It’s a Crazy World at the We Are One: A Global Film Festival
From May 27 to June 7, the We Are One: A Global Film Festival took place online, for free on Youtube. Film festivals from around the world contributed entries, ranging from a few premieres to slightly older films to very old, restored films. It was a feast of films, from Ugandan action to Argentinian allegory, and from new films set in modern Macau to silent classics set in India.
Crazy World (Nabwana I.G.G., 2019)
One of the more heartening developments in world cinema recently has been the continued existence and growing popularity of Wakaliwood, the DIY studio put together by Nabwana IGG and the residents of the Wakaliga neighbourhood of Kampala. They’ve made a dozen or so films to date, although only three have made it to the international festival circuit: 2010’s Who Killed Captain Alex?, 2016’s Bad Black, and now Crazy World, which may be a reworking of a film called Crazy World: A Waka Starz Film which was shot in 2014. Working quickly with handmade equipment and friends and family, the Wakaliwood films are knowing and often hilarious reconfigurations of international action cinema into the local experiences and concerns of a gang of ingenious, self-taught superfans.
While Crazy World isn’t quite as sophisticated (for lack of a better word) as Bad Black, its collection of kid actors fighting back against their captors while their parents are largely helpless to rescue them is not without resonance. The fight scenes show off real athletic technique (Nabwana says that he and his brother learned martial arts from a Chinese sports magazine), but the star of the show is the narrator, VJ Emmie, who interprets and comments on the action with an unending stream of jokes and movie taglines. A storyline about internet piracy adds a new layer of meaning onto the older footage, as the studio that once built a whole movie score around playing “Kiss from a Rose” on a keyboard now threatens international movie thieves with its attack helicopter, accompanied by the theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The pirate has become the piracy hunter.
Black Barbie (Comfort Arthur, 2016)
The We Are One festival programme contained an animated shorts selection provided by the Annecy International Animation Film festival. The film that impressed me most was Black Barbie by Comfort Arthur. Based on her own experiences as a Ghanaian woman born in the United Kingdom, she tells the story of a little girl who hates the brown Barbie her mother gives her. This brown Barbie doesn’t meet her ideas of what beauty is. She’d prefer a white doll.
In her short 2D animation film, she uses brightly coloured drawings to depict how the little girl grows up loathing her own skin colour. A poetic voice-over accompanies the drawings and tells of what she has been through. By the age of 23, she buys her first bleaching cream to make her skin lighter. Although putting the cream on her skin causes an awful feeling, she keeps doing it.
Seeing this film in times of the Black Lives Matter protests, increases the importance of this short. While the media only shed light on the perspective of adults in the contemporary discussion, Black Barbie gives a voice to the inner world of a child with a dark skin colour. It’s awfully sad that a girl at such a young age already starts developing such a negative image of herself as well as a distorted idea of beauty standards.
The aim of the film is to encourage people to love themselves, irrespective of their skin colour. However, Black Barbie can also be considered as a call to not only embrace the beauty in ourselves, but also recognise the beauty in others.
Lisa van der Waal
Eeb Allay Ooo (Prateek Vats, 2019)
Like its central character, Prateek Vats’s Eeb Allay Ooo takes some time to find a groove. The movie intersects several different current issues with life in Delhi – namely the increase in people moving to the city to find work, nature being forced to assimilate into ever-expanding modern spaces, and the absurd disjointed nature of work hierarchy. This last problem is where the film finds comedic hijinks and rightful indignation in equal measure. Anjani, who reluctantly takes on the job of a ‘monkey repeller’ despite being terrified of monkeys, is consistently at the butt of every joke and harassment from higher-ups – his bosses, his more experienced coworkers, and his family and friends. What we come to realise is that the chain of command exists in nearly every traditionalist institution of India, where abuse is directed downward in steps. The movie does a good job leveraging this for satire but also reminds us of the tragedy of these circumstances.
Shiraz: A Romance of India (Franz Osten, 1928)
A few years ago, The BFI National Archive digitally restored Shiraz: A Romance of India, and commissioned a new score by Anoushka Shankar, daughter of Ravi Shankar and an accomplished sitar player and composer in her own right. Shankar’s music lends an extra layer of atmosphere and authenticity to this German/British/Indian co-production.
Although it is based on Indian history, based on an Indian play and shot on location in Jaipur with an all Indian cast, its official director is the very German Franz Osten. The British part of the production probably partly pertains to India still being part of the Empire at the time. Nevertheless, Osten doesn’t film this epic romance as some western tourist, and his film feels just about entirely Indian. Which should also be credited to the local cast & crew, and producer and title star Himansu Rai. Rai made a number of historical films in the 20s and 30s, including two more with Osten, The Light of Asia (1925) and A Throw of Dice (1929).
Shiraz inserts the fictional title character into the story of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his second wife Mumtaz Mahal. The impossible love triangle that ensues causes much drama, from personal pain to two near executions and at least one exile. All to result in the building of the Taj Mahal, the tomb Shah Jahan had made as a monument to his then deceased wife Mumtaz. Fitting then that besides the exciting romance, it’s the setting in an actual palace that feels most impressive and appropriate for the epic love story.
Kaj van Zoelen
Adela Has Not Had Supper Yet (Oldrich Lipský, 1978)
The Countess Thun’s dear dog has vanished and she enrols her favourite American detective, Nick Carter, to join her in Prague and help find the culprit. Carter learns to speak Czech with a phrasebook in the plane (he’s a genius), arrives in disguise (he’s a master of disguise), and easily avoids being murdered by a series of antagonists (he has a special hat). The One World Film festival reportedly asked the different festivals for a selection of lighter, positive content, and the Karlovy Vary Film Festival (KVIFF) certainly delivered with this crazy and funny detective tale.
Directed by Oldřich Lipský in 1977, the film was to feature in the special section KVIFF has recently promoted to encourage the digital restoration of Czech classics. Over the past two years, this section has gifted us the restored versions of such gems as Gustav Machatý’s Ecstasy (1933), Miloš Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1965), and Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (1969).
Let the dulcet tones of the Czech language serenade you into false security. The feature will never fail to surprise you when you least expect it. The pleasantly wordy title Adela Has Not Had Supper Yet evokes a moody young woman, perhaps complaining to one of her suitors. But no, these words are uttered by a revenge-seeking pseudo-botanist, about his beloved flesh-eating plant, Adele. This creature was created by prominent Czech animator Jan Švankmajer, and is only revealed in its full glory towards the film’s end. You will never look at house-plants the same way again!
Colette de Castro
Electric Swan (Konstantina Kotzamani, 2019)
Konstantina Kotzamani’s mysterious and allegorical Electric Swan is a particular example of the range of works in the We Are One Global Film Festival. We follow Carlos, a security guard in an apartment complex whose job is to greet residents and ensure the overall safety of the building he watches over. As we unravel ourselves in the world, however, we see that the building on Avenida Libertador 2050 is clearly divided by social class, with the wealthy living on the top floors and the working class living on the bottom. To make matters worse, the building itself is beginning to shake. Naturally, the anxieties of the residents are based on their social standing, as those that live on the top floor are afraid of falling out of the moving building and those on the lower floors fear they’ll drown. It is up to Carlos to ease the residents’ fears, all while trying to control his own. At a brisk 40 minutes and filled with magical images, Electric Swan is a film that takes inspiration from the works of Tsai Ming Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul to create a world as beautiful as it is strange.
Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy (Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, 2013)
Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy messes around as effervescently as its teenage protagonist. Mary is in her last year at high school. She tries to maintain a carefree life, despite biting off more than she can chew, after proposing to create the school’s yearbook together with best friend Suri. In her, she can confide her amorous troubles. But not for long, as Suri wants to study abroad after graduation. Mary’s fickle nature is expressed by her tweets appearing on screen. Director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit copied these from the anonymous twitter account @marylonly, creating his fiction around those at times cryptic aphorisms.
Whereas All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) related a story of teenage melancholy through its display of chats on the screen, here the similar appearance of tweets is more vivacious. Mary’s caprice often is a source of humour, and editor Chonlasit Upanigkit lets her jump around until the brakes screech in charming fantasy scenes. The whimsy is reminiscent of French New Wave films like Zazie dans le métro (1960) and it is, therefore, no surprise that a fake Jean-Luc Godard makes an appearance in the fantasies that build Mary’s character. Sometimes the self-imposed conceit shines through too explicitly, for instance when an impeccably timed tweet gets repeated verbatim.
However, there is a darker side to the caprice which makes Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy an affecting delve into Mary’s psyche. When the graduation turns from rite of passage into an ordeal, Thamrongrattanarit unearths this melancholic aspect, making the film an enthralling capture of teenage life beyond the smartphone screen.
Sjoerd van Wijk
Sisterhood (Tracy Choi, 2016)
After 442 years of Portuguese rule, Macau was transferred to China in 1999 and against the backdrop of this monumental change, two hearts quietly break in Tracy Choi’s Sisterhood. The whole film is a constant and skilful play with metaphors in its bid to create a subaltern and humane backstory for a city known for its lights and money.
A group of women who work in a massage parlour form the microcosm for pre-1999 Macau; an improbable feminist utopia where the women sexually gratify men, profit from it, and yet manage to maintain an inner world that lies far away from the predatory clutches of masculinity. With the slow dissipation of old Macau into a glitzy casino city, it is only natural that these tender female bonds disintegrate in the face of an uncertain and capitalist juggernaut of a future.
Western portrayals of queer love often get reduced to the binaries of the inside and the outside of the closet where coming out becomes a big climactic action. Sometimes they just become victims of a fetishistic gaze. Choi, refreshingly, doesn’t get caught up in the performativity of queerness in Sisterhood and instead imagines an alternative queer family structure and love that is built on the basic premise of friendship and community. As opposed to filmic utopias, where one is not made privy to the class and labour relations, Choi’s utopia is built out of manual labour. It is steeped in debt, risks gentrification, struggles with addiction, but survives.
With Sisterhood going back and forth in time, Choi’s narrative resists a linear telling of Macau’s history; at once it’s a queering of history and a retelling that celebrates the labour that built one of the world’s richest economies.
Bedatri Datta Choudhury
A City Called Macau (Li Shaohong, 2019)
When a film starts with a voice-over narration by a life-weary woman recollecting her past experiences with men while speaking perfectly standard Mandarin, there is a high possibility that you are watching one of Li Shaohong’s films. When the world on-screen is filled with nostalgia and decadence, it is even more likely. Where is Macau in all this?
In A City Called Macau Li Shaohong revisits the golden days of the gaming industry, which has overtaken the city’s economy after 1999 Macau’s handover from Portugal to China. The story revolves around Xiao’ou, who works as a casino broker to meet the needs of Chinese visitors flocking to Macau to gamble the big money earned in consequence of economic reforms. Her recollections cut through the 2000s to mid-2010s, focusing on her relationship with two men: a flamboyant businessman and a gifted artist. This cannot end well.
The title made the film a perfect match for International Film Festival Macau contribution to We Are One: Global Film Festival. Completed in the context of the relatively quiet 30th anniversary of Macau’s handover and the death of Stanley Ho – the man credited for transforming the city into one big casino – A City Called Macau projected a promise of an in-depth summary of the recent history. The material is abundant, however the narrative seems to be running in vicious circles as the main character’s motivation continues to be puzzling. Yan Geling’s script does not match the level of the one she crafted for Feng Xiaogang’s Youth, maybe just because the context was less personal this time.
A City Called Macau falls short of expectations, instead of the nuanced portrait of the city, it presents an anachronistic story of a woman taking pride in self-sacrifice. The main problem is that after three decades since the handover, the story is told solely from the Mainland Chinese perspective, turning Macau into a flat background with little more than few landmarks and story filled with stereotypes.