Pieces on Film, Prose and Music by a Nigerian

Month: June, 2012



There are some remarkable portrayals of mentally challenged characters on the big screen from Hollywood: Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man; Tom Hanks in Forest Gump; Sean Penn in I am Sam; arguably Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. In Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan was compelling in My Name is Khan. It is not difficult to tell why this is so, since with such characters, there is a chance of exploiting their range without the aid of a script meaning the glory is theirs and  not shared by the screenwriter. In other words, perhaps due to the inherent difficulty of verbal communication of such characters, nuances in physical dimensions of the role can be explored. Admittedly, it is a slippery slope—there is always the possibility of turning the role into a self-parody à la Adam Sandler; still this narrow margin of error is a challenge to great actors.

After seeing Ben X at the 2012 European Film Festival, currently running in Abuja, I am adding Greg Timmermans to the honour roll of great portrayals of the mentally ill. Mr. Timmermans plays Ben who is constantly bullied in school because he is different- this is a point to note, since people generally believe it is a question of size; he deals with the endless taunts by pretending he is a character in an online game and his classmates are villains. He also plays the game after school with an online friend, Scarlite whom he has idealized as his savior. When he is bullied and his pants taken off in front of class, the incident filmed and uploaded to the internet, he decides he has to do something drastic. Something as drastic as suicide? Murder? Exile?

Filmed like a documentary, where witnesses to his life, including his parents, some classmates and teachers are interviewed, it recalls the structure of Stephen King’s Carrie and Lynn Ramsay’s film, We Need to Talk About Kevin in the way the central incident is talked about but not shown till much later. It is a problematic method as frequently the shrouded incident turns out to be anticlimactic. The choice of this narrative technique becomes evident at the denouement at which point it appears director Nic Balthazar (who also wrote the novel on which the film is based) cares so much about the message that he sacrifices what could have been a shocking ending for a subtle one that allows the central theme of ‘bullying is dangerous’ to receive attention.

It is a choice that might annoy most cinema purists and gratify those who love message driven art. That said, even the former group cannot complain excessively considering the terrific performance of Timmermans: his back is hunched; his face is not so much plastic as is plasticine—allowing a variety of contortions; his eyes are blinking, when they are open they are vacant or cowering in fear of another attack; even his hair is acting. Greg Timmerman’s is Ben, period. As much as his performance was great throughout, a particular scene stands out: Ben is waiting for a bus when the two main bullies carry him to a playground and assault him, when he fights them, he is subdued, and a hallucinogenic pill with the aid of an attacker’s saliva is chucked down his throat. His mother comes late to his rescue, she stares at him, anguish on her face as half frustrated and half delirious he utters a monologue made great by the slurring manner of his speech and the gentle strokes of his palm as he wipes his mother’s tears. In the space of few minutes, Ben goes through a wider range of emotions than most characters do not manage over the course of a movie and Greg Timmerman will make us believe.

After the monologue they leave the scene but the scene does not, will not leave the viewer’s mind.

Though the initial novel was inspired by a real suicide caused by bullying- a universal problem- and hence cannot escape didacticism as it dips and rises on its way to the revelation of Ben’s plan, it is Timmerman’s acting as powerfully demonstrated in that scene that anchors and elevates it beyond its readymade confinements.

It is a Belgian gift. We are thankful.



The ping was at the European Film Festival held in Abuja, Nigeria recently. The screened films were reviewed daily…


Years before the publication of Hemingway’s posthumous memoirs in 1964, a fictional character had literally made Paris a moveable feast.

That character was created by a contemporary of Hemingway- Isak Dinesen- who Papa himself had commented deserved the Nobel. She wrote a story about a woman who upon fleeing France in a time of war comes to live with two puritanical sisters and performs a stunning act, when fate hands her a fortune that is by turns spiritual, a celebration of humanity and an affirmation of an artist’s purpose.

Written as a short story in the collection Anecdotes of Destiny in 1958, it was adapted for the screen in 1987 and became the first Danish film to win the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars (though it is still less known than the other Isak Dinesen adaptation, Out of Africa, which was given the Hollywood gloss through the casting of Robert Redford and Meryl Streep as leads) – two other films from the country have since won the award after the triumph of Feast, including 2010’s In a Better World.

The film opens with two elderly sisters, daughters of a deceased pastor, giving food to some old members of a community in a somewhat dreary area. The narrator informs us they have a chef. The question then is, how can these old ladies afford the wages of a chef?

To explain this, the film flashes back to their youth when their beauty was a source of disturbance to their father who refuses to give them out it marriage to the frustration of many young men. Of these young men, a Swedish officer, Lorens Lowenheim, comes closest and dreams of a ‘higher, purer life…with a gentle angel at his side.’ But he is soon exasperated when his feelings are unreciprocated and he flees resigning himself to a glorious career-life. Same fate befalls a baritone Achille Papin (played by an actor who seems an earlier, European incarnation of Jack Black) who becomes music teacher to Philippa and kisses her in rehearsal one day. He too flees the coast. Years later, it is this latter suitor who sends Babette to the aging spinsters for safety after her family is murdered. They accept her after reading Papin’s wistful letter, but not before telling her of their meager resources. She has no home, so she accepts. Nearly two decades later, she will come to show appreciation in a most sacrificial manner when she prepares the meal the title refers to.

Babette’s Feast is told in a straightforward manner and its simplicity and tale celebration of one human’s sacrifice makes it ideal for the viewer just encountering European cinema for the first time. Surely, there are works that are complicated and now regarded as masterpieces of European cinema like the works of Italian auteur Federico Fellini or even the eccentric efforts of fellow Danish director, Lars von Trier, the rich palette of Spanish Pedro Almodovar; but Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast is a great if simple introduction to the wide realms of possibility that characterizes European cinema. Hence, selecting Babette’s Feast as opener for the 2012 European Film Festival is an inspired choice- it is not as complicated as to leave viewers lost, or oversimplified as to offer cheap banalities on the big screen. It is a film to draw you in gently but deeply either as one woman’s sacrifice or as a parable of an artist. At its end, you want to delve into European cinema more.

As a celebration of Europe, no scene is more evocative as the scene of the feast, where at least three European nationalities are represented: the cavalry officer, now general is Swedish; the congregation is Danish and the chef is French!

As the Head of the EU Delegation to Nigeria and ECOWAS says, “We look forward to sharing with the Nigerian public the variety, richness and potential of European cinematic art.”

Babette’s Feast, with its understated beauty shows the potential, and in the coming days, the public will be looking to explore the variety and richness of European cinema. If Feast is to go by, we will not be disappointed.

A Brief Note: Several of the reviews to be posted here (including this one) have appeared with minor modifications in print- in The Guardian and Thisday newspapers.

Un Blog de Sel

Je pense, donc je ne suis personne.

radio ife

streams for the love in you


A pan-African writers' collective.

%d bloggers like this: