Exploring the world through global cinema

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.

*****

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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.

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