(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2005)
Travellers and Magicians is apparently the first feature film ever shot in Bhutan, and in my naive way, I wonder why this wouldn’t provide a reason for anyone – anyone at all – to choose to see this film over Hitch or Boogeyman or any of the other movies that kicked its ass, financially speaking, the weekend of its release. I mean, whatever one’s affinity for Will Smith or the horror genre (and I certainly bear neither of these any hostility), isn’t it somehow self-evident, for Chrissake, that it would be more worthwhile seeing the first feature film ever shot in Bhutan!? Apparently not. When I say this kind of thing to people, they react as if I’ve veered into anthropology rather than cinema, and they’re not entirely wrong of course. I mean, I feel no urge to seek out the (presumably small) corpus of translated Bhutanese literature, so we all pick our poison. But still, Bhutan versus Boogeyman – it sure doesn’t seem like that close a call.
But you don’t always get the eye opening you expect. My personal emblematic recent experience of “Third World” cinema is Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade, which played at last year’s film festival (and is coming to the Cinematheque). It’s a Senegalese film about female circumcision, and it’s a joy to watch, funny and accessible but driven by a completely different set of aesthetic considerations than we see in American or European film. I always hesitate to pronounce with confidence how much I’ve “learned” from a movie, but even if Moolaade were shown to be narratively and politically disingenuous (which I don’t think it is, but I don’t suppose it’s impossible), even the nature of the lie would be informative. The body of Iranian cinema falls into a similar category, and we’ve seen enough films from Iran now both to feel that we know something real about the country and to get a sense for the country’s cinematic conventions. If it’s only a “sense” on my part, that’s due to my lack of research and study; despite good intentions, I’m more of a tourist than a true traveller in these lands.
Rick Groen, in The Globe and Mail, cited Iranian cinema in his review of Travellers and Magicians, saying that director Khyentse Norbu “has clearly fallen under the influence of Iran’s neo-realist tradition – same theme, same casting” although he then notes Norbu’s greater visual opulence as an important difference. I would have said that that’s putting it mildly. Norbu studied politics and filmmaking in the US, and it shows. His film is about an “officer” in a remote mountain town who gets his chance to go to America, but only if he reaches a nearby town in three days’ time. He grabs his boom box and heads off, but when he misses the bus he’s forced to rely on hitched rides (this on roads that see maybe five vehicles a day). He meets up with other travellers along the way, including a young woman who starts to grow profoundly on him, and a monk who tells a long, mystical (and vaguely parallel) story about a student magician falling under the spell of a mysterious woman. We see this story in episodes, shot in a gauzy style that contrasts with the main narrative’s sunlit exteriors.
The Grass Is Greener
Rather than Iranian cinema, the film that most came to my mind while watching this was Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai, another lush piece of filmmaking pivoting on a familiar theme of a skeptical outsider gradually assimilated into an age-old tradition. The fact that the official here merely dreams of America rather than coming from there makes little effective difference – at the start he’s hyperactive, chain-smoking and stand-offish, going to extremes to demonstrate his difference from the locals, and at the end he’s serene, integrated into the group. Several reviews identify the film as a cautionary fable on the notion of the grass being greener, but this is frankly not a very enterprising game plan, if you’re the first feature film from Bhutan. Norbu has talked in interviews about how spirituality informed the film’s making, but I simply don’t think this is particularly evident in what he generated.
The Bhutanese landscapes are wonderful, and we pick up a few details about the society, but nothing here challenges us or educates us. We've seen many films (or at least had the chance to see them) set at the intersection of old and new worlds (to pick merely the first that comes to mind, The Story of the Weeping Camel was nominated for an Oscar this year) and by that standard Norbu’s film is less anthropologically illuminating than its peers. The film uses non-professionals – for example, the first man he meets, an old apple seller, was apparently played by a genuine apple seller who had trouble understanding the whole concept of movie making, multiple takes and so forth. The apple seller looks authentic enough in the few close-ups of him, but I can see no substantive way in which it matters whether it was an actor or not – he’s not called on to do anything going beyond the fictional and decorative.
A First Step
The film has an ambiguous ending that seems too knowingly so – it seems to withhold easy closure not because it’s reached a point of complexity that warrants this, but merely for the sake of withholding easy closure. By which I mean viewers will merely wonder what happened next, rather than pondering some broader theme or insight.
I’m well aware that by this time the reader may be on the verge of crumpling up the paper in disgust, for it seems that I’m merely beating up on the weakest and most defenseless of victims – rather than sticking the knife into Hitch, what kind of perversity leads one to attack the first feature film ever made in Bhutan? I suppose my defense would have to be that if Travellers and Magicians’s value ultimately lies in its universality and accessibility, then we’re entitled to judge it by universal and accessible criteria. From my brief reading, Bhutan may truly be one of the world’s most distinct societies, and it’s a real shame that the film provides so little sense of it. A few weeks ago I criticized Don McKellar’s Canadian film Childstar for seeming to define itself too much with regard to an American reference point, but at least Canada has the excuse of geographical proximity and cultural similarity. Maybe it took someone like Norbu, schooled in American logistical savvy as well as its aesthetics, to take the first step for Bhutanese cinema, and this seals him a place in film history - a fair-sized footnote at the very least. But it’ll take a little more to justify my initial assumption about its relative superiority to the fare at the multiplex.