Tuesday 28 April 2015


By Dimitri Keramitas

The annual Human Rights Film Festival in Paris normally features documentaries depicting rights violations, crises, and problems around the globe. This year’s program included films about pollution-exchange fraud in Denmark (The Carbon Crooks), water shortages in Ethiopia (The Well), the exploitation of agricultural workers in India (Cotton Dreams) and adolescent homelessness in the United States (The Homestretch).

L'Epreuve: taking photos through it all.
But for the first time it also included a fiction feature dealing with a topical subject: the role of photojournalists in conflict zones in Africa and Central Asia, and their responsibilities not only to their profession and subjects, but also to their families.

L’Epreuve (English title: 1000 Times Good Night) was made by Erik Poppe, a Norwegian photojournalist directing his first feature, and stars French actress Juliette Binoche. The “pre-premiere” in a Paris Left Bank cinema in April was followed by a discussion with Hubert Picard, a veteran French photographer (he preferred this term to photojournalist). It sometimes turned into rancorous debate that, like the film itself, called into question easy assumptions about truth and fiction.

Binoche plays photojournalist Rebecca. She has a loving family in Ireland, a marine biologist husband and two young daughters. She could easily have a cozy, privileged domestic life but her profession takes her into conflict areas where she records grisly events and puts her own life in danger.

At the beginning of the film we see her in Afghanistan, where she has seemingly embedded - not with US troops but with Taliban guerrillas. She follows a woman’s elaborate preparation to become a suicide bomber, and even the carrying out of her mission in a dusty village.

The poster for the film.
Rebecca has a burst of conscience at the moment the bomb detonates, yelling out warnings and being severely injured herself. Most of the film is about her return home and convalescence, her questioning her vocation, and most of all her tortured relationship with her spouse Marcus and daughter Steph. To try to repair her relationship with Steph, Rebecca takes her daughter to Kenya to visit a supposedly peaceful refugee camp.

The first issue raised by L’Epreuve is how genuine a film about human rights can be when it stars a celebrity actress, one who’s an Oscar winner and has modelled in glamorous photo shoots. Binoche takes the obvious route of other actresses, such as Jessica Lange and Charlize Theron, who have taken on difficult roles: she makes herself seem as plain and middle-aged as possible. This is mostly successful, especially as Binoche really is of a certain age, and also adopts an understated acting style. In L’Epreuve the other actors, notably Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the husband, and Lauryn Canny as Steph, more than hold their own, so that we believe in the characters as characters, not as roles or star turns.

A second issue is less successfully resolved, and that has to do with the directing. Taking on his first directing job, Poppe goes overboard in ways typical of neophyte filmmakers. The scenes that take place in Kenya have a well-scrubbed National Geographic sheen, while those in Ireland are often self-consciously gorgeous. The images make the film enjoyable, but they also shout “This is a film”, and more precisely “This is a first film”, distracting us from the subject.

A third issue concerns the production, and the subsidies the film presumably received from Irish authorities. While it’s fine to subsidize a worthy film, the ulterior reason is nearly always to promote a locale. There are many splendid views of the Irish landscape, and these certainly give one the desire to go visit.

Actress Juliette Binoche (photo courtesy of the film)
On a more serious level, there’s no reason a film cannot have an Irish setting. But one wonders about the setting more than necessary, especially as the director is Norwegian and the lead actress French. Viewers may also find themselves thinking of the socio-economic context: Do photojournalists really live in such beautiful House & Gardens-type homes? Can they really take their children to Kenya, just to help them with a class project on Africa? This may have been contextualization, or contrast, depicting the wide gulf between the Western world and that of war zones, but it comes at a cost in focus.

The post-screening discussion brought up other questions. Hubert Picard maintained that the excitement of war is what attracts him to conflict areas, not idealism. In the film the director depicts the dynamic aspect of war convincingly, especially a scene in Kenya, when the camp that Rebecca and Steph visit erupts in violence. Without overdramatizing, Binoche’s performance exudes the adrenalin high of a dangerous job, even in the midst of the awful violence perpetrated against the African refugees. But the script is coy about the subject, preferring to focus on the heroine’s idealism, and highlighting how her photos achieve a concrete result: the reinforcement of security at the camp. Some in the audience seemed caught up in the idealism and were put out by the real photographer’s supposed cynicism, as Picard kept stressing the difference between fiction and reality.

He also stressed the importance of money, and the competitive nature of many journalists, including women. But in the film, Binoche seems to be alone on the job. We don’t get the sense of a hotspot in the news attracting hordes of photographers, TV journalists and others, all vying for the scoop.

A scene from L'Epreuve. What motivates war journalists?
The photographer was more equivocal about the political dimension of his profession. Picard maintained that he was solely interested in exclusive, spectacular photos, and that his impartiality was not affected by being embedded with American forces. But he admitted being sympathetic to the American side, and expressed a preference for the right-leaning Figaro newspaper to Le Monde (which he sarcastically referred to as the world’s leading Arab newspaper). The young Egyptian woman who’d questioned him on this point criticized the confluence of money and political partiality that she sees in media coverage of her own country.

Also called into doubt were the riveting scenes showing Rebecca following the suicide bomber’s actions.  Picard said that while “anything is possible”, it’s practically unheard of for journalists to “embed” with the Taliban. Plausibility is further strained because of recent tragedies involving journalists falling into the hands of extremists. The director is not just content to open with an embed sequence - he has his heroine repeat it, when she returns to Afghanistan. This makes for effective symmetry, and also serves to show how her character has evolved. But here the film betrays an adherence not only to fiction, as opposed to documentary, but to out and out fantasy.

The film’s general release is on May 6, three days after World Press Freedom Day. Production: Paradox/Paradox Spillefilm/Film i Väst. Distribution: Global Screen (worldwide) / Septième Factory (France).

Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based legal specialist and prize-winning writer.

Saturday 18 April 2015


The award-winning Malian director Souleymane Cissé will present his movie O Ka at the 68th Cannes Film Festival taking place in Southern France from May 13 to 24, while Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako will head the jury of Cannes' short-film category.

Director Souleymane Cissé
(photo courtesy of F. Ciss
O Ka (Our House) will be shown in the “special-screenings” segment of the festival’s Official Selection of 42 films, announced in Paris on April 16. More films may be added before the event’s launch.

Cissé, who heads the Union of Creators and Entrepreneurs of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts of Western Africa (UCECAO), won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1987 for Yeelen, one his best known films. Many of his other works have received awards at other festivals, including the Locarno International Film Festival.

At the time of writing, Cissé is the only African director in this year’s official lineup; in 2014, two directors representing Africa were selected - Philippe Lacôte of Ivory Coast and Sissako, who was born in Mauritania and brought up in Mali.

Cissé travelled to Cannes last year to support Sissako, who presented the moving and beautifully shot Timbuktu in the official Competition category. The film was seen as a strong contender for the top Palme d’Or award, but won the prize of the independent Ecumenical Jury, before gaining honours in other festivals.

Speaking with SWAN after the screening of Timbuktu, Cissé said that African directors faced special challenges in producing movies, and he called for increased national and regional backing.

Actress Fatoumata Diawara, who appeared in Timbuktu.
“Besides the issue of conflict, financing is still a huge problem,” Cissé said. “Even low-budget films have to fight for funding, and up until now there hasn’t been any political will to help because in Africa one doesn’t believe that cinema is an art and an industry.”

Cannes’ artistic director Thierry Frémaux announced that 1,854 films were submitted to the festival this year from around the world (compared with some 1,500 in 2014), and the high number has sparked questions about the seeming under-representation of Africa and Latin America.

Frémaux said it wasn’t true that the same internationally known directors get selected every year, and he stressed that the Festival was trying to stay fresh with first-feature directors and ground-breaking work.

“There weren’t many renowned auteurs whose films were ready,” Frémaux told reporters. “But there were several up-and-coming directors who presented us with works of quality, so we decided to go with them this time for the competition.”

Abderrahmane Sissako
In addition to the short-film category, Sissako will head the Jury for Cannes’ Cinéfondation section, which screens works by film-school students (18 works have been selected from the 1,600 submitted this year).

“Sissako crosses cultures and continents,” said the Cannes organizers of the director who did his film training in the Soviet Union. “His work is suffused with humanism and social consciousness and explores the complex relations between North and South as well as the fate of a much-beleaguered Africa.”

For more about African cinema and Cannes, see: http://newafricanmagazine.com/nollywood-just-single-plot/

Saturday 11 April 2015


Following the nomination of several authors for prestigious international awards, Caribbean literature gets a further boost in April with the 4th Congrès des écrivains de la Caraïbe (4th Congress of Caribbean Writers), being held in Guadeloupe April 15 to 18.

With the theme of “Travel, Migration, Diasporas in Caribbean Literatures”, the congress features some 50 writers over the four-day event, hosted by the Regional Council of Guadeloupe and the Association of Caribbean Writers.

The authors will give readings, join panel debates and meet with students, according to the organizers. Participants will also pay tribute to Maryse Condé, the renowned Guadeloupean writer who was recently nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

“This biennial meeting is an occasion to place literature as the compendium of our Guadeloupean history, and equally to look at our international role and to examine our Caribbean culture,” said Victorin Lurel, President of the Regional Council.

In a statement ahead of the congress, Lurel urged Caribbean populations to support literature, and he reaffirmed Guadeloupe’s commitment to promoting books and bridging the language divide in the region.

“Although honoured globally, the literatures of the Caribbean still need these kinds of international meetings to go beyond linguistic barriers and geographic partitions, and to try to build a common literary space,” Lurel said.

Writers from 21 nations of the Caribbean and the wider Americas are set to participate in the Congress, representing countries such as Antigua, Barbados, Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, Haïti and Jamaica, among others.

Daniel Maximin
The Guadeloupean poet and novelist Daniel Maximin is the guest of honour, with the Congress paying homage to his long career as writer, professor and advocate of the arts.

Maximin will give the inaugural address. His last published work is the seminal Aimé Césaire, Frère-Volcan - recording 40 years of dialogue with the late Martinique-born literary icon.

Other writers hailing from around the region include Joël Des Rosiers and Yanick Lahens of Haïti; Carlos Roberto Gómez Beras, of Puerto Rico; Earl Lovelace, Lawrence Scott and Elizabeth Nunez, of Trinidad  and Tobago; Kwame Dawes of Jamaica; Yolanda Wood of Cuba; and Mac Donald Dixon and Vladimir Lucien of St. Lucia.

Lucien, a poet, comes fresh from being honoured in Trinidad, with his book Sounding Ground on the shortlist of three works for the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

The Congress will present its own prestigious award, the Prix littéraire de l’Association des écrivains de la Caraïbe, and the competition is tough, reflecting the great productivity of Caribbean writers over the past two years. Eighteen nominees come from French-speaking islands, 10 from the Anglophone countries and 14 from Spanish-speaking nations.

The list includes Dany Laferrière (Haiti), Simone Schwarz-Bart and André Schwarz-Bart (Guadeloupe), Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua), Sharon Leach (Jamaica), and Héctor Torres (Venezuela), just to name a few.

Participating writer Kwame Dawes
The Congress has grown massively since its launch in 2009, when Nobel laureate Derek Walcott was the guest of honour, and both writers and readers are increasingly embracing the richness of Caribbean diversity and history, say scholars.

As Earl Lovelace notes: The linguistic plurality of our geographic basin is considered, often wrongly, as an obstacle to exchange, to cooperation. But In truth, it’s an extraordinary source of wealth.

(UPDATE: The Grand Prix Littéraire was awarded on April 18 to Simone and André Schwarz-Bart for their work l'Ancêtre en Solitude, published by éditions du Seuil, February 2015.)

Monday 6 April 2015


Asked how he's doing, Jack Radics replies that  he is “tired but inspired”.

The Jamaican singer, whose voice buoyed the Chaka Demus & Pliers international hit Twist & Shout, has good reason to feel positive these days. Reviewers have praised his new album Way 2 Long as a great return to roots reggae, and he’s on the road to healing after more than “30 years of being exploited by record companies”, as he puts it.

When Twist & Shout reached number one on the UK Singles Chart, back in 1994, Radics’ name was hardly mentioned because the song was seen as a vehicle for Demus & Pliers, the top-selling Jamaican reggae duo. But Radics’ sonorous voice was unmistakable on the record.

“You needed a magnifying glass to see my name in the credits,” he laughs now. “I had to fight tooth and nail for recognition. Such are the travails of us the artists.”

Speaking from a beach-view apartment in Negril, in a long-distance video interview with SWAN, Radics describes how he “stepped off the damn merry-go-round” some years ago and almost turned his back on the music industry.

“Commercial exploitation of artists prevails,” he says. “Some people make music for a living, and some live to make music. But me nah look no money - my quest and motivation are not for money.”

Radics depicts a hotbed of dishonest deals and mistreatment in the entertainment sector, but he says that he couldn’t help missing the music when he was away from it.

“I missed the music, the creativity, but I didn’t miss the business,” he told SWAN.

Supporters and a new manager encouraged him to return, and the current album is a “collective” of the different styles he has pursued over the years, from blues-and-soul-infused rhythms to roots reggae.

The title song is a slow, mellow track, with gentle strings and Radics’ persuasive voice declaring, “I been away too long, I wanna put my feet in the sand again”.

This sets the tone for an album that includes autobiographical notes, political views, love songs and covers of hits such as Valerie, which Radics reinterprets, in Caribbean style.

The CD might remind listeners of a certain era in reggae when accomplished singers like Jacob Miller, Beres Hammond and Dennis Brown ruled the airwaves, and the songs told a story while still being “danceable”. This is the tradition to which Radics seems to belong, even though he released his first solo album in 1991, just as dancehall was going global. Way 2 Long shows Radics as a balladeer above all else.

He says that he was always singing as a child, so much so that family members thought he was “a pain in the neck”. Still, he got into the professional music business mainly by chance. After high school, he went to visit a friend in the Bahamas, only to find that the friend had moved to the United States. Stranded, Radics found odd jobs, and he was at a club relaxing one evening when it just so happened that the featured singer didn't turn up.

Radics in pensive mood.
Radics says he took the mic and after performing was offered the job to sing at the venue. On his return to Jamaica, he stopped in Miami, Florida, and bought musical instruments, and so his career was launched, with stints in England, the Netherlands and other countries to follow.

Now a father of six, he is back home, with a comfortable base in Negril, on the westernmost tip of the island. He emphasizes that he’s “Jamaican to the bone” and told SWAN that he feels inspired and relaxed by the birdsong he hears every day, and by the sight of the white-sand beach outside his window.

“I don’t like to go to Kingston at all anymore because everybody is a tough guy, and nobody smiles,” he declares, referring to the intense ambience of the capital.

Radics' rejuvenation seems a reflection of one of his hits, a song titled No Matter. The refrain goes: It don’t matter ’cause life has never been better … I’m free to be me, and as far as I can see, it’s much better. (© SWAN)