Monday, September 20, 2010

Review: Unreal Forest

  • Directed by Jakrawal Nilthamrong
  • Starring Chanoda Ngwira Frackson, Felix Kalima, Juan Watson Mututa
  • Video installation at Numthong Gallery, fourth floor, Bangkok Art and Culture Center, September 2 to 29, 2010
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Commissioned to make a film in Africa as part of the International Film Festival Rotterdam's Forget Africa program, Jakrawal Nilthamrong headed to the tiny landlocked country of Zambia. There, he concocted Unreal Forest, which blends experimental documentary, magical realism and commentary on colonialism.

Having seen another Forget Africa film, Memories of a Burning Tree by Sherman Ong, Unreal Forest felt familiar as the opening shots depicted the film crew's arrival in Lusaka, with the camera taking in the sights and sounds of the dusty capital city. Lively music by street musicians accompanies the ride, and those sounds crop up again to add energy to the proceedings.

Jakrawal and his crew, including IFFR programmer Gertjan Zuilhof and director of photography "Go" Chatchai Chaiyont, then set about interviewing aspiring Zambian filmmakers, all self-taught since Zambia has no film school.

Three are then hired to make a movie, and their discussions about how to proceed with the filming, the logistics of the locations, props and cast and bringing it all in within the low budget.

At the heart of Unreal Forest is the film within the film of a shaman who arrives in a canoe at a village on the Zambizi River, where he's to heal a sick boy. He promises the boy's father he'll find a way to cure the boy, which involves covering him with white magic powder and taking him into the woods.

The scope of the small film is greatly increased by virtue of geography – with scenes of the breathtaking Victoria Falls of the Zambizi, which Zambia shares with neighboring Zimbabwe.

Subtext in the film, also included as wall text in the Unreal Forest video installation, explains that when God created the world, he gave each region an even share of good and bad things. Africa was "blessed with minerals, wildlife and a population of great physical strength but it cursed with the arrival of European colonization and its apartheid and slavery."

This theme is further explored with words from the diary of a Dutch trader in the Ayutthaya Kingdom and images from the ruins of the former Siamese capital city. The irony is not lost – it was a Dutch film festival that commissioned this project in the first place.

Although Unreal Forest has been shown theatrically in film festivals, Jakrawal has said it's intended to be part of a multi-platform video installation, which is how I saw it. Such a setting has its advantages of and disadvantages. The installation, with the video playing in an art gallery's black box, adds photos and text that reinforce the themes and allow for more reflection on the film's message. The trade off is that viewers intent on seeing the film will have to sit on a hard bench for 67 minutes and try to ignore the comings and goings of other visitors, but that is also part of the charm of an art installation versus the more controlled atmosphere of a cinema.

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