Tuesday 5 January 2021

Catfish: "Sing Me A Song"

The French filmmaker Thomas Balmès is that rarest of creatures: a crowdpleasing documentarist. After his mid-length 1996 debut Bosnia Hotel, on UN peacekeepers, Balmès courted audience favour peddling a form of non-fiction engineered to cheer us all up. 2010's Babies, in which Balmès toured the globe going gaga over its newborns, was as close to an extended meme as the cinema has yet given us. His representatively titled 2013 film Happiness, meanwhile, charted the arrival of the Internet in Bhutan, and in particular its impact on one Peyangki, a rosy-cheeked seven-year-old in training to be a Buddhist monk. Balmès's sequel to the latter, Sing Me A Song, opens with a Previously-with-Peyangki recap for newcomers. Again, we see this softly-spoken soul skipping (yes, actually skipping) down a hillside so as to turn cartwheels and pick flowers in a field; again, we witness the lad's awe as a towering mast is raised on the outskirts of his village. Then a neat editing trick, the most effective thing in the new movie. When he turns in for the night, ten years pass: the next morning, Peyangki is a teenager, woken by the sound of his mobile going off. There was an outside chance that a decade of online access had radicalised Balmès's subject, turned this once robed believer into a full-on Proud Boy, angrily disseminating Pepe GIFs between fevered bouts of self-abuse. The reality, however, is milder and more humdrum. Peyangki's up the same mountain, and still praying - albeit off a tablet - and his teacher's only concern is that he's falling behind because he's "too busy playing with his mobile". The reason for that is that he's struck up an online relationship with a long-haired older girl, Ugyen, who lives in the capital Thimphu. Again: in another documentary, Ugyen might have been revealed as a 47-year-old trucker parked at the bottom of this hill with an eye to luring our boy into oblivion. The worst Balmès has to offer is that she's actually a single mother working in a hostess bar, and planning to jet off to Kuwait to earn a little extra money for herself.

Clearly some purity - whether that of the Bhutanese landscape, or Peyangki himself - is under threat. Yet we might also question the purity of Balmès's filmmaking, and the degree to which the non-fiction in Sing Me A Song is legitimately non-fiction. To this eye, it appeared as though the filmmaker had returned to this realm so as to invite his subjects to play versions of themselves in a dramatised narrative that may bear some relation to situations they found themselves in once upon a time. It feels suspicious - as though we're the ones being catfished - and Balmès hardly helps his cause by including such flagrantly contrived images as a cybercafe overrun by teenage monks. The goal isn't recording the reality of a place and its people so much as exporting "constructed reality" to the Far East, a process presumably made easier by the fact those monks can now dial up episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians on their smartphones. Truths, or ghosts of truths, might have survived that process: take last month's Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which manufactured a scenario to consistently compelling and revealing ends. Yet Sing Me A Song just isn't very satisfying as either non-fiction or fiction: it's a reel too long, and unfocused with it. Balmès has become hung up on the idea the Bhutanese now use the Internet just like Westerners do (to watch World Cup games, What's App, hook up), and amid stretches of that banality, there's an occasional sequence that comes over as very oddly framed, which could actually do with firmer editorial intervention, or clearer context. I'm not entirely sure what we're meant to take away from the bar girls' casual browsing of beheading videos, nor their interactions with drunken clients. Peyangki remains an easily bruised sweetie, as delicate as the posies he once plucked, but Ugyen's psychology - and quite why this woman has been pursuing a monk online - is left utterly opaque: compare and contrast with the way Sung-a Yoon evoked the inner lives of similar minimum-wage scrapers in her recent doc Overseas. There's something striking about the film's landscapes, which speak to how rapidly Bhutan is changing, and how the Internet has changed the way its people now look at themselves and one another. To draw that film out, however, you'd need a properly probing, judicious intelligence behind the camera - not someone who came this way to shoot B-roll for The Real Buddhists of Bhutan.

Sing Me A Song is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema, Prime Video and Dogwoof On Demand.

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