Tuesday, 11 April 2017


Rialto Cinema in New Market is hosting this year's New Zealand African Film Festival, so I decided to catch a couple of the films.

Ben & Ara (Nngest Likke, 2017)

Set in the United States, Ben & Ara is about the relationship between two philosophy doctoral candidates at an unnamed university, one an agnostic (Joseph Baird) and the other a devout Muslim (Constance Ejuma).

Ben & Ara has two solid leads, its heart (and head) are in the right place and does not try to tie things up in a convenient bow. But the movie is seriously flawed. On the technical front, the movie is hard to watch. The main problem is that it is made up almost entirely of tight close-ups, which really undermine any sense of geography and relationships between characters. The movie feels overly claustrophobic and boxed in.
The two leads are quite good, and have a good chemistry, but the rest of the cast feel like they are in a student film. Q'orianka Kilcher, who you might remember as Pocahontas from Terence Malick's The New World, plays another student with whom Ben has formed an open relationship. She doesn't really get out of it well, but it's more a result of an underwritten role and the insistence on framing every shot as front-on close ups than anything she does.
Ultimately it is the half-baked script, and the stifling technical choices which limit Ben & Ara's impact. 
Children of the Mountain (Priscilla Anany, 2016)
I then watched Children of the Mountain, which turned out to be a completely different experience.

After their child is born with a cleft lip, cerebral palsy and Downs Syndrome, Essuman's boyfriend abandons her. While she has the help of her good friend Asantewaa, she is ostracised by her community who see the child as a sign of her immorality. Desperate to find a cure, Essuman goes on a journey to save the child -- or rid herself of it.

Children of the Mountain is an extremely empathetic picture about an extremely sensitive question: is Nuku a benefit or burden for Essuman? The film is ultimately resolves this conflict to the affirmative, but the journey getting there is harrowing. I appreciated the arc of Essuman's character, and how the filmmakers are unafraid to show her in a negative light: at various points in the narrative, she abandons Nuku. While her choices can be awful, the filmmakers pay attention to laying out the various forces (personal, social, cultural and religious) that Essuman constantly has to confront. it's rare to see a character as fallible as Essuman in a movie and her journey toward reconciling with her child is always engrossing.
The one quibble I have with the movie is the ending. There is a deux ex machina which happens which I still am not sure about. It feels a bit pat for a movie that has previously been so daring and unpredictable.
Initially I was concerned when I saw that they had cast a child with a cleft lip as Nuku. It was difficult to judge whether the child had any of the character's other impairments.  The kid does not have to do much, but there is a scene where he is abandoned by a river which made me question the ethical implications of such casting. A brief segment before the credits cleared up this concern.
Acting by the unknown cast is all great and completely believable. Rukiyat Masud delivers a multifaceted, brave performance in the lead. Despite the character's frustrating actions, she remains highly watchable and painfully human.
By turns hopeful and disturbing, Children of the Mountain is powerful, and will probably give you a few days worth of arguments about the issues it raises.
Train of Salt and Sugar (Licinio Azevado, 2016)
Set in Mozambique during the 1977-1992 civil war, the movie concerns the occupants of a rickety old train travelling through rebel-held territory across the border into neighbouring Malawi, where they trade salt for sugar, a precious commodity.  
 While they are constantly harassed by rebel attacks and traps, the major conflict is on the train itself, between the passengers who just want to get home, and the soldiers, who see the passengers as little better than the rebels outside.
The cast are all great. Melanie de Vales Rafael (playing the young nurse Rosa), Matamba Joaquim (the sympathetic Lt. Taiar), Thiago Justino (playing the macho, psychopathic soldier Ensign Salomão) are probably the standouts, but even the smaller parts, like the train engineers, have moments to shine. It helps that all of the cast are complete unknowns -- it's refreshing to go into a movie with no idea about who anyone is playing, and who could die.
Technically, the movie is the strongest of the three I saw. Licinio Azevado's direction is very good. He makes good, dynamic use of the main location. If you pay attention, you'll note that he keeps the perspective locked to the area around the train -- we never see events from the rebels' point of view. The viewer is as anchored to the train as the people on it. It's understated, solid story-focused direction that will hopefully get him more attention. This kind of craftsmanship is rarely prized these days, and so it's always a pleasure to see it onscreen.

A solid, unpretentious genre picture, The Train of Salt and Sugar manages to be about something without descending into didactic-ism. That it does so while juggling some seriously dark drama and some lashings of humour is a testament to great filmmaking and a terrific ensemble cast. Check it out.

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