by William Stupp
Every year, Movies That Matter brings important films from all over the world to The Hague. The festival puts emphasis on screening films which respond to issues of human rights and sustainability. This year, due to ongoing restrictions on public gatherings, the festival is being held online from March 20th till April 19th. The festival includes dozens of films which grapple with a host of important issues. Among them I review four movies. Antigone, No Gold For Kalsaka, Earth, and When Are You Coming Back, Kees? Though the films are differentiated by their subject matter, style and narrative forms, each represents a director’s creative take on an important subject. Each is a movie that matters.
Seeking gold, in 2008 a British mining company came to the village of Kalsaka in northern Burkina Faso. Six years later they were gone. Leaving with riches, they left behind a contaminated water supply and a local population bristling with grievances. The broad strokes of the story told in Michael Zongo’s documentary No Gold For Kalsaka may sound familiar. It is a tale, one of far too many, of a people betrayed by a national government too eager to reap the revenue offered by a foreign corporation which, despite promises of sustainable development, seems only interested in the short-term gain of extracting resources. Ancestral land is desecrated, farms suffer reduced yields and people are left thirsty. Worst of all, they seem to lack any recourse to those who’ve wronged them.
Though such events as these play out regularly in the lines of certain newspapers which highlight dismal stories coming out of Africa, they are seldom relayed with such style and visual flair. Zongo’s film is stunning. His camera captures the vivid colors of the Burkinabé palette. A dusty sheen of ochre emanates from every frame, entrancing the viewer and collecting on the skin of the Kalsakans. In contrast stand strokes of dark green, islands of fertility in the arid landscape, their precariousness highlighting that of agriculture and human life in general in this dry land.
Zongo astutely recognizes the thematic and visual parallels his story shares with a certain genre of movie: the Western. In an eccentric flourish, he inserts strange characters into a film which is otherwise a straight documentary. Three cowboys periodically race or saunter across the screen on horseback. Their exquisite costumes would make it tempting to label them rugged dandies were it not for the expert horsemanship they display. Between scenes in which villagers explain that their crops will not grow and lament the destruction of their sacred hill, these three men gallop and prance, throw rope and release spit, drink beer and gaze at the stars.
The trio is paired with another character who diverges from the film’s generally non-fictional approach: a town crier who, in a few emotive speeches, tells the story of town, the betrayal of its people and their suffering. His role in the piece is reminiscent of that of the chorus in the theater of ancient Greece. Considering that choruses were also adapted to fit into Western movies, he might be another nod by the director to that genre.
The bulk of the film consists of interviews with groups of older men, seated and speaking directly to the camera. They tell of how the mining company and government promised infrastructure and at least 10 years worth of good jobs in exchange for access to the gold supply which villagers had been slowly extracting for centuries, if not longer. They decry the destruction of their farms and lead the camera on tours of the open pits where once their ancestors conducted rituals. Time and again, villagers lament promises broken, noting that they are ignorant in the way of contracts and that their ignorance has been exploited.
In what passes for a climax, the filmmaker arranges for the water to be tested. The results confirm the presence of dangerous metals. Though the process is tedious and the conclusion unsurprising, there is emotional resonance in the outcome. From all we have seen, we know that the villagers will continue to drink the water, despite the danger, lest they go thirsty.
One wonders what the film might have been had more been made of the fantastical elements, the cowboys and the crier. The documentary narrative becomes repetitive in the second half as different villagers go over the same grievances. Might some of these interviews have been left out to expand on the more experimental elements? The cowboy sequences, each one visually stunning, are never linked directly to the main story. Do they represent the enduring spirit of the village people, or does their cold confidence, mobility and domination of their horses tie them to absconded miners? Whatever the case, they are the highlight of this film which, though it does have an important story to tell, ultimately offers more rewards to the eye than the heart or mind.