Wednesday, 26 December 2018

What to See This Holiday: “I Am Not a Witch”

I Am Not a Witch is the debut feature film of the filmmaker Rungano Nyoni. Nyoni was born in Zambia and moved to the UK with her family when she was nine years old. Her short films made after she graduated from the University of London earned her a formidable reputation, and this new feature has launched a promising international career in feature filmmaking, having played at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival (in the Directors’ Fortnight), winning Nyoni a BAFTA, and garnering a number of prizes at the British Independent Film Awards. I give this background merely because I’m so pleased to report the successes of an African emigrant in the art-house filmmaking world, and because I derive great pleasure from anticipating the work to come from young artists whose early works are already so strong.

I Am Not a Witch, which is mostly in Nyanja, with English subtitles, follows an eight-year-old girl (Maggie Mulubwa) who first goes without a name and is later named Shula (“uprooted” in Nyanja), and who is accused by some of the angry villagers around her of witchcraft. Shula is totally alone, afraid, and wholly uncertain of herself, and does not deny the villagers’ accusations, opening her to exploitation by local leaders who claim to protect witches. Shula is taken by the government official Mr Banda (Henry Phiri) to a camp for witches, where other accused women are kept practically as slave labourers and tourist attractions. A witch-doctor judges whether or not they really are witches (note that when a man can show capabilities of witchcraft, he enjoys a position of power) and, if they are, they’re fitted with harnesses to which ribbons are tied, keeping them within a tight radius around the camp’s truck that transports them from their beds to wherever the government requires them to be. Shula is singled out for witch-related work by the government: She divines guilty culprits from a line-up of criminal suspects and brings rain to the fields of farmers who pay her handlers, and is rewarded with favours such as biscuits and gin. With the help of Mr Banda’s wife, she grows in self-assurance, but also gains awareness of the grim situation she’s in and the abusive systems of power that brought her there.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

What to See This Holiday: “Paris is Burning”

Available on Netflix and on DVD.

Fans of the reality competition series RuPaul’s Drag Race would do well to learn about the roots of the drag culture represented by the series, and perhaps the preeminent audiovisual guide to that culture’s development is the documentary Paris is Burning, by Jennie Livingstone. In fact, it comes not from the roots of the culture, but was filmed and released at what many saw as the end of the Golden Age of New York City drag balls, in the late 1980s. Livingstone films some of these drag balls, and interviews members of the black, Latino, gay, and transgender communities of New York City who participate in them.

Livingstone met a group of young gay men in Manhattan while she was a film student at New York University, who introduced her to the drag ball culture. She met the dancer Willi Ninja, who gave her an education in drag competitions and the peculiar phenomenon of “voguing,” of which he offers an extended explanation onscreen in Paris is Burning. Ninja subsequently became an important figure in popular music and dance, and was crucial to introducing voguing to the mainstream culture.

Livingstone also interviews a number of prominent drag queens onscreen, who explain various aspects of drag culture, as well as a few young gay and transgender people, who relay their experiences as queer and vulnerable people in a tough, brutal city. Of particular interest to Livingstone is the young trans woman Venus Xtravaganza, who was a teenager when she was first interviewed by Livingstone.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

A Highlight of 2018: “Support the Girls”

If I post only one more review this year, I want it to be one that draws readers’ attention to one of the highlights of my movie-going year. Andrew Bujalski’s new feature film, Support the Girls, may, at first glance, seem an unlikely highlight, because the style is so understated and muted, but the movie in fact packs powerful emotion and such brilliant, original insights to its story that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after each of the couple of times that I saw it.

Support the Girls all takes place in one day, following the activities of Lisa (Regina Hall), the manager of a Hooters-like sports bar called Double Whammies, serving, in her words, “boobs, brews, and big screens”. Her primary concern is the wellbeing of her staff, the tightly-clothed waitresses of Double Whammies, and she doesn’t hesitate to put a leering or loud-mouthed customer in his place when one of her girls is disrespected.