I’ve finally managed to reduce the number of US films seen since 2001 to less than half. Okay, so it’s currently around 49.6%, but that’s still less than 50%. Also true, the nation from which I’ve seen the next highest number of films is the UK (14%), followed by France (8%), Germany (3%), Italy (3%) and Japan (3%). Out of a total of 4130 movies. I’m still keen on seeing films from countries I’ve not seen films from before, especially African nations. I mean, Nigeria has the third largest film industry on the planet but Nollywood films are really hard to find in the UK. Sadly, no new nations here – it’s my third Icelandic film, my sixth and seventh Senegalese films, and my thirteenth Argentinean.
Colobane Express, Khady Sylla (1999, Senegal) No sign of any volume 5 from ArtMattan’s Great African Films, but given that their website was very much 1990s, I’m not holding my breath. (I once came across a website which included the United Arab Republic in its address dropdown list – the UAR lasted from 1958 to 1961, so it even predates the Internet.) Which is a shame, as there are few enough channels for films made in African nations to make it through to Western audiences. I’m a big fan of what cinema I’ve seen from there and would welcome seeing more. But it’s getting difficult to find anything other than films by names known on the festival circuits. I’ve said before that Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry is the third biggest on the planet, but none of its output is readily available on DVD in the UK (at least not in the obvious places – and while I recognise that the ready availabilty of Bollywood films is likely a result of the size of the Anglo-Indian market, and that many of the companies servicing it are Indian… I don’t understand why the same arguments don’t seem to hold true for Nollywood). Anyway, Colobane Express is Senegalese and set in the capital, Dakar. Aboard a bus. It’s a documentary about the service offered by the bus, which is a typical example of its type in the city – privately operated minibuses covering express routes, in old but brightly-decorated vehicles – but using actors as passengers, to tell stories about their lives and their use of the bus. It’s an effective piece of film-making, deeply rooted in its setting and yet universal in its concerns. It’s an easy film to like.
La Boleta, Andrés Paternostro (2013, Argentina). This was on Amazon Prime as The Lottery Ticket, but I looked it up and it wasn’t a US film so I stuck it on my watchlist. It was, I discovered, Argentinean. And Argentina has produced some excellent thrillers. La Boleta, however, is more of a comedy-thriller. A man is in a dead-end job and about to be demoted, his wife has left him and taken the kids and is demanding support… and there’s no way out, so he attempts suicide, which fails. But he hallucinates that he goes to heaven and is given a winning lottery ticket number by God. So once he’s been released from hospital, he buys a ticket with that exact number… but is mugged on his way home by two not-very-clever youths. He tracks them down to a barrio, and discovers they’d mugged him against orders on their way back from delivering a message to the rich father of a young woman they had kidnapped. And it all sort of escalates from there. It’s all completely implausible and daft, but it was also fun. And it played clever with the lottery ticket – an obvious maguffin – which drove the plot but didn’t resolve it. This is no Nine Queens, but from the poster alone it’s not trying to be. But it was a fun film, with a feel-good ending that still managed to take you by surprise. Worth seeing.
Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul (2012, Sweden). In the late sixties/early seventies, a US folk singer called Rodriguez released two albums which pretty much sank without trace. Except in South Africa. For some reason, his first album, Cold Fact, hit a chord with Afrikaner youth, and when the albums were pressed under licence in the country, they went on to outsell Elvis Presley. But no one knew anything about Rodriguez – South Africa was under sanctions, and since in the US Rodriguez was blindingly obscure, visitors from there were no help. There were rumours he had committed suicide on stage because of his poor sales – either shooting himself or setting fire to himself. When his two albums were rereleased on CD in South Africa, it prompted a journalist to investigate Rodriguez’s past… only to learn that he was alive and well and living in Detroit and working demolishing houses. As a result, he toured South Africa several times very successfully, although his life never actually changed. The big stumbling block in Searching for Sugar Man is understanding why Rodriguez became so huge in South Africa. He was not a great artist – very Dylanesque, although a better singer, but I can think of several artists or groups from around the same time who I personally might have thought better, such as Fat Mattress or Eire Apparent. But something about Rodriguez’s material struck a chord in South Africa’s youth, and as they grew older so they carried that love through into the twenty-first century. A love of which he was completely unaware. Which tells you more about the music industry than it does Rodriguez’s music or South Africa’s taste in music. It all felt a bit too good to be true – as, in fact, did Rodriguez himself – and critics have pointed out he had a successful career in Australia during the 1970s, not that the South Africans knew… but the film does it part feel like it’s playing up the story to South Africa’s advantage, rather than giving an honest account of a 1960s folk singer whose career unexpectedly developed second wind in the early 2000s. Still worth seeing, nonetheless.
The Silent Monologue, Khady Sylla (2008, Senegal). The DVD cover explicitly likens this to Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (see here), in which a young Senegalese woman is taken back to the France with the family she works for as a nanny, only to discover she is effectively a domestic slave, trotted out to bolster her employers’ liberal credentials. The Silent Monologue is that of a servant girl, but she remains in Dakar, and her employers are Senegalese. But she is from the country, and they are affluent middle-class city-dwellers. Sembène’s film was explicit in its commentary, condemning the French exploitation of Senegal and its people, and white people’s dehumanising of black people. Sylla’s target is closer to home, and more nuanced – although to be fair, it’s unlikely nuance would have worked on Sembène’s target audience. But certainly with both this film and Colobane Express Sylla is directly addressing Sembène’s Black Girl, by both updating his story and turning the focus on women. Sylla, who was also a novelist and known in France for Le jeu de la mer, made only four films, none of which are much more than an hour in length. If her cinematography was nothing to shout about, her viewpoint certainly needs to be more widely disseminated.
The Oath, Baltasar Kormakúr (2016, Iceland). After giving up on three or four movies I’d found on Amazon Prime – some of the stuff on there is so bad I doubt it would even be shown on US television! – I stumbled across this Icelandic thriller, written, directed and starring Baltasar Kormakúr. It’s by no means an original story, but it’s handled well, and Kormakúr makes sure all the details add up. The eighteen-year-old daughter of an eminent surgeon has moved in with her boyfriend. Who is a drug dealer. When the surgeon realises her daughter is on drugs, he tries to separate her from her boyfriend, but neither are having it. So he spies on the boyfriend, witnesses him taking a shipment of drugs, later breaks uinto his apartment, leaves the drugs on display and calls the police. But they won’t arrest the boyfriend because anyone could have left the drugs. And now the boyfriend is after the surgeon to pay for the money lost because the drugs were seized by the police. (The one logical flaw in the story: the dealers would demand the money from the boyfriend, they wouldn’t care about the surgeon.) The surgeon decides to retaliate, but it all goes horribly wrong. Kormakúr plays a man convincingly driven to extreme measures, although the ease with which the characters resort to violence feels contrived. Yes, people – no, not “people”, men – will throw punches outside the pub of a Saturday night, but contriving for someone to be arrested, resorting to kidnap and murder… It’s stuff that only happens in films. Even in Iceland. But if you’re going to watch it happen, then why not in Iceland instead of some random US city? Worth seeing.
Satellite in the Sky, Paul Dickson (1956, UK). I wasn’t sure if this was a US B-movie or a spaghetti sci-fi when I bought the DVD from a seller on eBay. So when it opened with a shot of an Avro Vulcan prototype taking off, followed by some aerial footage, I sat up and took notice. For one thing, it meant the film was British; for another, the Vulcan was a pretty damn cool aeroplane. And then the Folland Midge makes an appearance as a prototpye supersonic fighter… Sadly, those opening shots are it, as the film is actually about a flight to space, in a rocket that probably owes little too much to the one in When Worlds Collide. The spaceflight is intended to be scientific only, but at the last minute the MoD (although it was probably still the Ministry of War in 1956) takes over and the mission is slightly changed: the rocket will now deposit a nuclear satellite in orbit. So, of course, that’s the bit that goes wrong. Well, other than the female journalist – Lois Maxwell! Miss Moneypenny!- stowing away. Anyway, the nuclear satellite’s retro rockets fail and it ends up stuck to the rocket by natural magnetism (um, yes). So they have to go out in the spacesuits and push it away from the rocket before they can return to earth. True, 1956 was half a decade before the first actual man in space, but you’d have thought by then they’d have got the science sorted out. For most films of the period, I’d not consider that an issue, but this is one that makes of point of opening with shots of an Avro Vulcan and a Folland Midge. It’s saying it’s up there with the latest British aviation engineering. So it’s a disappointment it turns into standard 1950s space bollocks. It hits all the obvious plot points, although it does have the stowaway – Lois Maxwell! Miss Moneypenny! – instrumental in saving the rocket, despite her intitial hostility to the programme. This is a film very much of its time, and though it makes a good fist of its story, it’s still enormously dated. One for fans, I suspect. Or fans of the Vulcan.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895