Monday, March 26, 2012

Fiddles and Accordions

J'ai été au Bal/I Went to the Ball (1989) - Blank/Strachwitz
A comprehensive anthropological survey of Cajun and Zydeco in Southern Louisiana. Blank, a Southerner (born in Florida, schooled in Louisiana), dips right into the subject and the history of the celtic and West Indies infused, fiddles and accordions heavy, impossible-not-to-stomp-your-feet music. It features many of its pioneers and practitioners showing off their skills. I had very little idea of the Cajun culture, so the film is a great history lesson- the Acadians, the descendants of French settlers in Nova Scotia who got kicked out by the British, made the long journey down to Louisiana (French colony at the time) and mixed in with Creole blacks and Cajun was born. Zydeco, also accordion heavy dance hall music (with a rub board thrown in), was derived from beat heavy African music combined with blues. There are also a lot of similarities between Cajun and early Country music. Fascinating from beginning to end, with plenty of amazing, upbeat music, J'ai été au Bal is a lively, colorful documentary about music and its people. Highly recommended.

Disappearing Act

The Island President (2011) - Shenk
In early February this year, Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected (in 2008) president of the republic of Maldives, a tiny nation consists of 1,200 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, was forced to resign in a military coup by the loyalists to Maumood Abdul Gayoom, the former president. This bizarre and tragic turn of event needs the world's attention because Nasheed's victory over Gayoom, an autocrat who ruthlessly ruled the country for 30 years, precedes the Egypt Revolt and the Arab Spring. The Island President's release couldn't have come at any more opportune time than now.

Filmmaker Jon Shenk (Lost Boys of Sudan, The Rape of Europa) documents with unprecedented access, Nasheed's first year in the office as the beacon in the fight against the global warming. For him and the 400,000 Maldivians, the climate issue has direct consequences. The Maldives, considered as the lowest lying nation in the world (mere 1.5 meters above sea level on average), could be under water before 2050 if the carbon emission to the atmosphere keeps up its current pace.

Nasheed, a political activist who was jailed, tortured and exiled before becoming the first democratically elected president, proves to be an unusually shrewd and sophisticated politician who grasped that only way he could stand up to the catastrophic issues of climate change facing his country would be to take his case to the world stage through the power of media. He declares his nation the first country to go carbon neutral within a decade. He holds a symbolic parliament meeting under water with international TV crew in tow. In a good way, with his boundless charm and charisma, Nasheed makes Shenk and his crew his mouthpiece for the cause in exchange for unfettered access to his administration and beyond.
The documentary culminates to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit and Nasheed's eleventh-hour plea to sign an accord on carbon emission. And it's a nail-biter. Shenk and his all-access crew (as part of Nasheed's envoy, not mere journalists), provides a rare glimpse of the political horse-trading that goes on at such a high-level global assembly. While Copenhagen is judged by many as a failure, it marked the first time in history that China, India and the United States agreed to reduce carbon emissions.

From the planes, the coral islands have otherworldly quality. They seem too beautiful to be real. With Radiohead providing haunting soundtrack (14 songs in total!), Shenk serenely records the tropical paradise that could be lost forever.

The Island President has two-week limited engagement, starting March 28th at New York's Film Forum and limited releases in other cities to follow in April.

For more info and tickets, please visit and the film's website

For Radiohead's involvement on the film, please visit their blog