Africa. Blood and Beauty: Film Review

Varied look at African rituals could have benefitted from better photography or more scholarly background but is fascinating nonetheless.

Russian director Sergey Yastrzhembsky explores fascinating African folkways that may not survive in the coming decades.

MONTREAL — Making what the filmmakers clearly believe is a last-chance survey of what ancient customs still remain in tribal Africa, Africa. Blood and Beauty presents a bounty of fascinating -- and sometimes hard to watch -- ethnographic footage. Director Sergey Yastrzhembsky has had a high-profile career, working in the administrations of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin before segueing to journalism, but even so he clearly can't afford National Geographic-level production values. So without stunning cinematography or a novel hook, this doc's theatrical prospects are limited. It should remain valuable on disc to the educational market for years, however.

Split into four sections, the film collects rites and customs related to children, women, men and spirits -- it moves liberally from one tribe to the next, offering little context and focusing on the most easily photographed elements of each subject. The structure risks coming across as a greatest-hits reel of anthropological oddities, but Elisbar Karavaev's camera is never voyeuristic and an atmosphere of respectfulness presides throughout. The narration (read by French star Lambert Wilson) may hit the occasional trite note, particularly in describing the place of infants in village life, but without a shred of judgment or condescension.

The script could, however, have gone much further in explaining practices that look inexplicably cruel to Western eyes. Only once, in a discussion of female lip-stretching customs, does it discuss historical roots that have an analogue in Western civilization. (We are told that this disfigurement dates to tribal attempts to make women less desirable to slave-traders, much as European nuns cut off their noses to keep themselves from being raped.)

Though short on background, the doc offers plenty of eyewitness recordings of rituals that will surely become much rarer in coming years. We see trance dances organized to communicate with dead ancestors, a colorful Berber wedding and many varieties of bodily adornment. Plenty here is not for the squeamish: Himba boys get their bottom teeth knocked out around puberty, for example, and everything from human scaring to elephant-carcass dismantling is filmed with an unflinching lens.

Viewers who come to the film with a bit of knowledge may wish for more of this or that -- more, say, of the elaborate mask dances or voodoo ceremonies that are seen only briefly here. But as a wide-ranging introduction to African folkways, the movie has much to offer.

Venue: Montreal World Film Festival, Documentaries of the World
Production Companies: Cultural-Ethnographic Fund Out of Time, Lesnaya
Director: Sergey Yastrzhembsky
Screenwriters: Sergey Yastrzhembsky, Anastasia Yastrzhembskiy
Producers: Chris Bolzli, Claudie Ossard, Sergey Yastrzhembsky
Director of photography: Elisbar Karavaev
Editor: Kirill Sakharnov 
No rating, 86 minutes