If the Castro Theatre is the church of San Francisco cinephilia, then the Yerba Buena screening room is surely its laboratory—it’s only too fitting that leading curator Joel Shepard is spotlighting the idiosyncratic programming voices of five San Francisco independents for the museum’s upcoming Bay Area Now exhibition. Besides rounding up important international features (e.g. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone) and oddball retrospectives (e.g. Phil Chambliss: Arkansas Auteur), Shepard also has a penchant for screening otherwise unhyped films which do not hew to typical genre norms. A case in point is A Listener’s Tale, a lovely if unclassifiable mixture of ethnography and poetic reverie which screened at last winter’s Rotterdam Film Festival.
In spite of the earnest attempts of academic critics to problematize both the conception and consumption of filmed representations of indigenous "others," filmmakers have been drawn to exotic cultures and landscapes since the Lumiére Brothers first introduced lightweight cameras. Bengali filmmaker Arghya Basu didn’t have too far to travel to reach the Northeast Indian state of Sikkim, but the Buddhist population nestled into its ancient Himalayan landscape must have seemed remarkable to him. A Listener’s Tale is first and foremost a sensuous evocation of this place’s unique historical-spiritual-geographical coordinates.
Basu signals a wry self-awareness of the limits of the ethnographic quest for authenticity by mixing beautiful close-ups of actual ruins of centuries-old Tibetan temples with shots of Buddhist statues in modern storefronts (and internet photo galleries). In a similar vein, a local relays a telling anecdote about a German tourist wanting to buy a lama’s sole possession—a dirty wooden cup—only to renege when the teacher cleaned his dish-wear, thereby spoiling the European’s pious fantasy. Even without these markers, though, A Listener’s Tale‘s prosaic, non-narrative form couldn’t be farther from Nanook of the North‘s linear explication. Basu relays Sikkimese history and folklore in frequent intertitles, but without chronology or annotations. We get the general sense of the landlocked state’s confluence of different peoples (Lepchas, Bhutias, Tibetans) and its sacred roots in Tibetan Buddhism dating back to the 8th century, but Basu emphasizes aphorisms and ethereality in his evocations of history.
In shifting the stakes of ethnographic documentary towards an appreciation of mysticism and mystery, A Listener’s Tale makes for an interesting comparison with Into Great Silence, another product of a filmmaker’s lengthy immersion. Indeed, early shots of an abandoned monastery with windows awash in natural light wouldn’t be out of place in Philip Gröning’s narration-less documentary of life and prayer in the Grande Chartruse. But whereas Gröning’s is dogmatically austere, Basu evokes Sikkim’s myriad landscape with an overtly lyrical, sometimes florid weave of sight and sound. Smoke, fog, glass and manipulated light pulsate the image, while natural sounds melt into chimes and Terry Riley-like synthesizer drones (the film is, among other things, a head-trip). A scene in which locals burn weeds to "reclaim" ruins is especially exquisite. Meanwhile, A Listener’s Tale seems to grow more intimate as it goes along, focusing on individual faces and obliquely referring to the filmmaker’s cooperation with a chummy historian. Fans of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mysterious objects will find much to savor in Basu’s unusual hybrid, a film of placid surfaces and swift currents.
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