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Life, death & music—making connections

Dan Edwards: Melbourne International Film Festival

Jalanan Jalanan
In an age in which many people’s experience of popular music comprises corporatised pre-packaged pap masquerading as televised talent quests, it’s easy to forget what a powerful agent of change music can be. An unexpected thread affirming the possibilities of musical expression bound a diverse range of documentaries at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).


This debut feature from Canadian-born, Bali-based Daniel Ziv was the surprise hit of MIFF, deservedly taking out the People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary. Mixing casual interviews and observational footage, the film sparkles with the personality of its three subjects—Ho, Boni and Titi—as they eke out a living busking on Jakarta’s public buses. They don’t rely on regurgitated Neil Young songs however. These performers often pen their own tunes, rife with satire and loaded political comment. At one point, for example, we hear the dreadlocked Ho calling for Indonesia to hang officials who have corrupted the nation. Boni also sings of current events and life on the street, drawing on his experiences living under a road bridge for the last decade. Titi is one of the few female buskers working the capital, using her sweet voice to support herself as she tries to gain a high school certificate as a mature-age student.

Over the five years traced by the film, the lives of Ho, Boni and Titi undergo some radical and unexpected transformations. Despite the hardships they endure, the overriding tone of the film stresses empowerment through creative expression, a feeling reinforced by Titi’s presence at the MIFF screenings. A season of Jalanan at a Jakarta cinema has apparently made Titi something of a star in her homeland, and she played at several campaign rallies for the popularist new president-elect, Joko Widodo. An inspiring story about our rapidly transforming northern neighbour.

Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets

Expecting another standard issue rockumentary, I’d skipped over Florian Habicht’s film about British rock act Pulp when making my MIFF selections. But a ticket landed in my hand at the last minute through a stroke of luck for which I’m now grateful. Unlike most rock documentaries, Habicht’s film doesn’t take the viewer’s love of the band for granted. In fact, the film is only peripherally about the group. Its real interest is in the origins of Pulp’s music on the streets of Sheffield, and what their songs mean to those who live in the city. This very un-hagiographic approach is all the more surprising given the film was made in collaboration with Pulp’s frontman, Jarvis Cocker.

Habicht structures his film around Pulp’s final concert in their northern hometown at the end of a 2012 reunion tour. In the days leading up to the gig, he talks informally with Cocker and other band members, as well as many people on the streets of Sheffield. The diehard fans are here, as you’d expect. But so is a wonderfully eccentric newspaper hawker, a former colleague of Cocker’s in a local market, a wayward young couple living rough, and a range of elderly locals who would have been grey even in Pulp’s heyday of the mid-1990s.

The result is a cross-generational ode to the importance of popular music in British culture. It’s a measure of the film’s achievement that I came out a Pulp convert—not so much for what I saw of the band, but for the down-to-earth honesty they convey through their involvement in a down-to-earth project. Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets is a timely reminder of just how intelligent and poignant pop music can be.

Jai Bhim Comrade Jai Bhim Comrade
Jai Bhim Comrade

Part of MIFF’s India in Flux strand of contemporary documentaries from the subcontinent, Jai Bhim Comrade is an epic work from one of India’s master documentarians, Anand Patwardhan. Fourteen years in the making, it traces the struggles of India’s Dalit Caste (the so-called “untouchables”) in the wake of a massacre by police at a protest in 1997. It does so from a grassroots perspective, homing in on Dalit activism through performance and song.

The level of detail presented here through interviews, voiceover narration, observational footage and videoed performances is not easy to digest, especially for viewers not familiar with India’s complex history or intricate caste system. But Jai Bhim Comrade provides a fascinating insight into the country’s recent political upheavals from a point of view we never see on nightly news bulletins.

The film begins with the death of Dalit singer Vilas Ghogre, who hangs himself in the wake of the 1997 massacre. Over the next decade and a half we follow attempts to bring the police involved in the killings to justice, as well as the broader fight for empowerment of the Dalit caste. All of this takes place against a backdrop of rising Hindu nationalism, signified by the ascendance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Frighteningly, Patwardhan’s camera shows that due to a systematic campaign of disinformation by the BJP confusion reigns in the Dalit community about who was in government in 1997.

Jai Bhim Comrade concludes with the police commander who ordered the 1997 shootings finally sentenced to life imprisonment, 14 years after the event. He is released a week later, pending an appeal that is yet to be heard. Meanwhile, Dalit musicians of the radical Kabir Kala Manch group, who perform pro-democratic, anti-caste plays and songs in rural villages, are forced into hiding as they are accused of links with Maoist Naxalite rebels.

Jai Bhim Comrade is engrossing if challenging viewing for anyone wanting to better grasp the social dynamics at play in present day India and the country’s politicised street-level culture.

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll

In the spirit of Golden Slumbers (Davy Chou, 2012), a documentary about Cambodia’s vanished cinema, John Pirozzi’s Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten attempts to unearth the lost history of Cambodian popular music of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Although the film’s subtitle reads “rock and roll,” the nation’s pop of the era comprised a diverse array of crooners, Latin-Cuban dance bands, folk singers and surf guitar groups.

Pirozzi tries to cover a lot in two hours. As well as 25-odd years of music history, he sketches the political backdrop of the war in neighbouring Vietnam and the disastrous impact it had on Cambodia. A US-backed coup against the neutral government of Norodom Sihanouk in 1970 provoked a civil war that led to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime taking control of the country in 1975. Khmer Rouge rule extinguished virtually all forms of culture and resulted in the death of around a third of the population, including many famous musicians.

With so much to cover, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is more about breadth than depth, but the film snappily conveys the joy popular music brought to Cambodian society as it opened up and diversified during the relatively stable years of Sihanouk’s rule. Soberingly, the film also illustrates how culture provided little defence in the face of a regime as murderous as the Khmer Rouge.

If films like Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten and Jai Bhim Comrade show some of the limitations of music as a form of cultural resistance, they also affirm that whatever the vicissitudes of history, grassroots creative expressions can always be found pulsating beneath the surface of every society. Through the unexpected connections running through these very different documentaries at this year’s MIFF, audiences were reminded of just how much music can mean when it comes from the heart and speaks to the lives of everyday people.

Melbourne International Film Festival, various venues, 31 July-17Aug

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 16

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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