The Jolting “Moonrise,” a John Wayne Romance, and Other Diamonds From the Republic Pictures Vault

Farran Smith Nehme

8/7/2018 12:00:00 AM

Part two of the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of this on-the-cheap studio unleashes a fresh arsenal of little-seen discoveries

When last we tuned in to Martin Scorsese and the Museum of Modern Art, back in February, they were presenting the first fifteen entries in “Republic Rediscovered,” a two-part series of thirty restored films out of the approximately one thousand made between 1935 and 1958 at Republic Pictures. Republic was the B-movie factory run throughout its brief, roller-coaster life by former tobacco executive Herbert J. Yates. It was a studio unlike any other, a place that could provide a home both to superstar John Wayne and never-quite-a-star Vera Hruba Ralston, Yates’s sparsely talented girlfriend (and, later, wife). It released acknowledged classics from John Ford and Frank Borzage alongside the best work of lesser lights like John H. Auer and R.G. Springsteen. From August 9–23, MoMA is screening the second batch of fifteen films, handpicked by Scorsese himself, and the result is another grab-bag of the fascinating, oddball, and occasionally downright brilliant output of Yates’s cut-price MGM manqué.

Two films feature John Wayne, one being the opening-night selection introduced by Scorsese, Wake of the Red Witch. Directed by Edward Ludwig (whose 1956 Flame of the Islands is also in the series), it was made during Wayne’s annus mirabilis of 1948, when the other three films with his name on the marquee were Fort Apache, Three Godfathers, and Red River. Like the Hawks film from that crop, Wake of the Red Witch, set in the South Seas in the 1860s, casts Wayne as a heavy, or so it appears it at first. He plays Captain Rall, a hard-drinking, foul-tempered, and violent commander who scuttles his own ship, seemingly so he can go back and steal the fortune in gold bullion it was carrying. It’s more complicated than that, of course — immensely so, as a flashback-tangled plot reveals it’s all part of Rall’s rivalry with Mayrant Sidneye (Luther Adler) for the love of Angelique (Gail Russell).

Wayne played a number of morally ambiguous characters throughout his career, but he didn’t get many movies that foreground a love story as much as this one. Rall’s passion for Angelique (and Wayne’s chemistry with Russell) drives what is a romantic tragedy as much as an adventure story. (“Underrated” is what Wayne biographer Scott Eyman calls Wake.) It had higher production values than the usual Republic adventure, and for Wayne, its emotional importance must have been significant. He named his production company, Batjac, after the trading company in the movie, and after he was diagnosed with and beat cancer the first time in 1964, he began to call the disease “the red witch.”

Much less lavish, but nearly as interesting, is Three Faces West, a Wayne starrer from 1940 that explicitly links the fate of European refugees from the Nazis (played by Sigrid Gurie and an accent-wielding Charles Coburn) and the residents of a Dust Bowl–ravaged farming town in North Dakota. The cinematographer was John Alton, hence some superbly lit dust storms, both day and night. The director was Bernard Vorhaus, who ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 (fellow director Edward Dmytryk was one of the ones who fingered him) and spent the rest of his career in Europe, becoming an early mentor to David Lean. The screenwriter was Samuel Ornitz, an outspoken communist and one of the original Hollywood Ten. It’s startling, to say the least, to see John Wayne playing a farmer with such left-wing sympathies. His character fights local anti-immigrant sentiment to get the refugees settled and urges a type of collectivization to undo the damage to what he calls, in his inimitable drawl, “a little ol’ gal we been kickin’ in the teeth — Mother Nature.” Eventually he leads his neighbors west to farm land given to them via a government dam project.

Moonrise, the one incontestable masterpiece in the series, is set in a richly shadowed and spooky South of glittering swamps and abandoned houses, all of it created on Republic sets. Danny (Dane Clark), the doom-haunted son of a father hanged for murder, kills a rich bully (Lloyd Bridges) essentially in self-defense. But traumatized Danny, convinced no one will believe a murderer’s offspring, hides the body in the swamp and goes back to a waterside dance club to continue his courtship of the kind, ethereal Gilly (Gail Russell). Moonrise isn’t really film noir — it takes the humanist point of view that criminals are not born, they’re made, and can be unmade — but it boasts some of the most gorgeous noir cinematography of the era, via John L. Russell. And though Moonrise certainly isn’t a horror movie, it has several genuinely frightening moments, including a jolter of an opening. Directed by Frank Borzage in 1948, this film is a tribute to the way originality could flower at Republic.

Then there’s Fair Wind to Java (1953), described by at least one critic as “the ultimate B-picture” (and once you’ve seen it, that’s hard to dispute). Vera Hruba Ralston often cited Fair Wind as her favorite movie. The Czech former figure skater’s casting as a Balinese dancer named Kim Kim (“My father was white,” the character explains casually) is the strangest in the movie, which is saying something when you have Fred MacMurray as a hard-bitten sea captain named Boll; Virginia Brissac (the grandmother in Rebel Without a Cause) as Kim Kim’s Balinese mother; and English stage veteran Robert Douglas as Pulo Besar, the masked Australian-Dutch pirate. Yet Ralston gives this role all she’s got, whether she’s warning of the wrath of Vishnu or sneaking on deck for a breath of fresh air, with disastrous results. Scorsese has often spoken of his fondness for Fair Wind — and indeed, it is hugely enjoyable in its crazy way, graced by an eye-searing Trucolor palette, barreling plot developments, indifference to plausibility, and dialogue like “It’s a little island called Krakatoa. No one’s ever heard of it!” Republic poured a lot of money into the film (a rarity), and it shows, especially in the volcanic finale, an outstanding example of the era’s special effects.

Fred MacMurray co-stars in "Fair Wind to Java" with Vera Ralston, the wife of Republic Pictures chief Herbert J. Yates.PHOTOFEST

Ralston also appears to have a good time in Allan Dwan’s Surrender (1950), playing a foreign-born femme fatale who upends the friendship between a gambler (John Carroll) and a newspaper owner (William Ching) in the Old West. Dwan’s direction reaches its peak in a climactic chase scene across hills and canyons, shown almost entirely in long shot. A different kind of fatalism haunts the title character (Margaret Lockwood) in Laughing Anne (1953), a melodrama based on a Joseph Conrad play. Anne is a French sex worker, married to a lugubrious prizefighter whose amputated hands have been replaced by weights, but yearning for the love of simple sailor Wendell Corey. With every big scene played at a near-hysterical pitch, this was described by its own director, Herbert Wilcox, as a “very bad film,” but I liked a number of elements: the Technicolor; Lockwood’s interpretation of Anne as the ultimate co-dependent; the exotic-locales-on-the-cheap (it was also shot in the studio, of course); and the twist ending.

Hell’s Half Acre (1954) starts out as a fairly routine crime picture, then midway through plunges off a cliff of violence and cruelty; you will never look at the Maytag repairman the same way after seeing what this movie doles out to Jesse White’s character. Directed by Republic workhorse John H. Auer and shot on location (for once) in Honolulu, it has a large and mostly excellent cast, including Wendell Corey (as good as he ever got) as a racketeer trying to go straight; Evelyn Keyes as the wife he deserted years ago; the always wonderful Philip Ahn as a vicious gangster; Marie Windsor as another hard-bitten dame (the way she sucks down the last of her mai tai is a high point); and Keye Luke as the police chief. Though it has Nancy Gates playing an unconvincing Asian moll, the movie makes less use of stereotypes than many others of the era, and gives Luke’s chief the chance to sardonically tell a confused white witness, “What you’re trying to say is, to you, all Orientals look alike.”

The best family-oriented entry stars Steve Cochran, who was attempting to break free of his film-noir typecasting as an oily psycho ready to beat up the likes of Joan Crawford and Ginger Rogers. Come Next Spring (1956) was directed by R. G. Springsteen, who also made Hellfire, a B-Western that was my favorite discovery of the first Republic series. Ann Sheridan, in one of her last film roles, plays an Arkansas farm wife who’s been raising her kids alone after her alcoholic husband took a powder; Cochran, cast radically against type, plays that husband, home after nearly ten years, dried out and trying to stay that way so he can get to know his kids. Both give lovely performances; their first reunion, delivered with clean sincerity, is a marvel of things left unsaid. Filmed in Trucolor around Sacramento, the movie is sentimental in a way that shouldn’t be taken as a pejorative. It points to what might have been a fresh direction for both Sheridan and Cochran, but it was not to be. For Cochran, that was at least in part due to his own wild-man personality. “Steve was a bastard to work with,” recalled Cochran’s good friend and sometime producer Harrison Reader. “He drank too much, he womanized too much, and for a ten o’clock call, he got there at one. But I loved him dearly.”

Cochran would have been perfect for the villain in Make Haste to Live (1954) — a mobster just out of prison and seeking revenge against Chris (Dorothy McGuire), the wife who put him there. The mobster was played instead by Stephen McNally, and rather well, but the actor lacked Cochran’s sex appeal. As it stands, the film is a B-movie twist on Gaslight, a study in how ready people were (and are) to believe a certain type of personable he-man over a woman. Chris doesn’t lose her mind, but as in the Cukor movie, Make Haste to Live shreds your nerves as the mobster checkmates his wife’s every attempt to free herself. Helmed by William A. Seiter, a great comedy director and favorite of MoMA curator Dave Kehr, the movie uses its New Mexico location most effectively for a final showdown in an ancient burial site under excavation. Seiter’s grandson, filmmaker Ted Griffin, will introduce Make Haste to Liveand Seiter’s unusual underworld dramedy Champ for a Day (1953) on August 17, toward the end of the series. Or this year’s phase, anyway. As Paramount continues to restore the Republic library, which it owns, many of us are eager to see more from the adventurous studio’s unique group of filmmakers.

‘Martin Scorsese Presents Republic Rediscovered: New Restorations From Paramount Pictures, Part 2’
The Museum of Modern Art
August 9–23


The African Film Heritage Project: Cinema’s Next Chapter

Oscar Harding

7/27/2018 12:00:00 AM

Cinema Escapist talks to some of the people behind the biggest milestone in African cinema this decade.

One of the joys of cinema is that it can connect people the world over. As Martin Scorsese of The Film Foundation and Ali Moussa Iye of UNESCO have discussed, the African Film Heritage Project unites organizations from across the world—in this case the African continent, Italy, France, and the USA—with a common goal of bringing international cinema to audiences previously unable to view an important part of their cultural history.

Each organization involved brings unique experiences and skills to a project that spans an entire continent and will take years to complete. It is a remarkable example of international cooperation between those who want to educate and celebrate Africa through its cinema.

For the last in our series of interviews with key figures of the African Film Heritage Project, I sat down with Margaret Bodde of The Film FoundationCecilia Cenciarelli of Cineteca di Bologna, and Aboubakar Sanogo of FEPACI to discuss in more detail the individual efforts of their respective organizations in this ambitious and much-needed project. 

Scorsese gave us an overview of the ethos behind AFHP, Iye explained the historical context of this important initiative. Now, we speak with those who travel the world and deal with the day-to-day aspects of achieving the AFHP’s grand vision.

•   •   •

Aboubakar Sanogo. (Courtesy of Ottawa Life)

Aboubakar, what is your role within FEPACI? What exactly does being North American regional secretary entail?

Aboubakar Sanogo (AS): To defend and promote the interests of African filmmakers anywhere in the world. I personally represent this region because I live in North America—representing Mexico, Canada and the USA —and The Film Foundation also happens to be based here!

FEPACI develops initiatives towards the production, distribution, and preservation of African cinema. I have personally taken a lead role here, drafting the plan for an African Archival Project. We plan to bring together archivists from all 54 African countries and bring together our knowledge to answer anything we might not know [about the continent’s archival infrastructure and conditions of individual archives].

We hope the AFHP will help mobilize and raise awareness within Africa [for our other initiatives] of our past, which filmmakers have addressed. The timing is critical, as […] we hope to help Africans explore political and cultural [alternatives] during the advent of a better Africa (a recent example of this, which occurred after this interview was conducted, is the historic peace being brokered between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which would end Africa’s longest war).

Can you tell us how the African Film Heritage project started? Who was behind it and when did you come onboard?

AS: The advisory board [for the World Cinema Project (WCP)] included at least two African filmmakers, one of them I believe was Souleymane Cisse. That’s when the idea of also preserving African films was mentioned. So [the WCP] started restoring African films in an ad hoc manner. About three of four years ago, FEPACI got involved through my work of rediscovering African film pioneers that look me to Cineteca di Bologna, where Scorsese was also working on the idea of the AFHP. We had a conversation with Cecilia about this and as part of FEPACI, I suggested we do something more ambitious on a continental level.

We could then work towards restoring the patrimony of African films and [restart] that conversation of our relationship [towards] our own cinema. At the time, FEPACI was launching the African Archival Project, which is ambitious and not only about restoration but also the creation of infrastructure [for film preservation] on the continent, and preserving what was already there in Africa. When you travel this vast continent to see the organization of it all… it’s not very good! At the time, we were on the ground ourselves to stop the destruction of archives [and the elements contained within] through inclement weather, human negligence and political intervention… there are all kinds of difficulties facing African archives.

It was natural that we teamed up to see if we could cast new light on some of the major works of African filmmakers. This was a vehicle to raise awareness of cultural heritage on the continent and around the world […] and begin lobbying governments to do something about this.

Margaret Bodde. (Courtesy of Zimbio)

Margaret, could you tell us how you became involved in the African Film Heritage Project?

Margaret Bodde (MB): Marty (Martin Scorsese) created the Film Foundation in 1990 and I started working for him the following year, helping him with what he had envisioned for the foundation. [We were] trying to raise funds and awareness for film restoration projects, mainly in the beginning at the US archives like the Library of Congress, the UCLA film and television archive, MOMA and the George Eastman Museum. Then, over the years, as Marty has a global view, he began to look outside the US. We then started restoring films from Britain, India, Italy… before there was digital, we helped the Academy (of motion pictures arts and sciences) restore Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy.

Marty’s always been enriched by cinema from around the world—he really began to see the need, as we all do, to really help some of these regions with very little in the area of archival infrastructure […] there’s not really anywhere for people to go to preserve their film, there’s no cinematheques or archives in many of these countries, and they don’t have much support for their national film patrimony.

What Marty does through the WCP, and what Cecilia is really spearheading, is this two-pronged effort to both preserve and restore films, [so[ that their survival in ensured, but also to distribute them and make them available for audiences who, in many cases, will be discovering these films [for the first time].

Cecilia Cenciarelli. (Courtesy of Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano)

Cecilia, how did you and Cineteca di Bologna become involved with the project?

Cecilia Cenciarelli (CC): We started developing a relationship with the Film Foundation in the early 2000s and we started with mostly restoring Italian cinema […] I’ve been working at the Cineteca for 18 years and I naturally became involved with [the world cinema project] in 2007. The AFHP is just another extension of the world cinema project. The peculiarities we [dealt with when we] were discovering and restoring with the WCP led us to understand [that], clearly, there were going to be specific dangers and issues and challenges linked to the African continent and diaspora that needed special attention.

What are your personal relationships with African cinema before this project began to take shape? had of either you ever seen African film or been aware of the issues were facing it before you collaborated together?

MB: Cecilia has a much deeper understanding of African Cinema in general, but through the WCP we had already restored a few of the seminal African films—Ousmane Sembene’s films Black Girl and Borom Sarret, and North African films like Al Momia and Alyam, Alyam. There was this realization, through our experiences with those films, of the great need for preservation [through Africa].

CC: When I started at the Cineteca, [they] were hosting the first significant festival of films from the Mediterranean countries, so to speak. It was mostly North Africa where the most legendary filmmakers [of that region], mostly Egyptian but also Algerian, came from. Because of [what] the collections [had amassed] over the years, through chances and opportunities, we were always encouraged, as a film archive, to look at the richness of African cinema. We programmed it with FESPACO twice [and[ I’ve traveled to Africa, mostly North Africa, a bit…

The thing with African Cinema that is hard to narrow down, is that every single time you are exposed to a film, you realize how you’re just scratching the surface—there’s an understanding that we can access whatever we want through the internet, but [also] a misunderstanding we can [just automatically] reach out to every culture [and immediately develop a relationship with it], which is not true at all! I think it’s hard to claim to know a lot about African cinema [right now], which is just one of the reasons this project is so important.

Cineteca di Bologna, (Courtesy of Bologna da Vivere).

So the Film Foundation and Cinetca di Bologna have a long-standing relationship, but since the AFHP began what has it been like for you both, collaborating with UNESCO and FEPACI?

MB: FEPACI already had preservation initiatives [underway], as this is a core mission for them, and we basically came together with [common] purpose.

CC: Yeah, the AFHP came together at a very good time. It’s my understanding, discussing with Aboubakar and FEPACI, we were developing this project and starting a conversation right at the moment when FEPACI launched an archival survey as a priority, for the first time in its history. They wanted to really start looking into the state of the archives [that might hold African films] and what could be done to improve infrastructure, and finding out what were the holdings of these archives.

It was important to us to let the african filmmakers, scholars and historians guide us through the project. I don’t think a project like the AFHP could have been done without such prominent presence and initiative of an African organization.

MB: Once we get to the distribution of these films, through their ‘General History of Africa’ project, UNESCO already has their own support, infrastructure and relationships with all [the] key people in those regions. FEPACI and the Film Foundation are [leading] the actual preservation and restoration work with the [various] archives and the filmmakers, but UNESCO will be particularly helpful when we complete the restorations and seek to get them exhibited and distributed widely in Africa.

Le Vent des Aures, one of the films being restored by the AFHP. (Courtesy of Festival de Cannes)

What are these four organizations doing to ensure that, once the 50 african films have been located and restored, they will be seen by African audiences as the priority? This is a continent with less movie theatres and less reliable internet for streaming options than you may have in Asia or the Western world.

CC: This is a very crucial point for us, this is a priority – getting the films back to the African audiences – and we are aware of that. We are still in the first steps of the project, at the restoration level. […] You’re right, there are very few movie theatres, but there are traveling theaters. It’s the reality that exists and we really rely on our African partners to know the best ways to reach out to everything that exists. UNESCO has different programs in place and we’re going to be relying on their experience, as well as FEPACI.

Aboubakar, What do you feel are the primary problems that African Cinema currently faces? a lack of readily available education and resources for audiences and future filmmakers? or is the lazy preconceptions that global audiences have about africa, which possibly feeds into financial support of african films?

AS: Everything you’ve just mentioned, and many more! [laughs] Education helps! There are initiatives […] striving towards the professionalization of the African film sector, that train Africans across the world. We need Africans to go and be trained abroad, like I was.

Part of the problem, maybe the biggest problem, is funding. Those who made films in the 1970s and ’80s have stopped making films because they’re not able to find funding. People like Souleymane Cisse and Med Hondo, for Christ’s sake! Many filmmakers cannot get [the] resources they need because they’re too ambitious! They have to scale down those ambitions. Things are extremely difficult for the new generation, too, who have new ideas and want to revolutionize cinema.

Med Hondo’s Soleil O [1969]. (Courtesy of CNN)

Can you give us an idea of the scale of what the African Film Heritage Project is undertaking? Finding films from 54 different countries, which haven’t necessarily been protected and preserved…

MB: [For the Film Foundation,] Cecilia is really “Our Man in Havana”! (laughs)

CC: (laughs) that’s so kind! [We encounter] quite a specific issue when [we] go to the locations. This is why, in the mission statement published in the press release, the location of the elements is [mentioned] – it’s very complex when we [have, in the past,] restored films from countries like Armenia, Turkey, Sudan, or Brazil [as opposed to from countries like the US] – there’s always that element of not being absolutely sure of where you’re going to find the best negatives.

[With Africa] it’s a very different situation, which can be traced back to how [many of] these films were produced, with a lack of infrastructure, leading African filmmakers to Europe to develop their prints! These elements (original negatives) are never found in Africa, they’re always in European archives and laboratories. If it’s in a public archive, you have a better chance of locating it quicker, [but] archives like Cineteca di Bologna [don’t] often have enough funds to catalog everything we have. Often there are gray areas in the catalogs of every single archive. When it’s a private laboratory, things get even more complicated because they shut down, the collections pass into different hands, they’re auctioned sometimes, sold or acquired [by other people]. The information about a lot of these obscure films, that haven’t been enquired about for a long time, is a lot harder to find […] than one might expect.

The first thing we want to do—which is very ambitious‚—if we’re investigating a particular film by a particular filmmaker, [is] try and gather as much information as we can not only about the film, but also the other films by that filmmaker that might be in the same [archive or laboratory]. What we would like to have is a very open, shared database […]  These [films] are part of African culture and history, and they should be stored in Africa. But all this relevant information [about the filmmakers and the location of their films] is scattered all around the world [so it’s tricky trying to achieve this goal, but having a global database is going to help].

We’re doing this with [the] full respect that is due to the filmmakers. We don’t just locate and restore these films without informing the filmmakers and getting their authorization. This is something FEPACI is leading the way in, and can put us in contact with the filmmakers and introduce us. Some do not have access to the internet, so we have to go and explain exactly what we are going to do in a technical sense – there may be multiple cuts of one film, some of them censored, or re-dubbed, so we always try as much as possible to find out everything we can about a film, and who among those involved is still alive, who has the most expertise regarding each individual film, who has worked on this film the most before us… it’s important to bring all these people together [to make the best restoration possible that is true to the original vision of the films]. I could talk about just this part of process for hours! [laughs]

Morocco’s Trances [1982], a personal favorite of Scorsese’s. (Courtesy of Criterion)

Who exactly is deciding which films should be located and restored? Are there certain criteria for determining which films will be preserved? Why is one film more deserving than another in the eyes of your organizations?

MB: The list is being vetted and put together by FEPACI, a consortium of scholars and filmmakers and producers. They really are the best-equipped to assess the cultural, historic and artistic importance of these films. The goal is to be as Pan African as possible, to be drawing films from every region because most of the African cinema that the west is familiar with is usually north or western.

As they put this list [of fifty films] together, they want to be as representative of the continent’s fifty-four countries as possible. That’s a shifting process- we have a database, and currently have five or six films we’re actively pursuing right now. The list is continually being updated and vetted with information that FEPACI is coming across in discussions with people from different African countries.

AS: This is really being led by FEPACI. We have a committee of archivists and historians who have a profound knowledge of African Cinema. We are a Pan African federation, which of course means trying to involve all five regions of the continent, and of course the diaspora- the sixth region! So there is the geographic criteria to consider.

Then there is the historiographic criteria – we are interested in the hundred-year period of 1889 to 1989, from the very first Edison experiments onwards. We are looking at films made by Africans within this period. Most people know the post-independence era, and filmmakers like Sembene, but we are also interested in the colonial period. Africans were making films even during this time, from Tunisia and Morocco to Guinea and beyond.

Part of the project for us is to be able to have a comprehensive history of African cinema in the Braudelian sense. (Editor’s note: Fernand Braudel was a French historian who developed the idea of the longue durée, which looked at historical events and how long-standing institutions were far more responsible than immediate effects. For example, this theory attests that a conflict isn’t caused primarily by recent catalytic events, but by deep-seated attitudes. So approaching a history of African cinema would not just look at how it was shaped following independence, but how centuries of colonial oppression informed the motivations of African filmmakers and their ancestors)

These filmmaker’s works may be hidden away in archives, and many would not have heard of them, but they have played a major role in our history and in world cinema in general [and through the AFHP, we hope to correct that lack of awareness].

One of my trips to Cineteca di Bologna centred around a Tunisian filmmaker (Albert Samama Chikly) who was active from 1903! He captured World War One, earthquakes in Italy… he was an immense figure in early cinema but he is hardly mentioned. That is the kind of filmmaker we talk about, and hosted a small retrospective of his works, which was a revelation to film historians! This is just one example of Africa’s contributions to film history.

Ousmane Sembene’s Borom Sarret [1963], one of the earliest examples of post-independence African cinema. The AFHP aims to look well beyond this era of film. (Courtesy of Festival de Cannes)

CC: A question we get asked a lot is, “why fifty films?”. It could be five hundred, or five thousand! In no way will the fifty films summarize the richness of African film. It was a [starting point], and underlines the need for this kind of project—something mammoth and ambitious that will probably take a [long time] to accomplish. The list [of films] is being revised according to several strands—we’re trying to trace back to the pioneer [African] filmmakers, as well as the Masters and Genre films. We’re trying to find the right balance [of] good representation of all the voices of Africa. We always come across information we didn’t know when we started this—if we find out about a particular film that’s in danger because of weather conditions or preservation issues, we can take immediate action and restore them quickly, otherwise, we lose films. They joke in the film labs that they are very much like the ER!

MB: With the WCP titles and AFHP titles, most of these films were made independently. [There’s] not quite a clear-cut path to get access to the negatives. Cecilia and her team face a years-long process of researching where these elements are located, negotiating with those who have them to let us preserve and restore the films… it’s a time-consuming process. We look at the list of fifty films, but it’s not like we’re trying to scale Everest in one go—we’re taking it a little bit at a time, but when we know it’s going to take many years because we need to raise funds to do this properly, we feel [OK with that because] the project warrants such investment of time and resources to accomplish.

Aboubakar and Scorsese. (Courtesy of YouTube)

There hasn’t been any attempt of this kind, on this scale, before. Why do you think organizations haven’t stood up for African cinema in this way until now?

AS: There isn’t a model like [the one for the AFHP] anywhere on the planet! Martin has his team in New York, another in Los Angeles, another in Bologna, our team at FEPACI, and UNESCO, of course… all the main stakeholders brought together to create a structure for advocating for African cultural heritage.

Martin really is one of the blessings of cinema, a film historian himself, a cinephile and one of the most open-minded filmmakers I’ve ever met, taking influences regardless of where they come from. he has a desire for what is not firmly part of the Euro-American canon. I really admire him for this, and […] this makes him indispensable for us.

MB: It’s a little bit mad to think can do this! It’s very inspiring to work with Scorsese. One of the things I most admire about him is that the word “no” is not in his vocabulary! He the kind of person where if he feels something, he wills it to happen. This initiative, the WCP… they needed to be done, so he just did it! There’s no business plan with him- [he says] “figure out how to get it done, let’s get to work and everything else will follow!”. In the short span of ten years, thirty-two films have already been restored, preserved and distributed through the World Cinema Project. The Film Foundation has done this with over eight hundred films, helping others in many ways. He’s not just a brilliant filmmaker but a passionate advocate. With him, it all comes from the heart. He inspires our work, so we don’t want to go back to him and say “it can’t be done”.

CC: Lots of people ask whether Scorsese’s involvement is just being a name behind this, but I’ve been astonished to see how he could find the time and interest to be constantly involved with all of this work. It’s an incredible privilege to encounter such a spirit and such a vision.

Ivorian film La Femme au Couteau [1969], one of the films being restored by the AFHP. (Courtesy of Mubi)

This project is very much about the past, but regarding the future, do you believe there are any filmmakers we should be keeping an eye on within the continent? What is improving? What needs to be addressed within this new generation?

AS: It would be a mistake to consider this a project about the past. In fact, it’s about a future that is aware of its past. Part of the problem is there is still a kind of rupture [concerning] intergenerational transmission. For example, no film school worthy of its name in Europe or America would train filmmakers without bringing up Eisenstein or Griffith or Orson Welles or German expressionism…

That very fundamental education that every filmmaker should know!

AS: Right! The foundation from which new ideas can come. But today in Africa, it’s possible to go to a film school and not see [a film by] Sembene or Med Hondo!

It’s unbelievable!

AS: It is. This project is about allowing the new generation to re-appropriate that. Cinema belongs to all of us—regardless of where you come from, you can be touched by the films of others, but should be exposed to that which was created domestically. You should be able to have it as part of your vocabulary – we want to reinsert African films into the vocabulary of those African filmmakers, and filmmakers from around the world. It’s the heart of the AFHP.

Who are some figures within African Cinema you hope will become part of the popular conscience as the restoration rolls out? Who should audiences really know about?

AS: So many – [to name a few,] Sarah Maldoror, Ahmed Bouanani, Jean-Pierre Dikongué Pipa, John Akomfrah, Flora Gomes, Timite Bassori… Of course, we shouldn’t forget the women filmmakers! Safi Faye and many others! The pantheon is broad, but we have a narrow view right now, and need to expand it.

As someone who loves African Cinema, thank you all for your continued efforts. I speak for a lot of people when I say that we’re grateful that this project even exists.

MB: We’re glad you’re shining a light on it! The more we can get the word out, the more people will reach out and help us.

•   •   •

Aboubakar Sanogo is FEPACI’s North America Regional Secretary. You can find out more about FEPACI’s work here.

Magaret Bodde is executive director for The Film Foundation. You can find out more about their work here.

Cecilia Cenciarelli is Head of Research at Cineteca di Bologna. You can find out more about their work here. 

You can read the rest of the interviews from this series of interviews focused on the African Film Heritage Project, in which we spoke with Martin Scorsese and UNESCO’s Ali Moussa Iye.


Interview: UNESCO’s Ali Moussa Iye on the African Film Heritage Project

Oscar Harding

7/25/2018 12:00:00 AM

UNESCO's Chief of the History and Memory for Dialogue discusses the organization's priorities in Africa and his personal relationship with the continent.

If you want to know about African history from an African perspective, you talk to Ali Moussa Iye: Chief of UNESCO’s History and Memory for Dialogue section. UNESCO is a key partner in the African Film Heritage Project (AFHP) and, as a long time advocate of UNESCO’s efforts in Africa, Iye is the perfect person to shed more light on this partnership to restore and promote “lost” African films.

Iye and UNESCO are no stranger to ambitious initiatives related to African history and heritage. Two examples come to mind. The first is the Slave Route Project, an attempt to address the history of the slave trade in a blunt and honest manner. The second is the General and Regional Histories Project, a larger initiative which includes the UNESCO General History of Africa, which aims to create a history of Africa as told and researched from an African perspective. UNESCO’s involvement with the AFHP hopes to build upon this track record.

Iye talked with Cinema Escapist about his personal history with African film, the importance of cinema to keeping African history alive and flourishing, and UNESCO’s role in making sure the AFHP thrives in its mission to educate audiences the world over. Above all else, Iye reminds us that the AFHP is about bringing African cinema back to African audiences in order to change the future of film on the continent.

•   •   •

As a Djiboutian, what has your experience been of cinema within the African continent? It’s hard to find out much about the cinema of Djibouti. Did you watch many African films growing up?

Like many Africans of my generation, I discovered African cinema very late, long after my encounter with Hollywood and Bollywood films, which captivated me. My father, who was very religious, strongly forbade me to familiarize with what he called the “Devil’s Magic”, and I had to find all kind of pretexts to go clandestinely to the cinema. I grew up in a small town in Ethiopia and, at that time, going to the cinema was an adventure, as well as a risky journey.

Despite all those odds, cinema and comics became a source of inspiration for me. I used them to fabricate silly stories to impress my friends during the storytelling game at dusk in the backyard. For a long time throughout my childhood, I actually thought that cinema was real. When I discovered it was created images, I was shocked. I still remember how my friends laughed at me for such naiveté.

Still from 1983’s epic The Somali Dervish, one of the films screened by Iye (Courtesy of the African Film Database).

Djiboutian cinema is still in its early developmental phases, if I may say. The first film was produced in the seventies during colonial times, and since then, less than ten films, mostly video films, have been produced by Djiboutians. Djibouti has very impressive landscapes, which have fascinated poets and writers.  Maybe that is why some great films were shot there, such as the Planet of the Apes.

When I discovered African cinema, I had already begun to understand the power of images as a means of expression and emancipation. With a group of friends, I created an Association for the promotion of African cinema and, in 1986, we organized the first African Film Festival in Djibouti. We screened films such as Djibril Diop Membety’s Touki Bouki, and La Noire De… (Black Girl) by Ousmane Sembene, among others.

We also organized the preview of a Somali film about a historical figure, Sayid Abdallah Hassan, a great poet and freedom fighter. In the early 20th century, he challenged three colonial powers: the British, the Italians, and the French, who were occupying Somali territories in the Horn of Africa. We showed this film in order to raise awareness that cinema can address the Djiboutian people’s own history and concerns.

Still from Touki Bouki (1973), one of the films that Iye screened at Djibouti’s first African Film Festival. (Courtesy of Mubi)

From your personal experience, what do you believe are the issues that have seriously held back the development of African cinema, and what progress do you see being made within the continent and diaspora?

In my personal view, the development of African cinema has met, and continues to meet, many obstacles. [For a start], the heavy investment needed to create the necessary infrastructure—before being an art, cinema is firstly an industry. Next, is the failure of African states to implement efficient and sustained policies to support their national cinemas, as well as an insufficient number of trained professionals in these crucial occupations, especially actors and producers. Moreover, freedom of expression was limited in many countries where one-party ideology was previously imposed. We had also neo-colonialist strategies to discourage the emergence of an independent and vocal African cinema. Finally, African filmmakers have failed to create a unified force that could ultimately influence national and Pan African policies, and confront foreign interferences.

However, the cinema landscape is changing in Africa today. The new generation of African filmmakers are taking advantage of the potential that new technologies offer, in terms of production and distribution. They are experimenting with new ways of using images to tell African stories. After decades of producing films tailored specifically for festivals, or created to meet the expectations of funding institutions from the North, the third generation of filmmakers is trying to put African cinema on a new path, which will be of more relevance to the concerns of the diverse, African public.

I think African cinema and cinematography is full of promise. The entire continent nourishes a variety of extraordinary people and talents as-yet-untapped, [as well as] historical figures [with stories which] deserve to be shared with the world through films.

Still from 1999’s Beau Travail, one of the few films set in Djibouti. (Courtesy of Near to the Wild Wind)

Why do you think there has been a lack of serious, unified international support for the preservation, restoration and exhibition of African cinema until now?

The lack of coherent policies from African governments has not facilitated the development of African film industries, nor does it provide appropriate structures to promote and preserve this heritage. This situation has favored the interventions of various external players pursuing their own agendas. Since the introduction of video clubs, movie theaters have drastically disappeared in most African cities.

Because of all these shortcomings, African cinema, paradoxically, is better known outside Africa than in its own continent. The challenge today is to bring African films back to the African public.  That is why it is important to restore and preserve emblematic films that have previously been overlooked.

Courtesy of Keti Koti Rotterdam.

As a partner in this initiative, how involved is UNESCO in the African Film Heritage Project? Is this an initiative being driven by The Film Foundation and FEPACI, or is your organization actively involved beyond support and promotion of the project?

I think there has been good timing, as well as a convergence of interests and efforts between UNESCO, the African Film Heritage Project, and FEPACI.

In 2015, we created an international coalition of artists to promote the messages of the General History of Africa (GHA). This was a monumental collection of eight volumes, which mobilized the greatest African scholars and thinkers.

Their aim was to rewrite the history of Africa from an African perspective, deconstruct the usual racial prejudices, and provide scientific evidence for the significant contributions that African peoples have contributed to the general progress of humanity. Within this initiative, cinema appeared to be an important art, and we naturally identified filmmakers as crucial partners in carrying the GHA messages.

The Film Foundation, under the leadership of Martin Scorsese, contacted us in order to establish a partnership around this project. We recommended that they also associate the FEPACI, which is the Pan African organization that has been defending the same cause for decades.

The International Organization of Francophonie is another partner whose experience in supporting the production and promotion of African films is well-recognized. A few years ago, they contacted UNESCO to propose a collaboration around an interesting initiative: the creation of a Pan African Fund to support the production of films focusing on African history. If this collaboration is successful, it would be complementary of our partnership with the AFHP.

Courtesy of UNESCO.

What specifically will UNESCO do to provide African audiences more access to the resources that will become available as the AFHP progresses? There are certain African countries that have less developed cinematic cultures and infrastructure than the likes of Nigeria or Burkina Faso—how will they benefit from the AFHP?

The AFHP’s work concretely responds to an urgent need, and it reinforces UNESCO’s action to sensitize African member states to the necessity of preserving their film heritage. We also have a program called Memory of the World, which offers the opportunity for member states to inscribe some of their audiovisual heritage as world heritage. The program recognizes documentary heritage of international, regional, and national significance. In addition, it creates documented archives, and subsequently assigns an identification logo. It facilitates preservation, as well as access without discrimination. Moreover, it campaigns to raise awareness of documentary heritage by alerting governments, the general public, businesses, and commerce for the need of adequate funding and preservation initiatives.

The Memory of the World program complements other UNESCO programs, such as the World Heritage Sites List. UNESCO has also adopted a Recommendation on the Safeguarding and Preservation of Moving Images, which encourages the organized deposit of the world’s film heritage in official archives. It is possible that some of the films restored by AFHP will become part of this Memory of the World Register if the concerned stakeholders take the necessary steps.

Through our GHA project, we will also promote the AFHP’s achievements and publicize the restored films, in particular those films addressing historical events. We will use them to raise awareness on the ownership about their history. I hope that the partnership agreement, signed with the Film Foundation and FEPACI, would also allow us to explore other areas of collaboration.

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay. (Courtesy of La Tribune)

With the appointment of a new UNESCO Director-General with a background in film, as well as the establishment of the AFHP, do you think cinema is now going to become a priority for the International Coalition of Artists for the General History of Africa, and UNESCO in general?

Cinema is definitely one of the most efficient arts and tools that we have identified to promote the GHA. That is why we invited several African filmmakers to join our International Coalition of Artists for the GHA.  For example, we are planning to organize an event in Paris, which will be known as “African Filmmakers and the History of Africa”. We will discuss how the knowledge gained through the GHA has inspired their artistic creations, and how they could better exploit it in the future.

We are indeed very happy that our new Director-General (Audrey Azoulay) has also a longstanding experience in the promotion of cinema acquired within CNC, the famous French institution that succeeded in supporting the production and promotion of French cinema across the world. We are counting on her support and advice to strengthen our collaboration with Martin Scorsese’s initiative with the AFHP.

Africa is one of UNESCO’s top priorities for the next years, as well as gender equality. How exactly is supporting African culture, rather than education or science & technology, going to help achieve the goals set out in these two priorities?

The reason why UNESCO’s member states have chosen Africa and gender as the two global priorities for the organization is obvious. There are two areas where more efforts are yet to be made to address inequalities and discrimination, and provide equal opportunities in education, culture, sciences, and communication.

In that respect, cinema appears as an area where these two priorities can be combined.  In fact, more and more African women are using this art as a means of transformation, to express their perspectives on various cultural and social-political issues and advocate for women empowerment. In Africa, the gender gap is successfully being challenged in cinema, which is more than in other domains of activities.

Still from 1969’s The Eloquent Peasant, an Egyptian short restored by The Film Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna. (Courtesy of The Film Foundation)

You’re heavily involved in UNESCO’s “General History of Africa” project—for you, what is cinema’s place within the last few centuries of African history? Has it always been a crucial part of the continent’s heritage during this period, or is it only just becoming an important part in understanding Africa’s more recent history?   

Cinema is a relatively recent art in Africa, except in Egypt. It is not yet sufficiently considered as an African heritage that needs to be restored and preserved. In Africa, efforts are generally focused on the preservation of oral traditions and written archives. UNESCO has provided a lot to support African governments in that area. However, over the last decades, the preservation of African films is becoming a matter of urgency, as many great films are beginning to deteriorate, and we risk losing them forever. For us, these films themselves have become a part of the African history, as they offered particular interpretations of the evolution of African societies.

I consider African filmmakers as the modern griots (folk storytellers) of African history, the recent history of the last century. Therein lies the importance and urgency of restoring, preserving, and promoting classic African. They contribute to the plurality of worldviews, as well as the diversity of cinematographic approaches and styles. The world itself needs to know about the visual expressions coming from the continent, which is considered to be the cradle of humanity, and the origin of its initial cultures and civilizations.

In that sense, Martin Scorsese’s initiative to contribute to the restoration, preservation, and promotion of African films is a very timely and very pertinent one. UNESCO could not but praise this initiative and form a liaison through the implementation of a formal partnership agreement.

1996’s Keïta! l’Héritage du griot, a film about a West African storyteller, and predecessor to what Iye believes African filmmakers have become. (Courtesy of BFI)

Are there any African films or filmmakers in particular that you hope will get the attention they deserve as the African Film Heritage Project gets underway? Perhaps from Djibouti?

The selection of films that deserve to be restored and preserved should be made in collaboration with African professionals. Within the GHA project, UNESCO can, of course, identify films addressing historical events. They can also make suggestions to choose the most relevant ones for restoration and preservation. This is, in fact, one of the objectives of the partnership signed with The Film Foundation.

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Ali Moussa Iye is Chief of the History and Memory for Dialogue Section of UNESCO. You can find out more about UNESCO’s work in Africa here.

This is the second in a series dedicated to hearing from the various organizations involved in the African Film Heritage Project, each focusing on different elements involved with the AFHP.

For our final part of this series, we will be talking to Aboubakar Sanogo from FEPACI, Margaret Bodde from The Film Foundation, and Cecilia Cenciarelli from Cineteca di Bologna. You can read our exclusive interview with Martin Scorsese here.


Martin Scorsese on the African Film Heritage Project

Oscar Harding

7/22/2018 12:00:00 AM

The legendary filmmaker talks exclusively to Cinema Escapist about his mission to restore and promote African films.

You might know Martin Scorsese as one of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers, directing Taxi DriverRaging BullGoodfellasThe Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street, to name a few. What you might not know is how Scorsese also holds a deep passion for international movies from outside Hollywood. Cinema Escapist caught up with Scorsese to discuss the latest manifestation of this passion: the African Film Heritage Project.

Launched last spring, the African Film Heritage Project (AFHP) is a joint initiative between Scorsese’s non-profit Film FoundationUNESCOCineteca di Bologna, and the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI). It aims to locate and preserve 50 classic African films, some thought lost and others beyond repair, with hopes to make them available to audiences everywhere.

Crucially, “everywhere” in this case includes Africa itself. Due to political turmoil or even extreme climate, many of these movies never enjoyed proper distribution or storage, even in their home countries. This contributes to a central problem facing African cinema: nearly nobody, including African audiences, knows about the continent’s cinematic masterpieces.

Laudably, Scorsese himself is extremely keen that African audiences enjoy the fruits of the AFHP’s labors. It’s a dream come true for many cinephiles, both on the continent and abroad, that such a well-resourced effort has embarked on this ambitious mission of restoration and promotion.

Martin Scorsese took a break from post-producing his upcoming film The Irishman to tell Cinema Escapist’s Oscar Harding more in an exclusive interview about the AFHP.


Scorsese (center) at the partnership signing ceremony for the AFHP. (Courtesy of The Film Foundation)

You’re renowned as a passionate advocate of world cinema, having a varied knowledge of film from around the world. What do you love about African cinema in particular? What are some of your favorite African films and filmmakers?

We make and watch films for many reasons. One of those reasons is curiosity, a search for a way to expand our vision of the world, to understand who we are in relation to others who live lives foreign to ours, and who they are in relation to us and the way that we live our lives.

My relationship with African cinema began with Mandabi by Ousmane Sembene, who is considered one of the pioneers of African cinema. Soon after, I saw Black Girl (La Noire de…), also by Sembene. Black Girl opened in New York in the late 1960s, three years after it was released in Senegal. It had an incredible impact on me, and everybody else who saw it. It was so haunting and very quietly ferocious, and it just opened my eyes to a reality that I’d only read about in the newspaper or seen depicted in benign terms in Hollywood pictures: what it’s like to live in a colonial society when you’re the one whose country has been colonized. It was a powerful experience.

Since then, my love and admiration for African cinema has never stopped growing. The films of Youssef Chahine, Shadi Abdel-Salam, Djbril Diop Mambety, Ababakar Samb Makhamram, Med Hondo, Souleymane Cissé, and Idrissa Ouédraogo—they’re a source of inspiration for me, particularly Yeelen and Al Momia, which I’ve gone back to many times over the years.

We (The Film Foundation) actually restored Al Momia a few years back. And there are so many remarkable pictures that have to be restored and made available again: Faces of Women (1985) by Desiré Ecaré, for example, and a film from the Ivory Coast by Timité Bassori, La Femme au couteau(1967), or the Congolese filmmaker Sarah Maldoror’s extraordinary Sambazinga (1973), set in Angola.

We’ve just started working on Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975) from Algeria, by Mohammad Lakhdar-Hamina— this picture won the Palme d’or in Cannes in 1975, and it’s a milestone in Algerian cinema, and it just hasn’t been available for people to see.

As we go forward with the African Film Heritage Project, I know I’m going to find more treasures.

Still from 1969’s Al Momia. (Courtesy of The Film Foundation)

Onto the African Film Heritage Project – can you tell us about how it came about? Whose idea was it? How did UNESCO and FEPACI get involved?

It was an initiative that began with us, the World Cinema Project (a program of The Film Foundation). One of the WCP’s main goals is to give audiences a chance to discover a wide variety of cinema and languages from all over the world. In the West, we’ve had access to many pictures, but there are many more that we haven’t been able to see so easily—films that were never commercially distributed outside their countries of origin, or films that enjoyed a short window of international recognition and then disappeared, some of them masterpieces.

We realized early on that restoration and preservation are only half the battle. The best surviving elements for African films are almost never found in Africa. In the case of many titles, the elements are scattered throughout Europe and are often difficult to locate. There was a conference at UNESCO in Paris in 1995 at which Sembene actually said that he had no idea where some of his own films were: he had access to neither positive elements nor screening prints, and he had absolutely no idea where the original negatives were or even if they still existed. Unfortunately, this is true for hundreds of films throughout the history of African cinema, and for thousands more films around the world.

So we created the AFHP when FEPACI brought the urgency of the situation to our attention, and UNESCO offered its support. Since FEPACI was created in 1969, the organization has been the voice of filmmakers from all over Africa and in the diaspora, and it’s also worked to support filmmaking in Africa by Africans. UNESCO has understood these challenges for a long time: in 1964, they launched the General History of Africa, an attempt to reconstruct and promote an authentic African perspective on African history. That’s an amazing initiative, and we’re extremely proud to be partners on this project.

Still from 1967’s Soleil O. (Courtesy of The Film Foundation)

50 films is a very ambitious number to restore, and frankly this kind of effort is long overdue. What are the main goals of this project? Is it more about restoration and preservation, or eliciting a different perception of African cinema?

50 titles is certainly ambitious, but it barely scratches the surface. For us, it was a way to begin: we needed to identify a body of work, and FEPACI selected films that represented the entire continent. But really, it’s only the beginning. There are hundreds more that need attention… that we know of!

Our first goal is to launch and conduct a thorough investigation in film archives and laboratories around the world, in order to locate the best surviving elements—original negatives, we hope—for our first 50 titles. And as we research particular films, we’ll also try to compile a report on the location of all the other titles from the filmmaker in question—that way, in the future, we’ll have a shared inventory of a large number of archival holdings for African titles.

Restoration is always the primary goal, of course, but within the initiative, it’s also a starting point of a process that follows through with exhibition and dissemination in Africa and abroad. And of course, our restoration process always includes the creation of preservation elements.

How have the 50 African films been chosen? Have you had much input? Or has the selection been decided by FEPACI and UNESCO rather than yourself and The Film Foundation?

These 50 titles are just a starting point. The list was created by FEPACI, and passed through their network of filmmakers and scholars and their regional bodies, so that we could include pioneers and masters from all across Africa.

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Cinema Escapist’s exclusive interview with Martin Scorsese is the first in a series dedicated to the African Film Heritage Project. Each article in this series will focus on a different element or figure involved with the AFHP. Next up, we will talk to Ali Moussa Iye, Chief of the History and Memory for Dialogue Section of UNESCO.

If you are interested in learning more about the AFHP or Scorsese’s Film Foundation, please visit the Film Foundation’s website.



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