Poetry from the polar region
Held once in two years, the Mumbai International Film Festival brings to light some remarkable shorts and documentaries. The 2002 edition opens on February 3 and will feature the Norwegian film, ``Cool and Crazy," one of the best in the documentary genre made in the past year. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN captures its lyrical quality.
``Cool and Crazy''... full emotional impact.
``AREN'T YOU going to see any Norwegian film?'' asked an Oslo journalist whom I met at the ``Films from the South'' festival in her city last year. The event showcased only films from the third world. Norway makes some 10 films a year, which remain largely unknown outside the nation.
We do know that it is keen on children's films. However, with the help of the staff at the Norsk Film Institute, it became possible to view video screenings of recent productions. That is how ``Heftig and Begeistret'' (the title is Anglicised as ``Cool and Crazy'') became my favourite documentary film of 2001.
No wonder The Guardian (London) went lyrical over it, ``Why should anyone want to see a film about a choir from a Norwegian fishing village? Simple: ``Cool and Crazy'' is the best movie about music since ``Buona Vista Social Club.'' For many reasons, this 105-minute record of the choir of all-male, mostly senior citizen members (the oldest is 96) becomes an unforgettable experience for viewers.
It has an exotic location, the village Berlevag, a hamlet with an uninterrupted, close-up view of the North Pole, where the sun shines briefly and the snow seems eternal. Founded in 1917, the choir has been active in the fisher-folk's cultural life for the past 84 years. We don't have to ask why film-maker, Knut Eric Jensen, decided to document the life of the choir on and off the stage. Born in Honningvag high up on the Scandinavian map, his award winning features with names like ``Stella Polaris,'' ``Burnt by Frost'' and ``Passing Darkness.''
How could the man not be obsessed with northern lights and Polar sights? Jensen's film not only became a runaway hit in the country (among its five biggest grossers ever), and the favourite of film festivals everywhere, it has also made international stars of the 30 choir members, now on great demand for live shows in Europe and across the U.S. Even in blase New York, their recitals were a sellout, and the singers were invariably feted and acclaimed by critics and audiences.
Jensen tells you how the subject virtually chose him on a late autumn day, when he happened to go to the village community centre to hear its choir after a feature film shoot in the region. ``A cold northwester swept snow horizontally through the streets of the small town...From the very first note I was carried away.
Here, at the very edge of the world, a motley group of grown men stood singing gravely, powerfully, and passionately. Through this choir, men had sought refuge from the daily grind into a world of ballads, hymns and full-blown marches, into the Song of Berlevag.''
What Jensen does is to capture the contrast the daily grind and the full blown rhapsody, the hard struggles in making a living out of harsh economic conditions, shrinking trade, declining fishing industry, as also the triumph of the soul in making the song soar above sleet and snow storm. The choristers come alive as individual characters in a micro world.You see their endearing idiosyncrasies, stubborn stances and unquenchable spirit, captured in interviews, in interactions at home, in rehearsals, and on the road touring. The camera is often mischievous.
The fiery Communist will not admit to flaws in the Soviet ideology, even when confronted with the ravaged landscape and poor living conditions in Murmansk and the men remain doughty and irreverent as they ride their wheelchairs and face the problems of old age. They can be excited at the prospect of meeting young and pretty Babushkas, signing autographs, and pouring out their best indoors and out.
The impact of landscape and culture on art is best seen in the opening and closing sequences. The former shows the choir singing through wailing wind and snow, with the breakwaters of the Barent Sea for dazzling audio-visual effect. The sensational, breathtaking finale has their voices reverberating in the snowscape, faces flattened to scarlet circles, unaware of frozen brows and eyelashes, and icicles hanging from noses. The impeccable, full-throated music goes on until the visual vanishes in the ferocious storm. The clarity of the singing is perfectly matched by the clarity of the lensview.
We are not surprised that `` Cool and Crazy'' has become a cult film for the Norwegians, their symbol of survival against overwhelming adversity both manmade and natural. Within a year, this joke of the ageing chorister in remote Murmansk has come true.
The latest worry, however, is that their real life takes them on long foreign tours, exhausting to men of their age, and to community/cultural life in sparse Berlevag. Some people are also dismayed by the lowering thought that their choristers are seen less as professional singers in the sophisticated metros of the world; they have more curiosity value for their docufilm stardom!
The film shows how ordinary lives can be extraordinary, and how extraordinary events can be seen as no different from the ordinary.
The reflective moments are in visuals as in words. A singer says quizzically, ``Why strive for more when you have a fulfilling life?'' Then you know that fulfilment is not a tangible, material achievement; it is a state of mind. Perhaps you have to stay cool (and somewhat crazy) under all kinds of weather, to reach that simple truth.
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