Category Archives: B.A.S.

Congo in Four Acts (2010)

Directors: Kiripi Katembo Siku, Patrick Ken Kalala, Dieudo Hamadi and Divita Wa Lusala

Seen on a whim at a recent film festival, Congo in Four Acts is the result of a 9-month film training initiative for Congolese students, and the documentary omnibus paid off on my hunch. Beginning in the maternity wards with “Ladies in Waiting” where mothers are kept prisoner until bills are paid and newborns start life in debt, Congo lists the various ways in which the African nation stumbles around punchdrunk and weeping, bereft of shoes and wallet. Vonnugut reads Heller and makes a sad joke with Lumumba as the punchline. The “Ladies” beg for release from a bureaucratic limbo in which freedom is granted by trading in the family television to the hospital accounts manager for a $32 birthing fee….that explains why the manager has an office wall packed with electronics goods for the pawn shop. Essential fly-on-the-wall viewing for the handling of a possible teenage rape victim by the jaded hospital staff – it’s a shame she didn’t give birth to a toaster to pay her way out.

Treading further into the pain-cave, the rain-slogged, potholed, lashed, smokestacked, rubbish-stuffed streets of “Symphony Kinshasa” depicts life in the capital city. That life is now abject ruin in the broken roads of what was once “Kin la Belle” during Mobutu Sese Seko’s reign of Zaire and has now become “Kin la Poubelle” in the modern rays of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If the sight of littering makes you wince as much as it does myself this section in Kinshasa may as well be Cannibal Holocaust. I had an immense, grim desire to finally see the ecological documentary Darwin’s Nightmare after watching this section.

In “The Shrinking Press” the bloody devolution of journalism continues as it does along the bordertowns of Mexico and in the left-banks in Moscow, with the filmmakers discussing the difficulties of reporting on corruption with a bullet in your mouth. A series of talking-head interviews that overstays its point, yet still purposeful in its depiction of the local elections having a quality akin to a beauty pageant at a dire whorehouse.  Food for thought: If the average Congolese only makes $1 a day, how could you justify buying a newspaper for $1 a day?

The films are book-ended with the brief and stirring “After the Mine” where the leftover crusts of European mining are hammered down to gravel for piecemeal by one generation, with the younger generation in waiting likely to turn that gravel into dust. I made a short documentary in film school under far more forgiving economic circumstances in my younger days and I’m ashamed at my result in comparison to what’s been achieved here. Was the cinematography astonishing? Not in the slightest: bare-bones camcorders at best. Was it weighed down with too much “tell” and not enough “show”? Certainly, as was my peers’ work in my graduating class. Could my positive reaction to Congo be tinged with white middle-class guilt? Not really, otherwise I’d be wanking over that infernal Precious film for your reading pleasure.

What made Congo in Four Acts a worthwhile experience for me was the rarity of seeing life inside the bubbling cauldron of poorer Africa – no charity drives with Sally Struthers, or kiddie militias, just life stories as they exist in their part of the world, new voices with a camera and a boom mike. A fine accomplishment from the four young filmmakers, and soon to be found in the programme guide of one of your nearby film festivals.

-B.A.S.

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Filed under African Cinema, B.A.S., Democratic Republic of Congo

Why the hell are you shooting it in that?

Bear with me folks, I’m an old projectionist so this is what I daydream about when I’m not dawdling on about hockey or a hermetic life spent in the Seychelles. My column today concerns the importance of choosing the right aspect ratio for your future cinematic masterpieces along with a brief look at the advantages of shooting in film and digital. Hardly barn-burning stuff you may think, but stay tuned for porn and explosions!
(Please note: neither ‘porn’ nor ‘explosions’ will take place below.)

When to choose 1.85 : 1 Aspect Ratio
You want to tell an intimate story–for example the struggles of half-Job, half-schmuck Larry Gopnik in the Coens’ A Serious Man (2009). The story resonates with the Coens’ own Minnesota childhood and because Larry at no point fights a polar bear on top of the White House or saves the Third World, the film remains in the smaller, more appropriate ratio of 1:85 (aka “flat widescreen”). Another example is Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), which never stretches the borders of a 1:85 screen nor the demands of the viewer with its zeitgeisty romance, because if you expand the frame you’re also expanding the viewer’s expectations. The flat screen ratio has been adopted worldwide by filmmakers over the standard 1:37 that was once de rigueur for documentaries and fictional work grounded in reality, with 1:37/1:33 ratios still being used for certain projects (Alan Clarke’s  Elephant [1989] and later Gus Van Zant’s own version [2003] spring to mind with their particular unsettling realities).

Below is an example of a 1:85 widescreen ratio:

When to choose 2.39 : 1 Aspect Ratio
If you’re gonna do a “larger than life” film (see: Tarantino’s WWII fantasies in Inglourious Basterds [2009], or PTA fulminating against capitalism with There Will Be Blood [2007]), you don’t want your epic fighting for breathing room in the frame, hence the longer image of 2:39 to match a larger subject matter. The Man with No Name in Leone’s spaghetti westerns was an iconic character in an iconic setting, therefore The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) had to be shot/viewed in anamorphic widescreen–the alternative to a shoddy pan-and-scan world lacking perspective on the mythical gunslingers in the Wild West (via the high plains of Spain). This can also apply to gritty films with an immense worldview, say the international scheming of Syriana (2005), or the canonization of the 9/11 passengers in United 93 (2006). Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) worked in 1:85 because it had common ground with the reality of cinema-vérité documentaries, but it also would have been entirely acceptable to have been shot/screened in anamorphic with its scope of characters and events.

Below is a 2:39 aspect ratio:

Film vs. Digital

Celluloid has existed for over three centuries, and along with persistence-of-vision remains the closest claim to alchemy that civilization has achieved. Digital is the steadily-popular method for filming blockbusters, indie flicks and everything in-between, for very good reasons: flexibility, durability, ease of shooting on set and transfer time in post-production. My thoughts on shooting film vs. digital go beyond the technical limitations and financial reasons behind both formats and towards the psychology of WHY you should choose a certain format. If celluloid and photography have deep roots in our history over the past 200 years and digital points to our present and future, should that thought process not apply to the format with which you choose to film a Mumblecore short, a 3-hour Custer bio-pic or any sci-fi extravaganza?

Michael Mann chose digital to bring John Dillinger’s brief life to screen in Public Enemies (2009) with the intention of immersing the audience in 1930’s Americana and it worked up until the slo-mo climax stretched the demands one could place on the format. Digital has yet to find a solution to its awkward appearance in slow-motion, and this undercut otherwise excellent reasoning for more period pieces to be shot digitally. Another offender is Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006), which allowed the filmmakers an easier time of shooting in the Mexican jungles than 35mm film yet in any scene involving fast-cutting movement, digital ‘pixelation’ occurred–thus taking me right out of the realm of the Mayans. Now if pixelation were to occur in present day settings such as Mann’s Miami Vice (2006) or the futuristic Avatar (2009) I would readily except the digital look as a reflection of our modern times and the years to come. My point being if you want to capture the essence of the past perhaps you should put down the Red One camera and pick up a Super 35 camera with a fine grainy stock, and vice-versa if you’re making the next Terminator popcorn muncher.

There you go, those are my thoughts on the matters, I hope they can be of use to you.

Thanks to the images section of Blu-ray.com and dvdbeaver.com for the examples used above.

-B.A.S.

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Filed under B.A.S., Uncategorized