52nd SFIFF Wrap-Up: “Sacred Places,” “Can Go Through Skin,” and “Go Go ‘70s”

by Peter Wong on May 13, 2009

What if video bootlegging could help provide a public service? That’s one of the questions raised by Jean-Marie Teno’s quietly provocative documentary “Sacred Places.” The title primarily refers to Nanema Boubakar’s Your Cine Club, a video screening hall that doubles as a Muslim prayer space. But it’s also a portrait of the St. Leon slum district, located in Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

Boubakar may screen bootleg DVDs of Hollywood films. However, his half-a-shoestring operation barely covers much beyond rent and electricity. More importantly, for St. Leon’s poor residents, the cine club offers the community entertainment they can afford and a communal space for evening relief from their daily grind.

Teno shows Boubakar screens bootleg videos because it’s what he can afford. African films are definitely welcome. But getting a simple VHS cassette of such films would cost him half a month’s rent.

Teno’s portrait of St. Leon also includes conversations with the inhabitants of the area. Of the people seen on screen, one of the more memorable is djembe player Jules Caesar Bamouni. Not only does Bamouni use his drumming to announce new selections at the cine club, but the viewer learns about the art of making a djembe.

But the footage devoted to Abbo the public writer and Bamouni the drummer provide more than armchair exotica. The drummer in particular makes an interesting analogy showing how cinema is the modern iteration of the African griot.

One such cinematic storyteller, legendary African filmmaker Idrissa Ouedraogo, takes the radical stand of accepting bootleg videos as a means of building new audiences for African films in the long run. As 1990s-era American fans of anime can attest, Ouedraogo’s point is borne out by experience. Back then, anime was not legally available in the U.S. except on a very limited level. Now, anime and manga are ubiquitous parts of American pop culture.

Ouedraogo’s vision of African film’s future may be a dream like Boubakar’s hopes of buying a more modern TV set. But Teno ultimately shows those dreams sustain hope in what would otherwise be a very difficult life.

Esther Rots’ “Can Go Through Skin” may possess the unfortunately familiar story of “sexually assaulted woman lives with the emotional repercussions of her attack.” But Rots’ disturbing work eschews the neatness of prosecution and revenge. Instead, the story veers into emotionally unexpected territory.

For starters, central character Marieke’s assault never looks like an act of cinematic voyeurism. The images are brutal and sudden, never titillating. Even when Marieke is forced to literally run naked into the freezing street to escape her attacker, that act of survival comes across as a final moment of public humiliation.

That sort of sensitivity extends to the handling of the aftermath of the assault. Neither the prosecution nor Marieke’s rebuilding a fixer-upper never trasmute into simplistic metaphors of the woman’s healing process. The viewer is denied any certain knowledge of the attacker’s legal fate. The refurbishing of the house never comes to completion.

Instead, Rots’ film follows Marieke’s very wobbly healing process. That decision to avoid emotional neatness never feels indulgent or deliberately trying of the viewer’s patience. Instead, that approach raise the unsettling question whether an insistence on neat legal resolution actually conceals societal inability to openly and non-judgmentally discuss rape or other forms of sexual assault. Electronic chat rooms may be decried as the bane of in-person conversation. But for Marieke, one such chat room provides the only venue to honestly discuss her sexual assault.

On the other hand, watching Marieke’s emotional swings doesn’t make for easy or comfortable viewing. Her aggressive hermit stance seems unprovoked at times. Seeing Marieke’s revenge fantasies against her attacker appear chillingly matter-of-fact but never cathartic.

The sound design work on this film provides several striking emotional metaphors. Marieke’s bathroom assault feels like a birth into a strange and terrible world. The babel of women talking about their rape experiences give voice to what society had left in silence.

“Can Go Through Skin” may not be the cinematic equivalent of being worked over by several baseball bats. But its uncomfortable emotional landscapes are ones that deserve a viewer’s visit.

Choi Ho’s “Go Go ‘70s” offers far lighter fare with its tracing the career of 1970s South Korean rock band The Devils. But underneath the bouncy if not always transcendant music is the reality of repression by the South Korean government in that period.

“Go Go ‘70s” bears only a superficial similarity to “The Commitments.” Both films may admittedly deal with bringing soul music to an unexpected place. But the Irish-based film’s rockers found emotional parallels between their people and the blacks. Sang-gyu and his fellow Devils make racist comments about blacks. More noticeably, the South Korean audiences initially greet with puzzlement and maybe boredom The Devils’ channeling of James Brown.

Fortunately, with a little help, Sang-gyu’s crew does eventually click with Seoul’s youth. The musical numbers, such as a Korean-adapted version of “Proud Mary,” do make for fun listening. But if The Devils never rise to the rebelliousness represented by Jimi Hendrix, their simple existence and popularity provides a medium for rebellion in a climate of government-promoted regimentation.

American viewers may wonder just how much of Choi Ho’s film is reality and how much is fictionalization. The sack of rice prize story turns out to be true, judging by the end credits photo of the real-life Devils posing with a sack of rice. But of the rest, one cannot say.

Did Choi Ho err in not making “Go Go ‘70s” a more overtly political work? The vintage newsreel clips do show what South Korean youth were rebelling against. The film’s only major political statement is Sang-gyu’s public burning of his draft card notice. On the other hand, American-style rebellion would have been brutally squashed by the country’s government had it posed a real threat. One can carp with the film’s politics, but not its story.

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