IDFA #10: Eritrea Stars

Charming and thoughtful movie about 16 Eritreans, the former national soccer team, adjusting to refugee life in Gorinchem. What did they leave behind? The North Korea of Africa. They don’t even trust each other and won’t talk about their pasts. Sadly, they break up the team in their quest for individual independence. Only 55 mins, this movie left unanswered several questions: why did they break up? What did they leave? And how did they get here?

IDFA #9: Human

As much as I love Yann Arthus Bertrand’s aerial photography, I felt a bit manipulated in this 1994-style documentary. Stark interviews w tribal types reinforcing global injustice. We know all this! And accompanied by gorgeous soaring aerial videos of natural wonders set to a cheap Enya-style synthesized-strings elevator feel-good soundtrack. Why not real music by those tribes (read: HUMANS) you’re trying so hard to portray? Some interviews were indeed very touching but at 188 mins, I would have appreciated a stricter editor.
Final scene was of a Chinese swimming pool sardined with couples in floaty rings b/c most Chinese can’t swim.
Me: Imagine letting Azad and Anoushka loose in there!
Marco: Population China = 12.

Song Of Lahore: Pakistan’s Musicians Affirm Their Place In A Country That Threatens To Forget Them

Posted: 05/01/2015 7:37 am EDT Updated: 05/02/2015 3:59 pm EDT
SONG OF LAHORE ASAD ALI

WASHINGTON — The value of one’s soul is hard to measure, but Baqir Abbas, a musician in the Pakistani city of Lahore, has it worked out for himself. Abbas’ soul is slightly less precious to him than the delicately designed bamboo flutes he carves. “All the stories of the world will play from it, God willing,” he says, before kissing his latest instrument and touching it twice to its forehead.
Abbas explains his philosophy in “Song of Lahore,” a new documentary about an intergenerational community of musicians skilled in their own mix of traditional Pakistani music and the Western orchestral scores demanded by Lahore’s once-booming film industry. He and his fellow musicians “find God in music,” Abbas says.
Their critics do not, and the very act of practicing their craft now makes them targets in a more conservative Pakistan. Followers of the increasingly influential, hardline Deobandi school of thought in Sunni Islam consider music to be sinful and musicians to be apostates who have no place in an avowedly Muslim nation.
“Song of Lahore” is powerful because it shows these musicians do have a place in Pakistan.
Last week, the 82-minute documentary won multiple standing ovations and a joint second place in the Documentary Audience Award category at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. But the feature’s greatest triumph is that it proves the Deobandis wrong: These musicians are quintessentially Pakistani and essential to the nation’s cultural identity, Islam and all.

Worshippers gather at Lahore’s historic Badshahi Mosque on April 25, 2015.
Progressive Pakistanis who value their country’s musical heritage have been making that case for decades.
My grandmother Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah, a pioneering political journalist, saw the trouble coming just a decade after the nation was created. Hamidullah addressed Pakistanis skeptical of music in the introduction to her 1958 short-story collection, The Young Wife and Other Stories. She warned that “No Music Before Mosques,” one of the tales, “might not find favour with the orthodox and yet it is for them it is written.”
“No Music Before Mosques” tells of a village flutist who plays melodies dedicated to God at each of the five daily prayer times prescribed in Islam. The flutist is driven to express his devotion this way, even though it infuriates his traditionalist father. The conflict between his music and his father becomes too much. He kills himself. The tragedy is that there didn’t have to be a conflict at all: As his niece says to the family, playing the flute was “his way of telling Allah how much he loves Him.”
“It is my earnest hope that some day our over-orthodox observers of the letter of religion will come to realize that there are many ways of praying,” Hamidullah wrote. “The artist, the writer or the musician who puts his heart and soul into that which he composes and dedicates it to the Great Creator is offering prayers up to his Maker just as sincerely as any [cleric] who kneels five times a day.”
Her hope remains unfulfilled in the Pakistan of 2015.
Instead, the country has seen regressive Islamic thought blossom, especially since the 1980s. In that decade, Sunni extremists grew with financial and military support from dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and the CIA, which fostered them as anti-Soviet proxies, and from donors in the Gulf countries seeking to promote conservative Sunni thought to counter the 1979 Shiite Revolution in Iran. More recently, the U.S.-led war on terror has brought those groups greater prominence and more recruits, many from Gulf-funded religious schools called madrassahs. Many of them now target their jihad internally on the Pakistani population, particularly threatening people they deem overtly offensive to Islam — like musicians.
All the while, the space for culture in Pakistan has continued to shrink because of deliberate misinterpretations of Pakistani history and Islamic thought that Gen. Zia institutionalized in schools and the law.
“Song of Lahore” focuses on the fate of classical musicians in the country’s cultural hub, Lahore, post-Zia and post-9/11. Co-directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who in 2012 became the first Pakistani to win an Oscar, and Andy Schocken, a producer-director from Brooklyn, spent two years following Abbas and other musicians associated with Lahore’s Sachal Studios.

Saleem Khan (right), a violinist for the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, with his grandson.
Established by a millionaire financier in 2004, Sachal Studios seeks to save the tradition of Lahori classical musicians — specifically, the cultural descendents of men who rose to prominence in Lahore’s once-thriving film industry and performed for visiting dignitaries like Queen Elizabeth II. That means giving them the space and support to practice and winning them audiences at home and abroad.
Sachal’s founder, Izzat Majeed, is a jazz enthusiast with a plan: to let these musicians loose on internationally loved jazz classics whose melodies aren’t that different from their own traditional tunes. The Sachal renditions of jazz standards were already winning attention outside Pakistan at the point when “Song of Lahore” introduces us to the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, musicians in their 20s through 50s who are preparing for their biggest challenge yet — a major November 2013 concert with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York. Each man has his own emotional tale of alienation in a changing Pakistan. As the film tracks Sachal’s journey, it tracks the individual musicians’ struggles, too.
The international exposure matters because demand has dried up for the classical musicians’ work. The stars who now dominate the Pakistani music scene are young pop singers who appear on television, win sponsorships from multinational corporations and rarely require violins, flutes, tabla drums, harmoniums or other tools of the old-school trade.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Obaid-Chinoy said the classical musicians lack nearly everything, other than skill and talent, that it takes to be successful in that way.
“If you look at the pop musicians in Pakistan, they come from certain income brackets, from middle- or upper-class families that could send them to school and college,” the director said. “Most of our classical musicians have literally only studied music. They have not gone to college; they do not speak in English.”
But Obaid-Chinoy added, “They have a lot of what we would call tehzeeb,” using an Urdu word that roughly translates to inherited refinement. “You can’t buy tehzeeb.”
Many of these musicians — in fact, all of those featured in “Song of Lahore” — are even more marginalized because of their faith: They follow Shiite Islam, the minority branch in Pakistan and the world. Though around 20 percent of Pakistan’s Muslims are Shiites, members of the community are increasingly attacked at their places of worship and as they go about their daily business. Prominent Shiite doctors have been murdered on their way home from their jobs in Pakistan’s biggest city, my hometown of Karachi.
Many Pakistanis have become unwillingly accustomed to the idea that Shiites should keep quiet about their identities. When I watched some of the musicians on-screen chant a traditional Shiite call at a funeral, my first thought was that they should be more careful. I regretted that reaction as soon I’d had it — but it was still my initial instinct.
The musicians’ story needs to be shared because Pakistan is “at risk of losing our culture and our heritage,” Obaid-Chinoy told HuffPost. “It’s important for us to educate the audience, to say the music died and how it died — that it was silenced systematically.”

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken, co-directors of “Song of Lahore.”
Similar thinking pushed the U.S. State Department to sponsor the Sachal musicians for their latest New York trip to attend the “Song of Lahore” premiere earlier this month and to meet American musicians, according to two State officials speaking on background.
During the heyday of Lahore’s movie industry in the 1950s and 1960s, a State Department program called Jazz Diplomacy sent big-name musicians like Duke Ellington to Pakistan and other Cold War allies. The musicians featured in “Song of Lahore” speak wistfully of those days.
The State Department saw the Sachal trip as honoring that decades-old association. “It’s the same messaging of teaching through art and culture,” one official said. “But for us [given the situation in Pakistan], it’s now more important than ever.”
Schocken, the other director, said it was emotional for him to see the musicians again. In Pakistan, he and Obaid-Chinoy had witnessed so many intimate moments: family deaths, professional failures, anxiety before their big concert in New York.
Describing himself as a “music nerd,” Schocken said their shared focus had helped overcome the language barrier between him and the Pakistani musicians.
“We don’t have a traditional score for the film as most feature-length films do have,” he said. “With a few exceptions, the music is performed by the characters in the film, and the music itself is a character in the film. … It’s critical to the journey that the audience takes while they’re watching. It’s as central as the interviews or the visual images.”
“Song of Lahore” ends on a few high notes: The Sachal team overcomes its initial nervousness with the American orchestra to wow the Lincoln Center audience and, even more important, then gives a packed concert back home in Lahore. “It is the audiences at home that have to love and appreciate your music,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “Lincoln Center is a great platform. But Alhamra Hall is their home.”
Obaid-Chinoy said she is optimistic about the future of classical Pakistani music because of Sachal’s international footprint and forums like last month’s Lahore Music Meet, organized by a group of ambitious 20-somethings who brought together representatives from the pop world and Sachal. Her documentary should help as well. She said “Song of Lahore” will likely be shown at a few more international film festivals before a full theatrical release near the end of 2015.

Najaf Ali (left) with his father Rafiq Ahmed, both members of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble.
The musicians are hopeful, too. Rafiq Ahmed, who plays a classical drum called the naal, sat with his 30-something son a couple of years ago and explained to the “Song of Lahore” camera what Sachal’s growth meant to him.
“It felt,” he said, “like the music was alive again.”

IDFA 2015, Ukrainian Sheriffs

IDFA #7: Brick in the Wall. 7/10

Bittersweet portrayal of a family building a grand villa in their Romanian village. Now nearing 40 years, this is truly a never-ending story. A couple in their 60s started working on their grand castle in 1973 and the pace of construction continues at a snail’s pace, maybe 3 bricks per day. The son (who has his father’s schnozz) comes to help but no progress is made; meanwhile, they live in a 1-rm hut. The wife tells us that she suggested that they get engaged after they had kids. They finally did, in 1993, and are still engaged. He seems to like long-term projects.
We find out afterwards from the director that the husband was once known as the best builder in the village (Vama?) and constructed many houses. He is such a devout atheist that he wanted to build their house taller than the new church, but the church got finished first and now he’s too ashamed to finish.e also promised his wife she could have a religious wedding in the house when he finished it so that’s another reason to postpone. Absurd story.
IDFA #8: A French Laundry. 3/10
A 90-yr old Tunisian Jew shows us his one-man laundry in Nice and reflects on the past. He is a firm believer in hard work and tells us all sorts of stories about how hard he has worked in his life and that he used to be a jeweller whoraked in the cash but now it’s all gone. He was friends with an SS officer in Tunisia who helped save him from the others at the end of the war because “You’re not really Jewish.” Very run- down shabby place with one washing machine and one centrifuge and flaking paint. We see him make the decision to finally retire and watch the renovation of his building.
But boring!!! Endless shots of his right cheek from behind, then left, then right, then left. Of people at the beach from behind. Of people walking past his shop window. Dull dull dull. Too bad, the story was good, but the telling was not captivating.
“Je ne veux pas me caisser les bonbons.”

IDFA Part 2, Mrs. Carey’s Concert

This movie was part of the “PLAY” mini-festival that was the musical part of IDFA this year. All of the selections dealt with music in some way and I was surprised that there were so few people at this, the opening movie of the festival, but perhaps 12.45 on a Saturday wasn’t a popular slot.

This documentary followed the extremely well-funded and exemplary music department at a private girls’ school in Sydney. Every two years, the eponymous teacher presents an enormous gala concert in the Sydney Opera House. We follow her travails as she deals with recalcitrant and sulky teenage girls and tries to motivate hormonal cellists. Two girls in particular are the focal points: the beautiful and very obnoxious Iris, who has no wish to be within 500 miles of this concert, and the awkward and formerly rebellious Emily, a very gifted violinist.

Iris was, of course, fun to watch. She was a master manipulator and it was enjoyable to watch her transformations between good/bad girl while being relieved that I’m not that age any longer, but she didn’t really seem to learn anything. If it had been a Hollywood film, she would have discovered herself through music and become a new person but that didn’t even come close to happening, thank goodness.

Emily was given an enormous task; to learn the first movement of the Bruch violin concerto. It was very interesting to follow her learning process and see her frustration when her teachers asked her to express in words what she felt musically. And of course, the final performance was a resounding success.

I was quite envious of the situation these girls were in and full of admiration for the dedication the teachers put in. I was in a good youth orchestra when I was in high school, but there’s no way we would have tackled some of the music these kids were performing. Ravel String Quartet? I don’t think so. Where on earth did the money come from for this sort of funding and coaching? Very impressive, but also not really realistic for most of the world. How can we turn it to our advantage when we don’t have a private school’s budget?

I stayed for the Q&A afterwards, always interesting. The directors said they had a surprise — and there was Emily! 4 years later, she has lost her awkwardness and has turned into an elegant young woman. She is currently studying at the Royal College of Music in London. After the session, I went up to speak with her and asked if she would just stay here for her studies or if she was planning on staying like so many of the rest of us. She said that she had called her mother last week and told her she didn’t want to come home. Good luck, Emily, and welcome to the club!

IDFA; Planet of Snail

It’s hard for me to write a review of this movie because since I saw it on Saturday night, I’ve told so many people about it that I feel all my words have been used up. Still, I don’t think there will be much overlap (hi, C!) between the two groups so I’ll just go ahead and be repetitive. Sorry in advance.

To put it briefly: this is a beautiful, touching, inspiring movie. To put it longly: I was afraid it would be too slow and was not sure I would have the patience to sit through it after already having seen two movies that day. I even chose a seat on the aisle so I could sneak out if I needed to. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, it was slow. Yes, there were lots of silent beauty shots of water, waves, rain, trees. But the stillness didn’t bother me. You needed it to absorb the story and get to know these two beautiful characters.

So what’s it about? you ask. Very little, in fact. It follows a couple in South Korea, Young-Chan and his lovely wife whose name I forget right now. Young-Chan lost both sight and hearing at a young age and now lives in a self-described fog. “Snails” are how the deaf-blind community call themselves in Korea. He must have gone deaf after learning speech, as he can speak to communicate with the outside world. Of course, as a non-Korean speaker, I don’t know if he is particularly difficult to understand. She suffers from some unnamed spinal disability which is implied to influence her lifespan, although that is never spelled out clearly. She communicates with him by tapping Braille on top of his fingers; this is made even more touching by her gently speaking the words as she types them. They are truly, madly, deeply in love and a more genuine and loving relationship has seldom been portrayed on film.

There are many scenes in which we are gently laughing with them at the sometimes ridiculous situations they find themselves in. Young-Chan lives with a quiet dignity, but tackles many tasks which may seem silly to the outside world. His elegant approach and ability to laugh at himself makes us only want to cheer him on. There is a wonderful scene towards the beginning in which she notices the light bulb in their bedroom has gone out. She tries to stand on the bed to reach it but she is so tiny that there are still 2 meters between her and the fixture. He then stands on the bed and she gets on his shoulders, but that dissolves into laughter and collapsing on the bed. The only possibility is him changing the bulb, but this is not a simple arrangement. It is a complicated circular fluorescent bulb with two connections. Once he gets it out, she writes down very carefully the details before going out to replace it while he waits patiently at home. When she returns, he tears eagerly into the package and then they’re back at it. He does what he can by touch, but when he’s not sure of the next step, he has to bring his hands down so she can tap directions on his fingers. When it finally seems correct, he gets down and we all hold our breath as she flicks the switch… nothing. But it’s fluorescent, and takes two seconds to flicker on. When it does, the entire audience clapped in relief and congratulations.

On the website, if you click on “Media” and then on “Clips,” you can watch another charming excerpt on the top left. They go to the park and he hugs a tree. She asks him what he’s doing, and he replies, “Talking to the tree.” “Is it fun?” “Yes, we’re dating.” How sweet is that?

We see him sledding, swimming, getting buried in the sand at the beach, examining the raindrops. He says in a voiceover while sledding, “I have never seen a starry night. But that does not mean that I don’t believe in their existence.” He is a poet, typing away incessantly on his Braille machine and we see his anticipation over an essay contest that he has entered. Many of the beautifully filmed sequences are accompanied by his voice reading his own poetry.

If I go on, there will be no reason for you to go see this movie and everyone needs to see it. I saw this four days ago and haven’t been able to shake it; it is by far the best movie I’ve ever seen at IDFA. Please, go out and find it. And let me know what you think.


Breaking news: Planet of Snail won Best Documentary at IDFA this year. And to think I just went because it was one of the few that wasn’t sold out! Glad to see others shared my opinion.