ON THE GO:
PORTRAITS ON THE PERIPHERY OF THE WORLD
VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
September 23 - October 11, 2002
Vancouver, B.C., Canada
A THOUSAND AND ONE VOICES: THE MUSIC OF ISLAM
Directed by Mahmoud ben Mahmoud (France, 2001)
COFFEE, TEA OR ME?
Directed by Brita McVeigh (New Zealand, 2002)
Directed by Takeshi Kitano (Japan, 2002)
FAITH, LOVE AND CHARITY
Directed by Katrine Borre (Denmark, 2001)
Directed by Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair (UK, 2002)
Directed by Rodrigue Jean (Canada, 2002)
Author Pico Iyer writes about the literal restlessness – and by extension – rootlessness of many individuals around the world in "The Global Soul." The nomadic "global souls," as Iyer describes, are either individuals or travelers whose identities are blurred without figurative or real borders like nationality, language or distinctive cultural affiliation. Given that he is observing a social phenomenon of cultural significance, as globalization has swelled in the past decade, some filmmakers might be responding to this shift by producing personal works that riff on travel and traveling in road movie, travelogue and narrative documentary.
Although road movies have become so institutionalized as a genre of discovery and a metaphorical narrative for everything from philosophical musings about life and death to the banality of existence, a handful of films at the Vancouver International Film Festival revealed fresh perspectives about travel that defy the genre's routine storytelling. In the festival's documentaries and fictional works, the emphasis is on the personal – characters and people whose intimate obsessions express desire and anxiety, longing and loss. Unlike Pico Iyer's "global souls," the people in these films are impressionable portraits on the periphery of the global and the blurring scenery of location and imagination. As narrators, characters and subjects in these new films, their corporal and cultural boundaries might be somewhat blended, but they also have stirred and not shaken identities. And getting there is only part of the story.
Danish filmmaker Katrine Borre, in her personal video documentary Pigen I Havnen (Faith, Love and Charity), expresses her modest and bittersweet passion for commercial sailors visiting her hometown Århus at Christmas time. Steeped in Århus' rain-soaked foggy harbor, freighters and oil tankers trade shipping cargo and supplies at this busy industrial port. Sailors – from Burma, the Philippines, South Africa, Russia and elsewhere – stay for a few days and work steadily, and then move on to the next destination. Borre wears her attraction on her sleeve confiding that she's drawn to the seafarer archetype: men sailing to exotic ports and sharing tall stories with their mates, with strangers and with loved ones at home. Faith, Love and Charity emerges as a personal exploration, albeit a timid and coveted one, documenting Borre's attraction to sailors.
Introducing the film, her camera lens splattered with silver raindrops on a gray windswept morning, she felt that it was "do or die time" to act on her desire to meet sailors on their ships in port, and to act as a documentarian to pursue her subject. Borre, who once had youthful brush with sailor romance long ago, rekindles that memory in the opening scenes and explains why she is making this film. With camera in hand and a cell phone in her coat pocket (in case of trouble), she enters a Pakistani ship in port unannounced and meets the men aboard. Blankly, they look at her with perplexed expressions. One sailor escorts her down narrow hallways towards the sleeping quarters and shows him his small private room where he reads and sleeps. And so begins Borre's Christmas card portrait of the men she meets on Århus' waterfront docks. Although Borre is anchored at home in Denmark, she dreams of a day to be a sailor drifting to faraway locations like the men she happily meets in her film.
Faith, Love and Charity threads together a personal narrative combining travel, desire and obsession similarly shared with other films screened at the fest. Whereas the sailors' rootlessness and independence is romanticized in Faith, Love and Charity, Brita McVeigh's documentary Coffee, Tea or Me? soberly, but also humorously, looks at the changing social role of female flight attendants working in New Zealand from the early 1960s to the 1980s. Domestic and international air travel increased in New Zealand, and so did the need for airline work. Young women just out of high school and college were encouraged to work for local airlines, and ultimately became part of the national tourist image as perfectly coiffed "air hostesses."
As the 1960s progressed, music, fashion and lifestyle changes affected New Zealand's airline industry both inside and out. The "trolley dollies," as they became known, were dressed in stunning and slightly campy Christian Dior uniforms reflecting the flamboyant mood of the decade. Emerging social changes such as the women's movement and pop music culture shaped and influenced the young women who jetted across the Pacific to Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii and Los Angeles. Shorter skirt hemlines might have suggested a playful uniform style in the burgeoning free-love era, but self-awareness and gender politics had created shifts in ways that fashion styles had not. Although women in the airline industry found new confidence in social change, it was often reduced in the company of men. Veteran flight attendants interviewed in the film mentioned the running joke of stuffing luggage in overhead bins for male travelers, and flight stewards wanting to catch sight of an airhostess' rear end.
Coffee, Tea or Me? also takes a substantial look beyond the surface trends in the airline industry. By the Seventies, some women who outgrew their youth and waistlines, or those who married were fired. Others found themselves with careers in the airline industry, not just an interim job in the sky. And while sexual harassment was common but not impeded by policy, many female flight attendants pursued unionization to address pressing concerns like unequal pay and benefits, and later brought a class action suit against the airlines to address these issues. Their legal battles, marred at times with corporate blacklisting and in some cases, the threat of violence, represents an arduous struggle to improve standards for women working as flight attendants in New Zealand – a struggle that wasn't completely resolved until the mid-1980s.
Both A Thousand and One Voices: The Music of Islam and London Orbital depict their filmmakers' personal travelogues in pursuit of their subjects. Directed by Mahmoud ben Mahmoud, A Thousand and One Voices traces the sacred music traditions throughout the modern Islamic world. After his father's death, ben Mahmoud later became curious about his father's participation in a Tunisian sanctuary, ben Mahmoud travels to the sanctuary and explores its mysterious and musical past. He learns that Islamic practitioners like his father chanted and sang devotional songs rooted in Sufi music traditions widely common in India and Pakistan. Unlike other religions, Islam does not have a prescribed devotional music; song, dance and music emerged from religious faithful, and historically adopted a meditation chanting style practiced among Tibetan and Buddhist monks. Ben Mahmoud's curiosity and interest takes him across the Middle East and Africa to Cairo at an Islamic university where students learn to deliver muezzin calls to prayer, and to a grand mosque where men express rhythmic incantations of "Allah." His travels also take him to Pakistan and India to witness the hypnotic performances of popular Sufi chants and musicians; to the once-banned flights of whirling dervishes in Istanbul; and to observe the invigorating litanies of African Muslims in Senegal.
London Orbital, by contrast, is anti-travelogue, inspired by Iain Sinclair's book of the same name. Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit's film London Orbital is a video document and cultural survey of the M25, a massive public works project completed in 1986. The M25 – a circular highway that revolves around London – traverses a geography where time is irrelevant; there is only the past and the future. And where, as author J.G. Ballard puts it: "the future is boring."
Screened at the VIFF for its North American premiere, London Orbital tries to capture the perpetual tyranny and boredom of the M25. Petit explains, by way of contrast, that highways in America are linear and head towards something. The M25 cannot head towards anything; it is a bypass designed to conveniently orbit London. Retracing Sinclair's walks along the M25 by car, Petit and Sinclair also enlist the help of friends – artists, photographers, writers and historians – to document and observe the endless circular road. One experiments with a video portal strategically positioned to capture a snapshot of the endless highway. Trucks and cars quickly pass through the lens in rhythms that induce meditation.
Petit collages together the profane and mundane facts, history and other errata in an effort to bring the M25 full circle. Historical references to Bram Stoker's "Dracula" and London's sprawling mental institutions in the edge districts near the highway are interesting elements in his narrative. Coupled with video images of rain-smeared traffic at dusk, his anecdotes sound as if they are read from a Burroughs essay about the highway. Later he remarks that after September 11, 2001, people flocked to Bluewater, a huge shopping mall adjacent to the M25. They came, he said, to shop and eat fast food; "America without the hassle" – spurred by terrorist fears abroad. With its turnabout meander, the M25's imposing tunnel vision refracted through Petit's lens presents the filmmaker with the ultimate obstacle: the perfect shot. As he drives along the highway in all weather and all times of day, he declares with resignation, "The M25 is anti-cinema."
Takeshi Kitano's latest film Dolls and Rodrigue Jean's Yellowknife both articulate the dramatic folly of obsession in films that make compelling use of the "road movie" genre. Dolls – perhaps Kitano's least violent work – is a complete departure from his earlier knife-edged yakuza films like his celebrated Kikujiro, Brother and Fireworks. Three distinct vignettes are interwoven with different characters that pursue obsessive, yet unrequited, love. The film opens with a comic-operatic doll theater performance that frames the film's thematic context about the fragility of love and human desire.
One story follows the "hungry beggars" throughout the film. A young man abandons his wedding ceremony engagement with his company manager's daughter upon learning that his distraught former girlfriend tried to commit suicide. He kidnaps her from her hospital stay, and tries to revive their previous bond broken by his marriage plans. Together, homeless, they wander through Japan linked together with rope through the changing seasons.
A young traffic policeman fanatically in love with a perky J-pop star becomes morbidly saddened when he learns she was disfigured in a car accident. Afraid to see the beautiful singer's malformed face, he horribly makes himself blind at his own hands, but makes a solo pilgrimage to the reclusive pop singer who finds herself at the end of a successful career.
And an aged yakuza man confronts his romantic past in a city park where a former girlfriend vowed to wait for his return at lunchtime every Saturday afternoon. Although the years have flown by, her dedication and steadfast loyalty was shown as bittersweet longing for an anticipated reunion. Recalling her fondest dreams for that day to happen, he finds her in the park with a box lunch in hand on the same park bench they shared years ago. Not recognizing him, she explains she is waiting for a special friend to show up, but concedes that her friend hasn't ever rejoined her, so she offers to share her lunch with him. After enjoying their lunch together in silence, he leaves without identifying himself, and walks away – getting gunned down on his way to his car.
Rodrigue Jean's Yellowknife maps obsessive desire and longing on a road trip across the Canadian North. This sex-istential drama brings together several characters traveling in the twilight demi-monde of neon-jeweled motels, male strip clubs and discos, and roadside diners. The catalyst for the trip is Max, who sneaks his sister Linda – possibly afflicted with manic-depression – out of a hospital in Moncton, New Brunswick, and is determined to make a new life for them in Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories.
Although it's unclear about the (inner) demons Max and Linda leave behind, the rugged north Canadian highway beckons them to hidden pleasures and uncertainty with the individuals they meet along the way. Max invites hitchhikers Bill and Billy, twin brothers who perform cowboy-studded strip shows in small town casinos and discos, to share the ride. Linda, however, is not content to make the trip with her brother's newfound friends, and tries everything she can to evade the gay stripping twins. Max, on the other hand, finds himself privately curious about their work, and with wide-eyed fascination watches their performance one evening at a roadside nightclub.
While Bill and Billy seem to allure Max's interest, Linda becomes more aggressively inert, wanting to withdraw from the milieu she finds herself in. The interpersonal friction between them escalates when they intersect with Johnny and his girlfriend Marlène, an older couple traveling in the same direction. Marlène, a torchlight disco diva performing her lounge act in small-town clubs, arouses Linda's interest to free herself from her brother's fraternal possessiveness.
All of their paths intersect along the way, stirring together overt and secret desires to break the tedium of travel and routine, but the imbalance of their triangular passions puts Max and Linda at odds with their focus and with each other. And what began as a cross-country trip to the Canadian West, becomes a volatile descent into sexually charged traps of mixed relationships.
Travel sparks obsessions on the road in Dolls, Yellow- knife, and Faith, Love and Charity at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival.