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World Music film series (2000)

By Elijah Wald

With only five offerings, the Brattle Theatre’s “Celluloid Passport” program of world music on film is short on quantity, but its quality is high. A pioneering collaboration between the Beacon Cinema Group and the World Music concert series, it includes the two outstanding gems of the genre, “Latcho Drom” and “Flamenco;” two fine recent documentaries, “Genghis Blues” and “Buena Vista Social Club;” and the visually enthralling if somewhat misplaced and annoying “Baraka.”

The films are interesting not only for their themes, but for their varied approaches to capturing these themes on film. Given wonderful but potentially unfamiliar music, does one simply present it to the audience or should it be framed with commentary? Will one view music as an end in itself, or an avenue into a culture? Even, most fundamentally, what does one mean by a “music film?”

“Flamenco” and “Latcho Drom” come out on top in part because they are completely committed and faithful to the music they present. Neither has more than a few seconds of non-musical speech, trusting that the stirring, uncut performances will convey their messages without further explanation. “Flamenco” is particularly spare, and its tough, soulful purity of style perfectly matches its subject. Carlos Saura, Spain’s most respected director, simply brought some of the finest singers, dancers and musicians in contemporary flamenco together in a bare hall, then framed them with white backdrops and mirrors and filmed their performances. There are appearances by Paco de Lucia, Ketama, Carmen Linares, Enrique Morente, and dozens more, from aged masters to pre-teen students. The lighting and camera work is varied and striking, but always serves the artists, and they respond with an intimacy and power that is consistently captivating.

For those who think of flamenco as a music of flashy guitarists (or, heaven help us, the Gipsy Kings), this film will be a revelation. While blending older traditionalists with young innovators, it always puts the focus on soul rather than virtuosity. The singers steal the film, the camera lovingly exploring their faces as they cry out with ancient passion. The guitarists accompany them with fiery rhythms and understated accents. The dancers are sharp and graceful, whether old, fat teachers or slim, young modernists, and Saura’s play of light and shadow highlights their strengths. The greatest moments, though, are the most subtle, as when the camera homes in on the gold-toothed, knife-scarred face of Agujeta as he wails a searing a cappella lament.

Tony Gatliff’s “Latcho Drom” is similarly music-centered, but its scope is more ambitious. It is a history of the Rom, or Gypsies, starting from their roots in India and exploring the varied but similar cultures they have developed throughout Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Astoundingly, it succeeds inthis task without a hint of expository information. The viewer travels deep into the Romany culture and covers centuries of evolution, getting to know characters and feel the freedoms and pains of the wandering life and the racism and abuse that have faced the Rom for centuries, simply by following the music.

It does not take a musicologist to make the connections as one hears the wedding songs of Rajasthani nomads blend into an Egyptian party, an Istanbul tavern performance, and the Romanian village music of Taraf de Haidouks, then travel across Europe. And it is more than just music; Gatliff’s direction constantly draws parallels between the rhythms of the songs and of everyday life, from the footfalls that underly a boy’s a cappella road song at the film’s beginning to the scrape of a grinding wheel, the slap of a shoeshine brush or the hoofbeats of a horse. There are dark moments, as when an old woman sings of Auschwitz and the camera pans down to her tatooed camp number, and moments of exuberant joy. Unlike “Flamenco,” the film has no major stars, but by the time it has traveled through French Gypsy jazz to Spanish flamenco, it has provided a matchless overview of one of the world’s most fascinating and least understood peoples.

“Genghis Blues” and “Buena Vista,” both currently up for Best Documentary Oscars, are less ambitious, both musically and visually, but each has its unique charm. “Buena Vista,” of course, is the “world” sensation of the last decade, the film and record that introduced an international audience to the glories of classic Cuban pop music. Wim Wenders’ film is the most traditional in the Brattle series; while its photography is at times innovative, it is in the long line of music films by directors like Les Blanc, alternating musical segments with artist interviews and scenes from daily life. This can leave one feeling either educated and inspired or frustrated by the lack of complete musical performances, depending on taste. Lacking the stellar performances of “Flamenco” or the cultural depth of “Latcho Drom,” it still contains plenty of lovely music, and the chance to wander old Havana with the nonagenarian Compay Segundo or visit a recording session with Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo and Ry Cooder is ample compensation.

“Genghis Blues” is a far quirkier and more exciting venture: Brothers Roko and Adrian Belic, with cheap video cameras and a shoestring budget, set off to the Mongolian region of Tuva to film Paul Pena, a blind, depressed Cape Verdean-American blues singer, as he entered the biannual throat singing contest. Pena is a most unlikely protagonist, and the film is as much about his personal journey as about the music. The music is captivating enough, though: the Tuvans’ speciality is singing two or three notes at a time, a root tone and it’s whistling, dancing overtones. Pena’s fusion of this style with blues is surprisingly successful, and the friendship between him and the Tuvan master Kongar-ol Ondar grounds the odd events that spiral around them. Funny and touching, “Genghis Blues” was one of last year’s most surprising successes, as well as an effective introduction to the most foreign of foreign cultures.

As for “Baraka,” it has been hailed in some quarters as a transcendent masterpiece, but its sumptuous visuals will leave many people feeling bored and irritated. Furthermore, it is not in any serious sense a “world music” film, the music simply serving as a soundtrack and consisting of new age synthesizer compositions, sometimes blended with traditional ceremonial or “trance” styles. From Ron Fricke, director of the similarly visual-driven “Koyaanisqatsi,” its strength is the beauty of its images, which are uniformly breathtaking. Clouds swirl through rock spires, tattooed figures snake through lush jungles, and cars form speeded-up insect swarms as they negotiate big-city traffic patterns. Unfortunately, all of this is put in the service of a simplistic juxtaposition of primitive purity versus technological dehumanization, and endless attempts to force-feed us the questionable point that all cultures are fundamentally the same -- except Europeans, apparently, who are conspicuously absent. Fricke’s cinematic virtuosity is unarguable, but his thoroughly Western, highly technological medium undercuts the pancultural primitivist piety of his message.

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Mexican Experimental Cinema (2000)

By Elijah Wald

A conceptual art theft film; a post-modern ranchera music video; a comic deconstruction of English lessons, first grade primers, and television; bleak stories of peasant poverty and student protest; surrealist Buñuel and Buñuelian surrealism.

In terms of film, Mexico has been the most productive country in the Americas after the United States, but few people north of the Rio Grande have any idea of the breadth and variety of its offerings. Even in Mexico, most moviegoers know only of the most popular products: beautifully shot epics of the Revolution, sexy cabaret films, flamboyant ranchera musicals, cheesy wrestling-detective-adventure movies, and low-budget narco-action flicks, plus an occasional break-out success like “Chronos” or “Like Water For Chocolate.”

“Mexperimental Cinema: 60 Years of Avant-Garde Media Arts from Mexico,” a six-part series running tonight through Feb. 1 at the Harvard Film Archive, is an attempt to introduce the world to the hidden riches of Mexican film-making. Co-curators Rita González (who will introduce the series tonight and tomorrow) and Jesse Lerner have assembled an unprecedented collection of “experimental” film and video projects from the art scene that has flourished alongside -- and frequently in opposition to -- Mexico’s mainstream film world.

There is no way to describe all of the approaches and themes in the 28 films that make up the series, or even in the 17 that were viewed in advance. Except for Buñuel’s “Simon of the Desert” (Program 2), none will be familiar even to hardcore film buffs, and many have a wit, energy and imagination that deserve full reviews (though there are also a couple of brief exercises in bad lighting and boredom of the sort that give “art film” a bad name). Despite the promise of a 60-year survey, only a one-minute fragment from 1934 was released before 1960, but that still leaves four very productive decades to be explored. The programs are arranged around loose themes like “Mexicanidad” and “The City,” without regard to chronology, which makes for some odd and interesting segues.

The Mexican art world, like that of the United States, has often been caught in a tug of war between its unique regional character and its admiration for the sophistication of Europe. Some of its most intriguing moments come when it tries to reconcile or juxtapose the two, as in Rubén Gámez’s “La Formula Secreta” (“The Secret Formula,” in program 2: Mexicanidad). Clearly influenced by Buñuel, Gámez creates a nightmarish view of modern Mexico, in which a kiss is as brutal as the butchering of a cow. The film subverts the images familiar to foreign observers in sharply surrealist re-viewings of urban poverty, dashing desert horsemen, and Catholic faith. In one scene, the camera pans away from a poor peasant to a poetic shot of the desert panorama behind him, only to have the peasant insistently walk back into the frame and stand, staring back at the viewer. This is a period piece, looking a decade older than its 1965 date, but a striking one. (One caveat: though most of the film is choreographed to Vivaldi and Stravinsky, there are a couple of spoken word sections and no subtitles.)

At the other end of the Euro-Mexican face-off is the bitingly funny “Robarte el Arte” (“Steal Art,” in program 4: Day Tripping), a dadaist crime film from 1972, in which three Mexican artists pull off the conceptual robbery of a conceptual art exhibit in Germany. Shot in grainy black and white, and accompanied by a cinematic collage of press clippings, art theory, an archaic porn-murder film, Edward Albee and Gertrude Stein, the film-makers stride the European streets like Pancho Villa making a border raid on Western culture. Their Mexican-ness gives them outsider credentials, allowing them to get away with being gleefully irreverent and at the same time self-consciously arty. For bilinguals, the subtitling adds another layer of subversive humor: the English text alternately translates, comments on, or veers wildly away from the Spanish.

The artistic and counter-culture explosion of the late 1960s hit Mexican youth just as it did their peers in Europe and the United States, but in Mexico was repressed with tanks and massacres. This period provides the springboard for Program 6: “El Grito (The Cry),” a survey of leftist political films. Starting with three communiques from the 1968 student strike committee, it is a varied and impressive collection, running through 1995’s “Victimas del Pecado Neo-Liberal” (“Victims of Neo-Liberal Sin”), an agit-prop comedy recreating the assassinations of the Salinas presidency in the context of Mexican film cliches. The standout here is “Segunda Primera Matriz” (“Second First Womb”), a 1973 film by Alfredo Gurrola that travels from the creation of the universe through filmed births, a body-painted recreation of Adam and Eve, the arrival of the tanks, and the terrors of the nuclear age. Didactic as it sounds on paper, it is surprising and poetic on film, though the available video print is a bit washed out.

The political theme receives its most entertaining treatment in “Medias Mentiras” (“Half Lies,” with a pun on “Media,” in Program 1: Surveying the Terrain). Made in 1994 by Ximena Cuevas, who also directed Astrid Hadad’s hilariously bizarre music video in Program 2, it is a warped reaction to Mexican media mythology and that year’s Zapatista uprising. One does not have to be familiar with the vagaries of Mexican politics to appreciate the bite and humor of Cuevas’s critique, or her clever and imaginative technical choices. Her use of computer editing allows her to present an adept mix of black and white film and color video, as a woman’s drive through Mexico City frames footage of street scenes, and schoolbook illustrations of a Mexican family frame footage of President Zedillo, the Zapatistas, and 1940s movie stars. Bookended with excerpts from an English lesson and drenched in pop culture, this is a dazzling introduction to the contradicitory sensibilities of modern Mexico.

Along with the shorts, there are two feature films (neither viewed in advance): “Anti-Climax” (Program 4) is a 1969 exploration of youth culture by Gelsen Gas, one of the three co-creators of “Robarte el Arte,” and “Tequila” (by itself, as Program 5) is the 1991 return to film-making of the long-absent Rubén Gámez.

All in all, “Mexperimental Cinema” is very much a mixed bag, but the rarity of the material it presents counterbalances the varied quality of its offerings. With Latin American novels all over the bookstore shelves and Latin music flooding the record market, it is past time that film took a larger place in the mix.

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Genghis Blues interview

By Elijah Wald

When Roko and Adrian Belic set off to fund their first film, they had an immediate, rude awakening: “We applied to about 35 grant-giving institutions, and didn't get a single one,” Roko Belic says, on the phone from San Francisco. “People even laughed. They actually thought we were kidding.”

In a way, it was understandable. The Belics were 23 and 25, and were proposing to go to Tuva, a tiny region on the edge of Mongolia, and film Paul Pena, a blues singer no one had heard of, entering a competition for multi-note throat singing, the most obscure vocal technique on earth.

Four years later, “Genghis Blues” (at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge through Thursday) won the Audience Award at the Sundance film festival and went into theatrical release, garnering uniformly adulatory reviews. Which is to say, the Belics’ idea was as nutty as it sounded.

At least, that is how it seems as the film unfolds and one sees the crew they took off with, after painting houses to pay for airfare and a couple of Hi8 video cameras. There was their star, a bulky blind blues singer of Cape Verdean background who is a wonderful musician but has trouble getting around San Francisco, much less the wilds of Central Asia. Sound engineer Lemon DeGeorge was a tree surgeon who happened to be a friend of Pena’s. Then there was Mario Casetta, a lame, 74-year-old radio disc jockey along for the ride.

The group had been gathered by Ralph Leighton, who founded the Friends of Tuva organization with the late physicist Richard Feynmann, and the Belics had barely met them. “We basically got to know each other on the plane trip,” Belic says. “It was like trial by fire. For 48 hours we were going in and out of these Russian airports, mafia all over the place beating people up, trying to solicit bribes from us. We weren't sleeping, and so we really got to see what everybody was made of. And it clicked. Everything, somehow, was perfect. When I say perfect, I mean, of course, everything was going wrong all the time, but it was the perfect group to deal with it, and we loved it.”

It was a trip that Belic had been preparing for since childhood. His Czech immigrant mother had convinced her sons that their television was broken and could only get PBS, so they grew up on a diet of documentaries. At 17, Belic saw “Last Journey of a Genius,” a documentary on Feynmann and Tuva, and decided he had to go there. He studied Russian in college, and took a trip around the world that somehow failed to include Mongolia, then contacted Leighton, heard about Pena, and realized that he had the story of his dreams.

“I knew that Tuva itself would have some interesting subject matter,” he says. “As Ralph describes it, the people there are like cowboys and Indians rolled into one, still living in the wild East. But now we could use that simply as a backdrop for this even more amazing, unique, story of this one guy who was not like anybody else I'd ever heard of. I wanted to create a movie that two different types of people would appreciate. One would be the type that would be interested in an ethnographic film, the other would just be interested in the zany adventure, the deviations that are the fruit of life.”

There was also the music, the uncanny singing style that creates a flutelike overtone apparently out of thin air and the growling kargyraa technique that is Pena’s specialty. Then, Belic was fascinated in how one might use a visual medium to explore the experience of someone who could not see, though also intensely aware of the attendant responsibility.

“One of the first conversations that I had with Paul was, ‘I know you'll never be able to see this film, but please trust me I'll do a good job and I won't exploit anybody.' And he's an amazing guy. He had faith. He said, ‘I'm a wingwalker. I like to take risks, so yeah, let's go for it.’”

Belic wanted to capture not only the exotic locale and the interaction between Pena and the Tuvan master musician Kongar-ol Ondar, who hosted their visit, but also the more difficult and emotional side of the journey. Pena was thrilled to be in Tuva, but also disoriented. Subject to depression, he broke down at times, and Belic filmed the lows as well as the highs. Here, Belic says that Pena’s blindness actually made the filming easier.

“Usually, when an event starts to happen and people fire up the cameras, that changes the mood. With Paul, he didn't have that barrier. There were times when he was crying, and I couldn't say, ‘Hey Paul, do you mind if I turn the camera on?' because that's just tactless. So I would shoot it and as soon as the scene mellowed out a little bit I could say, ‘Paul, I hope you don't mind but I was recording that.' And he was cool with that.”

As Belic talks about the journey, it at times sounds grueling. Their equipment was so minimal that DeGeorge had to tape his microphone to a broomstick for a boom. Two crew members had to be hospitalized, Pena almost withdrew from the singing competition, and a camera malfunction left them with three days of useless footage.

Belic, though, chose to turn all of this to his advantage. “Having grown up watching documentaries, I was sometimes annoyed because there was a barrier between my knowledge and the knowledge of this omniscient narrator. You know, you'd hear some guy's perfect English voice, [talking about] zebras in Africa, and you didn't really feel like you were there. I wanted to know the whole story, and not just this one guy's point of view.”

His solution was to be open about the crew’s inexperience, the minimal equipment, and the general looseness of the whole venture. “It's like there's a line when Paul was nervous before he went on stage for the first time, and Lemon says, ‘Paul, you just got to get up there and kick ass, because you're an American and you’re coming to Tuva.' And that's funny, because it's so pedestrian. I really wanted to infuse that kind of spirit into the project.”

Once filming was completed, Belic holed up for four years with a borrowed editing system. Once again he was winging it, learning as he went, but he says he had very few doubts about the final result. “I thought, man, if nobody wants to see this thing, I’m losing faith in humanity. I mean, if people don’t care about this guy Paul, what is the world coming to?”

Still, the Sundance win and subsequent reception have been a surprise as well as a vindication. “I didn’t expect all of this,” he says. “And what excites me the most is the range of audience that we’ve had, the different types of people. My goal was to make something where everybody could find something in it, and that was a testament to the fact that, in some way, I had succeeded.”

Genghis Blues review

By Elijah Wald

What is the least likely cultural interchange possible? The furthest-fetched meeting of minds and music? This year’s nominee would have to be the documentary film “Genghis Blues,” in which Paul Pena, a blind San Francisco blues singer, heads off to enter the national throat-singing competition in Tuva, an obscure region on the edge of Mongolia.

The charm of the film is the way it effortlessly combines the utterly commonplace with the wildly exotic. Pena, previously known only as author of the Steve Miller hit “Jet Airliner,” is an innocent and somewhat inept everyman, somehow fallen into a bizarre fantasy world. His companions are an equally ragtag bunch: a 74-year-old radio disc jockey, a tree surgeon sound engineer, a didgeridoo player, and twenty-something filmmakers Roko and Adrian Belic, making their first feature.

Off this troop goes to Tuva, a nation of nomadic sheep and camel-herders whose national hero is the general who led Genghis Khan’s 13th century invasion of the West. Once known only to stamp collectors, Tuva is now celebrated for its harmonic singers, who routinely produce two or more notes simultaneously. Unlike the Tibetan monks who use a similar technique, the Tuvans are cheery cowboy-types and their tunes are as perky and fun as their technique is incredible.

Pena heard Tuvan singing on his shortwave radio in 1984 and was entranced. He taught himself to sing kargyraa, a deep, growly style, and, when the first Tuvan group toured the US, he went to the concert, approached the singers on the break, and showed his stuff. That is when Kongar-ol Ondar, a throat-singing star and Tuvan national hero, told him he must come to the 1995 national singing competition. Ralph Leighton, who with the physicist Richard Feynmann first introduced most foreigners to Tuvan music, fell in love with the idea, pulled a crew together, and the adventure had begun.

The charm and triumph of the resulting film is the way Pena and his companions interact with the fairytale environment. He is an extraordinary singer, and the Tuvans find him at least as weird and exciting as we find them. To us, though, he is also a big, rumpled, rather clumsy figure, a singer who looks like he might be more at home playing in the subway than touring the Siberian outback. He often seems to feel the same way, disoriented by the bustling crowds, strange sounds and constant traveling.

And yet, this man who has felt handicapped and despised for his whole life is greeted by the Tuvans as a sort of holy emissary -- not only a startling musician, but a sort of saintly innocent. The result is to turn our expectations upside-down: Where we would normally be caught up in the unfamiliar locale, the wild countryside with its spiky mountains, rushing rivers and drifting dunes, the medieval lifestyle and the eerie impossibility of the Tuvan music, we instead are fascinated by Pena’s experience.

Not that there is not plenty of Tuva to appreciate as well. Director Roko Belic has pulled together enough stock footage and background material to give us a sense of place and history, without ever making the result seem didactic. Ondar also has his share of screen time, and the joy with which he greets his guests is as infectious as his music is astonishing.

The film is also something more than a cheery adventure story. Pena is subject to depression, and he often seems lost and alone even among his friends. He is agonizingly scared as he makes his way onstage to face the Tuvan audience. Then he starts to sing, the crowd explodes, and for a moment he is king. It is his moment of triumph, the justification of his life’s work. And yet, it is also a sort of dream, from which he will wake up back in his cramped Bay Area apartment.

This is, in its way, a simple, unambitious little film. Shot on video by an inexperienced crew, it lacks the sweep and grandeur the setting might seem to warrant. And yet, the story is utterly compelling and the technique fits it perfectly. It is a very human film, funny, moving, and unforgettable.

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Music on Film

By Elijah Wald

“Music on Film,” a series of seven films which opened at the Museum of Fine Arts yesterday and runs through September 2, is a fascinatingly mixed bag. The first four offerings range from European and Indian classical forms to blues and a variety of folk styles from around the world, and the films themselves are almost as varied as the music, in approach, style and, unfortunately, in quality.

“The Winners,” which opens the series, is the most focussed and compelling of the four. Using modern interviews and archival footage, it explores the lives of four winners of the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Competition, one of the major international competitions for classical musicians. While it includes striking performances, the film is less about music than about youth’s promise and the subsequent twists of fate. While the performers are all first-rate musicians, none have fullfilled the glorious hopes of their winning moments. Beyond that, though, each is unique, and the film is more a meditation on branching paths than an excercise in wistfullness or disappointment.

The oldest, violinist Berl Senofsky, who won in 1955, is a cheerfully philosophical teacher, relaxed and comfortable as he listens to old recordings, recalls a chance meeting with Rachmaninoff, or rummages through his drawers and tabletops in search of the Queen Elizabeth medal. The youngest, 1976 winner Mikhail Bezverkhny, is quirkily bohemian, practicing his violin in an old van and chatting cheerfully about car engines, then showing dictatorial brutality in a rehearsal scene with his pianist wife. Pianist Yevgeny Mogilevsky, 1964’s winner, is quiet and pleasant, trying to build a career 25 years after Soviet beaurocracy prevented him from touring and building a world reputation, yet seeming relatively content.

The most troubling figure is violinist Philipp Hirschhorn. Dazzling on old film clips, he is painful to watch in the interviews, pausing for what seem like minutes before making wry, bitter comments. Contrasted with schoolmate Gidon Kramer, who came in third behind him in 1967 but has built a far stronger career, he is the film’s lost soul. In the most memorable moment, he watches his younger self perform, his face impassive, miserable, and finally twisted in a nasty grin. “Silly boy,” he murmurs.

Director Paul Cohen has a gift for staying long enough on each image to give it weight, without drifting over into self-indulgence. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Lutz Leonhardt, whose portrait of Indian tabla star Zakir Hussain, “Zakier and his Friends,” shares this weekend and continues through August. Hussain is the rock star of Indian classical music, a flashy performer who has alternated traditional classical work and appearances with Western artists such as John McLaughlin. Hussain’s playing is dynamic and the snippets of interview with him are utterly charming, but his comments seem completely unconnected from the footage around them, and his “friends” are percussionists filmed in performance in Africa, South America, Indonesia, Trinidad and Japan, none of whom apparently have ever met him.

Some of these sequences are musically exciting, and all are beautifully shot, whether the camera focusses on the performers or finds analogues for the rhythms in field work or the flight of a kite, but they are also very long and no hint is given as to where we are or why we are there. For the confused (which will be almost everyone) filmmaker Lutz Leonhardt presents the message explicitely in his press material: Percussionists “are telling the same story all over the world: rhythm is life and life is a rhythm experience.” Apparently, we are to lean back and simply experience the music and images, but in that case the interviews come as annoying interruptions. All in all, Leonhardt has the raw material of a good, solid documentary and of a visually and musically exciting montage, but ends up with a somewhat uneasy mix of the two.

Whatever its flaws, “Zakir” is at least a meticulously executed, carefully thought-out film. Robert Mugge’s “Hellhounds on my Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson” is simply a brief TV spot stretched out to a mind-numbing 95 minutes. Mostly filmed at a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame tribute to the legendary Delta bluesman, it is filled with (exclusively white) experts talking about the importance of Johnson’s legacy while contemporary performers perform pale covers of his songs, as if attempting to prove his greatness by default. There is one interesting interview, with a childhood friend of Johnson’s, and one great performance, a chilling reworking of the film’s title song by Alvin Youngblood Hart, but that’s about it. Fortunately, the showing of this film, on Aug. 6, will include post-screening live sets by Hart and songwriter Bill Morrissey. All but the hardest-core blues history buffs should arrive late.

By contrast, “The Underground Orchestra” is, like “The Winners,” a film whose appeal should reach well beyond any particular musical taste. Dutch Filmmaker Heddy Honigmann wanders through the Paris Metro, city streets and sidewalk cafes, running into musicians from Africa, Asia, South America and Eastern Europe, then following them home and chatting with them. That may sound disorganized or haphazard, but the charm of the characters, the variety of stories, and the artistry with which all this is stitched together make the almost two hour film go very quickly.

Honigmann establishes a bond with her subjects in the film’s first moments, as her crew, shooting in subway corridors and on the trains, is twice threatened with arrest. Wandering up above ground, the musicians talk about their own police problems, but in tones that are more amused or tired than outraged. But the film is not really about musicians and their art so much as it is about rootlessness and exile. A West African singer is much in demand in the recording studios, but must pay exhorbitant rent for a closet-sized apartment because her papers are not in order. A classical violinist from Sarajevo now plays jazz on the subway trains and talks of home. An Argentine pianist and a Congolese DJ, one on an elegant stage and the other in his cluttered garret, tell of torture and imprisonment in their respective homelands. Algerians hope for an end to the strife in North Africa, Romanians lament betrayed dreams of the revolution.

This is the other side of globalisation, not the thriving international financial markets but the humans cast adrift, men and women without states or countries. Some wait to go home; some watch their children grow up French, playing rock ‘n’ roll instead of their parents’ old-fashioned styles. Meanwhile, all are performing for passersby, surviving on tips and making the best of a difficult situation. This is not the romantic Paris, it is dirty and hard, but it is still a haven for expatriates and dreamers, as it has been for centuries and, for artists at least, a bit friendlier than most other international capitals. The music is vibrant, the people generally cheerful even when talking about their tribulations. Without narration or titles, Honigmann guides us through a strange world and makes us feel oddly at home here, much like the people we are meeting.

The “Music on Film” series will continue with three more films: “Payoff,” which follows three women bandleaders through the Boston rock scene; “The Righteous Babes,” a bshorter but broader-ranging exploration of women in rock ‘n’ roll; and “Instrument,” an experimental collaboration between filmmaker Jem Cohen and the modernist punk band Fugazi.


The Films of Paul Robeson

By Elijah Wald

Paul Robeson is a unique figure in American history, and one with whom the country has not yet come to terms. April 9 marks the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and the date has sparked both celebrations and argument. For example, there was an effort to get a commemorative postage stamp issued, but, even though his friend W.E.B. DuBois has by now been so honored twice, Robeson apparently remains too controversial.

There are those who would say that it is not Robeson's memory that is underserving of the honor, but rather that the government that destroyed him has no right now to salute him as a hero. Robeson's life stands as a testament to the victories of one man over the forces of racial prejudice, but also to the power of a racist system to beat down even the strongest and most talented of its opponents.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Robeson was the most famous African-American performer in the world, and the foremost symbol of what was not yet being called black pride. His career was destroyed during the Truman-McCarthy "red scare,'' when he was both denied work in the United States and forbidden to travel abroad, effectively silencing him. After a decade of court battles, he eventually won back his passport, but the strains and frustration of the fight had worn him down, and he spent the 15 years before his death in 1976 essentially an invalid, unable to appear in public or, for much of the time, even to leave his home.

The cold war provided the coup de grace, but Robeson had been battling all his life against the petty, and not so petty, wounds of racial discrimination and stereotyping. Watching the ten films which make up the Paul Robeson Centennial Film Festival, to be held this Thursday through Sunday at the Brattle Theatre, the Harvard Film Archive, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Coolidge Corner Theatre, one is alternately thrilled and depressed, reminded both of his astonishing talents and of how poorly the world was able to use them. In every film, Robeson has at least a few great moments, but they are surrounded by much that is mediocre or worse.

By the time Robeson first stepped in front of a movie camera, he was already marked for success. Born in New Jersey, the son of a minister who had been born a slave, he was brilliant, handsome, and a superb athlete. The third black student to attend Rutgers College, he became an All-American football star and class valedictorian, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, then took a law degree from Columbia University. By the time he graduated, he was already making a reputation as a singer and actor. He starred in some minor plays, and sang in the ground-breaking black musical "Shuffle Along,'' but his breakthrough came in 1924, when the Provincetown Playhouse presented him alternating the leads in two plays by Eugene O'Neill, "All God's Chillun'' and "The Emperor Jones,'' perhaps his greatest role.

Robeson made his film debut the same year, in the silent "Body and Soul.'' Written and directed by Oscar Micheaux, the black film-maker who was a virtual one-man studio from the teens through the 1940s, it has Robeson in a double role, as a conniving fake preacher and the preacher's virtuous brother. The preacher dominates the story, delivering fiery sermons, turning on the charm with the church sisters, and menacing the lovely heroine. Other than the pleasures of watching Robeson, though, the film is of only historical interest. Its technique is rudimentary, and the plot is a mishmash of melodrama and stereotypes, including comic characters in blackface and dialogue titles in dialect (It might be noted in this context that Micheaux was known for casting light-skinned actors and actresses in all heroic parts; Robeson's appearance as the virtuous brother was a rare exception and highlights his special status in the black community even at this early date).

Robeson's performance, while fascinating, draws far more from the power of his presence than it does from his acting ability. While he would greatly improve over the next two decades, he was never a great actor, in the sense of being able to transform himself into varying characters. He was a star, someone who had only to walk on screen to command every eye, and his best performances are triumphs of strength and charisma rather than of theatrical craftsmanship. According to many critics, he gained a new subtlety and depth during his record-breaking 1943 Broadway run as Othello, but the play, in which he kissed a white Desdemona, was then considered unfilmable, so no visual record remains of his performance.

Robeson's films were a relatively minor part of his professional life, though they are, along with his recordings, his surviving legacy. He was always best known as a singer and, secondly, as a stage actor. The film world of his time was simply too restricted to showcase his talents. From the 1920s to the 1940s, when he was at the peak of his fame, there were few roles available to him that he did not find unacceptably demeaning, and most of those were in England rather than Hollywood.

Actually, his second film was shot in Switzerland, and is an odd anomally. Another silent, made in 1930, "Borderline,'' is a self-consciously experimental effort by a group of European artists, a collage of surrealist cutting and camera angles framing scenes of racism and ambiguous sexuality in an Alpine village. Robeson stars along with his wife, Eslanda, and the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), but gets to do little except look handsome and pensive.

By the time he made "Borderline,'' Robeson was settled in London, preparing to make his first appearance as Othello. He would spend most of the 1930s in Europe, where he was lionized and allowed the common freedoms denied him in the U.S., able to stay in good hotels, eat in good restaurants, and enter any business through the front entrance. He returned to New York only briefly, in 1933, to make what many people consider his definitive film appearance, in the title role of "The Emperor Jones.''

"Jones'' has its flaws, but Robeson is dazzling as he traces the rise and fall of an American hustler who becomes the despotic emperor of an island nation. The producers tacked a B-movie prologue onto O'Neill's script, showing Robeson killing a man in a gambling den and singing "Water Boy'' on a chain gang, and the Amos 'n' Andy dialect gets pretty heavy, but once he begins his rise to power it is hard to take your eyes off him. Dressed in Bourbon splendor, he struts, laughs, and growls with regal assurance, turns the island's white shopkeeper into his flunky, and boasts that by the time the populace rebels, he will be off to spend their tax money "in a foreign land where there's no chain gangs and no Jim Crow.''

When Jones's plans go awry, his final flight through the jungle is riveting. In the context of the times, it was more than that. Beset and driven mad by ghosts, Robeson manages by the sheer power of his performance to avoid the stereotypes to which the scene could easily have fallen prey. Though O'Neill never really makes Jones into a full, multifaceted person, it was a better-written part than Robeson was to get in his other films, and he makes the most of it and then some.

Robeson would spend the rest of the 1930s trying to fulfill the promise of this performance. Except for "Show Boat,'' which he did simply for the money and in which he only appears briefly -- though memorably -- to sing "Ol' Man River,'' which Jerome Kern had written specifically for him, and in a scene of domestic buffoonery with Hattie McDaniel, his next five films were all British productions, most of them built around his starring roles.

The first, "Sanders of the River,'' would be something of an embarrassment to him. Robeson plays Bosambo, an African chief whose loyalty to the English colonial officer Sanders is rewarded with the kingship of his region. Robeson was attracted to the film by the footage of dance and music that the director had already shot in African villages, and this remains its main attraction, along with a cameo by Jomo Kenyatta. The film's other pleasures are mostly comic, and the comedy is not intentional. Robeson looks only slightly more comfortable in a loin cloth than the average Columbia law graduate would, and the "African war song'' he has been given to sing over the traditional drumming is schlock of almost the lowest variety (his song of adoration for Sanders is the lowest). As for the ending, where Sanders machine-guns a village of "bad'' tribesmen, and Bosambo announces that he has learned the great British lesson, that "a king should be not feared but loved by his people,'' the less said the better.

Robeson maintained that the film had changed from its original script without his control, and swore not to make the same mistake again. While "King Solomon's Mines'' (his only film not included in the current festival) is only moderately better, his other four British productions were exceptional, among the only three-dimensional and unstereotyped performances by an African-American actor until Sidney Poitier came along two decades later. None is a masterpiece, but at least two are well worth watching.

The first is 1936's "Song of Freedom.'' In it, Robeson plays a London dock worker who becomes an opera star, then learns he is heir to the throne of an African island, and promptly heads off to find "his people'' and bring them the benefits of civilization. The plot is silly and melodramatic, but its "back to Africa'' theme appealed to Robeson, and he is given several chances to shine. While some of the songs are typically mawkish and over-orchestrated, he has a couple of nice a cappella numbers, and a show-stopping death scene in an operatic "Emperor Jones.'' It is hard to ignore the irony of his arrival on the island dressed in colonial safari togs, but the script makes at least a nod to his problem of feeling out of place and trapped between cultures. Also, though the Africans are shown as primitive, they are by no means either stupid or ridiculous, as they were in virtually every other film of the period.

"Song of Freedom's'' director and leading lady, J. Elder Wills and Elizabeth Welch, returned for Robeson's next venture, "Big Fella.'' Though based on a novel by the West Indian writer Claude McKay, this is a far less interesting film. Robeson is a dock worker again, this time in Marseilles, and befriends a poor little rich kid who wants a taste of fun. Though both he and Welch get to do some decent singing, and he is an amiable presence throughout, that is about it.

"Jericho,'' his next film (originally released in the U.S. as "Dark Sands''), is more rewarding, though the plot, once again, is not much: Robeson plays a medical student drafted into the army and condemned for an accidental killing, who escapes to the Sahara and becomes sheik of a desert tribe. It was filmed in Egypt, the only time Robeson actually set foot in Africa, and includes some nice desert footage. The songs, as usual, are second-rate pop fare, but there is a quite charming scene of him, settled in as the nomadic chieftain, singing a down-home "Shortnin' Bread'' to his son. He gets a bit more range than usual, including some light comic business, though most of his time is spent being noble and heroic.

The right to be noble in his films was something Robeson fought hard for, but, while a victory at the time, in the end this became another sort of cliche. Especially when playing an African chieftain, he could be a noble savage without seriously threatening white moviegoers. His own favorite film, aside from "Song of Freedom,'' was "Proud Valley,'' in which he is so noble as to be almost featureless. His last British production, it has him joining a Welsh coal-mining crew because his magnificent bass voice is needed in their choir, then saving various people in mine explosions until his heroic death. He liked the role because he was simply another working man; the fact that he was black is only mentioned once in the course of the film. It is profoundly depressing to think that this was enough to make him love such an ordinary piece of work.

In 1939, Robeson came home to the U.S., and his film career was almost over. His one remaining appearance was in the final section of 1942's "Tales of Manhattan,'' where he, Ethel Waters, and Eddie "Rochester'' Anderson play a fairly typical bunch of Hollywood plantation stereotypes. The one interesting touch is a speech he makes, after they end up with a lot of money: "We're gonna buy the land,'' he says, his eyes shining. "And work that ground side by side . . . and there won't be no rich and no more poor. Yes, folks, a new day is dawnin'.'' Whether it was in the original script, or whether Robeson had it added, that was just the sort of Communist propaganda that would shortly be highlighted by the witch-hunters investigating "unamerican activities'' in Hollywood.

There were a few years to go before that came, and they would be among Robeson's greatest. His "Othello,'' which premiered at Cambridge's Brattle Theatre, became the longest-running Shakespeare production on Broadway. His concerts played to packed houses across the country, and his performance of "Ballad for Americans'' became a landmark of patriotic song, hailed by right and left alike. As a political figure, he was active in numerous progressive organizations, and was among the foremost spokesmen for racial equality.

The sky fell in the late 1940s. Robeson had been welcomed in the Soviet Union, admired the Russian people, and had observed the Communists to be virtually the only international group aiding the Third World's anti-colonial liberation struggles. As Cold War hysteria mounted, he refused to renounce these views, saying if he had battles to fight they were with racists at home, not foreigners who had done him no harm. He became the symbol of black Communism, and Jackie Robinson and other black celebrities went before the House Committee to distance themselves from his views.

He continued to sing, and to make fine recordings, through the 1950s, but was regularly beset by pickets, hate mail, and sometimes outright violence. Black leaders shied away from his support, and he grew gradually more isolated and withdrawn until he disappeared from public view and eventually died, ignored though not forgotten.

What remains are these films, and it is an ambivalent legacy. His talents are wasted at least as often as they are showcased. So much of his effort was expended in breaking down barriers for future black actors that all too little was left to ensure the quality of his own work. Still, his presence is as magical as ever; even in a mediocre vehicle, with a cliched script and stolid direction, he is always worth watching, and his voice remains a marvel. There was no one like him before, and there has been no one since. These films and his recordings are all that remain of his work and, even if they are less than one would wish, we are lucky to have them.