Tuesday 9 September 2014

Film Reviews: B For Boy (Anadu, 2013) / Mother of George (Dosunmu, 2013)

I'm happy to see that Chika Anadu's B For Boy and Andrew Dosunmu's Mother of George will be screening in the BFI "African Odysseys: Beyond Nollywood" series this month. (Details here.) My reviews of both films are below.

B For Boy

At a time when English language cinema can hardly be said to be providing great opportunities for female filmmakers or to be paying much attention to the telling of women's stories, it's heartening to find "world" cinema moving in the opposite direction and frequently focusing its gaze upon female characters compromised and challenged by patriarchal cultures. One of the under-sung highlights of the 2012 London Film Festival was Jeremy Teicher's Tall as a Baobab Tree, in which a teenage girl in Senegal tries to prevent her younger sister's financially-motivated arranged marriage. And last year Haifaa Al Mansour's much-acclaimed Wadjda spun from its portrayal of a young girl's desire for a bicycle a wider portrait of women's position in Saudi society.

B For Boy feels very much like a companion piece to both movies (and also to Andrew Dosunmu's similarly-themed Mother of George [see below], which also screened in last year's LFF) with loaded subject matter once again presented through a low-key, relatable, realist framework that draws the viewer into its protagonist's dilemma without recourse to speech-making or histrionics.
Chika Anadu's expertly-handled debut feature follows Amaka (Uche Nwadili), a pregnant middle-class Nigerian woman who's married to Nonso (Nonso Odogwu) with whom she has one daughter, Ijeoma. Under pressure to produce a male child this time — especially from her mother-in-law who reminds her that 'You've been married eight years and only have a daughter' — and threatened by the possibility that Nonso may be considering taking a second wife, Amaka is thrilled when she's given the news that she is indeed pregnant with a son. But when she ends up losing the child, she resorts to desperate measures, keeping the stillbirth a secret from Nonso and investigating the possibility of adopting a baby to pass off as her own.
Anadu's approach is wonderfully confident and clear-sighted. Giving the movie a spare, clean, uncluttered look that allows the viewer to focus on the characters' interactions without distraction, she uses each encounter that Amaka has — whether with Nonso, with her mother-in-law, her friends, or female healthcare professionals — to present a fresh perspective on the situation and to give texture to the drama.
The contrast between Nonso and Amaka's middle-class, professional life and the village life and customs of their relatives is subtly drawn and the humanity of the film is evident in its treatment of Nonso as a character: no mere representative of patriarchal oppression, he's actually a quiet and considerate man who also feels rather worn down by his family's complaints and demands. But Anadu is certainly unsparing in showing women's collusion in patriarchy. This is evident not only in the traditional attitudes of Amaka's mother-in-law, who's motivated by a desire to have her 'husband's name live on',  but also in a chilling sequence in which a group of women, stirred by the rhetoric of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, take it upon themselves to denounce Amaka as a witch. 
The movie benefits from assured performances from its cast but special mention must go to Uche Nwadili in the lead role. Nwadili has such a strong presence that Amaka never seems a mere hapless victim of events; cool on the surface, she keeps us attuned to the characters' turbulent thoughts and feelings all the time. By the wrenching final scenes, in which Amaka is driven to an action that we really, really hope she won't undertake, B For Boy has built up a Dardenne-esque level of dramatic intensity. Dedicated simply to 'mothers', it's a terrific debut from a talented young filmmaker. 
Mother of George
Dosunmu's Mother of George — the director's second feature following the acclaimed Restless City — explores startlingly similar territory to B For Boy. Just like Anadu's film, Dosunmu's movie is also concerned with the pressure placed upon a Nigerian woman to please and placate her family by conceiving a male child. In this case, the protagonist, Adenike (Danai Gurira, of TV's The Walking Dead), is an immigrant living amongst New York's Yoruba community, but facing similar demands as Anadu's protagonist does in Nigeria. As Adenike submits to the pressure exerted by her mother-in-law, and takes drastic steps to ensure a pregnancy, Mother of George and B For Boy establish themselves as companion pieces, with some similar scenes and characters in common. However, the stylistic approach of the two films could hardly be more different.  
Where Anadu opts for a straightforward, clear shooting style, in which we're always certain what and who is in the frame and what their relationship to one another is, Dosunmu goes in the opposite direction, giving his movie an extremely distinctive look and atmosphere that conveys an immigrant's experience in a highly stylised manner and which clearly exhibits the influence of the director's background in music video.
Bradley Young's cinematography eschews obvious New York landmarks entirely. Instead, the camera glides and floats around the characters (who are often reduced to body parts), coming to rest in unexpected places. Angles and editing are off-kilter; the shots frequently focus on the face of the character speaking while completely obscuring the person being addressed. The whole look is blurry, gauzy with a distinctive colour palette, creating a dreamy, soft-focused texture. Moving through the city or the house, the harried yet graceful Gurira is often shot slow-mo, recalling Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. Indeed, Dosunmu's abstract style sometimes suggests a merging of Wong's work with that of Claire Denis – right down to the casting of one of the latter's regular collaborators, Isaach de Bankolé, as Adenike's spouse Ayodele.
The director's idiosyncratic approach has its strengths and its drawbacks. On the one hand it provides the movie with a wonderfully suggestive, sensual ambience that keeps the viewer intrigued throughout. On the other it means that the characters don't fully emerge and that the film lacks the narrative drive of B For Boy. Doubtless Dosunmu would argue that that's not what he's going for here, but once melodramatic revelations start coming to light in the second half the film stutters, since the groundwork hasn't quite been laid for this shift. The observations made about women's position in a patriarchal society do come through, but in a muted way; ultimately, Adenike's dilemma feels distanced and the climax lacks impact.
Nonetheless, Mother of George is a striking piece of work and one that will likely reward repeat viewings. The extent to which its style serves its subject matter is debatable, but there's no denying the power of Dosunmu and Young's exquisitely composed images to linger in the mind.        


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