Rebels from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region have announced that they are releasing more than 4,200 prisoners of war, almost two months after ... they agreed to observe a “humanitarian truce” declared by the federal government.
The stern Covid-19 restrictions – press members, alongside un-boosted guests who were forced to provide negative tests no older than 24 hours to enter the screenings – and the near absence of film industrialists and programmers (the fest’s market was held entirely online this year) made the 72nd Berlinale a largely low-key affair held at half capacity on 10 – 20 February.
In spite of these mounting obstacles, African filmmakers have managed to make their mark on this year’s edition, showing the great strides that African cinema has taken in nurturing a unique voice, while developing different aesthetics in tackling the most pressing political issues of the day.
Rwanda: Father’s Day
No other African film has attracted such widespread buzz like Father’s Day, the fifth feature by Rwandan filmmaker Kivu Ruhorahoza. A triptych surveying the different shades of failed if domineering patriarchy, the first strand centres on a woman grappling with the death of her son, while growing distant from her ineffectual husband.
The second strand revolves around a grownup daughter who must donate an organ to save the life of a father she never loved. The third strand sees a young boy growing increasingly distrustful and resistant to his hustling, bullying father. Collectively, all three stories act as piercing debunking of the traditional notion of manhood.
Father’s Day is a meditation on the lingering scars of genocide that are laid bare by vain men too insecure to give up their authorities; on toxic fatherhood directed by egotism and self-entitlement.
Ruhorahoza seamlessly weaves these threads into a lyrical picture dripping with aching beauty and quiet fury. For all the failures of the fathers, it’s the strength of the women protagonists – captured in remarkably expressive close-ups – that gives the film its soul and momentum, and it’s the strength of the women that tints the conclusion with a dash of hope. Deeply affecting and evocatively framed, Father’s Day is already one of the standout African films of the year.
South Sudan: No Simple Way Home
More personal, if not equally moving, is No Simple Way Home – the debut feature of South Sudanese filmmaker Akuol de Mabior. The daughter of John Garang, a key leader in the liberation movement and a founding father of South Sudan who died in a helicopter crash when the director was 16, de Mabior decides to return to the world’s newest country from exile shortly before her mother is appointed vice president of the Unity Government.
Still haunted by the death of her father and struggling to find a place for herself in a country plagued with stark divisions, de Mabior charts the initial sense of optimism brought about by her mother’s appointment and the subsequent crushing despair ignited by the pandemic-caused economic stagnation as well as the catastrophic floods of 2020.
However, No Simple Way Home is no way a record of a country in transition. “I thought I was making a film about the country,” de Mabior says. “I’m starting to think that it [the film] has to do more with my fears.”
The adopted first-person approach is the film’s strength and weakness. de Mabior’s story is extraordinary – a tragic tale of a life stained with doubt and trepidation. In her story, the personal is inseparable from the political: like her past, her future is informed by forces she cannot control. What is sorely missing is a deeper political context. She doesn’t dwell on the roots of the enduring divisions and corruption threatening the stability of the country, nor does she explain why the country’s economy has struggled for so long.
The film thus feels lacking, but de Mabior’s keen eye for detail and admirable candidacy still manage to shine through. Like her country, the director is still in existential limbo, unable to define who she is and where’s heading to. “I still don’t know what it means to be a South Sudanese,” she says.
More experimental in its narrative framework is Kumbuka by Congolese filmmaker Petna Ndaliko Katondolo. Presented with a notorious ethnographic Dutch documentary promoting the work of white Christian missionaries in ‘civilising’ the Central African country at the beginning of the 20th century, two young filmmakers endeavour to regain the agency of their country’s projected self by challenging the film’s colonialist perspective.
One central dilemma occupies the duo: how do you use the same racist footage to tell the same story from an African perspective? Having been cast as a fetishised object, the filmmakers venture to give the colonising subjects the same treatment: to give them the same objectifying treatment in an attempt to rebalance the power scale: to reappropriate their power.
Kumbuka is a fascinating and penetrating investigation into the power dynamics of image-making – a treatise on distorted collective memory and the moral duty of reclaiming national self-image. Playful, angry, and thoughtful, Katondolo’s latest is a crucial work that holds the West with a mirror to its racist past.
CAR: We, Students!
Equally compelling is Rafiki Fariala’s documentary We, Students!, the first film from the Central African Republic. A panorama of the trials and tribulations of three college students thrust into an institution governed by venality and sexism, Fariala’s modest film is an intimate look at a confused generation torn by unrealistic dreams and an inhospitable reality.
Fariala doesn’t tamp down the austerity of the student’s conditions, yet there’s notable warmth and affability to his filmmaking that shows palpable humanism and wisdom beyond his years.
Nigeria: No U-Turn
The weakest link in the African selection is No U-Turn, the documentary debut of prolific Nigerian filmmaker, Ike Nnaebue. It’s a travelogue that sees the director journey through West Africa and end up in Morocco as he traces the footsteps of thousands of young people who have taken a similar route on the way to Europe.
While some of the testimonials by his subjects are truly illuminating (in one particular dramatic scene, one woman says that she’s rather be a street beggar in Morocco than return to her hairdressing job in Nigeria), the ill-defined questions Nnaebue poses about the “identity crisis” of the region, and why do young people risk their lives for a better livelihood, are not only obvious, they’re shallow and intellectually hollow.
Employing an excessively florid and intrusive voiceover along with an oddly sunny score that fails to deliver the correct emotional register, No U-Turn is a by-the-numbers flick indistinguishable from countless other films exploring illegal African immigration. Its polished sheen and overly tidy narrative makes the film feel as a meagre product of multiple European film labs.
A roundup of the Berlinale’s African selection is not complete without the mention of West Indies, the 1979 underseen classic by iconic Mauritian filmmaker, Med Hondo. Shown in a long overdue new restoration at the fest’s Forum section, the film is an expressionistic portrait of Western European colonialism conceived as genre-bending musical that traverses diverse periods and geographies.
A dizzying kaleidoscope of sounds and images touching on slavery, western imperialism, the struggle for independence, and the history of labor migration to France, West Indies turn Hollywood aesthetics over the head, upturning the musical conventions to carve out a picture singular in form, look and tone.
Hondo is widely known for his 1967 groundbreaking Soleil Ô, but West Indies could very well be his magnum opus: an unclassifiable heady trip that ranks as the wildest experience this writer has underwent at the 2020 Berlinale.
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