Sing Me a Song

 

 

 

A film that raises crucial questions about what is permissible in a documentary (if it is to work).

 

Sing Me a Song

 

The flood of documentaries in the last year or two arguably makes it understandable that a number of them have tried to break away from traditional formats including the notion that what they show should be the real thing. Reconstructed scenes are not a new feature, but there is now a greater likelihood that they will be included without any specific acknowledgment of what they are. Such devices can work and can even on occasion create a successful hybrid as was recently illustrated by Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets in which an element of fakery did not distract from its sense of truth. But when a film presents itself as being real and yet feels staged it undermines the trust that the viewer needs to feel in the director and a prime example of this problem is to be found in Sing Me a Song made by the French filmmaker Thomas Balmès.

 

It appears that the village of Laya in Bhutan atop the Himalayas at a height of 4000 metres was the last community to be connected up to TV and the internet. From descriptions of this film you might well suppose that the extent to which life there has thus been transformed for better or for worse is the subject here. To some extent it is, but the approach is not what that theme would normally lead one to expect since there is no commentary and no questioning of the inhabitants about their attitudes. The reason for this lies in the fact that Balmès went to Laya years ago to make a film entitled Happiness (2013) which featured an eight-year-old boy named Peyangki who was already committed to the idea of devoting his life to being a monk. Consequently, the wide-spread changes in Laya are given a narrow focus through the now 18-year-old Peyangki being made the central figure. Indeed, Sing Me a Song actually begins with footage from Happiness without any direct acknowledgment of that until the end credits refer to the use of extracts from it. When we then move forward some ten years we find Peyangki living as a young monk among others of his age although he has yet to complete his exams. The absence of a commentary rather limits our understanding of his exact status, but we do see how he and his companions have cellphones which now play a huge role in their lives. Furthermore, in Peyangki's case social networking has enabled him to make contact with a young woman named Ugyen Pelden who lives in the capital, Thimphu.

 

The contact between these two may be through modern technology but as the film proceeds it is the relationship between Peyangki and Ugyen which becomes central and we see his desire for her leading him to the city and threatening to conflict with what he had seen as his religious vocation. Such material could have been the basis of an effective acted drama but the people here are presented as their actual selves. In point of fact even in the film's early stages the compositions in 'Scope and colour and the way in which the camera is used give Sing Me a Song a studied air (there is less a sense of reality being adroitly captured than of set-ups conceived for the film). But, if that raises doubts, it is nothing compared to what follows. Once the phone connection between Peyangki and Ugyen has been established, Balmès whisks his camera away to Thimphu to film a dialogue scene between Ugyen and a friend. Their talk establishes the fact that Ugyen is actually a divorced woman with a young child thinking of finding better work opportunities abroad but also pondering the possibility of a young man from a farming area being wealthy enough to be a prospect worth considering.

 

Just like the rest of the film this is presented as a real scene, but since events have yet to develop it could only have been filmed much later as some kind of a re-enactment. Consequently, one's faith in the validity of what we are being shown is totally undermined and this also comes to apply to other elements in the film. The modern technology featured extends to video games and the like and there is a scene in which the young monks buy guns supposedly under the influence of such games and then play around with them. But our distrust of that earlier key scene (which will occur again in another dialogue scene towards the end of the film when Peyangki receives news of Ugyen) makes us question too whether or not the episode featuring the guns was contrived for the camera by Balmès. The theme of modern technology as a source of profound change in even the most remote areas is an apt one for a film and, while other parts of the Himalayas are more beautiful, Sing Me a Song does contain some fine images. Nevertheless, any documentary loses much of its impact if the viewer is continually nagged by doubts as to how far the director is manipulating the material and that was my abiding experience while watching this film.

  

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Peyangki, Ugyen Pelden, Pemba Dorji, Choney Pelden, Bidha, Tchoki Wangmo, Damcho Wangchuk.

                                                                                                                

Dir Thomas Balmès, Pro Thomas Balmès, Ph Thomas Balmès, Ed Alex Cardon and Roman Sinquin, Music Nicolas Rabaeus.

 

TBC Productions/Close-Up Films/Participant/ArteFrance Cinema/Zero One Film-Dogwoof.
95 mins. France/Germany/Switzerland. 2019. Rel: 1 January 2021. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. PG.