Reviews

What a Difference a Hair Makes

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil feels timeless, because it contains truths you’ve known all along.


The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Publisher: Picador
Length: 240 pages
Author: Stephen Collins
Price: $20.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-10
Amazon

Stephen Collins’ The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil has a title so irresistible that it’s a surprise to see that he actually pulls off the addition of a great book to go along with it. In his first novel Collins, who won the prestigious Observer/Cape/Comica Graphic short story prize in 2010 for his comics work, has crafted a hauntingly beautiful parable built on a deceptively simple plot. The book’s entire plot is essentially in its title.

Set in the island of Here, it tells the story of Dave, a man with a life so typical, we can pretty much say he rinses and repeats his routine every single day. He goes to work down the same streets, spends hours at the office doing something he knows has no real importance, and then goes back home. His only pastime is to draw. Evening after evening, Dave stares outside his window and recreates what he sees outside in his sketch book. More often than not, he finds himself content over the perfectness of the island of Here, where everything is tidy and under control. Not that things being out of control is even fathomable for the inhabitants of this place.

Dave is also bald, hairless practically, except for a single, obnoxious hair that grows time after time right over his upper lip. Then one day, another hair appears.

Through a series of gorgeously realized black and white panels, Collins shows us how Dave’s facial hair begins to grow bigger and bigger until it becomes completely out of control, and the more he tries to cut it, the more violent and unexpected is its return. Panicked by the presence of this unwanted beard, Dave goes to specialists and medical experts, all of whom try their best to remove the beard to no avail. We see how the presence of something so seemingly innocent turns the island of Here upside down, and the innocuous beard becomes a symbol for everything that must be tamed, even if not perfectly understood -- and something that must be eliminated, if it gets too out of hand.

Collins is a masterful storyteller who, with very simple sketches, makes his characters into fully emotional beings. Dave’s little eyes, two small dots crowned by thin, long eyebrows, can become vessels of pure fear, compassion and admiration, all depending on how they are framed within the panels. Because of its simplicity, Dave’s face turns him into an “everyman” figure, allowing us to see ourselves in him. As Dave’s beard becomes associated with the chaos of the strange, unknown place people from Here refer to as There, Collins turns his book into a satire about the way in which the media blows news stories out of proportion in order to conceal more important issues.

For all the unattractiveness of Dave’s beard, the true story being told is one of irrational fear, of xenophobia, which has resonated throughout the ages. Collins’ prose is simple, the story is told using comic book-like speeches and pithy narration that sometimes achieves true beauty, “...perhaps the most disturbing and remarkable story you’ve ever heard. It is the story of a man whose face has become in just the past two days a portal to hell,” comments a sensationalist professor.

With its dark, whimsical undertones, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil can’t help but remind one of the works of by Roald Dahl (and it’s even harder not to imagine a Tim Burton film adaptation, the thought of the stop motion alone making one salivate), and yet perhaps the strangest thing about the book is that despite of its scope and qualities, it remains such a simple piece of art.

The book can be read from cover to cover in less than an hour, and yet the story of Dave keeps haunting you weeks after you finished reading it. It pops out of nowhere, like Dave’s own beard. You might find yourself gasping in awe and fear of a single random hair that appeared on your face or chest. You might find yourself deciding to take a slightly different road to work that morning. You might contemplate doing something fun before heading back home at night -- and this tale shadows each of your actions.

Not that the story is moralistic or even didactic in any way; Collins doesn’t seem interested in teaching us lessons. Instead The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil offers itself like an invitation to explore the world, to look closer (a theme that is suggested visually by the unique arrangement of the text boxes in the story) and to live better, to seek joy, to explore new places. As far as graphic novels go, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil feels timeless, because it contains truths you’ve known all along.

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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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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