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In 1947, Britain’s South Asian possessions were sliced into India, West Pakistan, and East Pakistan. Families, regions, and traditions were sundered, in a process that didn’t end with the initial partition. The Clay Bird, the debut fiction film by documentarian Tareque Masud, is set in the late ’60s, when East Pakistan was about to separate violently from its western counterpart and become Bangladesh. But this delicate, semiautobiographical movie also evokes the forced rupture between Hindu and Muslim Bengalis, in part by recalling the early work of the great Indian Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
The story opens in a strict Islamic madrasa of the sort seen in recent films from and about Iran and Afghanistan. Though this madrasa isn’t as rigid as some—one of the faculty members could almost be called a liberal—it’s still a shock for the new boy, Anu (Nurul Islam Bablu). He previously lived in the countryside, where Muslims and Hindus mingle easily, and he was close to his mother, Ayesha (Rokeya Prachy), and younger sister, Asma (Lameesa Rheemjheem). His herbalist father, Kazi (Jayanto Chattopadhyay), having become much more pious since his days as a Westernized young man, was outraged to learn that his son attended a Hindu festival, even though Anu went with Kazi’s brother, Milon (Soaeb Islam). To protect Anu from “Hindu garbage”—and easygoing, undevout Milon—Kazi sent his son upriver for an orthodox education.
Anu doesn’t fit right in at the madrasa. His shaggy hair is considered “impious”—although it’s not actually very long—and his name is rejected as non-Islamic. Officially renamed Anwar, Anu naturally gravitates to the school’s other outsider, an orphan named Rokon (Russell Farazi). Rokon is left-handed—unacceptable for copying the Koran—and has a ringing in his ears that his teachers mistake for some sort of evil possession. (Their cure involves a dunking in the river, a rite that seems rather Hindu.) Back in Anu’s hometown, Kazi is no more astute in his diagnoses, and he rejects the use of antibiotics to disastrous effect. After one of his patients dies, a disheartened Kazi stops dispensing his homemade elixirs. But he still has one more belief to be crushed: Convinced that his “Muslim brothers” from West Pakistan will never hurt his people, Kazi is stunned when a vote for increased East Pakistani autonomy—supported by Milon—is answered by West Pakistani troops who burn houses and massacre their fellows at random.
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Initially banned by the Bangladeshi government for addressing “religiously sensitive” issues, The Clay Bird is hardly an anti-Islam screed. A simple, lyrical tale with a childlike perspective that recalls Ray’s Pather Panchali, the film details a series of shocks to Anu’s innocence: In short order, he’s torn from his family and home, and encounters death, war, and chaos. Masud is more interested in conveying Anu’s experience than in telling us what to think about it, so religious and political options are presented both as a series of options and as part of the landscape. Anu’s well-meaning teacher extols the role of Sufism, arguing that true Islam can never be imposed by force; Milon and his friends debate whether Marxism is a real solution or just another untransplantable idea from the West; and a male-and-female duo sings ditties that chide listeners for not being better Muslims.
That Masud’s title refers to both a toy Anu gives Asma and the subject of a metaphysical song is appropriate: The movie is a memoir, a reverie, a parable, and more. Unlike many autobiographical works, it’s neither self-justifying nor judgmental. With tender humor and understated pathos, The Clay Bird depicts a single family and a larger society—and gently suggests that there’s no one way that the two must fit together.
In many Western novels and films, both the jungle and the desert exist primarily as places where genteel voyagers lose their humanity and locate the unearthly. Limit that premise merely to the desert and the medium merely to film—saving Bono and Baudrillard for another time—and the list still includes Zabriskie Point; Paris, Texas; The Sheltering Sky; and now Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms. Unlike previous Europeans who’ve gotten lost in and around Death Valley, however, Dumont didn’t need to make the trip to find humankind at its most feral: His two previous movies, The Life of Jesus and Humanité, found plenty of beastliness in the writer-director’s northern French hometown of Bailleul. Though Twentynine Palms arrives as part of Visions Cinema’s “Truly Shocking” series, it offers the director’s least-graphic depictions of animalistic sex and violence. Well, of sex, anyway.
The film opens inside a moving car in the desert, exactly where Gus Van Sant’s recent Gerry did. Indeed, for much of its 119 minutes, Twentynine Palms plays like Gerry with copulation. In real-time segments that are both irksome and mesmerizing, David (David Wissack) and Katia (Katia Golubeva) drive around, bicker, stop, marvel at the vistas, and fuck. David seems to be scouting for something, although he doesn’t take photographs or notes. Katia is along for the ride, mostly obliging (notably to David’s libido) but prone to outbursts of jealousy, melancholy, and rage. They speak in a mixture of French (her language) and English (his) but don’t say much. Their relationship is intensely intimate yet distant—just like a Dumont film.
Aside from the otherworldly landscape—which David and Katia sometimes wander naked, like the world’s surliest children of nature—there are few people or events that inspire the two to communicate. Wissack and Golubeva have what are essentially the movie’s only speaking parts, and their occasional bouts of conversation are inspired by such everyday stuff as dogs, soft ice cream, and scratches in the finish of the (rented?) red Hummer that carries them from motel to desert and back. Their existence seems an endless loop—a sensation that’s intensified by a car stereo that emits only two tunes, both of them singsongy Okinawan numbers by Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman.
Like The Clay Bird, Twentynine Palms ends with a paroxysm of violence. Yet Dumont isn’t about to put this eruption into a historical, sociological, or, for that matter, narrative context: His characters attack each other because that’s what people do. Coming from most other French filmmakers, this minimalist horror movie would be a rebuke to the American proclivity for mindless violence, but Dumont has already established his belief that seemingly unmotivated brutality is a universal human trait. If you can accept that, then Twentynine Palms might seem almost profound. If you can’t—or if you kinda liked Gerry—the appeal of Dumont’s film will probably vaporize as soon as the action starts. CP