Exploring the world through global cinema

Documentary

I Never Thought I’d Live To Be A Hundred

The Republic of the Congo, often confused for its much larger, but equally war-torn neighbour.

This week, World On Film visits the African state of Congo. Ah, but which Congo? This was the difficulty I faced when searching for visual material recently. Even the Internet Movie DataBase incorrectly lists many films as being made in ‘Congo’ when they in fact mean the Democratic Republic of Congo. The much larger DRC after all is Africa’s second-largest country and like North Korea, tends to be the greater source of conflict and instability than its near neighbour. But what of the Republic of Congo, the much smaller ex-French colony lying just to the West? It shares a similar history: stripped of its mineral wealth by foreign powers for over a century, racked by waves of civil war and home-grown dictatorships since achieving its independence, and leaving a near-destitute population shell-shocked by the worst depravities of man and facing a bleak future due to lack of infrastructure. For both Congo republics, the story is a shared one, the plights of their people struck by the same destruction.

In the end, however, I did come across one very positive short film showing the efforts made by at least one small organization to give today’s youth in the Republic of the Congo reasons to live for tomorrow.

The Flux Mothers

(2008) Produced by Jacob Foko

“I would like to have a life like every other girl. I want to be intelligent, read, write. I want to have a better life like them. That’s all.”

Holistic approach: In ‘The Flux Mothers’, we see a program designed not only to give Congolese women much-needed job training, but a well-rounded education for a sustainable future.

The DRC is typically referred to as the ‘rape capital of the world’, yet many young women in the Republic of the Congo have also had to face firsthand this most long-term destructive example of social breakdown. Impregnated as young as 12, they now find themselves saddled with children they do not necessarily want nor can afford to provide for. However, rape is not always the catalyst: in an environment without social welfare, affordable education or job prospects, many women will look to men as a means of survival, only to find themselves dumped when impregnated. Destitution and complete lack of self-worth are compounded in rape victims by mental trauma, especially in a strongly patriarchal culture.

“For both Congo republics, the story is a shared one, the plights of their people struck by the same destruction.”

The Flux Mothers introduces us to a Dr. Ann Collet Tafaro, the driving force behind humanitarian aid organization, Urgences d’Afrique, a program designed to train young Congolese woman such as described above in the art of welding, thus giving them a practical skill in high demand across the region. However, practical skills are only part of the equation, since women who register for the program are also given free language and literacy classes, health-care training, and psychological counselling. Tafaro ultimately understands that in Congo’s war-ravaged environment, any attempt at humanitarian aid must go far further than simple job-training. It must also heal the mind and rebuild an individual’s identity from the ground up.

The film also shows that like all humanitarian aid efforts, there are massive holes in the program due to lack of funding – no safety equipment, poor medical facilities, and a paucity of raw materials that any average shop class would stock. Just as the Congolese must make do with the little they have, so Tafaro and her students must do likewise.

Above all, I found The Flux Mothers to be very inspiring, and given that it was made four years prior to this post, it would be interesting to see how much the program has progressed. In the meantime, the film-maker himself has uploaded the film to Vimeo, which means I can present it below. It was produced through an organization called Global Humanitarian Photojournalists, with the aim of attracting donations for Tafaro’s program.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/22004375″>The Flux Mothers</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/jacobfoko”>Jacob Foko</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>f

*****

The Opaqueness of Sustainability

The kitchen-sink approach to documentary film-making.

Sometimes, getting visual material to watch for a particular country can turn up some truly bizarre results.

Several years ago, I came to hear a few tracks off a new album I mistakenly believed to be the work of the late Donna Summer. It was an obvious mistake: after all, the album was credited to a ‘Donna Summer’ and given the title ‘This Needs To Be Your Style’, which seemed to fit – was not Donna Summer a woman of great style? Then there was the ‘music’ on the album itself, a motley assemblage of aural cacophony that even Bjork would only think fit to record after six months of heavy acid usage, occasionally interspersed with twisted samples of familiar tracks by the disco queen herself.

What I did not know was that ‘This Needs To Be Your Style’ was in fact the work of ‘Donna Summer’, aka British electronic and breakcore obsessive, Jason Forrester, who adopted Summer’s name for stage purposes. I mean, it’s obviously really, isn’t it? It didn’t help. Knowing the real intent of the album did not somehow magically reassemble the mad mix into something coherent – which for all I know is what breakcore exists in the first place.

Many years later and not long after the real Donna Summer released what would be her latest – and last – album, I found myself given the dubious pleasure of editing bid proposals by various organizations hoping to secure international conferences. It could be an interesting job in theory, but for the fact that I quickly discovered that none of the bidding hopefuls knew the first thing about how to sell their host city as the site of a potential global congress. Thus would the Power Point presentations and PDFs be a soul-destroying kitchen-sink collection of random facts interesting to no-one and of dubious connection to the main thrust of the proposal’s argument, which itself was only optionally present.  Perhaps the authors felt that to assault their audience with a barrage of facts and figures would beat them into stupefied submission, if not baffled silence, causing them to cave in completely.

Occasional bursts of clarity get the need for wholesale sustainable development in Congo across.

“Sometimes, getting visual material to watch for a particular country can turn up some truly bizarre results.”

So, then, we see that context is everything, but your ignorance of that context does not always mean your hosts know what they’re talking about. Which brings me to this Congo-focussed oddity.

SOPI Architects, an architecture/urban planning firm based in the UK and Cote D’Ivoire, once put together a proposal for achieving sustainable development in Brazzaville and beyond. Following what has to be the longest company ident in history, we see a curious mish-mash of a film that centers around showing us a long text-based feasibility study that seems ultimately to conclude that what the Republic of the Congo needs more than anything are more attractive buildings. Well, you would expect an architecture firm to say that. The problem, however, is that the other 98% of the video (8% of which worships the ident) does not really build up an argument in this direction, preferring instead to take the scattershot approach of throwing in facts and figures about the country’s development problems across the board.

At least I assume that’s the case, given that the text is too small to read, and not on screen long enough to read in any case. It appears for all the world as if someone has filmed the pages of a book, more to show you what each page looks like rather than an effort to help you read it. There is also the apparent assertion that you are fluent in both English and French, given the randomly-inserted talking head video clips predominantly in French despite the English text, and not subtitled. The footage is also a strange collection, at one point a long self-congratulatory sermon from no less than the nation’s president, Denis Sassou Ngouesso on forest preservation to clips of flood victims complaining – and quite rightly – about the ease with which their villages are frequently underwater.

Like ‘This Needs To Be Your Style’, it’s all over the place. One could argue that I may have failed to grasp the finer subtleties of the argument – maintaining forests + shoring up river banks = build more duplex apartments – but I remain skeptical on this point. At any rate, if you would like to make sense of the presentation, you can watch it below.

*****

Next Time

“The island’s seemingly impenetrable mass of opaque green palm trees and tooth-jagged mountain ranges easily suggest the untamed exotic Javan wilderness far from Batavia’s comparative civility of more than half a century ago”

World On Film visits the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, looking at examples of their use in storytelling – typically as a stand-in location for somewhere else. You can see a trailer for one of these examples below. We also take a good look at the archipelago as it truly is, and I can already say it’s convinced me to go there someday. That’s next time.


An Ocean Full Of Faces

The Christmas Island red crab, on its annual migration to the sea.

A bright full moon pushes through the blue haze of the daytime sky over The Settlement. The warm November breezes herald the approach of another hot sub-tropical summer, and excuses are made all through the town to eschew haste for leisurely engagement to the business of survival. Yet some of the island’s inhabitants have no time for this relaxed philosophy. From all directions They come, caring nothing for demarcation lines between man and motor. On every pavement, in every street, across every veranda, and through every backyard, they cover the town in a scuttling sea of red. One hundred million bundles of busy legs exchanging their sunless burrows for the shining, sandy shores of the beaches beyond the palm trees and the bubbling blue waters of the ocean beyond. Not for them the pleasures of this sinewave surfer’s paradise, but the unquestioning duty, the unwavering need to spawn the future. Just as they did last year, just as they will next year and for all the years to follow. They are the red crabs of Christmas Island.

“The whole place is overrun with curious red crabs as much as 18S in. across. They are excellent tree climbers, and once a year there is a regular migration of these crustaceans who travel in bodies like ants, taking 15 days on the journey, and returning inland after hatching their eggs. – The Examiner – Launceston, Tasmania, 14 May, 1901, expedition of Sir John Murray.

In 2002, the Australian documentary series Island Life explored the far-reaching impact of this remarkable species, endemic only to Christmas and Cocos Islands (both Australian territories), and the increasing threats it faces by humanity and its influence. Two in particular currently affect the fate of the red crabs. Caring little for the presence of Christmas Island’s self-appointed owners – predominantly European and Chinese – crabs unwittingly braving the tarmac often fall victim to the heavy tyres of mining trucks filled with the precious phosphate that gives the locals their main economy. Fortunately, miners are reasonable people and awareness programs have made good progress in teaching them of the importance of preserving the rare local fauna.

“On every pavement, in every street, across every veranda, and through every backyard, they cover the town in a scuttling sea of red.”

The relentless Anoplolepis gracilipes, or ‘yellow crazy ant’.

Far less reasonable is the second, and far more deadly, threat the red crabs face. Accidentally introduced into the local ecology from Africa a century ago, the yellow crazy ant today decimates all that stands in its path. “Listed among the 100 most devastating invaders of the world,” says Wikipedia (the entry has an extensive references section), “it has invaded ecosystems from Hawaii to Seychelles, and formed supercolonies on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.” Formic acid, their chief method of attack, blinds their prey, eroding areas of its body or simply causing it to starve to death. Large and unwieldy in comparison to its tiny and determined predator, the red crab has little chance of escape. Equally disadvantaged are its distant relative, the coconut (robber) crab, and other mammals and plant life sharing the surrounding environment.

The outlook was fairly grim in 2002, with fully a third of the total red crab population wiped out by the unstoppable invaders. That same year however saw major countermeasures launched by local wildlife officers. Ground and aerial baiting efforts using fipronil, a fish protein-based poison lethal to insects but not their victims, has proved highly successful in curbing the yellow crazy ant population. Like the Borg, however, the interlopers do not give up easily, and the long battle continues, the standing death toll massive. For the time being at least, the red crabs continue to fill the streets for every November’s mass migration.

*****

It was the terror of the seas. Its name was spoken with fear and awe. It had weaved a path of destruction that was spoken of with disbelief in every port across the South China Sea. Now it’s luck was about to run out as it headed for the remote, palm-covered atolls known by their inhabitants as the Keeling Islands. The final battle was about to begin.

The infamous SMS Emden meets its match during the Battle of Cocos, one of the first naval conflicts of World War I.

Once the private retreat of a rich Englishman and his harem of forty Malay women, today’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands are a quiet adjunct of Western Australia and home to a small population of Europeans and Malaysians who make a living from tourism. Sitting about halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka, the Cocos have always been of strategic importance because of their location within major shipping lanes. This was all the more important in 1914 when the crew of the German cruiser SMS Emden, after months of successfully capturing and sinking almost every Allied ship it had encountered between Bengal and Keeling, decided to make for the Cocos and disable the vital wireless and cable relay on the archipelago’s Direction Island. Not only were the Cocos important to shipping during World War I, serving as a stopover point for ANZACS headed to the Turkish battlefield, but also a vital communications link between Australasia and Europe. For the other side therefore, it was an important link to sever.

The Battle of Cocos began on November 9th, 1914, when a landing party from the Emden stormed Direction Island and destroyed the relay station. Unbeknownst to the Emden was the fact that long before their plans of sabotage had been made, a convoy of ANZAC ships bound for Turkey were at this moment heading through the Indian Ocean. To make matters worse, one of the locals had managed to send an SOS to Allied forces before the communications station was damaged. Dispatched from the convoy to investigate the message, the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney encountered and engaged the Emden in what would be one of the first naval battles of the war.

“It was the terror of the seas. Its name was spoken with fear and awe.”

“Sure, take our schooner! Here’s a tin of beans – enjoy!” (snigger)

The battle would prove to be fairly one-sided. While the Emden’s guns were capable of striking a target at longer range, the Sydney’s were more powerful, and after two hours of continuous fire, the wounded Emden beached itself on North Keeling Island. The Australian cruiser then pursued and disable Emden’s supporting collier, before returning to its original quarry four hours later. However, despite its battle damage, the Emden and its remaining crew refused to surrender, until two more direct hits from the Sydney convinced those aboard to hoist the white flag. The German casualties were high: 131 dead and 65 injured. All the survivors, including the Emden’s captain, the Hanoverian Karl von Muller, who had earned the respect of the Allies for his policy of treating captured crews with civility, were made prisoners of war.

Or not quite all: 50 of the Emden’s personnel, led by First Lieutenant Helmuth von Mucke, still remained on Direction Island. The original landing party, sent to wreck the communications relay, had never returned to their vessel and had witnessed its destruction from afar. Having annexed Direction Island and its population in the name of Germany, von Mucke realised he and his men would have to make a break for freedom before the Sydney came for them the next morning. He commandeered the nearby 123-ton schooner Ayesha, planning to head for the neutral territory of Dutch-controlled Indonesia. Strangely, the captured Cocossians were more than happy for the theft to take place, even willingly offering von Mucke and his men provisions for the journey. It was only when the curious First Lieutenant put to sea that he discovered the Ayesha’s truly dilapidated state. For von Mucke, the voyage back to Germany would be a long and arduous one, and an adventure that would ultimately make him an ardent pacifist and him at odds with Adolf Hitler in the future.

On Screen

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands today, as seen in the German docudrama, ‘Hunt The Kaiser’s Cruisers’.

Few film-makers have made use of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands outside of tourism. However in 2006, writer/director Jurgen Stumpfhaus and his crew visited the Australian territory to re-enact the Battle of Cocos for his two-part docudrama, Hunt The Kaiser’s Cruisers. Though made for German television, the miniseries was dubbed into English and screened in other parts of the world, as well as being given a DVD release. Episode 1, ‘The Caravan Of Sailors’, recreates the Emden’s dramatic rise and fall, as well as the fate of von Mucke and his men as they try desperately to get home through allied nations in the Middle East. Naturally, it paints the picture from the German side and even features an in-depth interview with von Mucke’s son, who understandably regards his late father as something of a hero. Von Mucke senior is portrayed as an unflappable leader of men, projecting an air of confidence he often did not feel for the benefit of his crew, and with an almost zealous belief in their survival. The kind of person you’d want to have on your side if you had to spend months walking through the deserts of Arabia and fending off warlords and bandits, for instance.

The Cocos really form just a small part of the program, but it stands as a rare example of their use in film and for that, Hunt The Kaiser’s Cruisers is worthy of mention – even if it is mainly enjoyable for the story that unfolds after the battle.

*****

Next Time

“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” – Bertrand Russell

Somewhere in the fog-enshrouded Andean highlands of Columbia, a squad of soldiers is dispatched to a remote outpost to find out what happened to their missing comrades stationed there. However, attempts to unravel the mystery only beget more questions and before they know it, the soldiers are unwittingly re-enacting the fate of their predecessors. The claustrophobic thriller of The Squad next time on World On Film. See the trailer below.


Are You Sitting Comfortably? Part II

July 2012 saw the 16th edition of Pifan, or the Puchon International Film Festival, held annually in Bucheon, South Korea.  I was there and you can read about the first half of my experiences in the previous post. Here, then, is the second half.

I’m sure it would surprise precisely no-one that a Korean international film festival is principally for Koreans. Even the Busan International Film Festival, the largest event of its kind in Asia, makes little more than a perfunctory effort to provide English to international visitors most of the time. I still haven’t forgotten the debacular mockery inflicted upon non-industry ticket purchasers at BIFF 2011, forced, thanks to the virtual impossibility it was to purchase online, to be herded like sheep along a rubber-ribboned maze toward a hastily-erected festival ticket booth outside the world’s largest department store only to be told the tickets had already been snapped up by everyone who’d arrived 30 minutes earlier.  “Wow, thank you BIFF for selling 80% of the tickets online to everyone in the film industry and local government officials who probably won’t even turn up – not to mention relocating the festival to one single city block so this ocean of human slave puppets can fight like dogs for jacked-up hotel prices before standing in a queue on the street full of frustration and broken promises. This couldn’t be any more awesome even if I painted my nose red and let you pelt me with wet sponges – which, by the way, I completely deserve at this point.” Meanwhile, darting around the line of disillusioned faces like bright red sheepdogs, barked a zig-zagging group of festival volunteers wielding portable whiteboards onto which were scribbled a bizarre series of numbers possibly denoting how many dumb suckers were letting themselves be robbed of their dignity, but were in fact a rapidly-growing list of number codes for all the films selling out before you reached the booth. None of which was explained in English, and so became a time experiment wherein one determines how long it takes each mystified member of the cattle run for the penny to drop.

“This couldn’t be any more awesome even if I painted my nose red and let you pelt me with wet sponges – which, by the way, I completely deserve at this point.”

And again, this is the biggest film festival in Asia. It’s meant to be a big-name brand event designed to attract niche tourism. The more diminutive and less-funded Pifan, meanwhile, can be forgiven for lacking many of the needed resources, not least the ability to pave the streets next to the venues. Not only can the regular masses actually purchase tickets online, but also the staff is actually trying to make it possible for them to enjoy themselves. How else to explain BIFF’s red-shirted counterparts actually walking around with bilingual signage, or the fact that I was at one point assigned a personal interpreter so that I could enjoy a post-screening Q&A session?

Pifan is also trying to make a big name for itself, evidenced by the foreign film-makers and press I met there, and needs to be properly bilingual if only to draw that kind of crowd. I apparently cut an incongruous figure, being asked three times if I were “industry or press”, as though those were the only two options. Sure, there’s this blog, and I did act in a short film recently, but that wasn’t the point. I was there as an enthusiast. I can’t have been the only one. To me, international film festivals are an incredibly important service, offering average citizens a (relatively) rare chance to see something beyond the strong-armed monopoly of mainstream cinema. For half the price of a normal ticket.

Ironically, the mainstream played a much larger role in the rest of my Pifan experience, to mixed results.

The Shining

(1980) Written & Directed by Stanley Kubrick

“When something happens, it can leave a trace of itself behind. I think a lot of things happened right here in this particular hotel over the years. And not all of ‘em was good.”

Seriously – could *you* tell this guy was going to go nuts by the end?

Yes, I know – surely Stephen King wrote The Shining? Not this version he didn’t. King’s celebrated novel tells the story of a recovering alcoholic with anger management issues trying desperately to do the right thing and hold on to his damaged family by accepting the winter caretaker’s job at remote Colorado mountain lodge, the Overlook, as a last-ditch chance to avoid poverty. However, his efforts to stay on the straight and narrow are completely disrupted by the hotel’s evil spirit, its power accentuated by his telepathic son. The story is a strong blend of the supernatural and King’s usual exploration of blue-collar family relationships put to the test by forces beyond their control.

Contrast this with The Shining, a story about a barely-under-control malcontent seemingly saddled with a family he doesn’t especially want taking a job at the Overlook in order to gain the peace and quiet he needs to write a novel. Quick to begin losing his sanity long before the hotel asserts its malign influence, this version of the character is the principle catalyst for the Amityville Horror-style rampage that follows, with the Overlook simply tapping into a pre-existing madness. While wrapped in similar packaging, the two stories could not be more different – and the above comparison barely scratches the surface of their asymmetry. Stephen King clearly agreed with this assessment, overseeing a televised adaptation of his book in 1997, which is, aside from the story’s climax, about as faithful as a four-hour miniseries can be.

“This is a man who could have made a film about the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it.”

And yet while The Shining both largely dismisses and tramples upon the source material, it has the kind of unsettling and claustrophobic atmosphere coupled with the trademark eye-catching cinematography and editing that make anything Stanley Kubrick does so compelling. This is a man who could have made a film about the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it. Add to this yet another force of nature in front of the lens in the form of Jack Nicholson, very much at the top of his game and with the kind of presence that superglues your eyes to the screen, almost afraid to see what he’ll do next. Jack Nicholson could perform the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it. Those of us still clinging to the remaining tatters of King’s original story have little choice but to declare him completely miscast as Jack Torrance – not because of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (I for one haven’t even seen it) – but because every nuance of his performance, every arched eyebrow, every glint in his eye and every cynical tone drawling from his lips telegraphs Torrance’s impending madness like flashing, ten-foot-high neon. Yet none of those people would actually say what he was doing on screen wasn’t interesting.

Then there’s that softly-disconcerting soundtrack by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind intermingled with various classic found tracks of a different lifetime, the imposingly-dark brown visage of the Timberline Lodge-as-Overlook, the threatening majesty of Mt. Hood, and a whole raft of elements that make this psychological base-under-siege melodrama work so well. For King fans, it is an exercise in doublethink, where they must put aside the author’s middle American melodrama and enter Kubrick’s realm without any preconceptions. Imagine if King’s version of ‘The Shining’ was a true account of events, and The Shining is the fast-paced Hollywood thriller based on those events. Except that Kubrick was clearly seeing the story through an entirely different lens.

Room 237

(2012) Directed by Rodney Ascher

If you thought ‘The Shining’ ought to consist mostly of this opening shot over and over again, ‘Room 237′ is the documentary for you.

So imagine that you’re a fan of The Shining, and you’ve watched it over and over again in the 32 years since it was released. You know every line of dialogue, you’ve consciously studied every one of the set props, you’ve been struck by the symmetry of cross-fading shots, and you’ve stared at that opening shot of a helicopter flight across Lake St. Mary until the idea of it being just a helicopter flight across Lake St. Mary is patently absurd. Because you know Stanley Kubrick. Stanley Kubrick the perfectionist auteur who once made Shelley Duvall swing a baseball bat over and over again until she lost her mind. Stanley Kubrick the obsessive-compulsive director who turned a 17-week shoot into a 46-week shoot and had Jack Nicholson demolish 60 doors for the “Here’s Johnny!” scene.  This is not a man who does anything by accident. Every one of those Spherical 35mm frames has been planned to the Nth degree.

All of which you know, of course. Now imagine someone decided to shoot a documentary where uber-fans like yourself get to discuss all the hidden meanings and themes you know are what Kubrick was aiming for.

This is Room 237, a brand-new celebration to deconstruction peopled by individuals who know The Shining better than you do and possibly Kubrick himself. Some of the theories aren’t new: there is long-debated good evidence to suggest The Shining is in part recreating the destruction of the Native Americans by the “weak” white interloper, likewise the Holocaust allegory has been around equally as long, and ‘everyone’ knows the film is one massive allegory for Kubrick’s tension-filled assignment to fake footage of the Moon Landing for NASA. The ‘Obvious When Pointed Out’ file is well-explored also, in particular Kubrick’s tendency to mess with a passive movie-going audience with visual non-sequiturs and provocative props just outside the first-time viewer’s field of vision. The suggestion that Kubrick’s face has been superimposed into the clouds in the opening sequence however, that a standing ladder is meant to mirror part of the hotel’s exterior architecture, or that if you play the film forwards and backwards simultaneously, you’ll see all kinds of intentional thematic symmetry, definitely belongs at the speculative end of the pool. However, the various attempts to reach beyond reasonable lengths at the film’s discourse are welcomingly absurd interludes between the more serious – and in all likelihood more accurate – interpretations of Kubrick’s work. Ascher neither wants nor expects us to take all of Room 237 seriously, and in so doing ensures his documentary doesn’t bear all the stomach-tightening hallmarks of an Alex Jones conspiracy piece.

Consequently, what you won’t find in this film are musings from cast and crew, or indeed what they thought The Shining was about. For that, Vivian Kubrick’s 35-minute on-set short is still the best bet. Room 237 is a light academic paean to the film which spawned it, and for fans, is definitely worth a look. Everyone else will probably wonder what the fuss is all about.

3-2-1…Frankie Go Boom

(2012) Written & Directed by Jordan Roberts

The Pifan Daily, freely available during the festival. Apparently I missed the meeting where the word ‘daily’ was redefined to mean ‘twice-only’.

Time now to unzip our parachutes and float down to Dick Joke Island, where relative newcomer to film Jordan Roberts, perhaps in a bid to prove our species really did evolve from primates, clearly believed the market needed another 90 minutes of genital-related humour, now that Harold & Kumar have annoyingly grown up. The infantile Frankie Go Boom also inflicts upon the viewer that other ‘essential’ element of frat-boy comedy, the intensely annoying main character one is supposed to find loveable and hilarious. Twenty years ago, it was the disturbing mental case brought to life by Bill Murray in What About Bob?; today, it’s Chris O’Dowd donning an American accent to play the sociopathic Bruce, a young man oblivious to the lifelong psychological trauma he has inflicted upon his younger brother Frankie by filming every one of his most compromising moments and screening them to a giggling public – a practice all the more destructive in the age of file-swapping and broadband. Add the obligatory ‘touching’ romance, ‘crazy’ and unsympathetic family and Ron Perlman sacrificing the last vestige of his dignity, and presto: another tedious trek through the teen mire. You know, maybe we could get Scorsese interested in that Yellow Pages idea.

Puchon Choice Short 1

Another collection of short films, of which the quality averaged slightly lower than last time. Things get off to an uneven start with the Korean black comedy, The Bad Earth, where office employee Seung Bum puts himself at odds with his co-workers by refusing to clap along during company presentations and after-hours reverie. Clapping, as Seung Bum, firmly believes, is in fact an insidious form of alien virus that makes the human race ripe for the plucking. I will credit film-maker Yoo Seung Jo for adding to the shallow waters of sci-fi in Korea, a genre the country has historically had little reason to explore. However, the story’s premise is a little too ludicrous to be taken seriously, even if Seung Bum just might have good reason for believing it.

Very little credit, meanwhile, should be afforded Han Ji Hye, who in The Birth Of A Hero quite shamelessly takes the ‘Rabbit of Caerbannog’ scene from Monty Python & The Holy Grail and transposes it onto a rooftop in downtown Seoul. The idea that he might possibly be ignorant of this hallowed source material evaporated once the otherwise docile white rabbit began flying through air towards its victims and gouging out their necks in precisely the same manner. If Han is lauded as a master of surrealist cinema after this unbelievable cribbing, he deserves to be fed to the Legendary Black Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh!

Quality began to reassert itself at this point to the unusual Korean stop-motion animated short, Giant Room, in which a man rents out a space in a strange, colourless building. Told explicitly by the landlord not to enter the room marked “Do not enter this door”, the newcomer ignores the warning to his great peril. It’s always hard not to be impressed by the work put into old-style animation – just getting 10 minutes of useable material must have taken months. The claustrophobic miniature sets are also well-designed, and the decision to abstain from dialogue a good complement. Hopefully this is not the only feature we will see from Kim Si Jin.

“I will credit film-maker Yoo Seung Jo for adding to the shallow waters of sci-fi in Korea, a genre the country has historically had little reason to explore.”

The drama finally moved overseas at this point for the dystopian US horror, Meat Me In Pleasantville. It is the near future, where overpopulation has finally used up all of the world’s meat reserves, causing the federal government to make cannibalism legal. Inevitably, some citizens agree with this decision more than others, particularly dependent upon who is at the other end of a meat cleaver at any given time. As the Pleasantville population’s taste for human flesh turns them all into murderous zombies, a father and his daughter fight to escape, though they too are only human. Fans of slasher horror will not be swayed too much by the gore of Greg Hanson and Casey Regan’s half-hour kill-fest, though the real-world basis for the story would, I think, amuse George Romero. It’s a little difficult to imagine a government making cannibalism legal, or that a population would ever go through with it, but anyone who thinks that humans couldn’t acquire a taste for their own flesh – or want to keep eating it after that first bite – ought to read the real-world story of one Alexander Pearce. Unfortunately, both acting and dialogue fail to match the worthiness of the concept, making Meat Me In Pleasantville a little hard to digest.

Pifan Ticket office at one of the many festival venues.

The theme of vampirism returns in fellow US horror short, The Local’s Bite, where a young woman traveling home via ski lift after a night out with friends tries to evade a stalker. Film-maker Scott Upshur puts the unusual transport system common to his local town to good use in this suspenseful drama, which squanders its build-up at the last moment for unrealistic fantasy in the name of plot twists and humour. And again, the acting is highly variable, with the horribly wooden appearance of a clearly real-world ski lift operator struggling like mad to deliver a single line. However, Upshur’s talent for rising tension, good location choices and decent editing cannot be ignored, and those are the areas he should focus upon in the future.

It was the final entry in the collection, Antoine & The Heroes, that proved most enjoyable. In the French comedy-pastiche, B-grade film obsessive Antoine is forced to choose between two simultaneously-screening films at his local cinema complex, each showing his two favourite screen stars and each on their final showing. Unable to decide, Antoine decides to watch both, dashing back and forth between cinemas to catch the highlights. Hailing from the days when kung-fu couldn’t be achieved without a funky disco track and heroines screamed and screamed without ever needing Vicks Vapodrops, cool cat Jim Kelly beats up the baddies without messing up his bouffant in his latest piece of kung-fu cinema, while long blonde silver screen star Angela Steele dodges groping zombies in her new horror blockbuster. At first, Antoine manages to alternate between the two spectaculars with ease, but a small accident results in the blending of realities, films and genres to comedic effect. The best thing about this film is Patrick Bagot’s excellent pastiche of 70’s style kung-fu and B-grade horror – both very much in-vogue during that hirsute decade – realized by some great acting, costumes, sets, and appropriate period soundtracks. Anyone with childhood memories of 70s pop culture will feel more than a little nostalgic by the end of Antoine & The Heroes, reminded of why it was all so much fun – even if it does look ridiculous four decades on.

*****

Next Time

“From all directions They come, caring nothing for demarcation lines between man and motor. On every pavement, in every street, across every veranda, and through every backyard, they cover the town in a scuttling sea of red.”

World On Film pays a visit to Christmas Island and comes face to face with its most colourful inhabitants – a sidestep from the usual film fare, next time.


The Other Side Of Life

A bit of a gear-change this time around, as cinema is not really high on the agenda for the country featured. Nonetheless, there is plenty to watch – and a lot to think about.

Unless you’re deaf or know someone who is, it’s reasonable not to give much thought toward those who are – what options they have in life, the extra lengths they have to go to in order to compensate, and how they are treated by others. Still, we might think, society does offer support: the deaf are taught sign language and how to lip-read, the partially-deaf qualify for hearing aids, and it’s not as if being deaf prevents you from finding work. And quite rightly.

Still, imagine a place where the deaf are ignored simply because they can’t hear; where they are given no education and no job prospects, left to do absolutely nothing from the day they are born until death comes to claim them.

Unfortunately, there are places in the world where some don’t have to imagine this scenario.

Deaf In The Central African Republic

That video was put together by the Central African Republic Humanitarian and Development Partnership Team, a non-profit organization working to coordinate the various entities trying to improve life in the country. Help was supplied by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

Now it would be easy to be highly critical of this lesser-known African state for what the video shows – that CAR society cares little for the weak and infirm. However, context is everything and we need to zoom out a little.

“Imagine a place where the deaf are ignored simply because they can’t hear”

The Central African Republic is one of the poorest nations on the planet, with the International Monetary Fund placing it 178th out of 183 in 2011 in terms of GDP. Part of a former French colony, the CAR has a population of approximately 4.5 million who have suffered at the hands of foreign and domestic oppressors for as long as they can remember. A hundred years ago, they were slave labourers to their French overlords and, following the country’s independence in 1960, abused repeatedly by home-grown dictators fighting each other for control of their fate (- one even declaring himself their emperor). Military rule is still quite recent, with fair elections taking place for the first time only in 2005, yet this is seen as a hollow victory.

Although the land is rich in natural resources and suitable for agriculture, a near-total lack of infrastructure and a complete absence of government subsidies has meant there is no way to make a living  from either. In other words, it isn’t just schoolteachers going unpaid. And, inevitably, the rampant poverty has led to social instability, extortion, and violence exacerbating the problem still further, with a government powerless to stop those seeking to profit by it.

Under The Gun

Produced by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Consequently, the Central African Republic is entirely dependent upon humanitarian aid for its survival, hence the need for the HDPT and their efforts to coordinate that aid. This is particularly the case in the north, where the terrorism is strongest. Even there, however, aid groups try to provide children with education. In the previous video, teachers expressed their frustrations at the temporary nature of any schools established, particularly in the bush. UNICEF, on the other hand, is more upbeat.

Produced by the HPDT and UNICEF.

Starting Point

The focus in this entry has been primarily on education, but for more videos on a range of issues relating to development in the Central African Republic, please visit HPDT’s official youtube page. For more on what HPDT does and background information on the CAR, their homepage (see above) is a good place to start.

“A hundred years ago, they were slave labourers to their French overlords and, following the country’s independence in 1960, abused repeatedly by home-grown dictators fighting each other for control of their fate”

If you’re reading this blog, you’ve likely enjoyed a comprehensive education, and yet if you’re like me, you probably have many complaints about its rote-based, corporate-driven nature. Sometimes it’s good to remember that it could be a whole lot worse.

Related Viewing – CAR and African Cinema

The Silence of the Forest

Amazingly, the CAR does have the beginnings of a film industry, with Le silence de la forêt the first full-length feature produced in 2003. Shot on location, the multinational film tells the story of an well-educated CAR native deciding to throw in his job and free the local pigmy tribe of their oppression by the ‘tall people’. However, they are inflexible to change and unable to see the benefits his urbanised knowledge and expertise will bring them. Based on the novel by Marcel Beaulieu, The Silence of the Forest can currently only be seen at film festivals and has received mostly positive reviews – including that from California Newsreel.

White Material

World On Film has explored the poverty-fuelled social upheaval of a former French African colony before, in Claire Denis’s discomfiting drama, White Material. “While White Material’s plot is entirely fictional, it recreates a world the younger Denis knew all too well: civil unrest, poverty-fuelled extremism, and anger at the nation’s French overlords. The scenario applies to any annexed African state, and Denis deliberately paints her narrative in broad brush strokes, with locations remaining unnamed and specific real-world examples of conflict vague. Click here to read the full review.

The Burundi Film Center

The CAR isn’t the only central African state with a budding film industry and more importantly, a similarly troubled history. Last year, World On Film discovered how one NGO is helping to empower the people of Burundi to tell their stories. “In 2007, a group of international film-makers set up the Burundi Film Center, a non-profit initiative designed to provide interested young Burundians with an opportunity to realise their cinematic dreams. The nation, emerging from the throes of civil war, cross-border conflict and poverty, was seen as having reached a turning point where the population could at last begin to express their cultures, celebrate their differences and realise their creativity.” Click here to read the full story.

Next Time

A country torn apart by war. Living just outside the danger zone, one man is determined not to let the real-world interfere with his own private paradise, until he loses his job and his self-worth. Only then does the war come close to home – but has he caused the conflict himself? Humanity and hubris in the thought-provoking Chadian film, A Screaming Man, next time on World On Film. You can see a trailer below.


All That Is Real Is You

In this edition of World On Film, we follow a young man caught between two worlds and who goes in search of his roots all the way to Cape Verde, where he happily discovers that he has -

Cabo Verde Inside

(2009) Written & Produced by Alexander Schnoor

“What does it mean to be Cape Verdean? Being a good dancer? To not stress one’s self out?”

Half-German, half-Cape Verdean Alexander Schnoor gets in touch with his ancestral roots in ‘Cabo Verde Inside’.

I’ve long believed that people don’t give nearly enough thought to the way in which their inner yearning for identity shapes their every interaction with the world around them. In a sense, the narcissist is the most honest of human beings – they consciously assert that everything within their world is ultimately about themselves and proceed through life with that premise as the lens through which everything is viewed. The narcissist only becomes a figure of dislike when they interact with someone who doesn’t share their parochial assertions – someone who is consequently offended because the former does not validate their own sense of self-worth, like a rhinoceros unconcerned by the existence of an ant.

Yet we are all narcissists at heart by design: we anthropomorphise the world around us and find nothing more fascinating than the actions of our own species and how we feel in relation to those actions. Reality is entirely shaped by how we focus upon those elements of the world that validate who we are, and consequently blind us to everything else beyond. Only through social evolution have most of us learned to internalise our selfishness through recognition that our survival works better as a group, which means acknowledging the needs of others. Read political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s most well-known book, ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, and see the way in which his proposition that democracy is the final evolution of society must first be understood in terms of thymos, the Greek word loosely translated as ‘self-identity’. Even beneath the sexual drive, argues Fukuyama, is the base need of the individual to have their sense of being recognised and agreed upon by everyone they meet. We befriend those who do and find reasons to dislike those who do not for reasons that are not necessarily connected with our underlying discomfort with them.

The quest for the self, however, is not undertaken on a level playing field. With much of it defined by race and nationality, there will always be a disconnect and a good degree of soul-searching among those who do not fall into such simple categories. Hence the common practice by people whose identities are more complex because they may be migrants, or the children of migrants, raised in one society, but strongly informed by the ethnicity and culture of another – a society of which they may have no direct experience. At a certain point of their development comes the yearning to visit the land of their ancestors, typically justified as a spiritual journey. More telling however is when their reason is given as a need to “find themselves” and we see the true root cause.

“The quest for the self is not undertaken on a level playing field. With much of it defined by race and nationality, there will always be a disconnect and a good degree of soul-searching among those who do not fall into such simple categories.”

The journey of self-discovery includes meeting fellow migrant offspring, who champion pluralism and adaptability as the Cape Verdean’s greatest strengths.

The time spent in the ancestral homeland is frequently an ambivalent success: on the one hand, the individual feels the joy of finally being able to connect with the other half of themselves, nothing less than the validation of an identity not understood by the locals back home. Though largely experiential, the adventure seems to nevertheless answer questions never consciously made yet obvious – all pointing back to the two fundamental questions we all have of existence – Who am I? and What do I want? Yet it is also a honeymoon period: stay too long and the reality of the homeland punctures the elation, creating an internal conflict. From here, the person may be unable to reconcile their ancestry with the values instilled by those with which they were raised or find them more compatible with those back home. Here then, is the point when they really have to decide who they are.

Alexander Schnoor, half-German, half Cape Verdean, decided to identify his own inner yearnings back in 2009 when, armed with a video camera and a creditable skill for film-making, he set off for his ancestral homeland for the very first time hoping to answer the question, What does it mean to be Cape Verdean?

To the viewer’s benefit, Schnoor is just as committed to creating a narrative build-up to his quest as he is in finding himself. Cabo Verde Inside begins in Schnoor’s hometown of Hamburg, Germany, and spends time both framing the voyage to come and the process by which it took place. Schnoor doesn’t simply hop on a plane to Boa Vista, but first explores the Cape Verdean influence closer to home. Economic hardships on the islands back in the 1970s resulted in a mass exodus from the islands, with the result today that more Cape Verdeans live abroad than do within its 10 islands. Thus Schnoor searches for answers first in the local expat community before moving on to Maastricht where he meets a Creole woman of similar ancestry. The latter goes on to suggest that diaspora and racial mixing are the underlying reasons for the Cape Verdean easygoing amiability. The sentiment is oft-repeated by others throughout the film and unsurprisingly, is much to Schnoor’s liking.

It is through this perception filter that Cape Verde is presented. From the quiet, agrarian-based communities of Sao Vicente and Sao Nicolau to the comparatively bustling main settlement of Santiago, the island nation is the very model of a developing world Eden. Locals almost uniformly speak of their social stability while reaffirming its mixed racial demographic and tolerance as the root cause, with one interviewee even suggesting that Cape Verdeans are the model for the future of humanity.

“To the viewer’s benefit, Schnoor is just as committed to creating a narrative build-up to his quest as he is in finding himself.”

Upon arrival, Schnoor finds exactly the kind of people he hoped to find, validating his voyage of self-discovery.

And the islands themselves are fascinating and beautiful. Geographically, Cape Verde is a kind of North Atlantic Hawaii, formed by the same shifting hotspot volcanic activity. The mountains are jagged and dramatic, the beaches long stretches of shimmering sand, and the waters a rich azure blue. Couple this with the island chain’s isolated character and you have the textbook resort getaway for the rich and the appearance at least of a Brigadoon-like simplicity. In addition, Schnoor clearly has an eye for visuals and better still, a good understanding of editing, and thus turns out a appealing video postcard of his trip that never feels overlong.

The problem with the film for me then is that Schnoor, who spends only two weeks in Cape Verde, is very much in the ‘honeymoon’ phase of discovery. He is brought into the island community via his own relatives who are happy to meet him, neighbouring farmers welcome him and everywhere the joie de vivre directed his way is what you would expect of someone who went up to the locals and said “Tell me why you think Cape Verdeans are so awesome!”

Cabo Verde Inside is, in short, a paean to a people living in Shangri-La because the film-maker is at a point in his own personal development where he needs them to be doing so. We are viewing not so much what is actually there, but the happiness of Schnoor’s psyche made manifest in rose-tinted brilliance as long-held desires within him finally connect with the one-and-only people who can mirror their need.

The real Cape Verde, long a Portuguese colony with a turbulent history, is never explored. Even the economic hardships mentioned above go without mention – the locals just seem to have left because they’re open, highly-adaptable people who can live anywhere. The roughly 20% who live below the poverty line are presumably content to make do on land with few natural resources.

A former Portuguese colony, Cape Verde is strongly dependent upon agriculture, fishing, and tourism. The underlying mechanisms of the country are not, however, especially germane to the film’s raison d’etre.

It isn’t that I don’t believe Cape Verdeans are warm, welcoming and happy. They have a reputation for being just that. Even the Wikipedia entry makes this point. They live in a warm climate, the population is low thanks to the mass exodus so everyone has the space to be comfortable, and life is uncomplicated. I just didn’t learn a great deal about them in this film. The population is low because people within living memory were starving following the collapse of the slave trade and the withdrawal of the Portuguese colonial masters. People have the space to be comfortable because most of them left. Life is uncomplicated because Cape Verde has been neglected for the last 40 years and again because most of the population left. What does it mean to be Cape Verdean? Living almost anywhere else.

Cabo Verde Inside is, in short, a paean to a people living in Shangri-La because the film-maker is at a point in his own personal development where he needs them to be doing so.”

All of which is ultimately demanding too much from Schnoor, when by now, we understand precisely where he was in his life while making the film and why it couldn’t be anything less than Disneyfied. Meet anyone of mixed origins who has grown up in one place and later visited their ethnic birthplace and ask them how things were those first two weeks. Very likely this will be their experience. Had Schnoor left Germany behind and actually relocated to his ancestral homeland, what might he have to say of it today? The title itself is explicit enough – it is not ‘Inside Cabo Verde’, but Schnoor finding Cabo Verde Inside. I’m glad he had such a positive experience, but I’ll have to look elsewhere to discover Cabo Verde For Real.

But enough from me. You can watch the whole thing free and legally for yourself right here:

*****

Next Time

“The Cayman Islands are famed not only for being a popular tropical getaway, but as an especially popular tax haven for off-shore banking. Nonetheless, the damage to Paradise has been done, the Western world have destroyed the local society by raising it to a level of modernity that benefits only those who colonized it and who now leave the resulting cultural mish-mash to its own, poorer ends. Or, at least, this is how writer/director Frank E. Flowers sees the Cayman plight.”

Paradise lost in the 2004 melodrama Haven, up next on World On Film. To see a trailer, click below.


Consequences

A couple of documentaries go under the spotlight on this week’s trip to Side-step City. Up first:

The Town That Was

(2007) Directed by Chris Perkel & Georgia Roland

Once a major hub in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal industry, little remains of the town of Centralia. Long-since demolished houses leave behind little sign of habitation, while below, a fire rages on.

Recently, I had the chance to see this evocatively-titled documentary that had sat on my Must Watch list for several years, concerning the fate of a most unconventional ghost town. Part-inspiration for the game/Hollywood flick Silent Hill, Centralia, Pennsylvania, was once a thriving community until deadly subterranean fires forced all but a handful of stubborn long-term residents to evacuate. Established in the early 1840s, it was a key player in the region’s massive coal mining industry and its core reason for being until alternative forms of energy took hold and the practice became unprofitable in the 1960s. Early the same decade, the local council hired a team to clear away the local landfill. Somehow, no-one stopped to think that the usual practice of burn-off might not be such a good idea given the locale and in 1962, the fire found the coal seam of the disused mine and has been burning ever since. Indeed, it’s believed that it will be some centuries before it finally dissipates.

Centralia was a proud and tight-knit community, but when the citizens began to succumb to the toxic gases erupting from every fissure in the ground and children began to fall down sinkholes, relocation became highly-desirable. The local government assisted by buying back houses, officially declaring Centralia ‘eminent domain’, which meant that anyone still remaining no longer owned their property and reduced to the level of squatters.

“Somehow, no-one stopped to think that the usual practice of burn-off might not be such a good idea.”

Proud Centralian and long-time holdout, John Lokitis Jr. stands in front of the smoky wasteland. Much of the documentary focuses upon his lone efforts to keep the town's bare skeleton going.

By the time of The Town That Was in 2007 only 11 residents remained, and they attempted unsuccessfully to sue the government over the eminent domain claim. Through a series of interviews, location and archive footage, the documentary shows how the once thriving town came to be in such a sorry state. With wisps of smoke wafting around its near-empty streets and driveways leading to empty housing estates, Centralia is every bit the modern-day ghost town. Principal interviewee Jon Lokitis Jr. is the most colourful character. When not at work in a job some two hours drive away, Lokitis stubbornly refuses to let the town release its last gasp. When he’s not moving council grass and repainting peeling park benches, he’s erecting fairy lights on the telephone poles in time for Christmas. It’s a dedication taken to extremes that can only cause his ‘traitorous’ ex-neighbours, now comfortably residing in nearby boroughs, to speculate on his mental wellbeing – his claims that the poisonous inferno literally eating the ground beneath his fate is in no way dangerous earning particular disbelief. The prevalence of this uncompromising resident does make the film rather one-sided, although from an entertainment perspective, it’s not hard to understand why. Even the current IMDB synopsis for this entry describes it first and foremost as “a portrait of Jon Lokitis Jr.”

Things have moved on a bit since 2007, and not for the better. However, since I can happily tell you that the film is freely (and legally) available to view online, I’ll let you discover the final chapter via Google for yourselves. For now, sit back and enjoy the sad tale of The Town That Was. View the official trailer below for a taster, then go here and watch the whole thing. Note: in order to bring it to you for free, the site has placed sponsored advertising at the beginning and mid-point of the film, and spooling through will result in it restarting from the beginning, so be prepared to sit through the film in one setting – definitely worth it, I think.

Google Earth enthusiasts might also be interested to know that Centralia’s main roads are available on Street View, allowing you to see what’s left. Get in now before they update their source photos – there may be nothing left next time!

On a side note, I was amused to discover there are no less than 12 places in the U.S. called ‘Centralia’. Sure, it’s a bit classier than ‘Gobbler’s Knob’, or the equally imagery-inducing ‘Whiskey Dick Hill’, but it’s not that special.

*****

College Conspiracy

(2011) National Inflation Association

College textbooks are given minor updates every year, forcing every new batch of students to purchase the latest copy - according to the NIA, just one of the many scams colleges maintain in order to induce profit.

College – the biggest scam in U.S history. So say the National Inflation Association, a non-profit organisation dedicated, according to their official site, “to preparing Americans for hyperinflation and helping Americans not only survive, but prosper in the upcoming hyperinflationary crisis”. Society is paying for an unnecessary overemphasis on college education – and in turn, an overemphasis on specific fields of study, such as law – and the bubble is about to burst. Aspirations of wealth and success have become synonymous with a tertiary education, but the playing field remains level when everyone has a degree.

Except that now, they also have a massive college debt for qualifications that thanks to seriously increased competition, did not yield the career of choice and condemns them to spend the rest of their lives paying for it. Once the province of the banks, college loans are now provided by state funds – funds that a soaring educated class of underemployed wage earners cannot hope to repay. Who then but the tax payers to foot the bill and a state forced to print more currency leading to a vicious cycle of hyperinflation? Meanwhile, a rising population demands ever more from agriculture, yet no-one is interested any longer in making a career in it, thanks to dreams of an urban high life as a high-paid doctor or lawyer.

“Society is paying for an unnecessary overemphasis on college education – and in turn, an overemphasis on specific fields of study, such as law – and the bubble is about to burst.”

'College Conspiracy' argues that an overemphasis on university education has flooded the job market, effectively rendering college degrees worthless.

Such is the premise of College Conspiracy, an urgent call to all Americans to wake themselves up from the myth of college education and the inevitability of debt slavery, and to the alternative paths to success, a vast arena of industry necessary to the continued survival of our world, from farming to all forms of local business.

Whichever side of the debate one may find themselves on, the documentary cannot fail to provoke a response. Though U.S-centric, College Conspiracy’s arguments apply just as easily to tertiary education in most of the world, whether it’s simply the high price of a university degree to its ever-diminishing value as means of gaining a leg-up on the career ladder. It has become an unchallenged mandatory path to success and, rather like the Confucian exams of old East Asia, the divider for class, opportunity, and respect, an attitude which continues to define that region of the world.

This however is a telling point: for many, a college education is essential, not simply for those who have a clear career path in mind, but even for those simply seeking a standard office job. It is precisely because society regards it as mandatory that simply having a degree is required even to open the most average of doors. It therefore would have been nice for College Conpiracy to have devoted more time to illustrating further the alternative paths to not only wealth and success but general and basic financial security beyond university. Also, the diminishing agriculture sector, while massively important, should not be the only example – the message shouldn’t be interpreted simply as “Lawyers suck! Your tractor needs you!”

Self-made professionals can occupy a whole raft of industries, which is the intended conclusion, just not adequately explored. Whatever the field (excuse the pun), the NIA’s underlying point for students is that as their country slides ever further into recession, the last thing the world needs are more solicitors searching for loopholes in property laws and instead a new generation of citizens armed with skills from which we can all benefit, and that for those who develop their talents with such skills, the rewards are there. Until all sectors of society, especially employers accept this however, it’s a bit much to simply expect youths looking to secure a future to turn their backs on university. Many are well-aware of the farce tertiary education has become and the debts they will accumulate, but don’t feel they have much choice in the matter. The underlying message of the film is not invalidated, but it will take more than simple awareness of the problem to rectify it, and a commitment on the part of those with the power to effect change. Nonetheless, awareness is the first step and interested parties can watch College Conspiracy for free via here, courtesy of NIA’s official youtube page:

*****


Medley

Last week, World On Film travelled to Barbados, a former British colony, where the cultural traditions, especially the music, had left a long lingering influence. This week, we spend time in the only Central American nation once under British hegemony, once known as ‘British Honduras’. Music is also the theme of the main feature, though this time the natives aren’t kitted out in full naval regalia for a knees up in time to the strains of a brass band. However, like the Land Ship Association, their Belizean counterparts are practitioners of a dying musical tradition, one rapidly being consigned to the dustbin of history unable to compete with the appeal of the Lady Gagas of the world. But first, a short trip into the inner workings of Belize’s annual canoe race, explored in the film:

La Ruta Maya: A Victory From The Sidelines

(2009) Directed by Laura Murphy

La Ruta Maya is a major annual Belizean canoeing competition spanning 4 days and running along the Belize River from San Ignacio to Belize City. It galvanizes not only the locals, but attracts many spectators and participants from across the Americas. Through Laura Murphy’s brief documentary, we learn both the scope of the race and the many challenges and pitfalls involved in getting it off the ground, with particular focus on the contributions of the many support teams present, ie – the ‘sidelines’ of the title. The story is told from the point of view of some of these key participants, who all clearly have a passion for the competition. There is only so much you can do in 8 1/2 minutes, although I think it would have been more interesting to have applied a far broader focus of all things La Ruta Maya. For example, this means we don’t really hear from the rowers themselves, or indeed the many dedicated Belizeans who flock to the shores of the river every year, which would go a long way toward really transmitting the excitement of the event, partly neutered by 5 minutes spent describing how problematic it can be.

“It would have been more interesting to have applied a far broader focus of all things La Ruta Maya.”

La Ruta Maya is a four-day test of endurance across Belize's busiest waterway.

Nor do we really learn much of the background to La Ruta Maya, why it came about in the first place (aside from a half-remembered anecdote about a group of canoe-loving friends that isn’t adequately explored), its cultural raison d’etre or even why it is held on Baron Bliss Day (a fact I only discovered afterward via Google). The very title of the piece makes it clear that emphasis is deliberately placed upon those necessary incumbents behind the scenes, but such an approach limits the appeal of the overall effort with a general audience. It’s 8 1/2 minutes that could have formed part of the much larger tale of conquering 64 miles of river without respite. Still, for all I know, it was only intended as a vignette for those in the know rather than having such wide viewer appeal, and certainly, I have learned something of this major sporting event in the process.

*****

.

Three Kings Of Belize

(2007) Directed by Katia Paradis

'Three Kings' tells the story of three men for whom music is their alpha and omega.

You can visit the film’s official Facebook page by clicking here.

Three Kings Of Belize brings the viewer into the everyday lives of three Belizean musicians – each very different in character and outlook on life, but united by their passion for music. Now in their autumn years, Florencio Mess, Paul Nabor and Wilfred Peters have lived long, uncomplicated lives. Today, their old hands are not as confident as they once were, but all three have the same zeal for their craft despite many hardships and the passing of fame. Touching, warm and honest, the film is the triumph of a confident director sure of her material and the compelling characters she brings before the camera.

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of a good director is the ability to let the story tell itself without long periods spent in post-production attempting to spice up the end result with jump cuts and special effects for a cynical audience. Instead of this, Katia Paradis simply shows her subjects and their environment at a pace matching the sleepy perambulation of their lives. It is very likely also a function of budget, but in no way should that be a criticism, for Three Kings is a triumph of the ‘less is more’ approach, and all the more mature for it. Whether it’s the solitary quietude of Mess’ and Nabor’s rural lives or the comparatively active, urban adventures of Peters, there is always a sense that we are seeing the truth – almost as if we were there filming the subjects ourselves. It is a documentary without narrator, and so in between dialogue scenes, the camera simply points at the world each of the men live in, often saying far more than any verbal storytelling would. In this way, three corners of Belize come to life in vivid shades of colour without overt comment, although the love each musician has for his country comes through in their desire to uphold cultural traditions – Peters even going so far as to wonder why anyone would want to live anywhere other than the country of their birth. It is a simple nationalism, for once devoid of destructive political design.

Three Kings is a triumph of the ‘less is more’ approach, and all the more mature for it.”

Sidelined by a culture now more interested in pop music, solitude and regret now fill the long spaces between the notes for these guardians of Belizean folk tradition.

The abundance of these quiet intersections in a 90-minute film does however make it at times a little too sleepy, though in the process giving the viewer a very telling snapshot of each man’s world: gone are the days when live performances of their traditional musical styles were popular with the masses, not to mention the declining popularity of the genres themselves – as Nabor and Peters themselves lament – and thus regular employment has long since dwindled, leaving them to be self-sufficient. Yet even here, they retain their dignity, with Mess for example a successful crop farmer and craftsman. While wistful nostalgia gives them pause on what they might have been, all three are realists.

As the very human exploration continues, one cannot help but feel sorry for these men. Each is clearly aware that he belongs to a different age, and unlike the days of their youth when they themselves took the cultural baton for another generation, the modern world simply isn’t interested. While all three bear this knowledge with fortitude, it is clear how saddened they are by it. After all, what is a performer without a captive audience? Yet sequences with fans both home and abroad clearly show they are still able to bring joy to others the only way they know how. Paradis has effectively documented the passing of an era – the compact disc has triumphed and pop music renders folk song alien to the common ear.

The ‘Three Kings’ however will live on, in this rewarding and honest journey through their lives. Aside from its occasional slowness, it has warmth and humanity at its heart brought to life with realism and dignity. It’s a strong feature debut from a promising director and I will be interested to see where she takes us next.

*****

Up Next

The Christmas season is upon (some of) us, though not to worry – this won’t be an excuse to review some nauseating yuletide film. My idea of viewing pleasure during the festive season is to watch ghost stories, preferably those of antiquity. Therefore, World On Film will be taking a sidestep for the final posting of 2010 by looking at Jonathan Miller’s excellent adaptation of the M.R. James classic, Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad. No trailer exists that I know of, but here’s the first minute, which basically introduces the whole premise:

You can also find the original short story, now out of copyright, by clicking here.


No Future In The Past

The prime directive of this blog is to seek out films from every country in the world primarily for me to broaden my mind through a medium I enjoy. When it proves impossible get hold of a film from the country currently in focus, I turn to whatever I can find, with documentaries and short films usually stepping into the breach. Barbados proved especially difficult, but two programmes recently presented themselves – one produced by the locals, for the locals, the other produced on location by Irish television – both offering insights into Barbadian culture and history. It’s a bit of stretch this week, but let’s launch straight into the first one, that being:

The Barbados Landship

Produced by the Barbados Landship Association

(Apologies for the low image quality in this section)

Knees-up: the legacy of British colonialism.

Those wholly unaware of Barbadian culture might be forgiven for thinking that the Landship is simply an excuse for the locals to cavort about in sailor suits, however this documentary, produced by the Barbados Landship Association, works hard to dispel that perception.

Several centuries ago, when I was a visiting student at the University Of Hong Kong, I had occasion to notice the cultural remnants of British colonialism, wholeheartedly embraced by the locals and modified to suit their tastes. While the overly formal high table dinners never, to my knowledge, involved a group of Chinese youth dressing up like members of the HMS Troutbridge and dancing a sailor’s hornpipe, the origins of both traditions were the same.

Indeed, the Landship movement stretches back almost as far, though instead with working class sensibilities. Obviously, the British navy was omnipresent in Barbados during its colonial period, and in the discipline and camaraderie of that foreign organisation, Barbadians saw something worth emulating in their own society. Thus did groups of locals create what they called ‘land ships’ across the island – essentially small organisations of people operating as ‘crew’ for their naval vessel, permanently moored at a ‘dock’, or club headquarters. Each ‘ship’ had a name similar or identical to the real thing and all those aboard bore naval ranks, from Able Seaman to Lord High Admiral. The movement was founded in 1837 in Britton’s Hill, continuing to this day.

The program seems far more concerned about the musical component than any real study of the Landship movement.

Besides the emulation of the naval character, a key characteristic of the Landship lies in performance. With the men dressed in full naval uniforms and the women in nursing outfits, each ship gives displays to the public suggestive of vessels traversing the ocean. Elements of the performances include jigs, hornpipes, maypole dances, parades, and live band music.

There was an excellent opportunity in The Barbados Landship to explore the deep and long-lasting alien cultural influences worked into the West Indian landscape and mindset over the last four centuries. The whole concept of the Landship after all, seems entirely ludicrous without a good understanding of the indelible British legacy where only then does it begin to make any sense to the outward observer. In the modern age, this quiet mental programming is now the province of an American agency, but the sheer blatancy of Barbadian civilians basing a subculture on the British navy makes it an excellent case study in exterior cultural influence.

“Those wholly unaware of Barbadian culture might be forgiven for thinking that the Landship is simply an excuse for the locals to cavort about in sailor suits.”

Unfortunately, the Barbados Landship Association don’t seem terribly concerned by any of this, preferring, after a short perfunctory historical background to the movement by apparent experts in the field (without which the whole documentary would be utterly impenetrable), to devote the bulk of the program to the interweaving, yet distinct subculture of tuk music. Tuk likewise draws its origins from the British navy, specifically the form of music played by regimental bands, though despite the presence of the double-headed bass drum, has since evolved into sounds distinctly Caribbean. Drawing their inspiration from the same sources, tuk bands and Landship organisations may be one and the same, or at the very least, Landships including a tuk band as part of its public performance.

Wanted: new members for a dying tradition.

All of which would be a far more welcome presence in the program if tuk were the subject, but as presented, seems to simply take over the earlier discourse of the Landship movement and greatly narrow its focus to this one musical element, which is rather like writing a biography of M.R. James and devoting two-thirds of the book to ‘The Five Jars’.

Inevitably, with the influence of Britain long-since waned, its navy no longer ruling the seas to provide ongoing inspiration, the Barbadian Landship movement is apparently in rapid decline as other interests and cultural influences take hold. This ultimately is the raison d’etre for The Barbados Landship. In this, the program does at least still serve its purpose of documenting the movement while it still exists – with the hope of its proponents that this will renew interest. Such efforts are more often than not the rallying cry of a dying art, but it seems safe to assume that the more Barbadian aspects of the Landship will survive.

I doubt anyone from the BLA will object to my linking the video here, so see what it’s all about for yourself.

*****

Redlegs: The Irish Sugar Slaves

(2009) Directed by Shane Brennan & Paul Arnott

“At the end of the 1650s, thousands of Irish people had been transported from the gentle climate of Northern Europe to the deadly heat of Barbados. Although a small minority earned good money by exporting sugar to England, most were stranded in hellish Barbados with no hope.”

In 'Red Legs', a dark colonial past is brought into the light.

The naval lifestyle was of course not the only thing to be transported to Barbados. At the end of the 1640s, future Lord Protector of England led a Parliamentary campaign against Ireland that would span some five year years, the legacy of which can still be felt today. Fiercely Protestant and desperate to quell the enormous civil unrest awash all over Britain, Cromwell saw in the Irish Catholics a serious threat (they had aligned themselves with the English royalists) and a religious blasphemy.  Thousands on both sides were massacred during this time, while 50,000 Irish Catholics were sold into slavery and transported to various colonies across the Commonwealth. In Redlegs, we are told that these were considered by the state to be the most ‘problematic’ or ‘dangerous’ threats to national stability. Though they were joined by similarly-branded Scottish and English prisoners, Redlegs, a production for Irish television broadcaster TG4, brings the focus entirely upon, as the title suggests, its own lost countrymen.

Indeed we are told that until recently, knowledge of this enforced diaspora to the Caribbean and in particular Barbados, the location here in focus, has not been widespread in Eire. The suggestion is that the plight of slaves was not considered of any great import to the prime movers of the time – not enough to set down in record – while those especially concerned were too uneducated, illiterate and otherwise engaged in the business of survival to put pen to parchment. Barbados’s African population, meanwhile, is depicted as having little to no interest in their island’s white underclass, and racial mixing is still seen as undesirable by both themselves and the descendants of the white slaves populating the shanty towns on the west of the island.

“Until recently, knowledge of this enforced diaspora to the Caribbean and in particular Barbados, the location here in focus, has not been widespread.”

Descendants of the original white slaves fare little better several centuries on.

Originally brought to Barbados to work on sugarcane plantations for their colonial overlords, the white slaves quickly found living conditions in the harsh tropical environment almost unbearable. Unlike the African slaves, they were technically paid contract workers, promised freedom and land after the required 3-7 year bondage. Few lived long enough to discover whether or not the agreement would be honoured. Popular folklore on Barbados has it that the term ‘redlegs’ is homegrown, referring to the quick sunburning of the slaves’ melanin-deficient skin. However, the term predates the Cromwell legacy by at least a century, then referring to Irish soldiers. As a result of their unsuitability, the white slaves were eventually displaced by African slaves, who not only could bear the climate, but were uncontracted and skilled labourers. This became the situation du jour across the Commonwealth, with landowners quick to realise there was little to gain in paying unskilled white slaves for work African slaves could perform for free and far better. In the space of a century, Barbados quickly transformed from a predominantly white colony to a predominantly black one. The 18th Century finally saw all slaves given their freedom, but the redlegs were opposed to working alongside their former African counterparts. The latter would go on to build the society found on the island today, while the former lived in pockets of isolation, eking out a lifestyle of bare subsistence and barter. Amazingly, as the documentary shows, this continues today.

Unsurprisingly, the Irish are keen to set the record straight and the redlegs, with no written records of their own, are finally discovering their roots. We see how the descendants of the white slaves live today – remarkably similarly given the passage of centuries, and even how the odd descendant has managed to rise to riches in mainstream society. Throughout, the fierce pride of these people for their identity is made abundantly clear. They are a people who have endured with little to show for it except their community spirit. Like the waning colonial cultural influence in the rest of Barbados, their society is slowly shrinking, yet in its autumn years, the story of the redlegs is being told.

Today's 'Red Legs' face an uncertain future. For them, however, this is nothing new.

Academic balance is not entirely important to Brennan and Arnott, with for example highly-emotive language employed in the narration (“Many of their ancestors were transported mercilessly by Cromwell”) which undercuts the impartiality of the discourse. Equally problematic is the claim that the redlegs are entirely Irish when even the program itself acknowledges that the sugar slaves were also Scottish. At one point, the redlegs are described as a “lost Irish tribe”, fully branding the islands in green, white and orange, and indeed an Irish flag even makes an appearance at one point. Inevitable perhaps, given that the program was made for Irish television, though this shouldn’t really be an excuse. There was even a similar Scottish documentary, Barbadoe’d: The Scottish Sugar Slaves produced by BBC2. One can almost imagine the two film crews jostling with each other to lay claim to their newfound ancestors.

Nonetheless, Red Legs was designed specifically for an audience wholly ignorant of this quiet chapter of history, for which I was most definitely a member. In this, it enlightens well and engages the viewer. Of additional interest was the fact that it was the first time I’d ever watched a documentary in Irish Gaelic, in World On Film terms, the first time since Van Diemen’s Land.

*****

Next Time

Three men who devoted their lives to the traditional music of their country struggle to find meaning in a world where tastes have moved on. Plus, support crews give their account of getting the longest boat race in the world off the ground once every year. World On Film travels to Belize for the thought-provoking film Three Kings Of Belize and the introspective short, Ruta Maya: A Victory From The Sidelines. To view a trailer for the former, click below.


Blown By The Wind

'I've Seen Films' gives aspiring film-makers worldwide a voice and a platform for their talents.

World On Film spends the week in Belarus via two documentaries that focus upon the human struggle both in miniature and on a national level. First up:

The I’ve Seen Films International Film Festival is an annual event started by Rutger Hauer with the aim, we are told on the official site, “of promoting and uniting filmmakers, offering them new exposure and fresh and innovative platforms of visibility, where filmmakers are able to face each other on the common ground of the film language.”

An opportunity for independent film-makers worldwide, the beauty of it for the rest of us is that their entries can be viewed online for free. Although I often try to stick to films from each country’s major studios (where possible), here was an opportunity for something really contemporary. From Belarus:

Team or A Toast To Clean Friday or Brigade or Maundy Friday

Director: Sergei Katier

I’ve Seen Films International Film Festival 2010 entry

Type: Documentary

Website outline: They have different small-scale businesses and every Friday they meet in the bath-house. (View the film by searching for it via the link above.)

Although 'Team' is a snapshot of its central characters' lives, camaraderie is by far the main element.

Over a brief 22 minutes, director Sergei Katier brings us into the lives of 14 Belarusian small businessmen who live life to the full. As doctors, real estate agents, builders and bakers, their everyday exploits follow different paths, but they are united in their ambition to achieve greater heights of success and their passion for fun. That they are a close-knit group of friends who like nothing better than each other’s company is most evident in their weekly trips to a banya, or Russian-style bathhouse. There, the problems of life, work and politics melt away like the snow outside the building’s steam-covered walls.

With so many elements of a successful film in place, Team should be a clear winner, but it fails to be the sum of its parts. Production-wise, Katier is a skilled film-maker. Shots are varied and sequences are treated with different filters (some obviously on computer) and lighting to avoid visual stagnation, and the director is keenly aware of his short runtime. Clearly, plenty of effort has been spent in the editing suite to make sure that the best footage is used to good effect and treated to look its best. It has to be said though that certain editing choices muddy the story’s clarity and focus, leading me to wonder if my judgement is affected by my cultural leanings or if the problem is simply one of post-production.

“With so many elements of a successful film in place, Team should be a clear winner, but it fails to be the sum of its parts.”

Work hard, play hard: the men throw themselves into every aspect of their lives.

The human struggle is far and away the strongest element of the documentary, as we learn of the difficulties faced by each members of the group. Alexander, the head of a local hospital, faces a constant battle with chronic underfunding and state bureaucracy. Where many others in the medical profession have succumbed to the near-impossible conditions, Alexander manages to find comfort whenever a sick child is restored to health. Volodya, rather enigmatically described as an ‘oligarch’, attempts to run an alcohol firm despite the fact that alcohol production is heavily controlled by the state. Vitaly, meanwhile, struggles to maintain a bakery despite very obvious ill-health. Simply following the group’s various struggles and successes would have made a strong tale and an inspiring battle for ordinary survival.

Unfortunately, Katier seems far more interested in their downtime, particularly at said bathhouse. Ironically, even one of the members themselves emphasizes that although highly enjoyable, it’s only a small part of their week. It’s fairly clear that everyone looks upon the banya as a rewarding rest at the end of a long week, but the skewed focus gives the impression that each of these middle-aged men spend most of their time in a small heated room naked and slapping each other with branches. Admittedly, disrobed male bonding is a strong facet of many cultures and the fact that I find watching14 men dive-bombing each other in a swimming pool vaguely discomfiting probably says more about me than them. I still think however, that this is more a misguided choice of post-production: that these men enjoy each other’s company and gain strength from their bonding is overemphasized. More time spent showing the rest of their week would better justify the downtime sequences and make for a better film.

Friends and family forge close ties for the group.

Perhaps the best example of how this affects the build-up of genuine drama comes toward the end, where, after 20 minutes spent relating to the viewer how close and strong is the group’s friendship, a personal tragedy strikes that should shake them to their foundations. Yet two minutes later, the clothes are off and the champagne corks are popped. It also doesn’t help that we barely come to know the character thus afflicted, so that his fate lacks the emotional resonance it should have had. To an extent, the problem would have been mitigated by a longer running time, allowing each of the main players’ stories to have developed. However, I can’t help feeling that the director would simply have viewed this as an opportunity for more steam and sauna, which is the last thing Team needs.

“The skewed focus gives the impression that each of these middle-aged men spend most of their time in a small heated room naked and slapping each other with branches.”

Which brings me to the subtitles. I normally don’t comment on subtitles as different releases of cinema see different translations and therefore it isn’t a fair critique of the original film-maker. However, as an ICFilm entry, the producers had to supply their own English dialogue and were in this case responsible for their quality, and Team suffers from both stilted and occasionally incoherent subtitling. For example, when asked to comment on the successes of a recent bowling tournament, a character is heard to say, “Could be better, agitation let us down.” Meanwhile when explaining hospital bureaucracy, Alexander imparts that “There are a lot of regulative documents.

Strength of will gives way to human frailty, even for these men.

Having worked in the t.v post-production industry myself, I can appreciate how hard it is to not only translate between two distinct languages, not to mention cultures. However, proper assessment and appreciation of the film hinges upon being able to properly understand what is being said without having to process every line for its meaning. Plus, simply getting the gist of a line will do nothing for characterization.

However, Team should still be judged principally on its non-English merits. It will be interesting to see how it fares at ICF 2010, but for me, it offers much while falling short of all that it could have been: a tale of triumph over adversity by good friends. Had more emphasis been placed on that adversity and the way in which each businessman faced it before leaping and giggling into the local spa, Team would have been a far stronger effort. Sergei Katier knows that a good film is all about people. Yet in this outing, he has forgotten that taking those people on a journey is the real story.

Belarus Unmasked

Long-serving Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenko.

Kalinovski Square is a 2007 documentary looking at the mass protests in October Square, Minsk, following the 2006 re-election of long-time president Alexander Lukashenko. In power since 1994, the incumbent won a massive 80% of the votes according to state authorities, a declaration challenged by thousands of angry locals who called for his resignation. Police were called in and eventually removed everyone present.

Once described as one of the “six outposts of tyranny” by Condoleeza Rice, Belarus has a ‘Soviet’-style state-controlled economy, with freedom of speech severely limited if it dares stray from the party line. Kalinovski Square combines official video footage with secretly-filmed scenes of suppression and dissension among citizens, and the cult of personality surrounding Lukashenko himself, somewhat on par with that of Hugo Chavez.

However, the eye-opening documentary is memorable not only for what it reveals, but also for Yury Khashchavatski’s darkly humorous script, where irony and sarcasm very nearly melt the screen.

“[Lukashenko] has been troubled by enemies for many years. These troubles, penetrating his delicate psyche, generate problems that cannot be examined civilly – he has to sink his teeth into them. That distracts from the most important thing – thoughts about the happiness of the people. After all, he confesses that he is always thinking about it. Yes! Great idea! After all, it really is that simple. The president will take office for the third time (or, even better, forever) and nation-wide happiness shall come!”

“The eye-opening documentary is memorable not only for what it reveals, but also for Yury Khashchavatski’s darkly humorous script, where irony and sarcasm very nearly melt the screen.”

Protesters fill the square decrying the election a farce.

The humour of course is not to draw a veil over the Lukashenko stranglehold of Belarus, rather, it erupts from the sheer madness of the situation, which to the film-makers is so overt and the hallmarks of a dictatorship so blatant, that one can only laugh at the insanity of it. Director Sergey Isakov strikes a good balance between irony, storytelling and reportage. Victims of police brutality and suppression are interviewed, but so are ordinary citizens who were not part of the October Square mélange, and the cameras even travel to the countryside to document the opinions of the villagers, whose world seems not to have changed in a century despite the promise of progress. The action also shifts to official parliamentary sessions, where the president’s attack dogs deal swiftly with any challenging candidates, of which there were several in 2006 – they too give their version of events.

Highly-recommended, Kalinovski Square should be seen by anyone who lives in a society where the scales of justice could at any time be tipped in favour of a small ruling elite, ie – everyone on the planet Earth. It’s free to watch, and can be seen below:

*****

Next Time

A murder victim. A police suspect protesting his innocence. A pact between 5 friends. Lust and betrayal. All are present when World On Film returns next time to discover the truth behind the Belgian thriller, Loft. An unsubtitled trailer will give you the idea below:


Breakdown

Welcome. Let’s jump straight into things this week with the entry for Bangladesh:

The Clay Bird

(2002) Directed by Tareque Masud

“The bird’s trapped in the body’s cage. Its feet bound by worldly chains, it tries to fly, but fails.”

Nurul Islam Bablu as Anu, a young boy trapped between worlds.

‘The Clay Bird’ opens a door into Bangladesh’s fight for independence in the late 1960s when the soon-to-be nation state was a far-flung region of Pakistan, following the partitioning of India in 1947. Increasingly disenchanted with the distant central government due to racial, cultural and economic discrimination, Bangladeshis began taking to the streets in protest, demanding a general election as the springboard for autonomous rule. The election was cancelled and the Pakistani military were sent in to quell the uprising, murdering thousands and destroying population centres. A civil war ensued, eventually leading to independence in 1971. The film is set just prior to the prolonged and bloody uprising, as citizens find themselves galvanized along religious and political lines, with tempers beginning to fray. Rather than depict events at the heart of the capital, the story centres around the lives of a rural family in a remote village, bearing witness to the way in which the winds of change blew across the ordinary citizen. While the intent of this is sound, the end result is something of a mixed bag.

The plight of the family proves an effective allegory for the various Bangladeshi attitudes to the turmoil their world is in. Kazi, the father, a born-again Muslim, reflects the ultra-conservative stand that faith and discipline will unite the people under Allah, and is unable or unwilling to accept that the deeply fractured society around him faces problems that cannot be solved through prayer. Milon, his brother, a young political extremist, stands ready to fight for the nation with the unwavering confidence of the just. Ayesha, Kazi’s apolitical wife meanwhile, is interested simply in getting through the ordinary day to day struggles of life. Asma, the daughter, is too young to be constrained by the petty concerns of adults, while Anu, the young son, is propelled unwillingly by conflicting forces and ideologies he doesn’t understand. It is the nation in miniature, about to burst at the seams.

“[The family] is the nation in miniature, about to burst at the seams.”

The narrow corridors of perception: Jayanto Chattopadhyay as Kazi.

Yet there is a somewhat meandering quality to the pacing, perhaps in part because the writer has not entirely decided upon the story he wants to tell. It could very easily simply be the story of a young boy forced to attend a madrasa (Islamic boarding school) by a father terrified his son’s mind will be polluted by non-Islamic ideas and therein be a commentary on Islamic extremism itself. Indeed, a large chunk of the film is just that: there is a very telling scene where the young Anu and his uncle watch a Hindu boat race, clearly enjoying themselves, only to be reprimanded for celebrating diversity. Kazi’s religious fervour has him at odds with the rest of his family, incapable of being the father and husband they so desperately need. The dogma strangles the family to the point of dysfunction. Equally telling is the character of Milon, whose more secular and open-minded world view is the foundation for the forthcoming nation-state. Religious dogma is equated with denial, while the activist is the realist.

Fortunately, the Islamic discourse eventually digs deeper and there is a nice scene where two of the madrasa teachers make the point that the religion spread so successfully across Bangladesh precisely because it was a peaceful ideology. Whatever one’s beliefs, there can be no denying that this sort of discourse on Islam is rarely found outside of Islamic countries. The very idea that it must be spread by force and violence is just such a question pondered with dismay by one teacher struggling to understand how religion became part of the rising civil war in the first place. That the Muslim extremists involved in acts of terrorism rivaling the invading Pakistani army might be missing the point is one of the many tragedies of that war, though it is important to remember that many factors came into play, not least cultural and economic destitution. However, director Tarique Masud does not adequately explore these factors, which if the aim is to give a snapshot of society during that time is quite remiss, suggesting that he is more interested on religious commentary. Yet the film goes beyond the madrasa, so that those set up as the main characters then disappear for long stretches like the inhabitants of a Tolkien novel. This unravels the sequences designed to build up character storylines, with the disjointed result leading to the uneven pacing. This leaves the conflicts faced by some to be either insufficiently built up or not satisfyingly followed through. Masud ultimately needed to choose one storyline and stay with it.

“There is a somewhat meandering quality to the pacing, perhaps in part because the writer has not entirely decided upon the story he wants to tell.”

The failure of faith as a nation reaches crisis point.

Nonetheless, the cast perform with the conviction and skill necessary to draw the viewer into their characters’ worlds – when we are able. However, standouts for me include Russell Farazi as Rokon, Anu’s one true friend at the madrasa – a likeable, yet misunderstood loner, and the young Farazi is more than able to imbue the character with the complexities that reside in such a part. Soaeb Islam, meanwhile, brings to the wannabe revolutionary a warmth often without any dialogue whatsoever. Clearly, Kazi is set up to be a stiff-necked Islamic convert, giving Jayanto Chattopadhyay not a lot of range, however, this does allow for a meaningful scene at the end where the horrors of war force Kazi to face his religious convictions. And while Nurul Islam Bablu is no Marina Golhabari, he gives Anu the profound innocence that the script requires of the character.

Ultimately, ‘The Clay Bird’ is not quite the tale of Bengali struggle it purports to be, due to unfortunate scripting and editing choices that take much of the wind out of its sails as a result. However, it opened up a window into a history with which I was hitherto unfamiliar, with many thought-provoking and sometimes touching sequences that still manage to shine through – even if the sum of the parts is conspicuous by its absence.

*****

The Memoirs Of A Self-Confessed Surrealist

(1978) Directed by Alan Yentob

“The marvellous is beautiful. Anything marvellous is beautiful. In fact, only the marvellous is beautiful.”

Surrealism shows the world "as it might be".

In 1978, jazz player, film critic, writer and lover of melting watches, George Melly, undertook a journey from his Notting Hill home to visit the Great Exhibition of Dada & Surrealist Art at the Hayward Gallery near the Thames. Along the way, he relates his long and passionate love affair of the surrealist movement and its many colourful denizens, reliving many experience of his own both surreal in encounter and Dadaesque by design.

Melly recounts how he joined the British surrealist movement after serving in the Royal Navy during World War II after discovering the book Surrealism by Herbert Reed, the paintings within revealing “a world I’d always suspected had existed, but which I didn’t know how to get into.” To him, surrealism “is the spirit of the dream, coupled with reality” – a world based firmly upon reality, but overlaid with the heightened states of imagination contributed by the participant. This is an important distinction from fantasy, where the impossible has been divorced from the everyday and celebrated. Surrealism is firmly grounded in the ordinary, but through the freedom of imagination is able to perceive it as the marvellous. Even Salvador Dali had to be an impressionist before he could depict the inner world within. The surrealists embraced convention, recognising that they could be easily dismissed if they fitted the stereotype of the artist. Those like Magritte, who were far too busy challenging perceptual reality to bother with extravagance, were more successful with this aim, while for Dali, extravagance was the point.

“Oh, Dali. What a genius you were, and what a sad clown you have become.”

George Melly, the self-confessed surrealist, encountering indifference to the marvellous.

‘To [Melly], surrealism “is the spirit of the dream, coupled with reality.”’

The surrealist world according to Melly is a close-knit community, a movement shared in full agreement by his members. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that Melly knew most of its primary practitioners personally, his own surreal poetry entering the canon of which notable entries lament the loss of a friend.

“When Magritte died, the stones fell to the ground, the birds divorced their leaves, the breasts became blind, the tubas extinguished their flames, the pipe remembered its role, the words looked up what they meant in the dictionary, the ham closed its eye forever, when Magritte died.” – Excerpt from “Homage to Rene Magritte”, by George Melly

Likewise, he is able to name check the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, ELT Mesens, Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst with anecdotal clarity. The poetry of Dadaist Kurt Schwitters once saved his life in a dark alley, while the simple, yet revolutionary words of Andre Breton in a conversation decades earlier helped him expect the unexpected from the ordinary. Weekly gatherings at the Barcelona Restaurant in Soho brought him into contact with violin-torturer Robert Melville, pacifist air-raid warden Roland Penrose, suspected Fifth Columnist Conroy Maddox, and anarchist bus conductor Arthur Moyes among others. Inheritors to the surrealist oeuvre are introduced, notably Monty Python, painter Patrick Hughes,  blue novelist and fashion guru Molly Parkin, and British rock band The Stranglers, although surely The Stranglers were Dadaists, since as Melly says himself in description of the movement, “the beginnings of Dada were not art, but disgust.”

Visitors to a famous Max Ernst exhibition entered through a bathroom in which a teenage girl read dirty poetry.

The long journey includes, as one might expect, plenty of visual examples of the Dada revolt and the Surrealist reinterpretation, from the paintings that still inspire wonder in the minds of many today to the buildings that were created as a result. When not heard to ‘ursonate’, Melly’s poetry parts the clouds of conventional thinking and forces all ears to see the world in-between. It is, after all, a personal journey, and for fans of the genre, a quick and entertaining celebration of everything that makes the movements so exciting and fires the flames of marvellous creativity. For the novice, it serves as an entertaining introduction to the surrealist and Dadaist movements, the key works of both, and the artists who created them. As to availability, BBC4 occasionally repeats it along with other Arena classics, otherwise look online in the usual places.

*****

Next Time

Life, death, love and anguish, as the lives of 14 Belorussian businessmen take centre-stage in the documentary Brigade, or A Toast To A Clean Friday, part of Rutger Hauer’s I’ve Seen Films short film festival.


The Coming Of The Church Mountain

World On Film is currently on a break from its prime directive: to seek out episodes of cinema from across the globe and hopefully represent every country (a proposition you will quickly have recognised as being utterly mad). The definition of this raison d’etre is being stretched to breaking point during the respite so as to provide an excuse for other topics of personal interest, though certainly film is still the tie that binds them. This time around, we look at an example of film bringing an episode of history to life and the way it therefore provides a real immediacy to the event, even decades after the fact.

The island of Heimaey prior to 1973. The ancient volcanic cone of Helgafell stands to the right, a testament to the subterranean forces soon to be re-enacted.

Somewhere in the middle of the 1980s while I was in short pants and discovering the concept of libraries, I discovered the far-away and seemingly-unpronounceable island of Vestmannaeyjar (vest-man-ay-yar). The colourful children’s hardback, helpfully titled Volcanoes would, I hoped, promise just as much wonder and excitement about these powerful, world-shaping mountains of fire as had Felicia Law’s definitive work on the subject, also efficiently titled Volcanoes. In its namesake, a group of schoolchildren living on Vestmannaeyjar’s chief island of Heimaey were poised in the cold outdoor air to learn the complex, yet abundantly demonstrative science of volcanology. Such a school outing would be considered highly dubious at best in my home town, where the only time the ground exploded was when the local council blew up sections of a nearby hill in their quest for granite. The Icelanders however had two volcanoes on their doorstep, and one had literally exploded into existence only a few years earlier.

“The Icelanders [of Vestmannaeyjar] had two volcanoes on their doorstep, and one had literally exploded into existence only a few years earlier.”

The Fires Of Muspelheim

“We felt its hail of cinders long before we saw the volcano’s fire, glowing like a midnight sunrise through the mizzling rain.” – Noel Grove, An Island Fights For Its Life, National Geographic, July 1973.

Curtain of Fire: the initial eruption propels rock through a fissure 3km wide.

It was a cold and unexpected awakening that greeted the town of Vestmannaeyjar and its 5,000 inhabitants on the 23rd of January. At approximately 1.55 AM, the ground along the east coast literally tore itself apart barely a kilometre from the slumbering community and stretching 3 kilometres all the way down to the southern tip. Heralded by an ominous rumbling, a curtain of lava rose 150 metres into the night sky the entire length of the fissure, as though transforming Heimaey into a giant Hadean theatre awaiting the start of some hellish performance. Yet the drama was very much underway and soon, the outpouring of molten rock would confine itself to the north-east of the island, where it enveloped the farmland housing the local church. After less than a month of constant activity, the eruptions had formed a mountain 200 metres high – one that would continue to grow for the next 4 months.

Fortunately, Heimaey had seen tempestuous weather conditions in the days leading up to the eruption and all of the town’s fishing boats were moored in the harbor, ready for use. The population was therefore able to be swiftly relocated to the Icelandic mainland – primarily Reykjavik – where they would stay for the next several months as the volcano unleashed its fury upon their home. Some 200 locals would stay on to fight the sea of ash threatening to crush every household by its sheer weight, and, in the months to come, literally stop the flow of lava from destroying the harbour. With their whole industry based on fishing (in turn accounting for approximately 10% of the national total), the idea of letting nature take its course was never seriously debated. However, their battle would not be won easily.

Houses are swiftly buried by ash as the cinder cone rises above the town.

“Heralded by an ominous rumbling, a curtain of lava rose 150 metres into the night sky the entire length of the fissure, as though transforming Heimaey into a giant Hadean theatre awaiting the start of some hellish performance.”

Ash-covered houses with views of nearby Bjarnarey Island (above) lose their eye on the neighbours to an encroaching lava field (below) mere months later.

As the eruption continued, the geography of the island would be substantially altered, firstly by having its total size increased by 2.24 km², but more crucially, by nearly closing off the all-important harbour entrance. This, more than anything else, would signal the death of the settlement if it were not stopped, and with every passing day, the ever-expanding lava field to the north threatened to close the gap between the mainland and the long peninsula to the north that sheltered the port from extremes of weather. The danger to the town also increased dramatically a month into the eruption when the entire north flank of the volcano collapsed under its own weight. A seemingly never-ending ocean of lava now poured unchecked by even the mountain itself toward the town, accelerating the growth of the lava field, intent on closing the harbour forever.

With both the crucial waterway and the settlement itself directly under threat, contingency plans were needed fast. Early ideas included cutting through the lowest point of the peninsula, effectively creating a new harbour, and bombing the crater. The former would be dismissed as too cumbersome while the later was determined to be likely as dangerous to the town as the river of fire itself. It would eventually be agronomist and fellow rescue worker Páll Zóphóníasson who proposed stopping the lava flow with seawater. With the help of pumping equipment already installed in the larger sea vessels, the islanders quickly began aiming their hoses at the encroaching mass. The process of nature was duly halted, with the gap no more than 100 meters and a massive lava flow having crushed half the town as well as destroying several fishing factories. Under the impact of the sprayed seawater, the edges of the lava flows became towering walls of solid rock, while the still-flowing rivers of fire behind were diverted away from the town.

“A seemingly never-ending ocean of lava now poured unchecked by even the mountain itself toward the town, accelerating the growth of the lava field, intent on closing the harbour forever.”

A nation's economy endangered as Heimaey harbour is nearly closed by lava.

Their livelihoods saved, the inhabitants of Heimaey were significantly less concerned about the massive devastation that lay in wait for them upon their return to the island. That same destructive coating of ash could after all be harvested to dramatically improve the local runway as well as provide solid foundations for new housing. The tempered volcano meanwhile would provide free geothermal energy for most of the decade – though initially, the sulphurous gases slowly escaping from the drying rock would render the atmosphere toxic, with one fireman rescuer asphyxiating in a cellar and becoming the eruption’s only victim.

By early July, the mountain, initially dubbed ‘Kirkjufell’ for standing where the church had months earlier, now officially known as ‘Eldfell’ (Fire Mountain), had ceased eruptions and towered some 220 metres above the landscape, its neighbour: the ancient cone of Helgafell, which had dominated the island’s fate when it exploded into being some 5,000 years earlier. 12 kilometres to the south-west, the island of Surtsey stood quietly in the half-mist – only 10 years earlier having risen angrily out of the water to frustrate the cartographers by becoming the nation’s southernmost point of land. Over the next year, the townspeople returned, and set about the task of clearing away the ash from the home they would rebuild.

“Over the next year, the townspeople returned, and set about the task of clearing away the ash from the home they would rebuild.”

On Film

Turning back the tide: islanders spray seawater onto the lava flow to save their town.

Several short films captured the latest chapter in the Vestmannaeyjar saga back in the 1970s. The Heimaey Eruption, from which the images you see here are taken, is one such example. Written and produced in 1974 by Alan V. Morgan, it gives a good account of the unfolding drama, thanks to some excellent footage. Viewers are given a brief overview of Iceland’s volcanism and the forces that are literally pulling it apart, before the action travels to Heimaey, where Eldfell is slowly flattening the town. Two other films if you can find them are Day Of Destruction, produced by Kvikmyndagerðin Hljóð og mynd, and Fire On Heimaey, produced by VÓK-Film hf (both in colour and having English narration).

Someone has posted The Heimaey Eruption to youtube, so never mind my rambling waffle – take a look for yourself:

Further Viewing

Gerhard Skrobek and Hermann Luschner produced some spectacular film of the eruption and its impact on both the town and the rescue workers. Having now made its way on to (where else?) youtube, you can view it here:

And here:

Further reading: July 1973's edition of National Geographic covers the story.

Thanks to the work of Morgan, Skrobek, Luschner and others, we have the story of Eldfell immortalized in sound and motion, providing that immediacy so important 37 years later when it all seems so distant and unreal: perhaps not to the people of Iceland, used to one of the most dynamic and rapidly-changing landscapes on Earth. How amazing it would have been to have actually seen footage of the Tambora eruption of 1816 or indeed Krakatoa in 1883 – two eruptions that changed the world forever. How incredible then to actually be able to see the birth of Eldfell in 1973 and the indomitable spirit of the townspeople, who refused to let a volcano change their lifestyle. A child’s library book and its wonderfully vivid photographs would etch Vestmannaeyjar into my memory forevermore, but The Heimaey Eruption took me there, if only for 30 minutes.

“How amazing it would have been to have actually seen footage of the Tambora eruption of 1816 or indeed Krakatoa in 1883 – two eruptions that changed the world forever.”

*****

Still To Come On World On Film

Explorations into topics in and around the concept of film and the world it brings into your living room and the main series of reviews taking us to countries starting with ‘B’ begins with a tale of repressed sexuality, inner torment and discrimination in the Bahaman drama Float. All this and more in the upcoming weeks when World On Film continues.


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