Ster-Kinekor’s Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront will be screening the European Film Festival offerings from 6 to 15 May 2016. The films on offer aim to showcase the voices of artists and thinkers who challenge and question modern-day European issues, through the age-old technique of storytelling. Theatre Scene Cape Town was lucky enough to get invited to a preview of one such a film, Macondo.
First released in 2014 at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival, Macondo is a story about a young Chechen boy, Ramasan (11), who is forced to adopt the mantel of the “man" of his traditional Chechnian family after the loss of his father in an unspecified conflict with Russian forces.
The tale is set in Vienna, where the young refugees' family lives in hope of being granted asylum status in Austria. While battling the associated hardships and destitute status that goes hand in hand with their current predicament. they appear to be a happy family unit – a state which changes with the arrival of a mysterious friend of young Ramasan's father. Detracting from the building conflict, his unexpected appearance on the scene and his surprising involvement in Ramasan’s life and family is never truly addressed. (But I make mention of bizarre plot devices later, so let us continue.)
The sudden arrival and consequent involvement of another alpha “man” causes our young protagonist to lash out as he fight’s to hold on to the mantel of the “man of the house” with the only tools available to a child who is at conflict with his role in society. The direct result is having to come to terms with his actions and how they ultimately affect him and those around him.
I see you leaning closer, as the story promises an interesting and intriguing look at the refugee crisis and stories as told from the point of view of those most intimately affected, the refugee children themselves.
Although Macondo is not without the occasional insight into the plight and conditions of refugees who find themselves in similar circumstances, as a full length film it unfortunately leaves one slightly disappointed as you start to discuss and explore the meaning and composition of the whole.
Upon deeper reflection, Macondo comes across as a weak coming of age story told from a child's point of view, which is presented in a disjointed manner that never taps into the powerful defining moments that should help shape our protagonist. (I deal with a lack of character growth later as well). As with other plot devices, the families’ refugee status and the crisis which has caused the family to flee their homeland is never fully explored.
The underlying problem with this is that the unanswered questions make it difficult for us to relate to their current predicament. Are their overcrowded living conditions a result of living in a refugee camp or merely the "slums" of Vienna where the family tragically finds themselves trying to eke out a living? This leaves you slightly perplexed as to the family’s current location. If this is a refugee camp, are all the families there facing similar challenges, or is Ramasan's situation unique?
From a plot perspective, the minor references to racial tension and the peer pressure which affects those who interact with Ramasan feel forced, and is again never truly explained. Are these individuals also refugees or is this just a commentary on the difficulties inherent in being an outsider in a foreign land?
There are a few interesting camera shots and nice use of inferred motion, as well as a semi-consistent use of low angle perspective to force the audience to sympathize with a young protagonist, forced to readdress his own immaturity in a world dominated by adults. The relentless overuse of the handheld camera shot, coupled with the obvious absence of a steadycam system (used to reduce handheld camera shake, which becomes especially noticeable during static landscape shots), sadly overshadows any such interesting visual nuances.
Coupled with the overuse of the handheld camera shot, there are a large number of random static shots which do not add anything to the story as a whole; if anything it makes you wonder if the production team needed to fill time. Along with these stylistic elements, the production lacks any real ambiance. The soundtrack includes only two numbers throughout, both of which are weak and do nothing to create any emotive context for the viewer.
I can appreciate the feeling of detachment which this style of movie-making can instill in a viewer, but this is not that type of film. All it manages to do, is leave the audience feeling even more detached from the narrative.
The story which Macondo tries to explore is not without merit, and therein lies the real tragedy of the film. This is a story which you feel could galvanise large swathes of the global community to help address and focus attention on the plight of millions of people directly affected by this type of crises.
Perhaps the somewhat disjointed feeling of the whole could have been more easily forgiven if the actors collectively gave a more memorable performance, but character development is sadly lacking in general. Young Ramasan's mother, Kheda Gazieva (Aminat), delivers an uninspiring performance of a dutiful Muslim Mother raising a son and two daughters as best she can in a world that feels foreign to them, while Ramasan Minkailov (Ramasan) himself is left in the unenviable position of lead role, in what essentially comes across as a flat story about a boy dealing with complex adult emotions (greed, jealousy, a need for control) without any of the expected or associated epiphany-type growth moments. The nameless father's estranged friend, Aslan Elbiev (Isa), arguably even overshadows Ramasan. Isa’s supporting character as "tortured surviving soldier" presents a much more rounded backstory, thus making him more believable and evoking at least some sense of sympathy or interest from the viewer. This imbalance in character depth creates a feel of unauthentic and forced relationships.
Director and writer Sudabeh Mortezai’s choice of a ponderously slow pace, coupled with her heavy reliance on unexplained plot devices, bizarre loose ends, and overshadowing side stories, seem not to add to the whole but rather distracts from a semblance of cohesion which a strong script invariably has. In the end, Macondo gives you a student production feel, which leaves one to debate whether Mortezia was not truly passionate about the production or was maybe forced to compromise too much on the vision for the project.
So is Macondo a film experience which I would recommend? Not for the casual audience, no. It is essentially a serious of lacklustre short stories inexpertly sewn together into a disjointed whole. This is a heavy and cumbersome piece that only a rare and dedicated aficionado of everything film is going to “enjoy". (I use enjoy in the loosest sense of the word.)
The film techniques used may be questionable, and the actors not Oscar worthy in their performances, but as is the case with all forms of art, the viewer’s ultimate reaction will always be subjective. There remains an inherent human need to search for meaning in whatever we experience. So, if you have a free moment and nothing better is available, go see Macondo, debate it among your friends, and tweet us your theories and opinions to @TheatreSceneCpt.