Most film scholars, critics, and avid viewers never assume documentary films are unbiased, fact-driven texts, and recognize the problematic consequences in believing such a fallacy. The very process of filmmaking, the very nature of its goals, is communicated through subjective edits, camera placement, music cues, or coverage, aesthetics that shape stories into a specific point of view. Take such diverse icons of the medium as Frederick Wiseman, Peter Davis, D. A. Pennebaker, and Michael Moore, and what connects these auteurs isn’t style or substance, but their desire to advance a certain thematic idea about the way we live. In short, the term “nonfiction” is bullshit, and something that should be immediately questioned. This assertion isn’t particularly fresh, but bears reminding when unlocking a wrenching, thoughtful, and admittedly slanted documentary like Mugabe and the White African. Its power regarding the human condition stems from the very fact that the filmmakers believe one side is honorably right and other is undeniably wrong.
Battle lines are drawn almost immediately in Lucy Baily an Andrew Thompson’s indicting film about Mike Campbell, a white African farmer and resident of Zimbabwe for over 25 years who acts as a symbol against President Robert Mugabe’s racially motivated land-reform bill. Mike, his son-in-law Ben Freeth, their respective families, and almost 500 farm workers are under constant threat of eviction and physical harm by Mugabe supporters, armed men who stake out a farm and intimidate the white owners into leaving. Mugabe instituted the reform bill under the disguise of economic growth and prosperity for the poor. But the filmmakers easily prove the legislation was created to make Zimbabwe an all-black nation, replacing white farmers with government cronies who’ve never operated such intricate businesses. A totalitarian connection is apt, as Mugabe himself says, “Let me be Hitler, tenfold,” and the devastating results of this transition can be seen in the millions of fallow land acres and thousands of once employed workers now destitute, trends that threaten the country’s food supply and job market. Mugabe and the White African establishes these loosely explored facts, giving the viewer a broad basis in the politics and social issues before focusing entirely on the specific, multi-dimensional characters under duress.
The opening shot of sunbeams streaming through a dark rain cloud flushed with thunder and lightning evokes the tension between these overlapping ideologies, rendering the inherent violence and the possibility of compromise through nature’s overt symbolism. This somber B-roll footage soon gives way to a montage of Mike preparing for his testimony in front of the SDAC Tribunal Court in Namibia, where he is challenging Mugabe’s authority. Walking to the courtroom Mike muses, “Is it possible to be a white man and an African?,” firmly positioning questions of identity that will remain crucial throughout the film. The first of many postponements and interruptions to Mike’s case starts a debilitating trend of inaction, and the filmmakers establish this legal quagmire for justice as the story’s core narrative structure. While the audience waits with Mike and the always optimistic Ben, the possibility for grave danger builds stronger with each legal delay, and Mugabe and the White African becomes part thriller, part procedural. During the sequences at the farm, a dense and expansive plot of land with more nooks and crannies one can count, the film feels like a western where homesteaders are under siege, with Ben calling Mugabe’s henchmen “farm invaders.” The two men even have to mount up late at night with rifles to investigate a disturbance on the homestead. All of these moments are steeped in dread.
As the courts continue to postpone Mike and Ben’s case and surrounding neighbors experience horrific beatings, the stakes rise to almost uncomfortable levels. Mugabe and the White African spends time with these people waiting for the inevitable violence to come, and there isn’t a thing neither filmmaker nor subject can do to stop it. The last half hour of the film might not come as a shock, but the horrific imagery presented speaks to the gravity of the situation and the conviction of these people. Baily and Thompson build momentum up this point, showering the viewer with impressions, statistics, interviews, but it’s the picture of a bloodied and beaten Ben that becomes the film’s main thesis. “There’s no manmade thing we can trust,” Ben says, his convictions to succeed and defend his father-in-law’s land growing stronger with each breath. Ultimately, Mugabe and the White African is not about unbiased examinations of social strata, political topics, or even contrasting points of view. It’s a film concerned with the essential struggle at the heart of every minority, be it a white in Africa or any other person demanding a fair shake.
While Mugabe and the White African might end with a rousing victory worthy of the best legal thrillers Hollywood can muster, anyone familiar with the themes of government corruption and greed should keep the celebration somewhat muted. As the closing credits suggest, the long reach of a brutal dictator cannot be fully transcended, only endured. But the overarching result of the struggle doesn’t take precedent in this masterful documentary. Mike, Ben, and their respective wives Angela and Laura all share a consistency of spirit and resolve that becomes the elemental connection binding this particular human experience with the generational value of a specific place. Ben sums his ideology up best when he cracks a smile despite his maimed face and utters, “I believe it’s been a wonderful day.” Quotes like these are color blind, and link the two white Africans with their true brothers of Zimbabwe, the working people who share their desire for a just state. I don’t see Mugabe and the White African as a “love letter” to the Campbells, like a fellow colleague of mine recently stated. To me, this enthralling film feels more like a double-edged poem, rife with both violence and hope, desperation and resolve.
Shot on standard DV, Mugabe and the White African isn’t necessarily a beautiful looking film, but First Run Features has done a good job of rendering all the flourishes of color and texture the story has to offer. Many of the landscape shots are on the bright side, blowing out the natural light of the farm country. The sound design is consistently well balanced, highlighting many of the ambient noises of the countryside, but also drowning out noise altogether in moments of crisis.
Supplemental material is incredibly lacking on this disc, consisting of only a handful of still photographs showing Mike, Ben, and Laura on the farm with their workers, and a written Q&A with directors Lucy Baily and Andrew Thompson that could have been attached to the press notes for the film’s theatrical release. Overall, this disc sorely lacks substantive material for one of the best documentaries to come along in years.
Mugabe and the White African fully believes in the humanity and good will of its subjects, and doesn’t mind taking a biased point of view to prove their vision is just.
Cast: Mike Campbell, Ben Freeth Director: Lucy Baily, Andrew Thompson Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 94 min Rating: - Year: 2009 Release Date: December 14, 2010 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Forty Guns
Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.4.0
Though shot in a drum-tight 10 days, and on a low budget, writer-director Samuel Fuller’s raw, punchy noir-western Forty Guns isn’t a film of half-measures. As it acquaints us with Tombstone, Arizona, the parched Cochise County town where its action takes place, the 1957 film does so with an unbroken dolly shot that runs the entire length of main street, taking in something like 50-plus actors in choreographed motion and encompassing both an exposition dump and a startling zoom-and-pan reveal.
When Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), the territory’s domineering land baroness, conducts her daily business via horseback, she does so with all 40 of her grizzled hired hands in tow, a thunderous spectacle trotted out for matters both large and small. And when a tornado rips over the hills, realized by Fuller and his crew as a high-powered dust storm that renders the landscape a grainy, swirling abstraction, Stanwyck is right in the middle of the fray; the script called for Jessica to be dragged along with the hoof of a runaway horse, and Stanwyck insisted on performing the daredevil maneuver herself, much to the chagrin of producers.
Bold expressionism and brawny physicality were staples of Fuller’s filmmaking career—qualities surely indebted in some part to his experiences as an infantryman and cameraman during World War II—and in Forty Guns the entire cast is synchronized with that sensibility. The film is possessed of an earthy eroticism, evident in a number of scenes dedicated to watching Tombstone’s men bathe openly under the afternoon sun, as well as in an insistent streak of sexual innuendo in the dialogue, wherein any talk of a man’s gun is quite transparently an allusion to his cock.
Upon the arrival of pacifistic U.S. Marshal Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan), carrying a warrant for the arrest of Jessica’s rotten brother, Brockie (John Ericson), in town with siblings Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix), the townsfolk’s dormant sexual energies are expulsed, with Wes angling for local gunsmith Louvenia (Eve Brent) and Griff himself going after Jessica. In a place where gunfire is the prevailing expression of emotion, violence and sex thus become intimately entangled—a link visually represented when Wes and Louvenia’s mutual desire is consummated by an eccentric down-the-rifle-barrel POV shot that Jean-Luc Godard would crib for Breathless only three years later.
This suggestive visual punnery aside, the structure of Forty Guns ultimately accommodates a shift from lewd flirtation to emotional vulnerability, with the at-first caricatured threat of violence becoming a real and deadly threat indeed, as new bonds are sewn and prior allegiances are fissured. Griff, having vowed to retire his six-shooter, awakens Jessica’s sensitive side in the process of spending time with her, breaking down her desperado roughness with his nonviolent, levelheaded enforcement of the law.
The moment when Jessica seems to have fully emerged as a more complicated woman than she initially appeared is among the film’s most beautiful: When she and Griff find shelter from the aforementioned tornado in an abandoned barn, a lilting crane shot descends from the rafters to find the lovers entangled from head to toe in a pile of hay, the camera finally landing in an intimate two-shot to survey their nostalgic exchange without a single cut. It’s a scene of aching tenderness in the midst of bawdy farce and jolts of brutality, but such a commiseration of souls proves fleeting in a land of hardened alliances and quick triggers, and it’s this very union that acts as the catalyst for an accumulating body count.
The film’s tonal swing from goofiness to severity is best exemplified in the three Tombstone ambushes conducted by Brockie. The first, seemingly the result of a drunken whim, is a maniacal shooting spree played mostly for shock laughs (save for the mood-puncturing casualty of an innocent blind man), and concluded by Griff’s swift pistol-whipping of the terrified Brockie. Mirroring this is a more coordinated attack later in Forty Guns when a wedding is interrupted by a surprise bullet, immediately throttling the mood from revelry to tragedy—and leading to a hymnal-led funeral scene to rival those in John Ford westerns. Finally, the third ambush in Tombstone finds Griff again marching calculatedly toward a menacing scene, only this time unsure of the whereabouts of the aggressors. Fuller stages the scene as a high-wire standoff between three disparate points of threat, juicing the dramatic irony to a breaking point until Griff expertly diffuses the situation, but not without preventing another death.
Shot in black-and-white CinemaScope at a time when the format was largely reserved for color productions, Forty Guns‘s deep chiaroscuro anticipates the characters’ deadly impulses and the grave directions that the drama takes. It all leads to a climactic showdown of remarkable savagery that seems to confirm an irrepressible violence within the hearts of even the most upstanding among us—though it’s followed then by a studio-mandated corrective to it, a scene that partially aims to clear the dust churned up by such a bleak capper. Fuller includes a line of dialogue that complicates the uplift, but even if he hadn’t, Forty Guns‘s damning treatise on gun infatuation and the incapacity to transcend one’s nature had already landed its heaviest blows, leaving a bitter aftertaste that no smearing of schmaltz could quite undo.
Studio-shot interiors are granted a superb degree of contrast, with the deep, inky shadows doing full justice to the film’s celluloid origins, in addition to mirroring the bottled-up anxiety and rage in the characters. Meanwhile, location work in the foothills of Arizona is awesomely vivid. When Barbara Stanwyck or Barry Sullivan ride across the landscape on horseback, the subtle gradations and tones of the arid ground are as compelling as the action being depicted. And suitably for a film at least partly about the destructiveness of firearms, the howling gun blasts heard on the audio track are enough to get the attention of the neighbors, if not too loud to overwhelm the at-times hushed dialogue and gentle desert ambiance.
The meatiest supplement here is “A Fuller Life,” Samantha Fuller’s affectionate feature-length tribute to her father’s experiences as a journalist, infantryman, and filmmaker, unconventionally presented as a series of readings from his autobiography, A Third Face, by directors and actors who knew him. Not all these participants seem equally enthusiastic about the project, and the documentary consequently has some dry, overly wordy passages. But the access to Fuller’s treasure trove of personal material—clips from his old bylines, footage from WWII, and production files—makes it never less than a fascinating excavation for acolytes of the artist.
Similarly rewarding in this regard are the three other bits of deep-dive Fuller content: an entertainingly candid 1969 interview with the director that can be played as a commentary track, a printed excerpt from A Third Face that goes into some detail about Forty Guns‘s production, and a newly shot interview with Fuller’s second wife, Christa Lang Fuller, and daughter that plays like a heartfelt stroll down memory lane. Rounding out the package is an essay by film scholar Lisa Dombrowski and a new interview by critic Imogen Sara Smith, who, in a welcome pivot from all the attention lavished elsewhere on Fuller, conducts a fairly thorough examination of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in Forty Guns, hailing it as an impassioned summation of a career that was on the decline by the late ’50s.
Samuel Fuller’s libido-fueled, feverishly stylized B western gets a lavish reincarnation on home video courtesy of Criterion.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Gene Barry, Robert Dix, Jidge Carroll Director: Samuel Fuller Screenwriter: Samuel Fuller Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Release Date: December 11, 2018 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Let the Corpses Tan
The solid audiovisual transfer will allow home viewers to fully experience Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s unrelenting, expressionistic assault on the senses.3.5
Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan might rekindle a familiar debate regarding style and substance in art and whether the distinction matters in discussions of aesthetics. Riffing on 1970s-era Italian crime films, Cattet and Bruno Forzani get so lost in their catalogue of fetishes that they lose grasp of the snap and tension that drive even a mediocre heist narrative. That’s partially the intention here, as the married Franco-Belgian filmmakers are aiming for a wandering bloodbath that stews in their characters’ obsessions, which presumably parallel their own, but those obsessions often feel trivial, distracting from the abstract plot.
In Let the Corpses Tan, Cattet and Forzani announce their self-consciously derivative intentions with explosions of paint that suggest blood as well as the act of ejaculation. This link—between art, sex, and violence—is the thread purportedly uniting the film’s various shoot-outs, sexually and religiously inflected fantasy sequences, and odd camera angles, lurid color stocks, and splintered editing. Luce (Elina Löwensohn) is a painter living out among the jagged and sunbaked cliffs presumably somewhere along the Mediterranean, where she drinks, works, sunbathes, fucks, and keeps the company of a traditionally motley collection of misfits. Some of these misfits have just robbed a truck carrying hundreds of kilos of gold, brutally killing several guards and police officers in the process. These acts are played nearly for comedy, with explosions of blood that echo Luce’s splattering of paint against canvases. And the crimes bring the police upon Luce’s desert idyll, triggering a shoot-out that spans the majority of the film’s running time.
The film’s desert setting is memorably beautiful and punishing, and Cattet and Forzani milk it for quite a bit of its erotic potential, gazing at Luce’s often nude body as she sweats in the sun while the coterie of grizzled thugs ogle her. Pleasurable for their own sake, such scenes also affirm the notion of the gold heist as a re-channeling of unfulfilled sex. A little of this symbolism goes a long way, and amusingly so, though Cattet and Forzani keep indulging jokey metaphors, from a lamb roasting sensually on a spit to a martyr fantasy in which Luce is tied nude to a stake, her breasts lactating champagne.
The latter sequence offers a juxtaposition of cruelty and sadomasochistic sex that might’ve been startling in a film less grab-bag in nature—if, say, the scene had been allowed to serve as a narrative culmination, suggesting that the heist and hostage situation inspires in Luce a reckoning with forbidden desires. In this context, however, it feels as if Cattet and Forzani are merely adding another whimsy to their woodpile in order to certify their bona fides as cult rebels. There’s another violent and sexual fantasy sequence later in the film, which seems present just to give the audience a nude shot of another actress, and the images are festooned with leather, guns, insects, skulls, and seemingly endless close-ups of the bad-ass bank robbers’ faces.
Let the Corpses Tan is diverting when watched for 10 minutes—and which 10 minutes you choose doesn’t really matter, as the film runs in circles, re-digesting its conceits as characters stalk and kill each other. In the end, Cattet and Forzani’s pastiche is less reminiscent of Italian crime films than of Quentin Tarantino’s own brand of orgiastic cinephilia, and this contrast elucidates why Let the Corpses Tan feels so hollow. Though Tarantino is also a trickster enthralled with formalist gimmicks, his best films have emotional texture, expressing the longing that drove him to movies to begin with. Cattet and Forzani are too cool for such vulnerability.
On the whole, Kino Lorber’s transfer leans a bit on the dark side, leading to more muted reds, greens, and golds, especially throughout the film’s daytime sequences. Still, the graininess of Manuel Decosse’s 16mm cinematography is ably preserved; the acute textural details found in the film’s endless array of close-ups of sweaty, expressive faces and objects in motion are beautifully rendered. The nighttime sequences, often shot with a blue filter, still offer ample contrast between the deep black shadows and carefully lit bodies that move gracefully in and out of them. The 5.1 surround and stereo sound tracks are particularly impressive, offering an evocatively layered and full-bodied mix that highlights the film’s intricate sound design. The crackle of fire, creaking of leather, and bursts of gunfire sit forward in the mix, replicating the sensorial overload of the theatrical experience.
Film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Queensland Film Festival Director John Edmond, who have known each other for years, evince an amiable rapport on their engaging audio commentary, and while this frequently leads them into light-hearted digressions, they do manage to cover a large amount of ground regarding the cinematic influences that inform Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s aesthetics. Their discussions of ’70s Italian crime films, gialli, and spaghetti westerns are informative if a tad predictable. More fruitful and compelling are the stretches where their talk veers into the unexpected, such as the influence of Satoshi Kon on the filmmakers’ sense of narrative structure and the film’s playful warping of time through rapid-fire editing. Perhaps most enlightening is when Heller-Nicholas and Edmond link Let the Corpses Tan, for its plethora of associative metaphors and reliance on sexual and religious iconography, to George Bataille’s Story of the Eye and the work of Kenneth Anger. The only other extra included is a theatrical trailer.
Kino Lorber’s edition of Let the Corpses Tan is fairly slim on extras, but the solid audiovisual transfer will allow home viewers to fully experience Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s unrelenting, expressionistic assault on the senses.
Cast: Elina Löwensohn, Stéphane Ferrara, Bernie Bonvoisin, Michelangelo Marchese, Marc Barbé, Marine Sainsily, Pierre Nisse, Marilyn Jess Director: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani Screenwriter: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Release Date: January 8, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: A Dry White Season
This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.4.0
The opening shot of A Dry White Season depicts two young South African boys, one black and one white, laughing and merrily playing ball with each other. This moment of harmony, a tacit reminder that racism is learned, is soon torn asunder by the viciousness of South Africa’s apartheid system. The forces of division at work in the country are charted after the tranquil opening, with the black child, Jonathan (Bekhithemba Mpofu), arrested and brutally caned for attending a peaceful student protest and the white boy, Johan (Rowen Elmes), seen playing rugby with schoolmates who are, of course, all white. Soon we learn that Jonathan’s father, Gordon (Winston Ntshona), works as a gardener for Johan’s father, Ben (Donald Sutherland). When Ben sees the bloody cane marks on Jonathan’s buttocks, he immediately begins rationalizing the actions of the police, unable to admit that they acted irrationally. Johan, upon glimpsing the same wounds, can only gape in horror.
Director Euzhan Palcy spends much of the film’s first act visually delineating the extent to which South Africa has been divided under apartheid. In the black townships of Soweto, for example, there’s scarcely any vegetation to be found in the drab, arid ground. Meanwhile, Ben’s home and other white communities are verdant with irrigated, perfectly manicured lawns. And while Ben has a friendly rapport with Gordon, he never forgets his assumed superiority to the man, who must address his boss as Mr. Ben in even their most informal moments. Ben’s initial inability to consider that the police crossed a line with Jonathan changes when the boy is killed and buried in an unmarked location. When Gordon attempts to find the whereabouts of his son’s body, he too is abducted, tortured, and murdered, leaving Ben so stunned that he’s shaken from his oblivious privilege.
The remainder of the film tracks Ben’s attempts to get answers for these shocking events and the fallout it brings to both Gordon’s family and his own. Seeking justice for Gordon, Ben takes his case to a human rights lawyer (Marlon Brando, giving perhaps his weariest and least showy performance), who can only solemnly urge the man to drop this case, as it will never be upheld by an apartheid judge and will only bring him misery. This grim prophecy soon proves true as Ben’s increasingly zealous quest to broadcast the atrocities of the government earns him the enmity of a brutish police captain (Jürgen Prochnow), alienates his wife (Janet Suzman) and daughter (Susannah Harker), and enrages Ben’s colleagues and friends. It even brings further horrors onto Gordon’s surviving family, who are systematically harassed and evicted from their home in retaliation for Ben’s behavior.
In maintaining her focus on both families rather than just Ben’s, Palcy traces the pervasiveness of apartheid’s methods of reinforcing the status quo using everything from social stigma to outright violence. That Ben, riddled with guilt and horror, tries to honor his dead friend and ultimately makes things worse for Gordon’s widow is held against the man, but the director nonetheless foregrounds the near-impossibility of an individual resisting a regime devoted to an ideology like racism. Palcy does occasionally confront Ben with his ignorance, as when he wistfully tells his black driver, Stanley (Zakes Mokae), how they’re both equally African as he reminisces about growing up on a farm, only for Stanley to sarcastically bring up other aspects of “real” African life, such as having to carry one’s ID papers everywhere or being thrown in prison. Ben, embarrassed, trails off and falls silent. Yet Ben is consistently presented with complexity and empathy as he slowly becomes politically aware, and if A Dry White Season ultimately illustrates the high cost of true allyship in a system of segregation, it nonetheless also respects the willingness to make that sacrifice in the face of injustice.
Sourced from a 4K restoration, Criterion’s transfer retains the thick grain of the film but marks a significant upgrade in color depth and texture from previous home-video editions. In particular, the bright shades of the white communities pop in comparison to the impoverished and infertile soil of drab Soweto townships, and the blood spilled by bullets and torture looks especially vivid. The lossless stereo track nicely balances the predominantly dialogue-driven soundtrack with the occasional bursts of chaotic violence in the police’s crackdowns on demonstrations, losing no fidelity at any point.
A half-hour interview between director and co-writer Euzhan Palcy and critic Scott Foundas digs into the former’s life, from her childhood cinephilia to her art studies in France and early support from François Truffaut. Palcy offers copious insights into her career and her approach to A Dry White Season, from building out the source novel’s black characters to her clandestine trips to Soweto to interview survivors of security force arrests and torture. Palcy also contributes an interview in which she breaks down five of the film’s scenes from the research went into them to her filming. Impressively, Criterion unearthed a long-sought interview that Palcy conducted with President Nelson Mandela on the first anniversary of his election in which she questions him on the future he envisions for South Africa. A 1989 interview with Donald Sutherland is also included, as is footage of a 2017 South African National Honors Awards ceremony in which Palcy was bestowed with the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo for her work in illuminating the anti-apartheid struggle to the international community. Finally, a booklet contains an essay by film professor Jyoti Mistry, who explicates how Ben is developed as a genuinely moral agent and not simply a bystander to atrocity.
This powerful apartheid drama still burns with outrage and conviction, and it receives an excellent A/V transfer from the Criterion Collection.
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Janet Suzman, Jürgen Prochnow, Zakes Mokae, Susan Sarandon, Marlon Brando, Winston Ntshona, Thoko Ntshinga, John Kani, Susannah Harker, Rowen Elmes Director: Euzhan Palcy Screenwriter: Colin Welland, Euzhan Palcy Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 1989 Release Date: December 12, 2018 Buy: Video