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

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London Film Festival – Interview with Director Andy Siege

Fifteen years after The Blair Witch Project became the most profitable film in history, a new low-budget movie has received its UK première at the London Film Festival.

Produced for $14,000, Beti and Amare is a science fiction horror film set during the second Italian-Ethiopian War. Beti (Hiwot Asres) flees from the invading forces and finds sanctuary at her grandfather’s house in the south of the country. As the troops march inwards she has to fight against the threat of starvation and avoid rape by the local militia. Salvation arrives when an egg shaped space craft crash-lands nearby.

The début feature length film for director Andy Siege, whilst in London he took time out from promotional duties to speak to us about the production, his background, and DIY filmmaking.

Grandson of actor Rudolf Siege and great-nephew of director Wolfgang Staudte, Andy Siege was raised in Africa. Born to German aid worker parents, his childhood was spent in Ethiopia, Zambia and Tanzania. After attending film school in Canada he moved to Bath and enrolled on a master’s degree. Finishing off the course he decided to return to the country of his birth and shoot a documentary.

“We ended up getting a little bit of money together from friends and family and shot this documentary. I’d been thinking about this other project for a while. I wrote my Master’s thesis for Bath in Ethopia. I wanted to go back. Whilst shooting the documentary I wrote this screenplay. We did the pre-production in a month. We shot the film in a month then we went to Germany for post production” says Siege.

A unique film, meshing African oral culture with homages to classic western science fiction. Beti and Amare’s ragged edges are never anything but endearing and the bravura performance from Hiwot Asres signals the arrival of a new screen talent deserving of greater exposure.

Tales told to Siege throughout his childhood have been woven into the film: “The stories I heard were Zambian folk stories. There’s even one about someone who comes out of an egg so I used that in the movie blended with sci-fi. I spent a lot of time in the global north and got the sci-fi influences. The egg symbolisms and visuals are a tip of the hat to Aliens where the face huggers come out of this egg. It does represent femininity as well because he’s (Amare – Pascal Dawson) born into this world . The role that Beti takes is a mother role, though she does end up sleeping with him as well. This is her story and everything revolves around her. The egg represents a child being born. The character isn’t just from another planet, he’s completely new to everything. He comes out fully grown but she then has to teach him.”

Taught filmmaking in British Columbia, Canada. His tutors championed no frills, low budget, DIY production. Siege is a passionate advocate for the opportunities new technologies offers and is keen to differentiate DIY from guerilla filmmaking.

“The way I see it guerilla filmmaking was the 90s and things have kind of moved on with the availability of technology. I personally feel the way to describe this kind of film is DIY. I’ve put together a book about DIY filmmaking with a different chapter by a a different filmmaker and a couple of them were in the punk scene and are now doing it with film.”

“Coppolla said on the set of Apocolypse Now that people are shooting stuff on eight millimetre cameras and someday some little girl from Ohio will take her father’s camera and shoot something really beautiful. Then we’ll have a Mozart of film. There are a lot of DIY filmmakers out there and it’s just going to grow and go to amazing places. Someday we will have Coppola’s Mozart. The thing about the technology being so accessible is that you can now produce something pixel wise that you can broadcast. Now there is theoretically no reason why you can’t shoot something that looks good.”

Beti and Amare received its première at the Moscow International Film Festival and was screened in Durban before arriving in London.

“The programmers in Moscow saw it, really liked it and invited it. The movie has kind of carried itself. We sent the film to all kinds of festivals all over the world, even to sci fi festivals, and the big ones took us.”

“What I want to go against is the definition of low budget. There’s all these independent low budget films with Hollywood movie stars that cost eight million dollars to make. Whenever I make a filmmaker or a producer and the say they made a low budget film for only eight million that’s like a slap in the face to me. I made a film for fourteen thousand and I’ve been at A-list festivals. I’m very grateful to the organizers for inviting me.”

Packed with interesting directorial touches, the shoestring budget becomes an asset not a restriction. Choices made because of a lack of funds take the film into imaginative places that more seasoned directors wouldn’t have considered.

An exceptional first film from a promising young director. It will be interesting to see what he is able to do with a more substantial budget.

Beti and Amare will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2015.