Blu-ray Review: Black Girl & Borom Sarret

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Pioneering African filmmaker confronts neocolonialism.

One of African cinema’s founding fathers, Ousmane Sembène was born in Ziguinchor, south Sengal. Expelled from school at 15 after striking a teacher he worked in a variety of sectors before being called up to fight in World War Two.

After demobilisation he moved to Marseilles and became a dock worker. Politically active, Sembène campaigned for African independence and joined the local Communist Party. His rejection of colonialist ideology inspired him to write an autobiographical novel that spoke about the then contemporary diaspora experience. Published in 1956 Le Docker Noire depicts a young Senegalese man living in France. Addressing institutionalised racism, economic exploitation, and cultural imperialism Sembène’s debut novel contained themes which he would further explore throughout his career as novelist, poet, and film director.

Conscious of poor literacy levels in colonial era Africa Sembène was determined his pro black liberation Marxist anti-colonialist message should reach a wide audience. Aware of cinema’s mass appeal after attending racially segregated cinemas in Dakar he decided at the age of 38 to enrol in a film school. A scholarship enabled Sembène to study at the Gorky institute in Moscow.

Returning to Senegal he achieved the notable distinction of being the first black African to direct a film. Shot on a second hand 16mm camera with film stock donated by European friends Borom Sarret offers a cinematic glimpse of a culture that had previously been oppressed by French colonial rule. Prior to independence black Africans were legally prevented from making films.

Employing a combination of documentary techniques and fiction Borom Sarret is a short film which captures Senegalese society in a transitional moment as it tentatively becomes a post colonial nation. Critical of urbanisation and ghettoisation of traditional African cultures the stark and unsentimental film attempts to effect social change by drawing viewers attention to the negative aspects of European influence.

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An African Bicycle Thieves, Borom Sarret chronicles the day in the life of a cart-driver living in abject poverty. Forbidden from collecting fares in the more prosperous newly built urban region he tries to earn a living transporting passengers and goods in Dakar’s poorer districts. Routinely taken advantage of by his passengers, the driver is frequently tricked out of his fare.

The driver’s turbulent day involves transporting a father who wants to bury his child in the local cemetery. Carrying the dead body in his arms the father is denied access to the graveyard because he does not have the correct paperwork. As official and grieving father argue the driver leaves the child’s body on the ground and departs without his fare.

A well-dressed man persuades the driver to enter the city’s affluent district. The cart is impounded by police officers leaving the driver without any means of earning a living.

Employing non actors Sembène’s cinematic debut is an economically filmed portrait of a society battling against inequality, suppression, and manipulation.

Continuing his rejection of modernity and neocolonialism Sembène’s first feature length film tackled modern forms of slavery, cultural domination, exile, and called for the empowerment of African women. Released in 1966 Black Girl attracted attention at international film festivals and was awarded the Prix Jean Vigo at the Cannes Film Festival. Credited with putting African film on the world cinema map the film communicated post-colonial anxieties to a global audience.black-girl-01

Influenced by the French New Wave Sembène’s debut feature film is a politically charged attack filled with complex visual metaphors and naturalistic performances. A searing indictment of cultural imperialism it is considered by historians to be the first full length film directed by a Sub-Saharan African.

Based on a real life incident that Sembène had previously adapted for a short story before transferring to the big screen Black Girl powerfully equates domestic servitude with slavery.

A young Senegalese woman, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), relocates to France anticipating a glamorous new life as an au pair. Illiterate she has been reliant on her new employers for information about her new home. The promise of better living conditions and greater freedom are soon exposed as a lie. Entrapped, isolated, and dehumanized Diouana works as housemaid without payment. Exoticised and subjected to intense emotional abuse by her employers and their friends she feels death is the only way to escape this life of drudgery and degradation.

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The director’s use of flashbacks contrasts Diouana’s life trapped inside a French apartment with her past in Senegal. Moments of repression are set in opposition to enthusiasm and optimism witnessed in the Senegalese sequences. Symbolically rich the film employs African iconography to illustrate the contrast between European and African perspectives.

Thought provoking and poignant Black Girl is an unflinching exploration of the consequences of colonialism.

An indispensable purchase for world cinema enthusiasts. Alongside supremely restored editions of Borom Sarret and Black Girl the disc contains an interview with Thérèse M’Bisine Diop and a documentary about Ousmane Sembène.

Black Girl & Borom Sarret is available to order from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Black-Borom-Sarret-Limited-Format/dp/B0133E8EGQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1445204943&sr=8-1&keywords=black+girl

Book Review: Last Days of the Condor by James Grady

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Sequel to the classic 1970s conspiracy thriller.

Soon to be remade for TV, James Grady’s 1974 novel Six Days of the Condor tapped into Cold War era paranoia. A feature film adaptation mined post-Watergate suspicions of government. Starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, the movie was part of a wave of conspiracy thrillers released in the 1970s that included All the President’s Men, The Conversation, and The Parallax View. Four decades on from the original book and film James Grady has revived the CIA operative formerly known as Condor for one final adventure.

Released from the CIA’s insane asylum Ronald Malcolm has returned to Washington D.C No longer known by the codename Condor, Malcolm is now called Vin after Steve McQueen’s character in The Magnificent Seven.

Heavily medicated, Vin is adjusting to normal life after a breakdown. Working at the Library of Congress he has been placed under surveillance by his former employers and receives regular home visits from a case worker. After the death of a CIA operative Vin is framed for murder. Once again on the run trying to stay alive and expose the real killer.

Successfully capturing the mood of a nation increasingly distrustful of its elected representatives James Grady’s first Condor novel resonated with readers coming to terms with the loss of innocence brought upon by the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War. The then relatively original idea of the CIA being one of the most significant threats faced by America is now a familiar trope in political fiction. Grady’s return to his most famous creation updates familiar themes to accommodate four decades of developments in society, politics, and surveillance technology while making the plot relevant and relatively fresh for a generation that may not have read the original novel or seen the Sydney Pollack directed feature film.

An intelligent action-packed spy novel for the WikiLeaks era.

Last Days of the Condor is available to order from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Last-Days-Condor-James-Grady/dp/1843445867/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1444707909&sr=8-1&keywords=last+days+of+the+condor

Book News: The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas by David F. Ross

Orenda Books have unveiled the cover for David F. Ross’ follow up to his critically acclaimed début.

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David F. Ross’ The Last Days of Disco is in my top five books of 2015. Heart-warming and heart-breaking the book delivered an authentic portrait of the 1980s. The author vividly recreated the experiences of a generation that was coming of age as Margaret Thatcher’s economic and social policies started to bite. Filled with colourful characters the book has been praised by Muriel Grey and Hardeep Singh Kohli. Signalling the emergence of a new Scottish literary voice, Ross’ debut left me eager for another visit to the decade that spawned The Smiths.

The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas will be published in February 2015. Check out the details below:

The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas is the timeless story of the quest for such pop immortality. When a young Ayrshire band miraculously hits the big time with the smash hit record of 1984, international stardom beckons. That’s despite having a delusional teenage manager propelled by a dark, malign voice in his head … Can Max Mojo’s band of talented social misfits repeat the success and pay back the mounting debts accrued from an increasingly agitated cartel of local gangsters? Or will they have to kidnap Boy George and hope for the best? Featuring much-loved characters from the international bestseller, The Last Days of Disco, this is an absurdly funny, riotously ambitious and deeply human story of small-town rivalries, music, confused adolescence and, above all, hope, from one of Scotland’s finest new voices.

The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas is available to pre-order from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rise-Fall-Miraculous-Vespas-David/dp/1910633372/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1444358415&sr=8-1&keywords=the+rise+and+fall+of+miraculous+vespas

DVD Review: The Physician

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Faith and science clash in medieval Europe and Persia.

In 11th century England Rob Cole (Tom Payne) is orphaned when his mother dies of complications caused by appendicitis. It is an age when comparatively little was known about human physiognomy. Church law emphasised the primacy of God’s will and imposed strict limits on medical research and practice. In an era when people were routinely executed for suspicion of practising witchcraft Rob’s belief that he has a natural ability to detect when people are going to die places him at odds with the church.

Apprenticed to a travelling barber-surgeon (Stellan Skarsgård) Rob is taught the rudiments of what medical knowledge is available and considered permissible by the church. His mentor tutors him in bloodletting and dental extraction.

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Mindful that his medical experience is limited he seeks the aid of a Jewish healer when the barber-surgeon is blinded by cataracts. Enthused after witnessing a more knowledgeable medical practitioner restore his mentor’s sight Rob decides to travel to Isfahan, Persia and study under the noted healer Ibn Sina (Ben Kingsley).

Former pop video director Philipp Stölzl brings Noah Gordon’s bestselling historical novel to the screen in an ambitious adaptation that condenses Gordon’s 600 page opus into an intelligent and expansive cinematic epic. Previously a stage designer in a Munich theatre, Stölzl began his directing career with a promo for Rammstein’s Du riechst so gut. Honing his craft helming commercials and videos for Madonna and Garbage he is best known for the visually rich ode to German Romanticism Young Goethe in Love. For his fourth feature film Stölzl has crafted an epic that pays homage to Lawrence of Arabia.

A success in Germany and Spain, The Physician soared to top of the box-office charts on its opening weekend pummeling The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug into second place. To meet high demand to see The Physician the number of German cinemas showing the film had to be increased for its second week in theaters

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Commenting on the dangers of religious extremism the film uses its Dark Ages setting to mirror contemporary debates about faith based groups attempts to restrict scientific research. Critical of the role religion has played in suppressing knowledge, enforcing unjust social conditions, and perpetuating a false sense of ideological supremacy the film highlights the absurdity of an unquestioning adherence to a belief system.

Skeptical without overtly politicized explicit condemnation The Physician explores cultural and religious tensions, paralleling and contrasting historical developments with contemporary society.

The juxtaposition of western Europe’s Dark Ages with the Islamic Golden Age reminds viewers that the Orient was at the forefront of scientific development during the middle ages.

Visually splendid. Authentic period costuming, effective cinematography and judicious use of CGI convincingly recreate 11th century London and Persia. The Physician is a period drama rich in detail that tackles weighty subject matter and carries a strong emotional core.

The Physician can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Physician-DVD-Tom-Payne/dp/B01411M2AY