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“Into Great Silence,” “Adanggaman”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: Philip Gröning’s “Into Great Silence,” Zeitgeist Films, 2007]

It might seem like a daunting challenge, for the filmmaker as well as the viewer: a 2 1/2+-hour portrait of a French vow-of-silence monastery that does not mitigate the quiet and the stillness with narration, interviews, gimmickry, etc., but instead embraces the void, and acts more or less like a monk itself, avoiding stimulus and achieving a kind of state of grace by observation and contemplation alone. But German filmmaker Philip Gröning’s “Into Great Silence” is an arthouse hit all over, pulling in many more ticket-buyers than scores of other, more audience-engineered, star-packed “specialty” films, including “Reservation Road,” “Sleuth” and “The Flying Scotsman.” How could this be, for a digitally shot movie that has less “going on” in it than a Warhol movie or a video helicopter travelogue of France? Gröning got into the Grande Chartreuse monastery with only himself and a camera, and stayed for six months, shooting the monks — young and old — praying, doing chores, hymning, never inserting himself into their routine but rather just observing it, as if in a tangible search to find and document the secret of their purified, simplified life.

And surely it has been the promise of that lifestyle that has lured audiences, often for repeat viewings. Gröning’s gorgeous film, without trying very hard, makes a seductive case for the monk’s ascetism, nestled as it is in the French Alps (holy smokes, does Gröning know how to shoot with available light; the countryside is vacation porn, while the interiors, far from being dark and grim, are always saturated with golden morning rays). Imagine: a life virtually without noise, rushing, time constraints, busyness, electronics (though one monk is glimpsed doing the books on a laptop), distraction, upheaval, media, advertising, hipness, competition, crassness, irrelevancies. Instead, you have close contact with the earth, genuine attention paid to constructive tasks, and the time to do nothing at all but concentrate on your God, your soul, your clear intentions. It looks a lot like bliss, though the monks do not seem to be a particularly joyful lot — they are, for the most part, serious and searching, undeterred by the camera’s daze from focusing their energies inward.

For all of Gröning’s patience, and ours, the film remains fatally on the outside (of course), and the director compensates, as if in frustration, by capturing the dust in the sunlight, the trees in the wind, the countryside’s animals on the roam. There’s a fascinating tension in the film between what Gröning wants to show us and exactly how little he can — that is the point, after all, of the monastic life, that what happens in the material world is irrelevant. Yet it’s all you can film. The technology of cinema is, therefore, standing in for spiritual struggle itself, the desire for the atheists and agnostics and wannabe devotees among us to genuinely commune with the heavens, and our straining failure to accomplish the task. (The reviews for the film have been wildly prone to raw-nerve hyperbole.) Do the monks of Grande Chartreuse know God? Or are they in effect refining their minds toward enlightenment, like good Buddhists? Or are they pitiable, self-deceiving outcasts? They’re not talking, and we’re free to impose what we wish upon their silence. The DVD includes hours of additional footage, and how much you’ll be up for (even the segment on the making of Chartreuse liqueur) is probably contingent on your need for spiritual pathfinding.

In another, more worldly territory: only a handful of African films, so far, are worth the high shelf, including several of Ousmane Sembène’s, Souleymane Cissé’s “Yeelen,” Djibril Diop Mambéty’s “Hyenas,” Faouzi Bensaïdi’s “A Thousand Months,” Nadir Moknèche “Viva Laldjérie.” And Roger Gnoan M’Bala’s “Adanggaman” (2000), an Ivory Coast historical micro-epic that claims to have been the continent’s first movie about the slave trade, as it was experienced on African soil, where the victims and enslavers were both native peoples. Gnoan M’Bala doesn’t have to mention contemporary Congo, Sudan, Angola, Sierra Leone or any number of other self-immolating nations to make his movie’s point; the spectacle of tribesmen hunting and slaughtering each other for Western profit says enough. So much for our historical sense of mythic dualities, good and evil, white and black — it’s significantly unsatisfying to be instructed that for centuries Africans were captured and sold by gold-lusting, bloodline-righteous Africans. Still, the film’s characters don’t talk race, they just run, beginning with Ossei (Ziable Honoré Goore Bi), a young warrior in love with a slave girl his father won’t allow to muddy the family’s lineage. After a raid by painted, spear-wielding “amazons” wipes out the village, the survivors are marched to the village of King Adanggaman (Rasmane Ouedraogo), an archetypal African plundercrat happily shilling off humans for English rum and rifles. The filmmaker paints the pig-pile politics of hierarchies vividly — “Stinking beasts!” is a common slur across the board, between more than four distinct social levels, each trying to exploit the one beneath. (The movie uses up to five distinct languages, plus French.) But since it is color-blind, the movie dismisses race and even tribal grudgery, leaving only the Moloch of capitalism.

“Into Great Silence” (Zeitgeist Films) and “Adanggaman” (New Yorker Video) are now available on DVD.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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