Cinequest 21: Bardsongs (playing Mar 12 7:15pm, Camera 12)
by Richard von Busack
Dutch director Sander Francken’s Bardsongs, a captivating trilogy of folktales, is a treat for the eye and ear. It’s what might be called a three part harmony of third world stories featuring some master musicians: a Rajastan stringed instrument player, a West African guitarist serenading a river at dusk, and a duet of singers in a tent in Ladakh near the Himalayas.
The stories they accompany, are in, sequence:
“The Plastic Collector”, a recycler’s tale of the cyclical wheel of fortune. The tale itself has been around before, a version of an anecdote told as a Zen story at Philip Seymour Hoffman at the end of Charlie Wilson’s War. It’s also summed up in the ancient Greek proverb “Call no man lucky who is not yet dead”. Recalling the critic Manny Farber’s review of Lawrence of Arabia (“the only interesting shape in the whole movie was a camel”) you have to rejoice at the way Francken and his team shoot these beasts, speeding along on native carts, or disappearing and returning as ungainly/beautiful symbols of good fortune.
It’s filmed in the so-called blue city of Jodhpur; seeing the pastel azure walls explains the nickname. The music is by Sakar Khan (playing the kamaichya) and his family.
Secondly, Francken takes us to the UNESCO world heritage site of Djenne in Mali, where a young boy seeks wisdom from the men around him at the mosque: blacksmiths, hunters and fishers who tell the boy of their crafts. Meanwhile, the griot Afel Bocoum narrates the story in music at the close of day near the riverside. Though he’s non-Moslem, Francken was allowed to shoot inside the astonishing mosque, an adobe palace that has been on the spot in one form or another for centuries.
Lastly, in desert Asia, a dispute over the fate of a draft animal (a patient dzo, a middle-sized cow/yak hybrid used for mule work) creates incidents that could have been seen in Aesop. The strife takes place in a road journey through the little known Tibet-like Ladakh area, which has only been open to outsiders since the 1970s. The Ladakhi musician Morup Namgyal wrote the tune (Namgyal’s daughter sings in duet with Tsering Stanzin).
Universality is Francken’s aim, and he achieves it without touristiness or the dullness that sometimes strikes an ethnographic documentary. Inviting to the eye as they are, these cultures are not shangri-las. The pressure of the outside world is palpable in all: the intrusion of war, of plastic bags, of motor vehicles, and, behind everything, general scarcity. Ultimately what’s been there for centuries may be as fleeting as a song in the wind. That’s what makes Bardsongs so worth seeing: the contrast of transience and permanence, of the eternal and the ephemeral.