Tuesday, 8 July 2014

MCR: Seul Contre Tous

I Stand Alone

Review by: Sarah Salah

The exoticness of Gaspar Noe's movies is revealed to the world through scratches in their realism that make it hateful to film critics and only tolerated by a few of them.
Carne, the 1991 short movie by Gaspar Noe about a French butcher who owned a slaughterhouse that sold horse meat- which was not unusual in France, was based on what Gaspar's father, an Argentinian by origin, had told his son about eating horse meat in France. Soon enough, the idea of a movie on a butcher selling horse meat came to Gaspar's mind. In Carne, the butcher's partner abandons him and the baby girl she has just given birth to. The butcher takes responsibility for his autistic daughter, and attends to her stages of growth until her adulthood.

Gaspar Noe comes back in I Stand Alone to complete the story of this small family. The butcher has a relationship with a woman who is a barmaid and owner of a place. They have a plan to leave to Northern France where the woman is supposed to buy him a butchery shop after she sells out her place before leaving. Gaspar Noe blinks some signals on how people cheat their way out by activating their instinct for survival. His woman, to whom he has no real feelings, is being one of his means to compensate for his losses, such as his previous slaughterhouse which he had lost due to a crime he committed on a man he mistakenly thought had raped his daughter. Anger, with which this man is so saturated, is a channeling out of what afflicted him as a result of his relationship to this woman who humiliates him because he is unemployed, unproductive dependent on her.
As hinted in his short movie about the butcher having sexual feelings toward his daughter, Noe continues to pursue these feelings to prove that this lust has not dwindled. He goes to work as a night guard in an institution for the care of the elderly where a nurse asks him for help as one of the elderly women almost died of suffocation. The two try to help the woman but the woman dies. While trying to console the nurse, who was saddened by the death of the woman, the butcher remembers his own daughter. He then sees the nurse to her house and goes to a movie theater to watch a "porn" movie.

Noe employs the device of internal monologue to allow us to enter into the ideas of this resentful man who is in love with his daughter and who is now projecting, from his subconscious mind his parents' mistake into the mistake of his own existence.
The 'flaying' of the butcher from his first condition and his lack of interaction give rise to his nihilistic attitude as a failed product of human error afflicted by World War II. Gaspar Noe's anti-hero pays the price for the results of Nazism. His father dies; his family is torn; he does not get an education; he becomes a butcher to proceed with the natural struggle in life. In addition to this, his confidence in women declines except for his daughter who never calls him papa which would generate a sense of paternal responsibility in him. At the same time he sexually desires her in disregard for societal/civilized laws concerning the nature of this relation
in any community. This autistic girl, Cynthia the daughter of the butcher, has not identified with anyone other than her father who has fed and cleaned her until she reached her puberty.

What Are Morals?

The film begins with the words Morals and Justice. In communities where class differences are distinct, the individual resorts to attain the requirements for "survival" and in due course acquires a fierce sense of survival. On the other hand morals are relative and are determined when dealing with a particular other. The movie invites questions on whether we can live by human nature, on our instincts, deny/ approve Gaspar Noe's look at community in determining the impact of public morality as a "law" when interacting with a 'other' who denies human nature.
The film does not show directorial creativity as big as that shown in the other movies by Gaspar Noe such as Enter The Void or Irreversible  because of the focus on internal monologue to reflect the psychology and effects on the main character, the anti-hero. My assessment of the film is 7 out of 10.

I Stand Alone (Seul Contre Tous) (French with English subtitles)
92 minutes; color; France.
Written (in French,)and directed by Gaspar Noe;
Director of photography, Dominique Colin;
Edited by Lucile Hadzihalilovic and Mr. Noe;
Produced by Mr. Noe and Ms. Hadzihalilovic
Actors: Philippe Nahon (the butcher),Blandine Lenoir (his daughter), Frankye Pain (his mistress) and Martine Audrain (mistress's mother).
Other Important Movies by Gaspar Noe: Carne, Enter The Void, Irresistable.
Watch The Short Movie Carne

Sara Salah can be reached at naughty_biby50@hotmail.com

Friday, 20 June 2014

Movie Critic Review: Truly A Dystopian Movie

What awaits a movie after its making?
Critical acclaim? Commercial success?
Which of these is more important for a movie?
Could these two criteria be equal? A point at which a movie is at half way
between hit and miss?
I was thinking philosophical movies were doomed.
Candidates for failure but the stunning fact is most of them were a success in both ways.
For a list of philosophical movies go here Philosophical Films
I am still looking for an Anthony Quinn movie of the sixties which was extremely unintelligable!
And another one with Charlton Heston starring in it.
Anyhow the statistics on "Pink Floyd The Wall" are not encouraging.
So was it one of those "Flop for philosophy" movies or....what?

Pink Floyd The Wall UK, 1982.

95 Min, Color, Genre: Psychedelic Drama
Cast:  Bob Geldof* and others.
Edited by Gerry Hambling
Screenplay by Roger Waters
Animation: Gerald Scrafe
Music: The Group Pink Floyd
Directed by Alan Parker (Sir) who won nineteen BAFTA awards, ten Golden Globes and ten Oscars.

The Group Pink Floyd


"When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look, but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown, the dream is gone.
I have become comfortably numb." From the lyrics of The Wall.

"Better to watch it high or comfortably numb." One viewer's view.
“It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before—a weird fusion of live action, story-telling and of the surreal.”Pink Floyd The Wall Director Alan Parker on the movie’s Cannes premiere.
"The lyrics and cinematography make this movie great." says Me.
Designer/animator Gerald Scrafe was a caricaturist and political cartoonist before he began collaborating with Pink Floyd. His crossed hammer symbol proved so iconic that it was adopted by actual fascist groups!
Director Parker called The Wall “the most expensive student film ever made.”

WARNING: This is not an upbeat or fun movie by any stretch of the imagination.
Yet, it is constructed in such a skillful manner by director Alan Parker (Midnight Express)
that it is hard not to justify its reputation as a work of art.
The movie is a depiction of an existential experience that equates madness, alienation, the atrocities of war, mind-numbing drug addiction, infidelity, fascism to living behind a mental wall to which these negative attributes are just bricks that add to the wall.
It's a treatise on self-pity.
Many critics believe the movie to be a blend of two biographies. That of the late Syd Barrett, one of the founders of the group Pink Floyd and bits from the autobiography
of the film/song writer Roger Waters.
The movie is also thought by many to contain hidden meanings and hence the advise by critics and reviewers to see it more than once or at least watch it carefully. Actually it can be seen from the middle or end or at any given minute which is evidence of its powerful structure.
Bear in mind that a movie engenders more detail, incorporates various visual equivalents
to ideas, memories, whims and desires than other works such as the novel. A filmmaker, unconsciously sometimes, and through light, shade and sound conveys a multitude of details that for the duration of  the movie you won't be able to fully grasp it.
The fact that this movie is a kind of interpretation of the music album "The Wall", one song after another and that the images correlate to the lyrics of each song makes it pretty watchable and encourages repeat watching.


Some artistic renderings that are peculiar to this movie and impart on it a classical importance are those graphic representations which derive from a seemingly psychedelic origin but boost the whole expressive experience of the movie.
Marching hammers sweep the streets in assertive steps invoking the rise of the neo-Nazis while their leader Pink is spreading his word through a megaphone and the legendary song "Waiting for the Worms" provides a superb complimentary!
Two flowers morph into human genital organs, male a female, that writhe and coil into a ritual love-making but suddenly grow vicious teeth and gnash on each other. The female vagina, alas, devours the penis (an expression of female possessiveness, I guess). Then that weird transformation in which beautiful white pigeons change into a gruesome prehistoric black bird.
People are wearing oxygen masks (referring to lethal gas or dangerous bugs). In a sarcasm that is both forboding and grossly hilarious, a paradox ingeniously described is when gas masks fuse with human faces to become one. Had Darwin ever imagined that evolution would ultimately lead to a merger of humans with machines and then regress to walk like monkeys?
All this symbolism and allegory is bound to stick to the viewers mind. The movie barely has any dialogue but is packed with these symbolic representations which are hard to analyze and are open to uncountable interpretations based on the viewer's perspective.
The movie literally and solely uses the songs in the original music album to build its events.
The graphic art (cartoon as there were no CGIs or other computer technologies at that time) augments the aesthetic value of the movie and aptly expresses some wild visions. The political cartoonist Gerald Scrafe scattered his work to total 15 minutes of the movie time.
As mentioned above the graphics are only 15 minutes dispersed across the film to express some of the scenes that can not be reflected otherwise. In fact, if you omit these 15 minutes the whole movie would be flawed!


The rock star Pink (portrayed by the real life punk star Bob Geldof) is presented to us as
an unidentified and a truly depressed person. The camera slowly climbs up toward his face. On his wrist we see a child's watch with Mickey Mouse figure on it (referring to a disturbed childhood). A cigarette between his long trembling fingers is turned into ash without falling, perhaps to signify lost hope or as if he is clinging to some thwarted dreams.
Then a flash-back takes us into the personal life of the rock hero Pink (Bob Geldof)
as a child in the fiftiesof last century. His father was killed in World War Two.
Pink is a sad fatherless child who watches other children enjoying playing in the park with their dads.
Pink remembers these images while he is sitting in a chair in his dark room, very drugged.
In another bout of memories we see him in an underground tunnel watching a train pass by with masked children shouting at him. But the shouting turns out to be from that ugly despotic teacher. He is now in class with the teacher ridiculing him on discovering that he was writing a poem. Here two memorable songs come to brighten the events "Another Brick in the Wall Part Two" and "The happiest Days of our Lives"  But his memories become more annoying when we see through his eyes how children are driven into machines that change them into dolls and minces them into worms and then distribute them under the shouted instructions of the despotic teacher (the establishment)!

The Despotic Teacher
Pink starts to gradually lose his mind after a series of eccentric imaginings. He destroys everthing in his room. Thinking that he is maddened by sexual deprivation he goes to see some prostitutes but does not really have sex with any woman. Here we hear the nice song "Young Lust". And we sense that a certain blonde girl seemed to like him.
Sitting on that chair in front of the TV, Pink remembers his father's farm but he is enclosed  by a fence and surrounded by hammers. He imagines worms in his hands. Then he is detached from reality and we see him watching TV with the child he was, little Pink, sitting next to him. Then Pink's friends break into his apartment as they realize he has not left it for hours. Here the song would be "Comfortably Numb" .
Pink now loses his mind and shaves his eyebrows and body hair. He imagines he is the chief of a neo-Nazi organization and addresses a group of young followers urging them to practice vandalism and to  disseminate his call and compel non-followers to abide by his rules. He takes as a logo the image of two hammers forming the letter X inside a circle. I did the same. See first image up there!
It is evident that he symbolizes coercion and dictatorship (which I don't!). The song "Run Like Hell" tells about the trials and tribulations afflicting his character.
Pink not only loses communication with reality but is now in conflict with his damaged childhood which belongs to the era of World War II. The loss of communication is expressed by adopting physical violence  the embodiment of this lack of human communication. 
The film does not provide any model solution to Pink's miseries and humiliation.
The use of graphic art and animation was the quite compatible with the nightmarish atmosphere of the film. 
To tell about the existential anxieties of human beings borne of the way industry is eroding their human nature and virtues it is apparently best to combine the real, the unreal and the surreal.

* Bob Geldof is well-known as an anti-poverty activist. Ironically, Geldof, who is also the lead singer for
the Irish punk band The Boomtown Rats, was reportedly not a Floyd fan.
Below is a selection of two of the songs from the movie. You can watch the full movie free on YouTube.


Editor's Note

This post was originally published on 5/17/12 10:32 PM Est Time.

Monday, 2 June 2014

MCA: Nightmarish Outcomes of Tyranny

Article by Taha Elkhalifa

Dogtooth, the Greek film is a drama about how dictatorship could affect human behavior and psychology. Re-framing of people, for example, was the mere goal of the Islamist rulers of Sudan from 30th of June 1989 until now. The same process is taking place in many Arab Gulf countries with a continuum of human products that reflect the complete submission to the quiet and negative rejection of the re-framing process.
In Dogtooth words are given different meanings for example zombie means yellow flower, telephone means table salt and pussy (the female genitalia) means lamp and the cat is an extremely dangerous animal. The three adolescents who have no names in the film were taught these meanings by their parents as the plot of the film says. An example of this same naming type was lived in Sudan during the civil war (1989-2007). The directed and controlled media of the Sudanese Islamic rulers practiced some sort of open deception as they named genocide and mass rape Jihad. Jihad as a word comes from the history of Islam. It is actually the name early Muslims gave to the wars of Prophet Mohammed against his people to build his own state in what is now known as Saudi Arabia. Another example from the Sudanese Islamist new dictionary is the “martyr wedding” which is the name given to the mourning period the family of the dead needs to overcome the sorrow of their loss. Families of Northern war victims were prohibited from showing any sign of sadness and were urged to celebrate the wedding of their lost beloved ones to brides in paradise. A third example from the Islamist new dictionary is the name given to hitchhiking which can be translated as excess space on an animal back which was the answer of the Islamic government to the scarcity of public transit in the early nineties of the last century.

People who live under dictatorship are simply intimidated by murder, torture and dismissal from work because of their opposing practices. This fear is not superficial. It is deep and actually absorbed to later be assimilated in small and unnoticeable quantities. This fear works deep into the confines of the submissive mentality. It changes human behavior and later controls it. In addition to that, it triggers a set of protective and defensive yet active patterns of behavior that identify with the suppressor. People in the Arab Gulf countries were not forced to be obligated to a dress code but they wear dresses that are similar to the costumes of their rulers. This type of practice is a good example of identifying with the suppressor. They do that to protect themselves from being considered as opposing the government which means death, torture or dismissal from work. In Dogtooth the adolescents were intimidated by a mythical cat that would rip off their skins and make them bleed to death, same as what happened to their elder brother who actually never existed! The parents used this story to keep their adolescent children within the fenced mansion; controlled by their own fears.
Fear replaces respect in the mentality of the finished products of prolonged periods of tyranny. So they abide by the rules, for example rules of safe traffic, not because they respect these rules or care for other users of the road. They actually do that because they are intimidated by what would happen if they did not follow the rules.
Dictatorship and re-framing produce a human being that has been fully emptied from moral content and only has fear as a deep, unseen and unspoken of motive for his/her unfortunate behavior.
Sex in Dogtooth is also an element of control and re-framing of humans and has a much unexpected turn in the lives of the film's main characters just the same as it had when used by religious institutions to control human behavior for the welfare of the socially privileged class.

Dogtooth brought its maker Yorgos Lanthimos, the prize for the best film shown in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2009 Cannes. 
Read interview with the filmmaker

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

MCA: A Knock On a Hot Steel Tank!

"How a movie ends must be a condensation of the director's attitude towards its events."
Tawfik Saleh.

Explaining realism, the late Egyptian filmmaker Tawfik Saleh said: "It is the picking up of details and personalities from real life and linking them with a certain 'concern' and presenting this in form and filmic presentation that will raise the awareness of the recipient of that concern."

With only six or seven feature films, Saleh was able to rank high in the list of pioneers of realism in Egyptian cinema, along with Youssif Chahine, Salah Abuseif, etc.
But Saleh was not a very happy filmmaker, not because of his own belief that he was hated 'in and out and for no obvious reason', but because of his trials and tribulations with authorities and bureaucracies of the Arab world in the late sixties and early seventies when the best production finances had to come from the 'public sector'-read the government! When he wrote the screenplay for a famous novel by fellow Egyptian Tawfik Elhakim Dairies of a Country Magistrate, it was rejected and labelled 'against the police'!After a lengthy negotiation, he was told he could fix things by making a short movie highlighting the police services to be shown right before his

feature movie! The feature movie Dairies of a Country Magistrate was banned from viewing until it had been seen by the head of state! But still, Saleh was intimidated by employees in the 'public sector' to the point of leaving Egypt, his country.
The next story by Tawfik Saleh is even more appalling.
When he read the novella Men in The Sun by Palestinian acclaimed writer Ghassan Kanafani, Saleh decided to make it into a movie. Now that Nasser was dead, the 'men in the public sector' turned down his proposal by asking him a very difficult question: This is a Palestinian story, right? What have we got to do with it? I am pretty sure the man was stunned by that question because everybody knew that Egypt was materially supporting the Palestinians!
Here is Tawfik Saleh telling the story of The Dupes the movie he made out of Kanafani's  Men in The Sun.
"I traveled late in the sixties to Syria because I did not find a job in Egypt. There I got to know Saad Allah Wannous (prominent Syrian playwright) who took me to his father's estate where we stayed several days. We wrote the idea of ​​the film. The idea had to be submitted to a committee to read and approve it! After a long wait, a report came out, but not on what we wrote and submitted. It was to question what an Egyptian director was doing in Syria! The next day Wannous was fired and I was given 48 hours to depart from Syria."

Saadalla Wannous

"They also demanded that I pay back whatever money I had received on signing the contract for my initial screenplay which I did not have because I paid the rent for an apartment for my accompanying family. At this point they suggested that I present a different script. I presented about 12 Syrian stories. Finally they brought someone who had nothing to do with writing a movie script but I rejected his script. They then told me to rewrite a new script! The film was done in such discouraging circumstances and yet it was banned on the grounds that it did not rise to Syrian technical standards as specified by their 'public sector' experts! But, I saw the impact of the film on the audience at the show. It was amazing. I rejoiced .When you see an elderly man cry out of response to your film, you praise God for what you have achieved. I thought - because of this weeping man- that the film will soon be released to the public, but it was not. They even banned it!"
The above were excerpts from Saleh's last interview. He did not live to read it, just like the author of the novella he based his work on who was blown up before he could elaborate on the changes made to his story by Saleh. Tawfik Saleh died in 2013.

Films by Tawfik Saleh (1926-2013)

  • The Dupes 1972. Briefly reviewed below.
  • Fools' Alley Darb el mahâbîl written with Naguib Mahfouz 1955
  • The Struggle of Heroes 1962
  • The Rebels Elmoutamarridoun 1966
  • El Sayed el Boulti 1967
  • Diary of a Country Prosecutor Yammiat Naeb fi Elariaf.
Saleh and Mahfouz
The Dupes 1972 (also The Duped, The Deceived, Almakhdu'uon translit.)

This movie was intentionally shot in black and white as one of the director's visual devices to give the feel of documenting a treacherous reality. In some parts there is a merger of dramatic and documentary footings.
The film is rightly dubbed the 'forgotten masterpiece of Arab cinema'. Over forty years since its making and untl now there is no wide-spread public viewing of it. When it came out in Syria in 1972, it was shown for a few days in exclusive circles. It was never shown publicly in any Arab country, except in Tunisia!

The Dupes is unique in that it was made by an Egyptian from a novella by a Palestinian writer and was filmed in Iraq and financed by Syria, (sounds like a pan-Arabist thing but it also hints at the homelessness of refugees.) Director Saleh who wrote the screenplay said the novella was written in a cinematic way in regard to character portraits, multiple narrative routes and flashbacks. Each of the four characters appear to have been the author's favorite. Saleh saw this as a reference to the mutual fate of the Palestinians in the aftermath of the declaration of the new state of Israel.
The cinematic treatment of Saleh was almost completely faithful to the literary text except for an important change he made in the ending. His dramatic condensation yielded a different end than the one in the book.
So, I can only can give you a tiny summary of the film plot because of the huge spoiler ahead!

Abu Elkhaizaran
The film recalls the stories of four Palestinian refugees from different generations, drawn together in the suffocating heat of a steel tanker as they try to make their way across the desert to Kuwait in search of a better future. They pay an impotent driver to smuggle them from Iraq to Kuwait. This smuggling takes place in an old water tank truck and in the heat of August when temperature reaches 52ْ C. The metaphor of the impotent driver/leader who lost his manhood in battling the Israelis, is quite obvious. The reality of the Arab countries after 1948 was exemplified by this ugly and hot truck and the different individual voices that take part in sharing with us their basic longing for a simple life gradually call for an honest cinematic expression.

The truck in the movie looked more evil than this one!

Earnings, Awards and Prizes 

Saleh, Mona Zaki and Izat El Alaili

  • One of the hundred best political movies worldwide.
  • One of the hundred best Arab movies.
  • Winner, Carthage Film Festival, First Prize (Tanit d'Or) 1972.
  • Winner, Strasbourg Film Festival on Human Rights 1973.
  • Winner, International Catholic Center in Belgium, First Prize 1973.
Ghassan Kanafani

Born in Akka (northern Palestine) in 1936, Ghassan Kanafani was a prominent spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and founding editor of its weekly magazine Al-Hadaf. His novels and short stories have been published in sixteen languages. He was killed in Beirut in 1972 in the explosion of his booby-trapped car. Kanafani as a literary figure was a social realist who belonged to what was known as the 'committed' literary trend. Tawfik Saleh, the filmmaker, was also a socialist.

The Full Movie and References

Read 'Men in The Sun' in Arabic and English
More on The Novella
More on the movie
More on Tawfik Saleh
Find More About My Blog On Facebook

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

MCA: Three Rare Faces of Change

Article by: Taha Elkhalifa*

Watching the 2004 Swedish movie As It Is in Heaven directed by Kay Pallok, starring Michael Nyqvist as Daniel Dareus and Frida Hallgren as Lena, brings to mind two ideas. The first one is about the Quiet Revolution in Canada's Quebec, which denoted the socioeconomic changes in Quebec of the 1960's where the liberals and the leftists were able to ascend to power through election after the death of the late conservative Quebec Premier Duplessis. Those changes from conservatism to liberalism; from economic backwardness to development and progress were made possible by the nationalization of hydroelectric power from private companies and by imposing a public educational system that ended the sad control of the church over schools, colleges and universities. The second idea that the movie brought to my mind was about the magnificent short story written by the late Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez entitled The Handsomest Drowned Man in The World. My deep and heartily condolences go to lovers of narrative art on the occasion of the sad passing away of such a great international writer in April.

M. Nykvist
In the movie Daniel Dareus (Michael Nykvist), an international musician who has been nominated to various awards, returns to his village that is torn apart by domestic violence and a long history of bullying which victimized even Dareus himself. He tries to achieve a dream from his childhood to make everyone sing; to enjoy music by more than listening to it. Michael participates by leading the church chorus. During rehearsals for some scheduled shows change takes place in the lives of the villagers as they find solutions for families that pass through difficult times because of domestic violence, and ideas to resolve the consequences of bullying in the lives of its victims when they become grown ups. Ideas to make the church holds its responsibilities as a beneficial spiritual institution, and ideas to achieve the dreams of young girls such as Lena to find the lover who can suit her aspirations.

Esteban, the name given to the handsome drowned man’s body washed to the shore by the women of the village, was able to cause change in the village as handsome, inspiring and dead. His sudden presence as a dead body in the village transformed it from an arid place on both the natural and social levels to a place flourishing with love and throbbing with life.


As I think, the movie and the short story suggest that the execution of revolutionary change in a community might not always need mass demonstrations and/or military revolutionary actions that would overthrow the existing power and replace it by a new government that achieves programs which meet the demands of people for positive and progressive changes. According to the movie and the short story social progressive change can be brought about through peaceful, subtle and keen social processes that find the chance to impose change by letting creativity do its role in assembling the abilities and efforts of ordinary people to make positive change possible and attainable. Both the movie and the short story represent an account of social change in its broad meaning.

"Heaven is blue; hell is red"

The Quiet Revolution in Quebec was not more than necessary administrational procedures that led in the end to dramatic positive change in Quebeckers lives, the same as the presence of Esteban’s body in the village in Marquez’s story and similar to the return of Daniel Dareus to his village chasing his childhood dreams in the 2004 Swedish movie of Kay Pollak.
In the following YouTube clip, Swedish director Kay Pollak talks about his movie:

Summary of the Movie Plot

A successful international conductor suddenly interrupts his career and returns alone to his childhood village in Norrland, in the far north of Sweden.It doesn't take long before he is asked to come and listen to the fragment of a church choir, which practices every Thursday in the parish hall. Just come along and give a little bit of good advice. He can't say no, and from that moment, nothing in the village is the same again. The choir develops and grows. He makes both friends and enemies. And he finds love.

As It Is In Heaven (2004) 

Genre:  Drama-Comedy-musical, 132 min.
Country: Sweden, Denmark.
Written by: Anders Nyberg, Ola Olsson and others.
Cast: Michael Nykvist, Frida Hallgren, Helen Sjoholm
Music Score: Stefan Nilsson
Directed by: Kay Pollak
As It Is in Heaven was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 77th Academy Awards. It won several European prizes. The movie is available on YouTube in different languages, possibly in English.

* Taha Elkhalifa is a Sudanese Canadian scholar and the winner of a major literary prize in Sudan. He lives in Scarborough, Ontario.
Art by: Seif Laota.

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.