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The Berlinale Blog: No prose, no problem…

The Berlinale poses a dilemma about the necessity of criticism and offers the best thing Spike Lee has done in years... Welcome to day six's reviews of Starve Your Dog and Chi-Raq.

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Chi-Raq

“If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.”

A fine saying, but what happens if you feel morally compelled to warn people? What if the impulse to save others from the same mistakes you’ve made is just too strong?

The Berlinale has made this reviewer question the adage and opt for a warning: avoid Starve Your Dog at all costs. Why? Because even if no dogs were harmed in the making of this movie, I was.

Admittedly, this Moroccan docudrama hybrid by Hicham Lasri starts off promisingly, with a handheld interview boasting a striking colour palette straight from a children’s playground. A woman’s tirade aimed directly at the camera is bracing: she denounces the slow death the poor are doomed to face, praying for “an earthquake to settle the score”.

The arresting beginning is then followed by a man burning his phone. Then a woman disrupts some traffic. A disfigured man pops up at a bus stop. The director then introduces an avant-garde and semi-coherent narrative about a film crew waiting to interview an ex-Interior Minister with blood on his hands. Then some Shakespeare and Daft Punk is quoted.

No. Just no. 

“But David, can’t you see you witnessed the audacious work of a true auteur?”

No.

“Didn’t you see Godard’s influence on this experimental tour de force?”

Godard’s name is not a get-out-of-jail-free card to justify mind-numbingly pretentious projects.

“Your lack of knowledge regarding Morocco’s political history clearly hampered your enjoyment of a bold film.”

The only way I could have enjoyed this was if I’d taken hardback volumes of history books and repeatedly introduced them to my face.

It’s too late for me, but save yourselves. “How?” you ask… With music, verse and a retelling of an ancient Greek play, of course! Chi-Raq is the answer.

From the opening flashing title card “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” to the air-punching ending, the new Spike Lee joint is a playful call to action. The director and his co-scribe Kevin Willmott have adapted Aristophanes’ ‘Lysistrata’ with wit and militant energy, making it an audacious satire that provokes as well as entertains.

The ancient Greek play saw an anti-war sex strike carried out by women until their hubbies stopped waging war; same thing here, as the wonderful Teyonah Parris leads the “No Peace, No Pussy” protest in modern day Chicago, where the gun violence and gang warfare is so engrained, the locals refer to their city as ‘Chi-Raq’ (as in, ‘Chicago’ and ‘Iraq’ – do keep up!). The dialogue is done in verse, with Samuel L. Jackson popping up here and there as a swaggerific one-man chorus, delivering some of the film’s best lines.

While it has no aspirations to be subtle, Chi-Raq is always on target: the wordplay is brilliant, the style enchants, and the socio-political message is potent.

One minor criticism: you get the sense Lee was having so much fun, he forgot when to stop. Clocking in at 127 minutes, it’s undeniable that some mild trimming was needed.

Which brings us back to that opening quote: as much as praise is preferable, criticism is often vital. Starve Your Dog is a headache-inducing psychedelic potpourri that borders on the unwatchable… so make the choice to watch Chi-Raq instead.

Happy wake up call.

Chi-Raq | Feb 17, 12:30, Friedrichstadt Palast & 22:30, International; Feb 21, 22:00, Friedrichstadt Palast