Monthly Archives: November 2017

  • I Am Not a Witch

    Rungano Nyoni (2017)

    In an interview in Sight & Sound (November 2017), the writer-director Rungano Nyoni expresses her great admiration for Michael Haneke:  it’s apt that white ribbons are such an important image in Nyoni’s first feature I Am Not a Witch.   In Haneke’s film, set in the early twentieth century, the children of a Lutheran pastor are made to wear a white ribbon to remind them of their duty to be pure of heart.  Nyoni’s debut, set in present-day Zambia, also features a white-beribboned child but the material is a tie that binds in a more literal sense.  In the opening scene, a group of tourists visits a ‘witch farm’, where they observe a huddle of middle-aged and elderly women, their faces painted white, their bodies attached by white ribbons to a huge, single spool.  A guide explains that, if not restrained in this way, the women – they are witches after all – might fly away.  I Am Not a Witch soon becomes the story of eight-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), who is sent to join this company.

    Nyoni loses no time in suggesting the arbitrary nature of witchcraft accusations.  Shula is in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In a largely deserted rural landscape, a woman carrying a pitcher of water trips, falls and spills her cargo.  Shula is standing nearby.  The woman decides that the girl put the evil eye on her.  The police officer (Nellie Munamonga) who investigates the incident is properly sceptical but Shula’s refusal either to confirm or deny the accusation poses a problem.   A white ribbon is attached to her clothing and she is given a choice:  either cut the ribbon and risk being transformed into a goat or leave the ribbon intact and join the witch farm.  She opts for the latter.  She is (on the evidence of the film but see last paragraph below) an exceptionally young witch and a politician singles her out for special treatment.  Mr Banda (Henry B J Phiri), Minister for Tourism and Traditional Beliefs, starts to exploit Shula’s potential for saving government money and boosting revenue.  He uses her alleged powers to settle civil cases in court.  He takes her onto a primetime television chat show – though it’s he who does all the talking there.

    The ‘Smooth Talk’ show sequence is one of the film’s several juxtapositions of ancient and modern, indigenous tradition and Western influences, in Zambian culture.  The members of the TV studio audience that has just enjoyed a rap performance look blankly or curiously at Shula when she and Banda come on stage.  The ‘coven’, although segregated from their families, can still have occasional contact with them and a witch’s daughter brings to the farm a supply of wigs, which the witches try on.  The hairpieces are named for the celebrities who inspired them – the daughter refers to them the Beyoncé or the Rihanna or the Kim Kardashian.  (The daughter speaks in an African dialect.  The English subtitles suggest, by misspelling these famous names, her idiosyncratic pronunciation of them.)  Shula spends time in Banda’s swanky home.  His wife Charity (Nancy Murilo), who lives and dresses in high style, explains that she herself once faced accusations of being a witch.  She emphasises to Shula the importance of becoming ‘respectable’ and shows off the Bandas’ chandeliers but the décor also includes a witch spool (like a giant cotton reel) and Charity is still expected to put a white ribbon on if she leaves the house.  The choice of European classical music on the soundtrack – a very deliberate choice, according to the S&S interview – supplies another cultural dichotomy.  Although this music seemed to me nothing more than strikingly incongruous, it may well be personally meaningful to Rungano Nyoni, born in Zambia and raised in Wales.  (She moved from Lusaka to live in Cardiff at the age of eight – Shula’s age.)

    The comedy – even though it’s troubling comedy – in these illustrations of culture clash helps lighten the film’s mood.   So does Banda, and with a similar caveat.  He is easily made to look foolish:  by the increasingly resistant and resourceful Shula; through his craven attitude in a meeting with tribal royalty; in his blustering condemnation of a phone-in caller to ‘Smooth Talk’, whose tricky question Banda dismisses as an abuse of freedom of speech.  He’s a vain buffoon but an influential one.  Nyoni also gets sarcastic humour out of tourist attitudes to Zambia’s witch ‘industry’– especially a cooing, sentimental white woman who tries to ‘cheer up’ Shula by taking her photograph.  I Am Not a Witch is lifted too by the sheer, controlled confidence of the filmmaking.  Those white ribbons are versatile in their texture and movement – lovely as they quiver in the wind, frightening as they’re pulled tight to thwart an attempted escape and the fugitive witch is dragged along the ground.  David Gallego’s cinematography gives the dusty, parched rural terrain an imposing severity.  The closing scene – in which the witches change from their usual blue-grey garb into red robes, to conduct a funeral service – has great visual impact.

    Since the witches are bidding farewell to Shula, this finale leaves no room for doubt that Rungano Nyoni’s story, in spite of its various amusements, is a fundamentally unhappy one.  On what appears to be the night before her death, Shula says that she regrets that, when she had the choice, she didn’t opt to cut the white ribbon – even if this had meant turning into a goat.  A goat, says Shula, can move about freely – though her older companions remind her it can be eaten too.  Although the style of the film is often realistic, there are points in the narrative where Nyoni eschews realism for the sake of what she judges a more important symbolism.  It isn’t made clear, for example, why Shula doesn’t protest, at the outset, that ‘I am not a witch’; but her reticence effectively conveys the message that women, perhaps especially girls, accused of witchcraft in the society Nyoni is describing don’t have a voice in fighting this cultural tyranny.  The director doesn’t explain either the circumstances of the young girl’s death but it makes symbolic sense to the extent that Shula is doomed (though the lack of explanation was still, to this viewer, frustrating).  Maggie Mulubwa completely satisfies what Nyoni surely wanted from the child playing Shula:  she’s engagingly individual yet, partly because she has so little say, eloquently representative.

    That last word reminds me that I doubt I’d have realised the setting was specifically Zambia, rather than ‘a sub-Saharan African country’, if I hadn’t read about the film beforehand.  The persistence of belief in witchcraft is strong across the sub-continent and I’m ignorant of the variations between countries in how this manifests itself.  As she recently made clear to the Guardian, Rungano Nyoni set out to excoriate not belief in witchcraft as such but its social consequences:  ‘It’s not the belief that I’m against, or that I question, because spooky things happen all the time in Zambia.  It’s that the witch accusations, are always aimed at older women or children. This is the bit I find absurd.’  Nyoni’s agnosticism enriches the film’s final sequence, in which rain suddenly starts to fall over the gathering of witches in mourning.  The downpour is long-needed:  Shula had been put under pressure to bring it about – in one scene, she was made to do a rain dance.   Is the opening of the heavens at her death a sarcastic irony or one of Nyoni’s ‘spooky things’ happening?  Either way, it makes for a beautiful closing image.

    9 November 2017

  • Tokyo Twilight

    Tokyo boshoku

    Yasujiro Ozu  (1957)

    The season is winter and the hour, as the title predicts, often late – the outdoor scenes mostly take place at night.  The outwardly dark weather is unusual for Yasujiro Ozu, so are the abortion and suicides strands of this family melodrama, and that may explain the lukewarm reception of Tokyo Twilight on its original release.  The usual visual formalities are still in evidence, though, along with examples of the Japanese domestic and social routines that typically feature in Ozu’s cinema.  For much of the film, these conventions serve to increase the accumulating tension of the narrative.  It’s only in the climax that the melodrama occasionally seems, to western eyes at least, melodrama of a more familiar kind – but even then there are dissonant notes.  As Akiko (Ineko Arima) lies in hospital following a suicide attempt, her elder sister Takako (Setsuko Hara) and their father Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) are at her bedside but neither is tearful and Takako seems hardly sympathetic:  ‘Pull yourself together!’ she scolds Akiko (that’s what the English subtitle says anyway).  The injunction is fruitless:  Akiko dies – though not on screen.  Her death is reported by Takako to the sisters’ mother Kisako (Isuzu Yamada) and comes as a shock not only to her but to the film’s audience too.  Kisako, who walked out on the family years ago and whose unexpected return to Tokyo is an important plot trigger, subsequently sees Takako again, calling at the family home to bring flowers for Akiko’s funeral.  Kisako then prepares to leave the city with Sakai (Nobuo Nakamura), her second husband.  As their train waits in the station, Kisako watches through the window in the hope that her surviving daughter will reappear at the last minute.  Although Sakai assures Kisako this won’t happen, viewers raised on Hollywood product of the 1940s and 1950s will realise that, like Kisako, they’re hoping against hope for a happy ending.  Sakai is correct:  Takako doesn’t turn up.

    The long-past estrangement of Kisako and Shukichi  is the seminal event in the story (written by Ozu and Kogo Noda), the start of a pattern of loss and separation that has developed in the years that followed and that continues in the film’s present tense.  Kisako’s and Shukichi’s three children were raised by and experienced the love of only one parent.  Takako’s and Akiko’s brother subsequently died.  Near the start of the film, Takako, who is married with an infant daughter, leaves her husband Yasuo (Kinzo Shin) and, with her child, moves back into Shukichi’s house, where Akiko, who is at secretarial college, also still lives.  Shukichi’s sister Shigeko (Haruko Sugimura) is an enthusiastic but ineffectual matchmaker:  Akiko already has a boyfriend, Kenji (Masami Taura), a student who hangs out with his friends at a local mahjong parlour.  Akiko discovers that she is pregnant.  When she goes to the mahjong parlour to look for Kenji, she gets into conversation with the proprietress, who shows a surprising knowledge of Akiko’s family.  The proprietress is Kisako.  Takako guesses as much when Akiko tells her about the encounter, before going to the mahjong parlour herself to confirm her suspicions.  Akiko realises that Kenji doesn’t love her and decides to have an abortion.  Although Kisako has begged Takako not to reveal her identity to Akiko, this happens, resulting in a confrontation between the mother and her younger daughter in which Akiko berates Kisako for walking out on the family when she was a toddler.  An argument between Akiko and Kenji in a noodle bar swiftly follows.  Akiko rushes out of the bar and, at a nearby intersection, into the path of a train, sustaining what prove to be fatal injuries.  (Ozu characteristically makes clear that this was a suicide attempt by means less direct than actually showing it.)  Akiko’s death in effect halts the succession of break-ups within or involving the members of her family.  Takako, anxious to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself, decides that she and her child will return to Yasuo.  She will try again to make the marriage work.

    It’s simply but strongly eloquent that Sukichi and Kisako are never on screen together – nor are Takako and Masuo.  A good deal of sake is downed in the course of the film:  from the opening scene, when Shukichi calls in at a bar on his way home from the bank where he works; through the sequences in at the mahjong parlour and the noodle bar where Akiko and Kenji have their final argument; to the hip flask that Sakai drinks from and offers to his wife as they await the start of their long train journey from Tokyo to Hokkaido.  There are fine, persuasive details throughout – perhaps especially in the hospital episode that follows Akiko’s attempted suicide:  the persistent sound of a dripping tap; the yawning receptionist; the noodle bar owner (Kamatari Fujiwara), who did the decent thing by coming to the hospital but who takes the opportunity, while he’s there, of talking up his noodles.  After seeing Late Spring and An Autumn Afternoon, it’s hard to watch Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara without thinking of their father-daughter partnerships in those other films.  Ryu’s emotionally supple acting means that once again he’s the outstanding member of the cast.  Hara, as before, supplies a remarkable, melancholy image in individual shots although her movement from one emotion to another is relatively laborious.  According to Joan Mellen’s 1976 book The Waves at Genji’s Door – Japan Through Its Cinema, ‘Abortion, for Ozu, is symbolic of a social disease afflicting all of Japan after the war’.  The other kinds of family fracture dramatised in Tokyo Twilight may also express his regret at developing modern trends.  Yet the film artist in Yasujiro Ozu still trumps the social commentator, even in this melodramatic context.  He doesn’t treat any one of his characters dismissively.  My resistance to his supposed masterwork Tokyo Story got me off to a very slow start with Ozu but the more films of his that I see, the more I now want to see.

    10 November 2017

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