The modern world in contemporary films

    FESCAAAL / This year's edition in Milano offered an insight into the major transformations of the modern world.

    The Festival of African, Asian, and Latin American Cinema (FESCAAAL) has been taking place in the north Italian capital Milan for three decades. Its’ founder and organiser, the Association COE, is an NGO active in international cooperation with a focus on education through the arts. They strive to educate their audiences with the films, but they are changing too. In the beginning, the festival, known as The Milan African Film Festival, brought European audiences the themes and languages of new African cinema. Later, the organisers enlarged the perspective, including cinemas from other regions of the global south, and the festival became the «festival of the three continents.» This year’s edition, again, was different from previous ones. It focused on social and political themes, indicating that a new type of film festival is developing, a kind of meta-festival. That is, ever more festivals compose their programs from films screened at prestigious A-category festivals. However, they differ significantly from these festivals in selecting films that highlight the main geopolitical changes in the modern world. Moreover, A-category festivals often promote their canons in the name of quality film. This practice is becoming increasingly anachronistic given the rich and diverse film creativity globally (for example, awarding the same author several times regardless of the plentitude of new authors) and the position of a meta-festival is especially valuable.

    The Year of the Everlasting Storm, a film by Jafar Panahi, Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, David Lowery, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
    The Year of the Everlasting Storm, a film by Jafar Panahi, Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, David Lowery, Apichatpong Weerasethakul

    We are all Africans

    What are the major global transformations that contemporary films point out? First, the social inequalities, even in the most developed countries, became so profound that there is practically no difference between the global south and the global north. Thus The Year of the Everlasting Storm (2021), the omnibus introducing a world cinema perspective on the corona crisis, connected the celebrated world cinema directors such as Jafar Panahi and Apichatpong Weerasethakul with the directors of the global north who contributed the two most daring and heart breaking episodes. Malik Vitthal documented the attempts of the producer and writer Bobby Yay Yay Jones to reunite with his three children, each in separate foster homes, thus revealing a reality that makes the common problems with the corona quarantine simply frivolous. David Lowery, on the other hand, by introducing a perspective of the person lying in the grave, created a powerful metaphor for the feeling of the impotence of contemporary subjects that far exceeds the corona experience – from the lack of prospects for a better life to the helpless attempts of the subalterns to speak up.

    Robert Guédiguian, the determined and sensitive chronicler of the political defeat of the European working class and its transformation into «the poor people», turned his gaze toward Africa and made a film about the socialist movement in Mali immediately after the independence. The Twist in Bamako (Twist à Bamako, 2021) intertwines love and political activism in a way that is perhaps too reminiscent of the clichés of socialist realism. But it is also very effectively bringing up the memories of the prosperous post-colonialist period when in several African countries, the liberation from colonial rule brought about the economic growth along with the thriving of socialist ideas and popular culture – music, fashion, photography. This rich post-independence culture has been recently explored by other disciplines as well. A good example is a retrospective exhibition of the Ghanaian photographer James Barnor curated by Serpentine Galleries from London, which is now touring Europe (MASI, Lugano) and is later moving to the USA (Detroit Institute of Arts).

    The Gravedigger's Wife, a film by Khadar Ayderus
    The Gravedigger’s Wife, a film by Khadar Ayderus

    Children poorer than their parents

    Not only the differences but the similarities are also structural. The phenomenon of children that are poorer than their parents, a typically European thing not long ago, is becoming a global event. Films from «the youngest» continent, Africa, are particularly bitter about that. Take, for example, The Gravedigger’s Wife (La Femme du fossoyeur) by Khadar Ayderus Ahmed, about a husband who, to pay for the treatment of his seriously ill wife, sets from the slum of Djibouti to his peasant family living in the arid land of the desert on the horn of Africa to claim the inheritance that he long ago abandoned in the hope of a better life. Unfortunately, the film tries to suppress its edge by a set of idealisations, starting with the exceptional beauty and goodness of the wife. Not so the documentary We, Students (Nous, étudiants! ), the first-person narration of a group of friends studying economics at the University of Bangui in the Central African Republic. Director Rafiki Fariala is one of them, and he effectively creates the impression that we are observing a «slice of daily life never seen before», as the promotion says. Along with a plentitude of differences, from traditional customs to cultural practices, one similarity with the global north sharply comes to the fore: the older people are not an inspiration anymore. They are perceived as those who took over the crucial societal positions for good, while the young are doomed to a permanently precarious situation.

    Soula, a film by Salah Issaad
    Soula, a film by Salah Issaad

    The myth of a family and parental love

    Like the idea of progress, the idea of family love also seems to have failed. The conventional nuclear family appears to be nothing but a convenient organisational mode that was for centuries masking the exploitation of free female labour and was decisive for the success of capitalism. A series of contemporary films show that this does not work any longer. Two approaches especially stand out. One is the exploration of the pathological nature of the familial roles; the other is the presentation of practices in which the prevalently economical nature of familial bonds comes to the fore. So far, the most outspoken example of the latter is the documentary Children of the Mist (Những đứa trẻ trong sương) by Diem Ha Le, who convincingly exposes the «kidnapping» of teenage brides as a common practice among farmers in the mountainous villages of Vietnam. Other films tackle this same subject in fictional, even humorous way, for example, The Exam (Ezmûn) by Shawkat Amin Korki, about an older sister living in Iraqi Kurdistan, desperately trying to help her kid sister pass the exam to enter the university and thus avoid a forced marriage arranged for by their father who will in this way make space for his new wife. Algerian film Soula (Salah Issaad) – about the case of Soula Bahri (who also interprets the role in the film), a single teenage mother who was a victim of a series of abuses after her father threw her out of her home with her newborn baby – is a hybrid of a road movie and action movie.

    Among the films about the pathology of familial roles, the Colombian film Amparo by Simón Mesa Soto stands out as a loving, devoted mother and a grown-up but immature, helpless son are its’ main protagonists. Yet, the film gradually reveals that these are not typical roles but, on the contrary, the prime symptoms of a society permeated by covert violence of police and military forces. The primary source of this film’s power is the actress, Sandra Melissa Torres, who simultaneously embodies the affirmation of motherly love and its pathological nature. More commonly in this group of films, other persons take the motherly role. It can be a girlfriend as in Whether the Weather is Fine (Kun maupay man it panahon) by Carlo Francisco Manatad. When the city of Tacloban is devastated by a terrible typhoon, the Philippine military fails, and the society deteriorates into individuals who pray for mercy but show no mercy in fighting for survival a teenager Andrea (played by the outstanding Rans Rifol), is trying to save her boyfriend who, on the other hand, is desperately trying to save his mother. But this motherly figure can also be a sister, as in Freda by Gessica Généus, about a young, politically engaged student who, protected by her pagan name, fearlessly faces the challenges of contemporary Haiti. She submits to her mother’s demands to abandon the university and gets a job as a maid, helps her sister who is abused by her husband, and gives money to her brother to study abroad. But she refuses to follow her artist boyfriend who, wounded while sleeping in his bed in Port-au-Prince, takes refuge in Santo Domingo.

    Just like Amparo, these other films primarily celebrate the capacity of outstanding women to adapt to the political climate of military violence and political repression. The relevance of this theme and the urge to face such a probability is obvious. We can only hope that the warning will work and that this does not become a shared experience.

    Melita Zajc
    Melita Zajc
    Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.
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