In a change from your regularly scheduled film festival blogging, I’m sending you dispatches from the Glasgow Film Festival this month. Early in the pandemic I had the idea that I’d celebrate the end of the pandemic with a wee trip to the Berlin film festival, but as things have continued to make international travel unwise, I decided to take the safer option of the Glasgow equivalent. Despite having lived in the Central Belt for most of my life, and even worked in Glasgow for a while, I’ve never really done the full festival experience. (I used to do the Short Film Festival instead, cramming as many screenings of short films into a weekend as was reasonably possible.) Unlike the Berlinale, this festival is only spread over two cinemas, both of them just off – opposite ends of – Sauchiehall Street, which significantly increases my chances of still making the screening in the not unlikely scenario where I turn up at the wrong location for the screening in question. With so much choice on offer I decided to focus on two of the festival’s threads – African Stories and documentaries – in an attempt to narrow down my options, and several of the films I saw qualified for both categories.
This was the first film I saw at the festival and also the first to qualify for both categories. It was introduced as a ‘feel good documentary’ which I feel set it up for failure. It’s an interesting and quite charming underdog story certainly, but this was also a film with quiet undercurrents. The film follows the fortunes of a team of Zimbabwean sommeliers as they prepare to compete in the World Blind Wine Tasting Championship. (I should clarify that the tasting is blind, not the tasters, the wording of the blurb was not as clear as it could have been.) All four of the team members are charming and compelling on screen presences, and for all that they’ve all been through some fairly harrowing experiences, it only shows in how determined they are to succeed against the odds. They seem to worry most about letting down the people who crowdfunded their trip to the competition, but the pride of their sponsors in both Zimbabwe and South Africa that they got as far as they did, is the biggest endorsement of both their countries that the film could possibly give.
In a lot of ways, this is a film about telling stories. The four young men at the centre of the film, are all of them trying to reshape their own stories. All of them are refugees from Zimbabwe, determinedly building new lives in South Africa, yet they are all of them immensely proud to be representing their homeland, pleased to be able to upend some assumptions and prejudices about Zimbabwe both in South Africa and beyond. There are also a lot of other people in this film trying to tell other stories through and around these young men. One of the wine experts interviewed in the film, Jancis Robertson, explicitly comments on the overwhelming whiteness of the culture and that if they want the industry to be more diverse and less insular they can’t just talk about it, they have to do something to attract new blood to both the competition and the wider industry. It’s also nice that we see that their story doesn’t end with the competition, we see little bits of their post-competition lives, the doors that its opened for both those competing in the competition and the careers of the team members themselves.
If the intro to Blind Ambition promised a ‘feel-good’ documentary and the film itself didn’t quite deliver on it, then Rebel Dread was the opposite, the intro gave the impression it would be a serious, slightly worthy documentary and it turned out to be an irreverent and delightful journey through Don Letts’ life and career. Thankfully the audience clearly got what they were expecting – a not insignificant chunk of the audience were clearly there because they’re a fan of his 6Music radio show – and the packed house laughed, cheered and heckled along as appropriate.
The film definitely benefits from having the man himself front and centre, narrating his own life story in a disarmingly honest and unpretentious fashion. Possibly I’ve seen too many documentaries lately where the documentary makers have attempted to render themselves invisible, to create the impression that we are watching reality and that could have really done with a voiceover to keep the structure in place, so it was quite a relief to have a strong narrative voice to guide us. All documentaries about individuals are in their way dialogues between the story the people making the film want to tell and the story the subject(s) of the documentary want to tell. Perhaps inevitably with a film about someone as involved in the music and media industries as Letts this was a film that acknowledged that and even played with it a little. He comes across as quite the raconteur and something of a jack-the-lad – and how often is that a role working class Afro Caribbean blokes are allowed to play in the narrative? – but also as someone who has had to work hard to be taken seriously and respected professionally, and having achieved that, doesn’t need to take himself too seriously personally.
This is a film made with a great deal of affection for both its subject and the wider musical scene of the time, but without having rose tinted glasses – or if it does have rose-tinted glasses, this film is looking at us wryly over the top of them.
Once Upon a Time in Uganda
You may, if you’re the kind of film fan who spends a lot of time in the more esoteric parts of YouTube watching the delightful weirdness that exists in the parts of the industry where people have much larger imaginations than budgets, be familiar with the films of Wakaliwood. In which case the characters of this film will need no introduction. If you’re not, then the important thing to know is that Issac Nabwana is a Uganda low budget action film director who has become something of an internet sensation. The film is the story of the unlikely friendship and working partnership between him and his producer, displaced New York film nerd Alan Hofmanis and their attempts to take Nabwana’s films to the next level.
I was reminded somewhat of a film I saw a few years ago The Prince of Nothingwood about an Afghani film star and producer, making films on a tiny budget largely through force of personality. And perhaps this film would best be described as a cross between that and Talking About Trees a film about Malian film club trying to put on one of their members film in an old abandoned cinema. Another film about people who love films and filmmaking so much that they will try to build a whole film industry/culture in their home country against the odds largely through sheer force of will. It’s also a fascinating look at the reality of what the ‘democratisation’ of film making the digital revolution is supposed to facilitate actually looks like outside of the major film-making centres. There’s something both poignant and defiant about watching a film crew roll out an immaculate green screen backdrop over a set that is simply a blocked off street strewn with rubbish and bordered by an open sewer. (Also Dauda the one man props department is an old school ‘mad engineer’ making props, models and occasionally who vehicles out of cobbled together parts, I can only imagine what wonders he could create with an actual budget.) The electricity may be unreliable and the sanitation non-existent but they’ve got themselves a couple of decent digital cameras and a refurbished laptop that will run editing software and the world is almost their oyster.
(The film makes a couple of explicit digs at the wider international film industry and its snobberies, noting that they’d have an easier time getting funding if they were making ‘serious’ films – about the horrors of the civil war or the grind of local poverty – aimed at the film festival circuit, rather than making fun overblown action movies – primarily aimed at a Ugandan audience and secondarily aimed at an international action movie audience. Apparently cartoon violence is more offensive to certain funders than poverty porn.)
At it’s heart I feel that this film is about two men in their early forties from opposite sides of the world, facing up to the decision of whether to keep pursuing their dreams or settle down. It’s a mid-life crisis of a movie and it absolutely shouldn’t be as charming as it is. There’s just something about the pair of them, their odd couple dynamic, their unswerving devotion to making these charming B-movies that charmed me against my will. And maybe, just maybe they’ll manage to charm the rest of the world, if only just enough that none of them have to give up on the dream.
This one swings in the opposite direction to Rebel Dread being the only film I saw as part of the African Stories thread that wasn’t also a documentary.
Sambazinga is a 1972 film – though it was banned in Portugal until after the 1974 Carnation Revolution – set just over a decade before at the start of the Angolan War of Independence covering the inciting events that led to a prison raid in the eponymous part of Luanda. It follows to contrasting paths of a married couple, first following construction worker and secret revolutionary Domingos as he is arrested, beaten and taken to jail to be ‘interrogated’, focusing on the solidarity between him and his fellow prisoners, and the capricious violence of his captors. The other path we follow is his wife Maria, as she travels from prison to prison occasionally being helped, occasionally being outright abused but mostly just being lied to and sent from pillar to post. As you might imagine from a film about events that prompted the kind of protests that when crushed start widespread civil unrest, this doesn’t end well for Domingos.
(There’s an interesting moment during one of the interrogation scenes where it becomes quite clear that the element the white police officers are most upset about is that one of the members of the revolutionary group – and we only really see them producing leaflets, they seem as interested in forming a workers union as they are in overthrowing the colonial government – Domingos is part of includes one of his white colleagues on the construction site. It seems to offend them on some deep level that they can’t articulate and at some points it feels like they’re attacking Domingos less for what he himself may or may not know or have done, but as a substitute for his unknown colleague.)
One Take Grace
This was my final screening of the festival, and I think both the film and I lost our way somewhat about two thirds of the way through this film. It started off promisingly, dark, strange and compelling, with a strong narrative voice courtesy of it’s protagonist Grace. Grace is a magnetic presence, drawing your attention and holding it. She’s a woman with the kind of history that could make her the subject of pity, but she has no interest in being seen as a victim. She doesn’t want her audience to pity her, she wants them to listen to her, to give her space to her story in her words. I don’t know the story behind the documentary but it felt as though director and subject had met in a professional context – Mothiba Grace Bapela to give her her full name, is an actress having changed careers in her forties – and decided her colourful life-story ought to be a film. There are various points in the film when we see Grace on film sets and stages where she seems very much to be in control – there’s a whole sequence where a younger woman that I think is the director is playing a younger version of Grace while Grace gives her direction – so it very much feels like a collaboration between the two of them. Even the POV shots of Grace at work as a cleaner, just the fish-eye body camera view of the inside of a house, with Grace’s lightly scathing commentary are both clever and compelling, adding to the sense that the documentary wants to put us in her shoes. There are some brilliant visualisations on past events, spare, hand-drawn animations that provide just enough distance from the awful reality of the stories, that the whole process seems therapeutic for, instead of exploitative of Grace herself.
At some point, around half way through the film we discover that Grace has been diagnosed with cancer and as her treatment progresses, so the film begins to, not quite fall apart but to lose focus. As though the film cannot quite hold together without Grace’s drive and creativity, it becomes a documentation of her illness and recovery, but the story they were trying to tell in the first place has got lost somewhere along the way. (Understandably subsumed in Grace’s energy being focused on surviving and being there for her children.) The documentary is fairly experimental in style throughout, but it seems like it needs Grace in the driving seat with her full attention on the project to keep it being good weird rather than bad weird. As it is the film sort of drifts to a conclusion, seemingly a little bereft now that Grace’s attention has moved on to other projects.