This a review of a film thread in two parts. It originally ran during the Inverness Film Festival back in November so the first two films that are covered are films that I saw during the festival. The second two films were shown in January this year, films that I wanted to see but that I couldn’t schedule in because they clashed with other commitments. As I’ve previously noted here, I tend to pick my films during the festival based on what I think it’ll be my only opportunity to see. However, Eden Court does seem to use the festival as a test screening for lots of films, so if a film sells out at the festival they usually get it back. While I knew they were getting Eagle Huntress back – the one single film that most people have asked if I saw, or expressed disappointment that they missed seeing, at the festival – but I was surprised and pleased to see Black Hen make a second appearance.
Paths of the Soul/Kang Ripoche
Is a lovely meditative film about going on a pilgrimage. It’s not clear watching the film, whether this is a documentary or a drama and it appears that the lines have been intentionally blurred. (Perhaps as a side effect of the compromises required getting a film so explicitly about spirituality in Tibet past the Chinese censors.) If they’re acting then it’s the most method performance I’ve ever seen.
Not being of any particular religious persuasion, I’d never really given a lot of thought to the physicality of going on a spiritual pilgrimage. Essentially just going on a very long walk to a significant place, which, like any epic journey, gives you plenty of time to reassess your life and place in the universe. Physically tasking but easily comprehensible. Apparently not in Tibet! When the blurb talked about physical pain, I imagined blisters and sores from walking for hundreds of miles in all weathers. Walking is the very least of it. Early on there are fascinating scenes where the pilgrims prepare their equipment, the long aprons of animal skin, the wooden paddles that they wear on their hands. And then they walk, prostrating themselves every few metres in prayer.
There’s something gloriously pragmatic about this act of devotion, tilling fields as payment for food and shelter, washing cars and taking labour jobs when they run out of money. Even the decision to go on the pilgrimage is made without fanfare, several quiet discussions about who will go and why, with each discussion setting off others until the group is formed.
Is far and away the bleakest film in the series. Whereas all the other films, while showing considerable hardship and poverty, also find a great deal of joy and hope in the lives of the people they portray, Zud is fairly consistently bleak.
Set on the Mongolian Steppe, after the loss of much of his parents livestock, young Sukhbat is pulled out of school and given the responsibility of breaking a wild horse in order to race him, in a last ditch attempt to turn the family’s fortunes around. Ultimately I think the film is trying to say something about the clash of tradition and modernity, or the way that despite the march of progress, subsistence farming is still a brutal way of life. However, it was gloomy to the point of grim and something of an exhausting viewing experience.
The Black Hen/Kalo Pothi
Is a sweet, episodic film about innocence, friendship across cast lines, loss and growing up. Oh, and chickens as a vital source of food, currency and status.
The film has a constant undercurrent of vague threat. Being set during the recent Nepalese Civil War/Maoist Insurgency. There are Maoists lurking about on the edges of the film, but they’re very much an ambiguous presence for most of the film. (The only time we see actual violence, the boys are explicitly somewhere that they shouldn’t be – to the extent that they’ve been warned off by soldiers at a check point – even the one kidnapping is a fairly bloodless affair.) The passing bands of government soldiers appear equally if not more threatening to day-to-day life. The film ends on some stark facts and figures about death tolls, refugees and child soldiers, but the only young people we see actually recruited seem to go willingly – Prakash’s sister seems more motivated by the desire to have a regular wages to support her younger brother. In fact as the film progresses and we see more and more the hardships and indignities that Prakash has to endure because he’s an ‘untouchable’ her decision to join the Maoists seems increasingly understandable.
The Eagle Huntress
The Eagle Huntress is an oddly charming little documentary film. At first it seems like it might be one of those clichéd ethnographical efforts that fetishize a ‘lost’ or ‘dying’ way of life. But instead we’re taken right into the action; the protagonists talk to each other and the camera with a frank and disarming honesty. The film is both a delightful coming of age story and a sweet father-daughter bonding adventure.
One of the best parts of this documentary, as a document of these people and their lives is the way it portrays normal life for them. The practicalities of their existence. The stolid acceptance that this is the way their life is now. (The children all stay in dormitories at the school during the week as they live too scattered and nomadic lives to be able to travel to school each day. The deep sibling-like bonds between the girls formed by having grown up together like this.) The combination of the traditional and the modern – trucks with hand crank engines, solar panels to run electricity off, the transistor radio that is the centre of their connection to the outside world – and the way those intertwine with each other. Modern thermal base layers under more traditional garments, the way they seem to have taken what they need from the modern world and used it to preserve their nomadic way of life.
(I like the way the film carefully phrases her status among the other Eagle Hunters. She is the first woman to compete in that particular competition, but they carefully do not call her the first woman to be an Eagle Huntress. The phrasing suggests a fine line being walked, that enough people have suggested there have been others, whether or not they have been acknowledged as such. An acknowledgement of sorts that they can’t prove they existed but they had enough reason to suspect they did and don’t want to erase them if they did.)
I have to wonder, given the focus on her femininity, the little details of her messily painted nails, her long hair and the hair ornaments, at whether previous Eagle Huntresses have always just pretended to be boys. There’s something defiantly girly about the way she presents herself. There’s a telling little exchange between Aisholpan and her mother, her mother commenting that they should have cut her hair shorter, and Aisholpan assuring her that its fine, because she has girl hair. There seems a wealth of unspoken subtext there, not least a determination that she’s not going to pretend that she isn’t a girl. There’s something determinedly ordinary about how she’s portrayed in the film, yes she’s physically strong and tough but that’s a product of the life she lives. She walks a fine line of being both deferential and defiant in her attitude to her fellow hunters. There’s something about the way she stands at the competition registration table, surrounded by all these men, head and shoulders taller than her, that little raise of her eyebrow at the ‘young girl’ comment combined with a placid smile. There’s something, delightfully unsophisticated about the way she expresses her emotions, her open affection for her bird, her honesty about her nerves before the competition, her infectious joy at her successes and her raw frustration at her struggles hunting in the wild.
The old men, the elders of the sport, are so ridiculously stereotypical in their responses to her existence. It’s not remotely difficult to see why she might struggle to take their approbation seriously. It’s all too easy to imagine them in another documentary complaining about how young people don’t want to take up their traditions. Their sour grapes response to her success makes her victories taste all the sweeter to the viewer at home.