There has been a resurgence of interest in The Harder They Come (Jamaica 1972) this last summer, primarily because of the 60th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence from British colonial rule. I’ll try to come back to The Harder They Come at a later date but here I want to explore the second Jamaican film to get a UK cinema release, Smile Orange (Jamaica 1976), which seems to have been generally ignored in the celebrations in the UK this year (at least the ones I have been aware of). Smile Orange is an adaptation of his own play by the writer Trevor D. Rhone (who also co-wrote The Harder They Come). The play was first seen in the UK in 1972, I think, as part of the 10th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence promoted by the Jamaican High Commission and notably featuring Mona Hammond (1931-2022), the wonderful Jamaican actress who died recently. It was expected to play in several venues in London, but so far I’ve only found its opening in Acton Concert Hall. I believe it was revived in Birmingham in 2013. The Harder They Come film was also seen in the UK in 1972. In the case of both film and play, they were seen only in areas with a Jamaican/Caribbean potential audience as far as I can see from newspaper listings. The reason for this was probably that the film and play featured Jamaican patois and the assumption was that dialogue would be incomprehensible to other audiences. It is worth remembering also that The Harder They Come featured Jimmy Cliff in the lead and a magnificent soundtrack showcasing the best of early reggae – the soundtrack was later seen to have helped promote reggae to a larger audience in the UK. The new popularity and respect for the music might have helped the re-release of The Harder They Come in 1977 and the film of Smile Orange in 1978.
Smile Orange focuses on one crucial aspect of post-colonial reality for many ex-colonies and especially those in accessible tropical paradises – tourism. The origins in a stage play are all too evident in the film which takes place largely in a tourist hotel. The central character is Ringo Smith (Carl Bradshaw), a different kind of ‘rude boy’ who revels in his abilities as all-round conman and lothario. At the start of the narrative he sneaks out of his house in the hills, clearly attempting to escape his wife and her two brothers with whom he has major problems. Stopping on the way to have a brief encounter with an attractive young woman, Ringo eventually makes it to his workplace, a hotel by the beach. From this point, all the action takes place in and around the hotel. Ringo sets out to make as much money as he can by fleecing the guests, fiddling the hotel system and attempting to seduce any attractive woman he can find. There is a small group of characters including the kitchen manager Joe (Stanley Irons) as Ringo’s partner in crime and a new ‘bus boy’ Cyril (Glen Morrison). A new receptionist Mae (Robin Sweeney) and the assistant manager (Vaughn Crosskill) are the other two central characters in the cast list. Several of the hotel guests are picked out for particular stories but none are listed in the cast. I should point out that this is a Jamaican film, distributed in the UK by another independent company, listed as ‘Babylon Films’. Details on IMDb and elsewhere are hard to come by.
Monthly Film Bulletin in the UK described the film as a “dismally unfunny and excruciatingly overplayed farce”. But the few other reviews still available are more encouraging. Time Out recognised “a genuinely hilarious politicised farce; a satire on tourism” and the New York Times did seem to understand what the film might be about while warning readers of the general ramshackle nature of the whole production. I did see the film in 1978 in London but I remember little of that experience forty years later. Prompted to look for the film online, I found two copies, both poor prints with muddy sound, but still watchable. I can’t claim to have followed all the dialogue, partly because of the poor sound but also because of the patois which was once more familiar to me. My first observation is that there is comedy that works and there is a political discourse despite all the failings in the adaptation from the play. Most of the cast apart from Carl Bradshaw had little experience of feature films. The reviews at the time also raise other issues. Time Out suggests that Rhone has borrowed ideas from British comedies and picks out the Fawlty Towers TV sitcom as an example for British viewers. It did occur to me, rewatching the film, that it resembles Carry On Abroad (1972), except that it is told from the perspective of the hotel staff rather than the guests. There is the same mixture of ‘seaside postcard humour’ and casual sexism. But I also thought of later American comedies of the 1970s and 1980s since the guests are mainly Americans. I’ll come back to the sexism.
The most important point about the film is the difficult question of how do you respond to the realities of postcolonial exploitation? Jamaica in 1976 was still a poor country with a colonial hangover. Tourism promised at least a form of employment and a source of foreign currency. But it also meant a continuation of servile behaviour in catering to the demands of tourists. Ringo’s approach is to attempt to screw as much money out of the tourists as possible and to do this he declares that Jamaicans should learn to play a role and they should stick together. A feature of the script is the way that Ringo acts as a mentor for the naïve bus boy Cyril, teaching him how to wait tables and how to exploit rich white American women looking for sexual action. Ringo, of course, also plans to profit from Cyril’s attempts to carry though his teachings. But Ringo also risks spoiling his relationship with Joe (who does indeed cover for his colleague) by attempting to con him too. The other two characters picked out in the cast also refer to the social and political issues in Jamaica. Mae targets wealthy tourists who may offer her a chance to leave the island and move to the US. She is extremely attractive and is quite prepared to use her charms and her story provides a form of balance to the more common (in these kind of narratives) example of American women seeking ‘romance’ with the local young men. The assistant manager (who is in charge for the whole of the narrative) is a light-skinned Jamaican with speech patterns that suggest he has been privately educated. He is therefore presented as Ringo’s number one target to be duped. He also has a beautiful white wife who becomes a different target for Ringo and this is a surprisingly undeveloped part of the script.
The film has undoubted political commentary but it is weakly constructed. The intriguing question is why it has been ignored in some UK/US histories. This was the question I started out with. I don’t agree that it is simply a ‘bad film’. I did wonder if its sexism was the problem? The five or six women depicted in the film are mainly objects of comedy or are simply functional in presenting the comedy. The camera also appears fixated with the breasts and buttocks of many of the women. This is also evident in some of the other Jamaican films I’ve seen – but then it is also true of British and American comedies of the ‘seaside postcard’ type. I was a little surprised that the New York Times review notes that it is PG rated but: “It is quite harmless; there’s some talk about sex but no action”. I’m not sure this is true. The British Classification Certificate was an ‘AA’ (adults and children over 14), so close to PG in the US. Why then did Birmingham City Licensing Authority in the UK slap its own ‘X’ rating on the film? I suspect some pressure from ‘community leaders’. I think the film is worthwhile because of its social/political commentary, but should be critiqued for its sexism. Interestingly it has been followed by a much better film on similar themes, Heading South (France-Canada 2005), set in Haiti, based on stories written by a Haitian and focusing on American women flying to a hotel where they develop long-term relationships with local men.
Although it doesn’t contain the reggae hits found on the soundtrack of The Harder They Come, the music of Smile Orange is local, I think, and there are samples from the soundtrack LP on YouTube. Melba Liston and Marilyn Curtis (with the ‘Ringo Smith’ song) are featured. It is ironic that there are at least three tracks led by women in a film I’ve labelled sexist. I’ve seen a claim that the film is now something of a cult among second generation Jamaicans in the UK. There is a DVD available and the film was listed for UK digital download but I haven’t found it anywhere. If you are wondering about the title, I assume it refers to the colour of the hotel uniforms and the command that all the staff should ‘smile’ in serving the guests – a perfect summation of the postcolonial exploitation.
Tabu has been a critical success with reactions to it, first at Berlin and then on release here in the UK, that are similar in some ways (but very different in others) to those that greeted The Artist at Cannes last year. It’s another film in beautiful Black and White, shot on 35mm and 16mm film and presented in Academy format (1.37: 1). Part of it is played without dialogue (but with some sound effects and supposedly diegetic music). But overall it is much more interesting and, for me at least, much more entertaining than The Artist.
The original Tabu was a 1931 romance/drama or melodrama created by the pairing of F. W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty – in some ways a very odd combination. It tells the tale of two lovers (local people not colonialists) on a South Seas island who pursue their love despite a taboo placed upon it – with the expected tragic conclusion. That film was in two parts: ‘Paradise’ and ‘Paradise Lost’. Miguel Gomes’ 2012 Portuguese film reverses the order of the two parts and adds a prologue which in turn leads into ‘Paradise Lost’ in which we meet a ‘good woman’, Pilar, who finds herself having to attend to her elderly neighbour Aurora in contemporary Lisbon. Aurora was once a wealthy settler in Mozambique and aspects of her past are starting to haunt her. In the second part of the film, ‘Paradise’, Pilar imagines the kind of life that Aurora led while she listens to Aurora’s ex-lover from the early 1960s. Gianluca tells us about their affair in a voiceover as the story unfolds on screen without dialogue.
I’ve seen a quote from Gomes where he suggests that there is no deep meaning in the film and several critics go along with the idea that this is a playful film that moves from humanist drama/social realism in ‘Paradise Lost’ to sometimes comic surrealism in ‘Paradise’. For me, however, the whole narrative appeared to be about the colonial experience. This is a very rich text and Gomes must be a witty man as he makes a number of jokes which play on the conventions of the colonial melodrama and the specifics of Portuguese colonialism as well as the general colonial activities of Europeans in Africa. I’ll try and explain some of the ways in which Gomes presents this ‘colonial imagination’.
The film’s prologue refers to a trait of European colonial narratives, especially about Africa and the ‘heart of the continent’. What we see is then revealed to be a film being watched (seemingly on her own in a cinema) by Pilar who we later realise is a single woman with an interest in human rights issues around the world. She is, we assume, an internationalist Catholic, at one point dealing with a ‘Polish nun’ who may be coming to visit her in Lisbon and at other times perusing websites or taking part in peaceful demonstrations. Yet Pilar is still subject to the circulation of colonial narratives within which Aurora is forever trapped. Aurora has a carer/housekeeper, an intriguing character called Santa. Is Santa from Mozambique? Aspects of the narrative suggest not. In a revealing scene we see Santa reading Robinson Crusoe and then later attending a class in which she tells the teacher what she has been reading. “Extraordinary!” is the teacher’s response – and indeed it is. What should we make of this? One suggestion is that Santa is ‘free’ of the past and able to study it dispassionately, while Aurora is still caught up in it. Santa isn’t a naïve young woman. She’s older and wiser and carries out her duties in a professional way, betraying no sense of the legacy of a colonial relationship.
This reading of the Santa character is complemented by aspects of the style of the ‘Paradise’ story. Set, we presume, in the 1950s and early 1960s we see the young Aurora as a teenager and then as a young married woman, having met her husband, a tea planter, at university. This second story is filmed in 16mm which has more grain, slightly less definition and range of grey shades. The overall effect is to emphasise the history/memory feel of the experience. Yet, in the story that is presented, Gomes deliberately separates the white settlers and the local Africans. The settlers are shown in ‘authentic’ 1960s costumes and act as if they are in a historical drama – whereas the servants and the villagers/tea pickers etc. are shot in an almost documentary style, complete with 21st century clothes including the ubiquitous football shirts (I’m sure one small boy was wearing a Samsung shirt) found everywhere in contemporary Africa. This surreal juxtaposition adds to the dreamlike, playful nature of the film but also points to questions about the history of colonialism in Portuguese society.
I was struck by the similarity of some scenes in ‘Paradise’ to those in the Claire Denis film Chocolat (1988). In the Denis film we see the antics of the white colonialists through the eyes of the child of a French colonial administrator. In ‘Paradise’ there seems to be a similar slightly distanced gaze. I definitely felt a ‘difference’ in the colonialist culture represented in this film compared to those in British cinema. There is no presence of the British-style District Officer and none of the confrontational exchanges between settlers and servants/workers. The settler lifestyle, at least for the women seems languid and mildly decadent. Yet Mozambique and Angola were at this time preparing for the conclusion of the independence struggle which would culminate in the 25 April 1974 Revolution in Portugal and the subsequent independence of Mozambique along with Angola, Guinea-Bissau and other Portuguese colonial possessions.
I need to watch this film again to appreciate every aspect of its very clever and subtle presentation. This is another of this year’s crop of left-field movies from unusual film production contexts. Plaudits to director, writers, actors and cinematographer – great music too. Portugal joins Canada and Hong Kong as winners in our personal poll of this year’s best films.
I was looking forward to this film and it didn’t disappoint. I was on the edge of my seat for over two hours and emotionally engaged throughout. I’m amazed at the lukewarm reaction by many UK and US critics. The film was controversial in France where the right protested at something close to the reality of what happened. It was interesting to view the film after working on colonialist films about Africa. Writer-director Rachid Bouchareb makes two profound points in the opening sequences of the film which impressed me immediately. I’ve seen the film criticised as ‘too conventional’ which although not inaccurate is rather a crass comment. There is a place for an epic action film representing the personal sacrifice that many Algerians clearly made in fighting for their independence from a vicious colonialist settler regime.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
The film begins in 1925 when the land held by an Algerian family is seized by the colonial regime and given to a settler. It then moves forward to 1945 and VE day followed by the massacre by settlers and colonial security forces of Algerians demonstrating in the city of Sétif. Eight years on the three brothers who were children when their land was seized are now separated. One is in a French gaol, one in the French Army losing the war against the Vietnamese in Indochina and the other has taken his mother to Nanterre where Algerians are now beginning to get work in the Renault factory. From here on in we follow the three brothers as they come together and split again. Two become senior organisers in the revolutionary campaign of the FLN (National Liberation Front) carrying out actions against the state in France. The other brother pursues his own aim of producing a boxing champion. The film ends at the moment of Algerian Independence on 5 July 1962.
The two points Bouchareb highlights at the beginning are the stolen land – the solid basis for the moral right of the independence struggle – and the moment when the Vietnamese appeal to the colonial troops in the French Army in Indochina to rebel and fight for their own freedom. This representation of solidarity is too rarely seen in historical films and needs to be commemorated. In this respect, Hors la loi follows Bouchareb’s previous film Indigènes which looked at the sacrifices made by both North African and West African colonial troops in the liberation of France – something not appreciated by the French at the time. However, despite featuring the same three stars as the earlier film (Roschdy Zem, Jamel Debbouze and Sami Bouajila), Hors la loi turns out to be rather different. The three brothers are not together in the same way (in the earlier film they are friends not real brothers) and they are engaged in actions where they are having to operate within metropolitan France without any official sanction.
Inevitably this film has been compared to Battle of Algiers. Bouchareb does pay hommage to that iconic film in two scenes – the demonstration on the streets of Sétif and a scene when Abdelkader looks out of his prison cell to see one of his prison comrades being executed by guillotine. There are other possibilities where parallels could have been drawn. Gillo Pontecorvo in Battle of Algiers spends nearly as much time with the colonisers as with the colonised. Bouchareb gives us only glimpses of the French security forces and only one, Colonel Faivre (brilliantly played by Bernard Blancan who was also in Indigènes), is significantly ‘individuated’. I think that this is to give us the chance to make the moral connections between a character who was a Resistance hero in France, fought in Indochina and finally became involved in the ‘secret army’ operations against the FLN in Paris. In this sense Faivre is like the Colonel Mathieu character in Battle of Algiers – but less charismatic and more tragic perhaps. Bouchareb also declines to spend too much time on the torture scenes (by the police on Algerian suspects) but the key ‘omission’ is the role of the women in the FLN.
I think Bouchareb is caught in a trap here. He has decided to focus on the three brothers in order to show the personal sacrifices and level of commitment of each of the three to family and independence struggle. This is the main difference between this film and Battle of Algiers with the latter dealing with the overall battle across the city and the collective struggle. One of the most famous scenes in that film is the preparation of Arab women as ‘Europeans’ to enable them to penetrate the French part of the city and plant bombs. Not only is this a key passage in terms of ‘identity’ but it shows the bravery of the women in pursuing the struggle. In Hors la loi, the women are much less visible. The brothers lost their sisters in the massacre in Sétif. Mother remains as the focal point of the family but only one of the brothers marries and he barely sees his wife and child. The other brothers appear not to have the time or inclination for relationships.
The trap is concerned with realism, history etc. and the kind of message that Bouchareb wants to construct. He opts for a mix of the historical and the symbolic (the only option I think) so that partly the narrative explores the procedures of armed struggle within metropolitan France and partly it focuses on the personal struggles of the three men – the sickening effect of being forced by circumstance to kill (anybody, but especially your colleagues who falter in revolutionary zeal), the personal discipline required to follow orders from the party heirarchy and the need to repress all personal ambitions in order to work for the cause. The irony is that the only woman who has a significant active role in the campaign is a white Communist Party member. I’m assuming that her role is based on a historical figure. The brother who chooses boxing as his way of promoting the Algerian cause is the most conflicted over his support for the FLN and in the end it is family ties rather than party which determines his actions.
Bouchareb has spoken about his debt to Jean-Pierre Melville in constructing the narrative and it is very clear in several scenes. Melville, the ‘father of the New Wave’ and one of the greatest directors of the polar in French Cinema. Melville had been in the Resistance and in two of his films he used the iconography and characterisations of the gangster/polar in representing the Resistance fighters. In an interview in Sight and Sound (June 2011) Bouchareb explains how a scene in Hors la loi, in which the newly-formed FLN group struggle to assassinate a leader of the rival Algerian political organisation the MNA, was based on a similar scene in Melville’s L’armée des ombres. The Melville connection points to what I think is most successful in Hors la loi – the way in which Bouchareb invites us to feel the struggle of each of the brothers. But I think this only works if you share at least some of their political views. I’m not sure I could ever ‘obey’ any political party as these men do but I found that the film immersed me in the personal responses to issues in much the same way as I Killed Ben Barka (2005) and (on just a couple of occasions) Carlos (2010).
I would recommend Hors la loi to anyone who wants to know something about the Algerian history of independence struggle, so if you are still wondering about the ‘secrets’ in Michael Haneke’s Hidden, here is your chance to find out something. My only slight reservation is that the title is not helpful. Outside the Law puts too much stress on the gangster iconography and it is the politics that is most important.
If you can ignore the terrible voiceover, this trailer gives a sense of the epic feel of the film.
The film sees Claire Denis return to the world of her debut feature, Chocolat, but with a shift in how she chooses to lay bare its tone and politics. However, whilst Chocolat has its protagonist, France, accepting a land’s rejection of her even as it has marked her for life, White Material trawls a similar theme but through the agency of an adult woman, possessing childlike qualities.
The film draws critics back to Chocolat – because of the African setting (this time, unspecified in terms of country). There is the same disparity between the white colonial settlers and the indigenous population. In both films, the land/country rejects the interlopers and is a drama about difference, but also desire in the white, French settler to bridge that difference. The problematic relationship of power to desire is present in all of this. France’s mother, in Chocolat, desires Proteé despite their difference but never owns him even where she has proprietorial power over him. France returns unsatisfied and desires to recover something unspoken from the land; perhaps, the last place where she felt at home and a relationship she felt at home in. No such loss for Huppert’s character – she remains as myopic about her situation as a child or shares the romanticism of the father, Mark, in Chocolat. As he is its colonial master – still, just – he remains unpunished for his myopia.
Maria (Isabelle Huppert) is the wife of a plantation owner’s son – yet in her passion and her commitment, she is the driving force on land that, as she states at one point, is not legally hers. Through her involvement with it, however, we come to realise she has created a kind of ownership; it doesn’t have to be economic, her wishing and feeling make it so. What follows might be conceived a morality tale of how that passion destroys and leads to a kind of insanity. In the opening sequence, Maria returns to the plantation hanging off the back of a bus – like a local – and, therefore, starkly at odds, with her pale white skin and reddish hair. Cut to her speeding on a motorbike through the trees and she is called upon, by name, through a military helicopter’s loudspeaker to get out. The countryside has turned dangerous for ‘white material’ such as her.
Her choice is to remain and to stand completely firm – whilst those around her crumble – but one of the successes of this amazing film is to present the complexity of that choice fully. As disasters follow, the easy response is to see Maria’s tenacity as increasingly the driving reason for disaster and a measure of an arrogant insanity, a sign that she does not understand the land in its fullest political sense even if she understands how to grow and harvest coffee beans. No amount of self-reinvention – as her son’s story demonstrates – can bridge a cultural divide. However, nowhere is there any indication or direction as to the morality of what people have done or where narrative culpability lies. All the central characters bear some blame and are innocent simultaneously. If a tragic fate constantly threatens them, our response is to wish them to survive – whether Maria, the rebel leader or her unsupportive ex-husband.
The complexity of these responses, and the definite possibility that different viewers will sympathise and empathise differently, is entirely a construct of Denis’s evolution of an elliptical style of filmmaking. As in earlier films, both those set within tinderbox macro-political contexts (Chocolat, Beau Travail) or contained much more within the domestic (Nenette et Boni, 35 Rhums) Denis tells little, but shows everything in the nuances of a small remark or a character’s action without words. The Sight and Sound review (by Adrian Martin: July 2010) sums it up succinctly and perfectly as Denis’s “skeletal purity, beckoning viewers to enter the work and fill the gaps with their own imaginations”.
This purity can contribute to a delicacy of feeling in her films. In the domestic drama of 35 Rhums, we follow the interplay of desire and dependence and the brutal result of everyday change. Yet, where her subject matter is the wider, macro-politics of the eviction of white farmers (as in Zimbabwe) and the general political unrest in those regions – that delicacy of nuance in relationships is not lost, the need for a broad brush is never succumbed to. People are people are complex are often unknowable. Before the film, we might ask who’d stay in a land beset by war – afterwards we know the answer: all kinds of people and for a myriad of reasons.
In casting Huppert, Denis has found another actor equal to the complexity. Her mesmeric turn in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher shows this where, together with Benoît Magimel, she delivers a complex relationship through a performance that completely commands without any distracting showmanship. Huppert is a global female star and a must-see. She continues to be able to bring what the part needs and nothing else about herself besides.
And the presence of Michel Subor resonates strongly in a small role – he is the symbol in Denis’s films of that colonial cynicism and a decaying presence of French power. Subor, himself, complained whilst shooting L’Intrus that the narrative of the character’s physical disintegration was killing him! I wonder how he felt about playing such an ailing character in White Material again – but his capacity for a physicality in acting that imbues his screen characters with a lurking residual power makes him stay in the mind long after the film.
I love Denis’s films, not least because she demonstrates how form is so entwined with emotion in our watching. Denis pays intense attention to the physical detail and, like Resnais for example, understands how the action of non-naturalistic form is itself, a means of producing intense, real emotion in spectators.