Friday, April 13, 2007

Day 2 of 4 of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Today was a long day with the first film at Full Frame that we attended starting at 9a and my last film ending around 1a! In the first slot of films, we saw the short Metacarpus about human hands. The led to Nömadak Tx, a film that I previewed and wrote a review about that is running in the current issue of the magazine that I write for (and is included below). I love this film and the only thing more exciting than seeing it on the large screen was meeting the three filmmakers, with whom I've been emailing since I saw their film. We're supposed to all get together for dinner after the Festival ends on Sunday and they may jam (they played their txalaparta just after the film ended today!) with my wife, who is a sitarist.

My wife saw Angels in the Dust, a sad story about an orphanage in HIV-ravaged Johannesburg. I saw Leila Khaled: Hijacker and Promised Paradise. The first film is a documentary about the first woman to hijack a plane, which she did for Palestinian demands. It was very interesting to see her now, decades after two hijackings, as well as to see interviews with staff from the two hijacked planes. The second film was about a famous pupeteer in Indonesia who uses his performance art to question why people commit acts of terrorism, even confronting the Bali nightclub bomber in his jail cell; it was also well worth seeing.

We caught the beginning of The Last Days of Yasser Arafat, about an Australian reporter's attempts to interview Yasser Arafat before he died. We left to see Everything's Cool, a film that we loved about global warming and what the U.S. and its citizens could do about it. (One thing that frustrates me, however, about many environmental films and other material is that they usually seem to miss the elephant in the room - not eating a plant-based diet creates a bigger impact on our planet than automobile driving.)

I was disappointed that I was unable to interview Mira Nair, who was attending today and tomorrow; I had contacted her several months ago and the kind folks at the Festival were trying to arrange it, but she was just too busy. It would have been an excellent article for the magazine that I write for and I think would have helped the Festival draw more folks next year. We did attend her introduction to The Battle of Algiers, one of the most influential films on her craft (ten filmmakers are screening films of importance to them), and watched for about a half hour, but have recently seen the film (on the large screen, as well), so left to eat.

My wife went home but I came back and caught portions of Vietnam Romance, an animated film of video game clips about war in Vietnam that didn't appeal to me; films of Jen Cohen; and about a half hour of Larry Flynt: The Right to be Left Alone, an interesting look into the life of this very controversial man. I watched another film in the curated series, Do the Right Thing, this one introduced by St. Clair Bourne. It's a film that has been widely distributed, but one that I had never seen. It is, as expected from the director, Spike Lee, a hard-hitting social commentary on race.

My April 2007 review in Saathee Magazine of Nömadak Tx follows.

I sat down to see Nömadak Tx on DVD with little expectation, only knowing that it was a film about traveling percussionists. Music and travel – my interest was piqued. It is a road movie documentary of Igor Otxoa and Harkaitz Mtnez. de San Vicente of the Basque Country of northeastern Spain who take their ancient txalaparta percussion instrument to India, the Arctic Circle, Mongolia, Algeria, and the Saharan Desert, looking for native peoples in remote areas with whom they could integrate their talents through music, building bridges and relationships.

The txalaparta is a traditional wooden or stone percussive instrument said to be up to six thousand years old. Deeply resonant, it was used millenia ago as a means for villagers to communicate events into the countryside. Long boards are beat using sticks (makilak) by two performers (txalapartaris), one of whom maintains a fixed binary rhythm representing balance, while the other tries to break that balance with zero, one, or two beats in between. Reminiscent to me of the classical Indian sawal-jawab question-answer dialogue between tabla players, there is often some friendly competition with increasingly fast rhythms in an improvised musical encounter.

Txalapartaris were becoming increasingly rare with only a tiny number of peasants maintaining the tradition by the 1950s, before a resurgence of interest by folklorists in the 1960s. Contemporary musicians such as Otxoa and de San Vicente started experimenting with materials besides wood and stone, such as metal or even blocks of ice.

The film’s title, I learned from correspondence with one of the musicians, is simply a combination of the word meaning “nomadic” or “nomads” in the Basque language, along with the first two letters in the name of the instrument. And so we have a journey of this fascinating instrument, or at least its concept for it to be constructed anew onsite. During the opening credits, an interesting quote is presented that playing this instrument “and travelling are very similar. You do not know what will happen in either case.”

The film moves fast and keeps your attention right from the opening credits with dramatic photography. Interspersed with the credits we see the musicians creating a txalaparta, with closeups of saws cutting, sawdust flying. Throughout the film we hear txalaparta sounds.
As soon as the credits end, the film abruptly switches to Mumbai, the first stop on the road trip. As in each stop, we experience visuals and sounds of the local scene.

That the instrument is played by two is not incidental – it is an inherent part of the sense of “encounter” in the project that the film is part of, that of traveling as nomads with their traditional instrument in order to share, build bridges spanning communities, and form a meaningful cultural exchange, as well as experiment with new materials for the instrument. The whole is greater than the parts and, it is posited, one plus one ends up being greater than two, but the actual value cannot be predetermined. Adding to that mixture, the intent was to collaborate with traditional local artists, learning from each other in the genesis of compositions.

After working with Mumbai musicians and giving a concert, off the musicians go to the tribal lands of the Adivasis. The film lingers briefly when it needs to, but keeps on its nomadic quest. The editing reflects this combination of positive restlessness and purposeful striving – from a scene of traditional Adivasi music accompanied by singing of their cosmological ideas, we cut right to the nighttime catching of a train and then immediately to the bright daytime snowscape of the musicians on skis, creating music out of ice and performing for the Sámi (Laplander)
people of northern Scandinavia.

If nothing else, the film is an exciting travelogue accompanied by the unique rhythms of the txalaparta. It’s “cool” to see them clowning around in the Arctic and jumping into near freezing water after partaking of a sauna, as well as to watch them cutting ice blocks and shaving them just so in order to tune them. In the Sahara, it’s amazing to see them make their music out of desert stone.

Whether on the Mongol steppe, driving through Algeria, in the Arctic, or in urban or tribal India, seeing the musicians engineer versions of their instrument out of local natural materials and hearing the magnificently resonant sounds from it all is a feast of the senses. The musicians have a lot of fun on their travel and bring smiles to their coopted performers, their audiences, themselves, and, no doubt, their film viewers.

But the film is more than a travel film. We hear notes that strike both our ears and our hearts – there is an ancient wisdom that is being transmitted. One could argue that it is a gently meandering film of peace, an exercise reminding us that we have so much in common and yet so much to learn from each other.

The sharp editing cuts; mixture of human activity with that which is in nature; everyday sounds as well as those, sometimes haunting and primordial, that we hear from the txalaparta; and subtlety through which the film gently presents itself, all effectively further the goals of the work. In less talented hands, such artistry can actually backfire and result in a trivialized production with techniques being exposed for the sake of themselves and not to further a story or feeling, but it works superbly here.

I fully enjoyed this unique documentary film and am delighted that I had the opportunity to see it. Nömadak Tx is a joyful ride showing how music is universal and brings happiness and shared understanding. As enchanting as it was to see, I look forward to experiencing it on the large screen when it is shown at the Full Frame Festival in mid-April 2007 (I have another article on the Festival in this issue).

8 stars out of 10
Note: all pictures are from the filmmakers, who took them, and are used with their permission.


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