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Film Scratches: Bali Descends Into Modern Capitalism in Rice for Sale (2013)

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Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.

A Review by David Finkelstein.

In Rice for Sale, filmmakers Brendan and Jeremy Smyth have tried to use documentary footage which they shot in Bali to create a mythic and poetic portrait of that island’s transformation from a traditional society, renowned for the sophistication and beauty of its music, drama, dance, and religion, into a fragmented, dysfunctional modern society and an environmental catastrophe, where foreign corporations make money while Balinese people are plummeted into economic poverty and a collapsed social structure.

The ten short, wordless sequences which make up the film were edited by the filmmakers in the camera as they travelled around the island, and so they present a spontaneous response to the island. But by choosing the order of the sequences, and creating a complex, layered soundtrack of ambient sounds and Balinese music, the Smyths have tried to shape their experience into a poetic, meaningful form.

The film begins on the very peak of the highest mountain, a sacred spot where Barong, the god of good, is said to reside. We first see images of a traditional religious ceremony, but the camera soon descends down the mountain into busier, more populated regions, filled with traffic and commerce. Villagers tend rice fields while heavy traffic passes close by. We also see them gambling, smoking, and staging violent cock fights. Menacing sounds accompany an earth moving machine, which is no doubt eating up more chunks of the island, in order to make room for more hotels. By the end of the film, we have descended into the dense strip malls of Denpasar, where extended sequences of single frame shots turn the billboards and neon signs of American fast food chains into a nightmarish dance.

The Smyths have included some useful and pertinent background information about the history of the island on the film’s Vimeo page, which helps to explain the ideas which informed their thinking, but very little of this information is contained in the film itself, which confines itself to speaking through images and sounds. Without the background information, the film itself presents a generalized portrayal of a strong traditional culture which is evidently breaking down in the face of modernity, using the camera’s descent from the mountain as a metaphor for the descent of the culture. Taken by itself, this visual construction is evocative and intriguing, but it is also quite hard to grasp without any context. The Smyths have quite sensibly avoided a traditional documentary approach of using interviews or narration and opt for some more like direct cinema for what is essentially a poetic film, but I wish they had invented other, poetic means to bring a bit of the background context of Bali’s history into the film, as this would have added greatly to the weight and resonance of these mysterious, contextless images.

David Finkelstein is a filmmaker, musician, and critic. For more information on Film Scratches, or to submit an experimental film for review, contactlakeivan@earthlink.net.

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