A Musical Forest and the Greater Middle East
Lots of prizes were given out at IDFA 2013, but the big winner is the unsentimental Song from the Forest, by the journalist Michael Obert, a doc that was a work in progress last year. The subject of the film is the Bayaka pygmy tribe of the Central African Republic. Another subject is the American Louis Sarno, a musician and archivist (and an old friend of Jim Jarmusch, who’s in the film) who for the last 25 years has recorded the music of the Bayaka in their canopied forest habitat. The sounds of the forest itself may be more of a surprise than the tribe’s music.
Although the forest people who welcomed Sarno into their lives wear tattered versions of western clothes, they still practice traditional hunting and gathering, which means that they live on what they can find in the forest that’s now under siege from poachers and loggers. Enforcement in the forest is now rarer than game.
Like so many species in that ecosystem under siege, the Bayaka are threatened by a world that they don’t know. Sarno sets out to familiarize at least one member of the tribe by taking his young son with a Bayaka woman, Samedi (Saturday), to America, where the boy walks the streets of Manhattan with a bewilderment that turns to fascination.
Ethnography, the domain from which so many early docs emerged, is once again the stuff of film festivals. It was always a mainstay of IDFA, which championed the films of, among others, Leonard Retel Helmrich (who has examined the painful move of Indonesian families from countryside to city, and the Dutch industry of herring fishing). An expanding sub-genre is the observation of ways of life that are disappearing – a grim case in point is the life of the Bayaka, who find themselves in the path of the resource-rape of valuable tropical hardwoods. After the recent coup in the Central African Republic, visiting the Bayaka, always difficult, has become dangerous. Song from the Forest may be one of the last examples of their traditional life as we know it.
For a satirical perspective on the same nation that veers between chaotic and entropic, and more recently barbaric, see The Ambassador by Mads Brugger, who bought himself an ambassadorship in the capital, Bangui, to acquire a head start in the diamond business – an IDFA 2011 selection. Brugger’s experience helps anyone understand the Bayaka’s wariness of the modern world.
#chicagogirl – The Social Network Takes on a Dictator, is the inevitable film that puts new media to the service of reporting on events that are brought to us largely on new media. Compare new media coverage of the fighting in Syria to network reporting on events there, and you’ll find a new application of “too big to fail.” Surprised? The audience for television news seems to be 60-plus – hence all the ads for drugs that treat erectile dysfunction - whereas the audience for new media coverage of events in Syria is younger, more or less the age of those fighting the war. It’s logical, albeit small, or the commercial media would show us more of it.
From her family’s home in Chicago, Ala’a Basatneh, 19, is monitoring the civil war in the country that her father was forced to flee years before. On one end, she tracks what’s happening there and informs her audience about it, all from a computer at home. For once, “friends” in the cyber sense means something, although the internet’s tendency to gather like-minded people should caution anyone who expects much change on the ground from all this information. From the other side, in Aleppo or Homs, the technology that enables her to monitor events as they happen may be a discovery, even for geek early adapters. Young opponents of the regime, watched by snipers on rooftops, carry cameras that are attached to the internet. They get as close as possible to fighting between rebels and soldiers of the regime, or to the aftermath of bombings. The images are transmitted on the web. The risks are huge, as we see when her friends are killed; the results, including those on-camera shootings, are startling. The spectrum image textures of this DIY information medium should be watched by anyone who thinks he or she is doing something experimental.
This low-budget doc is not just for tech nerds, but for anyone who believes that there is a role for “citizen journalism” – note that reporting from the US press has largely disappeared. With no formal training and lots of motivation, these cyber rebels are defying censorship at the barrel of a gun. Stressful? Their enviable tech savvy, on the absolute cheap, makes you wonder why the implementation of the Obamacare web site is so fraught with blunders.
Can the instant availability of images from Syria move the conflict one way or another, as happened, for example, when Life Magazine published photographs of demoralized US soldiers in Vietnam, or when television footage of children fleeing a napalm attack became public? Let’s not exaggerate the speed at which public concern influenced policy back then.
Ala’a Basatneh found that the effects of cyber-diffusion of the Syrian war from the rebels’ point of view weren’t being felt. She left Chicago for Syria, where she is now – still alive, we’re told, although there aren’t any cyber-images to verify that.
#chicagogirl, the film debut of Joe Piscatella, defies movie formulas. It would be a shame if it were to sit on the shelf, waiting for a premiere at Sundance and a commercial rollout months from now. Better to put it on youtube and let the world see it. It would be true to the spirit of the people in it.
Return to Homs, the opening film at IDFA, offers a more traditional alternative to #chicagogirl, although there is not much about the film by Talal Derki that looks traditional.
The cameras follow rebels in the city of fighting that s turning into rubble as we watch. The insurgents run through holes in building walls that enable them to cover distance inside without being visible to snipers. If there are leitmotifs, one will be the journey through those holes, which can resemble endless caves or an eternally reflecting mirror, with the frames shrinking as they head toward infinity.
Once again, the logistics of filming rebels in a Syrian city are near-impossible, yet the technical risks seem to be taken for granted by fighters for whom the far greater logistical challenge is staying alive by staying out of the crosshairs of Syrian troops whose job is to shoot and kill them.
Another leitmotif of the Syrian civil war is the rubble of urban warfare. We saw that in the former Yugoslavia, especially in cities like Vukovar, and in Grozny in Chechnya, and the Syrian version of that urban destruction machine – most of it state-sponsored, since the rebels don’t have planes or artillery — spares nothing that stands in its way. Think of a government that shells and bombs its own citizens. Is the Assad regime seeking to make Homs a place that isn’t worth fighting for? If that’s the strategy, it isn’t working.
Don’t look for leitmotifs in Ana Ana, an extended inquiry into the lives of four women in Egypt by Corinne Egeraat and Petr Lom. We’ve seen films that take place on Tahrir Square – Lom made one himself two years ago. Now, in a film whose title means “I am me,” the locus is dispersed. Women talk about their aspirations and frustrations. We hear from women who are not defined exclusively by politics, whose dreams aren’t limited for fights for social justice or campaigns to impose injustice.
As you might expect from dreams – setting aside visions that reflect nightmarish circumstances – there is real lyricism in Ana Ana, even cinema, a rarity among docs these days. Egypt does not lack for poetic landscapes. Not all that cinema is elegant, however. In one scene, the filmmakers (Lom excepted) are in a train car reserved for women, in which one women, covered except for her face, condemns them for filming her. Think of the videos of Shirin Neshat – Egyptian parallels to Neshat’s poetic scenes of women in Iran?
Most docs about Middle Eastern politics are extended versions of what we can see on al Jazeera. We might not see Ana Ana there, since its meditative pace doesn’t fit the attention span of those who watch cable news, but where will we see it?
One film that we are likely to see about the Middle East – the greater Middle East – is American Arab, by Usama Alshaibi, a set of reflections about being a Muslim and an Arab in the United States by a Palestinian-Iraqi filmmaker who happens to be named Usama. Try that in your breakfast coffee place, where you leave your first name with your order, and the server calls it out when it’s ready. Remember the joke about the Scarsdale diet having too high a lead content?
Alshaibi returned to Iraq in to make the film Nice Bombs about his family and his own mixed attachment to the region, a clever take on being Arab, but still being afraid of explosions in the night. In American Arab, he narrates his own account of living as an Arab in the US. His story isn’t the only case history here. We hear from a woman in Chicago who speaks, in perfect English, of having her hijab pulled in a supermarket by a woman who was angry about an Arab military psychiatrist opening fire on soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas.
Alshaibi also talks to three girls, recently arrived from Iraq, who miss relatives there, but not the violence. “They burned a dude,” the youngest of them recalls, already speaking the lingua franca of American youth. You can just imagine how she texts.
Alshaibi himself had jolting reality checks on being a hyphenated American. His American-born brother, who had turned to Islam, died of a drug overdose at 28. The film begins with Alshaibi’s mother mourning at his grave. “He never found his way,” she said. And in Fairfield, Iowa, the Transcendental Meditation capital where he and his girlfriend moved to find a calm place to live, Alshaibi was brutally beaten after he stumbled into a party where he thought he’d been invited. When he gave his name, it was a cue for young local kids to attack him. Alshaibi never pressed charges. It would have been his word against theirs. Here is what I wrote about American Arab in The National.
Recommend American Arab to birthers who are convinced that Obama is a Muslim.
More on IDFA 2013 in a later post.
Tags: #chicagogirl – The Social Network Takes on a Dictator, American Arab, Amsterdam, Ana Ana, Bayaka tribe, Corinne Egeraat, documentary IDFA, ethnography, Festival, film, Joe Piscatella, Louis Sarno, Michael Obert, Petr Lom, Return to Homs, Song from the Forest, Syria, Talal Derki, Usama Alshaibi