Reviews

The Wedding Present

Ian Mathers

I was worried that the band would either rely too much on their (admittedly) superb new album El Rey or else just do a sort of old-times revue, but they managed to strike a nearly perfect balance between the old and the new.

The Wedding Present

The Wedding Present

City: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Venue: Lee’s Palace
Date: 2008-10-03

David Gedge has been playing music on stage for most of the time I’ve been alive, which is a humbling thought. Clearly he’s settled into it: When the expected-but-annoying cries for all sorts of old tracks rang out between songs, he sung us a little ditty called “I don’t do requests.” He also took care to mention before they started their last song that The Wedding Present don’t do encores and that this tune would actually be their last song. This might make him sound like a killjoy, but really, all the years of touring have done is increase his determination to avoid the silly formulas a lot of bands fall into live. I saw the band with a friend who was largely unfamiliar with the music of The Wedding Present, and not only did they gain a convert (luckily they had copies of Seamonsters at the merch table, so we could start her off properly), but she noted something I don’t think I would have: At one point, between songs, she turned to me and said, “you know, I really like him.”

Charismatic? Gedge? The guy on stage who consistently sings about heartbreak, infidelity, and revenge? The one who responds to joyous (albeit drunken) cries of “come on, Gedgey” with, “Look, it’s either ‘come on, David’ or ‘come on, Mr. Gedge.’ You’re making me feel like I’m back in grade school” (which admittedly was said with good grace and humor)? Sure enough, despite all four band members generally keeping it tight and professional and disciplined, The Wedding Present proved to be more than just excellent as a live act, but also very likeable. It helped that, unlike many long-running bands, the group’s latest incarnation thrives on new-ish blood. Terry de Castro’s bass playing is the most prominent the band has ever had, and live, as on their latest album, El Rey, makes up an unexpectedly vital part of the equation. Graeme Ramsay’s drums shift easily from the thrashing pound needed to play George Best and Seamonsters-era songs to the more subtle stylings of the band’s last few albums, and Chris McConville is very nearly Gedge’s equal in the guitar stakes. And then there’s Gedge himself -- the only man I’ve ever seen playing rock and roll live who wore a long-sleeved, quite warm looking shirt for the duration without appearing overheated -- performing his own little repertoire of lyric-illustrating hand gestures and guitar god poses.

I was worried before I got to Lee’s that the band would either rely too much on their (admittedly) superb new album El Rey or else just do a sort of old-times revue, but they managed to strike a nearly perfect balance between the old and the new. For the first half of the set I actually felt that they were performing the new material better than the classic stuff. It was great to hear “Lovenest” but it just wasn’t quite as transcendently brutal as it should have been. Except for the opening “Kennedy” the older material was comfortable but not astounding, whereas the versions of new songs “Don’t Take Me Home Until I’m Drunk” and “Palisades” were eye-opening. And while the opening few songs felt like they were just warming up, from “Interstate 5” on (which appeared roughly three quarters of the way into the set) they really started firing on all pistons. And when “My Favorite Dress” smashed into existence the place went nuts.

As expected, people had been yelling for “Dalliance” all set, and Gedge consistently responded with a simple refusal to do requests (or, once, telling us that de Castro makes the set lists and she won’t let him break from them -- “if it was up to me, you understand…”). Still, it felt a little inevitable when that opening guitar/bass interplay rolled out over the crowd. It was a great performance, but in my head I was still stubbornly thinking that the new stuff, as a whole, had gone over better. I was also a bit disappointed on a selfish level: I love “Dalliance”, of course, but I really really love “Dare”, the song that follows it on Seamonsters and now of course they weren’t going to play it.

Except, then, they did. I admit I completely geeked out at that point, jumping in the air, fist raised, screaming out “Yes!” And they played the best possible version of “Dare” I could have imagined. And then they ended the set with my favorite song from El Rey, the crushing “Boo Boo” and killed that one too. I admit that personal context and existing fandom is what made the end of this concert so special for me, but my less-involved friend seemed to think it was pretty great too, so I think it translates. I left heartily impressed with the band’s prowess, wishing that more long-running bands were as interested in keeping all of their recorded history in play in the live environment (at least potentially).

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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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