Short Ends and Leader

Now, Voyager: 'Kon-Tiki' and the Old World Adventure Saga

Kon-Tiki, a joint Norwegian and Hollywood venture, is the filmic version of the Millais painting. It’s romantic and hokey and about as subtle as a Norman Rockwell or a movie like Kick-Ass, but it’s a beautiful movie nonetheless.


Kon-Tiki

Director: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Cast: Pal Sverre Hagen, Odd Magnus Williamson
Distributor: Anchor Bay
Rated: PG-13
Release date: 2013-08-27

“It can be done!” lisps the blonde, blue-eyed Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Hagen) to a skeptical academic geographer. It’s 1947, and the young Norwegian ethnographer has come to New York City to persuade The National Geographic Society that the Pacific Islands were settled by ancient peoples from South America who traveled across the ocean on balsa wood rafts. The prevailing theory, based on a variety of genetic, linguistic, and physical evidence, was that the settlers sailed in from Asia, but Heyerdahl is convinced otherwise.

The ancient Peruvians worshiped a sun-god, Con-Tici Viracocha, an uncanny parallel to the Polynesian sun-god, Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl notices old drawings by conquistadors that depict Peruvians sailing in wooden rafts, and the plants such as the sweet potato, indigenous to South America, was a staple source of food across Polynesia. More than merely conjecturing, Heyerdahl has to prove his theory. “Why don’t you try it yourself?” laughs the plump, tweedy geographer over his coffee.

At this point, Kon-Tiki launches into that type of movie—Indiana Jones, Tintin, Captain America, the robust period film of the boy’s adventure saga; the image of that heaving Pre-Raphaelite darling, John Everett Millais’ 1871 painting, "The Boyhood of Raleigh," the fabled buccaneer as a wide-eyed, open-faced youth being led to the ocean by a bronzed seaman’s broad tales.

Kon-Tiki, a joint Norwegian and Hollywood venture, is the filmic version of the Millais painting. It’s romantic and hokey and about as subtle as a Norman Rockwell or a movie like Kick-Ass, but it’s a beautiful movie nonetheless. It’s gorgeous, sweeping and filled with the sense of drama and expansiveness that all good seafaring movies, like The Bounty, White Squall, Master and Commander, Castaway, and The Life of Pi have. You grow to care about its characters and you want them to succeed, to master their demons, fears and physical limitations and to just get to the damn island already. All the more astonishing is that it’s based on a true story.

As the brilliant and fearless Thor Heyerdahl (Norway’s answer to Sir Edmund Hilary), Pål Hagen has the look and bearing of a young Max von Sydow (though he doesn’t quite have that formidable actor’s unsettling subversiveness—what made him so riveting in the early Bergman films). His Thor balances his steely conviction with gentle curiosity, so that the moments of his fanatical zeal (how many men do you know who could effectively convince a crew to undertake such a maddening voyage?) is tempered by his innate grace.

Also memorable, but sadly not on screen often enough, was the lanky and slyly playful Gustaf Skarsgård (Stellan’s son) as the noted Swedish anthropologist Bengt Danielsson, the father of modern day Polynesia studies. Climbing in and out of shark cages and distracting big fish with powdered tomato soup, Skarsgård adds a much needed lightness to a somewhat heavy-handed, idealistic film.

The critic for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis, lacerated the movie in her review. “Ja, That Manly Raft Trip, Blonde Manes a-Whipping,” went her punchy headline. True, this is an ideal movie for anyone with a predilection for cute blondes, though with the casting news for 50 Shades of Grey and most of what we see on TV—Gossip Girl and True Blood—I don’t see what Dargis was making a fuss about. Manohla Dargis seemed to think that the film was a bit too straightforward with cheesy special effects: “The men are handsome, the sea is pretty and if the sharks look as rubbery as last week’s chicken, at least they add some drama.” Also, at times the English-language version of the film (there’s also a version in Norwegian) has a slightly stilted feel to the sound of the actors’ voices—a bit like The Saturday Night Live skit of the Danish Repertory Theater doing The Story of Jazz (“Ja, hey cool cat, howz eet hanging?”)

I wouldn’t disagree entirely with Ms. Dargis’ assessment of the movie, but I want to push for it in a way that might come across as romantic and naïve, but for something which I think is important. The overall spirit of the movie is essential. The sense of daring, its sweeping sense of what’s possible, and the beauty of some of its scenes—the ones with a sinuous, undulating whale shark, bioluminescent jellyfish, and the spray and whirl of a tropical maelstrom—are all part of what we want fundamentally from movies: enchantment. Thor Heyerdahl’s story of dreaming and determination is a powerful one, and not something to be sneered at, but rather embraced with optimism. There’s enough gloom and grimness in the world as it is, and Kon-Tiki is a beautiful respite.

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60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

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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