Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd: In What Language?

Stefan Braidwood

Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd

In What Language?

Label: Pi Recordings
US Release Date: 2003-10-21
UK Release Date: 2004-02-09

Mike Ladd has made avoiding the obvious something of a career choice. A concept album about life in a dystopian sci-fi future ages before Dan the Automator got round to it, followed by two parts of a saga depicting the struggle between the underground freedom fighters the Infesticons and their champagne-swilling, jiggy-capitalist opponents, the Majesticons. The latter album was a well-observed and just plain fun hip-hop album that sought to subvert mainstream hip-hop from within via glossy production, party beats, and the odd R&B number. Sadly, very few people got (or bought) the joke, and Ladd vanished for a while only to pop up on art-trip-hop outfit Edition, Terranova's album for two tracks last year, branding himself "the high art Eminem" and doing "pink cocaine" over electro basslines. Now he's put out a recording of his Asia Society-commissioned collaboration with jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, the latter's band and three actor-narrators, for which he wrote all the lyrics and produced "electronics". It's about culture, travel, history, and airports, loosely based around an incident involving an Iranian filmmaker at JFK. Well, obviously.

The filmmaker in question was Jafar Panahi, innocently in transit between film festivals in Hong Kong and Buenos Aires, who was detained by the INS, shackled to a bench for hours and then sent back to Hong Kong in handcuffs. The album's title is a quote from his internet-circulated attempt to deal with and describe the ordeal (how could he adequately describe his anger and innocence across the borders of tongue, race, and culture?) and the album takes the form of 17 tales of life and travel in an attempt to answer, or at least examine, this question. The accompaniment to these snapshots of global life in transit ranges from the calm, floating "Taking Back the Airplane", which brings to mind Ursula Rucker's work with Jazzanova to the harsh, frantic drum 'n' bass-driven "The Density of the 19th Century", similar to Saul Williams's "Coded Language". Over and around the percussion, Vijay's improvised piano lines and motifs hold sway, supported by some fine playing by a melting pot of cello, brass (sax, trombone, trumpet and flugelbone), guitar, and bass. As in keeping with the migratory theme of the project, tempo and mood often change within a track, adding emphasis to the lyrics whilst occasionally distracting focus from the protagonists' stories.

Whilst the instrumental side to this album is more than accomplished enough to be worthy of stand-alone listening, the subtle nature of the spoken word compositions (and it is all spoken word, even if occasionally speeded up and rhythmic, never rapped) means that their impact would have been a lot more immediate if performed unadorned. As things are, a measure of concentration and repeated listening is required to pick out Ladd's colorful and varied vignettes from the flow of the music (though one could argue that this emulates the background fluctuations of airports, I suppose).

The cast range from Karen from Trinidad, working as security at some unnamed airport, missing "the touch of warm concrete / painted smooth under my toes"; to Calcutta-born Rishu who works in a New York porn shop, living for the day he can return home to his "pious" wife; check-in desk worker Nadine from the Ivory Coast, now working in Paris; Yemeni cornershop staff, a Muslim from Mumbai driving a cab in NY and a Sierra Leone asylum seeker. The latter's tale depicts painfully the vulnerability and terror of a woman "stripped naked and bound", because "I can't say "I'm terrified" in American tongue", because "My skin is critique / A word for a volume of indictments / Five hundred years long". Violence is also the focus of the "Iraqi Businessman", where a World Bank worker is tortured brutally in an allegory both of the Iraqi dictatorship and the US' relationship with Iraq; an apparently innocuous "I love mob movies" in its second line is echoed by the ghoulish "he shows you who's boss" at its end, Hollywood entertainment and global implication being juxtaposed chillingly.

Whilst Mike Ladd's characters are often less than happy with where their journeys have taken them, or the cultural conflicts that result, flight itself is gradually revealed to be a promise of freedom and unity: a way of overcoming all borders, its airports "temples of the sky", its empowering mobility a glorious gift, for "there's a million dance moves in the sky". On "The Colour of My Circumference II", he has "a skywich with my sky Drink"; literally drunk on the celestial in a manner similar to Michelangelo's hopes for his doomed flying machine. He counters the question of the title, as well as the causes of imposed exclusion (the lists, names, and borders of "The Density of The 19th Century"), with the declaration "And no answers will emerge, only music, food and family in the air", for "we are the vegetation that will subdue the lobby". A wonderful vision emerging from a wonderful, if occasionally overly tasteful, work; let's hope Mike Ladd eschews the obvious for a long while to come.

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"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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