Music

Smoke Fairies: Through Low Light and Trees

Photo: Maria Mochnacz

The Fairies understand that even enchantment can have dangers and that the mystery of the world does not alter the concrete details of living in the material world.


Smoke Fairies

Through Low Light and Trees

Label: Year Seven
US Release Date: 2011-06-14
UK Release Date: 2010-11-09
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Critics often compare new and exciting musical performers to old ones as a type of shorthand that conveys the sound of the new act without resorting to pure verbal description, which often comes off as clunky and imprecise. So far, pundits have likened the Smoke Fairies to Fairport Convention, because of the similarities in the distaff folk rock musings of Sandy Denny on cuts such as "Storm Song" and "Summer Fades". Writers also have equated the Fairies with Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane when the Fairies veer into blues rock waters on such tracks as "Strange Moon Rising" and "Devil in My Mind". And then there are the inevitable associations between the Fairies and Stevie Nicks' Fleetwood Mac on the mythopoetic tales like "Dragon". Like the proverbial story about the blind men and the elephant, there is some truth in each of these comparisons. However, what makes the Fairies' new disc so amazing and wonderful is that the band contains all of this and more, performed with a throbbing urgency and a heightened consciousness.

The Fairies are Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire, two lasses from Chichester, UK who sing and play acoustic guitars. The duo's voices and instruments harmonize in haunting ways that evoke the ethereal spirits from which they take their band's name. But these sprites are far from being frail creatures. They are comprised of flesh and blood. The Fairies understand that even enchantment can have dangers and that the mystery of the world does not alter the concrete details of living in the material world.

For example, consider their lament to the days when railroads ruled the land, "Erie Lackawanna". The duo know wrecking balls are destroying the old houses and changing the landscape, just like the old inhabitants are dying and making way for new, wealthier ones. In an angry voice they moan in unison, "Used to run through the fields to put pennies on the track / Now it's just big houses with pools out back / They'll bulldoze this house when I am gone / And no one will be here to sing that old train song." The narrator knows that times are getting worse as the scale of human interference in the natural world gets bigger and more alienating, but that change is inevitable. No doubt, the generation that saw trains come to the country would have bemoaned the end of the horse-drawn wagon era.

Except life is not so simple. It's not just that change happens. There comes a point where one has to draw the line. The Fairies use established musical styles as a type of implicit criticism of the present world (e.g., things were better then) and modify them as a form of praise (e.g., things are different now as the world has grown). This is especially true of personal relationships. There are no simple love songs here, even though the disc is drenched in romantic feelings.

Consider the gloomy "Hotel Room", complete with details about the accommodation's poor lighting and a bad paint job. The duo sing about "something deep inside" that may be love or it may be something else. The insistence of the musical accompaniment conveys the strength of human desire, but it's not couched in lofty sentiment. Natural feelings can be a bitch. Time cannot change that.

Just like the way in which the Fairies use musical forms from the past to ground their songs, they also use musical repetition to make the point that the only thing that doesn't change is that change is always happening. On the glorious "Summer Fades", the duo knows that the more something slips away, the more we want to cling to it. We can't hold on to what is, but the duo knows that the future is bound to the past. That knowledge can give us the power to keep on keeping on.

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​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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