Category Archives: Politics

Nothing without its meaning: Mali Blues ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 29, 2017)

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“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”              

-H.L. Mencken

African women live through too much hell and suffering                               We should look again at our ancestral beliefs and assess them               Keep what’s good for us, and reject all that harms us                               African women live through too much hell and suffering                            They cut it…stop female circumcision!                                                           Mother, it hurts so much                                                                                                    It hurts so much

-from “Boloko”, by Fatoumata Diawara

Needless to say, self-taught Mali guitarist-singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara does not make her living churning out moon-June pop tunes. She is a creative artist who is fiercely and fearlessly dedicated to speaking truth to power. That’s the kind of stance that makes you a lightning rod anywhere in the world (especially if you are a woman), but it borders on suicidal in an impoverished West African nation where Islamic militants have declared war on music and musicians. From a 2012 Guardian article by Andy Morgan:

The pickup halted in Kidal, the far-flung Malian desert town that is home to members of the Grammy award-winning band Tinariwen. Seven AK47-toting militiamen got out and marched to the family home of a local musician. He wasn’t home, but the message delivered to his sister was chilling: “If you speak to him, tell him that if he ever shows his face in this town again, we’ll cut off all the fingers he uses to play his guitar with.”

The gang then removed guitars, amplifiers, speakers, microphones and a drum kit from the house, doused them with petrol, and set them ablaze. In northern Mali, religious war has been declared on music.

When a rabble of different Islamist groups took control of the region in April there were fears that its rich culture would suffer. But no one imagined that music would almost cease to exist – not in Mali, a country that has become internationally renowned for its sound.

“Culture is our petrol,” says Toumani Diabaté, the Malian kora player who has collaborated with Damon Albarn and Björk, to name but a few. “Music is our mineral wealth. There isn’t a single major music prize in the world today that hasn’t been won by a Malian artist.”

“Music regulates the life of every Malian,” adds Cheich Tidiane Seck, a prolific Malian musician and producer. “From the cradle to the grave. From ancient times right up to today. A Mali without music? No … I mean … give me another one!”

In his new documentary, Mali Blues, Lutz Gregor follows popular world music artist Fatoumata Diawara as she prepares for her appearance at the 2015 Festival of the Niger. Originally born in Ivory Coast to Malian parents and currently living in France, Diawara has not been back to Mali since she left at age 19. That is why her participation in the festival has profound personal significance; it signals Diawara’s first performance in her home country since achieving international recognition and success.

Several of Diawara’s fellow Malian musicians also appearing at the festival are also profiled, including Taureg guitarist Ahmed Ag Kaedi, rapper Master Soumy, and ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate. As a guitar player, I was particularly taken with Kouyate’s mastery of his instrument…he’s like the Hendrix of the ngoni. I have never seen anyone play an electrified ngoni before; much less with pedal effects (like a wah-wah). To just look at this oddly rectangular, 4-string banjo-like instrument, you’d never imagine one could wriggle such a broad spectrum of power, beauty and spacious tonality out of it.

Beautifully photographed and edited, with no voice-over to take you out of the frame, Gregor’s documentary plays like a meditative narrative film. In the film’s most bittersweet scene, Diawara performs “Boloko” (her song about the draconian practice of female circumcision) for a small audience of women and girls in a Mali village where she spent her formative years. After a moment of silence following the performance, the women begin to ruminate.

“A song is nothing without its meaning,” one woman says to Diawara, continuing, “You are good and courageous.” And, as this extraordinary film illustrates, a culture is nothing without its music…or its poetry, literature, or art for that matter. Those who would destroy it will never hold a candle to the good and courageous.

Blu-ray reissue: Seven Days in May ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Seven Days in May – Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray

This 1964 “conspiracy a-go go” thriller was director John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate (the cold war paranoia force was strong in him!). Picture if you will: a screenplay by Rod Serling, adapted from a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

Kirk Douglas plays a Marine colonel who is the adjutant to a hawkish, hard right-leaning general (Burt Lancaster) who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The general is at loggerheads with the dovish President (Fredric March), who is perceived by the general and some of the other joint chiefs as a “weak sister” for his strident support of nuclear disarmament. When Douglas begins to suspect that an imminent, unusually secretive military “exercise” may in fact portend more sinister intentions, he is torn between his loyalty to the general and his loyalty to the country as to whether he should raise the alarm. Or is he just being paranoid?

An intelligently scripted and well-acted nail-biter, right to the end. Also with Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien, and Martin Balsam. No extras (Warner has a rep for skimping on them), but a great transfer.

Blu-ray reissue: Being There ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Being There – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

For my money, the late director Hal Ashby was the quintessential embodiment of the new American cinema movement of the 1970s. Beginning in 1970, he bracketed the decade with an astonishing seven film streak: The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and this 1979 masterpiece.

Adapted from Jerzy Kosinki’s novel by frequent Ashby collaborator Robert C. Jones (who was not credited…a hitherto unknown tidbit revealed in an extra feature), it’s a wry political fable about how a simpleton (Peter Sellers, in one of his greatest performances) literally stumbles his way into becoming a Washington D.C. power player within an alarmingly short period of time. Only in America! Richly drawn, finely layered, at once funny and sad (but never in a broad manner). Superbly acted by all, from the leads (Sellers, Melvyn Douglas, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Warden, Richard Dysart) down to the smallest supporting roles (a special mention for the wonderful Ruth Attaway).

Like Sidney Lumet’s Network, this film only seems to become more vital with age. The Trump parallels are numerous enough; but one scene where Sellers meets with the Russian ambassador (a great cameo by Richard Basehart) has now taken on a whole new (and downright spooky) relevancy. Criterion’s Blu-ray features a beautiful 4K restoration and a plethora of enlightening extra features.

SIFF 2017: This is Our Land ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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This French film might be a little too close for comfort…while ostensibly based on the rise of far-right populist candidate Marine Le Pen, it could just as well be the cautionary tale America desperately needed about, oh, two years ago. Emilie Dequenne is quite good as a single-mom home care nurse with no previous political experience who gets sweet-talked by a local right-wing power-broker into running for mayor on a populist ticket. Her campaign is compromised once she becomes romantically re-involved with her old high-school boyfriend, who claims to have put his dubious past involving a xenophobic extremist group behind him. Belgian director Lucas Belvaux’s film (reminiscent of Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate) is a sobering reminder that that old axiom about “the road to hell” being “paved with good intentions” is truer than ever.

SIFF 2017: Boundaries **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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Have you ever heard of the tiny island-nation of Besco, which is located “50 km off the coast of Labrador”? Me neither. I sheepishly asked Mr. Google, and found out that it is from the mind of writer-director Chloe Robichaud (next thing you’ll tell me is that movies are totally make-believe). I admit, she really had me going for 98 minutes (oh, those Quebecois film makers!). The film is a feminist parable about an emergency summit called for by the newly-elected female president of “Besco” to negotiate possible foreign investment in the island’s iron ore. At its best, it reminded me of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero; at its weakest, it’s uneven and ultimately too “inside” for anyone unfamiliar with Canadian politics.

SIFF 2017: Angry Inuk ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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Canadian film maker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril hails from an Inuk community near Baffin Island, where locals rely on traditional subsistence seal hunting; not only to literally put food on the table, but to earn a living from commercial sales of sealskin products. In 2009, the European Union banned commercial trade in all seal products except for those from Indigenous hunts. While that seems a reasonable concession, the director and her fellow Inuk activists feel that the legislators and animal rights groups miss the fact that the ban has all but killed the market for the products-thus putting the Inuk people in dire economic straits. Aranquq-Baril’s documentary is wise, witty and thought-provoking, offering up a unique perspective on this controversial issue.

SIFF 2017: The Force ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling (my review). It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides.

SIFF 2017: White Sun ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Director Deepak Rauniyar uses the family row that ensues when a Maoist rebel returns to his isolated mountain village for his Royalist father’s funeral as an allegory for the political woes that have divided and ravaged his home country of Nepal. Naturalistic performances and rugged location shooting greatly enhance a story that beautifully illustrates how a country’s people, like members of an estranged family, must strive to rediscover common ground before meaningful healing can begin.

SJFF 2017: The Last Laugh ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one. How many Jews can you fit in a VW? No, seriously…you should stop me, even if you haven’t heard it. Because if you do know the punch line, and you think it’s funny, shame on you. Of course, if you’ve never heard it, and now you’re dying to know the punchline, then, shame on me for propagating this horribly tasteless joke, even in this strictly academic context. Because now you’re going to Google it anyway, and if you do, and think it’s funny, then, shame on both of us.

I’ve had people tell me that sophomoric joke over the years, having no idea that I’m Jewish. And every time, I am so tempted to completely destroy them with one simple sentence: “You know, I have relatives on my mother’s side of the family who died at Auschwitz.”  But I don’t. I take the high road; I give a perfunctory chuckle, glance at my watch and mumble something about being late for this thing I have to get to right away.

I think that’s the gist of this documentary, which is built around this rhetorical question: Can the Holocaust be funny? Now, I am by no means a prude, or a P.C. scold. As a former stand-up comic, I firmly believe that when it comes to comedy, no subject is taboo, including the Holocaust. That doesn’t mean that I find anything intrinsically funny about the Holocaust…because I don’t. I think it’s possible to cogently stick to my comedy credo as well my opinion that only a sociopath would find the Holocaust “ha-ha” funny.

But, “Tragedy + Time = Comedy”, right? Anyone? Bueller?

Even Mel Brooks, who is one of the professional funny people on hand to opine on the topic, won’t “go there”. Remember, this is the guy who gave us “Springtime for Hitler”. However, as he astutely reminds us, he may have made fun of Hitler, the Nazis, and the very idea of the Third Reich in his classic film The Producers…but he wasn’t “making fun” of the Holocaust, or milking laughs from it in and of itself in any way shape or form.

And that’s the general consensus from nearly all the comedy luminaries who appear in the film, like Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner, Judy Gold, Carl Reiner, Susie Essman, Larry Charles, Jeffrey Ross and Harry Shearer; that nothing is off limits in comedy, but everyone still reserves the right to draw their own line, and not ever cross it.

But what about those who actually lived through the Holocaust? That’s where the film gets particularly fascinating; when director Ferne Pearlstein invites survivors to weigh in. It is through their stories that the film ultimately finds not only its heart and soul, but critical historical context concerning a people who have developed a deep-seated cultural fatalism and sense of gallows humor purely as a survival mechanism to get through all the shit that’s been dumped on them for 5,000 years. Hey, quit laughing-that’s not funny.

(For more info, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

SJFF 2017: Germans and Jews ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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Can’t we all just get along? If you’re talking Jews and Germans, even in the context of here and now in a modern, (very) democratic Germany…it’s complicated. This documentary was the brainchild of NYC-based (non-Jewish) director Janina Quint, who grew up in Germany, and her friend, producer Tal Recanati, who was born in the US, but spent some formative years in Israel. The result is a fascinating study about collective guilt, forgiveness, sins of the fathers and sociopolitical backlash. Don’t expect pat answers; on one hand, it’s been over 70 years since WW2 ended…on the other hand, it’s only been 70-some years since WW2 ended (if you know what I’m saying). And yes, there are discomfiting moments, but this film is timely and thought-provoking.

(For more information, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)