Reviews From The BAMPFA Spring Schedule

by on March 11, 2024

The Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive (hereafter “BAMPFA”) has announced its film offerings for the Spring Quarter.  Even if one discounts the week of selections from this year’s SFFILM festival or a complete screening of Barry Jenkins’ famed adaptation of “The Underground Railroad,” the new schedule still offers a mix of familiar but well regarded events (e.g. a new Agnes Varda film series) and new and even unexpected programs (e.g. a series of films about Africa’s decolonization struggles and their legacy).

BAMPFA has previously done film series dedicated to the work of late French New Wave director Agnes Varda.  “Viva Varda! (March 23 – May 5, 2024)” is both the name of the newest film series about her and the title of a new documentary about the director.

In “Viva Varda,”  director Pierre-Henri Gibert attempts to open up Varda’s “tightly controlled” narrative regarding her life.  HIs aim is not to tear down the “iconoclast” image of Varda’s youth or the “cool grandma” persona Varda displayed in her last decades.  Rather, the details revealed in Gibert’s film add shading to what autobiographical details the late French New Wave director has mentioned in her films.  For instance, it’s known that during World War II, Varda and her family lived in Sete, the French city that could reasonably be called the poor man’s Venice.  But who was Varda before she came to Sete?

The future auteur may have been a child of privilege.  Her father Eugene owned an Antwerp steel factory which made the cranes used in ports.  However, Arlette (as the director was known then) rejected the class acculturation her traditional family embraced.  Her wild temperament probably wasn’t easy to handle.  But from a present-day vantage point, it was preferable to her tyrannical father’s open anti-Semitism and his contempt for the working class.

Varda’s interest in the visual arts wasn’t the product of family encouragement.  Valentine Schlegel, one of Varda’s friends in Sete, was a sculptor who showed young Arlette how to see beauty in nature’s forms.  Over time, the young sculptor also became Varda’s lover.

It was during this relationship that several significant events would occur in Varda’s life.  Arlette changed her name to Agnes.  She went to school to learn photography.  Most importantly, she would acquire the dilapidated building in Paris’ Rue Daguerre that would become her eventual home and studio in the decades to come.  Gibert mentions that Agnes and Valentine would move to Paris together in 1951, but he’s disappointingly silent on how and why the couple eventually broke up.

Calling Varda the mother or the predecessor of the French New Wave gets shown by Gibert to be somewhat inaccurate.  The director was never much of a theorist or even somebody who actually went to film school.  Her 1954 film “La Pointe Courte,” often cited in connection with the French New Wave, turned out to have gotten a “meh” review from Cahiers du Cinema, the formative organ for many French New Wave directors.  Varda’s later rebuff of Francois Truffaut’s invitation to write for Cahiers could be seen from one angle as a small payback to that prominent journal.

The director’s long relationship with Jacques Demy dates from their meeting at 1958’s Tres Court Film Festival.  The two directors would seem an odd pair: Demy made commercially successful films while Varda preferred pursuing her fringelike cinema in 16 mm creations; Demy loved “The Sound Of Music” while Varda loathed its message of finding happiness in continuing to provide free childcare.  But as a poet from a working class background, the future “The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg” director embodied qualities Eugene Varda would have despised.  More importantly, both Varda and Demy were devoted to the idea of creating a life centered around cinema.

Gibert does not gloss over Varda’s negative traits.  The late director is described at several points in the film by several interviewees as “authoritarian,” “miserly,” and “like a bulldozer.”  Yet these negative qualities turn out to be leavened by sometimes surprising contradictions.  Thus, her authoritarian moments were never mean-spirited.  Her bulldozer-like behavior was also accompanied by an air of fragility.  Varda’s so-called miserliness came out of learning to save money where possible, a survival trait given her continuing difficulties in finding money to make her individual but decidedly non-crowd-pleasing films.

Gibert’s film does suffer from taking a shallower dive into the Cine Tamaris founder’s life than its subject deserves.  Still, “Viva Varda!” does get points for demonstrating by example the truth behind Varda’s motto “Chance is the best First Assistant.”  The man who swallowed live frogs that Varda captured on film was somebody the director encountered on the street.  The chance discovery of heart-shaped potatoes inspired the Varda classic “The Gleaners And I.”  And learning about mini-digital video cameras opened up Varda’s access to the ordinary people she captures in her films.

Whether a viewer sees Varda as a woman whose ability at self-promotion would impress social media influencers or someone whose silly eccentricities continually charms people, that viewer can’t help but agree with Gibert’s titular sentiment of “Viva Varda!”

***

There’s another giant of world cinema also being honored this quarter at BAMPFA with a film series.  Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene’s work would influence several generations of African filmmakers and would introduce Senegalese cinema to the world stage.  To celebrate what would have been the seminal filmmaker’s 100th birthday, the series “Sembene 100 (Now to April 21, 2024)” presents a collection of some of Sembene’s classic work (e.g. “Black Girl,” “Moolade”) in a mix of digital restorations and archival prints.

Ceddo,” the film reviewed here, wound up being banned in Senegal supposedly for not spelling its title with a single “d.”  It’s more likely the film’s open anti-colonialist politics played a bigger role in that decision.  For Sembene’s film casts an unflattering light on such taboo subjects as institutionalized sexism, African complicity in the slave trade, and the undue influence of Islamic religion on African society.

The film itself is set in an unnamed West African village, some time between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The title is the word used to describe the “pagans” aka the common villagers who have chosen to hold onto their traditional fetishistic worship rather than adopt the Islamic religion.  Unfortunately for the ceddo the royal family has converted to Islam.  Under the imam’s malign influence, King Demba War has been treating the ordinary people as second-class citizens.  That systemic oppression leads one member of the ceddo to kidnap the king’s daughter, princess Dior Yacine.  The kidnapper hopes to use the promise of the princess’ safe return to motivate the king to establish a less oppressive relationship with the ceddo.  But what happens when the king and his circle refuses to ease their oppressive behavior?

Albert Johnson’s notes on Sembene’s film label it a political thriller.  The more accurate description of the film would, in this writer’s mind, be “ceremonial political drama.”  Instead of displaying a thriller’s urgent pacing, Sembene’s tale unfolds in a leisurely manner.  The most prominent pieces of music in “Ceddo” either put a comical tinge on the attempts to rescue the princess or surprisingly use a Black spiritual to convey a loss of freedom.  Crucially, the actions of the film’s characters are heavily dependent on ceremony, whether it’s the king’s initial “attend or else” meeting with the ceddo or Dior Yacine’s honoring the imprisoning line in the sand laid by her captor rather than trying to run away for freedom.

Yet the sense of societal order created by ceremony turns out to be a fragile one.  Ceddo spokesman Jogomoy’s public planting of the samp to deliver the ceddos’ symbolic message of “stop oppressing us” is considered an act of insolence rather than a symbolic petition for justice.   Resolving the question of who will have the honor of rescuing Dior Yacine leads to one of “Ceddo”’s best sequences, a flurry of seriocomic trash talking couched in formal language.

“Ceddo” may be set in a temporally and culturally different place than present-day America.  Yet a reasonable person can see parallels in both situations of the hazards of allowing organized religion to become a medium for social division.  “Ceddo”’s imam uses the existence of non-Muslims in the village as a rationale for curbing their political rights and later even the ceddos’ lives if they refuse to convert to Islam.  How different is that from America’s Christian Nationalists, who rely on their oppressive version of Christianity as a rationale for stripping women of their autonomy (e.g. the recent anti-abortion and anti-IVF laws) and LGBTQ+s of rights granted to other citizens (e.g. marriage rights, displaying the Pride flag)?  What separates the paranoiac frenzy against the ceddos (in the name of self-defense, of course) stirred up by the imam from the racist paranoia of supposed attacks against the white race hyped up by the Matt Schlapps of America’s right wing?

The film’s ultimate irony involves the crucial role played by Dior Yacine in the film’s finale.  Seen for most of the film as either a bargaining chip or a damsel to be rescued, her crucial display of autonomy winds up dumbfounding the men around her.  Yet by the film’s end, there’s the implication that what she does is a pyrrhic victory.

***

Related to the “Sembene 100” film series is the unfortunately timely “Tell No Lies: Decolonizing Cinema In Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique (Now to April 24, 2024).”  It casts a wider net on African film by presenting films charting the liberation struggles of several Portuguese colonies on the continent as well as examinations of peoples dealing with the legacy of colonialism.

Filipa Cesar’s documentary “Spell Reel” can be called a cinematic riposte to those who consider learning about history the act of accumulating a lot of irrelevant information.  The title alludes to an accumulation of film footage generally dating from the Guinea-Bissau war of independence as well as the effects on the modern day Guinean audiences shown this footage.

In a perfect marriage of subject matter and expositional form, the story behind the footage (i.e. who shot it, where it was shot, what the footage depicted) is revealed by Cesar in fragments.  That’s because “fragmented” describes the condition of this archival footage.  There are no complete films with beginnings, middles, and ends.  There are scenes from the liberation struggle ranging from a guerilla camp meeting to a rocket attack against a Portuguese base to Guinean women at work in an office.  In addition, the surviving material seen in “Spell Reel” lacks an audio soundtrack.  This last problem is a particular disappointment when footage of a forgotten Miriam Makeba performance is shown.

The films themselves were shot by a quartet of Guineans sent by liberation movement leader Amilcar Cabral to Cuba to study cinema and filmmaking.  Among this group were filmmakers Flora Gomes and Sana na N’Hada, both of whom would later work with Cesar on restoring the surviving footage.  But making this visual record of the liberation struggle came with its own hazards for the camerapeople.  Principally, filming in the field meant constant worries about getting hit by stray bullets or shrapnel.  As the camerapeople were unarmed, their only protection was avoiding being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Weather damage, among other causes, accounts for the faded and disintegrated condition of this historic film stock.  Digital restoration in Berlin preserved the salvageable footage.  But, as an analogy used in “Spell Reel” explains, if we imagine 100 hours of footage was originally shot, only 40 hours wound up being saved for Guinea-Bissau’s national archives.

One of Cesar’s intriguing techniques in the film superimposes a restored archival image over present day footage of the place depicted in the historic images.  The viewer winds up creating a mental stereoscope from juxtaposing a decades-old image with a more recent one.

“Spell Reel,” however, is much more than yet another tale of historic footage saved from the ravages of time.  It’s also a portrait of a people reconnecting with the struggle that gave birth to their country.  For the restored archival footage wound up being taken to the places where it was originally shot and shown to the present day inhabitants of the area.  Survivors of the liberation struggle acted as benshi to provide context for the images seen on screen.  Sometimes other survivors of that period of struggle are inspired to publicly recount their own memories.

The logistics of bringing this archival footage to Guinean villages also impresses with its accomplishment in the face of adverse conditions.  Electrical generation can be spotty or insufficient.  The power cables attract a disconcerting number of ants.  Breakdown of the equipment and packing to go on the road can be challenging when done in the near dark.

Then again, these physical struggles seem minor compared with the logistical struggle behind the movement that liberated Guinea-Bissau.  The leaders of that movement had to unite over 30 different ethnic groups against their Portuguese oppressors.  That unity wound up being accomplished by teaching Guineans the common language of Creole.  If the archival footage screenings can reawaken that spirit of national unity, then they will have done their job.

***

UC Berkeley professor and independent filmmaker Nicolas Pereda curates the film series “Nicolas Pereda Selects: Recent Films From Mexico (March 20 – May 2, 2024).”  The series offers a mix of Pereda’s own short films as well as a selection of Mexican independent films from the last ten years that particularly impressed him.  One such film from this series is Lila Aviles’ Berlinale-winning drama “Totem.”

The film itself is primarily told from the viewpoint of its 7-year-old protagonist Sol.  She has come with her mother Lucia to her grandparents’ home to help prepare for a birthday party for Sol’s father Tona.  As the hours tick down to the party, it slowly becomes unclear whether Tona even wants this party.  For this young artist is slowly dying from an apparently incurable cancer, and his desperate relatives are willing to try everything from exorcism to chemotherapy to save him…even though the cost of previous treatments have exhausted their financial resources.  On top of that, some of Tona’s relatives can’t keep their own private dramas outside.

Sol immediately earns viewer sympathy with her sudden but heartfelt wish that her father doesn’t die.  Yet the little girl’s adult relatives prove unable to provide the comfort or moral support she needs.  Either they’re using party preparation to distract from their own anxieties regarding Tona’s health, or they’re wrapped up in their own problems such as dealing with a husband’s infidelity.  Only Tona’s attendant Cruz displays the emotional tenderness needed to reassure the little girl that her father still loves her and does want to see her.  Sadly, Cruz’s affection and dedication to Tona’s care has not translated into timely payment for her services.

Yet Aviles is not interested in condemning the rest of Tona’s relatives.  Their reliance on exorcism or “quantum therapy” to help Tona get better feel like acts of quiet desperation given cancer has already taken the life of Tona’s mother and the voice of Tona’s father.  Nuri’s simultaneous heavy drinking and birthday cake decoration comes across as an attempt to not let her brother down.  Tona’s father may personally disapprove of the party given Tona’s lack of buy-in, but it’s not a proverbial hill to die on.  The relatives do a good job of making themselves look tacky by hitting up the party guests for donations to pay for Tona’s further medical treatment.

Any sour feeling left by seeing a mother display casual sexism towards her daughter or other shortcomings displayed by Tona’s relatives get outweighed by Aviles’ slowing down the film for the audience to appreciate a couple of precious magical moments involving Sol.  When the little girl lipsynchs at the party to an opera aria, she displays the type of brio that laughs in the face of the sadness of Tona’s impending demise.  Before that moment comes, though, the only sequence in the film where Tona, Lucia, and Sol are together at the same time moves viewers with its undercurrent of fragility.  Tona’s showing Sol an animal painting he did for her also seems like a last memento for her to remember him.  The family’s group hug winds up being both precious and fragile.

“Totem” ends on several ambiguous notes regarding the future of Tona.  The viewer has little idea how much of a time gap takes place between the party’s end and the film’s final images.  Nor is it clear what motivates the arrangement Tona chooses regarding his paintings’ disposition.  But maybe being comfortable with life’s uncertainties is the best way of viewing the situation Aviles chronicles here.

(“Viva Varda!” screens at 4:00 PM on March 23, 2024 and 4:30 PM on April 13, 2024. “Ceddo” screens at 1:30 PM on April 7, 2024.  “Spell Reel” screens at 7:00 PM on April 23, 2024, with director Filipa Cesar appearing in person.  “Totem” screens at 7:00 PM on March 30, 2024.  All screenings take place at the BAMPFA (2155 Center Street, Berkeley).  For further information about these films and to order tickets, go here.)

 

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