Exploring the world through global cinema

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.

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