UKRAINE: Donbass (2018)

Source: BBC

The BBC said that Donbass is “being promoted as a satire, which is fair enough, but now lands more like a documentary laced with Alice in Wonderland absurdism.” It’s a 2018 Ukrainian film looking at life in the Donetsk People’s Republic in occupied Donbas (and was filmed only 300km away, in Ukrainian held territory). It is a brutal, even unkind satire, with long shots of loosely connected absurd situations – the church group lobbying a local leader, the businessman trying to get his car back from militia, the long walk through a suffocating bomb shelter packed with people, a drunken wedding, and the ironic final scene of the paid TV witnesses.

It’s easy to write this off as just Ukraine looking to portray Russia’s occupation and puppet government in Donbas as a sour farce, but there’s extra depth here that rings of reality – absurdity and cruelty included. There’s the real rage at locals over their dead relatives as a mob forms around a captured Ukrainian soldier, real fear of violence and chaos and the sense of clinging to the lies you tell yourself to keep yourself sane, and that so many little details match up with Stanislav Ayesev’s reports from Donbas, down even to the paint motif on the walls.

ECUADOR: Ratas, Ratones, Rateros (1999)

Source IMDB

Ratas, Ratones, Rateros (“Rats, Mice, Thieves” – sometimes translated just to “Rodents”) is a 1999 film following a teen boy, Salvador, already teetering on the edge of delinquency, as his hardened criminal cousin Angel comes to hide out with him from hitmen. Angel is charming, street smart, and absolutely dedicated to a headlong plunge into drugs, crime, and oblivion, and drags Salvador, his friends, and his family down with him. It’s got the great combination of a violent, fast crime drama, but that catches you on the real-world consequences. The film won awards in Latin America and worldwide, and as screened at film fests like Venice and TIFF. If you’d like to watch it, it’s up on Vimeo with English subtitles.

ECUADOR: My Time Will Come (2006)

My Time Will Come (sometimes translated as When My Time Comes) is a 2006 Ecuadorian movie that absolutely hit that sweet spot of dark and bleak while catching you in the action. Even the first few scenes, which have almost no dialogue, take you on an absolute ride of who the characters are and their relationships.

The movie centres on Arturo, a doctor in a hospital morgue, struggling with his own isolation from his family, loneliness, and trauma. The different people he autopsies have their own storylines, intersecting with each other in their last hours alive – an unsuspecting migrant shot while roped into a crime, the victim of that crime, the woman’ lover murdered by her husband, while the woman is upstairs in the hospital at her injured son’s bedside. It hits home for Arturo when he performs an autopsy on a young man who turns out to be his own brother’s secret boyfriend – leading to intergenerational family conflict and reinforcing the isolation and trauma stalking the characters.

It’s a brilliantly done movie. It’s one of the few films I’ve seen that really hits on the fact that there are no “background characters” in real life – everyone is just as fully human and complicated, with their own histories, motivations, and goals. It also is a brutal criticism of the violence, corruption, and disconnection of Quito at the time, and is underpinned by the reality that death is often sudden, pointless, and leaves gaping holes in the lives of the bereaved.

The whole film is up on Youtube with English subtitles.

GABON: Gabonese Radio and TV

A surfing hippo near Port-Gentil – Source: Olivier Stocchi, TrekNature

I poked around Radio Garden and a few other sites to find some live radio from Gabon – there’s not a lot available, but there were a few neat channels.

Urban FM 104.5 – This has definitely been my favourite station, it’s great to put on when I’m working. Reggae, rap, hip hop, dance, pop – most of it Gabonese or from other parts of Africa. It’s a big fun mix. It’s pretty much uninterrupted music too! Listen live here.

Gabonews – The online feed isn’t up all the time, but it’s a major private radio station in Gabon. There’s a lot of variety – some news and talk in French, some pop and rap, and some more traditional Gabonese instruments – or “tradmodèrne” mixes. Listen live here.

Africa Radio – Africa Radio is notable for being a longstanding Gabonese institution that is no longer Gabonese. It was launched in 1980 as Africa No. 1, broadcasting out of Libreville, with French and Gabonese state investment. Africa No. 1 expanded into additional radio stations in Paris and Libya (with involvement from both Gaddafi and the post-Gaddafi governments). However, after strikes and complaints of poor working conditions, Africa No. 1 had its licence pulled and ceased broadcasting in Gabon in 2018. It has since been reborn as Africa Radio, with stations in Côte D’Ivoire and the Republic of Congo. You can listen live to regional broadcasting with music and talk in French, or music streams with club, rumba, and African dance music.

Notre-Dame de Lourdes, Libreville – Source

There’s a few live TV channels streaming from Gabon as well:

Gabon 24 – Gabon’s national broadcaster – formerly part of state broadcasting, now they’ve been spun off into a standalone company. They livestream on Youtube, and post individual clips from news stories on their channel. They’re still very much the state broadcaster, so they don’t really rock the boat, but there’s news, weather, sports, talk shows – the whole deal.

Gabonews – This is a private broadcaster, also with livestreams and clips from their broadcasts on Youtube. Again, a similar mix of news, weather, sports and talk, but an very interesting little difference: they also carry addresses by Jean Ping, the opposition leader who narrowly lost the 2016 election due to vote rigging in Ali Bongo’s home province. He’s positioned himself as a statesman, and continues to address the nation as the “Elected Gabonese President”.

GABON: Mami Wata, le mystère d’Iveza

Mami Wata, la mystère d’Iveza is a 8-part Gabonese tv series that debuted just a few months ago on Canal+ Afrique, directed by Franco-Gabonese director Samantha Biffot. It’s a drama-horror series, following Oliwina, a journalist working in Burkina Faso who returns to her hometown in Gabon after her teen brother’s disappearance. While she is there, the bodies of five children surface in a nearby mangrove – somehow connected. But Oliwina’s unhappy family history comes back up on her arrival; the first episode only gives hints into her break with her parents and deeper trauma. There’s also some connection to the spirit Mami Wata, a mermaid-like water diety that, like a rusalka or siren, lures people to their doom.

The whole first episode is available on Canal+ Afrique’s Facebook page (only in French, no subtitles, however), but I can’t seem to find anywhere to watch the rest! Most of it seems both paywalled and region-locked to Africa, which is a shame, because it’s super high quality production value and I was totally hooked from the first episode. I want to figure out what happens!

GABON: La Françafrique

Presidents Omar Bongo and Jacques Chirac – Source

While the period of decolonization in the 60s and 70s held dramatic changes for all European colonial powers, France has remained deeply engaged in its former colonies – militarily, politically, and economically. This gave rise to the term “Françafrique” – where France agreed to the sovereignty of its colonies, while still retaining a level of informal control over the new countries’ politics (including vetting leaders) and continuing to extract resources. France had just been forcefully expelled from Algeria at the start of the 60s and did not wish to repeat the experience, especially as it had lost access to Algeria’s oil. (Check my Algeria month for more on their war for independence.)

The need for a new source of oil brought Gabon squarely to the middle of France’s neo-colonial attention. As with other former colonies, France aimed for a stable and friendly government in Gabon – they supported the first Gabonese president, Léon M’ba, including directly intervening militarily to stop a coup, and then supported Omar Bongo‘s one-party rule after M’ba’s death, as well as ensuring Ali Bongo’s smooth transition to power after his father’s death. France still runs Camp de Gaulle, an active military base in Libreville, which was installed in order to stop the first coup.

There’s a couple great articles in English on this -“Gabon and the Enduring Legacies of France’s Françafrique System in Francophone Africa” and “Françafrique: A brief history of a scandalous word, plus this brief news report in French on Gabon and Françafrique:

If you understand French, I’d strongly strongly recommend the 2010 documentary film, Françafrique, which includes testimonies from many involved in French Africa in the 60s and 70s, including French political chiefs and oil executives. It’s available on Youtube, but embedding is disabled so I can’t post here. It focuses particularly on Gabon, opening with French presidents’ Chirac and Sarkozy (sitting at the time) attending Omar Bongo’s funeral in 2009. Gabon’s oil, timber, and uranium, make it immensely valuable to France, and the documentary really lays bare the amount of influence France has had over the country and how much wealth France continues to extract.

This isn’t just a relic of history from a bygone era – in 2010, details surfaced through Wikileaks of Gabonese officials embezzling funds from the Bank of Central African States and donating to the two main French political parties – led by Chirac and Sarkozy.

GABON: Boxing Libreville (2018)

Boxing Libreville is a 2018 documentary film by Gabonese director Amédée Pacôme Nkoulou, following a boxer, Christ, as he trains for a match during the contested 2016 Gabonese election. Christ works as a bouncer at clubs to make ends meet, as well as security at Ali Bongo‘s political rallies. His girlfriend (who quietly supports Jean Ping, Bongo’s opponent) leaves at the same time to work at a hair salon in France, with both of them uncertain how their relationship will work long distance. The film is both a powerful slice of life of normal people during a politically charged time, and a quiet metaphor about political change (or lack thereof) in Gabon. Boxing Libreville is available free online, with subtitles, at ARTE.