Two Transcendent Documentaries

in 2nd Mumbai International Film Festival

by Gowri Ramnarayan

The Mumbai International Film Festival of Documentary, Short and Animation films (MIFF 2004) was trounced by critics and jury members for the poor quality of its competition entries. But two documentary films which won multiple awards this year, transcended their socio-political import, to raise some disturbing questions about man’s inhumanity to man.

Supriyo Sen’s “Way Back Home” (India) and Adela Peeva’s “Whose is this Song?” (Bulgaria) had essentially the same themes, the horrors of religious fanaticism and ethnic conflict. Sen creates tender, poignant scenes when he takes his parents from India to their homeland in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Fifty years ago they had fled from their villages when the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan. The visit leads to the shattering realisation that the homeland is no longer real, it is an imaginary realm of memories.

In “Whose is this Song?” which won the Fipresci Prize at MIFF 2004, and the festival’s Silver Conch, Peeva shows the fires of hatred aflame in the Balkan nations.

The film makes a remarkable use of a simple device — a little folk song — to highlight subtle truths. A Turkish song in an Istanbul café is claimed by every friend at the dinner table, Greek, Macedonian, Turk and Serb, as belonging to his/her nation. But Peeva knows it is Bulgarian, wasn’t it part of her childhood? The ensuing fight motivates Peeva to undertake a journey through all those nations in search of the song’s origins. She stumbles across conflicting accounts. Some say it came from the Crusades, others insist that it is about Patsa who lived in a neighbouring village forty years ago.

As she wanders through the Balkan nations Peeva comes across many old men and women who remember the past. Pointing to a faded film poster a man says that the song had been sung by Zeki, a famous star of the 1960s. But now the actor and the film crew are no more, even the buildings in the picture are gone. “I am here, the sea is here, all the rest is memory.” The hunt leads to Albania and to a conductor who introduces her to his orchestra. Theresa the singer knows the song well. Recalling their sufferings in the wars she says, “We transformed our pain to strength, not depression.” In Bosnia she is told that the song is Bosnian, it brings the east and the west together, is cherished by Muslim, Greek Orthodox and Catholic alike. The plump singer with a traditional scarf scorns the notion of the song being Serbian. She sings only authentic traditional songs and of course this is one of them, a love song that says “I will wash you in dew, cover you in silk, and if I were a bird I would fly all over Bosnia”. That is the beloved motherland of people who “trust in God’s justice and pride in the Bosnian nation”.

In turn the tune becomes a lover’s idyll, a mother’s song, a call to muster jihad troops, a hymn to the almighty, a Dervish chant, and a sensuous gypsy strain. In the process a priest condemns the gypsification of his nation, a cab driver blames his people for being too preoccupied with history, and nationalists denounce the theft of their property, the song, by evil neighbours.

Twice the film maker is in danger of being assaulted. In a Serbian pub she realises that she has made a grave mistake in suggesting a Bosnian connection. In Bulgaria, at an annual outdoor celebrations of a national day, when she takes the same risk, the men get aggressive. Skinheads leaning on motor bikes announce that Turks and gypsies deserve to be killed, and an old man says that anyone who says the song belongs to Turkey is to be strung up on the tree before them and left to rot. The feast ends with a meadow ablaze and fireworks in the sky.

It is no use for the film maker to say that song and language should unite, not divide people. She has witnessed and recorded a simple folk song blazing a long trail of vengefulness. Her experience is so engrossing that viewers forget the humdrum visuals, lacklustre craft and limp style. The poor projection at MIFF killed whatever colour contrasts the film may have had. Peeva herself is nondescript on the screen. But there are moments when you know there is a design to it all, whether in a sudden change of expression on an interviewee’s face, the rapture in melodising a note, in the choice of a word — or when a huge nest of beaky waterfowl on the roof of a village house cuts into the field of vision.

From the unmistakeably local, the film becomes terrifyingly universal. And the Indian in me wonders, isn’t the tune like an old Bollywood song?