Cast: Oliver Laxe
Director: Ben Rivers
Runtime: 98 min.
Genre: Experimental, Drama
We have a desert, and we have a few cars driving through. There is another mini-vehicle seemingly filming them and giving them directions. Obviously we are watching this whole thing. But when the figure of Mr. Oliver Laxe narrates a riddle against a backdrop of white, and the next cut to what seems like a white desert (Sahara) is so hard and the match on the color so true that one feels Mr. Laxe practically vanishes. We see three figures walking across the desert and the screen, in what seems like black hooded dresses, humming some folk song, and the whole moment has narrative written all over it. They walk slowly, as a tribe would, for civilization (especially urban) is aggressive. More so against nature. We create a perception. Mr. Rivers gives us a cut. To a guy singing some folk song, and this time around his hooded robe is just plain sandy brown with some design. Not reductive black. When he completes his song, the camera pans down and the guy gives a thumbs up. Now, I believe a thumbs up is essentially European, and at the very least a symbol of a civilization that just doesn’t sit well with these slow-moving folk-singing tribes. So yeah, we have our first anachronism. You see, there is always the unmistakable air of privilege that walks with the agent of civilization. I traveled once to this village in Konkan, some 50 odd km from Pune, as part of a NGO team, carrying Dettol soaps. We spent a few hours there discussing with those people on how to educate their kids and how necessary it was to have a good bath, and preferably with those Dettol soaps, which we gratuitously distributed. Those folks were watching us do our thing, while we were conducting ourselves. Between our dressing and our confident demeanor and the very fact that we had “invaded” their territory and were “concerned” about their way of living, we had “privileged” written all over us. I was acutely aware of this tension, and in no small measure disgusted by it. There was a certain sense of lack, if you will, on the part of the villagers, just as was will those sex-workers in Kamathipura when Ms. Ashley Judd paid them a missionary (not catholic, but AIDS awareness) visit a few years back. There was guilt too, probably on my part, and if you were to imagine my predicament, you would have essentially two sets of eyes – one watching us, and one watching “them” watching us. The otherification is probably inevitable. What is essential though is the affirmation of the identities, because for us to be us they need to be them. This staging though is alright inasmuch as we are lost in our performance of privilege as agents of culture and unaware of any other set of eyes other than the one intently listening to us. The expectation is that Ms. Judd speaks about AIDS and the sex workers listen, or the sex workers speak about their lack of knowledges and maybe even their plight and Ms. Judd listens. But, if we have an alternate set of eyes intently looking at this conversation being performed, and the camera is distracted by it we probably have something of a breakdown.
A simple variation is where the tribe performs the rituals while we/agents arrive to “understand” the alien culture, and approximate it. The agents remain in their privileged position of anthropologists (filmmakers/documentarists) and connoisseurs of rituals as long as they are performed. But if one of them throws a thumbs up, or say flips-a-bird, or say just turns around and starts watching the camera or starts watching the agents watch the ritual, you have a Matrix-like anomaly to the proceedings. The reductive narrative of the ritual doesn’t align any longer, and one is acutely aware of the disruption in the whole dynamic. We are watching them watching us. Just as the sanctity, or let us say efficacy, of the missionary’s rite is disturbed, the filmmaker’s rite – i.e. filmmaking – goes for a toss too. I mean, broadly speaking, filmmaking would mostly contain less of a “capture” (don’t so many filmmakers love that word?) and more of a restaging of events so as to validate them as the established truth, and more importantly use that truth to underline the essential difference between the one filming and the one being filmed. The agent of civilization has the right to stare, while the performer (tribe) has the duty to perform. You could say, it is exploitation of a different nature. I will say, just about now, I guess, the opening shots of the cars and the film-crew feels like an essential afterthought to homogenize narratively the dissonance that follows next.
Let me describe the dissonance, and then arrive at the whole description from an extremely literal point-of-view. While the author is effectively “wiped-out” from the screen, instead replacing it with a white desert with folks dressed in black we have an eye (camera, perspective) that is finding a space (real, mythic) which can affirm the identity of the subject, thus confirming the identity of the observer. Those folks sing, and they are a homogenized spectacle, if you will. Homogenized by the music of that song, I suspect, and Mr. Rivers seems to be searching for that one true note not only in the space but in the sounds too. The note of affirmation. But it all feels labored, the strain already felt (just as I am searching for that one key moment for transformation). You see, I haven’t seen much of Mr. Rivers and the tension between his rejection of the material as straight up representation is pretty evident in the manner in which an alternate meta-camera (as in the opening scene) watches the other performers watching the filmmaking unfold. But is it arrived at here, in Morocco, while making The Sky Trembles, or if it had already been arrived at, as if declaring that this is just a necessary state of affairs, I don’t know.
A main actor yells – “The Sheik has gone” – while others sit and watch and laugh. While the fiction cinema tries to pretend to be some kind of ethnographic documentary, there is the third eye trying to make sense of this tableaux, this dynamic between the agent the tribesman and the unwritten/unmentioned deal to maintain the illusion while it breaks down. We see a ritual being performed over a dead body, at a comfortable distance, and there is a certain degree of harmony there between the observer and the performer. But Mr. River cuts to a boy, seeing us seeing them, and the harmony is disturbed. Are we capturing a ritual, or are we seeing a performance? And if the latter is essentially symbolic in nature (and not real), would it be better served both aesthetically and morally to indeed simulate the whole ritual by means of a fake dead body (for some reason there are empty plastic bottles which will make an anachronistic entry later), and by reenacting the whole tableaux including asking the little boy to see us see the ritual again? Will that compensate? Will it find the point of truth? We are in a Charlie Kauffman kind of a self-reflexive environment trying to ascertain what is feeding of what, and I feel the need to share this amusing gif just to approximate the whole dynamic. For the whole of the initial section, that little girl is us.
Mr. Rivers isn’t having much luck finding the one musical note either that gives his film that point of truth it is looking for in this land. It is fake all around, and acutely aware of it. The lines spoken by the actors (natives) do not satisfy the filmmaker’s references. The subtitles aren’t present and we aren’t sure whether what is being spoken has any meaning. It is just inconsequential sounds. While the folk songs try and create for immersive homogenized cinema, even in long shots where folks climb down/up a hill, the spell is broken whenever we hear every day noises causing us to appreciate the diversity within this setting and the utter failure of any homogenizing endeavor, the disillusionment towards which is complete when an accident and a crowd and several vehicles on a tar road seem to provide the kind of organic material (with blood? A symbol?) that Mr. Rivers is searching for in the desert.
Now I hope you understand the predicament here, and I seem to have spent a whole lot of words describing it. But just to give a point of reference, who I believe is Mr. Rivers’, or for that matter the filmmaker’s (here, played by Mr. Laxe) brother from another mother – Mr. Quentin Tarantino – we need to imagine how he probably would have felt staging his alternate-history ritual in Django Unchained through genre-tropes. Is he actualizing/rewriting the history via the fantasy of representational/fictional cinema? Is he aware that his set of eyes viewing and rewriting history are just as important as the narrative involving the black Django? I suspect he is, acutely so as a matter of fact, and he releases this tension (partly as a variation of the above, partly as identifying himself as the representation of a white man) by inserting himself as a performer to be given equal opportunity to be exploited by history/cinema/narrative/ritual and thereby literally exploding (read: purging) out of it.
The filmmaker, probably disillusioned by the efficacy of filmmaking as a tool to find the point of truth to complete/affirm the truth, seems to walk away assuming the role of a white man in search of the territory on his own, in a truck, leaving behind his film and allowing himself to be an object in Mr. Rivers’. The tension is greatly eased, it is just his eye lost in the reality of kids playing soccer and a girl clanking rocks against each other pursued by Mr. Rivers’ camera, gears click, and the adaptation of Mr. Bowles’ A Distant Episode follows. The filmmaker’s tongue is sliced (his language, the basic unit of any culture is taken away), and by covering his entire body in a robe of tin can lids, he is just as much a performer as the natives are in their black hooded robes. The whole dynamic is now reduced to an easy binary – them versus him – and the accentuation of the otherification of the natives only serves to emphasize the truth in the narrative – of a white man captured in a foreign land, exploited and sold as a slave. The story is now about him, as it always was, for it never could be about them. Ethnography gives way to fiction, or maybe something even more, say a snuff film, and when we see the filmmaker running away from it all, from his own narrative, from this space he came to let us culturally approximate, we know it is nigh impossible. It might be terribly symbolic, maybe a tad poetic when we think of it against the opening shot, but for some reason, I find the utter helplessness a tad moving.