Bhutan: Travellers and Magicians

(2003; dir: Khyentse Norbu; language: Dzongkha; original title: ཆང་ཧུབ་ཐེངས་གཅིག་གི་འཁྲུལ་སྣང)

Travellers and Magicians is a good title for this story-within-a-story. The outer story follows a collection of travellers in the beautiful mountainous landscape of rural Bhutan, as they all for various reasons wend their slow way towards the capital, Thimpu. One of them, a Buddhist monk, tells a fable-like story about an impetuous young magic student who loses himself in a forest and becomes entangled in a web of lust and threat. The film was written and directed by Norbu (also known as Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche), a Bhutanese Buddhist lama and director of another international hit The Cup. I chose Travellers and Magicians as it is Bhutan’s first feature film, and because it is supposedly a film much anchored in Bhutanese culture.

The film begins in a small rural village in Bhutan, where we meet Dondup (Tshewang Dendup). Dondup is a public official who has recently been assigned to the village, and he is bored to tears. Long-haired Dondup loves all things Western, and sees the United States as the land of his dreams where scantily-clad women, American music and riches await. When the chance of a work visa to the United States arrives he rushes off in a very un-Bhutanese manner, bound for the sole bus connection to Thimpu and determined to get to the capital before the offer expires. Slowed down and frustrated by various well-meaning villagers, Dondup misses the bus and is forced to hitchhike. While waiting for rides, Dondup is gradually joined by a humble and nearly silent apple-seller, a gregarious monk (Sonam Kinga), a carousing drunk, and an elderly rice-paper maker and his beautiful young daughter Sonam (Sonam Lhamo). Travelling together in various constellations over a couple of days and nights, the monk spins a tale in installments about another hot-headed young man who longed to leave village life behind him. Inspired by a Bhuddist fable, the monk’s story follows Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji) who finds his heart’s desire deep in the forest in the form of a gorgeous women Deki (Deki Yangzom). Unfortunately Deki is married to a jealous (and abusive) old man who stands in the way of Deki and Tashi’s budding relationship.

I thought that the concept of the film was an appealing one – a mixture of a road movie and fairy tale – and both storylines made excellent use of the stunning scenery of Bhutan, from mountain to forest. Dondup made for an amusing protagonist with his sneakers, boom-box, denim gho (Bhutanese garment), and his undeserved arrogance. Although the film’s message wasn’t a subtle one – learn to appreciate your own place instead of chasing after castles in the air – it was allowed to evolve gently and humorously, and Dondup’s fate (like that of his companions) is left unresolved.

Although clearly aimed at a Western audience, presumably riding on the success of Norbu’s previous film The Cup, the message of the film touches on something I can well believe is an issue for Bhutan, and indeed many other countries: the fleeing of youth from ‘traditional’ ways of life in the country to the attractions of city-living or even to foreign countries. Certainly successive Bhutanese governments have taken weighty legislative steps towards ‘securing’ Bhutanese culture – legislation which raises a lot of ethical questions for a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country, and which has led to disturbing human rights abuses. On the one hand, the film’s message of valuing what you have is an easy one to sympathise with, as is the country’s pioneering concept of Gross Domestic Happiness (instead of GDP). On  the other, the film rings somewhat false considering the number of Bhutanese refugees who actually have fled to the US and elsewhere because ethnic discrimination in Bhutan rendered them stateless and without access to many basic human rights.

Another aspect of the film that I found a tad grating was how much of a boy’s film it was. The two female roles in the film, Sonam and Deki, both seemed to exist solely as a sexual/romantic lure for each story’s male protagonist. Deki is the object of Tashi’s fantasies and is the impetus for his moral journey. Sonam embodies the allure of domesticity and village life that just might tempt Dondup into staying in Bhutan, and thus is key to his moral journey. In this sense they can be seen as props, existing to help develop the male protagonists, rather than developing as characters in their own right. I wanted to know how Deki ended up in her horrible marriage, and why Tashi didn’t take any action to stop her abuse (other than fantasising about removing his rival and claiming Deki for himself)? I wanted to know more about Sonam’s decision to abandon her education in order to support her father, and how she felt about that. But the unhappy positions of these women were just taken for granted. (However, the fact that before their respective suitors turned up, both Sonam and Deki’s lives revolved around caring for an old man is perhaps less a problem related to the film and more a problem in Bhutanese society: according to UN Women, Bhutanese women are in reality faced with major domestic burdens.)

In sum, this film offers a beautiful glimpse of a country that is among the less accessible in Asia. Travellers and Magicians showcases traditional Bhutanese dress, music and sports (archery), as well as a pervasive (Buddhist?) laissez-faire mentality of contentedness and appreciating what’s around you. I’ve mentioned a couple of gripes regarding the film’s narrative treatment of women, and how the film’s message is something of a slap in the face to Bhutanese refugees, but otherwise it was an enjoyable mix of spell-binding cinematography, gentle humour, and simplistic moral lessons.

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Angola: Hollow City

(2004, dir: Maria João Ganga; language: Portuguese; original title: Na Cidade Vazia)

Hollow City is set in 1991, during the Angolan Civil War that had been raging since the 70s. The film follows 12-year-old N’Dala (Roldan Pinto João), who has just witnessed the murder of his parents and the destruction of his rural village Bié. Although traumatised, N’Dala is rescued along with some other children by a missionary nun and brought to the capital city, Luanda. There, he runs away and begins wandering the city, seeing its various sides and meeting diverse inhabitants, including the kindly fisherman Antonio, the fiery and selfish Rosita, an impulsive older boy Zé (Domingos Fernandes Fonesca), and Zé’s friendly but dangerous cousin Joka.

I chose Hollow City partly because it is one of the first Angolan feature films to be directed by a woman, and because I was intrigued by the intentions Ganga said she had for the film, namely to depict everyday life in Angola without sensationalising war:

N’Dala is an orphan and a refugee of war. He travels in a world devoid of prospects, living at the fast and reckless pace of survival… N’Dala’s story is fairly common in the everyday life of Angola and it would be too easy to fall into the sensationalism of war. Our good conscience, eased, will survive the gunshots, but N’Dala will not… As an Angolan woman I saw the day-to-day turbulence of Luanda, which, despite the recently-established peace, will continue to see for years to come, many children in its streets.

Watching the film, Ganga achieves this ambition through showing us the psychological violence of war, rather than action scenes. Throughout the film, the war is a threatening atmosphere, not totally stopping people’s everyday activities, but colouring them with fear and pessimism. As for N’Dala, his blurred and confused PTSD-flashbacks provide in many ways a more powerful idea of what it must actually be like to have lost your family through violence than if the viewer had simply seen them killed outright.

For me, another strength of the film was how it managed to take on what Ganga calls “the turbulence of Luanda”, exploring some of the more depressing sides of the city, without inviting any kind of patronising pity on the part of the viewer. Honest depictions of many of the problems facing African countries can easily play into popular European images of Africa as either inherently backward or irrevocably and unambiguously screwed up. It was one of the things that bugged me about Blood Diamond – the repeated phrase “TIA, this is Africa”, and the notion that the only way Africans can improve their lot is by leaving! Not only do these notions homogenise an entire continent, and the complex web of historic and contemporary causes and effects that shape the lives of its people today, they allow non-Africans to reduce these people to objects of suffering, rather than people who still, day after day, eat and sleep and make friends and meet challenges and solve problems and tell stories, etc. In Hollow City, however, the audience is guided by N’Dala – a charming, vulnerable, resourceful, loyal, daring, and strong-willed protagonist who leads a cast of other characters who each deal with life’s problems and pleasures in their own way. The viewer is presented with a city of landscapes and characters not so different from those to be found on other continents. In this way, the problems facing Angola are disassociated from the “This is Africa” narrative, and make room for a story that is fully human.

The film’s evocative cinematography made the most of the urban setting, to the extent that Luanda almost became a character in its own right. In contrast to films such as Algeria’s Chronicle of the Years of Fire (reviewed last week), which gloried in pastoral motifs as a symbol of national identity, Hollow City confronts both the viewer and N’Dala with a confused jostle of environments and identities. N’Dala misses his village, and prefers to sleep on the beach in Luanda with the fisherman, surroundings that remind him more of home. But Bié is gone and there can be no return. In the city, soldiers are juxtaposed with school children, Christian saints with an Angolan sea goddess, lively parties with empty streets after curfew. It’s hard to know how everything fits together, or what people really believe. It’s hard for N’Dala to find his place there (in a heart-breaking insight into the sorrow of refugees, N’Dala is bent on ‘escaping’ back to his decimated village, believing it to be the only place he can reconnect with his parents’ souls). If Chronicle was trying to construct an Algerian national identity, Hollow City depicts the scramble of a urbanising country torn by civil war, with cities flooded by internally displaced people trying to cope with their trauma and sorrows and make a new life; a country exploding with possibilities and lacking in security.

While the film was excellent cinematically, the weaknesses of the film are in many ways the somewhat muddled script. Attempts to draw some kind of parallel between N’Dala and N’Gunga are confusing and ineffective, and occasional cutaways to the desperate search of the nun for runaway N’Dala are more distracting than anything else. Further, the end left me wondering what the film was actually saying, if anything. Without giving away too much, what begins as a lively adventure of the country boy in the big city (a feeling boosted by a decidedly jaunty soundtrack), gradually becomes more sinister – revealing perhaps the answer to N’Gunga’s question: “are people the same everywhere, thinking only of themselves?” And yet not all the people N’Dala meets are like that – the nun, the fisherman and especially his friend Zé all take pains to care for him. Or was the message that the war has destroyed the whole country – that Luanda is no safer for the internal refugees than the massacres they have fled from? Or is it just a portrait of a country in turmoil, shown through the eyes of one of its inhabitants?

As a final note, I will say that this film was fascinating for me personally, as I have (as of yet) never set foot upon the African continent. It was wonderful to get a rich glimpse of a living and breathing African city, in contrast to all the grass huts and refugee camps that a lot of Western media seems to insist are the only structures to be found below the Sahara. Knowing about the rapid urbanisation many African countries is one thing, but seeing it is another. It also really brought home the bizarreness of colonialism – hearing this European language, from a country that isn’t exactly prominent in today’s Europe, and seeing all this colonial architecture – somehow seeing it in a new place brings the wrongness of it home again.

Final verdict, a thoroughly enjoyable and involving film, which compensates for a somewhat flawed script with powerful cinematography, lively music, and above all a well-acted and charming protagonist.