Peripatetic Postcards

So . . . what do you do?

Why does he do the things he does?

Why does he do these things?

Why does he march

Through that dream that he's in,

Covered with glory and rusty old tin?

Why does he live in a world that can't be . . .

--What Do You Want of Me, The Man of La Mancha

This is the song that has been going through my head of late, since I end up listening to it every time I ferry my daughter to and from school, ballet class, voice lessons, her SAT tutor. Wherever. We listen to it (well, she sings along, so I listen to it) since she's thinking of auditioning for that part in the up-coming school play. She's rehearsed it so often, though, that it is now lodged in my mid(-to-middling)-term memory. Which probably accounts for why the words came on thick, accompanied by full orchestration, last night when I went to my son's ninth grade parental mixer.

Because -- what a bunch of bluster that was! Twenty-five bucks a plate, endless wine refills and hot hors d'oeuvres from roving people-in-waiting, main course of roast beef -- medium -- and blackened rosemary chicken, two kinds of salads, four kinds of dessert, and plenty of adult puffery, all at a former Nobel Prize-winning physicist's ex-abode. A stone's throw from CalTech and light year's away from my income bracket. Enough to get my pipes working on that other La Mancha tune: "The Impossible Dream.

In the couple hours of mixing, the stuff I learned (that triggered the spinning of the La Mancha themes), was that -- big surprise -- everyone does something. The what may be infinitely fascinating, but it's the why part that may not always be clear. What we had at my table for 8 was an astro-physicist from JPL, a consultant working on training applicants for executive hires, a former ballerina-turned-lawyer, a former lawyer-turned-comedic writer, a substitute math teacher for a local school district, a medical instrument and product-sales lady, and an extemely fit 50-something housewife who seems to do nothing more than work out all day. There were sundry others of similarly disparate ilk sprinkled around the other 14 tables.

Don't get me wrong: they all seemed to be top-notch people. Serious, and engaging, and committed to making the corner of the world that their children had exposure to better. And the talk was stimulating. But . . . why do they do the things they do? I couldn't possibly begin to fathom.

In the end, after a little reconnaisance and a lot of thinking, I settled upon the usual suspects: Fate. Passion. Chance. Life-long commitment. Luck. The search for something different. A second chance. A life-threatening illness. A divorce. A good marriage. A financial windfall. Whim.

For instance, the physicist -- he clearly was in it for passion.

"Basically, what I'm doing is looking for signs of planets in our galaxy. My current project is photographing 160,000 stars and trying to determine the number of planets each may possess."

"How can you determine that?"

"Well, based on the dispersion of shadows periodically cast on the surface of whatever star we're looking at."

"How many planets have you found?"

"At this point? None. But, actually that doesn't mean they aren't out there."

"How do you know?"

"Because only 10% of the planets arrayed around any star can be spied by the telescope, so in the case of our sun - you know, if someone were similarly gazing at us at a distance of a few thousand light years away -- they might not even catch one of our planets."

Which I guess means this is a faith-based science.

The math teacher was doing it for her family, where the hubby had been knocked off stride by a bout with cancer.

"I'm stationed in North Hollywood, which is -- well, let me put it this way: not the perfect environment to educate."

"Why is that?"

"Okay. An example. The kid walks into my class jabbering into his cell phone and I tell him 'you've gotta turn it off,' and he's like: 'Lady, I don't nevuh turn this cell off. How else kin I do biznessssss?' And I'm like: 'how can I teach in an environment like that?' No one can concentrate while he's talking into his phone, being the big dealer on campus."

"Can't you cite him or something to get him in line?"

"No, no. These kids? Most of them have records and if they get written up, then there's a chance that they get kicked out of school and then they go back to juvie and then it's my fault. It's on me. I'm not really interested in being targeted by a gang with a grudge. So, we don't really want to write 'em up."

"So, they have the power."

"Yeah. But, the good thing -- the great thing -- and I felt really jazzed when this happened -- was that I was away for a couple days and during that time I guess what happened was the sub wrote the kid up. Didn't know any better and no one told her that you shouldn't write these kids up, and she did. But apparently the kid didn't go to the Principal's office, just kept on walking out of school. And so, the next day when I came back, the Principal told me about it and told me that he needed to see the kid and, because of the violation, was going to have to suspend him, which would, you know, place the kid in jeopardy down at juvie and -- inside I was like: YES!!!! because maybe there was a chance that we could get him out of my class, but I didn't let on. I saw the kid that day just before class and said, you know, 'the Principal wants to see you. I have no idea what it is about -- did anything happen when I was gone?' -- you know: big innocent eyes and plenty of faux empathy, and . . . that was the last I ever saw of the kid."

"The Principal expelled him?"

"Nu-uh. Never got that far. The kid just booked. But it was great cause he could never lay it on me."

Proving that some people do the things they do through the aegis of other (foolish) agents.

And so on and so forth.

A lot of the men I never got a chance to find out what they do. They were glued to the USC game on the 70-inch wall-mounted LCD HD. On the other hand, it is always funner to talk to the women.

One mom, the petite dancer-turned-lawyer, said that her older boy was applying to colleges where he could wed film with business.

"So," I said, "he's thinking, what?: NYU and US. . ."

"USC . . ." the mom butt in, "USC, USC, USC, USC . . . and then NYU."

Although Lucas and Spielberg are alums, this might also have something to do with the football effect. Power being both aphrodesiac and magnet. And in 20 years, when someone asks of that boy-now-man: "why does he do the things he does?", the answer might reside in athletic recruitment lodged in a by-gone popular cultural epoch.

As for my favorite answer to the La Mancha riddle, it came from the comic-writer, ne lawyer. His own take on the query:

"I was disappointed that the principles were severed from the practice."

Which, if I ever figure out why I do the things I do, I hope I could offer a similar conclusion. After all this peripatacity, seeing the world in all its infinite permutations and possibilities; after trying this and that on for size, I hope that I can some day say:

"yeah, I did that, then that, then that. But, after a lot of disappointment, I settled on doing this.

"Oh. And why do you do this thing you do?"

And my response will be:

"Because I decided that I can't do anything where the principles don't match the practice."

Which, if you think about it is not a bad policy for a peripatetic . . . or any fellow human voyager.

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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.

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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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