The Miscreants of Taliwood, dir. George Gittoes
Nénette, dir. Nicolas Philibert
I recently spent a week at the Warsaw Documentary Film Festival. The two films that made the deepest impression on me – The Miscreants of Taliwood, by George Gittoes, about the film industry in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, and Nénette, by Nicolas Philibert, about an elderly female orangutan in Paris’ Jardin des Plantes Zoo – were almost diametrically opposed in terms of subject matter and approach.
A professor of mine used to say there were two kinds of historian: those who approach their subject from the vantage point of a skydiver, and those that examine it with the eyes of a truffle hunter. The same holds true for documentaries; these two films work at those extremes. Nicolas Philibert’s close, unobtrusive gaze, even steadier and calmer than in the already meditative To Be and To Have (2002), mark him as a quintessential truffle hunter, while in the vertiginous first scenes of Miscreants, George Gittoes practically trails a parachute.
Miscreants begins in Islamabad in 2007, during the so-called Siege of the Red Mosque, when a large group of Islamic militants holed up in an urban mosque for nine days while withstanding an assault from the Pakistani Army. Gittoes is right there, dodging gunfire and filming the final assault, while his assistant films him filming it. Soon thereafter, he learns about the world of Pashto-language film, and decides to check it out. Small but (until recently) prolific, the industry is a sort of miniature Bollywood. It is centered in Peshawar, capital of the Northwest Frontier Province, which is also the home territory of the Taliban and the suspected residence of Osama Bin Laden. Distributed on DVD through a network of bazaar stalls, the ‘Taliwood’ films are hugely popular, but their mix of zany violence and outrageously heightened romantic melodrama puts them at odds with fundamentalist politics. When Gittoes first meets the directors and distributors, they have been coming under attack from suicide bombers and urban militias. Nonetheless, when Gittoes learns that it only costs $3,000 to make a film, he decides to make two.
The two films – a comedy and an action-drama – that result from his collaboration with Peshawar’s actors and directors are works of magnificent goofiness. The Taliwood industry caters to a poor, often illiterate public, which has limited contact with the outside world. It expects the basics from cinema: slapstick, explosions and dance numbers (or, pretty much what the rest of the world wants).
In the action film, Gittoes plays a sinister American agent facing off against a local Sufi/Holy Warrior, played by Javed Musazai, one of the biggest stars and producers in the Taliwood scene. Edited down to the few clips shown in the documentary, the movie looks like a deliriously enjoyable orgy of mountain-top shootouts, violently sworn oaths and exploding blood packs. The blood packs spill over into the rest of the movie, functioning as an artistic leitmotif; every so often while Gittoes is filming or interviewing one bursts on his chest, drenching him in what look like gallons of fake blood.
The comedy stars two dwarves (a fixture in Taliwood comedies), one an industry veteran, the other an illiterate ice-seller talent-scouted at the bazaar. The two play Presidents Musharraf and Bush. They engage in a hotel room brawl and are then forced, for reasons which eluded me, to kick box in a chicken coop. While the humor in this feature might not completely translate for Western audiences, it does suggest the exciting possibility of affinity between Taliwood films and middle-period BuÃ±uel or early Herzog.
The two self-financed films make up only a part of The Miscreants of Taliwood. Gittoes surrounds them with scenes from the production, interviews with the actors, visits to their homes and conversations with the shopkeepers who distribute their films. Along the way he reveals both the liberating and the seedy side of the industry. Although it provides a rare creative outlet and livelihood for hundreds of people, the film trade does not offer much prestige or security, especially for women. One actress admits that acting was a last resort to provide for her daughters when she became a widow; for another it was a way station to an extraordinarily hazardous career in pornography.
A more pressing worry comes from Islamic militants. By the time Gittoes arrives in Pakistan, fundamentalists managed virtually to quash the industry through a campaign of terror – kidnappings, death threats, and bombings. Investigating the source of this violence, he manages to interview the head of the Taliban government in a town on the Afghan border, who assures him that films are not in accordance with the Koran. Back in Peshawar, he films the inside of a Shi’ite mosque after a suicide-bomb attack, as grieving family member point out the blood stains left by their loved ones.
Despite this excursion into politics, Miscreants is not a film governed by a thesis. Gittoes films anything interesting that comes into view, not limiting himself to the film industry or to Islamic militancy. He is an extraordinarily affable guide, and with his long hair and gray beard he manages to seem at home in a variety of Pakistani environments. Everywhere he goes he finds something unexpected. Talking to some young men, he probes the world of male prostitution and homosexuality in the North West Frontier Province, even finding a pedicab-brothel. In a Sufi Shrine, he meets an impossibly wizened hundred-and-five year old Sufi sage, who tells him that Sufism is learnt not from books but from “the company of Sufis.”
The Miscreants of Taliwood represents a new form of immersive, participatory documentary making. It is not so much a blending of fact and fiction as it is a film in which fact always manages to outpace and outdistance fiction. In one extraordinary scene, the fake Sufi-Samurai from Gittoes’ movie visits a real Sufi shrine, and gets mistaken for a real saint. Gittoes frets about what will happen if the adoring crowd finds out the truth.
By the end of the film, the Taliwood industry has been completely shut down and Gittoes’ collaborators are out of work or in hiding. Their DVDs are no longer sold in the bazaars (although before the ban was in place, his own two movies sell 40,000 copies each), whose merchants have been driven out by a string of arsons and bombings. Gittoes shows some of the videos which have replaced them, videos made as recruiting tools for various militant groups. Once, which he shows briefly, depicts any incredibly graphic, brutally slow beheading committed by a child. Amid all the cartoon pretend violence of the rest of the documentary, Gittoes’ use of this footage does not come across as exploitation but as a powerful argument in favor of fake gore over real.
Where Miscreants is a film of restless curiosity, Nénette is a film of sustained attention. Its subject is an elderly female orangutan who has lived the last thirty-seven of her forty years in the same enclosure of the Jardin des Plantes Zoo in Paris. Philibert’s camera never leaves the orangutan enclosure; every image in the film is of Nénette and her fellow orangutans. They stretch, play, and suspend themselves from a jungle gym. Nénette, older and more sedate, spends most of her days sitting still and looking out at the visiting crowd. She has outlived three husbands, raised four children. For a time she was a media star. Later, she went into surly withdrawal as her son began to receive more attention. Now she seems at peace. We watch her bury herself in straw, wrapping herself in a plastic sheet, and eat some yogurt.
While Nénette goes through her daily routine, Philbert plays different voices play in the background – Nénette’s keepers, zoo-goers of various nationalities, and longtime admirers. An artist describes the pleasure of sketching Nénette, remarking on her cylindrical stolidity and interplay of masses and volumes. An actor sees the makings of an acting exercise in her stillness, remarking on its “virtuosic languor.” Mostly the visitors wonder what she is thinking – whether she is happy, whether she is sad, whether she sees them.
Orangutans are among the most cipher-like of primates. They hardly ever vocalize, except on occasion to produce a bellowing warning call which echoes for miles across the tree-tops. Their leathery faces are a bit like masks; their large yellowish eyes are their most expressive feature. This blankness makes them a natural object for speculation.
For the visitors to the Jardin des Plantes, Nénette is a kind of mirror, allowing them to project their fantasies of the animal mind. Philibert’s patient camera lets us see her as a being in her own right. His film is an exercise in deep concentration and an invitation to another rhythm of existence.
An Indonesian legend says that orangutans know how to speak, but don’t because they know that if they did they would be made to work. Even in her silence Nénette remains an attraction. The Miscreants of Taliwood, despite the horrors that surround it, transmits the giddy pleasures that go into spectacle-making. Nénette submits to the steady flow of existence that lies behind it.