Music

Amor de Dias: The House at Sea

Places can speak to us clearly, but how we internalize it can be complicated: our surrealist visions, the tricks shadows and sounds play on our brains and hearts.


Amor de Dias

The House at Sea

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2013-01-29
UK Release Date: 2013-02-18
Amazon
iTunes

The title The House at Sea sounds like it should be on the cover of a Gothic novel, a tattered paperback. If there’s anyone capable of conjuring up vivid, strange moods worthy of a novel, it’s Amor de Dias, the duo of Alasdair Maclean and Lupe Núñez-Fernández. Maclean’s former band The Clientele made uniquely atmospheric music from the start, from when their 7” singles felt like beautiful little mysteries. Núñez-Fernández’s duo Pipas took a breezier approach to pop songs, but as the songs bounced past they left similarly strong impressions of sight, sound, smell, taste.

Upon its release in 2011, Amor de Dias’ debut LP Street of the Love of Days was often written about like merely a Clientele offshoot, and judged on that level. They were the better known of the two bands, so his presence is the news story, but if you’re not a journalist but a music listener, you can hear ways they’re building something different together, with equal traces of both previous bands. They unite their different but like-minded ways of bringing you full into a place, time and feeling.

I say place and time, but most often it’s the way a certain moment in a certain place can make you feel out of step with your surroundings, can make you wonder what’s really going on. In the opening track “Voice in the Rose”, Maclean describes such an experience – leaving a party, walking through an alley, hearing hints of sounds and feeling disoriented by them. At first it’s described like we’re in a hardboiled mystery, but also a dream: “hot wind in the alleyways / and you walk on cracks / and you’d better watch your back.” It’s not just scene-setting they’re up to. It’s capturing, in pop songs, the way our senses deeply take in what’s around us, yet can never fully rationalize or understand it all. We take in too mystery and confusion, wrapped in excitement and fear; feelings of loss, wonder, worry, regret and sweetness. By the end of that first song, he sounds peaceful but is expressing inner mayhem, or at least conflict: “I’m so lost / I’m so found.”

Maclean and Núñez-Fernández somewhat alternate lead vocals across the tracks. On her first appearance, she sounds not as lost, more awe struck by the details around us, as she sings of walking “In the Winter Sun”, against captivating Spanish-style guitar. Later, on “Day” – perhaps the most Pipas-like song -- she does look back on an experience with anxious excitement, but still the focus is on the details – the shadows of the trees, how “rain fills your eyes”, a great bittersweet image.

The album is loaded with atmosphere, but there are pop “hits”, so to speak, here too. “Jean’s Waving” has the kind of casually striking melody that the Clientele often gravitated towards. Overall, though, the focus is on atmospheric portraiture, or at least slow-motion, rather than speed. “Hampshire Lullaby” moves gorgeously slow, in tribute to the voice of a particular place/time. “Hampshire night”, Maclean sings, “how I love your voice / one clear note / like a knife on glass.”

So places can speak to us clearly, but how we internalize it can be complicated: our surrealist visions, the tricks shadows and sounds play on our brains and hearts. In “The Sunlit Estate”, a somewhat spoken song, with what might be field recordings of trains behind, it’s the way falling in and out of sleep on a train can mess with your sense of yourself. (For some perhaps irrational reason, for me the song recalls the first two albums by the Blue Nile, other masters of atmospheric pop.) On “Some Old Night”, it’s when the wind hits your skin, while the moon shines down, and you are struck by a sinking feeling that something has been lost.

The closing number “Maureen” is to me both the most familiar sounding and the most theatrical; a ghostly, haunted house dirge, with shades of Twin Peaks, that brings back to me how I felt about the title (more so than the nautical title song itself does). It also returns to the first track’s talk of being lost. Their voices whisper, ruminate, overlap, until Maclean sings through it all, like a nursery rhyme used to scare and comfort children at the same time: “Over the fields / high and low / how will we ever get home?” Even creepier is the next line about the forest growing around them, a Grimm image that at the same time fits comfortably in with even the more gentle and lovely scenes set by the other songs on the album. After all, isn’t this just the sound of the other songs’ ghosts finally coming out into the open?

8

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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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