What to Stream: Sad Song, an Audacious French Documentary from the BBCs Online Film Festival – The New Yorker

Posted: May 30, 2020 at 6:44 am

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In the absence of theatres, many film-centric organizations have been finding creative ways to show moviesand, moreover, to get movies seen. In the process, theyre overcoming one of the long-standing woes of moviegoingthe extremely limited and localized release of many of the best films. Its a constant frustration to see great movies playing, say, one week at one New York venue, knowing that theyll then drop into oblivion until, months or even years later, they come out streaming. The BBC has taken a bold step to help: on Thursday, they launched LongShots, an online film festival of seven international documentaries, all available to view for the next month, free of charge (viewers can vote to determine the winner).

Id read an enthusiastic review of one of these films, Sad Song, directed by Louise Narboni, so thats the one I started with. Its an intricate and painful docu-fiction thats as audacious in its concept as it is troubling in its substance. Elodie Fonnard, a classical-music singer (specializing in Baroque repertory), lives in Paris and is providing a temporary home to Ahmad Shinwari, a young man from Afghanistan. He has arrived in France as a refugee, seeking asylum there, and is awaiting an official answer to his application. Narboni films Fonnard and Shinwari in Fonnards comfortable home (a house with a garden) as they re-create, for the camera, real experiences that they shared.

The action is simple, staged by Narboni in spare, largely static compositionsbut its narrated by Elodie, in voice-over, and her perspective on the action is itself a crucial part of the drama. She explains that, following a personal tragedy, she became active with an organization that assists refugees; there, she met Ahmad and decided to work with him, tutoring him in French, acclimating him to life in France, getting him needed medical care, and helping him assemble his dossier to apply for asylum. Ahmad had worked on his familys small farm in Afghanistan but, under threat from the Taliban, fled first to Kabul and then, after an arduous journey on foot, eventually reached France.

Ahmad is also an accomplished musician and poet; he and Elodie bonded through their love of music and lyrics, and their artistic collaborations and mutual admiration is displayed in action. Yet it has no practical or professional outlet; Elodie is busily pursuing her career, preparing for a recital involving a varied repertory (including songs by Duparc and Szymanowski), and Ahmad, while waiting for the French bureaucracy to take up his case, is in a holding pattern, doing household chores, studying with Elodie, and thinking about his family at home. He has long suspected that, during his absence from home, his mother has been concealing from him the death of his sister; when he eventually gets confirmation of this news (which leaves him his mothers sole source of support), it complicates his plans to stay in France. Yet the greatest complication involves the possibility (no spoilers) of a romance between Ahmad and Elodie.

Sad Song is both a straightforward drama and an elaborate reconstruction that reflects, with aesthetic self-awareness, the troubling complexity of its own attempt to tell Ahmads story through the double framework of Elodies personal perspective and Narbonis cinematic one. What the movie presents of Ahmads life is largely based on what he told Elodie, and what, working with him, she carefully pieced together and then translated into French for official presentation in his dossier to apply for asylum. (Their common language is English; they speak French together only rarely, whereas Elodies copious voice-over is in French.) Ahmad acknowledges that his renactment of his life with Elodie at the time of the administrative bottleneck is itself therapeutic. Still, no less than Ahmad is subject to French authority, hes also subject to Elodies gaze, Elodies interpretation, Elodies domestic regimeand to Narbonis cinematic reconstitution of his life by way of Elodies perspective.

Sad Songs subject is subjectivity, the very possibility of presenting Ahmad as a subject who expresses himself, and the fact that every mediating presenceElodie, the French state, and Narboni herselffails in some way to render Ahmads story in his own voice. (Theres even a noteworthy, seemingly unintended pun on the soundtrack, when Elodie hopes that hell find sa voiehis waywhich is a homonym for sa voix, his voice.) The films representation and dramatization of this failure is key to its severe and anguished success; its a story of the camera as an unseeing eye, of vision as a mode of overlooking. It is more than a crucial tale of the dire personal, physical, emotional, and political circumstances that refugees are now facing in their effort to seek safe haven. Its an artistic way of thinking about the very difficulty that outsiders face in even thinking about refugees and in trying to help.

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What to Stream: Sad Song, an Audacious French Documentary from the BBCs Online Film Festival - The New Yorker

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May 30th, 2020 at 6:44 am

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