Monday, 21 February 2011

Three Shorts By Barbet Schroeder

Bulle Ogier in La vallée (1972)

Last week I reviewed the new BFI release of La vallée, a spiritual odyssey through the Papa New Guinea jungle by underrated Gallic filmmaker Barbet Schroeder (More, 1969). The DVD has the usual strand of extras; trailer, original ending and an accompanying booklet of essays. But what really drew me to the package was the inclusion of three ethnographic shorts shot by Schroeder and cinematographer Néstor Almendros, comprised of footage filmed while scouting locations in 1971. They were shooting footage of tribal ceremonies and the day-to-day lives of the clans that live in Mount Hagen and the surrounding area, and when they returned home Almendros persuaded Schroeder to edit the footage into three short films. The footage became Le cochon aux patates douces (1971), Maquillages (1971) and Sing Sing (1971). Filmed in the same year as Nic Roeg's Walkabout (1971) - itself a fascinating foray into unknown tribal territories, except in the Australian bush - the films provide a beautiful glimpse into a lost way of life...

Le cochon aux patates douces opens with a Hagen tribe killing pigs in order to offer them as compensation for a murder of a clansman from another tribe - the murder happened when a fight broke out at the cinema, at a screening of a Louis de Funès picture. The pigs are beaten over the head and then skinned over fire. Bamboo is sharpened so that the women of the tribe may cut away the organs in the animal (the narrator tells us that sharpened bamboo is "sharper than any knife") as the men put together a huge oven. For this a hole is dug in the ground, layered with banana leaves and then heated rocks are thrown into the pit along with the meat, wrapped in leaves tied by string. It's fascinating to see the entire community band together and spend the whole day preparing a meal that would only take a few hours for us - and they won't even get to sample it. This says a lot about jungle politics, poverty and currency, spirituality and its attachment to animals - and peculiarly highlights the fact that Mount Hagen has (or had) a pretty good distributor of French cinema, yet the people can't even afford a lighter to better start the fire for their compensatory meal.

Maquillages documents the importance of art and expression in the Hagen area, especially during two important ceremonies - the mourning of a deceased tribal member, and a celebratory victory dance in Gokora (a village near Hagen). For the commemoration clansmen cover their bodies in yellow clay, and for the victory dance the clansmen choose grey clay. We spend most of the 12 minute film with the mourners who chant, sing and pray around a fire. Music is played, and we are told this is the only form of art in the Hagen area, along with jewelry and makeup - the latter of which is a form of true expression and each tribe member may create their own patterns and designs to reflect their feelings. Again, what may seem like a simple observational document actually says a lot for the way the tribes approach culture and appreciate beauty as a form of purely individual declaration. It shows a fair society and one where everybody is involved in the passing of a member - they are tightly knit, and stronger for it.

Sing Sing is the shortest of the films (5 minutes) but no less profound. It opens on a special ceremony that sees tribe members performing a dance, wearing makeup and beautiful headsets of colourful feathers (which would be adapted in La vallée; they are the reason for Viviane's (Ogier) presence and a symbol of her Westernized greed). The latter half of the film is most interesting, however, as it sees the gift of a pig offered from one tribe to another, as they do not speak the same language. This exchanging of animal again displays the importance of deep roots in nature, but it is also somewhat an insight into trader politics in Hagen; several years later a gift shall be given in return. It's an act of goodwill one might say, a peace offering - and all without the burden of language. The films are beautifully photographed by Almendros and edited by Denise de Casbianca, providing yet another reason to buy the new edition of La vallée - a true forgotten gem of world cinema.

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