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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

This week at the SFC: The White Diamond

Thursday 30 March, 2006

THE WHITE DIAMOND (Werner Herzog/ 2005/ 90’)

Werner Herzog's film The White Diamond, a documentary, was filmed in the lush jungle of Guyana.

In this documentary, the forest looms as a haunting presence, a backdrop appropriate to the story of loss, tragedy and eventual victory.

The story that Herzog has focused on is the work of a mildly eccentric British aeronautic engineer, Graham Dorrington, who has invented an airship that resurrects the design of early 20th-century zeppelins on a smaller scale to create a craft capable of hovering at the level of the jungle canopy at slow speeds and in relative silence.

His objectives for the creation are to allow deeper research into the diverse flora of the forest canopy, a potential biotechnology goldmine. On watching Dorrington's wide-eyed, breathless presentations of his aircraft, however, one develops the sneaking sense that he is primarily interested in aviation in its own right.

The haunting image of a balloon floating over the jungle is an appropriate metaphor for Werner Herzog's meditative new film The White Diamond.

That ambition is clearly a source of immense motivation for Dorrington, yet it is also the reason for his deep sadness, as a similar design of the craft shown in the film had been used 10 years earlier in Sumatra and resulted in the tragic death of his friend, Dieter Plage.

The German cinematographer fell to his death in what was an unavoidable accident unrelated to any design flaw on Dorrington's part. Nevertheless, the professor bears his sorrow over the death quite openly. The experiments with the new craft, it seems, are an attempt to surmount that pain and loss and, perhaps, bring some meaning to Plage's death.

On site in Guyana, Herzog stumbles upon a parallel story of loss and longing in the character of local Rastafarian Mark Anthony, a diamond miner who is a hired hand in the professor's project. Anthony quietly and placidly reveals to Herzog the story of the loss of his family -- eight brothers, two sisters and his mother -- who have all emigrated to Spain and who he wishes to see more than anything else.

As Anthony watches the professor undertake test flights of the craft, he muses how he would like to fly the craft over the Atlantic Ocean and land on his family's roof in Malaga, Spain, and say to them, "Hello, I am home." Ultimately, there are two heroes in the film, Dorrington and Anthony. Dorrington overcomes his ghosts and past failures by fine-tuning his craft and successfully flying it around the jungle canopy with Herzog, who comes along for the ride to film.

Anthony, meanwhile, presents a figure of strength and perseverance, as well as deep wisdom. At one point, when Herzog poses an unusually banal question to him, Anthony flatly replies, "I cannot hear you for the thunder that you are," effectively brushing off the director. He is clearly deeply appreciated by the crew for his composure and his optimism in the face of hardship. Finally, he's offered a ride, after which he comments that his only regret was that his pet rooster wasn't able to join him.

As in Aguirre, the jungle offers up some spectacular images that, when accompanied by the eerie soundtrack, compound a sense of mystery and foreboding. The tone raises the suspense of the film, as we are gradually told of the details of Plage's death and begin to fear a possible repeat of the tragedy with the new craft.

Dorrington's apparent casual attitude toward procedure and safety provides ample reason to suspect that such could be the project's eventual conclusion.

But the enduring allure of flight, symbolized by the film's images of the forest's swift birds, and the strength of ambition fused with ingenuity and hope see the project through to its spectacular ending.

Monday, March 20, 2006

This week at the SFC: Hyenas

Thursday March 23rd

This Thursday STUDIOFILMCLUB is pleased to be screening HYENAS by the Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety -- one of Africa's greatest filmmakers (1945-1998).

Hyenas (Ramatou) (Djibril Diop Mambety/Senegal/1998/110')

As a beautiful young woman living in Colobane (the village in which the film is set), Linguere Ramatou fell in love with Dramaan Drameh. She became pregnant. He denied paternity. He bribed two men to say they had slept with her. She was driven from the village in disgrace. Dramaan married a wealthy wife and prospered. That was years before the time of the events portrayed in the film.

Ramatou has become miraculously wealthy--the richest woman in the world--rich as "the World Bank." She returns to the village seeking justice and revenge. Since she left, the village (and Africa itself) has become impoverished and corrupt. Dramaan "runs a dilapidated bar/general store . . . where the corrupt and indolent townsfolk drown their ennui in cheap wine."

Ramatou offers the village "a trillion dollars"--if they will kill Dramaan--the man who betrayed and destroyed her. She says, "The world made a whore of me. I want to turn the world into a whorehouse." The villagers express outrage at first but then are "easily seduced by air conditioners, refrigerators, and television sets." The action of the film focuses mainly on the change--the seduction and the yielding of Colobane--or if you prefer, the final decay, degeneration, and corruption of the village. In the end, the people, the mayor, the priest, and the professor all join together in the name of the consumer society to "kill" Dramaan. (Quotations, except for Ramatou, from California Newsreel.)

This is a "hybrid" film. That is, Mambety has mixed European film technique, a Swiss play, and an African voice and perspective to create a distinctly African film. Mambety believes that African film makers can "reinvent" cinema. They can (and should?), in other words, create a distinct voice and vision. But at the same time, they should push African film toward international significance. Mambety certainly attempts that in both Touki-Bouki (his first film) and Hyenas.

Hyenas is an adaptation of The Visit by Friedrich Durrenmatt. (You needn't know the play to understand the issues.) Mambety intends the film as homage to "the great Friedrich." It follows the plot of the play closely. But Mambety has transformed that plot through location, image, symbolism, story, and theme. Hyenas is not simply The Visit in African costume--The Visit in-the-bush, so to speak.

The animal imagery and symbolism provides one obvious example. The powerful sense of place, another. In a 1993 interview, Mambety explains his sense of the animal images--hyena, elephant, lion, bird. Those images and meanings, sustained through the film by continual cutting from people and the narrative to the animals, distinguish the film aesthetically and thematically from its source.

Other--sometimes strange, even surreal--images and techniques reveal an aesthetic quite distinct from Western and Hollywood films and even from other African films. For example: the cutting from people to animals, the old man (perhaps a griot?) who wanders through the film, the dress of the townspeople in the judgment scene, the Japanese woman in uniform with handcuffs and a CB radio (?) who reads "The International Herald Tribune," the character, Gaana, whom Mambety himself plays, the bizarre representation of Colobane as an amusement park, the closing images of bulldozer, city, dozer tracks in the sand, and the Baobab tree.

Like many other African films, Hyenas expresses strong political, cultural, and moral themes. Note especially the men present , after all the other villagers leave, after the killing of *******. The mayor, the priest, and the professor--government, religion, and education, the major social institutions--approve and lead the village in its action.

Read "THE HYENA'S LAST LAUGH: A conversation with Djibril Diop Mambety" by N. Frank Ukadike, from TRANSITION 78

Friday, March 17, 2006

Last night at the SFC

Last night was StudioFilmClub's third anniversary screening, and a bigger-than-usual crowd turned out to see A Dream to Change the World, Horace Ove's documentary about the Trinidad-born, London-based writer, publisher, and activist John La Rose (who died last Carnival Monday, 27 February). Ove himself was there to talk for a few minutes about the film, followed by David Abdullah of the Trinidad and Tobago Oilfield Workers Trade Union. After the film, SFC regulars kept the third "birthday" party going till the wee hours.

che and peter at sfc

(Grainy, low-light shot of) Che and Peter at the controls

horace ove at sfc

Horace Ove speaking before the screening

la rose at sfc

A shot of John La Rose from A Dream to Change the World

attillah and tessa at sfc

Writer (and SFC blogger) Attillah Springer and artist Tessa Alexander

jonathan birthday at sfc

Someone else had a birthday to celebrate--SFC blogger Jonathan Ali poses with Sophie Wight

sfc lime

The lime went on till the wee hours, in the corner around the bar

More photos from last night here.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Peter in Modern Painters

Yes, that is a self-portrait of Peter Doig (in false beard) on the cover of the March issue of Modern Painters--which includes an interview with Peter and a short piece on StudioFilmClub--not on the magazine's website, but you can read it here.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

This week at the SFC: A Dream to Change the World

Thursday March 16th


Internationally known Trinidadian film maker and photographer Horace
Ove will screen his John La Rose documentary "A Dream to Change the

The documentary, which premiered in December 2003 at the Institute for
International Visual Arts (inIVA) in London, was commissioned by the
African and Asian Visual Artists' Archive.

John La Rose was born in Trinidad, in Arima in 1927.
After involvements in local trade union and artist movements and a
short stint as a teacher in Venezuela, he moved to London in the
1950's, where he co-founded the Caribbean Artist's Movement with
Jamaican author Andrew Salkey and Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite.
The UK's Institute of Race Relations Council of which he was Chairman
in the 1970's described him as stalwart of the Black struggle in
He was also a writer and publisher and set up with his wife Sarah
White, New Beacon Books and the George Padmore Institute.
Through his life's work La Rose moved between a trinity of culture,
politics and trade unionism, and Ove captures an intimate portrait
of a very public figure and how he linked cultural expression to
social transformation.
La Rose was also the founder of the Black Radical International Book
Fair in London which brought together and encouraged black writers
from the African diaspora.
John La Rose has been instrumental in creating opportunities for
young people in Britain of all races to pursue their dreams in the

The film features La Rose discussing his life story, interspersed with
interviews with dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, Trinidad trade unionist
David Abdullah amongst others.

This will be the first of several screenings of the film in Trinidad
and Tobago and plans are being made for the film to be distributed
through RedBox Productions and New Beacon Books.
The film has recently been well received at the Pan African Film
Festival in Los Angeles.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Burning Love: Notes on Deepa Mehta's Fire

I must admit, I wasn't expecting much when I sat down to view Fire, the first film in Deepa Mehta's "Elements" trilogy (Earth is the second; the third, Water, was released recently). I was extremely pleased to have my expectations hit for six.

Done badly, a film dealing with Fire's subject matter could have been strident or simplistic or sensationalist, or all three. Happily, it is none of those, but instead a complex, touching, even comic exploration of love and relationships in a hidebound society.

Mehta has generous compassion for all of her characters, women and men, who aren't stereotypical victims or oppressors but people in one way or another constricted by things--religion, tradition, family--beyond their control. Criticism of these things is implicit, but constant.

In fact, what struck me as most daring about the film was the religious criticism. On two occasions the story from the Ramayan of the god Ram's rejection of his wife Sita is recounted. Sita--also the name given to the young bride, played by Nandita Das--having been rescued from kidnap by the evil god Ravan, walks through fire to prove she has not been unfaithful to Ram. Even though she passes the test, Ram sends Sita away from him.

Ram's actions always struck me as grossly unjust. Here Deepa Mehta uses that story, as well as another, to show how the unfair treatment of women in modern society has religious justificiation: a more controversial proposition (to my mind) than the portrayal of a lesbian relationship (which had people rioting and destroying the Bombay cinemas).

On a few occasions the characters, particularly Sita, come across as mouthpieces spouting a message, but for the most part Mehta is content to let the story tell itself. And one could quibble with the ending as fantasy. But by and large this a fine film that anyone should be able to appreciate.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

This week at the SFC: Fire

Thursday March 9th

STUDIOFILMCLUB is pleased to be back and running after a three week break.

FIRE (Deepa Mehta/India-Canada/1998/108')

Sita and Radha are young Indian women whose husbands choose celibacy or mistresses over their wives. The two women become friends and grow closer together, forming a forbidden but liberating relationship. A lush, passionate story of emancipation and love, in a closed society. Major controversy led this movie to be widely attacked and banned in India.


I am a victim so to speak, of a post-colonized India. The medium of my education was English. In fact, not unlike many children of middle-class parents, English was my first language and Hindi, my second. I wrote the script of FIRE in English, a language I am totally at ease with. The difference is in the "kind" of English. In India, we do not speak "pukka" English. We've made the language our own. It's totally colloquial and has many phrases that are distinctly Indian. We call this happy amalgamation "Hinglish". I thought about translating FIRE into Hindi, but more for Western audiences than the Indian one. Western audiences find a "foreign" film easier to imbibe, easier to accept in its cultural context, if it is in its indigenous language. "A foreign film can only be a foreign film if it is in a foreign language". And if it isn't then somehow it is judged (albeit subconsciously), as a Western film disguised as a foreign one. All very complex but true to a large extent. Well, how to explain to people in the West that most middle-class Indians speak Hinglish? Eventually, I decided to go for the authenticity of spirit of FIRE rather than peoples expectations of what a foreign film constitutes.