Alex (Stephane Guillon) is traveling, on some unnamed business, through the harsh heat of an unnamed former French African colony. He is driving during a local feast, a taboo, and his car breaks down in, quite literally, the middle of nowhere. As he tries to get several unemployed village men to help him, unsuccessfully, to push start the car, he becomes increasingly convinced that he will never get out of his own piece of hell until “The Time of the Charity Fete Is Over.”
First time feature film writer-director Frederic Chignac hits it out of the park in his first at bat (I cannot thing of an equivalent French metaphor) with a character study that defies pigeon-holing. Alex (in a terrific performance by Stephane Guillon) is white, French and stuck in a place where he thinks he is still a colonial lord and money will buy anything. His boredom and concern about his business is eased, somewhat, by Dogni (Malik Sall), the good-natured local barkeep and hotelier (of sorts) on whom Alex can bare his soul – especially after eight or 10 beers.
The boredom is also tempered by Dogni’s cousin Martina (Aissa Maiga), a beautiful young woman who is selected by the village elders to immigrate to France and earn money to pay the village’s way. She will do anything to get Alex to take her away when he leaves, and does, but he knows what awaits her – prostitution, disease, and death. Through Martina, Dogni, local army post commander Lt. Bado (Eriq Ebouaney), a boy named Mamadou (Ali Monzana) and a man known only as the Outcast (Amara Conde), Alex undergoes a metamorphosis in his thinking and his attitudes about prejudice, race, wealth and honesty.
Frederic Chignac develops fully dimensioned characters in this tiny, low budget ensemble film that moves, from start to finish, in unexpected, fascinating ways. The filmmaker and his excellent behind the camera crew brings us to a place that few of us will ever see and, despite the harshness of the desert, I appreciate the visit. I give it an A-.
On his way to a construction job heading north, Alex (Stéphane Guillon) has the misfortune to break down in a remote African town outside a military base. He quickly bonds with the entrepreneurial Dogni (Malik Sall), the local hotelier, service station manager and bar owner, but he's quick to note the profit Dogni is making from him and the locals haggle over the cost to push his car. At the base, Lieutenant Bado (Eriq Ebouaney, "35 Shots of Rum," "Thirst") plays with his head, first saying he will not be responsible for helping the man to leave alone in case something should happen, eventually leading up to the titular rant, an African 'I'm mad as hell and I ain't gonna take it anymore' allocution on white colonialism. The self-professed 'white man,' who seems to think the town, and Dogni's beautiful cousin Martina (Aïssa Maïga, "Caché," "Paris, je t'aime"), owe him special services, cannot see he is the object of their scorn in "The time of the Charity Fête Is Over."
Writer/director Frédéric Chignac makes an astounding feature film debut which may just be the find of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts's 15th annual French Film Festival. From the festival description I was expecting a cross between Israel's "The Beetle" and "Bagdad Cafe" - I couldn't have been more wrong. This is a comedy which makes one laugh in surprise when one isn't recoiling at the behavior of its antihero, an intelligent reminder that denizens of the Third World are not only quite capable of intellectual sophistication, thank you very much, but also of teaching those who would look down upon them a thing or two. Chignac's take-no-prisoners approach keeps one on edge throughout, even while laughing at some pretty comic situations, but be prepared to go to some very dark places. The film's ending is uncompromising, as far away from Hollywood as one can get. I actually gasped.
In addition to Martina, whose subservience to Alex's sexual demands doesn't excuse him of rape, Alex uses the young Mamadou (Ali Monzana) as his personal errand boy and is kept tantalized by Dogni and others refusal to tell him just what The Outcast (Amara Condé) was outcast for. The local Chief (Thierno Ndiaye, "Karmen Gei") will only assist if Alex promises to look into the military pension he has never received, a reminder of the French Government's heinous treatment of soldiers conscripted from African nations. French horror film icon Philippe Nahon ("Haute Tension," "Calvaire") makes a brief but distinctive appearance as an enlightened man passing through who refuses to help Alex for very valid reasons. Chignac makes an interesting choice with Alex's eventual saviors.
"The time of the Charity Fête Is Over" is an awkward title for a very powerful film. It's not only potent food for thought, but takes its audience to a corner of the world few experience.
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