Iranian cinema celebrates the everyday. It doesn't glory in 'special' people or events, in spectacle or thrills. It finds the extraordinary in the rhythms of life, in everyday work and chores, in quiet moments.
Take the opening scenes of Secret Ballot. Across an isolated scrubby beach, a soldier staggers with a wooden crate. He prizes it open, takes out a sheet of paper, reads it. He wakes his comrade, who stirs and stolidly puts on his boots, army shirt, cap, gun. He goes off screen to pee. The first soldier takes off his boots, shirt and cap, and gets into the vacated bunk.
It might not sound it, but it's a marvellous, engrossing opening. We're seven minutes into the film before anyone speaks. Director Payami's unhurried scene-setting is making a point: Secret Ballot is about a clash of cultures and perceptions. Into an age-old unhurrying world, an election official (Nassim Abdi) brings: time schedules and hyperactivity - she has until 5.00pm to gather the islanders' votes; limited democracy - her list of approved candidates; and modernity - she's a woman in what has been a man's role.
She's committed and idealistic but she knows nothing of the ways of local people. Women refuse to vote without a man's permission; an old man will only vote if he can vote for God; a married woman wants to vote but can't as she's only 12.
Payami gets fine performances from a non-professional cast. The direction is dead straight and never patronizes: Payami's respect for his characters points out the bureaucratic absurdities and the cultural chasm. He's a satirist with a light, surreal touch.
For all you people who would rather gnaw your own arms off than willingly listen to an entire album of accordion music - Kimmo Pohjonen's Kluster is for you. Really. This wild man of Helsinki is Finland's answer to Björk - and even that doesn't begin to describe exactly what Pohjonen manages to do with a pair of the devil's bellows strapped to his chest.
What's so special? It's a combination of the music - folk melodies adulterated with electronics, voice samples and some sly electro-percussion from Samulti Kosminen - and the performance itself. Pohjonen uses a monster-sized accordion. The size is important. The sounds he wrings from it - the thing almost breathes - are live, feral things. At times, you hear train noises, unearthly wailings and exuberant choral arrangements that might have a link to devotional music, and then again might not. Kluster may be an album made by a musician who's been claimed as a star performer on folk, jazz and classical circuits, but it's also one that busts any genre-fixing attempt wide open.
Nothing prepares the listener for the sheer visceral thrill of Pohjonen's music. Tracks like 'Ohimo', 'Aroma' or 'Voima' set up a rich net of sonorities that are whipped into digital loops, ready to be doubled and trebled up again. Even in his more contemplative moments Pohjonen is nothing less than jaw dropping. Utterly brilliant.
Music of the Himalayas
There's a quality to Rahul Sharma's interpretations of traditional Kashmiri tunes and his own original compositions that is as timeless as it is peaceful. It's a reminder that, whatever else happens in that troubled Himalayan region from which Sharma hails, it is rich in a diversity of music that recognizes no religious or ethnic boundaries.
Music of the Himalayas is a beautifully airy album - just santoor (or stringed zither) coupled with some understated tabla and percussion - that's deceptively simple in its delivery. Sharma - as much a master of the santoor as was his acclaimed father Pandit Shivkumar Sharma - is something of a phenomenon. His virtuosity is in no doubt and it's thanks to him that the ancient instrument is gaining a larger currency.
Recorded live in Italy, Sharma's subtle expositions are extraordinarily addictive. Those who really know their raags from their taals will probably be transported by the wit with which the internal changes of each piece are executed, but you don't need specialist knowledge to appreciate the vivacity of the disc. Sufi-influenced nuances speed through brisk arpeggios before changing down a gear with the same celerity as the santoor's ascent.
It is ecstatic music, although in a very different vein to the vocal music of, say, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The album's centrepiece is a 36-minute Kashmiri melody that twists and turns, leads you up mountain paths and down again. And at each pass, the views are nothing less than awesome.
The truly extraordinary story of how one half of a tiny island - invaded by Indonesia in 1975 - resisted all odds to reach independence earlier this year will surely never be better told than by Irena Cristalis.
A Dutch photographer and journalist with a translucent writing style, Cristalis came late to East Timor. But she stayed through the fearful months when almost every other foreigner fled as Indonesian-sponsored militias ran amok, trying to stave off independence. She relates the brutal history of the Indonesian occupation through the eyes of the East Timorese people themselves. Portrayed with unsentimental empathy, they emerge as distinct personalities. Take Mana Lou - 'East Timor's Joan of Arc'. A restless nun, Mana Lou's ambition is sometimes compared by her colleagues with that of Mother Teresa. ('Usually, they did not mean this as a compliment.') Mana Lou pinpoints the quandary faced by the East Timorese: 'People know definitely who they are not: Indonesians. But we don't really know who we are.'
Whether they will now be permitted to find out depends to some extent on Xanana Gusmão, the guerrilla leader turned East Timor's apparently reluctant first President. 'Xanana had qualities,' writes Cristalis, 'shared by many populist leaders all over the world: a handsome, open face, a sharp wit and easily tickled sense of humour, a love of talking and, above all, the ability to appear genuine.'
The sting in the tail is just one of the sharp observations that fill this book with life and make it not just essential reading, but a joy to read.
Since she won the Booker Prize in 1997 with her splendid novel, The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy has become a severe annoyance to some very important people. Her involvement in the Narmada Dam protests has led to sneering references to her as a 'writer-activist'. She was jailed for one day for contempt and is contesting a number of trumped-up charges in various parts of India. In an intemperate rant against what they called 'that woman', the Indian Supreme Court accused her of 'contumacious violation. vicious stultification and vulgar debunking (which) pollutes the stream of justice'. An object lesson there, I think, to all budding writer-activists!
Power Politics brings together Arundhati Roy's recent essays. In five pithy and elegant pieces, she skewers India's political élite and their complicity in the barbaric neo-colonialism that is globalization. From the ruinous privatization of India's power supply to the environmental and social disaster of the Madhya Pradesh water projects, she exposes the compact between greedy corporations and venal bureaucrats.
The concluding pieces, 'The Algebra of Infinite Justice' and 'War is Peace' are sober and clear-eyed reflections on the 11 September suicide attacks and the US reaction to them: a presumptuous declaration of an endless, inchoate 'war on terror'.
Roy concludes by asking if, in the light of the World Trade Center and Afghanistan, we have 'forfeited our right to dream'? She resolutely reasserts that right by her assiduous attention to her responsibilities as a writer and a citizen: 'asking, in ordinary language, the public question and demanding, in ordinary language, the public answer'.
The Years of Rice and Salt
Here is an historical novel with a twist - or rather an overturning - that shows just how arbitrary the long span of human history is in terms of winners, losers and part-players.
Robinson rolls back the clock to the 14th century. Instead of the Black Death taking out a sizable chunk of the European population, here it wipes out almost the entire continent. Islam moves in to fill the void, and China moves further east to settle North America's west coast. These are serious world powers, and it falls to South Asia, which leads with military technology, to hold the balance between them. Not surprisingly, these three superpowers then vie for Africa.
Rewriting history lets Robinson raise more profound questions about the function and interplay of power, culture, faith and love for the inhabitants of this dizzying planet.
To make the hypothetical more accessible, he uses a small group of recurring characters that live through each episode of the book as soldiers, slaves, philosophers and kings. Most of the episodes end in the death of these protagonists, reunion with loved ones in the Tibetan afterlife, then reincarnation back into the pages of the novel.
This is a book of stimulating questions on philosophy, theology and scientific theory. But it also reminds us that it is not simply a matter of asking the right questions, but of living out the right answers with an appropriate humility that only an affinity with history can bring.
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