OPEN MIC: Carnival Barking, or the Art of Reviewing Films

Will Stephenson—film student, columnist, curator, radio host and friend of GFI—looks at SOUL OF SAND and his own process for critiquing films

As an amateur critic and programmer based in Athens, Georgia, I spend a lot of time arguing the merits of films that many readers and viewers are otherwise just as happy ignoring, like stop-motion animation from the Czech Republic or 1940s zombie movies based on Jane Eyre. This is almost always rewarding and sometimes shockingly easy, as the greatness and/or strangeness of the objects can often speak for themselves, in which cases my job (which I feel lucky to have, even at an unprofessional level) consists of something like carnival barking.

But in writing about new art-house releases or curating a series with no readymade theme, the challenge (and appeal) generally involves attempting to dispel certain preconceptions about genres, national cinemas, and canons—all of which begin as useful classifications or critical tools, but can very easily lead to a disheartening reduction in the types of films people see and the ways they relate to them. The best critics work to collapse tired categories and oversimplifications, contesting and expanding our received notions about the medium. They surprise us, basically. And not to lapse into boosterism, but this is also a way of describing the Global Film Initiative’s objective, and it’s why I’ve enjoyed interning here. The films we distribute are difficult in that they come from disparate contexts and can operate on unfamiliar wavelengths, but they also strive for a kind of intense accessibility—thus the “cross-cultural understanding” part.

A good illustration of this paradox is Sidharth Srinivasan’s genuinely strange Soul of Sand, part of this year’s Global Lens series. The hero of the film is a meek-voiced everyman, a well-intentioned but credulous pushover. As a watchman absurdly tasked with guarding an abandoned mine, Bhanu is the vacant center around which the film’s deranged universe revolves. “The world is waiting for you,” his friend drunkenly advises, but Bhanu doesn’t seem to agree, or even really care.  At his post for hours on end, blank-faced and wielding his laughably ineffectual staff, he is content in his total deference to the callous authority of “The Master.”

This is the sinister logic of Srinivasan’s film, in which a bleak chain of submission and exploitation links a set of characters as distinctive as they are oddly familiar. If Bhanu is an icon of passive bewilderment, he finds his opposite in the film’s most bizarre villain, a disturbingly efficient, axe-wielding bounty hunter (called “The Stranger” in the closing credits) pitched somewhere between Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name and the demonic biker from Raising Arizona. The film is structured on these sorts of contrasts, unhappy clashes between forces unable to coexist: an opening montage starts with wide-open fields and discarded huts, then shifts sharply to smog and traffic and industrial atmosphere, a transition marked by a street sign boasting the phrase “Building a Better Future.”

Of course, the characters in Soul of Sand have no futures. The film’s grim vision of a modernity haunted by traces of archaic value systems doesn’t leave them many options. Accordingly, the filmmakers blend art-house influences with horror and thriller conventions, forming something in-between, difficult to classify. Meditative stretches of dreams or boredom are interspersed with brash, pulp action, a balancing act that succeeds more often than not. The hallucinatory quality of the violence seems indebted to filmmakers like Buñuel (a stated influence), Franju, and Cronenberg, while the unsettling score by Jona Kompa, with its synth strings and deep, resonating room tones, recalls Angelo Badalamenti’s work with David Lynch. Srinivasan’s is unmistakably a distinct cinematic voice, however, and Soul of Sand works as a startling and imaginative engagement with India’s present.

And really the film is successful exactly for its subversion of that lazy binary opposition between pop and high-art that trails so many discussions of Indian cinema (and really any kind of cinema), pitting Bollywood against the social realism of a Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak. Soul of Sand dodges the pigeonhole and goes for broke in the process. It’s a fun viewing and an uncomfortable viewing, and what’s the difference?

Will Stephenson studies Film and Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia in Athens, where he works as a DJ for radio station WUOG, film columnist for the magazine Athens Food & Culture, and curator for a weekly film series sponsored by the university’s arts initiative, Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE). He is currently an intern at the Global Film Initiative.

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