A tale from Africa - Cannes 2011 review of “Blue Bird”

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Playing at Cannes in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar, Blue Bird has certainly been a film that’s been widely promoted within the festival market, regularly gracing the cover of the daily market screening program – and deservedly so, according to film blogger MsWOO.

“Watching this film proved one of the most charm-filled moments of my Cannes experience. The blue-tinged infusion of images throughout the film, rather than detract, adds to the beautiful simplicity of the cinematography, and to the magical journey that real-life brother and sister, Bafiokadie and Tene, embark on. Devoid of any special effects or fancy camera work, the story nonetheless unfolds as a magical mystery – a spiritual road journey.

I have to admit that on first learning about this film, although delightfully intrigued, I was a little wary of what a white man would do with a story about two African children journeying through spiritual realms as they go in search of a lost bird. Spirituality, particularly African spirituality, is often viewed, particularly in the west, as superstition – but not everyday superstition like walking under a ladder bringing bad luck, or throwing a pinch of salt over your should for good luck, but the kind of superstition that’s rife with evil, demonic forces and the need for blood sacrifices.

Belgian director Gust Van den Berghe, however, has taken what could have been an “ethnic” “tribal” or “ritualistic” tale of African other-worldliness and made a delightfully enjoyable film based on a story by Belgian Nobel Laureate, Maurice Maeterlinck (29 August 1862 - 5 May 1949). I’m unfamiliar with Maeterlinck’s work, but apparently he used a lot of symbolism and anti-realism. The original story was set in Russia, not Africa – hardly surprising at that time period, although I’d like to think (or at least hope) that Maeterlinck was not of a similar persuasion to King Leopold II who felt justified in setting about collecting the severed hands of the people of the then Congo Free State (basically his privately owned African colony, now the Democratic Republic of Congo) if they had not fulfilled their quota of rubber production, leaving swathes of the population in a state of despair leading to slow death and starvation.

Although the setting is not named, Blue Bird was filmed in the rural, savanna landscape of Tamberma in Togo, West Africa. In the official Director’s Fortnight brochure for the film, Van den Berghe says of Blue Bird:”...I wanted to distance myself as much as possible from the stereotypical Africa, the ever-suffering Africa, but without necessarily falling into the trap of “exoticization”. I researched the authenticity of the Tamberma beliefs and traditions and these were a source of inspiration for Blue Bird”.

Seemingly concurring with my view of the universality of this story in my initial preview of this film prior to Cannes (…), the director goes on to say that:

Blue Bird is a universal story and I told it with little or no financial backing. Working in this way is not without risk, but I benefited from an extraordinary freedom. This freedom is intrinsic to the project: it is freedom for the director to interpret the text as he chooses, but also the freedom the audience has vis-a-vis the film. This is what I want to offer to the public: neither truths nor answers that are ready made, but a chance to participate in the construction of the film. A good story cannot bear fruit until after it has been told. It’s the same for a film. Just as we cannot judge a man’s journey until he’s taken his final bow.

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