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Martin Scorsese’s foundation releases new boxed set | REVIEW

Saving a cinema that's vital from extinction

World Cinema Foundation Boxed Set (Carlotta). Includes: “Touki Bouki,” directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty (Senegal); “Revenge” directed by Ermek Shinarbaev (Kazakhstan); “Trances,” directed by Ahmed El Maanouni (Morocco); “Redes,” co-directed by Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Muriel Gomez (Mexico).

This second DVD offering includes movies very different from each other but nevertheless combined in a boxed set which is remarkable in and of itself since it is the first available materialization of the activities the World Cinema Foundation has been conducting since 2007.

Founded and chaired by Martin Scorsese, the World Cinema Foundation works with many of the world’s leading filmmakers (Stephen Frears, Abbas Kiarostami, Cristi Puiu, Walter Salles, Abderrahamne Sissako, Elia Suleiman, Wim Wenders, Wong Kar-Wai) who assist the Institute’s members, in particular its director, film critic Kent Jones, in identifying major films that are hard to come by or are on the verge of disappearing.

Thus, these are treasures of world heritage, representative of cinematic creativity on every continent, rescued from oblivion. These works (sixteen, to date) have been systematically restored through a project implemented by the technicians at L’immagine ritrovata lab, Bologna Cinemathèque, Italy. Four of these films make up the first box-set release by Carlotta which announces more to come.

Indeed, it is a grand endeavor which deserves to be acknowledged and encouraged. But the fact is that movies get watched one by one and the state in which they reach us counts for little in comparison to what each one represents. The four titles chosen here belong to different categories, actually what they do hold in common is their overwhelming distinctiveness.

The most important one, without hesitation, is called “Touki Bouki,” which appears here under its French title, “Le Voyage de la hyène,” though this title was very rarely used for this major work from Djibril Diop Mambety. Filmed in 1973, “Touki Bouki” is an extraordinarily inventive and original film, for which one would be hard put to find an equivalent anywhere in the world, including in Africa.

A young director of extraordinary talent, Mambety immediately established himself with this first film. He would later go on to make only one more feature (“Hyènes,” 1992) and two excellent medium-length films (“Le Franc,” 1995, “La petite vendeuse de soleil,” 1998) before passing away that same year at age 53.

“Touki Bouki” has often been compared to Godard’s “Breathless” for its energy, the sense it gives of a cinema at the height of youth, reinventing itself to better accompany the urban trek, a cinema in which documentary dimension and mythological references are brought to fever point through mise-en-scène and meld together in a romantic crucible. To make this hard-to-watch (and hard-to-show) film available once again is a gift, one which by itself could justify not only this boxed set but also the WCF’s existence as a whole.

Discovered at the Cannes Festival in 1991 “Revenge,” never ceases to astound. This is a Russian-language Kazakhi movie whose characters are Korean. It is a tale which seems to begin during the Middle Ages, becomes horror movie in the middle of the twentieth century, and then mutates into an ageless mythological poem, set somewhere between the Russian island of Sakhalin, Korea, and Kazakhstan.

Thwarting markers, “Revenge” asserts itself through a plastic elegiac beauty that’s shattered by outbursts of violence. Confusing even by the standards of the Kazakh New Wave (Omirbaiev, Dvortsevoy, Aprimov) of which Shinarbaev, its director, was also one of the best representatives (“My Life on the Tricorne,” 1993), “Revenge” is both a work of staggering beauty and the unlikely outcome of forced racial mixing (cf. the mass deportation of Korean populations settled in Russia by Stalin)—quite a cultural oxymoron.

Another interesting turn of events is the one that resulted in the birth of “Redes.” The actual director of this film is neither Fred Zinnemann, nor Emilio Gomez Muriel, his co-directors, but the photographer Paul Strand, a pioneer of modern photography whose work influenced the entire first half of the twentieth century. He was the author of the seminal short experimental film “Manhatta“ (1921) and co-founded the nonprofit documentary cooperative production company in the U.S., Frontier Film, with Leo Hurwitz.

It was Strand who took the first steps towards producing a film which would bear witness to the hardships of existence for the fishermen of a village on Mexico’s coast, while at the same time inciting people to rise against their oppressors. This film was co-directed by a novice American filmmaker called Fred Zinnemann (the future director of “High Noon”) and the Mexican-born Gomez Muriel, the two of which got along no better than with Strand with whom they could find no common ground. The latter’s aesthetic concepts were very formalistic and stood opposite those of Zinnemann, a former assistant to Flaherty who was then more drawn to the documentary form and its own dynamic.

Real-life fishermen were cast for the film. At times they were supposed to be doing their job in front of the camera and at others to play roles which did not necessarily correspond to them. First supported by the Mexican authorities, to whom it was pitched as an educational project, the film soon faced some hostility once its revolutionary significance came through, to the point that filming stopped prematurely.

All these various dynamics have contributed to making this odd film, one in which the strength of Strand’s plastic sensibility blazes through at times and where a vibrant realism foreshadowing Visconti’s “The Earth Trembles” suddenly springs toward us with a new sequence. A curiosity rather than great film, likely, if one must use this kind of label, but a unique experience nevertheless.

This is also the case with the fourth and last film of this boxed set, “Trances.” Scorsese said he immediately wanted this one to be the first title to benefit from the restoration efforts of the W.C.F., after he discovered and fell in love with it thanks to a television broadcast following its being selected at 1981’s New York Film Festival. “Trances” is like the random chapter of a kind of epic tale beaming through the centuries and the 1970s.

What beams through the centuries is the great history of popular music in Morocco, the Arab-Andalusian galaxy, with its Jewish and Berber influences, the Gnaoua universe. The 1970s mark the climax of a gifted group of musicians, connected both to their musical heritage and the revolts of the time. This band, called Nass El Ghiwane, inspired great enthusiasm among Moroccan audiences and then among the Arab community in Paris. It was there that the band was discovered by distributor Izza Genini; she signed on as producer in order to keep and have a filmed record of this music phenomenon. She turned for help to Moroccan filmmaker Ahmed El Maanouni, who at the time was distributing 1978’s stunning “Alyam, Alyam.”

What with the four musicians (haunted by the absence of their friend and cofounder Boudjema Hagour), the massive audiences overwhelmed with enthusiasm by the band’s rhythms, the musicality and the defiant lyrics, the director’s own esthetic pursuit, the producer’s wish to record, an evident lack of funding, discussions between group members, cops on stage to keep a close eye on concerts, the alleys of Casablanca’s modest neighborhoods, “Trances” in its own way also blows apart any framework of reference.

At times concert film, ethno-musical record, social movement archive punctuated by oniric breakthrough bursts, this film vibrates along unpredictable frequencies which at times achieve fascination (pictured: a still from “Redes”; image was flipped horizontally for editorial purposes).

(this article was first published in French by Slate.fr; translation by Ali Naderzad)