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Thursday, December 07, 2017

Makala (2017/Emmanuel Gras)

Opening sequence:

The back of a man walking across a village, carrying one tool on each shoulder. The camera follows him, staring at his nape like a Dardenne film. His body shakes at each step, moving up and down. We only see the tool handles hanging in his back. The camera overtakes her subject and pans to the right to show his profile. We discover his face, closed, focused on walking, and the end of one of the tools. It's an axe, which blade is hooked around his shoulder. A voice off screen says "Hello, you're already awake?" This must be quite early in the morning. And the camera pans towards this villager after seeing the face of our protagonist lighten up, the camera pans back toward the path he's walking on.
The film cuts several times during the progression through the bushes, pasting together several stages of this journey. Until he arrives at the foot of a big tree. The camera contemplates the summit of the foliage. Off screen we hear the impact of the axe that has already started to cut the trunk. The camera is spinning around the tree, slowly panning up and down as the loop around the tree comes to an end. This is when we see the origin of the sounds, he's cutting down the tree. The size of the trunk is too big for a man alone, yet he hits the tree relentlessly, opening a gap that will eventually fell down the tree and its high-reaching branches to the ground.

This opening sequence reminds me of Lisandro Alonso's La Libertad (2001). Whereas Misael in Alonso's film cut down trees and sold them as long pillars to a buyer who came on site with a truck, Kabwita in Gras' film makes charcoal out of the branches and go sell them to the nearest city, 50km away, in equilibrium on a rickety bike. What the opening sequence doesn't tell us is that Kabwita lives in Congo and that "makala" is charcoal in Swahili.
The episode with the traditional charcoal oven made out of dirt is reminiscent of Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte (2010) (analysis here). Smoke lifts off from places on the dirt mount, for a couple of weeks, to burn down the timber without oxygen and turn out cristal-sounding pieces of black wood.
But the longest part of this film is the road between his village and the city. He leaves in the dark of dawn and spends 2 or 3 days pushing this bike stuffed with dozen of charcoal bags, day and night. The night shots are only illuminated by the headlights of incoming traffic, backlit when the car is behind the bike, and shining on the bike when the car arrives behind the camera.
This journey is unbearable, not to mention the hard-hitting sun. Soon he joins other sellers who also slowly push their bike. They are stopped by a few men who demand baksheesh for permission to pass on a road, at a random point. The camera stays far back and watches the transaction from afar as if it was forbidden to film. Kabwita begs but gives up one bag of charcoal to pay the ransom.
This film is labeled a documentary, but the credits list Emmanuel Gras as the director, writer and cinematographer. So the film is written, staged, rehearsed and mis-en-scène. It's more a drama with non-actors acting under their own names, than a real documentary of real slices of life. And the camera viewpoint is indeed different, more aesthetic like a fiction, and less spontaneous like a documentary.

Les Cahiers du Cinéma deal with it like a pure documentary and blame the filmmaker for being a selfish bystander at the sight of a struggling man, pushing a mountain of charcoal under the sun. But it's a fiction based on this man's life, the scenes we see are fabricated and the trip is abbreviated.
I much preferred his first documentary called Bovines (2012), which, as I remember, was more contemplative with less cuts and longer shots, without human voices, only with shots of cows. Nothing like this 8h long documentary on sheep (which is strangely post-synch with ubiquitous sheep noises): BAA BAA LAND (2017)
Makala received the Grand Prix of La Semaine de la Critique in Cannes 2017.


Benoit Rouilly said...

Conférences France Culture
"Makala" de Emmanuel Gras : le salaire du charbon (21/12/2017)

Benoit Rouilly said...

Well I was wrong, this film is actually a documentary and Kabwita did all the work, but there is still an aesthetic point of view that goes beyond a simple documentary (the fact that there is no voiceover, no analysis of the situation, no camera address, and aesthetic images)