There were about twenty people at this screening, a few of which were probably from the movie’s production team. I know for a fact that about ten or so in the audience were press-pass carrying reviewers like myself, so this rare movie cannot have attracted more than a very small handful of paying customers. Which is a great shame, for Bardsongs was hands down the most positive surprise of the CPH PIX film festival, and it deserves a vast audience.
From the description in the festival book, I did not know what to make of it, and I actually nearly skipped it. I am relieved that I decided to attend it. It consists of three segments. Each is a story based on a folk song from a non-Western culture. A local group or singer performs the songs, and for about half an hour each, the story of the song is acted out by the locals of the given culture, interspersed with the music. Both the stories and the music are, in a word, amazing.
The first story is a Hindu story and takes place in a big Indian city. It is a rather more nuanced account of karma than is usually heard. A man has one camel and one son, and various misfortunes befall them. But in every case, the situation is turned into something positive. As the man tells his skeptical fellow townspeople, it is too soon to tell whether this is bad luck; it might turn around. And so it does, in both directions, multiple times. The popular version of karma is that, if you do something bad, something bad will also happen to you. I.e. if something bad happens to you, it is because you have somehow deserved it. This story refuses to acknowledge that, and thereby provides intelligent insights into the haphazard ways of fortune and misfortune.
The second story takes place in Muslim Mali, Africa, in the town of Djenné. A bright 10-year-old schoolboy is given an intellectual task that he must fulfill in order to pass on to the next grade. He must find the answer to the question, “What is the largest part of knowledge?”. He is given seven days to discover the answer, by asking all sorts of people in the town. He seeks out a blacksmith, a fisherman, a builder, even white tourists – they all give him different answers. Saying anything more would be spoiling.
The third and very much the best and most complex of the three stories (also in terms of music) is a Buddhist story, set in a village in a borderland part of India called Ladakh. It is about a man who never listens to his own judgment, but always to that of others. When a dzo (a rare hybrid between a cow and a yak) is born to his household, everybody urges him to sell it in order to buy a mobile phone, as he is one of the last people in the village who does not yet have one. So he and his adult daughter take the dzo and trek for days to a bigger town with a market place. The story is about what happens on the way. Other people are constantly offering their (often conflicting) opinions about how they should go about things. As the man listens to them all, and the journey becomes stranger and stranger, his daughter grows more and more annoyed with him. Finally, of course, the man learns that it is sometimes better to follow your own inclinations rather than uncritically give in to those of others.
All three stories are incredibly atmospheric; warm, powerful, earthy, and supremely enjoyable. The directing is as tight as it is delicate, conjuring up the ethnic tales of ancient oral tradition (spiced up with a few modern elements) with joviality and great sensitivity to the native wisdom of these cultures.
The director, Sander Francken from the Netherlands, was present to say a bit about the making of the movie. He was inspired to do it by pictures he saw of the Mali town of Djenné ten years ago, and by his love of world music. Because of language barriers, the actors, which are all culled from the local population in each place, had to be closely coached for each scene. In Mali, the catering was such a “success” with the locals that the Dutch crew sometimes had to go hungry. Francken also has a couple more songs and stories he would like to do, but unless this movie becomes a significant success, he is not going to be able to. Getting this movie done was an enormous amount of work, and it has not even been possible to show it to all the actors yet. I, for one, would like to do my part to spread the word about this wonderful production which deserves wider distribution. Seek it out where you can. I know I will seize the chance to see it again if any opportunity comes along.
Director: Sander Francken
Cast: Abba Bilancoro, Kolado Bocoum, Dhamender Singh, Kishan Soni, Tsewang Spalgon, Deachen Yangdol and others
Runtime: 94 min.
Country: The Netherlands