I keep on coming back to la Françafrique, France’s direct selection of African leaders post-independence and ongoing involvement to this day in the politics and economies of former French African countries, but Bokassa 1er, empereur de Françafrique is a great study of it.
It’s a short documentary in French, using archival footage and interviews, on France’s support for Bokassa, the context of his much-mocked coronation, and France pulling the plug and removing him in Operation Barracuda.
Elephant Path: Njaia Njoku (2018) is a documentary that is beautifully done, takes a turn you don’t expect, and has some serious “how on earth did they get this footage” moments. It follows conservation staff at an endangered forest elephant preserve in southern CAR as they deal with poachers and the day to day work of elephant conservation, and then face armed Séléka rebels taking over the preserve and the town.
The setup at first makes you think it’s going to focus on the white American researcher, but she is reluctantly evacuated to snowy New York when the rebels arrive, and instead she is peripheral to the story, helplessly worried for the elephants and her colleagues in CAR and using her audio research to document the slaughter.
Instead, the documentary focuses primarily on her research partner, Sessely Bernard, who is a forest tracker, and how he works with both the sanctuary and his own Bayaka (pygmy) community to protect the elephants. The documentary also spotlights Zephirine Mbele, who is the head of an “eco-guard” armed unit that targets ivory poachers.
When the Séléka arrive, many of Sessely’s community retreats into the forest to survive, and the eco-guards are hopelessly outgunned, and unable to save many of the elephants from organized ivory raids by the insurgents. It’s a heartbreaking film, but with glimmers of hope, and the footage is incredible.
There’s footage of a show-trial of local poachers (a literal witchhunt), which is then mirrored by the astounding footage of the newly arrived Séléka commander laying down the law to community leaders and the eco-guards. I have no idea how anyone was able to get that footage without being shot – it’s almost surreal to have film-quality footage of actual armed insurgents taking over your community.
Résistances Rythmiques is a short documentary on Central African musicians and how they’re using music careers as an alternative and as a tonic to the violence in CAR. Many of these artists describe themselves as “anti-political”, but really, they’re quite political. It’s only that “politics” in this context means violence, insurgencies, and ethno-religious divides, while music is a way to bring communities together, support CAR’s culture, and promote peace.
Some speak about friends or brothers who have joined the anti-Balaka insurgents and who have died in the fighting, and most just want peace and stability. The older artists are very clear eyed that the recent hate between Muslim and Christian communities is new and driven by the various insurgent groups – CAR had been comfortable with being multi-ethnic and multi-religious until very recently.
It’s also a great primer on Central African music and musicians – rap, rumba, traditional music (including ngombi harps) and the tradi-moderne music of Montenguéné.
It’s available on Youtube here (can’t be embedded), though only in French.
It’s also notable for addressing the racism Pygmy people face in Africa, and is a interesting twist on the “white saviour” movie trope from a black African angle – think of an African Dances with Wolves.
Gonaba, a government official, returns to CAR from France full of idealism and hoping to make real change in his home country. The luxury and corruption of the political class he belongs to quickly disillusions him. After seeing their mistreatment, he begins to advocate for the Aka pygmies, who, like many indigenous Pygmy people, face racism, marginalization, and dehumanization from other Africans.
In his naive enthusiasm of the “enlightened saviour”, he goes to live with an Aka tribe deep in the forest – his half-baked plan to educate them to better deal with modern African society eventually going out the window as he instead learns their way of life and culture. And yet, he still cannot totally shake his saviour mentality, leading to serious consequences.
Wow, this is a really really beautiful movie. The Clay Bird (Bengali: Matir Moina) is a 2002 movie set in the months before Operation Searchlight, the Pakistani military operation that would kick off Bangladesh’s independence war in 1971. It was initially banned in Bangladesh, but then only a few months later, allowed in theatres after a big push by Bangladeshi media and public led to a court decision overturning the ban. It was critically very successful, wining awards both at home and abroad.
Anu is a young boy, sent to a madrasa to study by his father, who has recently become much more pious and conservative. Anu’s mother is quietly unhappy in her marriage, and as Anu’s politically liberal uncle gets wrapped up in Bangladesh’s independence movement. The rising tide of politics laps at all their ankles, even at the madrasa, where teachers disagree on the future of Pakistan and the place of Islam in either a united or divided country. Anu befriends an orphan boy, ostracized by his classmates, but can do little to protect him.
Personal tragedy strikes with the death of Anu’s sister, leaving a deep rift between his parents and painful blame over her death. Then, as the killings of Operation Searchlight start, the family splits, each making different choices of what to do. Anu’s uncle is killed fighting, his father left shellshocked in the ruins of his former life, and Anu goes off with his mother as she tries to take control of her future amid the violence.
The family as a whole really is a metaphor for Bangladesh’s society during independence, but also each are truly rounded individuals, trying to navigate an uncertain future. It’s a quietly tragic film, with no real villains, just people caught in the riptide of politics and war – some sinking, some swimming.
The word “natok” originally meant a traditional stage play in Bengali, but has evolved to mean Bangladeshi tv dramas. They’re shorter than a full movie, usually 45 minutes to an hour, and new ones are often released around holidays, especially Eid. Natoks are usually romantic dramas, often with a musical number or two fit in – some seem pretty schmaltzy, some are more serious, but they tend to be really high production value. There’s a lot available online – the two below have English subtitles. Get the popcorn (or the jhal muri) ready!
You can see the stage play history in the setting and pacing of this Natok. HE SHE (2021) starts with the manager of a resort accidentally walking into the women’s washroom and enraging the resort owner’s daughter, back from studying in Canada. It’s a goofy love triangle (or love square?) full of misunderstandings, and emotionally engaging enough that I feel like the manager made the wrong decision of who to marry – she’s using you, man!
Shishir Bindu Pt. 2 (2020) – It’s a sequel but you can figure it out pretty quickly. This is some big time melodrama – an orphaned girl being married off by her brother, while her true love tries to stop the marriage. There’s also a goofy fight scene to boot!
Bapjaner Bioscope has a lot of the Bollywood tropes that South Asian cinema is known for – dramatic fast cuts and jumps, musical numbers, straightforward morals, and creative use of camera angles (there’s a great chase scene filmed just on a GoPro strapped to the chest of one of the characters) and a long two hour run-time broken up by an intermission.
However, it isn’t a fluff piece, and this award-winning film reinforces messages of Bangladeshi identity and the country’s narrative about the 1971 Independence War from Pakistan. The reinforcing of communal identity and national narrative through popular film isn’t anything new – you see it everywhere from Uzbekistan’s historical epics to America’s Marvel movies.
The film is a small conflict writ large – a poor farmer, Hasan, is inspired to take up his father’s bioscope – a hand-cranked portable slideshow machine, accompanied by live singing and storytelling. However, the stories he shares to his villages are stories are of his uncle, an independence fighter killed during 1971…by the family of the rich landlord who owns the barren sandbank the village is on. The landlord’s family were on the side of Pakistan, and are portrayed as collaborators and stooges – with a class element as well, as it’s implied part of their wealth and control comes from this collaboration.
The whole film is available on Youtube with English subtitles – though they translate bioscope as “peep show”, which carries a totally different connotation. The film’s soundtrack is beautiful – there’s lovely atmospheric setting pieces:
Even the love songs have a similar floating beauty:
Man with a Movie Camera is a 1929 silent movie from the Soviet Union, following daily life in Kyiv, Odesa, and Moscow. It’s groundbreaking the same way Prokudin-Gorsky’s full-colour photos from 1911 are. The film is cut almost at a modern pace (which audiences at the time found far too fast) with meta shots of the cameraman filming. The director, Dziga Vertov, used or created a huge number of modern camera tricks – fades, wipes, slow-motion, extreme closeups, split screen, freeze frame, stop motion, and far far more. It’s beautiful and hypnotic, and feels like it should be an art-house film in a gallery – it’s hard to digest just how old this movie is due to its modernity.
Vertov’s artistic career continued until the start of the Stalinist era, when the official establishment of socialist realism as an art form pushed all more novel and creative forms of art. Vertov went from one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated art directors to an editor of newsreels, but did at least avoid the worst of the purges.
The whole movie (about an hour long) is available freely online. Since it was a silent film, there is no soundtrack, so many later ones have been added. I particularly like this version; it adds to the hypnotic artistry.
Firecrosser is a 2011 Ukrainian movie that is both fascinating and deeply, deeply weird. The movie follows Ivan Dodoka, a Soviet fighter pilot from Ukraine, who is shot down and presumed dead on the Eastern Front during WWII. His wife, who is of eastern Tartar origin, doesn’t believe he is dead and waits for him after the war, holding off the advances of a drunken and manipulative former friend of Dodoka’s.
Dodoka is indeed alive, but after surviving German capture and returning to Soviet hands, he is sent to a Siberian gulag (a fate that awaited many Soviet former-POWs in real life). He escapes, and then the movie takes a weird turn – instead of returning to find her, he heads further east to find her family, and then through slightly unclear circumstances, ends up in being moved by locals for safety through the Russian far east, Alaska, and into northern Canada. There he tries to repair a plane to fly back to the USSR, while living in a remote First Nations community. When he learns of his wife’s death, he then stays in Canada and becomes a chief in the community.
The pacing is incredibly fast – this feels like this could be twice the length to get all the plot twists and details in. It was also a very, er, European depiction of First Nations (you could tell none of this was actually filmed in Canada) and the main Indigenous characters spoke English with stilted, over-perfect, almost American accents. Turns out all the actors were Ukrainian.
The other weird thing is that this is purported to be “based on a true story” – even that is a bit of a stretch. There was a real life Ukrainian pilot named Ivan Datsenko who was officially killed in WWII. When Soviet journalists and officials came to Canada for Expo 67 in Montreal, a Ukrainian journalist claimed he met a Mohawk chief that could speak perfect Russian and Ukrainian. The rumour became that Datsenko had not been killed in the war, but instead had made it to Canada and had been living undetected among First Nations for the past 20 years.
The movie takes this for fact and interprets this as a remote nation in northern BC / Yukon – which is slightly more plausible than the Mohawk Nation, which is south of Montreal along the border with New York, and not remote at all – it’s basically urban. Any pics claiming to be him are all people with tipis and in traditional dress (or stereotypical versions of it) from prairie nations like the Blackfoot. The Mohawk, who are on the opposite side of Canada, have a different regalia, built permanent longhouses instead of tipis, and were long urbanized / victims of Canada’s cultural genocide by the 60s. But what really makes the original urban legend ring pretty hollow is that we’ve never heard of this in Canada.
We learned in school about Grey Owl, a British man who faked being First Nations, but nothing about Datsenko – and trust me, if a Soviet fighter pilot successfully faked his way into Canada, convinced the Mohawk to let him pretend to be one of them, and then was discovered during Expo 67? We love these kind of stories. He would be on every Canadian trivia quiz and there would be an exhibit on him in the Diefenbunker or the War Museum (probably next to the disguised German WWII weather station that was only discovered in Labrador in the 70s).
Still, I do like a good war movie, and Firecrosser was definitely something different.
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.