Movies from Africa! Films reviewed: Dachra, Lift Like a Girl, Running Against the Wind

Posted in Coming of Age, documentary, Drama, Egypt, Ethiopia, Feminism, Horror, photography, Sports, Supernatural, Tunisia, Witches by CulturalMining.com on July 9, 2021

This week, I’m looking at three movies from north and northeast Africa: a horror movie from Tunisia, a documentary from Egypt, and a drama from Ethiopia. We’ve got inner-city weightlifters, a forest full of witches, and two childhood friends… who can’t wait, but don’t know which way to go.

Dachra

Dir: Abdelhamid Bouchnak

Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi) is a journalism student at a university in Tunis. She was raised by her kindly grandfather; ever since her mother left her in his care when she was still a child. At school she hangs out with two friends: the very serious Bilel (Bilel Slatnia) and the  rude, crude and funny Walid (Aziz Jebali), who is always on the lookout for a sexual innuendo. The three team up to complete an assignment due soon: to report on a unique story, one that’s never been covered in the mainstream media before. Bilel is the cameraman, Walid the sound guy, and Yassmine — who is beautiful and likes to take charge — is the reporter. The story they’re chasing? A woman in a mental hospital named Mongia who is rumoured to be a witch. She has attacked medics in the past, and is said to perform supernatural acts. She’s been there ever since she was discovered at a village in the woods with her throat cut but still alive. 

After some bribes and subterfuge, they manage to arrange an interview with her, so they can track down the mysterious village where all the events were said to have taken place. But are these cub reporters biting off more than they can chew?

Dachra is a scary, gory and sometimes disgusting horror movie from Tunisia.  It’s beautifully shot in colour, but so spare it almost seems like black and white at times. It uses little or no CGI special effects — the horror is in the creepy characters and situations. These include an always-laughing little girl, an overly solicitous middle-aged man, and a village populated only by women who don’t seem to speak Arabic or French, and who only eat “meat”. Certain parts are predictable — it’s a variation on the classic Cabin in the Woods-type movie — but it also has enough twists and surprises, both supernatural and earthly, to keep you staring at  (or cringing away from)  the screen. 

Dachra is great classic horror in a brand new setting.

Lift Like a Girl

Zebiba seems like an average 14-year-old girl with glasses and ponytail in Alexandria, Egypt. So what’s so special about her? She’s a competitive weightlifter, training for international competitions. And her coach is the famous Captain Ramadan who brought his own daughter international glory a generation earlier. He’s an exuberant man, exuding enthusiasm with every breath. He’s also a one-man cheerleader, ready to break out in chants, songs and dances for his best lifters. And right now, Zebiba is his prize. She specializes in a three part lift. First bringing up the barbell from a squat, then raising it to her upper chest, then turning her hands around to lift it above her head. Her daily practice takes place in a dusty field surrounded by a fence on a street corner in an industrial section of the city. As a competitor she’s equally concerned about how many kilos she lifts as she is about how many she weighs (which determines whom you’re competing against) so she has to follow a strict diet, complete with fasting. to win. But as she grows older, and her medals add up, something unexpected happens, totally changing the dynamics of her life. Can Zebiba continue as a champion weightlifter… or is the magic gone?

Lift Like a Girl is a verité-style documentary about a young girl training in a traditionally masculine sport. It follows Zebiba over four years as she matures. Coach Ramadan is an unforgettable character, a man who rejects religious piety, external pressure, and traditional gender stereotypes (“if a man can belly dance, why can’t a woman lift weights?” he asks.) Zebiba, on the other hand, rarely speaks. She’s followed as an athlete but we rarely see her home life or innermost thoughts, only what the camera catches in her face. Lift Like a Girl is an informative and occasionally interesting examination of a previously unexplored sport. While it definitely has its moving moments, this doc is best suited for those who find competitive weightlifting a fascinating spectator sport.

Running Against the Wind

Co-Wri/Dir: Jan Philipp Weyl

Abdi and Solomon are two young boys who live in the desert like Gand Abdi area of Ethiopia. They don’t go to school, instead spending their time playing or herding goats. But one day a surprise visitor send both their lives on a new course. Abdi discovers he loves running… and can do it faster than anyone he knows. Solomon discovers what a camera is, and decides to devote his life to taking photos. Within a few tears, Abdi is in training with a coach in Addis Ababa, while Solomon has completely disappeared. In fact he isn’t dead, he has taken up a new life in the capital. His photo dreams quickly fade as he falls in with a crowd of homeless kids who make their living begging, stealing and doing hard labour. 

Years pass and Abdi (Ashenafi Nigusu) is now a celebrity runner appearing on billboards, with more prize money than he can spend. Solomon nicknamed photo (Mikias Wolde) is now living with a girl he met as a child in the gang, and they have a two year old daughter. But they still live hand to mouth in a shanty-town shack. Worse, his friends get him involved in organized crime, leaving him under the sway of a genuine villain. Is Solomon permanently stuck in a life of poverty or can he fulfill his dream? Will Abdi adjust to big city life, forgetting his roots in the countryside? And will the two best friends ever be reunited in Addis Ababa?

Running Against the Wind is an engaging, Dickensian story about friendship and brotherhood. While it has a somewhat boilerplate storyline, there is so much stuff happening it can’t can’t help but be interesting. There are dozens of memorable characters, from Solomon’s ne’er-do-well friend Kiflom who keeps getting him into trouble, to Solomon’s loving partner Genet, Abdi’s hard-ass coach with a heart of gold;  Paul, an Amharic-speaking European-Ethiopian photographer; and an evil, bulging-eyed gangster kingpin who oozes cruelty from every pore. Running Against the Wind is the first Ethiopian movie I’ve ever seen, and I can’t wait to watch more.

Lift Like a Girl and Running Against the Wind may be playing in cinemas in your area — check your local listings — or you can find them on VOD;  Dachra  is opening theatrically in the US, and later on VOD. 

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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