This really wasn’t how today was supposed to go. No shade, hennies, it was a good day. And it quite probably would have been worse, had things gone to plan. First of all, neither Thomas nor myself had planned to wake up as fresh and well-rested as we did – a healthy long sleep in our comfortable Airbnb took the place of the initially-scheduled 5-hour drunken black-out, as yesterday’s clubbing arrangements never saw the light of… night? But things don’t stay too sleepy for too long when I’m in London, and a morning’s work was followed by a social engagement, of all the world’s most grievous horrors. Thomas has uncles in the city, and we’ve not visited them on previous trips here, so it was off for a fairly posh pub lunch with the only other gay in the village of Derrytrasna (after, or rather before Thomas) and his Malaysian husband. Husband, yes. That’s called equality. Not that us Northern Irish citizens would know what that’s like…
None of you are here to read about a liver & onions lunch, but I hope you’re here to read about Rahmatou Keïta’s The Wedding Ring. It’s an unremarkable weekend at the U.S. box office when four new domestic titles open, but get this: Niger has turned out only four films since the beginning of the decade. With no national film industry, it’s up to the West African country’s artists to seek out funding from other sources, which is precisely what Keïta did with this, her debut feature. Quite the opportunity this, the chance to watch not only a Nigerien film but a Nigerien film from a female director. Not quite as planned, however, as the festival had to relocate this screening from the Ritzy cinema to the Clapham Picturehouse, but it’s a lovely cinema in a terrific part of town, and you’re welcome to bring your booze in with you, and that’ll do me grand.
It’s hard for a Westerner to evaluate The Wedding Ring from one’s typical perspective – this is a film made by African artists for African audiences, a defiant assertion of the validity of their culture, and an insistent statement on maintaining it, with a sensitive and perceptive understanding of the virtues of regional cultures in Africa, not within the moral and societal framework of Western sensibilities but within the frameworks they establish for themselves. The film is expectedly amateurish in parts, but an invaluable document and experience alike, and it’s quite beautifully crafted. Keïta’s visual style is bold and seductive, and her approach is charming and honest – she portrays this particular rural Nigerien community with sympathy and respect for its standards and traditions, and adopts a similar outlook in translating her story on screen. It’s an often-oblique film to the Western audience, a distant and disorientating watch at times, but admirably so. The Wedding Ring is a stern retort to the Euro-centric lifestyle that has so consistently taken from Africa without giving anything back but misery and poverty; Rahmatou Keïta has made a film to refute the conventions imposed upon her continent and its art, and to celebrate its own.
Keïta was joined by lead actor, and her own daughter, Magaajiya Silberfeld, for a Q&A after the screening. Her pre-screening introduction, however, produced perhaps the most enlightening statement on the film and its themes that the audience heard all afternoon: Keïta made The Wedding Ring to contribute toward the endurance of regional cultures and the vast histories that inform them, commenting that if the world loses these cultures, “the West will have nothing to eat.” A woman after my own heart! Many in the audience had questions about the film’s liberal use of local customs and traditions in its storytelling, with little or no overt explanation to an uninitiated viewer as to their precise meaning, and our director was keen to educate us. We heard of the old system whereby, if a child runs screaming into someone’s house, no-one else will be permitted to enter, and of how powerful national armies are disregarding this important tradition, in tandem with a rise in violence in public areas such as mosques and shopping malls. We learnt of the practice of declaring the new year only once a human eye had seen the new moon, and that this practice was ridiculed when Keïta came to Europe – with such imprecise methods, the Europeans simply thought that the different countries and communities who subscribed to them, and who would thus celebrate their new years at different times, just couldn’t count! She lamented on the fading of such cultural conventions, and that, though they may be technically inaccurate, their increasing obscurity is both fuelled by and fuelling the gradual demise of regional African identities. A black American viewer congratulated Keïta on the film, and on how it normalized a uniquely black, and indeed largely positive perspective on life, away from the usual tropes of ‘important’ black cinema, dealing with issues such as racism and gangs. This normalization is essential to Keïta, not least for the fact that, without Africa, humanity wouldn’t even exist. Silberfeld spoke briefly also, describing how she came to be cast in the film’s lead role. We discovered that the script is over a decade old, and that she had originally been envisioned as one of the child characters; after studying theatre, she eventually accepted the central role at her mother’s request. When questioned why it had taken such a long time to bring the script to the screen, Keïta had a simple, direct response: it’s exceedingly difficult to secure funding for African films, especially when there’s no national film industry in the main country of production, as is the case in Niger. It took her years to find financing, but was finally able to source funds from Algeria, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, Uganda and, indeed, Niger – an entirely African production, a feature of which she is very proud, and rightly so.
I could write about that Q&A all day – no other such event inspired me to scribble so much in my notepad as that did – but I detect both a reticence on your part to read it all, and a reticence on my part to write it all. Anyway, I have Lav Diaz up next, so you’ll understand if I’m reluctant to increase my workload. Yet more drinks and a sit-down dinner (of all the things in the world, and we’re not even talking McDonald’s here) were in order, apparently, or just anything to keep us awake, after an expedition that has depleted my energy reserves more with each passing day. Thomas was tentative about sitting through The Woman Who Left, which, despite clocking in rather a lot shorter than many of Diaz’s features, still almost grazes the 4-hour mark. Little did I know that this particular screen now permits food and drink to be brought in, so I sent Thomas off to fetch booze just before the film commenced. Whether it was missing the first few minutes, or just plain old exhaustion, or the unfathomable possibility that he actually… maybe… wasn’t enjoying Filipino Bae’s latest masterpiece, he exited at roughly the half-way mark to return to the Airbnb.
Since that unfortunate, deeply unflattering moment, he hasn’t once asked what happened next in the film, but I’m gonna tell all of you regardless. Obviously it’s pretty much a perfect picture. You want vivid, distinctive artistic innovation? You want incisive social commentary? You want richly-detailed, highly-informed historical understanding? You want daring, uninhibited performances? You want a grasp of digital photography utterly unparalleled in world cinema? You want a sublime sense of flow and pacing? You want a captivating grasp of both stylized abstraction and gentle naturalism? You get all of that in The Woman Who Left and then some. To those who turn their noses up at digital, Lav Diaz has a concise, stinging response; to the audience at last year’s screening of Son of Saul at the LFF, who cheered when director Nemes László decried the proliferation of digital photography in cinema as the first true regression in the history of the medium, eat shit, you elitist snobs, you middle-class, middle-aged white Londoners. Digital is not the future, but it’s a future among many in this art form, and it’s virtually the only future for filmmakers like Lav Diaz once was, turning out radical, super-low-budget, wholly uncommercial works to little recognition. A Golden Leopard, an Alfred Bauer Prize, and a Golden Lion ought to suffice… for now.
Even that wasn’t planned. The tickets were booked for Sébastien Lifshitz’s The Lives of Therèse, his Queer Palm winner and companion piece to the extraordinary Les Invisibles from 2012. And it was apparent to everyone with half a brain that the BFI had made quite the mistake in programming neither of Lav Diaz’s major festival competition entries this year, when they’d previously shown such support for this master filmmaker. But then the whole Golden Lion shit went down, and they realized their mistake. Alas, it would certainly have suited better had I booked tickets for The Woman Who Left on the morning of Day #10, rather than the evening of Day #9 – it would’ve sacrificed a film I was less interested in seeing (Edgardo Castro’s La Noche, which remains the sole film on the schedule for tomorrow, my final day here), and would’ve permitted Thomas and I to make time for a night on the town tonight too, since The Woman Who Left is just under four hours long, and The Lives of Therèse is just under one hour… oops. But, for a day that transpired nearly nothing like I’d once anticipated of it – even the lunch with Thomas’ uncles wasn’t planned until a few days ago – Day #9 was a corker, and we even had time to munch down a few Krispy Kremes and watch The Great British Bake-Off.
Yeh, I thought I’d break the bad news gently, and bury it amid the penultimate paragraph here. Tomorrow’s diary will be the last one of the year from LFF, with the festival shutting up shop tomorrow, and announcing its official awards this evening – you already know the results, and it’s a pleasing slate, paying due attention to female filmmakers for the second year in a row, as Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Woman and Julia Ducournau’s brilliant Raw picking up top awards. Striving to avoid a mad dash for the airport tomorrow, Thomas and I have just the one title on the agenda, the aforementioned La Noche by Edgardo Castro, the second gay-themed Argentinian film to make my lineup. Ttys hennies!
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