In the feature film The Rooftops, there are five stories and five rooftops. On one rooftop is the story of a cowardly drunkard who gets bullied by an amateur boxer. On another, there's the story of an old woman (a squatter who was raped by a terrorist and forced to have his child) cohabitating with her niece and her niece's son. On another, there's a smartly dressed businessman who, with the help of two thugs, is trying to force a young man to sign some dubious documents. On another, a madman chained in a cage talks about old wars and old traitors. On the last, a mediocre funk/reggae band meets to discuss future shows and recording opportunities, and to make a little music in the wind.
Far below these stories are the busy and dense streets of Algiers, the capital and center of Algeria. North of the rooftops and almost always visible is the sea that the Arabs dominated during what Europe saw as the Dark Ages, the Mediterranean. We also see cargo ships approaching the ports and the slow-moving architecture of clouds. And to the east, we occasionally spot the soaring structure of concrete called the Maqam Echahid, a monument to Algeria's war of independence from France.
In this film by Merzak Allouache, who is currently considered to be Algeria's top director, each rooftop is in a neighborhood that has its own distinct call to prayer, and each story is isolated. None of the characters in one situation are connected to the characters in the other situations. What connects them instead is the built city, the architectural setting, and the urban superstructure—its cultural, political, and economic history. The characters are haunted by the past. In the story that involves the businessman and his thugs, for example, we watch a production crew planning a scene in a film about how Algiers is the jewel of the Arab world. The thirtysomething female director instructs the cinematographer to make a sweeping shot of the city and the sea. But she also wants him to avoid a prominent Jewish cemetery. The cinematographer thinks her idea will not work; the pan will look wrong or forced if it skips the cemetery. We see the cemetery, the problem. It is huge and silent. But the director insists. She does not want the ghosts of the city in the shot. Later, the film crew is made to suffer at the hands of the businessman's thugs.
The Rooftops is part of SIFF's African Pictures program. The program began last year and is funded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This year, African Pictures boasts an impressive 13 features and numerous shorts. Though there is great variety in this series (B for Boy is a carefully crafted Nigerian drama, Electro Chaabi is an entertaining look at a musical genre that recently emerged on the streets of Cairo, and so on), the films that most captured my imagination this year were ones that, like The Rooftops, had directly or indirectly connected stories. These movies are attempting to find a cinematic language for a social and personal consciousness that is radically new and far from settled. This consciousness departs from the failed postcolonial, postindependence projects of the past and now finds itself thoroughly entangled in the neoliberal global order of flows that are free for finance and telecommunication technologies but restricted for labor.
The Rooftops expresses this current state of mind/feeling/being in the context of a city, as does the South African film Four Corners (set in Cape Town). But in the latter, which is directed by Ian Gabriel, the characters and their stories converge toward the end of the film. Also, each character is defined by a distinct narrative drawn from Hollywood cinema. One character is a thug in a gangster epic, another is a beautiful doctor in an emergency-room drama, another is a jaded detective in a serial-killer thriller, another is a chess genius in a coming-of-age tearjerker. The languages, gestures, manners, thinking, and appearance of the characters are clearly South African, but they are in narrative modes that are clearly American. And if we look at Four Corners' aesthetics, we find a similar relationship between South African content and American framing—the third-world settings (the gritty prison, the aging automobiles, the shabby slums) are photographed, lit, and edited with first-world production technologies and values. What all of this represents is how the poor in urban Africa are not technologically isolated from the rest of the world. The slums may not have access to standard public utilities, but they do have forests of satellite dishes, and so have access to the visual and narrative flows dominated by the fantasy factories in Los Angeles.
In Under the Starry Sky, a film by Dyana Gaye, the stories of three Senegalese characters occur in three different cities: Dakar, Turin, and New York City. The young woman in Turin is the wife of the man looking for work and chasing American dreams in New York City, and he is helped by people who are related to the young, NYC-raised man who happens to be visiting his homeland, Dakar, for the first time. The young woman begins by looking for her husband (who used to live in Turin and left without telling her) and ends up in a very expected relationship. Her husband eventually makes a big decision about his future in America, and the young man in Dakar begins to realize that he is first and foremost an American. What the film beautifully captures is how our desires for happiness, for a sense of the past, or for love can lead us into very unexpected places, into roles we never imagined.