SXSW Film Festival 2013 | Day 1

SXSW2013FilmLogoMy catch of the day was Touba, an unconventional documentary on a subject of which I was completely unaware until seeing this film.



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On a rainy first day for the film section of South by Southwest, my catch of the day was an unconventional documentary on a subject of which I was completely unaware until seeing this film. That subject is the annual pilgrimage of members of the Sufi Muslim Mouride brotherhood to the city of Touba in Senegal, and the film is Touba, directed by Chai Vasarhelyi. The focus of the pilgrimage are several sites associated with Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, a 19th century Muslim leader also known as “the saint of Touba,” who was forced into exile by the French colonial government due to their fear that Islam would become a force to threaten their power. (They were right.)

The film’s structure is diffuse, and there’s very little in the way of a traditional documentary handholding in the sense of talking heads or explanatory voiceover. Instead, Vasarhelyi mainly presents footage of the pilgrims, with only a few title cards to explain the context. The result is you almost are sharing in the experience of the pilgrims, getting an eyeful of contemporary life in in Mali at the same time. She often superimposes readings of Bamba’s writings (in French) over film of the pilgrims, which creates a feeling of both serenity and aspiration. One of the pilgrims notes that Bamba made Islamic teachings more accessible to the Senegalese by expressing them in poetry, and in the national language of French rather than the Koranic language of Arabic.

Vasarhelyi also captures what I can only call “folk religious customs” practiced on this pilgrimage. For instance, there are many paintings and other images of Bamba and his mother, which seem to be venerated like images of the saints are in Catholicism—in fact, as a line of pilgrims passed by one of these images, touching it reverentially, all I could think of was Notre Dame and the “touchdown Jesus” image that players touch for good luck before games. Objects owned by Bamba are preserved like religious relics, and some of the pilgrims cite ulterior motives for the pilgrimage, believing it will help them find a husband, or to do well on their school exams.

I also really enjoyed Sake-Bomb, a sweet little film directed by Junya Sakino that crosses one film genre that I love, the road trip, with two I can usually do without, the romantic quest and the fish out of water. The story involves a shy Japanese fellow, Naoto (Gaku Hamada), who has recently been tapped to take over the sake plant where he works. Before he takes on this new responsibility, he wants to attend to a bit of unfinished business: tracking down an American woman he had a brief affair with several years ago. This quest brings him to Los Angeles, where his know-it-all American cousin, Sebastian (the stand-up comic Eugene Kim), whose only productive activity is making angry YouTube videos about Asian-American stereotypes, is ordered by his father to help Naoto track down his long-lost love. It’s very funny and very Japanese, particularly in the quiet and somewhat ambiguous way the story is resolved.

The Station, a documentary directed by Eve Orner, was more of a disappointment. It’s interesting for its subject matter—Tolo TV, the most popular television station in Afghanistan, and the family who created and runs it—but is so relentlessly and unquestioningly upbeat that it feels like a promo for the station. It’s long on self-congratulatory interviews with the Mohensi family, who returned from exile in Australia when the Taliban fell, but does offer an interesting look at the process of creating a Western-style television in a country with very different cultural traditions.

There are many interesting tidbits salted through The Station, and that alone makes it worth seeing if you have any interest in the contemporary situation in Afghanistan.  For instance, it’s mentioned in passing that one of the Tolo TV programs, Eagle 4, is financed by the United States and is intended to create positive images of the police force. Another, Real Life, offers up staged re-enactments of “positive stories,” in at least some cases to increase the Afghan people’s trust in their government. But the real contradictions between the circumstances of the affluent, western Mohensi family and that of the average Afghan person are shown in Bonu, a call-in program where women present their troubles to a female moderator and a male psychologist. The situations the callers describe are horrible—one woman describes being bit on the nose by her husband, who also deliberately burned their child on the leg—but the psychologist offers only advice aimed at preserving the marriage (cook your husband his favorite dinner) rather than leaving a bad and dangerous situation before it gets worse.

The story of Stephen Hawking is so well-known that you might wonder what is left to say about him. Hawking, directed by Stephen Finnigan, doesn’t so much offer new information as give it a new spin, interweaving Hawking’s incredible intellectual achievements with the parallel story of his physical deterioration. It’s largely narrated in Hawking’s own voice, and has the tone of a eulogy in recognition of the obvious fact that, at age 71, he can’t expect to go on beating the odds forever.

Hawking himself notes at one point that he may be more famous for his disability than for his scientific work (he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease related to ALS while in graduate school), but refuses to dwell on it. Both Hawking and one of the many talking heads who weigh in on his career suggest that his physical limitations may actually have fostered his scientific creativity, by forcing him to represent everything in his mind rather than being able to work things out on paper or on a computer screen. Hawking also remains a staunch atheist, noting that because he believes that we only get one life, the one spent here on this earth, that’s all the more reason to do the most you can with that life. | Sarah Boslaugh

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