Screenshots (Jan/Feb 2018) | Film reviews

This month’s film-watching picks

  • Woodpeckers
  • Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
  • The West Indies Gang


Directed by José María Cabral, 2017, 106 minutes

Love literally knows no bounds in Woodpeckers, an inventive, at times enthralling prison drama from the Dominican Republic’s José María Cabral. A precocious filmmaker (he made his first feature at twenty), Cabral — still shy of thirty — achieved notice in 2012 with Check Mate, a slick, formulaic thriller. Woodpeckers — which has been submitted to the upcoming Academy Awards for best foreign-language film — sees him grappling with more interesting material, and for the most part wringing from it successful results.

Inspired by true events, Woodpeckers was shot on location in adjacent men’s and women’s prisons, a catastrophe waiting to happen if ever there was one. Julian (Jean Jean, wiry and compellingly intense) is sent to the men’s penitentiary after being convicted of a robbery charge. Here he encounters an astonishing phenomenon: men communicating with women in the yard across the way through a form of sign language known as pecker talk, the men’s hands when grasping the prison bars mimicking woodpeckers grasping a tree branch.

Deputised by Manaury (Ramón Candelario), a convicted murderer temporarily in solitary confinement, Jean Jean quickly learns this unique language of love in order to trade messages with Manaury’s girlfriend Yanelly (a fiery Judith Rodríguez, with a hairstyle to match). It isn’t long before Jean Jean and Yanelly are attracted to one another, and the film must contrive ways of bringing the couple into physical contact with each other. It also isn’t long before Manaury begins to suspect something’s amiss, and the lovers’ idyll is in jeopardy.

Woodpeckers has a novel core idea, the director dramatising it with the panache it deserves. The attendant plotting might still be rather formulaic, but Cabral is able to create a tragic denouement of almost Shakespearean proportions. And the crafty final shot will make you want to watch the film again.

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Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

Directed by Sophie Fiennes, 2017, 115 minutes 

Predictable and conventional are not words associated with Grace Jones. Shot over nearly a decade by British documentarian Sophie Fiennes, Bloodlight and Bami is an engrossing portrait of the provocative Jamaican disco icon that is appropriately neither of those things. Not for the uninitiated, the film forgoes the usual trappings of the biographical profile (there isn’t a single archival photograph or bit of file footage), instead presenting an intimate, vérité-style look at the current life of the virtually ageless Jones, in locations ranging from Paris to Jamaica to New York.

The unvarnished observational sequences are punctuated by polished concert performances, Jones giving redoubtable renditions of dance-floor anthems like “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Pull Up to the Bumper”. Yet it’s in the often-unguarded moments when Jones is out of the spotlight that the film attains its power, becoming a witness to her tenacity, vulnerability, and simple, affecting humanness.

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The West Indies Gang

Directed by Jean-Claude Barny, 2016, 90 minutes

Based on actual events, The West Indies Gang recounts the deeds of a group of men from the French Antilles — victims of poverty and racism — who robbed a string of post offices in Paris in the 1970s. The protagonist, Jimmy (a sympathetic Djedje Apali), is a single father to a young daughter. When Jimmy returns to mainland France after obtaining weapons from a separatist militia in Martinique, the gang prepares for its final and most ambitious heist, a bank job.

Sadly, what could have been a bracingly political crime thriller flounders amid unreconstructed Blaxploitation tropes (a scene where a woman is savagely beaten is particularly disturbing) and a literal lack of firepower. The film also lacks the courage of its anti-colonial convictions, when at the end an incarcerated Jimmy puzzlingly declares that “Our struggle isn’t racial, it’s societal.”

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