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The Balance

This week, World On Film travels to the small island archipelago of Comoros and finds out what happens to those left behind – and those who should never have been there in the first place. What does all that mean? Read on…

The Ylang Ylang Residence

(2008) Written by Hachimiya Ahimada & Katia Madeule              Directed by Hachimiya Ahimada

“It’s happening to the neighboring houses too. The owners abandoned them. They forgot this is their land.”

“It seems they’ve forgotten us too.”

Comoros’s first official film, ‘The Ylang Ylang Residence’, explores the importance of community after mass emigration takes its toll.

Many years ago, I remember reading former New Zealand Minister for Communications David Cunliffe complaining about the national “brain drain”, an apparently rampant phenomenon in the previous decade wherein many of his skilled and talented fellow countrymen were relocating overseas in search of better job opportunities and leaving a major social void in their homeland. Consequently, the ‘returnees’ who’d made good and wanted to bolster those opportunities back in New Zealand, like a certain Peter Jackson, were all the more applauded.

Cunliffe was of course speaking of a phenomenon as old as civilisation itself, and indeed anyone trying to make it in a film industry outside of Hollywood or its Indian and Nigerian counterparts knows all too well just how dry is the creek bed of employment. He, however, was also speaking of the IT industry and of industry in general. How then does abandoning one’s homeland for pastures greener affect those in impoverished nations?

In Hachimiya Ahimada’s short film, The Ylang Ylang Residence (aka La Residence Ylang Ylang), the tiny East African archipelago nation has lost many of its people to France and beyond seeking escape from a home with no future. In the principal island of Greater Comoros, dour young resident Djibril continues to maintain the stately former home of his brother, now gone for the past twenty years and unlikely ever to return. When an electrical fire burns his own modest house to the ground, Djibril and his wife are forced to rely on others for help. One neighbour even suggests he move into the abandoned family home, but somehow, it just doesn’t feel right…

“How…does abandoning one’s homeland for pastures greener affect those in impoverished nations?”

Although seemingly emotionally-distant, Comorians are seen to be highly group-oriented, an interesting dichotomy for this most culturally-cosmopolitan people.

 The Ylang Ylang Residence is Comoros’s first film, and shot on 35mm, is in no way any the lesser for its short running time of 20 minutes. The island archipelago has had a very chequered history, still affected by occasional civil war today. It also has a truly cosmopolitan history, due to its proximity to Africa, the Middle East, and Austronesia, the cultures from which have all left their mark across the centuries. In the film, this is evidenced by the fact that those who have returned have elevated their social status by previously living and working in France, the predominance of Islamic culture, and the language of the film being Arabic – just one of the languages used on the islands.

Perhaps this explains the profound level of formality, politeness, and above all emotionless reserve displayed by the characters of the story. Every line is stilted, every face a blank tableau of inscrutability, which seems to suggest the people of Greater Comoros are only half-alive and going through the motions of existence, with all inner hopes and dreams stifled by a lifeless economy, few prospects, and an authoritarian religion.

Yet the great irony of all this is that The Ylang Ylang Residence is also a film about knowing who your friends are in times of hardship. For Djibril and his wife, when family has deserted them, salvation comes in the kindness of strangers, or more accurately, friends and neighbours. It is the kind of communal altruism we typically romanticise as being the lifeblood of rural areas, yet in reality is by no means guaranteed to occur. If it shows anything about Comoros, it’s that twenty minutes is nowhere near enough time to truly understand this complex, multi-layered culture. Ahimada clearly agrees, and is doing something about it.

“In 2008, I directed my first fiction short cut Ylang Ylang Residence in Great Comoro island. Actually, I am working on my documentary project ‘Ashes of Dreams’ which is located in the whole Comoros Archipelago. I am editing it now.” (Source: MUBI.com)

That source, by the way, is the only place I know of where you can see The Ylang Ylang Residence. For 99 US cents, it’s well worth it.

*****

I also watched…

On the 23rd of November 1996, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 was hijacked on its way to Nairobi by three Ethiopians planning to seek asylum in Australia and forced to land in the waters off Comoros when the fuel ran out. 125 of the 175 members of the passengers and crew died in the incident, including the hijackers. It is also noteworthy for the fact that it is to date the only time an aircraft of its size – in this case a Boeing 767 – made a true water landing and with survivors aboard. The actual footage of the landing can be seen below:

It’s perhaps unsurprising that someone would eventually attempt to dramatise the fate of Flight 961, and this indeed was the case with the Ethiopian movie, simply titled Comoros. It is more disheartening however, that the Ethiopian film industry concluded that what was really needed to mark the occasion was a poorly-constructed melodrama that had actually very little to do with the real-world events which spawned it. The end result proved to be about as intelligent as opening up a white goods store in Amish country and every bit as misguided.

“Why oh why did we let ourselves be talked into making this rubbish?”

The ‘story’, which convention dictates we’ll have to call it, centres around the incredible sinewave-like existence of Edie, a young Ethiopian flight attendant, who proves to be as dangerous to hang around as Jessica Fletcher. Striving to make her way in life following the tragic deaths of her parents, Edie meets Mike, a young business executive, they fall passionately in love and soon produce a young son, much to the immense delight of Mike’s mother-in-law. The child then proceeds to almost drown in a river before finally being killed off for good in the Flight 961 disaster. Mike’s mother, who from the outset has made no secret of the fact that a daughter-in-law’s only usefulness is to produce a son, promptly disowns Edie while belittling and insulting her very existence in an unnecessary attempt to prove how completely unpleasant the old woman truly is. As a result, the beleaguered young wife, further motivated by the profound ennui exhibited by her husband, resolves to give her ungrateful in-laws another child. Except that the doctors have made it absolutely clear that she risks death by any further pregnancies and would be stupid even to try. Add several more tragedies and you have Comoros, ninety minutes of shirtsleeve emotional indulgence that makes Days Of Our Lives look like Last Of The Summer Wine.

“The end result proved to be about as intelligent as opening up a white goods store in Amish country and every bit as misguided.”

However, a dire plot was not enough of a crime for the forces behind this histrionic farce. Acting with more ham than an Elvis breakfast was subtly combined with ludicrous production choices, the worst offender of which was the presence of long sequences involving dialogue between characters that we can’t actually hear. There’s nothing Ethiopian about it. Azerbaijani karate krapfest Seytanin Talesi reveled in forcing the audience to watch pointlessly mute conversations just to show the act of people talking in case anyone out there didn’t know what it looked like. Comoros however ups the incompetence ante by overlaying a constant stream of banal narration from the lead character herself that to a seven-year-old might seem highly profound and to anyone no longer in short pants, commits the hideous crime of telling rather than showing drama.

“Mike’s secretary told me that Mike had all but stopped working since the tragedy. Although I understand why Mike is grieving, finding a way to bring him out of his misery is proving difficult.” – ‘Crucial’ narration accompanying a sequence where the audience can clearly see Mike not working, and Edie unable to reach him.

Menacing matriarch: unpleasant and uncompromising parents-in-law are a popular staple of African melodrama. And Korean melodrama, for that matter.

 Comoros also shares another of Seytanin Talesi’s dubious production choices, that of employing only about three pieces of generic mood music, which are then re-used endlessly throughout the film, ill-fitting the mood of every single dramatic sequence they accompany. Clearly convinced he is onto a winner with this approach, the director even commits what can only be described as an act of true genius by often piping in the music before the mood of a story element is visually-apparent, thus saving the viewer the agony of having to figure out how they should interpret the drama themselves.

And of course we have the African social stereotypes: the young independent woman who quickly becomes subservient once her true goals of marriage and procreation are realised; the moderate, progressive son who must kowtow to the whims of his ultraconservative parents; the utterly ineffectual but well-meaning sibling; and of course, the reprehensible parents of the son who demand worship yet spit venom upon anyone not living up to their narrow standards of existence. The problem is not the presence of these archetypes. They clearly exist and demonstrate the generation gap in today’s Africa (with the caveat that ‘Africa’ is of course a huge assemblage of differing cultures and peoples, but Nollywood-style cinema appears not to have noticed this), thus there is an audience who keenly relates to their behaviour. The problem occurs when the characters are presented in this ridiculously two-dimensional pantomime fashion, resulting in it being impossible to take any of them any more seriously than a high school debating club talking about the evils of the corporate world. Last year, I reviewed a Nollywood film exhibiting much the same cheap character.

In a way, I’m glad I was unable to find any production information on Comoros. Watching it was more than enough punishment – as it will be for anyone else who dares to watch it – like you, if you click on the video below.

*****

Next Time

We find out how the young women of the Republic of the Congo are being given a new future and also learn why coherence is so important when making any kind of visual presentation. That’s next time, on World On Film.

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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 I

In this edition of World On Film, I look back over my visit to the recent Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (Pifan), and give quick takes on the screenings I managed to catch.

I’d been wanting to catch Pifan for a few years now, but always somehow managed to forget when it was on. However, after the complete debacle that was BIFF 2011, it was time to get serious about it. For those wondering, Pifan takes place in Bucheon, a city in the Korean province of Gyeonggi, located roughly halfway between Seoul and Incheon. There are eight categories, including World Fantastic Cinema, Ani-Fanta, and Fantastic Short Films. Only one category, Puchon Choice, is competitive, with the winners being screened on the final weekend of the festival. This is Pifan’s 16th year, making it almost as long as its counterpart in Busan.

Physically-speaking, Pifan is smaller than BIFF, and organised much the way BIFF used to be, ie – with screenings sanely distributed across in a number of cinemas throughout downtown Bucheon with one particular venue, Puchon Square, at the centre. It has yet to become the almost industry-only event that is BIFF today, which in practical terms means the average joe can actually get tickets for this thing both online or by simply turning up to the ticket offices in timely fashion. There’s no insane queuing for hours, no giant department store you have to trek through with huskies just to reach a screening, nor the feeling that if you aren’t press or industry, you’re getting in everyone’s way.

On the flipside of this, Bucheon is hardly the most exciting city to hold a festival, the main street seems to be in a permanent state of construction, and the more modest department stores in which the cinemas are located don’t have the greatest selection of cuisine. On balance however, I had a very positive experience, so I aim to make the best of Pifan until it inevitably becomes so successful that getting tickets for screenings will become as difficult as convincing Adam Sandler to stop making movies.

I managed to catch something from most of the categories mentioned during my visit. Here is what I saw:

Hard Labor

(Brazil, 2011)         Written & Directed by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas

Sao Paolo housewife Helena is about to realise her dream of starting her own business in the form of a neighborhood supermarket. Yet just as she is about to sign the papers for the property lease, her husband, Otavio, is fired from his job as an insurance executive after ten years’ faithful service. However, the couple decides to risk the investment and the store opens, though for some reason, business just doesn’t seem to be taking off, seemingly in direct proportion with Otavio’s failure to find work and mounting alienation from the family. As an increasingly-stressed Helena struggles to hold everything together, she finds her attention drawn to a crumbling supermarket wall and wonders whether it might hold the answers to her problems.

“There’s no insane queuing for hours, no giant department store you have to trek through with huskies just to reach a screening, nor the feeling that if you aren’t press or industry, you’re getting in everyone’s way.”

For much of its screen time, Hard Labor is more a drama about family breakdown than it is a horror movie, which is especially important for horror fans to bear in mind when going into it. Although there are definitely supernatural elements to the story, they are there to be allegorical, to act as a catalyst for the primarily human conflict which takes place. The problem for me at least is that neither of these elements quite reach the crescendo they could have had and there is a little too much stillness throughout. It isn’t really until the final scene that I felt the two strands really came together, but that does mean that Hard Labor has a satisfying ending. Anyone who’s ever had to face long-term unemployment through no fault of their own will appreciate the film’s central message that to get by in this ultra-competitive world, you sometimes have to unleash the inner animal. Good casting choices, lighting, and set construction also help to push Hard Labor over the line, along with the occasional dash of dark humour.

The Heineken Kidnapping

(Netherlands, 2011)           Directed by Maarten Treurniet                 Written by Kees van Beijnum & Maarten Treurniet

Rutger Hauer stars in Maarten Treurniet’s interpretation of ‘The Heineken Kidnapping’ (image: Pifan Daily)

As its title suggests, The Heineken Kidnapping retells the true-life incident when in 1982, Alfred Heineken, then-president of the family business, was kidnapped by four individuals for the ransom money. Based loosely on the events as reported by Peter R. de Vries, the film focuses on the careful planning, abduction, and aftermath of the event, in which the traumatised Heineken struggles to cope with his imprisonment as well as fight various legal loopholes in order to bring the criminals to justice.

Since its release, the film has been criticised for playing fast and loose with the facts of the case, as well as glossing over the highly meticulous planning the four young men undertook before making their move. I therefore probably had the advantage of ignorance, in that I had never heard of the kidnapping before, and simply took what I saw at face value. To me, The Heineken Kidnapping was a fairly compelling crime drama with a strong cast, most notably in the form of Reinout Scholten van Aschat as the psychopathic young Rem Humbrechts, for whom the operation is as much for sadistic pleasure as it is for financial gain. Meanwhile Rutger Hauer turns in a strong and sympathetic performance as Alfred Heineken himself, which, given that the audience is being asked to care about the plight of an extremely wealthy adulterer, is a testament to the actor’s longstanding talent. Those more familiar with the source material may feel differently, but for me at least, The Heineken Kidnapping was an enjoyable example of Dutch cinema, and proved to be one of the more talked-about entries at Pifan – at least going by some of the people I met during my visit.

 

Extraterrestrial

(Spain, 2011)         Written & Directed by Nacho Vigolondo

When a series of flying saucers begin hovering over the cities of Spain, most of the population takes to the hills. However, for Julio, a young advertising artist in Cantabria, the more pressing concern is to stay as close to Julia, the girl of his dreams, in whose apartment he has just spent a passionate evening. Unfortunately, matters are complicated by the presence of Julia’s nosy next-door neighbour and the return of her longtime boyfriend. But Julio will do anything to be with the girl he loves – even if that means making up a convoluted series of lies about an alien invasion – just to stay on the premises.

“At its core, Extraterrestrial is really a pretty conventional romance-comedy that hits all the usual notes its well-worn formula demands.”

With dramatic shots of a saucer hovering above urban skyscrapers and dire warnings by the authorities to stay out of harm’s way, one could be forgiven for thinking that Extraterrestrial might be another District 9. However, as with Hard Labor, the fantastical elements of the script serve merely to push a group of individuals together into a confined space and add colour to the background. At its core, Extraterrestrial is really a pretty conventional romance-comedy that hits all the usual notes its well-worn formula demands, and the unusual setting little more than an elaborate misdirection. That said, it is a pleasing enough 90 minutes with some enjoyable humour, and Julian Villagran makes for an unconventional romantic lead. Nonetheless, would-be viewers are advised to set their phasers on ‘low expectations’ for the best result.

Spellbound (aka Chilling Romance)

(South Korea, 2011)        Written & Directed by Hwang In-ho

Ballot card that ‘Extraterrestrial’ viewers were asked to submit. Guess which score I gave it.

Yuri, a shy young woman living in Seoul, is haunted by the ghost of her dead schoolfriend who lost her life during an ill-fated class excursion. Desperate for human company, Yuri has resigned herself to the fact that she will never enjoy close friendships or romance as long as a malignant ghost frightens away anyone who comes near. Hope comes in the form of Jogu, a wealthy stage magician who becomes intrigued by Yuri after he hires her for his illusionist act. With everyone else running from her in fear, will Jogu’s affection for his star performer be strong enough to overcome resistance from the Other Side?

I’d been warned before the screening began that Spellbound was something of a corn-fest, and by the end credits, felt so overdosed on saccharine, I nearly checked myself into a medical clinic for a diabetes test. In a country where clichéd melodrama is so popular it’s a major international export, Spellbound does not stand out from the crowd. With every passing minute came cliché after tired cliché about ill-fated romance, and every stomach-churning line about love and dreams meticulously welded to a truly nauseatingly-twee soundtrack had me twisting in my seat and groaning like an old man putting Viagra to use for the first time. If Extraterrestrial was formulaic, Spellbound was the formula, right down to the wise-cracking but experienced friends and sidekicks of the lead characters. All of which was so overwhelming that the horror element to the story, and raison d’etre for the whole situation was never adequately built up to be anything especially convincing and had me longing for the Dementors to float in on special dispensation from Azkaban and suck everyone’s souls into oblivion. Son Yeji gave a creditably agonised performance as the long-persecuted female lead, but frankly, the entire cast could have simply sat in a pool filled with corn syrup and elicited the same drippy performance. That, at least, would have been more honest.

Fantastic Short Films 7

Postcard for the Korean short film ‘The Metamorphosis’, handed out to patrons as they entered the cinema for the ‘Fantastic Short Films 7’ collection.

The great thing about short film collections is that if one film proves awful, you don’t have to wait long for the next one. FSF7 however started strong, with the Korean entry Delayed, in which a young middle-aged woman waits patiently at a near-deserted train station for her husband to arrive. Yet as she strikes up a conversation with an inquisitive man claiming also be expecting an arrival, nothing seems to be quite as it appears. Cast and crew of this very moving short appeared live on stage at the end, where director Kim Dong-han explained his desire to connect lost souls with lost train stations. My thanks to the Pifan personal interpreter who sat with me during this unexpected bonus event!

Next up, the Japanese parody-pastiche Encounters, wherein two very good friends look for adventure in the countryside and find more than they bargain for with giant monsters roaming the streets thanks to the machinations of an evil professor. Shot entirely using plastic action figures and some deliberately wonky props and sets, Encounters is a tongue-in-cheek Godzilla-like comedy, complete with lame action sequences and bad dialogue. I’d like to think the English subtitles weren’t meant to be quite as poor as they were, but if so, mission accomplished!

“The quality then takes a serious nosedive with the unpleasant and forgettable Italian horror mish-mash, I’m Dead, and I certainly wished I’d been dead during the 17 minutes it screened.”

The quality then takes a serious nosedive with the unpleasant and forgettable Italian horror mish-mash, I’m Dead, and I certainly wished I’d been dead during the 17 minutes it screened. Two long-time friends out hiking in the forest suddenly find themselves kidnapped by a crazed religious fanatic who begins torturing them in his secret underground lair, replete with bad lighting, corpses and handy tunnel system. The pointless and gruesome tale offers no depth in terms of the reasons behind the mad psychopath, nor indeed the ridiculous twist at the end. Which is an interesting coincidence, because I can offer no reason why anyone should watch it.

The macabre continues – though in a very different style – in the form of the Korean silent film, The Metamorphosis, a shadowy sepia affair with the disconcerting performances of Eraserhead and the visual echoes of Nosferatu. Claustrophobic static shots combine with heavy industrial clanking and retro white-on-black dialogue text inserts to tell the story of a family beset by vampirism. In truth, it’s a great example of style over substance that adds little storywise to the genre and comes close at one point to mobs with burning torches. Yet it’s the style that proves the most compelling here, so that while I’m not entirely sure what I saw, it was impossible to take my eyes off the screen. There are plenty of music videos like that.

Rounding out the collection was the light-hearted martial arts/crime spectacular, Pandora, in which taekwondo trainee Jeong Hun arrives in the city of Chungju for a performance, only to accidentally switch his cell phone with that of a man on the run from a gang intent on seizing the secrets the identical device contains. The film is a fairly unremarkable, reasonably-paced runaround that could not possibly satisfy fans of martial arts films, offering nothing new by way of story or visuals. When a story is full of clichés that have been done better elsewhere, you have to wonder who the intended audience really is. As a 30-minute romp in a film festival, Pandora is sufficient eye candy, but on its own, it swims in crowded waters.

*****

Next Time

The second half of my Pifan retrospective. I finally get to see Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining on the big screen, watch the over-reaching new documentary about the very same, entitled Room 237, find myself underwhelmed by the new Harold & Kumar-style American feature, 3-2-1…Frankie Go Boom and sit through another short film collection with mixed results. That’s World On Film next time.


Keys Of The Kingdom

It’s time to visit the Middle Kingdom, where, deep in the Chinese countryside, we find state ideologies reinforced and a generation’s final journey as World On Film explores

Postmen In The Mountains

(1999) Directed by Jianqi Ho       Written by Wu Si

 “A boy is a grown up when he carries his father on his back.”

‘Postmen In The Mountains’ is a passing of the torch film, where change is not a virtue of the society in which it takes place.

“Choose a job you love”, said Confucius, “and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Good advice, though for some, a more realistic saying might be ‘Keep choosing jobs until you find one you don’t want to give up.’ Learning after all comes through experience, and love through understanding based on experience. Confucius also advocated that one should unfailingly obey their parents, which in practice has often meant the parents choosing one’s job for them. A good son or daughter in turn accepts that their parents chose wisely and loves them for taking such an active interest. Thus they are expected to come to love, rather than choose from an internal desire, the work they will do with their life. Or at least that’s the practical application of Confucian thought, which has been deeply embedded in the Chinese psyche for centuries. Postmen In The Mountains is very much a demonstration of this thought, and in so doing advocates a strict code of obeisance to authority that puts the viewer in little doubt as to why a government that strongly controls the local entertainment industry would give its production the green light.

This does not mean, however, that Postmen In The Mountains is neither enjoyable nor impenetrable to a non-Asian audience. Putting aside its uncomplicated surrender to prevailing doctrine, the film is essentially a ‘passing-of-the-torch’ adventure between a father and his son, as one takes over the other’s physically-demanding job of delivering the mail on foot to remote villagers along a 115km circuit through the mountains of China’s Hunan Province in the early 1980s. It is a job that requires extended periods away home and thus father and son have until now been strangers to each other, truly developing their relationship for the first time because of the father’s decision to accompany his successor for his first trip in order to show him the ropes. The son in turn is eager to demonstrate his capabilities, but finds that being a postman is not as easy as it looks.

Rural China’s various minority cultures add color to the postman’s delivery route, such as the Tong peoples of Hunan province.

It was by contemplating a Westernised version of this same basic story that I found myself highlighting the uniquely Chinese character of the film, which, for the purposes of this blog, made it an all-the-more-suitable entry. Since Occidental child-rearing involves the fostering of independence within the young so they will be able to achieve adulthood, a Western version of the story would have the two lead characters at great odds with each other. There would be the inevitable falling out scene where one character would truly hit a nerve, until the equally-inevitable resolution and understanding by the closing credits. The whole affair would swerve dangerously close to melodrama and be hailed as a great emotional rollercoaster ride.

All of which would be completely unthinkable in the Chinese mindset, where elders are to be unfailingly obeyed and a shouting match might lead to disownment. We are of course speaking generally here, but so is the film. Thus it is in Postmen that the conflict between the generations is much more of an undercurrent, and even when it does surface, is comparatively little more than mild disagreement. We therefore learn of internal fears and resentments primarily through a series of flashbacks to both characters’ earlier days in order to develop our understanding of not only the reasons for their behaviour towards each other in the here and now, but also as to why their shared three-day journey is so monumentally-important for them.

Postmen In The Mountains advocates a strict code of obeisance to authority that puts the viewer in little doubt as to why a government that strongly controls the local entertainment industry would give its production the green light.”

In turn, where the Western version would emphasise the negative aspects of the conflict in order to telegraph emotional angst, its extant Chinese counterpart focuses more on its positive aspects – in other words, how understanding and harmony is achieved through father and son as a result of their time together.

Being part of the community is as much a part of the job as delivering letters, especially for those living in isolation.

Because there is no getting around the fact that all potential Chinese films will only be made with government approval, it is therefore impossible not to view the emphasis on conflict resolution and social harmony through the lens of suppression. Authorities would, for example, like the fact that the father – the wise elder of the story – forced to retire after 30 years of hard physical labour has worn out his body, seeks no reward for his efforts and actively chooses to stay away from the politics of the district office that a promotion would surround him with. Like Boxer the horse in Animal Farm, labour is its own reward and the machinations of the Pigs are neither to be questioned nor engaged. Consequently, it is very important that the son, afforded a few minor acts of rebellion as understandable indiscretions of youth, is ultimately subservient to, and in full agreement with these attitudes so that there will be no intolerable uprisings among the next generation. One is expected to be happy with simplicity and endure hardship, an axiom the viewer sees reinforced with the impoverished villagers across Postmen’s 90 minutes’ duration. Tellingly, we never see any of the district officials mentioned, or even characters said to have left the land for university. Ambition of any kind places you outside of the Worker’s Paradise.

However, it’s ‘propaganda’ with a small ‘p’: rather than setting out to make a film designed to reinforce state ideologies, it is a film that simply happens to fit the mould and was consequently accepted for that reason. In a different environment, it would be labeled a nationalistic, feel-good type of film, designed to appeal to local sensibilities through popular uncontroversial stereotypes. The only problem with this is that its uncomplicated rural setting will not appeal to today’s urban and material-savvy Chinese. Thus it could only have great appeal to local conservatives or foreigners like myself viewing it through the lens of ‘ethnic’ cinema. If that’s the case, then there are better examples of this Chinese sub-genre out there – Zhang Yimou’s epic 1994 drama To Live being one of them.

Helping his son in his first week on the job, the father of the story unwittingly experiences bittersweet memories from his past, and a sadness that they must now come to an end.

Where Postmen In The Mountains does succeed, in its own uncomplicated way, is the father-son dynamic, which as a theme, is a surefire winner and something that for obvious reasons transcends culture. We can’t help but be moved by estranged family members discovering each other properly for the first time. Unfortunately, Ho Jianqi is not the only film-maker to mistakenly believe this character dynamic is enough of a story in itself – watch Paul Hogan and Shane Jacobson re-enact a similar voyage of discovery in the box-ticking Aussiefest Charlie & Boots, and it becomes clear that even family problems can seem shallow and inconsequential when realised with shallow intent. There is a feeling in both films that the principals should love and understand each other by the end precisely because it is the end. In real life, it’s a long, drawn-out process achieved incrementally. But for all that, you can’t help but be drawn into this most fundamental of human relationships, even when the meal you’re hoping for is little more than an entrée.

There was also a certain over-simplicity with the Wonder Years approach to storytelling, where the lead character narrates over a scene rather than letting the scene telegraph information of its own accord. The approach is employed particularly over flashback sequences, though seems to be abandoned halfway through the narrative and what follows seems to stand on its own feet perfectly well without help. This only serves to underscore the didactic aims of Postmen, by making sure we are all the same, ‘correct’ page as to its teachings. And it’s really not that complicated.

“We can’t help but be moved by estranged family members discovering each other properly for the first time.”

China itself is also major draw of the film, which is shot entirely on location. From Hunan’s breathtakingly jagged mountain peaks to its lush green valleys, filled with verdant rice paddies, to vast fields of green and the crumbling ancient mortar of genuine traditional Chinese villages, Postmen In The Mountains is awash with spectacular visuals. The realities of living in outback Hunan Province might preclude many of its inhabitants from being able to fully enjoy their everyday landscape, but from my pampered perspective, it was marvellous. What drama may have been lacking in the script was played out in full colour in the background, which Ho has clearly worked to incorporate.

Hunan’s dramatic and mountainous landscape is very much a character unto itself in the film.

The two leads are also entirely believable. Actor Ten Runjun has the weatherworn look of a man with several decades’ hard labour behind him, and imbues the unnamed father with the quiet dignity and wisdom the character is meant to portray. His talent really comes to the fore during moments when he is required to express his feelings silently as his alter-ego realises with regret that father and son have switched roles. In the character of the son, Ye Liu successfully convinces as what is essentially intended to be a younger version of his father, but in a different place and time. Liu to an extent has an easier job since he is allowed to verbalise the character’s frustrations more, though must also strike a fine Confucian balance between what is acceptable and what would be intolerably unfilial.

Zhao Jiping’s soft, pipe-driven score is also worthy of note. Zhao is a veteran of Chinese cinema, composing the score not only for the aforementioned To Live, but also the critically-acclaimed Raise The Red Lantern (I definitely recommend you see this one as well), and many other key entries in this vein. In Postmen, Zhao’s musical motifs flutter, as if through the mountains themselves, but also speak of the journey to come. Importantly, it is never overused, but an accompaniment to the frequent silence and stillness of the characters and their landscape.

In many ways, Postmen In The Mountains is afflicted with the same problems as a Hollywood film – there is plenty of talent in every department, but the story is lacking because a more complex script would be deemed not in the public interest. The overall result is pleasing, but could have been so much more. If like me, you’ve already seen many of the more prominent examples of Chinese art-house cinema, it’s a nice, comfortable hour and a half. Newcomers however ought to hold off until first having viewed a few Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige or Wong Kar-wai efforts.

Note: in my edition of the film, the subtitles state the postmens’ route as being ‘230 miles’, however in Chinese, I’m pretty sure I heard ‘230 li’, which works out to be about 115km, or 71.5 miles. Which is still quite impressive.

*****

Next Time

The 16th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival has just concluded and I was there catch some of it over the last couple of weeks. From The Heineken Kidnapping to a new documentary exploring The Shining, it proved an eclectic mix of films – all over far too quickly. That’s next time, on World On Film.


Meet Me Halfway

In this edition of the blog, we head over to 20th Century South America, where society is collapsing under the weight of violently-opposed ideologies in the moving Chilean drama-historical,

Machuca (aka My Friend, Machuca)

(2004) Written by Eliseo Altunaga, Roberto Brodsky, Mamoun Hassan, and Andrés Wood           Directed by Andrés Wood

“You insist upon acting like an animal. It’s all about you, and only you. And what about the others? Don’t they count?”

Two boys from opposite sides of the tracks find peace and understanding in each other in the compelling Chilean historical drama, ‘Machuca’.

Chile 1973: the country is torn apart by a civil war fuelled by class and ideological differences. The wealthy oppose their Marxist government and all who support the nationalization of local industry, while the poor, driven to near-destitution by a prolonged economic depression, lack of production and employment opportunities, champion the Communist cause as their only hope of survival. In the midst of the ongoing conflict, two boys find friendship despite their wildly-differing backgrounds. Inevitably drawn into the madness all around them, it can only be a matter of time before their two worlds will pull them apart.

Machuca is a compelling pseudo-historical drama that explores the social upheaval during the time of Chilean president Salvador Allende. The controversial figure rose to power in 1970, more as a compromise candidate than by popular vote. The Nixon administration sought to remove him due to US fears his Marxist policies would make Chile another Cuba, and their fears were supported by local property and business owners. Those struggling to make ends meet at the other end of the spectrum saw socialism as a means to counter perceived greed: they could see that not everyone had to queue up for food rations, live in slums, or worry about job prospects. With the gulf ever-widening, strikes and clashes were inevitable. But if either side felt the hand of victory by the time of Allende’s alleged suicide in 1973, it was to be short-lived, with the country seized by a military junta and the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet for the next two decades.

Class and ideological warfare paint the film’s turbulent background. In the early 1970s, Chile was split down the middle and vulnerable to military rule, which would finally arrive in 1973.

All of which merely strikes the surface of this truly complex chapter of Chilean history and the many forces that brought the nation to its knees in the early 1970s. Yet Machuca’s brilliance lies in its ability to convey the essence of the conflict by paring it down to its emotional core. It is a battle between two sides so entrenched by wealth and poverty that they will never be able to reconcile – each side is seen as causing the destruction of national stability and each, in its own way, is right. And, like the similarly-themed Albanian film Slogans, Machuca shows the tragedy of such entrenched social warfare – that any attempt to look past these differences by focusing on basic human commonalities is ultimately thwarted by the very ideologies supposedly designed to create a more socially harmonious world in the first place. However, where Slogans focused more on the failure of Marxism because of party politics interfering with basic social development (eg – education, relationships, etc), in Machuca, the income divide is the principal barrier.

Machuca’s brilliance lies in its ability to convey the essence of the conflict by paring it down to its emotional core.”

No film really could do justice to the broad strokes of the conflict, and thus we see only splashes of it through the eyes of sensitive teen Gonzalo Infante, as he discovers the many sides to the story and finds himself unable to make true sense of any of it. Born into wealth, Infante finds himself having to reconcile his privileged world with that of Pedro Machuca, one of the many poor classmates introduced into the school by the Christian priests in charge of their education, as part of their attempt to give equal rights to the impoverished. Through Machuca, Infante experiences life on the other side of the coin, and finds himself enjoying his new friend’s down-to-earth earnestness, the Communist rallies Machuca’s family attends, and even more so, the bewitching  charms of the girl next door.

For wealthy adolescent Gonzalo Infante, the voyage outside of his everyday world is as much a sexual awakening as it is a socio-economic one.

Though viewing the adult world through the lens of childhood innocence is nothing new in film (other examples include The Blue Kite, Empire Of The Sun, and Great Expectations), it is an understandably-useful narrative tool for showing different sides of an issue without picking any. It is probably one of the only ways to maturely deal with subject matter for which there are no easy conclusions. Children are also the only social group within such entrenched ideologically-conflicted circumstances who will reach out to each other regardless of the stance their elders have taken. They have not yet learned to hate for stupid reasons. A similar argument could be made for romance, though we all know how Romeo & Juliet ended.

By making its principal characters adolescents, Machuca shows the point at which such hatred begins to manifest, and is as much a voyage of self-discovery for Infante and his contemporaries as it is the first steps toward understanding what the adults are fighting about. Indeed, for Gonzalo, a fairly sensitive-yet-reserved boy, the discovery of the impoverished class and their beliefs is the point at which he begins to find his voice, even if it is only able to speak with mounting confusion. It’s perhaps telling that he only begins to grow when removed from the stilted world of the private school (where indeed those with the most to say are the classist and insular bullies) and the machinations of his social-climbing mother, whose affair with a richer man and social snobbery is never subtle. In Machuca, we get the sense that this is the first time Infante experiences true friendship, and in the slightly-older shanty town neighbour Silvera, his first sexual awakening. For Infante, travel truly broadens the mind. He is a better person precisely for making an effort to understand difference that his financial contemporaries would be both unable and unwilling to perceive – a common occurrence in any society.

At the other end of the spectrum, the privileged class rail against the ‘threat’ of Marxism – at the time, a very real concern for the US government, worried that Chile would become “another Cuba”.

This universal element of growth and personal discovery is another reason why Machuca can reach out to a broad audience who may know nothing of Chilean history. It should resonate with anyone who has dared to step outside of their ‘normal’ world and see the way others live. I would even argue it’s a test of character that everyone should undergo in order to progress to some kind of maturity, and one all the more important in our increasingly-globalised world. The film even makes frequent comparisons to ‘The Lone Ranger’, a story about a man who befriends an American Native.

It’s an interesting comparison to make, given that Machuca is no Tonto, but a strongly-independent character in his own right, and because in the less ‘idealised’ Chile, class differences are seen to divide even the sturdiest of relationships. This makes the friendship between Machuca and Infante all the more important for the journey the two embark upon (how much can they learn from each other before the inevitable happens?) and all the more tragic because their union represents Chile’s last, best hope for peace.

That said, there were certainly more mature elements of Chilean society working to bridge the divide as well. We learn at the film’s opening that the school the boys attend was based upon the very real St. George’s College, a private English-language school in Santiago. In fact, director Andrés Wood dedicates his film to a Father Gerardo Whelan, who served as the college’s director between 1969 and 1973, which suggests a strong biographical element to Machuca. Father McEnroe, his fictional alter-ego, is a bear of a man with a powerful sense of justice working tirelessly to bridge the social divide – even when it seems as though no-one else will thank him for it.

Part of the story is based on writer/director Andres Wood’s real-life experience of a priest-run private school attempting to bridge the gap between the two sides – an attempt that is not universally-appreciated.

And this is the truth of the whole sorry affair: this wasn’t simply a clash of ideologies driven by people who genuinely believed their way of life would ultimately benefit society. Most Chileans didn’t want to be reconciled with the other side, but desired true segregation, the logical end point of the class war. The lines have been drawn long before the two boys discover each other, the final clash only a matter of time. When the Pinochet junta assumes military control of the country, only one side will have the means to avoid the opening salvo of the dictator’s long reign. It is a reign that will care nothing for the previous social conflicts, except inasmuch as they have paved the way for its existence. Here, when blood lines the streets of the capital and its shanty towns have been erased from existence, does Chile follow the main characters and awaken to the reality of their world. The real growing pains are about to begin.

Amazingly, Machuca was shot under very tight conditions due to a miniscule budget that the director and his crew have done very well to mask. This is achieved firstly through the excellent on-location filming which ensures an authentic viewing experience. From the location used to serve as the private school to the standing sets of the shanty town to the frenzy of the busy urban landscape, I can only wonder how someone with more money might have done better. Post-production also plays a major role in the look and feel of the picture, alternating between the vibrant spectrum that today’s software can create – scenes of high drama are even given that colour-bled filter which works so well to match the bleakness of hope dying on-screen.

“This wasn’t simply a clash of ideologies driven by people who genuinely believed their way of life would ultimately benefit society. Most Chileans didn’t want to be reconciled with the other side”

Major credit must also go to the choice of actors, particularly when many of them, including the principal stars, had had no professional experience. Wood apparently spent the better part of a year coaching them prior to shooting, and it is a labour that really pays off. Great attention too is paid to the setting – it really does look like 1973. With or without the crew’s many restrictions, Machuca can stand tall for its achievements.

Those better-versed in Chilean history may perhaps take issue with the politics presented, or be disappointed that a major cinematic commentary on that period keeps its distance from a particular stance. It is still fresh in the memory for many who will have their own story to tell. In time, we may come to hear them. However, for novices like myself, Machuca is a very compelling and accessible work that succeeds because of its very universal human drama. We may not have lived through that mad episode of Chile’s development, but through this film, we can recognise in ourselves the people who did.

*****

Next Time

“The film is essentially a ‘passing-of-the-torch’ adventure between a father and his son, as one takes over the other’s physically-demanding job of delivering the mail on foot to remote villagers along a 115km circuit through the mountains of China’s Hunan Province in the early 1980s. It is a job that requires extended periods away home and thus father and son have until now been strangers to each other, truly developing their relationship for the first time because of the father’s decision to accompany his successor for his first trip in order to show him the ropes. The son in turn is eager to demonstrate his capabilities, but finds that being a postman is not as easy as it looks.”

The light, but touching Chinese rural drama, Postmen In The Mountains, next time on World On Film. See a trailer below.


Antarctic Echoes

Antarctic Film Month draws to a close a week later than expected due to a bout of ill-health, with the appropriately named Antarctica, based on a true story and taking us back to the year 1957.

Antarctica

(1983) Written by Tatsuo NogamiSusumu Saji , Toshirô Ishidô, & Koreyoshi Kurahara

Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara

Showa, established in January 1957 on East Ongul Island, was and continues to be one of Japan’s most active Antarctic stations. After construction was completed, 11 men and 15 sled dogs remained on site and Showa began its long life as a polar scientific outpost. In February of the following year, the team left the base having completed their tenure, and the dogs were left behind with a small supply of food to keep them nourished until the relief crew arrived shortly afterward to take over their care. However, adverse weather conditions prevented the intended 2nd expedition team from making landfall, and the animals had to be abandoned. It would be a full year before another expedition team returned to Showa. Joining them was Professor Yasukazu Kitamura, responsible for the dogs in 1958 and whom had never forgiven himself for his decision to chain them together – a sentiment shared by the Japanese public of the day.

Early expeditions at Showa Station relied heavily on the use of sled dogs, leading to a deep bond between husky and handler.

The team would discover 7 dogs dead on the chain, with 6 having broken free and missing. Miraculously, brothers Taro and Jiro, who had been born and raised in Antarctica, had managed to survive. Kitamura suggested that they had subsisted on a diet of penguins, trapped fish, seal faeces, and seabirds. The dogs became national heroes and interest in the Sakhalin breed saw a major resurgence in Japan both in 1959 and again in 1983 with the release of Antarctica. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s epic dramatisation of these events combines both fact and fiction as it retells what is known as well as attempting to speculate on the fate of the huskies.

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Connections

Showa Station also appears in Virus, aka Day Of Resurrection, where scientist Yoshizumi and his colleagues first learn of the infection’s decimation of Japan and beyond. The feature was reviewed recently as part of Antarctic Film Month.

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In the wrong pair of hands, it could easily be a cornball fest for animal lovers, but in practice, Antarctica manages to strike an acceptable balance between sentiment and historical drama, one in which the canine performers could be said to have equal screen presence with their human counterparts. To an extent, any film that makes use of Antarctica in its storytelling cannot help but be dramatic. The severe, jagged white landscape of the continent is the very essence of spectacle, and, as demonstrated in The Thing – even though the sci-fi/horror was filmed entirely in North America – a place of great hazard.

“In the wrong pair of hands, it could easily be a cornball fest for animal lovers, but in practice, Antarctica manages to strike an acceptable balance between sentiment and historical drama.”

Forced to abandon the dogs to their fate, the expedition returns to a hostile reception, especially by the Japanese press.

All of this is encapsulated at the very beginning of Antarctica, from the montage of polar scenery accompanied by Vangelis’s dated but still powerful electronic score to the near-fatal expedition by Ushioda, Ochi and Ozaka, along with 15 sled dogs to remote inland post Botsnnuten. This sequence alone conveys the deep bond and interdependence between the dogs and their human masters, particularly the first two members of the team, responsible for the dogs’ wellbeing. Ushioda is the alter ego of Professor Kitamura in the film, and actor Ken Takakura expertly brings to life his Atlas-like sense of responsibility and later anguish at having chosen to chain the dogs together in the expectation that the 2nd expedition will ensure their care. With the expedition pilloried in the Japanese press for abandoning the dogs to their fate, both director Kurahara actors Takakura and Tsunehiko Watase as Ochi work hard to show that no-one was more haunted by that decision than the men themselves.

The film also suggests the wanderlust of the two dog lovers, the men finding themselves at a loss to reconnect to Japanese society upon their return. It is not only the dogs that they have left behind, but a major part of themselves and a sense of purpose as the pioneers of the new Antarctic base. Colorful and busy Hokkaido has carried on without them, its people only dimly aware of their experiences and unable to understand their feelings of disconnect. Indeed the only citizens who come close are the families who supplied the dogs, and bereft of their loved ones, have only recrimination to offer the polar scientists. The audience too feels a sense of alienation during the scenes in Hokkaido. We have also travelled to Antarctica and can’t quite reconcile the quiet university halls, bright traditional festivals, and rolling green fields of this world. This is made all the more powerful by the continual juxtaposition of these scenes with the ongoing fate of the dogs in the Antarctic: we cannot carry on without them because we alone know they are still there, and their fate has not yet played out.

With the humans gone from Showa, the dogs take centre-stage, and it is down to some serious animal training, special effects, and post-production that the Kurahara is able to sell his drama to the audience. A good measure of how successful this was is the fact that the director was criticised at the time for animal cruelty, gaining a rating of ‘Unacceptable’ by the American Human Association. Kurahara Productions would respond by stating that all death scenes or sequences placing animals in peril were carefully recreated in a studio under controlled conditions. Filming reportedly took place in the snow-covered climes of Northern Hokkaido, interspersed with second unit footage of Antarctica itself.

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Connections

The term Sakhalin derives from the Russian island of the same name, where the huskies were originally bred. North of Hokkaido, the long and slender landmass known in Japanese as ‘Karafuto’ has long been a point of contention for the two nations, only in recent history becoming fully Russian territory. Before this, its sovereignty regularly changed and it was once home to the Ainu, an indigenous population since relocated to Japan in the 20th Century. The dogs used in the expedition were bred in Hokkaido. Eight Below, Hollywood’s remake of Antarctica, uses Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes – a malamute also having been used in The Thing, reviewed last week.

Pictured left: A Sakhalin husky. Acknowledgements to www.dogfacts.org for the photo.

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“The audience too feels a sense of alienation during the scenes in Hokkaido. We have also travelled to Antarctica and can’t quite reconcile the quiet university halls, bright traditional festivals, and rolling green fields of this world.”

Antarctic-born Taro and Jiro proved the best-able to survive their freezing fate.

However it was done, the attempt at realism paid off, with the plight of the dogs still just as believable today as it appeared in 1983. Sequences that could now only be achieved through CGI are all the more solid and powerful knowing that they were practically realised. Kurahara seems also to be aware that such sequences can only be used sparingly, not only for dramatic reasons, but also because even in a canine-centric tale, human drama will always be more compelling.

This is further evident with the presence of a narrator over the scenes where the huskies are fending for themselves. It gives both the impression at times of a documentary, but also an uninvited dose of silliness, as the narrator attempts to explain what the dogs are feeling and their motivations in a particular scene. The viewer is well-aware of the situation and can easily discern the action from the screen. It would have been far more powerful to let the visuals and the soundtrack to tell the story than a patronising anthropomorphisation of the protagonists. Fortunately, this is not a major irritation and the visuals do indeed speak volumes.

There is a definite underlying theme of Japanese indomitability throughout the tale, perhaps unsurprising given the pioneering subject matter. An amusing scene between the rescued crew and the captain of the U.S icebreaker Burton Island assisting in their departure underscores the strong sense of nationalism that might have been more pervasive had Antarctica told the story of the Showa base itself. While those at home did not fully appreciate the difficulties of the mission, there was a great sense of national pride at the expedition itself. It had not been long since the Second World War and a rapidly rebuilding nation had in only 12 years joined the Antarctic program long dominated in the early 20th Century by public and private enterprise in the U.S. The sentiment of which only occasionally bubbles to the surface in Antarctica, serving as a powerful undercurrent to the story and a context to the ‘can-do’ spirit of the team, as opposed to a time-serving mentality one might be more likely to find in the South Pole today now that the novelty has worn off.

Returning to Showa a year later, Professor Ushioda is greeted by an impossible vision.

To the average viewer however, Antarctica is the poignant true story of life and death for man’s best friend in one of the harshest places on earth. I won’t claim to have shed tears during its 143 minutes, but having owned a dog or two in my life, I also cannot say I was unaffected by their predicament. There is a certain amount of guilt at confessing to an enjoyment of animal-based drama, largely in part due to Disney’s many years of cheapening the genre. The genuine article is a different beast altogether, and stands on higher ground with its honesty. Realistically-drawn, well-paced and visually-arresting, Antarctica remains an epic retelling of history and a compelling emotional tale for humans and canines alike decades after its original release. For the polar enthusiast, it returns us to the final days of an era when Antarctica was the last great frontier, before it was conquered by the inevitable mediocrity of familiarity and taxation.

*****

Further Reading

To see photos of the actual expedition at Showa Base and the dogs Taro and Jiro, visit this page. Scroll down until you see the photo section.

Click here to read the assessment of the American Human Association on Antarctica.

Visit this page to learn additional information, including the thoughts of Professor Kitamura.

*****

Next Time

Clips, or it didn’t happen: we return to where it all began and look at the ‘A’ series of World On Film – a chance to discover the films reviewed earlier all on one page. With pictures.


Kinematic

This week, we explore how and why Antarctica was captured in living colour for the very first time in the first chapter of Antarctic Film Month.

As the banner above subtly suggests, it’s Antarctic Month here at World On Film  – not in fact corresponding to any particular month on the calendar (that would be too easy), but four weeks devoted to that large sweep of ice and land filling up the South Pole. The four films selected to represent it over those weeks will capture its many moods, but perhaps more importantly, the many ways in which we perceive Antarctica. It’s a place of distant beauty and adventure, but it’s also a place of danger and drudgery. Both fact and fiction will be used to explore the subject, and it all begins this week with the very first colour footage ever captured of Antarctica recorded during the United States Antarctic Expedition at the height of South Pole-mania.

Antarctic Echoes

Antarctica, the final frontier of Earth exploration, is an austere world of mystery and quiet menace. Once part of the massive supercontinent of Gondwanaland and covered in rainforest, its ancient past lies buried beneath impenetrable glaciers of ice, guarded by deadly ice-cold winds and temperatures hostile to human survival. It is today a glittering interglacial reminder of the powerful forces that shape our planet, and ready to claim the lives of any who dare to take its capricious nature too lightly.

Bound for the Antarctic, the crew make several pit stops along the way, including remote Pitcairn Island, where the Bounty mutineers settled centuries earlier. Here, a direct descendant of Fletcher Christian is caught on film.

This has not, however, stopped the bold and adventurous from setting a course for the South Pole with the unknown firmly in their sights and discovery fuelling their souls. The list of names associated with Antarctic exploration is long and embedded into the public consciousness, from Amunsden, Mawson and Scott, to Ross, Hillary and Fiennes. However, one name above all others defined human endeavour in the poles: Richard Evelyn Byrd. Not only did Byrd undertake no fewer than 11 expeditions to Antarctica, he was also responsible for galvanizing both government and public interest in the continent. He contributed significantly to and induced the enormous frenzy of scientific activity across the 20th Century that dramatically broke through the quiet, dismissive ignorance the world entertained about its most southerly neighbour.

“Antarctica, an austere world of mystery and quiet menace.”

At the height of the public interest in Antarctica Byrd had himself generated, the explorer, scientist and naval officer was a massive celebrity – almost impossible to believe when today’s incumbents of the term are the dubious breed of cheerfully ignorant, narcissistic attention-seekers whose trifling contributions to the human endeavour are championed and beamed across the globe with undeserving relentlessness by the media. Yet in his day, Byrd was every much as famous, his exploits excitedly recounted in newspapers and radio programs worldwide, his countenance visible on all manner of merchandising from stamps to signed photos. By 1935, he had overseen two highly-successful privately-funded expeditions to Antarctica, and both he and the public were hungry for more.

Arrival in the Antarctic, and the much-vaunted Snow Cruiser makes its dramatic entrance.

Eager to capitalise on this popular sentiment, the U.S. government of the day under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt quickly began assessing the feasibility of a government-funded expedition to the region – the first in over a century. In 1939, the impressively-titled Executive Committee For The United States Antarctic Service was formed and Byrd, who had been preparing for his own return to the region since 1935, readily accepted the invitation to take charge of the new venture. Officially entitled, ‘The United States Antarctic Service Expedition’, to the public it was ‘Byrd Antarctic Expedition III’, with the Admiral overseeing the government objective of establishing a permanent seasonal base at ‘Little America’ and another south of the Cape of Good Hope.’ On November 1939, two vessels carrying 125 crewmen between them departed Boston for the Antarctic. Travelling with them was a young man about to make filmic history.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Little America was in fact the name given to a series of bases on the Ross Ice Shelf near the Bay of Whales between 1929 and 1956. The breakup of the shelf has seen at least two Little Americas float away to see on icebergs. They were the site of the first-ever radio broadcasting stations in the Antarctic, which, during the expeditions, sent regular transmissions powerful enough to be picked up by household radio sets in the U.S, thereby significantly contributing to the ongoing public interest in the program.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Harrison Holt Richardson

Responsible for capturing the expedition on celluloid was Byrd enthusiast and youngest member of the group, Harrison Holt Richardson. His interest in both Byrd and Antarctica began when, as a teenager, he attended a speech being given by the Admiral at Beaver College, Pennsylvania, where his father was a trustee. He would later write to Byrd hoping to persuade him to let Richardson join the crew of the U.S.S. Bear for the summer, a request which was later granted. Owned by Byrd, the Bear had been one of the principal ships used during his second expedition to the Antarctic, and Richardson the elder would subsequently convince Byrd to keep Richardson on for the third Antarctic expedition of 1939-41 in which the vessel was again utilised.

Richardson not only shot the first-ever colour footage of Antarctica, but also joined one of the scientific teams towards the end of the program. Over the winter of 1940-41, he would be a member of the biological team stationed there, working as a dog team driver and meteorological observer. Mt. Richardson in Marie Byrd Land, and discovered during his time there, would be named in his honour.

“Richardson not only shot the first-ever colour footage of Antarctica, but also joined one of the scientific teams towards the end of the program.”

In later life, Richardson would graduate from Geneva College and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and serving in the U.S. navy as a medical officer during subsequent military expeditions to the North and South poles, helping to open the United States Air Force Base in Thule, Greenland, finally working as a radiologist for two hospitals back home. He would die at the age of 80 in 1999.

Richardson’s remarkable footage was produced using a 16mm film camera, which documents highlights of the 3-year expedition, from the crews’ departure in Boston to the closure of Little America in 1941. The silent footage would subsequently go out under the film title Antarctica, unsurprisingly credited to the United States Antarctic Expedition Service, with the occasional caption card to provide some kind of narrative.

Captured On Film

Face to face: penguins prove the most captivating of the local fauna, though whether scientists would get this close today is a different matter.

Whether or not Richardson was given much direction as to what he should document, the young cameraman/cinematographer does an excellent job under the circumstances, making sure to capture every aspect of the expedition, from the multifaceted scientific programs conducted to the equipment used in their implementation and the people behind it all who would go on to make history. He is also adept at capturing some of the breathtaking scenery and the mood of those around him. Probably the happiest surprise for me at least in viewing Antarctica is the fact that Richardson starts filming in Boston harbour at the very beginning of the journey, with impressive equipment like the Snow Cruiser, the overambitious and ultimately problematic all-terrain diesel car designed for ground-based mobility at the other end, excitedly paraded along the wharf prior to loading. An enthusiastic crowd is assembled, excited to be present at the momentous new chapter of scientific history, while crewmembers aboard the USMS North Star, the first ship to depart, cavort about on deck in pirate costumes, clearly lapping up every minute of their fame.

Along the way to icier climes, the crew would check in at destinations no less interesting, such as Pitcairn Island and Rapa Iti, with Richardson’s camera work ensuring the stopovers are saved for posterity. Pitcairn Island is a rich subject unto itself, being the very remote southern paradise the mutineers of the H.M.S Bounty would choose to make their home centuries earlier, with the North Star encountering their latter-day descendants as they trade for much-needed items during the 48-hour stopover. To the West, Rapa Iti, tropical outpost of French Polynesia and sinking volcanic remnant of a younger Earth, offered further trade and shore leave for the crew. Not to be confused with Rapa Nui (Easter Island), ‘Little’ Rapa bears the legacy of similar feats of stonemasonry, this time in the form of hill forts rather than giant statues. Richardson however, appears to be less concerned with history than the bare-chested Polynesian natives – his interest purely in anthropology never in doubt for a moment.

The North Star, one of the principal ships of the expedition and previously owned by famed polar adventurer, Richard Evelyn Byrd. Although a government endeavour, the public viewed this very much as his latest expedition.

Choosing not to document the most crucial stopover of all in Dunedin, New Zealand, which would act as a major supply stop for the Bear and the North Star over the course of the expedition, the filming resumes once more as the first icebergs hove into view – promising monuments of the main act and harbingers of the many pitfalls waiting for anyone daring to venture beyond.

“The first icebergs hove into view – promising monuments of the main act and harbingers of the many pitfalls waiting for anyone daring to venture beyond.”

Then begins the expedition proper, with Richardson producing many recorded highlights throughout. The Snow Cruiser quickly demonstrates its design flaws from the moment it leaves the ship in much the same way that elephants and rope bridges don’t mix. Some of the scientists develop a deep fascination for the local penguin population, engaging in an intimacy that today’s naturalists would frown upon. Meanwhile, the spectre of death looms over the team, with crevasses hiding their true depths and threatening to swallow up the unsuspecting newcomer for all time. Away from all this, the natives show how perfectly they have evolved to suit the natural environment, with seals surfing joyfully across the powdery surface of the land towards the food-rich depths of the icy water, while rubbery penguins bounce across the achromatic landscape very much at home in this frozen world.

Crewmembers enjoy some downtime, high spirits being essential in the remote polar wilderness.

The expedition would nonetheless become more adept at survival in the Antarctic than most, and snapshots of their efforts give tantalising glimpses into their mission. Every conceivable scientific study was conducted over the three-year period, from biological to meteorological. Two bases were maintained, 3,540km apart from each other by sea and 2,575km apart by air. With this, successive teams made up of scientists and the U.S. military were able to fill in the gaps between lands explored by previous expeditions. The Bear would be regularly deployed along the coastline, often hampered by sea ice. Seaplanes would venture inland as well as helping to determine whether sections of coast were island or peninsula. Sledging parties would all for ground-based research, often away for weeks at a time and subject to the harsh Antarctic weather. Together, their efforts would result in the mapping of some 1,127km of coastline, as well as shed light on current glaciations and fully map ranges such as the Queen Maud Mountains, which Byrd had discovered several years earlier.

The daily work of the expedition, from the maintaining of the bases, to the construction and maintenance of equipment and even the feeding of the huskies (seals being their primary diet) can also be seen. Camaraderie and downtime show a cheerful atmosphere, and there can be no doubt that such an experience would create very strong bonds among the crew.

Locally-raised husky pups are captivated by the world outside the box.

The camera lens also captures the otherworldly, yet very Earth-like quality of Antarctica itself. Huge, jagged pyramids of rock rise into the sky, forming mountain ranges that fade off into the horizon where few have dared to tread. Hauntingly-beautiful coastlines radiate the sun’s rays while offering none of its warmth. Terrain, forged and crumpled by glaciers that melted before the time of man, is beaten relentlessly by icy, power-filled winds. Blocks of ice as large as Hyde Park collapse into the sea. Icebergs, some as flat as table-tops, others emulating the pointed mountains they have left behind, float almost imperceptibly forward – some returning to the continental shelf, others destined to drift out of sight forever.

By 1941, global upheaval had reached fever pitch, and the base camps would be abandoned, much of their personnel redeployed to join the conflict. Antarctica’s airwaves fell silent and the dreams of establishing a permanent presence in the region were forgotten in the chaos of the Second World War. The Antarctic program would eventually continue, however, and thanks to Harrison Holt Richardson, the golden days of polar exploration are there in full colour for future generations to enjoy.

You too can enjoy it for yourself by clicking on the video below. To compensate for the lack of audio, I watched it accompanied by – what else – Vangelis’s soundtrack to the 1983 film Antarctica.

*****

Further Reading

Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of resources on the expedition. Those searching online in particular will find a plethora of resources, including this site, which gives a good overview of 200 years of Antarctic exploration, as well as chronicle the life of Admiral Byrd himself.

In contrast, little information exists on Harrison Holt Richardson, and what I did find was largely sourced from his New York Times obituary.

Next Time

Germ warfare plagues the earth when a military-created virus is accidentally released into the planet’s atmosphere, killing almost everyone worldwide. The only survivors are a group of scientists in Antarctica, where the virus lays dormant in extreme low temperatures. The international fragments of humanity must put aside their political differences and rebuild society; however the apocalypse may not yet be over. The epic Japanese thriller Virus, aka Day Of Resurrection next time when World On Film returns. Click below to view the original Japanese trailer:


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.