destructive nature of gangland violence. “I’m one of the good guys,” Jesús professes; “I’m only bad to bad people.” Offscreen, Martinez asks him, “Do you think you will die young?” Jesús: “Of course.”
By joining forces with another paramilitary group, Bloque Metro is finally able to defeat the local guerrillas, at which point war erupts afresh as the other group seeks total control of La Sierra. Government forces shoot dead Edison; we watch a small neighborhood boy ignite a legend about the fallen commander.
Reality is a rock upon which the human heart breaks of its own accord.
94. JEWS IN SPACE. Twenty-six years old, Santiago, nicknamed Tati (Fernando Rubio, wonderful), is deeply dissatisfied with his job as a cook in a Buenos Aires restaurant, but in many ways he is the most mature member of his extended family, which includes three warring sisters—two aunts and Mirta, his mom—and their suicidal elderly father and grandfather, whose photo album hints at family secrets. At the restaurant, where he does not recognize her after years of separation, and then at hospital, where Mauricio has been brought following his failed suicide, Tati is reunited with kleptomaniacal cousin Luciana, from whom he collected a charming peck in a years-ago prologue designed around a family Passover Seder. Now Tati and Luciana are engaged in cooking up their own Passover Seder—an attempt to hold the family together, at least for a night. This time, they share a voluptuous kiss with lots of tongue, although she “tastes” like gefilte fish and he “tastes” like chocolate cake! Luciana, poised to return, lives in New York City.
Writer-director Gabriel Lichtmann’s Jews in Space, or Why Is This Night Different from Other Nights? (Judíos en el espacio (o por que es diferente esta noche a las demás noches)), a gorgeously underlit, warm-hearted comedy, is always funny and frequently hilarious. It is simply astonishing, given the number of serious matters it touches upon (including an assault by skinheads on a Kosher store that all but ruins business for its young owner), how richly comical the film remains without the slightest rupture to its essentially naturalistic style. The last Seder culminates in a meshed series of shots of the seated participants, which simulates a single, unbroken moving shot that simultaneously conjoins these family members and friends and consigns each to his or her lonely isolation.
95. U-CARMEN. Winner of the top prize at Berlin, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha transposes from Seville to Cape Town today Georges Bizet’s nineteenth-century opera Carmen. The violent romantic triangle remains intact, with South African history and male gender bias helping to define Carmen’s association with freedom, independence, self-determination.
The film opens on Carmen’s face as a lover’s voiceover compares her female beauty to the Spanish ideal. Thus Carmen and lover are both inside and outside the film, fictional characters and the actors who are playing them. The film’s thematic coordinates partly lie outside the opera. The film considers the cultural collision between the Third World and the Europe that once colonized it. This movie’s Carmen is both a vibrant South African woman and someone who is selfconsciously Carmen (hence, her most un-South African name) as a result of an intrusive Europe and its imposition of European culture. Hers is a compounded example, then, of modern alienation, of watching oneself being oneself. (Recall: Picasso credited African masks for elements of his cubism.) The voiceover describes Carmen’s “expression [as] at once alluring and fierce” as her face, in closeup, mesmerizes us as a kind of mask. As the camera withdraws we see that Carmen is sitting in a tent being photographed. The camera’s long retreat, inspired by the final shot in Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès (1955), reveals the shantytown where Carmen lives, that is to say, the poverty that is the legacy of colonization, Apartheid and, now, globalization. The camera’s quick reverse movement “loses” Carmen almost immediately to suggest the larger social tragedy she is a part of.
The musical, punctuating the Bizet with indigenous folk tunes, is sung entirely in Xhosa. With great verve, it spills over mundane settings—village, factory, school. Directed by Britain’s Mark Donford-May, Pauline Malefane makes a stunning Carmen.
96. BAMAKO. “They take our money; they take our minds, too.”
Mali’s Abderrahmane Sissako’s masterpiece begins at dawn; the village of Bamako is waking up. Among intercut actions: daily activities; an impoverished couple quarrel as their ill daughter sleeps; a man scrounges a living videographing weddings and funerals; a trial in a courtyard, where the West’s financial and economic forces bleeding Africa—the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, the G8—face charges in absentia.
A western film-within-the-film encapsulates African frustration, anger—for many, repressed feelings. “The trial’s becoming annoying,” one villager opines.
It fascinates us, however. “Pay or die,” an attorney for the plaintiff, black Africa, declares. “That’s the West’s lesson.”
Africa finds itself trapped in a “vicious circle” of debt, owed to the World Bank and the IMF; while 10% of a nation’s annual budget may be directed to social services, education, infrastructure, etc., at least 40% goes to debt repayment—because of interest, an infinite amount. The borrowed money, we learn, wasn’t invested in creating jobs. The world is “open” for whites, not African blacks, who are sent back home when they try emigrating to find work. Barely living under “imposed destitution” (life expectancy is 46), they find multinational corporations seizing whatever a nation needs to be sovereign. Colonialism “took everything away”; this new form of colonialism keeps taking. The World Bank threatened to withdraw financial support if the transport system wasn’t privatized. Victims of “unchained capitalism,” people have had their public institutions and social services sold off. While two-thirds of their children are illiterate, now they must pay for education.
Hilariously, the judges settle uneasily into their robes. A dog that earlier appeared dead may have sprung back to life, but only to sniff at the corpse of a suicide.
97. DREAMS OF DUST. From France, Canada and Burkina Faso, French writer-director Laurent Salgues’s Rêves de poussière is a vivid depiction of hard labor, sustained by hopes for a better future, and poverty. Mocktar, a Nigerian farmer, has just lost his youngest daughter. Burdened by guilt for inadequately providing for wife and family, he travels to northeast Burkina Faso to work in the gold mines. An official explains, “The gold rush is over.” His response gets Mocktar hired: “I’m just looking for a job.”
The film opens with an extreme long-shot of sand being blown by wind screen-right across the landscape. A human figure enters the frame and proceeds, by foot, screen-left—in the face of the wind. This is Mocktar symbolically braving life’s misfortunes. Neocolonialist exploitation of African resources and peasants contributes to African poverty. “The gold we risk our lives for,” Mocktar himself notes later on, “is for white people.” At the camp, Mocktar is attracted to Coumba, who has lost family members in a shaft collapse there, and whose young daughter Mocktar helps with his pay, redeeming himself from guilt over his own recent loss. At the last, in an extreme long-shot, he is shown journeying home.
Much of the film is given over to showing, in documentary fashion, the harsh, dangerous labor involved in different facets of the mining. (Mocktar, his first day, suffers a horrible accident.) We also see Mocktar’s after-work interactions with an older miner who takes Mocktar under his wing; but when this gentleman replaces the bullying, uncaring boss, we see the start of his transformation into a facsimile of that boss—black against black at the behest of white interests: an appropriation of available limited power.
Cinematographed by Crystel Fournier, images are hauntingly dreamlike. Wind-swept dust is a recurrent motif.
98. MADEINUSA. In fictional Manataycuna, “the town that no one can enter,” young geologist Salvador, from Lima, has a hitched a ride in during “Holy Time,” when the native Peruvian residents celebrate God’s being temporarily blind and mute, releasing them from moral scrutiny. The three-day carnival mixes pagan and Christian rituals and icons, and intruder Salvador’s Spanish ancestry hints an allegory of Peru’s sixteenth-century conquest by Spain. Cayo, the town’s mayor, puts the stranger to work before locking him up, a redress of history and a response to one daughter’s attraction to Salvador, which threatens Cayo’s control of his family. Cayo’s attic is a storeroom of artifacts from Holy Times past.
This daughter is Madeinusa (pronounced Mad-ay-NOO-sa, but a play on “Made in U.S.A.,” suggesting neo-colonial exploitation). We are introduced to the teenager as she spreads rat poison around the house, along the way picking up a large dead rat and flinging it aside, her hands protected by plastic bags—makeshift gloves that suggest how resourceful some people have to be just to survive. Later, Cayo impresses Madeinusa into incest in the bed that she and sister Chale share. The girls’ mother, the family legend goes, ran off to Lima years earlier. Madeinusa hopes to do the same, and Salvador may be the means; but Salvador is monstrously unfeeling regarding this sustaining dream. He is blasé about taking her; “Why not?” he says.
But Salvador’s own leavetaking is thwarted—in a spontaneous ritual, he is scapegoated for Madeinusa’s own crime—and Madeinusa takes his place as the hitcher.
Claudia Llosa raw, vulgar, visually dazzling film includes eye-opening closeups, of hands at work as well as faces. It shows people’s lives under the thumb of history and of social and economic forces not of their making or choosing, and beyond their control.
99. BREAD. Like Flora M’mbugu-Schelling’s Tanzanian documentary These Hands (see 1992), Pan attends to the labor involved in crushing rock. The five-minute-long documentary, by Argentinian filmmaker Marcelo Bukin, is a co-production of Spain and Guatemala. It shows three Guatemalans at work: a father and his two small sons.
The opening: a man’s shadow driving a pick into an expanse of rock: a figure of human strength, but with this suggestiion undercut by both the use of the man’s shadow (rather than corporeal reality) and the massive reality of the rock. The sound of the labor persists throughout, even as each of the three speaks directly into camera, even as the screen goes blank and the end credits roll.
One of the boys explains, “[M]y father works hard to give us food.” Stone thus translates into bread. The young father says, “I didn’t go to school, because I had to work with my father” [emphasis added]. His other son tells us that he does go to school, that his father’s labor enables him to buy school lunch; he also shares his hope for a better future—in effect, a less back-breaking job. (He wants to be a secretary!) “If my father doesn’t sell the rock,” one of the brothers adds, “we have nothing to eat.” Inserts of the labor interrupt the spoken words.
When each speaks, in addition to the sound of rock-crushing, something else persists: massive rock, in the background—the past, in whose grip they remain. When each speaks, he faces us—the future: what either boy hopes to be, and what their father hopes for his sons.
Crushing rock: the sound continues throughout a stunning montage of tools—pick, hammer, shovel—that lie dormant: rest; but no rest. The last image of the father is as a shadow again.
100. IN THE PIT. The occasion for Juan Carlos Rulfo’s En el hoyo is the construction, 2003-05, of the second deck of the Periférico Freeway in Mexico City. Largely comprising interviews of construction workers involved in the project, it is an ironical documentary.
Rulfo signals an almost mocking intent from the get-go, with the first bit of voiceover announcing a fairy tale or fable (“Once upon a time . . .”), a genre at odds with a chronicle of productive labor. The film leaves the expansion unfinished, ironically withholding from the material the salutary effect of the seemingly obligatory shot of its completion; a long aerial shot begins with the completed part but then passes into the disarray of unfinished construction—with its rapid roller-coaster effect (for us the audience), a shot of devastating wit. Along the way, one of the interviewed workers remarks that one can get used to anything, except work. Rulfo’s film is full of surprises and reversals of expectation.
Numerous shots facing downwards, with a gaping depth of space below the men at work, reiterate the constant danger. “Aren’t you afraid?” at one point Rulfo asks, and a worker responds, “I am more afraid of not eating on Saturday.” Opening and nearly closing the film are headlong shots into the ground-level construction pit, into which, at the last, a worker has fallen, perhaps one of the project’s “inevitable” fatalities, suggesting a linkage of “sacrifices” over time. The 330-second aerial shot of the finished and unfinished parts of the construction, because of the anonymous workers we see being rapidly passed by, reminds us that the project’s completion will mean an end of some duration to these people’s paid work. This returns us to the nature of that work. Few would choose such dangerous work if there were alternatives.
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