Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Zoo, an eleven-minute documentary directed by Dutch filmmaker Bert Haanstra in 1962 is an amusing, touching and humorous look at the way people and animals behave. It is a montage of people’s expressions when they visit a zoo, and the animals’ expressions in return when they see people watching them. The shots are all cut-to cut put together by associational editing.

It is obvious that Haanstra has not filmed the documentary with the knowledge of the people or the animals. It is footage from a hidden camera, which captures a two-way relationship that the human beings and animals share without realizing it.

Zoo uses the associational form of editing to show relational continuity for narration, with music that contributes greatly to the feel and pace of the emotions at play. Haanstra masterfully mixes zoo footage of the people who gawk at animals and parallely shows footage of the animals’ reaction to the same humans who gawk at them. The animals are seen to gawk back at the people, thus creating meaning in the shots, a certain sarcasm, giving a feeling of continuity through editing.

An example of this relation can be seen evidently when we see school kids entering the zoo to see the animals, and Haanstra cuts to close ups of a giraffe and the ostrich and they also take a look at the humans who have come to see them, which throws open the question of who’s watching who in the zoo. We see the style of walking of kids, old ladies, a young couple, an elderly couple and then its cut to the walk/march of the penguins drawing a similarity. Hence although the animals and the people in the zoo have been shot at a different space and time, the relational continuity helps us to forget the difference.

The establishing shot is very strong too. Haanstra starts by showing the rails of the cage with a lion in it and then a shot of people walking into the zoo followed by an old man standing behind the bars, drawing a relational parallel between the lion and the man. The editing bringing out these specific shots in continuation to give a brilliant introduction to the purpose of the documentary - to show that animals watch people too and in many ways how people’s actions are similar to those of the animals. For instance, there’s a shot of a father carrying his young son on his shoulders followed by a shot of a baby monkey sitting on the shoulder of its parent.

The music is what really drives the story. Pim Jacob’s jazz music gives the images a punch and creates the pace and feel of the developing montage. The meaning of the shots is punctuated with variations in the flow of music that runs parallel with the action on the screen. The inclusion of animal sounds in between gives an impression of the characters crucial in making the film. The best example is that of the parrot’s voice that comes in between the jazz music.

Zoo’s specialty is the frequent use of "rhyming images" and of images blending into each other. The film is perfectly able to catch the peculiarities of human behavior when they watch animals in a zoo. It is a tribute to the animals who we mock, emote and laugh at, as the film shows us their point of view and how they equally mock and laugh at us. Zoo is a delightful mix of humor, emotion and genuine expressions.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sita Sings the Blues

An animation movie directed by American artist Nina Paley in 2008, Sita Sings the Blues tells us the story of Ramayana, interspersed with episodes of the author’s own life. A delightful watch, the film has simple yet charming animation that easily strikes a chord with the viewer.

The film begins with the narration of the story of Ramayana, shifting focus to the story of Sita’s state of unequal treatment. The brave Sita is betrayed by her husband in the end because he suspects her of being impure, for no fault of her own. Interlacing the historic Sita to her modern day jazz self, we see a Sita who sings dreamily to the tunes of the legendary jazz singer, Annette Hanshaw. The narration of the story of Ramayana is done by three Indian shadow puppets played by Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, and Manish Acharya. They link the episodes of the Ramayana with natural and lively discussions of their personal knowledge and impressions of the epic. The sarcasm in many areas is blaring and gives the viewers a non-chalant yet serious observational analysis of the unfolding story.

The jazzy Sita is a symbolic satire to how she conveys messages through her songs, singing very relevant tunes to the condition of Sita in the Ramayana. Slow and steady we see a saddening state of affairs as Sita is made to suffer despite her being a faithful and courageous wife.

The film parallely shows the contemporary story of a young American couple Dave and Nina, and their cat Lexi. The couple are young and in love. Dave takes a temporary job in India and flies to the country leaving Nina and Lexi back home. Nina misses him so much that she goes to visit him in India, only to find him cold and unresponsive. She returns back home to find a cruel message from him “Don’t come back. Love, Dave.” Nina stares at the message and her heart breaks. The film so literally shows her heart break into pieces. The silence before the sound of breaking glass is haunting and hits with a poignance.

The uncanny resemblance of Sita and Nina’s life brings us to a converging point of understanding their similar stories although each is based in different time, culture and generation. Both betrayed by their lovers and separated by long journeys, brings across a universal grief shared by women who are unfairly treated by their so-called lovers. The two characters rediscover themselves and are reborn in different forms. Sita is reborn as a lotus and Nina symbolically as she finds rage and solace in the Ramayana, inspiring her to make this film.

The film is remarkable for its versatility. The lively and colorful animation in Sita’s story brings across strongly the personalities of the characters. The two stories are brought out in two completely different forms of animation. While Sita’a story is narrated in a song and dialogue sequence with vibrant colors where episodes of the Ramayana resemble Rajput paintings, Nina’s story is portrayed in a completely different animation style. The modern, more personal element of the story is narrated using the rough, energetic squigglevision technique of animation. The drawings convey the restlessness inherent in the story, at the same time bringing across certain light-heartedness, universal in its tone, with its simple, highly stylized renderings of characters and environment.

What struck me the most was the power of the visual and narrative form that blended so perfectly. For instance, the song and dance sequence after Nina gets the cruel message from Dave is overwhelmingly heartening with its montage of images, music and color. The woman dancing to Indian music in a saree, amidst fire, then becoming a mere dancing skeleton has such powerful symbolism. Nina intelligently weaves the message in the underlying humor using exuberant drawings and bright colors. The message is serious.

In April 2009, there was a petition demanding for the complete ban on the movie by a conservative Hindu group who were offended by the film. They believed the film to be a derogatory act against the entire Hindu community. Some west-wing academics accused her film of being neocolonialistic. Yet, the film has won numerous awards including awards at the Berlin International Film Festival, Athens International Film Festival and Crystal Grand Prix, to name a few.

Sita Sings the Blues is fresh, delightful, original, and disturbingly stark with its juxtaposed narrative style of music, dialogues, monologues and one-of-a-kind animation. Watch it to be amused, enchanted, moved and empowered. It is a work of sheer brilliance and inspiration.