Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Scenitunes: Petit Banjeois

Banjo player Winston Marshall spoke thus about the banjo: "We murdered it. We let it, yeah — fuck the banjo. I fucking hate the banjo." This guy was a prominent player in the hit country/bluegrass song of 2013 "I Will Wait" by Mumford @ Sons, a British group watched by at least 43 Million viewers on YouTube. Read more about the group here
So, actually things have never gotten better for the banjo.
The efforts to incorporate it as an orchestral instrument were doomed to fail. Reason? Well, musically it has been looked upon as a weak and a limited stringed instrument! But what about its history? Shouldn't we consider it as part of the American musical experience of over two hundred years?-I mean without forgetting where it came from?!
Earlier on in its turbulent history, one American music dealer wrote over a century ago: “No instrument has had to fight its way through such bitter antagonism as the banjo.” Then a banjo virtuoso took the banjo to Africa, where it came from. Vague plan, I guess. The Africans, as one would expect, were not impressed. Probably it only reminded them of how this thing had been taken to America, in the first place! The guy came back from Africa with a lot of musical and auditory experiences, an acclaimed documentary film and earned several nominations and winnings. The banjo did not positively impact local African musicians.
In the music world, you can hear the banjo in American country and/or bluegrass songs:  Dilan, Zepplin, Springsteen, The Eagles etc.
Movies that the banjo sounds can bring to your memory are most fifties and sixties Westerns such as Lee Van Cleef's Sabata but notably epic post-modern movies such as  Midnight Cowboy, Bonnie and Clyde and Deliverance.Yet, apparently, this is one hell of an instrument that is caught up in cliched and stereotyped environments and possibly will not achieve a real revival of its strutting and joyful sounds in modern music formats.

Mumford @ Sons 2013

Two things inspired this article and should be organized in 'bullets'!
  • The song Everybody's Talkin' in the opening scene of Midnight Cowboy (below). That song had my mind completely thrown back to late childhood, but there were as usual some illusions. Things may be too good to remember faithfully or not as signifcant as we thought they were. The only consolation is that records and history seldom disagree with my memories of movies. Seldom.
  • The hit country (bluegrass?) 2013 song I Will Wait by Mumford @ Sons in the second clip below.

The second clip, being quite recent, signals a kind of come-back of the banjo instrument. Although, just as much, it kind of depicts the banjo's faintness as an orchestral instrument. Or may be the player's faintness?
Unlike most instruments, the banjo has been subjected to what is normally inflicted on people, societies and so on, but not on musical instruments!
Such themes as stereotyping, racism and class where hurled on this poor instrument; four or five-stringed!
Some articles on the banjo reflect a history of contradictory views on it. Articles as exciting as Stalking the Banjo or The Secret Life of the Banjo. Just by reading these article titles you feel how much trouble this instrument has gone into.

But What Is The Banjo, Really?

The banjo is officially a 4 or 5 stringed instrument that sprang from the one-stringed instruments which were/ are abundant in Africa. It has been developed a lot after it was taken to America thanks to noteworthy musicians such as Sweeney who added the fifth string but used the banjo to mock black people (using their own instrument)! Banjo artists in modern times should be noted such as Earl Scruggs and Tony Trischka.
The banjo is not an easy instrument to play and has several complex techniques one should master to play it.
We used to know this musical instrument decades ago from watching Western or cowboy movies in Africa.
I personally, as a child, did not like its sound. I thought it was frightening just as much as it sounded happy! That the mischief and joyousness in it was only, more often than not, followed by further killing and/or bank-robing. Writes one movie reviewer on a 1970's non-cowboy movie called  Ain't them Bodies Saints, "There is also the score by Daniel Hart, which is almost comically oppressive. You've never heard such ominous banjo playing." A very common scenario in which the banjo was employed was when the villains had finished robbing the bank and started running away in a wagon with wheels actually revolving backwards and the villains were cheerful and happy with what they stole and the people they killed and the fact that no 'serious' police was following them. The scene below from Bonnie and Clyde represents this idea. The music was made by Earl Scruggs and quite essential to any intruder into the American pop culture:

The banjo seemed to make escape sound and look funny. I did not know that the contradiction between the happy, jumpy sound of the banjo and the strange feeling of apprehension that I felt with this damn instrument was actually a simulation of its history which conjured similar opposites.

Faced by the fact that the banjo was a dying pop cultural musical instrument, the virtuoso and 9 times Grammy award winner Bela Fleck took the banjo back to Africa. Why? Well, maybe just to cleanse it from stereotypes. So how did the Africans react? The Africans seem to embrace the African-American look at the banjo as associated with the tragedy of enslavement and later on its use by white people to make fun on a regular basis of black people. I tend to think of this in a caricatured or comic way. I will quote someone who said: " Whites didn't want to give it up and the Blacks didn't want to take it back!!!

Not a single African American in a banjo camp!

Here Is The (His)Story

The banjo was brought to America by enslaved Africans, as I have said earlier in brief.
I did not know that would-be slaves were allowed to pack up their favorite things which means the process of enslaving itself was not altogether bad .
The Africans, instead of being so sad as to take their lives or the lives of their captors, took their musical instrument in their journey to the unknown. WTF!
In his valuable documentary Throw Down Your Heart, Bela Fleck conveys that the banjo was one way of expressing the feeling of desperation and despair of the broken hearts of the African captives. 

Years after settling in the plantations of America, the banjo was slowly taken over by European or colonial Americans of low classes and then was gradually liked by middle class people and so on, until it occupied a prominent space in the popular culture and subsequently in the cinematic and musical scene.
A white Southerner, Mr Joe Sweeney, who learned the banjo from his black neighbor, took both the knowledge of how to build a banjo and his black neighbor’s music with him to New York. "This look at the instrument's past is simultaneously embarrassing and enlightening!", writes Carrie Cuinn in her review of the movie Give Me The Banjo 2011. But one expert thought the banjo was just 'stereotyped' away! "All of America hates banjo music" said critic, Howard Stern. "Creepy hillbillies!" as he described poor white farmers. ".. and what are hillbillies' favorite instrument? the banjo!" 
But, as I mentioned, there were defenders of the banjo. "You can’t talk about the history of the banjo if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation–all of the things that run counter to what we love about the banjo." said Greg Adams, an ethnomusicologist.
What happened was that, suddenly and especially in the southern states, the banjo was re-identified and laid aside as a nigga thing and people started to desert it. Read more about this here.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

MCA: Not Only Dinosaurs Go Extinct

“Build it, we will
that of which
we dream
day after day after day...
in where there is a bastille
let a hospital prevail
let a bird not a gunshot
fly over a fountain
in the merriest of play
with kids
in kindergarten..”

On The First Sudan Independent Film Festival

A Hundred Years of Viewing in My Country

In his memoirs My Life in Cinema, the late filmmaker Jadallah Jubara , tells a story that happened while they were screening a movie on a coarse piece of cloth by the river bank in a remote village. While people squatted on the sand fascinated by this piece of cloth that had on it live pictures and sound, came this villager from behind and saw a roaring lion heading toward him. With all his might, the man threw his seasoned spear piercing the 'screen' and causing the onlookers to flee both from the lion and the unaccounted for attack by a spear. They were as if wondering, a roaring line and a spear coming out of that piece of cloth! In a matter of minutes the ripped 'screem' was sewed up and the audience resumed the inebriating pleasure of watching without reproach or conviction.

But who would patch up those holes that afflicted our cinema screens, be they made of cloth or white cement walls. It was not a spear, this time, that had penetrated our age-established cinema screens and their continued display of lives for over a century, exactly and not metaphorically. It was the bulldozer of negligence, censorship and totalitarian regimes, that destroyed most of the theaters in Khartoum; turned them into ruins that hurt the eyes of lovers of the noble seventh art.  Every time I pass by the Coliseum theater,  (opened summer 1937) and named as a blessing after the Coliseum of ancient Rome, I turn my head lest I see a hero crucified or a loved one disgraced; a deep wound reopened. For in this theater I got to know people from the corners of the earth with different dispositions. A grandmother in tight jeans drinking beer with her grandchildren, a girl being kissed in public by her friend, a hairstyle which I liked, worn by an undistinguished actor. How splendid were the blessings of seeing! I still comb the remainder of my grey hair like that actor.

A cinema theater in Kosti
You can swear that organisms that went extinct were cinema and dinosaurs. Settled down in the graveyards of my country. In the capital city, Khartoum, and its sister cities there have not been any shows for the last quarter of a century. No cinema theater has survived the demolition! Not a standing stone; a relic of  times once lived in Khartoum. (..Kissing this and every other wall. It is not the walls that have my affections; it is those who lived within the walls.) And what beauties lived within those walls! Tahiya Zarrouk, Soad Hosni, Sophia Loren, Shwaikar, Leila Alawi and Julia Roberts. Beauties from every spectrum and others that adorn the memory and even the realm of oblivion for there is a haste to erase, to blur the events of yesterday, in order to map a new road and every roadway can bear the structure of a movie. But, despite the tyranny of erasure, movies have remained in our minds as the sweetest of memories and the clearest of instances of remote cross-fertilization of peoples, ideas and cultures.

Khartoum newspapers, in their interior pages, would ask the reader: Where would you spend your evening? Then would present to him over thirty attractions in cinema theaters (Wataniya, Coliseum, Banet, Nilein?or maybe Halfaya or Aarda etc.)  It was a time of being connected.

Old entrance ticket to cinema Banet
Every theater had its flavor, its audience and ambiance. Each one had its own architecture that touched the spirit of its frequent spectator; charted its impact on the fabric of his memory- forever! Some climb huge Neem trees outside the walls of the cinema house to watch movies or those who took out their beds and, along with family, watched from the comfort of the roofs of their houses. Free viewing from roofs; from behind tree branches with lights from the screen dancing intensely on the faces in the dark of the night, spreading the impact of the film to others in the nearby who danced to the song in an Indian movie. It was as if this entire side of town of cinema viewers was engaged in a wedding party not just the spectators in the dark lounge that enlighten the heart and the eyes.

Old Coliseum in Khartoum
A reader would review the thirty or so movies and then select a theater to spend his evening. The middle class at that time had a distinct status and earned enough to meet life's demands, accessories and hobbies. (Ayam ya Awad Dakkam) was a famous semi- folk song attributed to the famed late dentist Awad Dakkam who was also known as a social satirist, lamented the passing of those glorious times of joy and glory enjoyed by dwellers of the city of Khartoum when Sudanese families of Copts and Muslims and smaller communities such as Indians, Greeks and Syrians dressed up and wore their best perfumes for a happy night out. Their best guide to pleasant nights would be the wide screen and an assortment of  Indian, American, Romanian and Russian movies-in accordance with patterns of foreign relations or cultural preferences or box office dictates.
But does the love for cinema die? Or does it fall in a long sleep as in the tale of the enchanted princess, to only be awakened by a wondrous elixir concocted by the clever boy?

Three years ago, the poster of a cinema group seemed to prescribe a similar elixir for our sleeping cinema. It had a suggestive dream-like motto: "A Shadow Cannot Be Buried"! This was the banner for the group in its celebration of the centenary of cinema in Sudan. The first time a movie was screened in Sudan was in 1910. The western city Elobayed, also known as the Bride of Sands, was the birthplace of cinema. A century and four years later it was ascertained that A Shadow Cannot Be Buried no matter what control, neglect and commercial gain did to it. The idea of the festival emerged from within this group of young and ambitious people who loved, cared for and studied cinematography and film making. A group haunted by talent and aspiration to build an independent Sudanese cinema led by Talal Afifi who wrote in his article entitled A New Horizon: People Want to See Movies in the booklet of the first Sudan Independent Film Festival-SIFF: "The goal of Sudan Film Factory is to produce independent and alternative films that are not subject to market directives or commercial taste but are bound to their audience, to the pressing issues of life and society in our country. Films that take the human-being as their object and advocate for his cause and express his vision and status".

The group's statement called for a (Cinema that addresses awareness and seeks to develop it through collective effort; that adopts new concepts in film industry and dialogues with the public. Cinema that harnesses its march by rationalization and innovation. Our initiative will work to develop links between the arts. We will not thrive in isolation but rather rely on the experiences of independent cinema in Africa and worldwide as sources of inspiration and knowledge and as partners in cooperation and dialogue.)
For these ambitious goals, the SFF initiated some practical steps, researched during three years, by setting up several training courses, seminars and dialogues aimed at diagnosing the ailments of cinema and problems of film industry, besides tackling issues of censorship, shortages of resources, poor infrastructure and the challenges in the search for new aesthetic and visual concepts free from mimesis and stereotyping.

In this respect, the SFF intends to mine for new ways of expression that establish dialogue between the elements of culture and society in Sudan which extends across the Sahara and Savannah to the Equator.
The group's statement, further recounted on the happy ambitions that, "..the process of training and developing of cinematic conceptual and professional knowledge will remain a key issue in our plan for the future. On top of that, we aspire for SFF to be a cinema operation center; a place of meeting for cinema folks with a visual and archival library for Sudanese and African cinema as well as a screening facility- in short, a school of creativity open to the man on the street." Indeed, SFF was open to the man on the street through its showings which took place in more than five centers and schools in the southern part of Khartoum. 

The Festival Movies

After a long hibernation, the city was awakened to showrooms scattered all around. More than 22 films were showcased with participation from Egypt , Kenya and Ethiopia of which 14 were from Sudan. Different film genres were showed with screening time spanning from five to (Fifty) and 95 minutes (Jews of Egypt 2013)!
The opening with (Faisal Goes West) was great and well-attended. The movie tells the story of a Sudanese family which migrated to the USA in search for a better life and the challenges of a largely different pattern of life that faces this family in many details replete with laughter, sadness and the bitterness of being forced to leave one's own country. The movie poses the question: Is there an alternative to one's home country? The answer is no. Just as America has evolved from a time when events like in Uncle Tom's Cabin took place, why don't we built our own great country? Are we to escape from reality and seek to acquire a nationality that other people had struggled to build? To reap what others sowed; the fruits of systematic life, freedoms and technological advancement? By, God, no! We can learn from them, yes! Refine our experiences and pilgrimage to the bosom that needs us; even if we were to walk barefooted on its earth and breathe dust in its air for nations are built on hardship, not bitter departure. Such was the address of the opening film.
The SIFF was the fruit of years of hard work to create a Sudanese cinema distant from dictations by cinema traders and enemies of consciousness. The festival films were obviously chosen cleverly by these young filmmakers to present their own thoughts dressed as cinema. There is this film (Fifty) by Ibrahim Mursal which does not exceed five minutes but has a great impact on imagination. It follows the journey of a fifty piaster coin.
Studio by Amjad Aboualala, depicts a lone man who goes to a photographer to portray him with a fake family in a photo. The photographer cuts and edits from various photos and the man, finally, comes out with a framed picture of him in the heart of his family. Marwa Zein's , short film Game, is eight minutes of fun with a child imitating her mother. Strangely enough, there is something for the mother to learn from her daughter who is as honest as a mirror. The mother realizes how stiff, dry and indifferent she is and also that she smokes cigarettes for when the child pulled out a cigarette the mother yelled at her. "But, mama I am copying you?" asked the girl innocently. The hall resounded the warm applause.

A variety of movies were offered. In the middle of (Jews of Egypt) the person sitting next to me whispered in amazement: "These people are just like us!" He was referring to the Jews in the movie who danced to the the rhythm of Oum Kalthoum and Darwish and spoke nostalgically from their European diaspora about their past days in Cairo and Alexandria. Other movies included the Egyptian documentary (Elkhroug ela Elnahar) and (Barkat el Sheikh) by the late great movie director Jadalla Jubara.
Have I told you where I usually fix my car? It's at Django's. He is a famous mechanic. Not because he is masterful as a mechanic, which he is, but because he wears a straw hat just like Mexican cowboys. He looks at you from underneath his sombrero just like Django. He swears that he saw all Django movies and that he is able, if destined to do so, to write an honest and true cinematic biography of the man. He would inevitably tell you stories about Django while fixing your car so you don't get bored and you might pay him double the cost. He would bid you goodbye and remain standing while you drive away. On the internal mirror of your car you see him standing behind you. A real Django, with his tall stature and that straw hat.
I will conclude this cinema-inspired narration by telling some personal stories (are we not pleased because we are also heroes when we watch cinema and rejoice and weep with them?) My sister Mahasin saw movies in her childhood. Her eldest daughter of now has not seen anything called cinema. When Mahasin screamed "I want a banana!" it was because the camera made such a zoom-in that movie that the banana appeared as large as a Nubian boat. The hall exploded with laughter at this little girl who sounded so hungry.
My brother Abdul Wahid, when he was a child ( he is now an educational advisor) ran away in the deceased cinema theater of Eldowaim, when he saw a train that derailed and appeared by the magic of cinema to come out of the screen. He gave his back to the screen and only stopped when he reached high up where it was called the loge area (partitioned areas or boxes) where he calmed down and watched the rest of the movie.

I opened this article by a quotation from a popular poem by the famous poet Mahjoub Sharif. I wish he wrote "a cinema in place of the prison". Most cinema houses were demolished and transformed in the capitalist fashion into restaurants and boutiques. The Blue Nile cinema, which was famous for being an elite cinema due to it being within the University of Khartoum, is now a radio station that broadcasts military marches.
This festival revives the memory of those glorious times of watching. The secret of cinema is victory over time; when three hours pass like seconds, like nothing after which the mind wanders into memories and into the future as a beautiful imagination.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Thursday Evening

Short Story by Ali Elmak*
Translated by MM

Getting off the tram, he slipped. Was it the right or the left foot that skidded?
It did not matter! 
All that mattered really, all that he cared for at that hour, at that moment, was that he fell and soiled his pants. those characteristically beautiful white pants which he had preserved for Thursday evenings; for the soiree gatherings which started by hanging around in the market; loitering for short or long periods; then to the cinema house; any film and peace be upon him. Then, was this bad luck or what? Did he really need to take the tram for such a short distance? “That was a fair reward for your laziness” he said to himself. As for those pants, they were turned into a dusty colored thing. The more he shook those tiny particles off, the closer they became attached to the pants.
Oh what a gloomy evening for you! 
"Is this what concerned you?" thought he.

The posters of Alan Ladd and Van Heflin still stood their, at the cinema entrance. The tram, this damned thing, did not heed him. It went and came back, arrived and departed and the people who gathered around him when he fell, dismissed themselves.
There were small groups of people many of whom were student like him, popping dark seeds (tasali) and laughing. “What are they laughing at? did they not slacken when we called on them to join our demonstration and shout with us ‘down with colonialism’. Then he stopped thinking about them.
"What have you done? Really who knew the leader, the sole sloganeer? Who sensed your unwavering spirit, your perseverance? At school you went into a hunger strike; you led the school demonstration. Sir, hunger is an infidel and a murderous one. You were warned and threatened dismissal or imprisonment and torture. Was this enough to make the colonialists depart?"
" Why get upset that your pants were dirtied?"
Talkative to himself, continuously dialoguing with it.Scarcely doing so with others.
Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jack Palance, Jean Arthur, Brandon de Wilde. Shane! Come back. Please, I implore you to come back, Shane!

He stuck out his incessantly begging hand. A kid with a bulging belly not from indigestion that followed fullness but from illness. His mind was too astray to sense his presence. When he turned to him, the kid was looking at him with pleading eyes.
- Uncle. For God’s sake.
- God’s sake?
His pocket was inflated with change. Piasters, shillings, riyals. Three pound bills sharp-edged as razors. Each pound rubbed the other.
- I am hungry, uncle.
- Is it time to eat?
- I have not eaten since morning.
- I know the story to its very end. Your brothers are blind. Your mother is blind. Your father has died. I know all this and I am fed up with these stories.
“Why did you ask him? Did you forget that your clothes were soiled? That the defeatist students were snacking on black roasted seeds at the edge of the square? That you fell off the tram and people gathered around you? That this is a Thursday evening?” He interviewed himself. Tormented his soul. A kid with a bulging belly not from indigestion that followed fullness but from illness. His legs were shrunk, his chest bones protruded and above that he covered his sick body in rags. A huge forehead, a large head, a thin neck and a hand incessantly stuck out.
Tat. Teet. Wag! 
Car horns.
- Uncle. For God’s sake.
Van Heflin, Jack Palance, Jean Arthur!
That Thursday evening was lost after his clothes were stained with dirt.
Shane! Come back. I beseech you to please come back!

Brandon de Wilde (1942-1972)

Commentary by MM:

While Shane was hailed by such prestigious filmmakers like Sergio Leone and Woody Allen as a masterpiece , Ali Elmak's invocation of its basic idea of the need for a savior has passed without notice by critics of his collection of short stories which included it, as it is indeed the least mentioned in any review of that book. The catchphrase "Come back, Shane" has been thought of as a means by which Elmak was trying to boast living in a semi-metropole where jargon was a virtue and cinema was a source of that jargon! But Elmak was simply tackling the unrest in the presence of colonial administrative power. He cleverly employed this wide-spread positive reception of the catchphrase which sounded like Ya Aboumreuwa يا أبو مروة, to put it in a common Sudanese term. He was criticizing the weakness of the struggle against the British colonial rule of his country and the two faces of the bourgeois.

Read the original story in Arabic here

* From his collection "Up to the downtown"

Saturday, 1 March 2014

MCA: Come Back Shane!

Some positive critical reviews of old (I should say ancient) movies make you want to see them again just to find out who was really great. We the viewers or they, the movie makers? 
More often than not you get obsessed about origins for great art other than its very essence.
Searching for resources to write a review about this old-timers movie called Shane took me longer than I thought because I was really baffled by how some critics exaggerate in describing this movie as the best or one of the best cowboy or western. It was actually ranked third in the best ten western movies ever made!
I must admit that I liked none of the actors in this movie. In simple terms Alan Ladd and Jack Palance were not credibly notable as actors. But wait! These were my views when I was the age of Brandon de Wilde and when I watched him, I immediately got uncomfortable that this lad was going to be a glorious star! 
The reason for me to want to write about this movie is that it inspired one memorable Sudanese short story writer to develop his brief but fully-packed thematic (read heroic) depiction of some moments of the early fifties or late colonial African reality. Ali Elmak*, a westernized intellectual who was genuinely fond of indigenous aesthetics, could actually relate to the mysterious and almost mythical world of perceived values and cultural interpretations derived from the workings of cinema as a popular medium and to how it affected African tastes and preferences. Cinema was able to link, in a somewhat positive way, the visions of the vastly illiterate African movie-goers with broader, better voiced world views. The Slogan-ism of the fifties and sixties in Africa was not entirely bad, particularly for artists and literary writers. Elmak derived his literary prowess not from unthought of plots or esoteric and self-aggrandizing fabrications, but from the current; the here and now of everyday living. I must add that Elmak was not employing the medium of cinema but rather he and cinema where actually allies in the emancipatory endeavors of the culturally apt. Ensconced behind this vision, I persevered until I received Elmak's narrative text entitled Thursday Evening which was one of a collection of short stories bearing a smart and intriguing name inefficiently translated into Climb to the Bottom of Town which I had read decades ago. 
I received the text of Thursday Evening from a younger friend with a warmer heart who was silently following my warming up for the subject. This text by Elmak was an awesome one. It belonged to the city of Omdurman in a prime way. It truly described the pulse of the city on a Thursday evening; the beginning of the weekend; of that celebration on which the exploiting classes urbanly fool the exploited ones for a fraction of their surplus value! In his email, the friend who send me the text, insisted on drawing my attention to the huge package in the title of the story by adding the word 'fever' which made it all the more thick with significations when read as Thursday Night Fever, a reading which summoned a cinematic text I had thought was exclusive to my generation, but proved to be transgenerational. Saturday Night Fever!


Thursday Evening blows up the loaded catchphrase 'Come back Shane', where Shane is a noun, through a short narrative about a young man who wanted to spend his Thursday night watching the movie Shane but his favorite white pant got dirtied, forcing him to sadly return home. But did he miss the chance to watch that lad in the movie who admired the hero Shane? Clearly it was his second watching or more! That lad who shouted when he saw Shane withdrawing from his life at the end of the movie, "Shane! Come back!" 

Shane, who initially came from the mountains into the scary expanse of land, faded away just like our unknown prophets or like the narrator in Tayeb Saleh's Season of Migration to the North.
The truth was, we all uttered that lad's catchphrase for weeks or months following our/everybody's repeated viewings of the movie; without this arousing any critical stance or question as to the value of the catchphrase or to what extent it contained references or anything. It just seemed right. It was only clear that the global nature of the creative act was the reason why we, in the post-colonial Sudan, had taste for the same data that audiences in North America had taste for. The correlation was seated on that lad's cry which was strong and honest "Shane! Come back". He even told Shane that, "I am sure my mom loves you!". Of course, among cinema audience in Sudan where those whose eyes flooded with tears watching this part while they thanked God the screening of the movie was done in the dark which relieved them from being bashed and ridiculed for crying in public.

The wide-spread resonance of that quotation proved that we were not much different from the cinema audience in the US as it, the catchphrase 'come back Shane', was reported among the hundred most mentioned cinematic quotations in the West! 
So stand up to your taste, Sudanese and go release it from the hands of the oppressors!

It is Interesting to mention that, speaking about the universality of the creative act, I stumbled on an Iranian cinema web site called Come Back Shane. I repeat, that site called for Shane to come back, not Khomeini or Musa al-Sadr!

Jack Palance
The text by Ali Elmak revealed his original relationship with the creative act and what it needed to be accomplished. In the repressive atmosphere of the fifties, Elmak knew a great deal about cinema. He knew who directed which movie and who played what role in it. He new the intricate algorithm of hero, sidekick, villain, the coward and snitch and those who contributed to the making of movies. 
Despite all this, I thought Elmak made one unexplained omission of how people reacted favorably to the villain in the movie. Villains sometimes were turned into heroes in their own way. Rather than hated Jack Palance, the audience actually loved him and were sorry to see him gunned down. This was a theme to be explored, i.e why people loved bad guys in movies. Ali Elmak, definitely knew why! 

George Stevens

I recommend watching this film for another reason. Director George Stevens was a wonderful person who studied nothing, not even acting which he learned from his parents who were professional actors. Early on in his life he acted and then loved photography. He gradually moved into making movies. He was known for his perfectionist way of slowly and repeatedly taking and editing his shots. He took forever every time he made a movie but then he took the Oscar twice as Best director: A Place in the Sun 1951 and Giant 1955. He was nominated for Diary of Ann Frank and this one: Shane.


* Ali Elmak was a Sudanese professor, short story writer and cinema figure. He died in New Mexico in 1992.

Arabic Readers Please Find Original Text

Thursday, 20 February 2014

MCA: The Heroics of Daily Living

"As far as I am concerned, Africa is a woman." Ousmane Sembene.
“When you look at people’s struggle in my culture their heroism is composed of small deeds that in themselves are seemingly insignificant.” Ousmane Sembene.

Article by MMA

There was a story told by Mr Manthia Diawara, that revealed how the visions of an artist overlap with real time events. It went like this:
Ousmane Sembène liked to tell about his travels across Africa in the’60s. One day after he had finished showing his film “Money Order” in a small town in Cameroon he was approached by a local policeman, whose attention made him a little nervous.
“Where did you get that story?” the officer wanted to know. Mr. Sembène replied that the plot, which chronicles the chaotic and corrupting effects of money from France on a Senegalese family, was his own invention. “But it happened to me,” the policeman said.

Ousmane Sembene courtesy of the Guardian
Sembene was the kind of person poised to have his imaginings crisscross with reality. He was so engaged with what was happening to the ordinary African in his daily encounters with life; the 'wretched' fellow African citizens as described by Frantz Fanon, his friend in the radical wing of anti-colonialism. Sembene, in fact, left an unaccomplished thematic project entitled Daily Heroism which included L'heroisme au quotidien 1999, Faat Kine 2000 and Moolaade 2004.
This early master of African cinema, perhaps the first African in making feature films, was a true revolutionary in search of his tools. He tried all tools available to the creative mind. He wrote the short story, the oral fiction and excelled as a novelist. His first novel "Le Docker Noir", was published in 1956 to critical acclaim. Regardless of his literary success, Sembene reached some serious conclusions about what he wanted to do in his life. “The publication of a book written in French would only reach a minority,” thought Sembene.  Creatively torn between his literary capacity and the magic heritage of African oral narratives handed down by popular storytellers, he found the visual medium as most suited to the largely illiterate people of his beloved Africa. He seemed to have found his real tool as his own words indicated: "Since our culture is primarily oral, I wanted to depict reality through ritual, dance and performance.” He even went further to use local Senegalese languages such as Wolof, Diola and Bambara rather than French to 'define his audience as Africans'. His transition from literature to cinema art revealed his awareness of his tools. In a matter-of-fact manner, he considered the French language as merely one of his media in his effort to address issues with Africans. He envisioned a “fairground cinema that allows you to argue with people.”

The self-taught novelist, who had minimal regular education, practically deserted fiction writing to start filmmaking at age forty. But not without a thematic plan. Sembene was very clear about themes of anti-colonialism, the failing part of religion in society, the upcoming African middle class and the decisive role of women. His treatment of these themes did not only place him as Africa's first feature filmmaker or sway people from seeing him as an important literary figure, but also attached to his name the original endeavor to create African film aesthetics that would allow Africans to contribute to the cultural dialogue worldwide, using their own narratives.

 Using his creative might in mythic, folkloric ways Sembene ventured to contest what he called 'the imperialist tellings of history' as in his films Xala (1974), Ceddo (1977), Le Camp de Thioraye (1989) and Guelwaar (1992). In the latter movie he also ridiculed the divisions of Africans over religious beliefs. The theme of failure of religions was strongly expressed in many of his movies. "Is religion worth the life of a man?" Was a stark question he asked in Ceddo. Most of Sembene's films (except Xala, 1974, and Guelwaar, 1992) were adaptations of earlier novels or short stories by him.

Frantz Fanon
As an intellectual Ousmane Sembene was a very political and controversial person.
It would not be appropriate for any article on him, no matter how small, to leave out his quarrels with his fellow countryman Leopold Senghor, the poet and former president of Senegal. Sembene, as did his friend the psychiatrist/critical theorist Frantz Fanon, looked upon Negritude, an African cultural movement associated with writers such as Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor in the 1930s, as just an artifact of colonialism as it called for assimilation into Francophone culture . His animosity with Senghor over this assimilationist tendency had lead to the ban or censor of his movies in his native country, Senegal. One amusing aspect of his numerous run-ins with Senghor was when the strife between the two men became linguistic. I think it is real fun to have a poet as president and a filmmaker as his opponent. That and more baffling things can happen in Africa. Sembene tried to reconstruct Senegalese history in his film Ceddo (1977) which looked into that moment when his country became the arena for confrontation between Islam and the advancing colonial christian forces. Both religions or cultures were foreign to the cedo, the commoner class of native people. Sembene added another 'd' letter to the word to signify his work of art as separate from known history. Senghor, the president at that time, the poet at all times, criticized Sembene's spelling of Ceddo as foreign to Senegalese Wolof language which did not duplicate consonants, according to him. The two gentlemen did not stand each other, indeed!

Senegalese Ousmane Sembène was 'universally acknowledged as inspirational to African auteur filmmakers. He did not live to see the third part of his thematic trilogy entitled Daily Heroism. The father of African feature movies died in 2007. mma

Suggested watching:
Ceddo Full Movie Free on Youtube

Suggested reading:

Expand On Sembene

Interview SembenebyGreer

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

MCA: Glimpses of the Close-up

Glimpses of the Close-up

Recently, Tom Hooper who directed the film adaptation of the musical Les Miserables, came under the fire of negative and almost chastising criticism for the way he conducted his cinematography. The major blame was that he, not only used the close-up too often, but had his characters break the fourth wall by looking directly at the camera! Yet the movie went on to be nominated for Best Picture 2013. Tom Hooper, the very director accused of breaking the basics of cinematography, was the winner of the 2010 Oscar as Best Director for his movie The King's Speech.
Hooper gave a simple reaction to the fierce criticism. The close-up, he said, would better serve the emotional purpose behind it. To achieve intense attention from the audience. But no comment from him on whether he made too many close-up shots or not is to be found, as yet!
It is common artistic knowledge now, that the close-up is only one type of shot. That the long and medium shots are the mainstay in any filmic narrative. The long shot is the equivalent to the summary in fiction writing where we get description and explanations between scenes or moments of intense impact; where something similar to the close-up in a movie occurs in fiction. We also know that too many close-ups would make you squint or tilt your head to focus or even leave the theater. One cannot think of a whole movie made of close-up shots. But, guess what? I found out that the late John Cassavetes, the father of American independent filmmaking and the maker of The Dirty Dozen 1967, made Faces in 1968, predominantly in close-ups! Watch it free here.

I used to love Marlon Brando. My truly favorite actor. There were others such as Richard Widmarck, Monty Cleft, Robert Wagner and Burt Lancaster. I also loved those actors who did not shine enough to be stars such as John Erickson, George Chakiris, George Hamilton, Jeffery Hunter etc. Then there were those who were sidekicks to the main protagonist or otherwise slight villains. Such as Hardy Kruger, Horst Buchholtz ( note the bad sequence), Brandon De Wilde (Shane), and John Saxon. I loved John Saxon in the old John Huston movie The Unforgiven 1960.
There came a day when I heard both Saxon and Brando were in one Western movie! A big motivation for an unusual trip away from home. I went to see this movie, called The Appaloosa 1966, in the Coliseum cinema house (or movie theater)! I was very young and had to take a bus with a friend and cross a bridge over the river Nile to get to that movie theater. My excitement to see Brando with Saxon was so great that everything was worth it, including the remote sense of nausea that set in and was aggravated by the movie and that resided in me for days. The movie was completely unwatchable for me!

Furie, S.
The Canadian artist Sidney Furie,, who directed that movie, reckoned so much on the close-up shot. Brando, I learned later, was disinterested in the movie although he gave one of his finest performances (I confirmed this later). He, probably liked the close-up shots and was, obviously, repeating experience gained from his earlier cowboy movie. John Saxon was great and so was Emilio Fernandez. One thing about Brando, nobody acted bad if Brando was there. Remember Karl Malden, Ben Johnson, Katy Jurado and others in the cast for the film Brando himself directed, One-Eyed Jacks, they were all great.

Jurado, K.
 There was something wrong in watching close-ups on a wide screen, open-air cinema house. The close-ups in The Appaloosa felt so bad. I was turning my head restlessly, trying to keep myself from throwing up. And there was hand-wrestling on deadly scorpions. The guy who was with me denied that the movie gave him any adverse effects in the stomach. That was when I thought about the close-up shot, wondering where it fit. We discussed its value and otherwise in the bus back to our homes. I remember that I used some big words about how to shoot a good movie but the fact was that I knew nothing about shooting movies! Technically, I mean. Forget about calling it an extreme, a medium or just a close-up.
Furie did not invent the close-up as a charged moment in his visual narrative. It was started as a trend in Westerns by Sergio Leone and other Italian makers of Spaghetti Westerns!
Watch this clip to see how objects, not only human features, were brought forward into significance by various shots from Leone's movies.

Most people like close-up shots! Most actors crave for close-up shots.
The clip below was voted the best by many movie-goers. It depicts Nicole Kidman in one of her good performances:

Many great movie masters knew how to make close-ups memorable. A very special moment in film narrative where intensity overrides any other purpose for watching the movie. Here is an analysis of Hitchcok's usage of the close-up:

"I have never seen my life in focus", said the protagonist Sabzian in the Iranian filmmaker Kiarostami's nineteen ninety docufiction of 90-something-minutes widely acclaimed and titled the Close-Up. The protagonist Sabzian, in the quoted sentence above, referred to both his exposure to the technique of the close-up and to revealing his inner complexes, beliefs and aspirations. Kiarostami warned the actor, Sabzian who was playing himself in the movie, that he would use two types of cameras or lenses. Kiarostami, who is known for his mastery of the long shot, incredibly proves his loyalty to it in the closing scene of this intricate reenactment of real story. He proves the inclusive view of reality achieved by the long shot!


Kiarostami knows that the close-up is "a captured moment in the evolving document of life!" The movie Close-Up is memorable for the announced medium close-up which prevails during the court-room scene but also has other memorable close-ups such as the one in the bus, when Sabzian meets Mrs. Ahankhah, a fan of the film he was reading the script of, (The Cyclist). This is a very close and revealing sequence. Another memorable scene is when the filmmaker goes to see the arrested impersonator of movie-maker Makhmalbof (below). But Kiarostami likes the long shot better, as stated above. He suddenly pays attention to the fate of a can rolling down the steep alley and listens to the sounds it produces in its inevitable journey down the road. You can see a glimpse of smoke that vanishes in the contorted skyline of the city. This scene of the can serves as a nice salutation to the broad context of his film narrative; to the reality.

It is in the closing scene of Close-Up when the filmmaker achieves the sense of the real and near by shooting from afar; when the impersonated and the impersonator reconcile and are shown in their full sizes in a way as if Kiarostami wanted to relieve us from the intensity of the too close!
Watch Close-Up full and free on Youtube.