Thursday, March 11, 2021

The House of Ubuntu

The Inheritance (2020) - Asili Inheritance A Philly native artist/filmmaker Ephraim Asili's experimental whatsit The Inheritance draws from his days as a member of West Philadelphia Black radical collective, where a group of like-minded young African American activists, artists lived and shared their thoughts and ideas in a communal setting. The idea was heavily indebted to MOVE, a black liberation group founded by John Africa and his followers who preached importance self-sufficiency and living in harmony within nature.

A loose narrative concerns Julian (Eric Lockley) and Gwen (Nozipho Mclean), childhood friends who move in together when Julian inherits his late grandmother's multi-story house in Philadelphia. The grandma also left myriads of black cultural artifacts: books, magazines, and records - most of them from the black liberation era. They decide to take in roommates - philosophers, educators, artists, and activists and open the place up to the neighborhood as a communal space/library.

The film's staccato, but unhurried episodic structure gives way for Asili to interject with many archival footage: Shirley Chisholm's Presidential campaign, MOVE's standoff with police in 1978 and the police bombing of MOVE compound that took 11 lives in 1985. It also features black liberation luminaries such as Mike Africa Jr and Debbie Africa and renown poets, Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker who appear on screen as guests in Asili's narrative universe.

The Inheritance's freewheeling form owes great deal to Godard, right down to the brightly colored walls, editing and the constant, exaggerated noise of a 16mm camera rolling. Asili doesn't try to hide his influence by putting a giant poster of La Chinoise as a centerpiece on the living room wall. His intention was to make a hip-hop/reggae version of Godard's agitprop classic.

The film is heady with many memorable quotes from black liberation era thinkers and writers, often provided by giant black boards located on the wall and Julian, Gwen and others repeating many of the quotes in dramatic fashion, looking straight at the camera. But in Asili's hands, The Inheritance doesn't feel like a dogmatic film. There are many funny moments as the residents of the 'house of Ubuntu' have to deal with any communal living, following such strict rules as 'no shoes inside the house', 'don't eat someone else's food in the fridge without asking' and so on. Rather, this airy fusion of filmed experiment gives opportunity to its unsuspecting viewers the window to unseen/under seen, unheard/under heard pieces of American history that give them the proper context to understanding the current political climate - the continuing police brutality against black community, the BLM movement and the white supremacists storming of the Capitol building.

In its rather conventional movie ending, Asili closes his narrative part of the movie on a positive note. But we all know that there's more work to be done. The Inheritance is an ode to black resistance and fitting cinematic experiment for the BLM era.

The Inheritance opens virtually on 3/12. Please visit Grasshopper film website for more info.

Searing Indictment of War from Not So Distant Past

Quo vadis, Aida? (2020) - Zbanic Quo Vadis Jasmila Zbanic's Quo vadis, Aida? puts its protagonist, Aida (Jasna Djuricic), a middle-aged schoolteacher working as an English translator for the UN peacekeeping troops, in a very difficult position. The place is Srebrenica, Bosnia, the year is 1995 and the film is based on a true story. The Serbian troops incursion is imminent. Like in all wars, people have to make difficult choices to survive. The kicker of the film is that this life and death situation it depicts has actually taken place merely 26 years ago.

Considering estimated 100,000 people killed, and 1.3 million displaced in The Bosnian War, I have to say right off the bat that the outcome in Quo vadis, Aida? is not a positive one. But it says a lot about how horrific the war actually was. And however well meaning the international interventions were, they were not at all prepared when faced with humanitarian crises.

The setting and the story is pretty specific. Srebrenica is a town of 30,000 people, consists of mostly Muslim population. The shelling by the Serbian tanks has started. The Dutch UN troops confined to their camp just outside the town are completely impotent since the entire UN command in Europe seems to be on vacation. So their ultimatum to the Serbian troops to halt or face the air strikes become empty threats. The snide Serbian commander knows its predicament and uses it to his advantage. Aida, working as a translator for the UN Command unit, sees that they are making promises to the townspeople they can't keep. The air strike never materializes. Once Srebrenica is taken by Serbian army, all of town's folks seek refugee in the UN compound. And the UN troops are not set up to deal with the unfolding humanitarian crisis - shortage of supplies, food, water, fuel and even toilets. All they can do is provide shelters for about 4,000-5,000 people on the concrete floor and the rest camping out just outside the barbed-wire fences.

Aida, using her connections with the Dutch, brings her husband and two sons into the compound. Her husband who is a learned man, will act as one of the civilian leaders to negotiate the terms with the two faced Serbian general.

Things get dire as the Serbians dictate the terms of "moving refugees out of harms way" by buses. Women get separated from their men, but no one knows if the buses are headed to where they were supposed to be headed. Some of the UN soldiers witness men being rounded up and executed. And some young women are dragged off by Serbian army.

Quo vadis, Aida? is all about one woman's mission to save her family at all costs. It's her survival mode taking over and working overtime in a dire, life and death circumstances. It also is a searing indictment of war and the West's naiveté and hubris as to believe in their moral superiority but complete impotence when it comes to decision-making and action. Compellingly and deftly written and directed by Zbanic, the film moves along breathlessly to its tragic end.

It ends with Aida going back to Srebrenica to resume her teaching after some time has passed. The life is back to normal. Everyone is supposed to be friends and neighbors again. The film questions if this so-called peace is acceptable, if you recognize a parent in the audience at the school talent show is the same person who is responsible for the death of thousands people, including your family. Can you ever forgive him? The film tries to make you understand the post-war Bosnian society, its fragile peace, its not so distant past and trauma and wounds not healed. Quo Vadis, Aida? is a powerful, harrowing film with a stellar performance by Jana Djuricic in the title role. Highly recommended.

Quo vadis, Aida is playing now at virtual cinemas across the US and will be available on digital and on demand on 3/15