It's never less than a joy to witness the emergence of a national cinema from a part of the world where international cultural representations are scarce. Congolese director Macherie Ekwa Bahango makes a striking debut on the cinema circuit with Maki'la, an accomplished, mostly very slick and assured film that displays a fine sensibility for the twin urges of artistic integrity and smooth commerciality. Much Sub-Saharan African cinema tends toward one trait and neglects the other; Bahango maintains full control over both, until she betrays the promise of Maki'la's first half with a rushed, cliched second half that squanders the talent of its lead, Amour Lombi, and resorts to uncharacteristically questionable stylistic choices from its director. That joy that one may experience upon experiencing the DRC's emergence as a genuine player on the international cinema scene isn't ever lost - indeed, it's amplified by the fact that Maki'la hails from a female director - but it's undeniably diminished.
There's so much to appreciate in this movie's first half - Bahango captures the improvized, ad hoc nature of a grim existence on Kinshasa's streets with directness and empathy, and forges clear, direct connections between her audience and her characters. We understand instantly the circumstances in which they find themselves trapped, and the effects it has on personal and interpersonal concepts of identity. Here, even a bad purpose to life is a purpose worth having, and any risk is a risk worth taking when one has nothing to lose. As our hope for these characters grows, so too does their potential to suffer loss - now they have something, the pain of returning to nothing becomes an ever-more dispiriting prospect. This is where Maki'la starts to depend upon contrivance for dramatic weight (entirely unnecessary, given the power of its earlier, more incident-free scenes), and underdevelops every notion whether new or old toward a collection of abrupt moments that signal the movie's end. Again, Bahango and Lombi communicate a palpable and highly valuable empathy at every turn, but given that both are able to do just that without leaning on cliche, Maki'la's outcomes can't but strike as disappointing.
It figures, then, that a more experienced director should produce a more accomplished feature. South African Jahmil X. T. Qubeka takes another step toward a major international breakout, following 2013's alternative film noir Of Good Report, with this bold, unapologetic quasi-Western, Sew the Winter to My Skin. It's a vicious repudiation of racism in the form of a crassly entertaining, almost cartoonish genre picture, all vivid cinematography and symbolic storytelling, and a bare minimum of dialogue (I'd posit that more words are heard on the soundtrack than coming out of actors' mouths, and even then that's very few). Qubeka is playing with the devices of this medium in strange, innovative ways - not all of them are worth the effort, but all are worth watching, for this is a startling and entirely riveting picture that both demands and commands attention.
It's difficult to summarize what Qubeka does, or what he tries to impart, in Sew the Winter to My Skin, so varied and multitudinous are his approaches to redesigning the language of cinema to tell this story. It's enormously expressive, though it perhaps has to be, since Qubeka's jumbled chronology strips the feature of a lot of clarity. It makes up for that in its immediacy, and in impressive flair in choreographing action sequences. The melding of clarity and disorientation is essential toward ensuring their effectiveness, as well as the movie as a whole, and it's a process that Qubeka mostly nails. This isn't just a brutish, simplistic sort-of revenge story, though - there's detail and complexity aplenty in scene after scene, and no shortage of highly memorable imagery. In trying so much, it's inevitable that a director with such a particular style will miss a whole bunch of his targets, but he hits a whole bunch more. See this one if you get the chance!
Speaking of getting the chance, Maki'la and Sew the Winter to My Skin are both showing at the London Film Festival, which runs until the 21st of October; at time of publishing, both still have ticket availability! Get to it, kids!