Sufism in Chechnya

The following is one of four truly gorgeous and insightful short films of contemporary Chechen Sufi rituals. They are all well worth watching, as is the veritable treasure-trove of material the film-maker, Vincent Moon, has accumulated over the past few years, not only in the Caucasus but across the world.

LE GRAND JIHAD • soufisme en Tchétchénie (1) from Vincent Moon / Petites Planètes on Vimeo.

Films & Music in Review

First, the music: if you’ve never heard of Lee Bozeman, well now you have, and you ought to go and listen to his work, all of which you will find linked to on his blog. His project from a few years back All Things Bright and Beautiful is one of the loveliest, lushest art-rock/post-rock albums to have come down the pike in a while. Besides being beautiful to listen to, Bozeman is a skillful lyricist, weaving the malaise of contemporary society, reflections from Western Christian thought and Orthodox theology and liturgy (Bozeman is currently attending St. Vladimir’s). It’s not a combination you get everyday in any genre of music, to be sure.

Next, two films, neither of which are especially recent, but I only lately got a chance to see them. First, Jafar Panahi’s 2006 film Offside works through a very straight-forward storyline: several Tehrani girls want to watch the World Cup qualifier game but are barred from the stadium by Iranian law. Their attempts to sneak in and blend into the all-male crowd fail, and they are placed in an impromptu holding pen just out of sight of the game. The rest of the film focuses a tight lens on their interactions with their guards. There is a lot of potential for straight-up propaganda here, and the film does engage in some rather obvious castigation of the quite ridiculous law and the young soldiers’ participation in it. However, what saves the film is its willingness to humanize the soldiers, revealing them to be more or less unwilling agents, drafted and stuck and not wanting to get stuck deeper in. The film’s final scene takes place in a police van with the girls being driven to the Vice Squad headquarters, accompanied by two of the soldiers. The journey is interrupted by the joyful anarchy of the post-victory celebration, and the film ends on a decided high-note.

Also hailing from an Iranian director, Majid Majidi’s Baran is in many ways a quite different creature: it is on one level an extended allegory of the path of the Sufi aspirant to the Divine, and is suffused with imagery taken from Rumi and others. The plot revolves around a young Iranian, Lateef, who is presented, ‘pre-repentance,’ as a hot-headed, vindictive kid who deeply resents Rahmat, the young man (or so he initially thinks) who replaces his position as tea-wallah on a Tehran construction site. Upon discovering the young man’s secret- he’s no young man at all, but a girl disguised as such in order to support her family, Afghani refugees from that country’s endless conflicts. Upon the discovery- the initial ‘tasting’ of the divine in the allegory- Lateef is transformed, and the rest of the film is devoted to his devotion to the Beloved, whom he does not truly ‘draw near’ to until the end of the film, and then only briefly. In between, Majidi paints a beautiful picture of the aspirant’s spiritual journey, concluding with Lateef’s losing of his identity for the sake of the Beloved (in this case, selling his precious ID card) and his transformation after the moment of fana’ in meeting the Beloved.

As you might have gathered, a prior knowledge of Sufi themes and practices (and, I ought to add, themes and practices also found in Shi’a Islam, whose relationship with Sufism is long and complicated), especially as revealed in Persian poetry, helps a lot in enjoying this movie. This is a philosophical, ‘mystical’ even film, and much of the pleasure of watching it comes from an awareness of the multiple layers of meaning and significance at work. That said, it is not as philosophically challenging as, say, an Abbas Kiarostami film. The story is straight-forward enough and can be appreciated on the external- zahir- level. Like Majidi’s other films, this one is visually beautiful, especially the scenes shot in the countryside around Tehran. There is also a political undertone- Afghan refugees and their struggle with immigration law (and anti-immigrant sentiments) is central to the film, and will strike American (or European or South African or Mexican or…) viewers as terribly familiar. While Majidi does not assault state power as head-on as Panahi, the critique is certainly still there, and quite effective. But at heart this is a film about something that transcends any particular political situation: the love of man for God, the love of one person for another, (the two having a way of mingling together and overlapping) love that both transforms and consumes, love that is not safe but all-consuming.

That Is No Country For Old Men

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
-Those dying generations- at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

William Butler Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium

The sparse, often un-nervingly silent landscape of the Coen brother’s latest film, No Country For Old Men, is- as others have already properly noted- truly no country for old men- or for any man, in fact. From the desolate wind-swept panaromas of the West Texas borderlands at the opening of the film to the equally desolate panaromas of human depravity and violence, the Coen brothers present an unflagging and unsparing examination of just how dark human hearts can become, and just how dark and hopeless the world can appear to those caught in the ensuing maelstrom. The result is a gorgeous, unsettling and provoking film that has rightly earned considerable praise and consideration as of late. The cinematography is magnificent, the acting top-notch, but most importantly, the film has something to say, and what it has to say is worth listening to and thinking about.

Before I examine (some) aspects of the film in further detail, I must warn against spoilers- if you haven’t seen the film but intend to, you’d best not read further.

The film is set physically in 1980’s West Texas, at the border with Mexico. The border runs through the film, though more as background and plot device than as a central symbol (as it is in another movie featuring a West Texan Tommy Lee Jones, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). The central landscape of the film, however, is the morally desolate country that lies like a cloud upon every part of the film’s physical landscape. The two landscapes- the spiritual and the physical- blend into each other, such as when Llewynn Moss peers through his binoculars at the circled pick-ups and prostrate bodies. The circled pick-up trucks, the drug job gone bad, also opens up another important symbol: the evil and the violent operating upon each other, and spilling out into the entire world around. No one is safe in this country. The highways, the arteries of any modern nation, are pervaded by the killer Anton Chigurgh, who moves like a disease from one automobile to another, sending the rejected host up in flames.

Yet Chigurgh is not an anomaly; he does not represent an exception. He is only the apex, the ubermensch who has emerged from the nexus of violence and evil, wielding his own inner logic and rationality as singular as his physical weapon, yet clearly related to the broader, chaotic and violent landscape he is a part of. While he seeks to create his own world, having rejected all other systems, he is not immune to the world- perhaps some small measure of hope. Moss wounds him with his shotgun, and he is badly injured in the startlingly random car-crash. He too is, ultimately, a part of the same “dying generation” as the rest. As a symbol, Chigurgh stands for death, death not as a pseudo-spiritual “part of life,” but death as the result of the Fall, death with all its satanic, destructive overtones lended to it in Christian theology. Indeed, Chigurgh as symbol-of-death is a very apt demonstration of what is meant by death being “the enemy.” Evil is not, as we would like to believe, merely some entirely random, unpersonalized force “out there.” Rather, evil- while truly chaotic and random- has its own internal illogical logic, its own irrational rationality, and is extremely personal, even while ultimately destructive of personality. Hence Chigurgh has no real purpose beyond his drive to destroy, to be the will-to-power for the sake of that power and nothing more. He does not care about money, or drugs, or sex, or any of those things. He has principles, but they are self-created principles.

Herein lies another reality that we moderns (or postmoderns rather) are uncomfortable with: Chigurgh is not evil because of drugs or money or guns, as a fellow law officer suggests to Sheriff Bell. Certainly, he reflects and embodies the violent world he is a part of, but the suggested things do not drive him, and are not the “cause” of his evil. They are the external manifestations of internal realities.

Chigurgh- and by extension death, evil, and the whole destructive environment- can be opposed. Yet none of the film’s characters succeed in opposing him, not ultimately. Moss is weighted by his greed for wealth and his own hubris, caught in the “sensual music” for the most part. Having become caught in the self-devouring world of violence, he must ultimately subcomb to it- not by Chigurgh’s hand, but in a sudden, off-screen act of violence delivered by nameless characters. The well-meaning and insightful sheriff is ultimately out-matched and concedes defeat, retreats.

Indeed, the symbols of decency- Sheriff Bell, the various elderly victims of Chigurgh, and Moss’s wife- are unable to stem the tide of evil. They are either oblivious to the dark world around them, or they are unable to find the means to confront it. Instead, the country is pervaded by drug-runners and the violence that swirls around them, respecting no borders at all. The two groups of young men in the film- the suggested heirs of the country in Yeat’s poem- are perhaps the saddest figures in the film. They are at once oblivious to the extent of the violent chaos around them, yet self-absorbed and nearly amoral. They stand staring at the destruction, responsive only to pleasure. The two boys who assist Chigurgh have some level of decency left in them, yet it is obvious (more so in the book) that they too are self-absorbed, a part of the amoral landscape.

If we are left with what is ultimately an uninhabitable country, is there any hope? The film only offers glimpse and slight possibilities- nothing to give any great motivation. However, the pervading theme- the brute strength of evil, and the seemingly insurmountable difficulty faced in confronting it- should serve as a reminder that indeed, no man can truly vanquish evil. We require, not the wise old sage (as valuable as he may be), or a postmodern antihero, but a New Man Who can fully defeat that very old enemy Death, in all its manifestations and across all countries.

In Review

First, new music out of the Balkans: A Hawk and a Hacksaw and the Hun Hangár Ensemble, in a self-titled EP released a few weeks ago, downloadable here. A Hawk and a Hacksaw is mostly the project of Jeremy Barnes, drummer for the indie-wunderband Neutral Milk Hotel, and later sometimes drummer for Bright Eyes. These days Mr Barnes is making Balkan-inspired music, often in collaboration with folk musicians from the Balkans themselves. And that is a very good thing. On this album AHAAHS is joined by an assembly of Hungarian musicians, who draw upon both traditional sounds from the Balkan peninsula and upon more modern currents. The fusion of the various elements works beautifully, without being forced or otherwise contrived- not an easy thing to achieve in the world of international musical collaboration. Violins, bagpipes, brass, and some other strings whirl and whisper and crash over the series of eight tracks. Despite the EP’s brevity, it feels fuller and longer than those eight tracks would lead you to believe.

A couple weeks ago a friend recommended a Danish movie I had not heard of, After the Wedding, which was in the running for last year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film. In brief, the film unfolds around a Danish expatriate Jacob who runs an orphanage in India, but is summoned back to Denmark at the behest of a wealthy businessman, Jorgen, interested in financing the orphanage and Jacob’s various other projects in India. Jorgen will only give Jabob the money under the condition he comes to Denmark. While there, Jorgen invites Jacob to the wedding of his daughter, where Jacob meets Jorgen’s wife- a wife who, as the viewer quickly discovers, had a presence much earlier in Jacob’s life. The story develops and unfolds from there, and in so doing, not only turns around some stereotyped roles- Jorgen is far from being the typical greedy egotistical businessman, and Jacob is not simply an idealistic aid worker- and raises some rather difficult questions about responsibility and the possibility and morality of directing other people’s lives. But besides these issues, the film is very well done, both in terms of acting and its masterful and often very lovely cinematography. It makes a very worthy addition to anyone’s collection, particularly if yours, like mine, is rather low on Danish-language films…

Book, Film, & Music

Some stuff I’ve had the pleasure to peruse lately:

Monastic Visions: Wall Paintings in the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea: The Monastery of St. Antony was established upon the site St. Antony, the venerable Father of Monasticism, lived upon his withdrawl to the Inner Desert; both his tomb and the cave he inhabited are preserved there. Very early in its history a little oddly domed church was built, which still stands at the core of the monastery complex- which has survived all manner of travails down through the centuries. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the monks commissioned wall paintings, which over time were heavily obscured by smoke and grit buildup, and some less than artful overpaints. Recently, however, a team of art conservationists, working in sync with the monastery, restored these wall paintings. Part of the project included the publication of this book, which is a real jewel (though out of my price range at present; I merely checked it out of a library). Besides the numerous photos of and commentary on the incredible iconography, the book also details the history of the monastery, includes an essay on the role of icons in Orthodox life by one of the monks at St. Antony’s, and an essay on the role of the monastery in contemporary Coptic Orthodox life in Egypt. The writers approach the monastery and its icons not as mere artifacts to be looked at but as part of an onging tradition of spiritual life, for both the monks themselves and the wider Coptic Church.

Turtles Can Fly: This film by Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi had been recommended to me some time ago; I only lately got around to purchasing and viewing it. Set in a village on the Iraq-Turkey border in Kurdistan, the film opens with a visually stunning- and quite comic- scene of Kurdish villagers hoisting aloft TV antennas, trying to get information on the impending war between the US and Iraq. In the midst of this scramble for news is an orphaned refugee boy nicknamed Satellite, after his knack for manipulating information technology. The story revolves primarily around his experience within a war torn society on the verge of yet another conflict. Thus the narrative view is that of a child and his fellow refugee companions (many of whom he has organized into brigades to collect and sell land mines). It would be easy enough for such a film to falter in sentimentalism, but Ghobadi carefully avoids both sentimentalizing and propogandizing. Instead, the pervasive impact of war is, in turns, brutally and hauntingly portrayed- though actual combat scenes only enter in flashbacks. Despite a very limited budget and less than optimal conditions- it is the first film made in Iraq after Hussein’s overthrow by the US- the cinematography is excellent, and the story’s development and movement works very well, with only a few detours and misplaced pieces. In all, Turtles Can Fly is a superb, emotionally challenging and rewarding work.

Amassakoul: Southern Saharan folk music meets Mississippi blues. The second album by the group Tinariwen, hailing from the southern edge of the Sahara in Mali, the group- composed of musicians from the traditionally nomadic Touareg people- roll out some simply incredible music, that is at once set in the traditional music of the Touareg and the electric guitar riffs of the blues. Chorus repitions and a smattering of traditional instruments join some pretty rousing electric guitar work in what comes out as a very nearly seamless ‘fusion’ of styles and influences. The musicians that make up Tinariwen spent some time in training camps run by Khadafi, then fought in a rebellion against the government of Mali, before settling for peace and playing music full time. They were eventually discovered by a French band and through a series of events ended up on the world stage. Great stuff- my favorite album right now.

I have to mention in closing a somewhat similar group, Afrissippi, which I got to see perform live a few months back in Hattiesburg. Taking a similar tack of style fusion, the band formed after Guelel Kumba moved from his native Senegal to North Mississippi, met some area musicians, and started playing with them. The result is a blend of West African trad and North Mississippi hill-country blues. Some really fine and surprisingly beautiful, even sublime music.

The Queen

Over the weekend I watched The Queen, which, happily, is up for awards this Oscar season. I’ll spare a plot summary, and rather suggest that it is a film well worth watching- a fine, if slow in places, story arc, with good witty dialogue and some lovely cinematography- any film with big sweeping shots of the Scottish Highlands gets some appreciation from me, whatever its other merits.

The most interesting aspect of the film I thought was its portrayal of value-shift, as manifest in the orgiastic public overflow of emotion in response to Diana’s death. The Queen finds herself unable, at first, to simply accept that people are actually acting this way- she insists for some time that the newspapers are merely sensationalizing the story; upon coming to accept the public’s true feelings she believes they will quickly pass. When that does not happen she finds herself truly perplexed at the shift in value in British society- not only in the excessive emoting, but also in the apparent lack of respect for even the vestiges of tradition and protocol. This includes British religious attitudes. In one scene Tony Blair is conversing with the Queen’s secretary, who tells Mr Blair that the Queen understands herself to have been appointed by God to her position. Mr Blair reacts to this statement by contemptuously asking, “What does God have to do with it?” However, where many other films would lead us to applaud such a progressive attitude, The Queen casts an unfavourable light upon such flippancy and, if you will, vulgarity. We are led to believe that perhaps there is something to be said for tradition, honour, values, and the rest. This is a refreshing perspective to be seen in a movie, particularly one being screened on the local mega-plex.