Review no 113: Dhalinyaro (Jeunesse or Youth), a film from Djibouti

SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

in Somali and French with English subtitles (2019, running time 1hr 25 mins)

As part of the Africa in Motion film festival 2020, which runs from 30 October until 29 November, I watched this online screening of the 2019 feature Dhalinyaro, directed by Lula Ali Ismail.

The film follows the lives of three girl friends, Asma, Hibo and Deka, throughout their final year of school in Djibouti city. The film is beautifully filmed, and I loved the insights into life in Djibouti, the bustle of the city and the port, the beautiful sands of the beach, the rolling waves and the sharply contrasting lifestyles of the three girls.

The film is set in contemporary society, where mobile phones and laptops are ubiquitous, and which seems to mix conservatism with opportunities for self-development. As well as taking their BAC exams (the International Baccalaureate), the girls have to make decisions about their future, and if money permits they are encouraged to travel to France to pursue their university studies (as Asma notes, funds for further studies, for her, are “rare as snake’s shit”). This is the second African film I’ve seen lately that discusses study in France as a natural progression from schooling in a francophone nation (although looking online it seems that illiteracy is fairly common in parts of the country). I had no idea that travel to France was such a rite of passage for so many middle-class Africans. Watching African films, it also interests me how the dialogue often switches between languages, and whether there are informal societal rules governing this (I did study linguistics at university back in the day so maybe this explains my interest!).

The story itself is gently paced and doesn’t break any new ground: it’s a straightforward coming of age tale, but no less charming for that. It opens with wealthy, appearance-orientated Hibo, who typically sweeps around in a chauffeur-driven four-by-four, sobbing in the school bathroom as she miscarries – a shocking and scary experience that has coincided with Eid. Asma and Deka do not judge, but lend her a black abaya to cover her blood-stained trousers and swiftly and stealthily arrange her a taxi to the hospital. From then the three are inseparable.

The movie is the first to be made by a female director from Djibouti (and Lula Ali Ismail also has a cameo role as the girls’ school teacher), and it provides a convincing, character-driven exploration of friendship and the challenges and pleasures of youth.

Best reads – October 2020

I’ve read quite a lot this month and seen a ton of films, despite work being frantic for most of the month. I guess it’s down to the fact that we’re still staying close to home and not seeing many people due to the “second wave” (though surely it’s more a resurgence of the first wave?) and to the awful wet and cold weather we’ve been having in London.

My top three reads of the month, though, don’t fit my criteria for their own blog post, but are worth a mention.

Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink (UK) discusses the benefits of reading for dealing with life’s ups and downs, whether outright trauma or just the daily grind. It’s a mix of memoir and recommendations, and I really liked it. She’s read a lot of the same books as me, but she also signposted me to several I haven’t read, and she’s read across a large range of genres and styles. It’s newly published – I got my copy from the recently (sort of) reopened library.

Sisters by Daisy Johnson (UK) is also newly published, a creepy Gothic chiller by the youngest writer ever to be shortlisted for the Booker prize. It’s a quick read, and rapidly very gripping. Her writing is beautiful, though it reads a bit like she’s gone through a list of Gothic tropes and ticked them off as she goes along :).

Finally, my favourite read in October was T. C. Boyle’s Outside Looking In (USA), a fictionalised (but well-researched) look at the communal living experiment instigated by Timothy Leary and his followers in the 1960s. This book really sucked me in, and I couldn’t put it down. Boyle is very good at evoking the hallucinatory experience (it brought back the 90s for me) and at convincingly communicating the dangerous allure of a bucket-load of charisma combined with a devil-may-care attitude. This book certainly doesn’t glorify LSD in any way, but is enormously entertaining as well as interesting on the ‘philosophy’ behind the thinking of Leary’s acolytes – and clear too on the potentially destructive power of illicit pharmaceuticals. I’ve now bought Boyle’s The Women, a novel about the turbulent personal life of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Review no 112: The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili (Georgia)

Translated from the Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway

NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST, CENTRAL ASIA AND THE SOUTH CAUCASUS

The Pear Field is published in English for the first time by Peirene Press this autumn as part of their ‘Closed Universe’ series of translated literature, which also includes Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, which I reviewed early this year. Of course, since the series was launched, we all feel as though our own personal universes have become a little more closed, which makes the choice of theme seem rather prescient.

Author and film director Nana Ekvtimishvili has set this novel in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, at a boarding school for children with disabilities, otherwise locally known as the School for Idiots. It seems to be set in the immediate post-Soviet period, and it is immediately evident that this school is not situated within any kind of progressive or enlightened environment when it comes to child care – or child protection.

The dangerous appeal for the children of the so-called ‘trampoline room’ is evoked vividly: a room high up in the school building, filled with ancient decommissioned bed frames, and with a doorway that opens directly into the open air since the time a derelict balcony unexpectedly collapsed to the ground.

The book’s main character is 18-year-old Lela, who has been institutionalised her whole life. She knows nothing about her background, bar the fact that she previously lived in a children’s home, and was moved to the school when she reached the appropriate age for schooling, such as it is.

Life is hard for the children at the school. The conditions are unsanitary, clothes and furnishings are worn and well-used, and the sexual abuse of female children is prevalent. Perhaps owing to the spare conditions, on rare occasions when the school grounds are hired out for weddings, the associated feasts are described in tantalising detail:

The children pile food onto their plates: hot khachapuri, fried chicken, liver with walnuts, vegetable phkali, walnut sauce, clay-baked shoti puri flatbreads and everything else that’s on offer.

The action takes place almost entirely within the walls of the school, with newcomers being the focus of intense fascination. The story moves along in an episodic fashion, as we learn about the children that Lela comes into contact with, as well as semi-mythical tales of previous residents who have moved on, for good or for bad. Lela is officially too old to be a pupil at the school, but has no idea what to do next, and for the time being is permitted to stay put, acting as a sort of unpaid assistant and later also a kind of poorly remunerated parking attendant, as the school’s forecourt is often used by locals for a small fee.

There were a lot of characters to keep track of, and I found it tricky at first to remember who was who, particularly as many of the first names were unfamiliar to me. As the parent of a child with a disability I found it a particularly difficult read, while the action focuses predominantly on the ‘normal’ children at the school (of which there are many, either abandoned or orphaned) and more or less ignores the stories of those with physical or mental impairments, though they would surely be as worthy of interest.

Lela, however, is a sympathetic character, who has endured a lifetime of abuse and lack of care and has still managed to retain a strong sense of justice. Although quite rough and ready, she is a champion and support for others, in particular a vulnerable nine-year-old boy, Irakli. Meanwhile, she harbours a secret determination to seek murderous revenge on Vano, an ageing teacher and a dangerous sexual predator.

Ekvtimishvili is best known as a filmmaker: she co-directed award-winning film In Bloom in 2013, and her latest movie My Happy Family was released in 2017. The Pear Field, which was published in Georgia in 2015, is Ekvtmishvili’s first novel. It has been the recipient of several awards, and has already been published in other languages, including German. I found it to be an interesting if sometimes disturbing introduction to Georgian fiction.

Review no 111: artist Alberta Whittle (Barbados)

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tate Britain awarded a Turner Prize bursary award to 10 artists, including Barbados-born artist Alberta Whittle, in place of the normal Turner Prize. She is a previous recipient of the Margaret Tait Award and this year also won the Frieze Artist Award for a zeitgeisty video work referencing contagion and COVID-19. During the latter part of 2020 she has been part of the Brighton Photoworks Festival (this links to some cool activities based around her work) and her work has also formed part of the group Here be Dragons show at Copperfield art gallery in south-east London (only until 30 October).

Whittle, born in 1980, divides her time between Barbados, Scotland and South Africa. Her work is inter-disciplinary, encompassing performance art, film, photography, digital collage techniques, and large-scale sculpture, and her deeply-researched works of art explore the diaspora experience, racism and the ‘erasure’ of the black experience, trauma, memory and environmental issues, in the context of post-colonialism.

Whittle grew up in Barbados but, struggling with chronic pain and fatigue owing to fibromyalgia, she moved to the UK city of Birmingham in her teens. Her experiences, according to an interview for Studio International, gave her a “new perspective on how race, history and access to healthcare and education are experienced and visualised here, in particular how denial of these links is not remembered“.

The Tate website noted that the judges were moved by an exhibition of Whittle’s work at Dundee Contemporary Arts, entitled How Flexible Can We Make the Mouth, which explored notions such as healing, writing and speech in the quest for personal freedom and self-actualization.

The exhibition included a video work, Between a Whisper and a Cry, which explores the apathy of British people to three years of devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean. The Arts Council website linked above notes that the work explores ideas of academic theorist Christina Sharpe, who has written that “Slavery suffuses our present-day environment in an afterlife called the weather.”

One room in the Dundee exhibition showed an apparently part-submerged, to-scale Barbadian Chattel House, brightly coloured and evoking memories of Whittle’s childhood. A Chattel House is a small, wooden mobile home that is often seen in working-class areas in Barbados, and the name goes back to the days of slavery, when people might have to construct homes that could be moved from one property to another, so that they could move with the work. The collapsed structure created by Whittle movingly alludes to the involuntary movement of people of colour across the Caribbean.

Whittle has been quoted as stating: “No one can find Barbados on a map, whereas everyone can find the UK. That level of inattention galvanises so much of my work“. More of her work, including collage, can be seen on the artist’s website.

Review no 110: film A Screaming Man (Chad)

NORTH AFRICA

(In French and Arabic with English subtitles)

This October, during Black History Month in the UK, Africa in Motion (Scotland), Afrika Eye (Bristol), the Cambridge African Film Festival (CAFF), Film Africa (London) and Watch-Africa Cymru (Wales) have all come together to provide an opportunity to watch some of the best African films of the past decade online, for a small donation, at wearetano.org. The films have been screened consecutively, each for a 2-day period, and the event continues until next week, so there’s still time to take a look. The programme ends on 20th October, while the Africa in Motion film festival (www.africa-in-motion.org.uk) runs until the end of November.

I checked out the sites, and watched A Screaming Man (Un homme qui crie), a film from Chad that was showing on demand. Released in 2010, the film was written and directed by auteur writer-director Mahmat-Saleh Haroun (himself seriously wounded in civil conflict), who also wrote and directed the much-acclaimed 2002 Chadian film Abouna (Our Father). A Screaming Man is a modern-day tragedy of Shakespearean levels, set during the civil war of 2005 to 2010. It won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, the first time that a director from Chad had entered the main Cannes competition.

The story follows Adam (played compellingly by Youssouf Djaoro), an ageing former swimming champion (nicknamed Champ), who has been contentedly working as a pool attendant at an upmarket hotel in the capital, N’Djamena.

However, his life takes a turn for the worse when new owners move in, and he is humiliatingly replaced by his vigorous, fun-loving son Abdel, and demoted to operating the gates that let cars in and out of the complex.

Meanwhile, reports of rebel incursions are intensifying, and the local authorities demand support from the citizenry, whether that be money or suitably aged volunteers for combat. Adam thus finds himself in an impossible situation, and from that point on the emotional tension of the film gradually intensifies.

In many ways a morality tale, as well as an examination of the experience of absolute powerlessness, the film closes with a quotation from the poet Aimé Césaire:

Beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of miseries is not a proscenium, a screaming man is not a dancing bear

Review no 109: The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka (Venezuela)

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

The title of this short South American novel seems apposite, given the current climate (my husband is currently confined to one room and waiting for the results of a coronavirus test). However, the book has nothing to do with COVID-19, thankfully.

Published in 2006 in Venezuela as La enfermedad, the English translation appeared in 2010, and The Sickness was deservedly shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (now absorbed into the International Booker Prize) in 2011. Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s writing has drawn comparisons with that of J. M. Coetzee (who I have to confess I have never read so I can’t comment – he’s on my list for South Africa!).

Dr Andrés Miranda is a doctor who hates the nitty-gritty of the human body (he hated practicals in medical school), and when he finds out that his father is terminally ill he struggles to confront, or even communicate, the truth. Meanwhile, he is deluged with e-mails from a sort of hyper-hyperchondriac, Ernesto Durán, which he refuses to deal with and filters off via his secretary, Karina. Karina, a bit bored, is also lonely, and on the advice of a friend embarks on a surely ill-advised course of action.

The book is darkly humorous, and although it deals with serious issues it is entertaining, often mordantly funny and frequently profound. Despite the novel’s brevity (150 pages), the main characters are fully realised and complex, with the individual mixture of flaws and strengths that makes us human. The action moves along swiftly, in crisp prose, so that amid the thoughtfulness of the writing the pace of the plotting never drags, and it all comes to a satisfying ending.

I also liked this carpe diem quote from Julio Ramón Ribeyro that is reproduced in the novel:

“Physical pain is the great regulator of our passions and ambitions. Its presence immediately neutralises all other desires apart from the desire for the pain to go away. This life that we reject because it seems to us boring, unfair, mediocre or absurd suddenly seems priceless: we accept it as it is, with all its defects, as long as it doesn’t present itself to us in its vilest form – pain.”

Review no 108: Saudi Arabian film Wadjda

NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA

Written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, this heart-warming 2012 film was the first movie feature to be filmed solely in Saudi Arabia, and the first Saudi feature film to be directed by a woman. That it got made at all sounds almost fantastical, given Saudi Arabia’s constraints not just on the activities of women, but on film – cinemas were banned for some 35 years from the early 1980s until 2018. Al-Mansour had to direct some scenes from inside a van in case she prompted protests.

The story focuses on feisty pre-teen Wadjda, who attends a strict religious school in Riyadh, and lives in a devout household. She is determined not to let the expectations of her school principal and her parents deter her from her goal of owning a bike (“”you won’t be able to have children if you ride a bike”), so that she can challenge her friend Abdullah (“girls don’t ride bikes”) to a race.

Wadjda’s school is run by the terrifying, glamorous principal Ms Hussa (nicknamed Cruella), who comes out with devastating lines like “Don’t you know that a woman’s voice shouldn’t be heard by men? A woman’s voice is her nakedness” when she hears girls innocently giggling together. However, there is gossip circulating that she might not be as pure as she likes to suggest, and she seems to be wearing Laboutins under her abaya.

Wajda’s mother is also super-glamorous and attractive behind closed doors, although she is fully covered by her abaya when she leaves the house. However, despite her careful appearance and domestic deference, she fears that she is losing her husband, Wajda’s father, who she learns is meeting prospective brides in the hope that he can be provided with a son.

The film treads a careful line between religious and social conformity and incipient adolescent rebellion against the strictures of Saudi Arabian society. Wadjda experiments with nail varnish, sometimes fails to properly cover her hair, is a bit of an amateur entrepreneur and hangs out with Abdullah unsupervised on her roof terrace, but she also sets out to win the money for the much-longed-for bike by entering a Qur’an-recitation competition.

Wajda is persistent and resilient, and the film is often lightly humorous and charming. Overall a very entertaining watch, if shocking at times to a Western eye in its depiction of what is still an intensely repressive regime.

Review no 107: On Time and Water by Andri Snaer Magnason (Iceland)

Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith

EUROPE

This book is a mostly interesting, frequently terrifying meditation on environmental degradation and the inconvenient truth that true, irreversible climate disaster may be closer than we like to think.

Andri Snaer Magnason is well-known in Iceland as a best-selling author and an environmental activist, as well as a former presidential candidate. He also has some spectacularly long-lived adventurer grand-parents, who traversed enormous glaciers and explored the far-reaches of the landscape during their youth. A glacier that they ascended in 1956, which seemed permanent and immutable, has begun to melt away over the course of the subsequent 70 years, to such an extent that the Iceland Glaciological Society’s annual trips to the glacier are no longer able to take place, thus providing a concrete and terrifying example of the pace of climate change.

We are told that, as glaciers melt in some parts of world, an initial increase in water supply, will, with the disappearance of melting glaciers and their resulting rivers, lead to a desperate lack, potentially making parts of Peru, Tibet and India uninhabitable.

Alarmingly, Magnason writes that:

“It is the official policy of the Trump government … to remove words related to climate change from public records and web sites. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, talked about the melting of Arctic ice as ‘a new business opportunity’. Commercial sailing routes to Asia could be shortened by up to twenty days.”

Magnason also succeeds in effectively condensing our notions of time to put into perspective the timeline that we’re working within when we discuss climate change:

“The history of Iceland is, in a sense, the continuous story of twelve women like my Grandma. Twelve girls who were born and lived lives that each felt like a flash. … The earliest written records of humans date back five thousand years, events that happened practically yesterday. Humanity first emerged the day before that, in comparison to the ocean’s fifty-million-year history.”

Rather than being a straightforward polemic, Magnason incorporates family history and fascinating miscellaneous facts (for example, he notes that humankind has filled the world with chickens while wiping out so many other species), to provide what is an engaging call for action.

Review no 106: Film Midnight Traveler by Hassan Fazili (Afghanistan)

NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA

I’ve never understood the lack of empathy and dehumanizing torrent of media and political ire directed at refugees and other migrants. It doesn’t take much to imagine how desperate someone would have to be to sell their possessions and hand over all their savings to a people smuggler, putting their life, and the lives of their family in the dubious hands of a professional traffickers.

In case we’re struggling, Midnight Traveler, a film directed by the Afghanistani filmmaker Hassan Fazili, document Fazili’s family’s attempt to escape Afghanistan after he is tipped off that the Taliban plan to kill him. The family’s aim is to reach safety in Western Europe. Shot entirely on three mobile phones over a period of about three years, we follow the ups and downs of Fazili’s family as they leave Tajikistan, where they’ve stayed for over a year in an effort to apply for refugee status in various locations, and make the desperate decision to make their way to Turkey and take the perilous refugee route that was well-documented in the European media in 2015-16. From Iran they plan to reach Turkey, then cross to Greece, passing through Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, in an effort finally to reach Germany, which famously announced a (domestically controversial) policy of extending a welcome to refugees.

Often events take place against an evocative soundscape: sometimes discordant, sometimes beautiful and mournful. Although, like the excellent Syrian documentary For Sama, this is an account of real events, Midnight Traveler is also a work of art – a testament to Fazili’s talents, and his refusal to let that side of his identity be subsumed into their ordeal. Amid the harrowing events, there are moments of joy, connection and fun – playing in the snow in Serbia, the older daughter’s exultation at the tidal waters in Turkey – which really shine forth from this film. And although filmed on mobile phones in difficult conditions, the finished film does not feel scrappy or incoherent. Emelie Mahdavian, a US-based documentary maker, produced and wrote the film that emerged, and it went through extensive post-production. The film notably won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for No Borders at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Hassan and his mostly cheerful wife Fatima try to remain positive in the most gruelling circumstances, partly for the sake of their two young daughters. Despite nights in the freezing forest and the barest of facilities in the various refugee camps and safe houses in which they end up, the girls and their clothing always look astonishingly clean and well-cared for. But their lives are uncertain, and at best simply on hold. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at times they’re not even ticking off the bottom rung, and the countries they reach do not exactly welcome them with open arms.

I wonder why people avoid films like this. Is it too much reality? I’m really glad I watched this film. It was beautifully made, fascinating and enlightening, and it should be essential viewing.

Review no 105: Photographer Joana Choumali (Côte d’Ivoire)

AFRICA

Photographer Joana Choumali was born in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in 1974, and came to my attention after wining the Prix Pictet photography and sustainability prize, themed ‘Hope’, in late 2019 for her series Ça va aller (It will be OK).  The winning photographs were taken on an iphone three weeks after terrorist attacks were carried out in the former colonial Ivorian capital of Grand-Bassam, a popular beach resort town, in March 2016. The photographs were then decorated with ornate, vibrant embroidery. Embroidery, that traditionally feminine craft activity, has been employed by other artists working to explore trauma, notably Mexican artist Margarita Cabrera.

Choumali is quoted as saying: “This work is a way to address the way Ivorian people deal with trauma and mental health. Each stitch was a way to recover, to lay down the emotions, the loneliness, and mixed feelings I felt. Adding embroidery on these street photographs was an act of channelling hope and resilience.”

Due for physical exhibition and a world-wide tour, the Prix Pictet initially had to be reimagined as a virtual exhibition in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The interactive 3D exhibition was designed by digital artist Gabriel Stones. A physical exhibition has since opened at the EPFL ArtLab in Lausanne, Switzerland.

More of Choumali’s work can be found on Instagram here and here, and if you’re feeling flush is available for purchase here.