The war film historically served a very different purpose in the Soviet Union than it typically did in the rest of the Eastern Bloc. Like many countries – Australia included – the USSR built much of its national and political mythology on military struggle; specifically, its heroic defeat of Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War. Its cinema, therefore, necessarily reflected that, with even dissidents like Aleksei German (Trial of the Road) and Andrei Tarkovsky (Ivan’s Childhood) making World War 2 films with clearly defined heroes and villains. With so much at stake, and such immense suffering endured on the way to victory, what room could there be in such films for the slightest ambiguity?
50 Countries Project #10: The Blue Eyes of Yonta (Guinea-Bissau)
The paradoxes of The Blue Eyes of Yonta [Udju Azul di Yonta] (1992) begin with its title: a line from an unsigned love letter received by the eponymous, quite evidently brown-eyed protagonist. It’s a symbol of the many things that she and her fellow residents of Bissau don’t or can’t have; the city’s constant power outages acting as obstacles to nearly any conceivable aspect of life. A food wholesaler is forced to dump its load of refrigerated fish; a school class comes to a sudden end; the lights go out at a nightclub. These may merely be the teething problems of development – of a country emerging from colonialism and single-party autocracy into a modern, democratic state – but they also place it in jeopardy.
50 Countries Project #9: Kairat (Kazakhstan)
If there’s a problem common to many contemporary arthouse films – particularly those screened in the main competition sections of major festivals – it’s a sense of airlessness; a tendency towards overly careful construction and logical shot progression that can render the most otherwise well-made film disappointingly familiar and schematic. In contrast, Darezhan Omirbaev’s Kairat (1992) is a film of non-sequiturs: one in which casual observations are pursued to no obvious narrative end, and the boundary between reality and dreams is uncertain. This is a profoundly liberating approach, and a welcome antidote to 21st century cinema’s more conservative tendencies.
50 Countries Project #8: The Ring Seller (Lebanon)
Rima: “The engagement period is quite nice
But marriage is difficult
You will see how hard marriage is.”
Chorus: “We know and still want to get married.”
Rima: “Marriage means children and worries.”
Chorus: “We know and still want to get married.”
In its celebration of chaste sensuality and the human longing to be loved, Youssef Chahine’s 1965 musical The Ring Seller is a far cry from the dark, tormented sexuality of his earlier Cairo Station. It’s a film that situates itself in a brightly coloured, self-aware fantasy world, where falling in love is as simple as waiting to be paired up at the town’s annual engagement festival.
50 Countries Project #7: Volcano (Guatemala)
What is the defining feature of poverty? Beyond the lack of vital resources, it is often transience; the feeling that one’s home – whether it be a rental property in the outer suburbs, a soon-to-be-bulldozed slum or an entire country devastated by war – has merely been borrowed for a certain period of time. Such is the case for the Kaqchikel family at the centre of Volcano (Ixcanul, 2015): tenants on the land of their ancestors, their livelihood depends on a farm infested with poisonous snakes. They make offerings to the volcano that towers threateningly above, lest it consume them.
50 Countries Project #6: The Spider (Latvia)
There’s a long, disreputable history in cinema of women being sexually pursued by animals – from the racist allegory of the original King Kong to the notorious dream sequence from Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast. Leave it to Latvian filmmaker Vasili Mass, however, to recognise the one thing the genre sorely lacked: a film in which a pious young woman dreams about being violated by a giant spider.
50 Countries Project #5: I Am Cuba (Cuba)
I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba, 1964) is, to be fair, not exactly the most obvious starting point for somebody interested in Cuban cinema. Primarily a Soviet initiative, and helmed by the great Russian filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov, the film only happens to fit my criteria because it was filmed in Cuba and received sufficient government funding to qualify as a Cuban co-production. Otherwise, there are many highly regarded films that have been made by Cuban directors, such as Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment and Humberto Solás’s Lucía, and I would encourage readers to track down those titles and others. But no cinephile should go too long without having seen I Am Cuba.
50 Countries Project #4: Waiting for Happiness (Mauritania)
Having grown up in a city whose residents often seemed to be unified in wanting to be elsewhere, I can perhaps identify with some of the longing that permeates Waiting for Happiness (Heremakono, 2002). It is not merely a desire to leave – many people feel a strong connection to their birthplace long after they’ve left for good – but a deep restlessness that the place itself seems to provoke. It is a powerful sense that one has not yet found one’s home.
50 Countries Project #3: Farewell Johnny (South Africa)
A professor, rendered inexplicably catatonic, is placed in an asylum to recuperate. There, he encounters a range of characters who all seem to embody archetypes – among them, a ranting Hitleresque figure in military uniform, a sensitive one-armed painter and a young woman with arrested development – and, with tragic consequences, falls in love.
50 Countries Project #2: Harvest: 3000 Years (Ethiopia)
The cinema of Sub-Saharan Africa is dominated by the continent’s Francophone west; a region that has benefited from a strong film culture and a long history of French institutional funding. Look across to the east and south (South Africa itself excluded), and the offerings become sparse to non-existent. And yet, the best African film I have seen emerges not from Mali or Senegal, but Ethiopia: Haile Gerima’s 1976 masterpiece Harvest: 3000 Years (Mirt Sost Shi Amit).