An Evening of Shorts: Documenting the Past and Its Memories

February 3, 2014

By Antonia Roupell

On Friday 31 January, the audience was taken on a cinematic journey of insights from Tibet, Japan, Romania, Afghanistan and the UAE during an evening of Shorts at the Frontline Club. The selection showed five very different but equally compelling short documentaries. This time the films provoked thoughts on the consequences of tourism on ancient traditions, the dedication of individuals who take on a community’s responsibility and the forming of different memories that, combined, create our history.


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Russel O. Bush’s film Vultures of Tibet was set in the striking Tibetan mountains, home to the monks who continue the ancient tradition of sky burials. The sacred practice offers bodies of the dead to the mountain’s vultures. With cameras at the read and hungry for a spectacle, a new phenomenon of tourists now preys on the burials. The unwelcome invasion of mainly Chinese tourists is depicted in the film as a direct threat to Tibetan culture. With reference to the tourists’ disrespect of the local dead, a monk reflected: “They think death only happens to others not themselves.” The voyeuristic banality of the tourists is in stark contrast to the pensive monks. Although another monk explains that the Chinese tourists are not conscious of their negative impact on their practice, the film painfully echoes wider Chinese–Tibetan tensions.

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The sanctity of identity was even more explicitly explored in the film Recollections by Nathanael Carton. After the 2011 tsunami in Japan, around 750,000 photographs were found severely damaged by the sea near the city of Yamamoto. This film documented a group of Japanese volunteers who repair and reconstruct these photos. When possible the photos are returned to their owners, reuniting them with their memories. One volunteer explained that the photographs act as “proof of their existence”. The photos evidently brought with them the pain of loss but importantly, in some cases, the trigger to move forward.

Following on from Recollections was Layla’s Melody by Jens Pedersen which also deals with family identity and looking to the future. Layla is an Afghan girl growing up in an orphanage. Despite the harsh Taliban stance on women playing musical instruments, she plays the drums and dreams of becoming a musician. Her story took an emotional turn when her mother comes for a rare visit and reassures Layla that she can stay in the orphanage away from the problems plaguing her family. The film was an intimate reminder of the ongoing fight for women’s emancipation in the country.

While the evening’s films dealt with some difficult subject matter they did not lack humorous moments. Feeding 500 by Rafed Al Harthi, follows Sediq, an Indian working in the UAE, who for 15 years has taken it upon himself to feed 500 of its stray cats. As the film demonstrated, this requires a daily routine taking up most of Sediq’s time and money. The underlying question was how his apparent duty to feed the hungry cats could be at the expense of seeing and providing for his family back in India. Nevertheless, Sediq’s jovial and unflinching efforts to feed his furry friends along with his ability to ignore the locals disdain had the audience laughing loudly.

The same can be said of the final film, Stremt 89 by Anda Puscas and Dragos Dulea. Taking us to Romania, the film captured the reflections of its rural village countrymen and women recounting their interpretations of what can only be described as a revolution of sorts. The anti-Communist revolution took place in Romania’s bigger cities in 1989 but the excitements failed to impact the small rural area of Stremt. Evidently this did not deter the local men, who eagerly jumped at the opportunity of change or counterchange (they would decide later). Their enthusiasm was fuelled, much to their wives’ concerns, with local wine and lots of it. Perhaps the only sane man explains how he managed to stop the men killing each other by stealing their bullets. The locals’ witty anecdotes painted a chaotic and honest picture. Some wise words filtered through as an old man declared that he was no longer sure what the fuss was about, saying that revolutions were merely “trading powers”.

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