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SXSW: Figurant

A middle-aged man (Dennis Levant) sees workers line up for a day job. Not knowing what the job is but eager for some paying work, he lines up with them. He signs in and is asked to remove all of his clothes and dress up in an old military uniform. A make-up artist puts a fake scar filled with blood on his forehead. A prop guy gives him a holster and rifle. The group of men head out into a field. The man’s scar begins to bleed and the shots begin to fire. What exactly did he get himself into?

“Short film is a full-fledged format that can capture and point out something that would not work on a feature scale.”

Jan Vejnar

Directed by Jan Vejnar, Figurant is a short drama from Czechia about curiosity, expectation and disappointment. It’s 13 minutes and 45 seconds long and holds its mystery long enough to engage the audience even though we figure out pretty quickly what’s going on. It’s expertly choreographed, especially the battle scene where we witness a POV shot that’s unlike anything I’ve seen before in a film.

Figurant was set to have its US premiere at the SXSW film festival. You can get updates on the film over on the official Instagram page.

OVID streams Patricio Guzmán Chilean documentaries

As someone who devours Spanish-language feature films and documentaries, I was thrilled to learn of streaming service OVID’s new collaboration with PRAGDA, a production and distribution company dedicated to promoting films from Latin America and Spain. This month OVID made seven of Chilean director Patricio Guzman’s documentaries available on their service, timed for the release of his newest film The Cordillera of Dreams/La Cordillera de los sueños.

Over the past 40+ years, Patricio Guzman has been chronicling the natural and sociological history of Chile. Guzman’s home country is one of the most fascinating places in the entire world. It’s the longest and narrowest of countries with 2,700 miles/4,300 kilometers of coast line to the west, mountains that border the east, deserts to the north and a southern tip that is mere miles away from the Antarctic peninsula. The Atacama desert is one of the driest places on earth and because of the clear skies and high altitude, it’s one of the best places for astronomers to observe space and is home to several large scale telescopes. Chile’s history is fraught with political turmoil from the brief presidency of democratic socialist Salvador Allende whose government was overturned by a military coup d’etat in 1973. This was followed by the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet who was eventually charged with human rights violations and embezzlement. 

Guzman offers poignant and emotionally resonant portrayals of Chile. Let’s take a look at the seven Guzman documentaries available to watch on OVID. 

Guzman’s three part epic depicts the tumultuous days leading to the end of Salvador Allende’s presidency and the beginning of Pinochet’s regime. Guzman and five cameramen were on the ground recording the events as they unfolded. One cameraman even died in action and filmed the last moments of his life as he was by the military in a coup. The documentaries also capture the struggle of the working class who are fighting for their rights as the bourgeoisie rise in power.

The three films include The Battle of Chile: The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie/La Batalla de Chile: La insurrección de la burguesía (1975), The Battle of Chile: The Coup d’état/La Batalla de Chile: El golpe de estado (1977) and The Battle of Chile: Popular Power/La Batalla de Chile: El poder popular (1979).

If you’re uninformed about the tyrant that was Augusto Pinochet, watching The Pinochet Case (2001) is a great place to start. Guzman’s documentary takes a look at the 1998 arrest of the dictator while on vacation in London. Pinochet came into power in 1974 and ruled Chile as a dictator until 1990. Over the years, countless political opponents disappeared. Those who weren’t able to flee Chile for refuge in other countries were imprisoned and tortured. Many were murdered and buried in desert in unmarked graves. Guzman interviews over a dozen of victims who lost family members and nearly lost their own lives during Pinochet’s regime. Guzman also offers archival footage of Pinochet in London as he was charged and tried for human rights violations.

In Salvador Allende (2004), Guzman chronicles the presidency of Allende from his election campaign to his seemingly impossible win, to his short lived term that ended with a military coup d’etat and his eventual suicide in 1973. Guzman interviews family members, friends and colleagues of Allende, a CIA operative, as well as one of the last people to see Allende alive. Guzman always offers some hard-hitting scenes that really encourage audiences to appreciate the gravitas of the story. In this film, Guzman tries to find someone who witness the bombing of Allende’s home and gets a tour of the exact spot where Allende killed himself.

In Guzman’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light (2010), audiences learn about the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth which is home to important telescopes that capture images of space and is also where many victims of Pinochet’s regime are secretly buried. Because it is such a dry place, the human remains found in the desert date back from as recently as the 1970s to as far back as the 1800s and even further back to pre-1400s. Nostalgia for the Light is a quiet and somber documentary about how this unique landscape holds dark secrets of the past and helps us explore a world beyond our own.

In The Pearl Button (2014), Guzman man moves away from the desert to Chile’s coast and waterways. The title is a reference to Jemmy Button, the native of the Yaghan tribe who was brought to England, civilized and brought back. He was paid for with pearl buttons. Upon his return to his native land, he stripped away his newfound British identity but was never able to assimilate back into his tribe and lived the rest of his life in exile. It’s also a reference to the button found fused on a metal rod used to sink a political prisoner’s body to the bottom of the ocean. The most fascinating part of the documentary is Guzman’s interviews with some of the last remaining indigenous people of Patagonia and we hear words spoken in the Kawesqar language.

OVID streams a variety of independent and foreign films. I’m new to the service and am already loving how much they have to offer. Visit OVID.tv for more information.

Corpus Christi

20 year old Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) has just been released from a juvenile delinquent center where he was incarcerated for a violent crime. Upon his release, he is sent far away from his native Warsaw, Poland to a remote village to work. Instead of taking a job at the local sawmill, he pretends to be a priest in training. Daniel had reconnected with his Catholic faith through the help of the jail’s priest Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat). When the local priest (Zdzislaw Wardejn) takes ill, Daniel takes over. The village he now oversees is reeling from the death of several teens in a head on collision with a local drunk. The widow (Barbara Kurzaj) receives menacing letters from the teens families and its up to Daniel to help heal the divide. Things get complicated when he falls for parishioner Eliza (Eliza Rycembel) and when an old nemesis from jail threatens to reveal Daniel’s secret.

“For Daniel, spiritual guidance is the only pure thing left in his life. I see his actions as a desperate attempt to tell the world what he would do if he were given a second chance.”

Jan Komasa

Corpus Christi is simply brilliant. Directed by Jan Komasa, this enthralling yet quiet film is based on a real phenomena of fake priests in Poland. Bartosz Bielenia delivers a captivating performance as the charismatic yet troubled Daniel. His story is bookmarked with violence. He is the victim of a broken system. Even though Daniel is an impostor, he’s also just what the village needs. Someone who will not only connect with them on an emotional level but also challenge them to open their minds and to find forgiveness in their hearts. I was quite moved by this story. I don’t know what I was expecting out of Corpus Christi but I can tell you that by the end I was blown away.

Corpus Christi is nominated for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Academy Awards. It’s currently screening at select cities. Visit the Film Movement website for more details.

Slamdance: A Dog’s Death/La Muerte de un perro

A routine operation on a dog ends in tragedy when veterinarian Mario (Guillermo Arengo) makes a crucial mistake. Whether it was negligence or an error in judgment we’re not sure. What we do know is that the dog is dead and the owner is mad.

Mario and his recent retiree wife Silvia (Pelusa Vidal) live cushy lives in Montevideo, Uruguay and they want to keep it that way. The dog’s death is a catalyst for the chaos in their lives. Protestors make a scene outside Mario’s clinic. Someone has broken into their home and Silvia suspects their maid. When Mario and Silvia stay at their daughter’s home for a while, paranoia sets in. A violent act sets Mario and Silvia in motion to preserve their status quo.

Written and directed by Matias Ganz, A Dog’s Death/La Muerte de un perro is a quiet and subversive thriller that demonstrates the lengths people will go to keep their comfortable lifestyles. There is a clear message about the social and economic inequalities of present day Uruguay. The subjects who suffer the most are the maid and her boyfriend who are lower on the social ladder as indigenous blue collar workers. Mario and Silvia as more prosperous Caucasians benefit from their status and can easily cover up their irrational behaviors. 

Ganz was inspired to tell a story about the social and political turmoil of his home country with an influx of immigrants and a strong culture that takes pride in their European ancestry. In his director’s statement he says…

“A large part of the country’s population is of European descent and does not feel like they belong to those who have been wrongfully named Latinos… Politicians latch on to any petty crime to enhance their electoral chances… thus feeding the people’s growing sense of insecurity.”

A Dog’s Death/La Muerte de un perro captures the social turmoil of a country in flux through its focus on the absurd actions of a microcosm of its upper middle class culture.

A Dog’s Death/La Muerte de un perro had its North American premiere at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival.

TIFF: Interview with Jahmil X.T. Qubeka and the cast of Knuckle City

I had the pleasure of sitting down with director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka and the cast of Knuckle City, Bongile Mantsai, Sivuyile Ngesi, Thembikile Komani and Faniswa Yisa ahead of the international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Knuckle City is a gripping film about an aging boxer trying to get back into the ring and his difficult relationship with his family, especially his father and his brother. The film was chosen as South Africa’s entry for Academy Award consideration. You can read my review of Knuckle City here

Back row: Left to Right: Thembikile Komani, Jahmil X.T. Qubeka,
Sivuyile Ngesi, Bongile Mantsai.
Front row: Left to Right: Faniswa Yisa and Raquel Stecher

Raquel Stecher: How do you keep the balance of Knuckle City being both a boxing story and a character drama?

Jahmil XT Qubeka: The human story was always the main thread there.  The thing that always resonated with me in that world was essentially that the fight at home was bigger and more brutal than any you can essentially find in the ring. Boxing requires a lot of discipline. Training for a fight, when you get in that mode, it’s insane the regime that these guys have to go through. What’s interesting to me is the direct contradiction to that. There’s none of this discipline in their personal lives. The world our story takes place in our township Mdantsane also has the prestigious honor of having had 18 world champions. Since post 1944. World champions in different levels and different divisions. Yet the majority of them are in a place of poverty or dead or in jail.

Raquel Stecher:  Can you talk a bit about the corruption in the boxing world?

Jahmil XT Qubeka: I don’t think guys are necessarily pouring salt into each others eyes but I’ve heard horror stories. Even in America and at top levels… The sport is synonymous with corruption and… these nefarious elements. Which for me what I found was a great metaphor for the fundamental story: this broken man. I say man holistically. It’s the idea of the inappropriate dinosaur trying to find himself in our current space and climate. What do you do with a dinosaur in the age of the woke? What contribution does he have to the conversation? 

Sivuyile Ngesi: [Muhammad] Ali was involved with Malcolm X. Even Ali at his peak of his boxing was involved in pure brute corruption…

Raquel Stecher: How important was it to make a film in your home township of Mdantsane?

Jahmil XT Qubeka: It was very important because that place is essentially quite unique in terms of having these particular archetypes: the gangster and the boxer. Sure boxing is fairly popular across the country in this one particular space it really is huge. Even historically the boxers of that region… boxing was brought there by the colonialists through missionaries. 

Faniswa Yisa: Mandela was a boxer.

Jahmil XT Qubeka: Part of that colonization… the missionaries were concerned what the boys partook in on day to day which was stick fighting. The missionaries said take away the sticks and give them boxing gloves, something we know. That we can at least measure in one way or another. It became very popular in that region. But it’s in a space that is very frustrated as well. The sport itself from an administrative perspective is at its weakest. Even in terms of attendance and popularity. It’s at its weakest right now. And I think that’s a beautiful metaphor what we were talking about is the male dinosaur.

Raquel Stecher: How important was it to explore toxic masculinity in the story?

Jahmil XT Qubeka: Without putting an indictment on any one particular sex the idea around toxic masculinity is a construct of society as a whole. Primarily with the male. I’d say like 97% with the male but there is a little 3% of engagement from the other side. I found the situations that we depict in that particular family has a level of that complexity. Those two young boys stopped growing the day the father died. The moment on they just found a pseudo sense of self. Constructed from their father’s bad habits. The only indictment in terms of the mother in this particular perspective is that somehow after the father’s death it wasn’t addressed. She didn’t help them chip away at the pseudo self that they had. It’s not her fault. Hence I’m focusing on part A: the male image and his own destruction.

Raquel Stecher: Can each of you speak about how you came to the project?

Bongile Mantsai: I worked with [Jahmil] on his previous project Sew the Winter into my Skin. I liked his style as a director. There are two types of directors that I like. There are those that are traffic cops: they tell you to sit down stand up direct you in that sense. And the directors that can bring something out of you as a performer. I think why I was particularly interested in this particular one was first I’m not a boxer. Secondly I was told I have three months to prepare for this character. Within that three months I was thinking of the physical fight but it was more a psychological fight. Because going into training, I was thinking boxing but when I went to Mdantsane I looked at the community. There is a saying that a child is raised by a community. So my interest was to move away from my comfort zone and start to go to a place where you’re being challenged. Not just as an actor. I’m a father. And when I go around and I see how we raise our kids it depends where are they raised from. For me it was just amazing just to observe how we judge communities and how we become part of those communities.

Sivuyile Ngesi: My biggest influence in my life has always been Muhammad Ali. I love him and I’m obsessed with him. I had boxed before. I had lunch with [Jahmil], we were all talking smack about boxing and then I got a phone call saying hey do you want a part in this film. Ironically the producer Layla [Swart], who is the editor as well, who is an incredible friend of mine, I worked with her on a project… It was one of the most difficult projects of my life…it was a terrible experience. But out of it came this. For me it was definitely a bucket list character. This is going to sound so cliche but the cast members and the team is family. We really are family. We chat every day. We love each other. We all come from the same Capetown. I’m known them for years.

Thembikile Komani: I was approached by a friend of Jahmil. I was asked if I was available to audition. Layla [Swart] contacted me and sent me a script. I read the script and I was asked to videotape myself.

[the cast jokes that it was an epic audition tape!]

I sent the video tape and I was there I was connected by Jahmil. I thought I was going to fight. When I read the script playing Duke. But I loved the challenge to play a character.

Faniswa Yisa: I’ve worked with Jahmil before in his short film Stillborn. There were a lot of conversations around… that’s one of the beautiful things. We actually had a conversation about the script on set. We had a conversation about what’s the way forward. Where do we take this character? If you have any questions. We bounced questions. And what [Sivuyile] is saying as well. It was such an amazing space where people were holding each other. He was holding the space most of the time. We felt like we could play more because the space was held. It’s such a beautiful space to be in as a performer when you really want to give. 

Sivuyile Ngesi: You just see us all watching it. We all enjoy each others parts. We are celebrating each other in art. While we were on set it was like that. 

Faniswa Yisa: All the time.

Sivuyile Ngesi: We all knew it was something special on set. 

Bongile Mantsai: For me when I was in Cape Town I was watching my audience more than watching the movie.

Jahmil XT Qubeka: I always watch my films with audiences. That’s who it’s for. Audiences are so different based on where they come from. [The Toronto] audience is particularly special for me because it’s an eclectic audience. It’s a very intellectual audience that is fundamentally free within itself. It’s my third time at TIFF so I can make that assessment. It’s the entire world in one room. It’s also part of the reason why this festival is the biggest and best in the world. 

Raquel Stecher: Tell me about Xhosa and the other languages used in the film and how Xhosa fit culturally in the story.

Jahmil XT Qubeka: It’s Mandela’s tongue.

Faniswa Yisa: Black Panther‘s tongue in Wakanda.

Jahmil XT Qubeka: It’s indicative of South African society. We have 11 official languages. In the film we have Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, and English. In the township it’s quite a homogenous society in regards to that language. It’s predominantly a Xhosa society. For me it’s quite indicative of  the apartheid space and colonialism… separate and divide and conquer situation. I want to give a credence to that space and that conversation. We are essentially flying a flag for one group or another. Which is also convenience and also full of contradictions in itself. 

Raquel Stecher: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

Jahmil XT Qubeka: I can tell you what I hope they don’t take away. I hope they don’t stay in its locker room allure. Because its far more than the locker room. If one doesn’t want to have an open conversation they can stop at that door. I hope they don’t stop at that door. I hope they realize that what is actually on trial here. That is what we’re actually trying to look at. I hope they go on that journey.

Faniswa Yisa: I hope they are asking questions like you. You asked about the language itself. I hope people understand the complexity because when you’re traveling around the world they think Africa is a country. For me being Xhosa, being from my parents, being from the Eastern Cape, the different texture. Finding a different texture.

Bongile Mantsai: Its high time we come full circle about stuff. Help discussion about stuff. For Knuckle City I think this is a key to open discussion.

Thembikile Komani: In S.A. there were different audiences, who wanted to change what the film was about because they’re coming from families that somehow in some way or another are going to relate to what [is in the film]… We from the townships we know those characters. I have neighbors who swear a lot. People must take the film as it is. It’s our story.

Sivuyile Ngesi: As a performer I’m keen for audiences to see the kind of quality actors that we have. Even some South Africans were shocked at the performances that they’ve seen in Knuckle City and the range of performances. I’m really keen for people to see the performers that we have. And the capabilities that we have and the point of view… act in your language. See what you can do. The filmmakers that we have…. It’s not an apartheid story. It’s not about the struggle. It’s about between 1994 and 2018. It’s character. I would love for them to be like oh let’s book those actors for something.

A big thank you to Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, Bongile Mantsai, Sivuyile Ngesi, Thembikile Komani and Faniswa Yisa for taking the time out to chat with me!

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