From Lockdown to 4 Indies in a Week — Why Cinema Matters

12 September, 2020


Dur­ing four months of lock­down in Bris­tol, West Eng­land, UK, what I had per­haps missed the most were the­atres and movie hous­es. I was able to read and to walk in parks almost every day. But I missed new motion pic­tures and the expe­ri­ence of watch­ing sto­ries unfurl togeth­er in the dark with friends and/or strangers, instead of watch­ing at home, alone. 

So what marked the begin­ning of Sep­tem­ber here for me was def­i­nite­ly the reopen­ing of our won­der­ful inde­pen­dent cin­e­ma, The Water­shed. The­atres are strug­gling but all over Eng­land some hous­es have man­aged to come to life again.

In only a week, I’ve been able to catch four won­der­ful recent and new movies:

Mati Diop, director of  Atlantics

A bril­liant Sene­galese film, Atlantics, direct­ed by Mati Diop (who became the first black female direc­tor to con­tend for the Can­nes’s high­est prize, the Palme d’Or); the Sudanese doc­u­men­tary Talk­ing About Trees; the long-await­ed French fea­ture Les Mis­érables, direct­ed by Malian-French film­mak­er Ladj Ly; and an inde­pen­dent British film about two young black British peo­ple in need of sec­ond chances, titled Real, that was writ­ten, pro­duced and inter­pret­ed by Niger­ian-British actor turned direc­tor Aki Omoshay­bi, pre­vi­ous­ly seen in Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi, A Mov­ing Image and The Riot Club.

Obvi­ous­ly, the film-going expe­ri­ence has changed. I found that The Water­shed was get­ting cleaned con­tin­u­ous­ly and we had to book in advance for every film and even to access the café area—no more crowds or spon­ta­neous turn­ing up. And we had to wear a mask. Yet, it is still a delight and entire­ly worth the wait. The staff was incred­i­bly thought­ful and kind, and the pro­gram­ming sim­ply fas­ci­nat­ing. Lucky us. (Have I men­tioned that as a for­mer African news jour­nal­ist, based in East and Cen­tral Africa between 2010 and 2014, hav­ing report­ed in 14 African coun­tries since, in North, East, West, cen­tral and South­ern Africa, I have a spe­cial pas­sion for African music and sto­ries, as well as African-Euro­pean narratives?)

Talk­ing About Trees is a 2019 doc­u­men­tary film direct­ed by Sudanese film direc­tor Suhaib Gas­melbari, which retells how a group of film­mak­ers was try­ing to reopen a cin­e­ma in the dic­ta­tor­ship of Omar al-Bashir (who was in pow­er from 1989 to 2019)… An appro­pri­ate demon­stra­tion of the chances we often take for grant­ed in the West­ern world.

The Sene­gal-based and ‑themed Atlantics was prob­a­bly the most visu­al­ly sub­lime and genre-defy­ing of the four films, envi­sion­ing how the ghosts of young men lost at sea in search of a bet­ter future in Europe could come back to Dakar to haunt the boss who did­n’t pay them for months, and send their love to their family.

The two oth­er films, Les Mis­érables and Real, describe in very dif­fer­ent ways the lives of Euro­peans of African descent in Britain and France, with sharp insight into rarely seen sub­ur­ban environments.

In one week, I was able to lux­u­ri­ate with four African-inspired mas­ter­pieces. Where else than in a Euro­pean inde­pen­dent cin­e­ma would this be pos­si­ble? We need to sup­port inde­pen­dent movie the­atres in these times of crisis!

Melissa Chemam is a cultural journalist, lecturer, and the author of a book on Bristol’s music scene, Massive Attack – Out of the Comfort Zone. A TMR contributing editor, she writes a monthly music column in which she explores Arab music and the greater Middle East, and how they influence music production around the world. She tweets @melissachemam.


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