Friday, December 11, 2015

At the Movies: "Rebuni"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Kidist Yilma, 2015.

imbd: Not yet rated
Rotten Tomatoes: Not listed.

I have wanted to check out Ethiopian film for quite a while, but there just isn’t much that’s easily available in the United States. Rebuni was recommended to me sight unseen, on the basis that it was available online (legally? I’m not sure!) and had subtitles. It has made a bit of a splash in the Amharic-speaking world, winning a film festival in Addis Ababa. It’s remarkable, then, that its IMDB profile didn’t exist until it was created by… me. Michael5000. I was the first person on the scene who was willing to shepherd it through the nomination process. That’s an unfortunate state of affairs. Clearly, there is a lot of distance to be covered in bringing Ethiopian film into the global fraternity of movie-watchin’.

So, I have watched exactly one Ethiopian film, which makes it awfully hard to think about that film in context. But there are some things I am inclined to forgive in Rebuni that I wouldn’t in a film from an American studio. Aspects of the film are at the production level I associate with soap opera. Interior sets don’t seem lived in, extras are unconvincing, visual effects are clearly executed with consumer software, and issues related to sexuality are discussed with such discretion that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. None of this bothers me. This is moviemaking on a budget, in a conservative society. No problem.

What did bother me, for much of the film, was that I thought I was watching something painfully predictable. The story: an ambitious businessman wants to buy a particular parcel of land so he can build a paint factory. The land is owned by a traditional healer who harvests its wild plants, and for some reason he delegates the decision of whether or not to sell to his lovely and eccentric granddaughter. The lovely and eccentric granddaughter won’t give the businessman a straight answer, so he has to keep coming back day after day with a new pitch. They spend more and more time together. You see where this is going.

Except, miraculously, you don’t! Not quite, anyway. After I spent 45 minutes or so feeling grouchy about how boringly predictable Rebuni was, it suddenly veered off in an entirely unexpected direction. And, although the end of the story isn’t exactly the most innovative in the history of cinema, but it packs a real narrative punch, and forces you to spend some time reevaluating everything that came before it.

I am not entirely sure what to make of the movie’s heroine. She is intelligent but naive, cheerful but more than a bit odd. I’m not sure if she is supposed to be intensely individual, or if Ethiopian farm girls really act like that. To Rebuni’s credit, it treats the huge gulf between rich and poor in Ethiopia with a fair amount of sensitivity. In my favorite scene, the businessman, who has despite himself come to like and admire the family whose land he covets, is invited into their hut. His face and body language register his initial shock and dismay at the squalor in which they live, but then also his realization and acceptance that this is after all their home, and as such a place that deserves his courtesy and respect. It is a neat piece of acting.

Would I put Rebuni on a “Best Movies of 2015” list? Nah. It has a lot of weaknesses. But it made more of an impression on me that any number of films that have been produced at hundreds of times its budget. I’d like to see more of this kind of thing. I’d like you to watch it too, so we could compare notes.

Michael5000's imdb rating: 7.

No comments: