Endless Birds and the Metamorphosis of Festivals
By Yong Shu Hoong
Early in the Swedish film, About Endlessness (2019), a middle-aged couple can be seen sitting on a park bench on a hilltop watching a formation of geese in flight over cloudy sky. "It's September already," the woman said. The man agreed with a nonchalant "Mmm."
The impact of the first statement was not lost on the audience not me, anyway. Yes, it's September already and how long has the world been held in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic? I was sitting with a friend in Oldham Theatre located at the National Archives of Singapore. This latest film written and directed by Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) opened Singular Screens, a programme curated by the Asian Film Archive for the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2020. Social distancing was in place, and the theatre could take no more than 50 people. At least, movie-going was still allowed despite attendance figures being curtailed. The rest of the festival's performing arts offerings were drastically upended.
Yet, the image of geese flying overhead also seen at the end of the film felt strangely comforting to me. It reminded me that life goes on, no matter what. The animal kingdom insists on life going on, perhaps without really knowing the odds the humans are facing in their daily lives. The humans insist on life going on, either by their refusal to wear masks or by coping with the issues at hand with a myriad of invented constraints.
It was already September. And I wanted to revisit the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve which I'd not been for a while. The migratory birds were not subject to travel restrictions, and I thought they might already be here.
It was a quiet afternoon last month. There weren't any migratory birds in sight, perhaps due to the fact it was raining lightly. Correspondingly, visitors were few. A staff member of National Parks Board, which manages the Reserve, told me that this year, due to the pandemic, there weren't organised activities coinciding with the arrival of the birds. The celebration in Singapore is never as festive as, say, the Japan Bird Festival, held annually at Lake Teganuma in Abiko City, Chiba Prefecture (I envision children standing in lines waving colourful flags and banners as the birds arrive, though I think this is probably different in real life). But when I visited the Reserve three years ago in September, there were birds-related art and writing workshops, and lots of informational panels and photographs on display around the bustling visitor centre.
This month, when I visited the Reserve again, there were many more visitors despite the lack of organised activities. The buses I took to the Reserve from Kranji MRT station and back were jam-packed. This time, I was able to see some migratory birds feeding at the mud banks which were revealed when the water in the ponds was intentionally drained during high tide (I used to think that the best time to visit the Reserve for birdwatching is during low tide, but when the tide is low, they can feast at other feeding grounds away from Sungei Buloh). These ponds were the remnants of traditional prawn farming that took place in these mangrove swamps, before the area was designated as a nature park in 1989.
The herons and egrets are easy to spot (as their white feathers can be prominently seen against the mud). In contrast, the migratory birds are dull-looking and well camouflaged against their grey-brownish surroundings. These are the basics I know. I can hardly call myself an expert birdwatcher. I'm still learning how to tell the difference between herons and egrets, from the illustrations of birds on helpful panels that are posted on a wooden wall of the Main Hide (Wikipedia says, "A bird hide is a shelter, often camouflaged, that is used to observe wildlife, especially birds, at close quarters."). If I weren't mistaken, what I was observing this October afternoon were the common redshank, which (according to the informational panel) breed in Mongolia, Russia and China and spend their winters in East Asia and Southeast Asia. As to why I wasn't more self-confident, it boiled down to birdwatching instructions: long or short beaks that are straight or curved, colour of feathers, length of legs, other distinguishing features.
Looking at the windows basically just rectangular holes upon the hide's wooden structure I thought of the 43-inch TV in my living room. Looking through one of the windows, I thought of how this might be an amalgamation of the National Geographic Channel and slow television.
In the ongoing Perspectives Film Festival (PFF) 2020 (October 23 to November 1), there is a Portuguese film among the selection: The Metamorphosis of Birds (2020). After reading the programme, I gravitated towards this debut film by Catarina Vasconcelos, though at the same time I didn't want the title to raise my expectations on how this might be a film literally about birds. At around 100 minutes, it is a hybrid work of fiction and documentary charting the director's family history including her grandfather's job as a sailor, and the deaths of her grandmother and mother. Original locations were used in the film as much as possible, but Vasconcelos has admitted to fictionalising and recreating family scenes. The personal stories here are told via vignettes strong in visuals, driven often by very evocative, beautifully-worded voiceovers I feel like I'm poring through an autobiographical poetry collection. From growing up in a neighbourhood where peacocks roamed and the childhood dreams of flight, to the wonderment over the intricate systems of migrating birds and the realisation that we as humans will try to invent ideas and explanations for what we can't understand.
This tendency to "invent", or reinvent, is also what we can observe in these times when we find ourselves struggling to understand a disease that is robbing lives, creating fear and chaos, and corroding our economies. At a lesser level, the idea of "festival" in our cultural calendar whether arts, film, literary or even birdwatching is being reassessed and modified. Moving forward, the reopening of theatres would see plays and other stage performances being put up before crowd-controlled audiences. In the meantime, some festivals make do with the creativity of theatre companies and art practitioners to tap into other means of presentation like 'A Call Away', commissioned by the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) 2020 (October 30 to November 8). Produced by Artwave Studio and inspired by Alvin Pang's collection What Gives Us Our Names, this participatory and experiential event will provide each participant with a package of items. Through a scheduled phone call lasting between 20 and 30 minutes, the participant will be immersed in a swirl of sounds and stories, and guided on experiencing the different items within the package. To see "phone" being listed as "the venue" will either reassure you of safety (so you'll gladly shell out money to buy a ticket) or recoil, ever so slightly, to gather your thoughts on how you should actually feel about it.
The entire SWF this year will take place in the virtual realm, with SISTIC Live as its streaming platform, which ticketing company SISTIC has rolled out for any internet-enabled device, allowing users to enjoy "unparalleled access to live entertainment from the comfort of (their) own homes." I will be missing the buzz at the festival's usual venue of The Arts House the festival bookstore, where books can be purchased and autographed; the rubbing of shoulders by fans (just an expression, not a socially-reprehensible act during the pandemic!) with international and local authors at the venue's lawn or nearby cafes; and lots of networking among writers over free food and drinks. Even queuing to get into popular events, no matter how irksome, is now appraised with fondness.
The same goes for film festivals that have chosen rental to stream, over physical screenings. What is a festival where movie buffs are locked up in their respective abodes watching films on their TV or computer screens?
Maybe this is the chance for recluses to attend as many events as they can without leaving their homes (I'm hoping that in future, even long after Covid-19 is overcome, streaming options would continue to be available for people who are unable to attend live events for whatever reasons or unwilling to attend in person due to preference). The truth is: recluses, or non-recluses tolerant of safeguard measures that will keep them away from the community, should find that there are still worthy programmes put up for their streaming pleasure. Holders of the Digital Festival Pass for SWF 2020 (with "Intimacy" as its theme this year), for example, will be treated to talks and readings by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Sharon Olds, Art Spiegelman and Liu Cixin.
PFF, an annual practicum course run by the faculty of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, and organised by undergraduates from the Nanyang Technological University, has programmed eight films based on the theme of "Truth". Aside from The Metamorphosis of Birds, notable films also include A Thousand Cuts (2020), a documentary directed by Ramona S. Diaz about how valiant Filipino journalists, like Maria Ressa, fight against the reins of censorship while covering President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs.
PFF 2020 uses Projector Plus, the streaming platform of Singapore art-house cinema, The Projector, just as how films of Italian Film Festival 2020 were solely rentable for home viewing over Projector Plus. Other film festivals this year, like German Film Festival and French Film Festival in Singapore, employ a hybrid of cinema screenings and streaming. For example, German films like System Crasher (2019) and Styx (2018) are screened at The Projector, while others like Chris the Swiss (2018) and Head-on (2004) can be rented via Projector Plus.
I've not had the chance to watch Woody Allen's new film, Rifkin's Festival (2020). When I do get to view it, would it be at home or in a cinema? By that time, will business return to normal for the festivals I've attended and loved, or will the film, which showcases the sparkle of the San Sebastiαn International Film Festival in its plot, be another reminder of what we have lost the true communal experience of a festival, along with its sense of fun, romance and glamour?
A friend shared on Facebook on October 1 the sad news that "Derek Mahon, one of Ireland's leading poets, has died, aged 78." From the article, I learned of his poem 'Everything is Going to be All Right', which contains these lines:
On one hand, someone talented and revered has passed on. On the other hand, the words he left behind continue to grant us solace and hope.
I now think of George Harrison, and the lyrics he wrote for his 1970 song, 'All Things Must Pass', embracing the transient nature of human existence. If I'm feeling optimistic, I'd think the song is about any bad situation having to end eventually, and how inconveniences and suffering do not last perpetually; I try not to succumb to fatalism. So there's still cause to celebrate festivals, as they do their best to outlast the seemingly never-ending gloom.
Out in my community, albeit in restricted numbers, I will continue to embrace festivals in person or as one person at home. I mean, why stop living? I think about what the migratory birds can teach me in their endless coming and going, how pomp and fanfare are second to their zest for survival.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 4 Oct 2020