1946 words on Films
Unexpectedly, I got to enjoy the children’s TV series Die Märchenbraut (a.k.a. Arabela) again. It’s a Czecheslovakian TV production (strangely in co-operation with West German television) from the 1970s. And it’s amazingly good. We didn’t get to watch much TV when I was little, but this was among the stuff we could see.
Over thirteen episodes a fun story evolves: There’s the normal world as well as the fairy tale world. They also have magic rings which can be used to turn wishes into reality. People are careless with those and they tend to become stolen. So somehow the fairy tale world princess Arabela ends up in the real world with the Majer family - falling in love with their son Peter in the process -, some criminals try to steal the magic rings, some kids from the real world end up in the fairy tale world where Arabela’s sister wreaks havoc by forcing Peter to turn it into a ‘modern’ industrial place. Many many more things happen, from teachers being turned into Mickey Mouse, to red riding hood failing to be eaten by a case of mechanical wolf FAIL, to Fantomas saving the day.
The amazing thing is how well the series manages to be for kids and start off with standard fairy tales but still manages to poke fun at both the fairy tales and the ‘real’ world, trusting the young viewers to understand what’s going on much more than today’s children’s programmes seem to. [I’d say that if modern children’s programmes poke fun they are more likely to do it in a way that appeals to grown-ups only, so they can feel ‘smarter than the kids’ and have an excuse to watch the show.]
I also have to note that DVD versions of such series are dangerous. What used to last through a whole summer of weekly screenings is now consumed in a few sessions of people agreeing to go for ‘just one more’ episode. Next we’ll have to get Pan Tau which was made by the same studio and which I remember fondly as well.
The idea for U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha [IMDB Wikipedia] seems a bit crazy: Use Bizet’s Carmen and have it played out in the Khayelitsha township/suburb of Cape Town. As a result we get plenty of people running around Khayelitsha, working in a cigarette factory or as policemen and hanging out in the local shebeen and playing out the drama which also involves drug dealing, one of their friends who has become a famous opera singer and, of course, eventual death. While doing that they speak and sing, both African music and Bizet’s in Xhosa.
The setup is a bit exotic and may take a bit of getting used to and I am not entirely convinced this is working well in all places throughout the film. But it’s a rather cool idea and for opera non-lovers like myself it’s nice to see the formal frame of an opera broken up so freely.
La Graine et le mulet (a.k.a. Couscous) is a French film that’s at the same time hopeful and quite sad. It tells the story of dock worker Slimane. He’s becoming old and the chances for him to work and earn money shrink. He’s also living away from his family in a guest house whose owner and her family are like a second family to him.
Back at his family’s place his wife almost makes big family dinners during which everybody enjoys her fantastic couscous dishes and is bound to be in a good mood, no matter what is going on. Looking for new perspectives, Slimane wants to open a couscous restaurant on a boat. But it’s hard to do that and get the necessary permissions for that. Particulalry if you have neither experience nor money and are a foreigner. Eventually he manages to set up a ‘demo’ of his restaurant, successfully inviting many of the ‘officials’ whose approval he could need. His family supports him with this and even his ‘second family’ appears. But things go wrong, the couscous vanishes and while the guests become impatient, Slimane tries to figure out and solve that problem, only discovering deeper messes on the way. It’s heartbreaking.
Michael Glawogger’s 2004 film Nacktschnecken (Slugs) tells a ‘uh, let’s make some money by making a porn film’ story with Austrian accents. The film is quite entertaining and some of the characters in the film are the same as in Contact High but Nacktschnecken doesn’t manage to match the humour or form of Contact High.
District 9 was highly lauded, but as with all films containing aliens I remained rather sceptical about. Eventually seeing it anyway with a friend was a good thing as the film is far from the typical sci-fi clichés and focuses more on human behaviour. While the film is not particularly subtle in doing that, it still manages to drive home the message and keep you at a reasonable level of uneasiness while watching it.
An alien spaceship is stranded above Johannesburg, of all places, and eventually humans get into the ship and ‘rescue’ loads of sick looking aliens from there. They get to live in shacks, speak a bleepy-clicky language, love cat food and seem a bit messy. Their human neighbours don’t like them and they are about to be ‘relocated’ to another provisional settlement further away. This relocation is to be executed by the not-so-subtly named corporation MNU, Multinational United, and the story is told by Wikus van der Merwe who is to run the operation and just happens to be the son-in-law of one of the higher executives in the company. He documents his work on video for corporate propaganda, which makes up a good part of the film.
Wikus, an office worker who loves his wife, strangely isn’t scared to walk into the alien’s shacks, making them sign eviction notices, a somewhat silly bureacratic ploy to make things look ‘legitimate’. He’s proud to point out the mess, weapons or other transgressions he finds in the shacks to the camera and just has a single scene ‘cut’ which sees him covered in a strange fluid. Of course that fluid starts turning him into a semi-alien which changes his life completely as all of a sudden not only is he growing strange alien features but he’s also highly valuable to many people as apparently the aliens have very powerful weapons which can only be triggered by people with alien DNA. The big corporation becomes more evil as the value of his body becomes obvious. Wikus starts cooperating with some aliens, hoping to get out of the situation and there’s some fun with weapons and weapons dealers as well. Dire and entertaining.
The film is quite shakily filmed with a fair share of it being made up of ‘corporate’ videos or TV news reports, mocking their style a little. It also points at a number of issues such as the ease with which ‘different’ people end up locked away or being hated by their neighbours, the uncontrolled power of corporations and the eagerness of governments to use it, the apparent cluelessness with which people ‘do their job’, being complete assholes or killers on the way. And of course, with the film playing in South Africa, the parallel to the way black people were treated is obvious.
In fact, I found the film hit the South African aspect quite well. Not just in the District Six reference of the film’s title, in names and accents or the odd
voetsek thrown into dialogues - luckily we managed to see one of the rare screenings with the original soundtrack (while the film’s graphics and text had actually been localised to German) - but also Wikus’ character seemed quite fitting as well. A guy who loves his wife, loves building her little presents, and who is proud of his job and takes joy in explaining what he is doing there and isn’t scared to go out and deal with some aliens - which he derogatively calls ‘prawns’ as everybody does - without realising that what he is doing could be wrong. In addition the South Africa shown in the film still looked rather white with high posts and income being mostly held by white people. That’s probably not entirely unrealistic either.
2008 was the year of Mathematics in Germany. Part of the events taking place in the course of that was the MathFilm festival. The idea of which being that they rented some copies of films involving maths in some way and tried to get them shown in cinemas around the country. Local mathematicians were encouraged to perhaps give introductory talks along with it and they had a DVD with short maths film as well some of which could be shown. Those films are quite interesting and it’s fun to watch them, particularly with non-mathematicians. Those films cover very practical issues like 3D modelling, more abstract practical stuff like optimising railway timetables and more abstract stuff like higher-dimensional polyhedra. A good mix all-in-all.
The bonus part of the DVD also contains some ‘ads’ they made for the maths year. Quite cool films actually which highlight how maths are used in numerous daily situations, trying to raise awareness for that. Unfortunately I couldn’t find this on YouTube, so here we go:
Steven Soderbergh’s two part opus Che [part one, part two, Wikipedia] adds some more hours to the films made on Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. While the great recent effort of The Motorcycle Diaries showed Guevara’s youth and how he started to believe in struggling for South America, these new films show his and Fidel Castro’s fight for Cuba in the first part and his losing fight in Bolivia in the second.
I thought the first part was rather good. Showing how they started the fight and how they put a lot of effort into gathering and educating a group of guerillas. It’s amazing to see at the same time a certain intellectual diligence and the ability and willingness to enforce discipline down to death sentences for transgressions against the rules. It’s also amazing to see the relative humbleness and the belief in the collective effort for a common goal. The film is great in how it mixes the guerillas’ conquer of Cuba with an interview given by Guevara and a speech he’s giving at the United Nations in New York - both in glorious black-and-white even. Not only does this give extra context, showing how Guevara works and argues outside ‘his’ guerilla-world, it also looks rather cool in the black-and-white style used for it.
The film’s second part seemed less great to me. It lacks the interesting structure of the first film and focuses completely on Guevara going to Bolivia and trying to start a guerilla group there. It’s tough, there is much less support by the population and a fiercer defense by the government supported by the U.S. And soon they lose with Guevara being shot. It’s pretty straightforward, slightly dramatic but fails to captivate your imagination. In particular it remains unclear what makes Guevara so obsessed with putting his life on the line another time to help people free their countries, countries which aren’t his own. While it is shown how he arrives at his convictions in The Motorcycle Diaries, some deeper exploration of might have been more interesting than guerilla tedium.
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