On top of the usual distractions that keep one from watching and writing about films 24/7, I must confess to a certain amount of trepidation in writing about this weeks films – after the proper feature, Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl, we were treated to two short films, Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black and Charles Burnett’s When it Rains; the combination of which are clearly a trifecta of masterpieces. It has become more common in the last few weeks for Rosenbaum to enlarge upon the feature presentation by presenting clips that support and/or enlarge upon that feature’s meanings. He’s really gone above and beyond here - neglecting clips in favor of short films, allowing us not merely a glimpse but instead cohesive, and in these cases, definitive statements of radical humanism. All three films provide a useful corrective to last week’s nihilistic pseudo-farce Zazie dans le Metro, suggesting a deliberate programming schedule that isn’t entirely dictated by print availability or whimsy. Replacing Malle’s simplistic notion of absolute destruction, Rosenbaum presents us with politically and socially astute documents that edify as much as they confront and entertain as much as they educate.
As usual, Rosenbaum prefaced the screening with some introductory notes on the filmmakers. Semebene lived a fascinating life, coming to filmmaking relatively late and only after establishing himself as one of Africa’s premier novelists (he died last year, and along with Edward Yang, had the extreme misfortune of being overshadowed by the more high profile demises of Antonioni and Bergman). Born in 1923, Sembene served with the French Army in WWII, was a dock worker in Mairsailles, and eventually became a Union Leader and member of the French Communist Party. He wouldn’t make Black Girl, his first film, until he was 40. Black Girl is also generally considered the very first African film, a distinction that earned Sembene the title “Father of African Cinema”
Funded largely by French money, Rosenbaum posits Black Girl as a kind of international co-production that is in fact an object born of colonialism and imperialism. The French title, La Noire de…, means literally “the black girl of…”, or “the black girl belonging to…”, both of which seem more evocative and suggestive than the bluntly translated English title. The film follows Diouana, played by Mibissine Therese Diop (like almost all of his films, the actors here are non-professionals). Cutting between a bourgeois French household and flashback scenes set in
The film packs in quite a bit in a short running time, less than 70 minutes. Short of a full plot synopsis, mentioning a few motifs might suffice. Diouanna gives her new employers an African mask while working with them in
Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black is a short film shot in an Iranian leper colony. Farrokhzad and a small crew spent two weeks there living amongst their subjects, and the film is a stunning reaffirmation of life. The film begins with a shot that rhymes with the ending of Black Girl in a startlingly evocative manner. A cloaked figure stares into a mirror, their eyes drooping, twisted and deformed by disease. The camera holds the image, lingering over it. It’s a piercing glance, and it penetrates the viewer. Like Black Girl, it is a look that confronts and demands autonomy, but also a certain amount of empathy. We proceed to see people living, laughing, loving, raising children, but also horribly scarred and deformed, receiving treatments that repulse. Despite the grotesquery on display, this is no freak show. The camera forces us, compels us to look, a look that implies both an affinity and a kind of complicity between viewer and subject. It also contains one of the most stunning gestures I’ve ever encountered in a film. The camera observes a woman sitting on the floor. She makes eye contact with the camera, (and by extension us, the viewer as well as the filmmakers), and instinctively raises her hand to cover her scarred face, only to hesitate and then put her hand back down. It strikes me that this woman is asserting herself now, in front of us, against a lifetime of fearful, disgusted looks. It is an almost disturbingly powerful moment, and speaks volumes about film’s capacity to communicate. The film has an alternating voice over commentary, periodically changing between Farrokhzad reciting poetry and quotes from the Old Testament and a male voice reciting a more straightforward political creed. If Farrokhzad’s commentary relates this plague to divine injustice, the real power comes from the male’s indictment of a society that allows it’s poor to suffer, noting that when treated, leprosy can and will disappear, that it is curable when treated properly, and that wherever there are poor, leprosy will follow. Essentially a call to arms (again raising issues of complicity, as we are all in this global society together), The House is Black gives us an image of the dispossessed, then demands that we pay attention to them.
No doubt, these are both heavy films. It was almost a breath of fresh air to view Charles Burnett’s When It Rains, a small, unassuming little film that chronicles a day in