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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