Little Afghan girl's big (symbolic) adventure ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Little Afghan girl's big (symbolic) adventure

Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame
My rating:

I am somewhat less familiar with arthouse and international films than a film critic should perhaps be. I've vaguely heard about how Iranian films have become quite popular and highly-acclaimed among the arthouse circuit - some of which have even been screened in Malaysia - but I haven't seen one till now. I freely admit that my cinematic tastes run more to the lowbrow, but it's good for a film buff (and a self-proclaimed film critic, more so) to every now and then watch something outside his comfort zone. Also, I was drawn to Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame because of its clear reference to the Bamiyan Buddhas, the destruction of which I remember reading about and feeling as outraged as the rest of the world over. So I had that as a point of reference, at least, to a film that was otherwise to be a completely unfamiliar experience to me.

Maybe I just need to pick better Iranian films.

Baktay (Nikbakht Noruz) is a 5-year-old girl living in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in the caves under the remains of the Buddha statues that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. One day she overhears the neighbour boy Abbas (Abbas Alijome) reading aloud from his schoolbook, and makes up her mind to go to school. But she can't find her mother, who has left the house to get water, and so she must set out all by herself. First she must raise the meagre amount of money to buy a notebook, then she must find the girls' school - but her greatest challenge will be the gang of boys playing Talibans-and-Americans, whose childish game both mimics the violence around them, as well as reflects the social injustices under which girls like Baktay live.

As per my last attempt at reviewing an arthouse film, I immediately went looking for reviews to help make sense of clarify what I just watched. (Seriously, this is totally what film reviews are for. Read 'em before you watch a movie, so's you know whether it's worth watching - but also read 'em after you've watched it so's you appreciate it better.) With their aid, I can tell you now that this film is essentially the adventure of an incredibly cute little girl who just wants to go to school. It's a simple story, simply told, and it can be quite charming. Nikbakht Noruz is adorable, and any heart that her gap-toothed grin cannot melt must not be a human one. And of course, what makes her story interesting is that she lives in a part of the world in which even her simple desire to learn how to read is fraught with difficulty - even danger.

But, y'know, simply told is one thing; well-told is another entirely. I'm okay with the fact that it doesn't follow your traditional Hollywood three-act structure; its spends its first third on Baktay trying to buy the notebook, and it isn't till around the halfway mark that she meets that gang of boys. But its unstructured narrative is also an often unfocused narrative. It's okay for a scene to be incidental if it's also entertaining, e.g. the one where Baktay mischievously keeps stepping out of the gang leader's (Abdolali Hoseinali) chalk-circle prison. But a lot of them aren't - e.g. the one where Abbas falls victim to the boys as well, or the one where Baktay meets a traffic policeman. And when Baktay finally makes it to school... okay, no spoilers, but suffice it to say that this is where the story takes a turn that had me scratching my head. It's almost as if director Hana Makhmalbaf simply couldn't get the performance she wanted out of Noruz, so she just decided to go with this new direction.

That schoolroom scene is problematic for more than one reason. The film's soundtrack is sparse, as befits a low-budget indie film that tells a very simple story - but its use of music is embarrassingly heavy-handed. Every time the (single piece of) music comes up, it signifies that A Very Important Point Is Being Made Here. Because y'see, what with this movie being titled the way it is, Makhmalbaf clearly isn't just telling the story of Baktay's Big Adventure here; she is also making Very Important Points about the Taliban and their cultural ignorance and subjugation of women. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it didn't have to be done so clumsily. Yes, the music comes up during the classroom scene, in which poor Baktay can't find an empty seat. The problem with this scene is that this makes the teacher stupidly oblivious of a new girl in her class climbing all over the chairs and tables. "Contrived" is not a word I would've expected to apply to an Iranian film. (And all this even before the storyline takes that turn for the odd.)

Strangely enough, my opinion of it was somewhat raised by its ending, in which it becomes clear that Makhmalbaf is attempting to be symbolic in delivering her Very Important Points. What else to make of (again, trying to be careful with spoilers here) the bit where someone cries "die, and you'll be free!" which immediately cuts to actual footage of the Bamiyan Buddhas getting blown up? No, the symbolism probably doesn't all hang together - it certainly isn't very comprehensible - but it did finally make clear to me what Makhmalbaf was trying to accomplish with this film. And when it comes to arthouse films, I consider it a success if I'm merely able to figure it out. So three stars then, which just about makes this a favourable review. Hopefully, as with my review of At the End of Daybreak, I've told you enough about it that you may enjoy it more - or understand it better - than I did.

NEXT REVIEW: Predators
Expectations: hoping it's not just a rehash of the first