Maximilian Le Cain reviews Alan Lambert’s Pushtar, which recently won the Spirit of IndieCork Award.
At this point in film history, there are few filmmakers whose work can genuinely be described as ‘unique’. So few, in fact, that it is quite remarkable that a comparatively small and new film culture, such as Ireland’s, can boast of one. But it can. The three extraordinary feature films Alan Lambert has completed to date are certainly like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Their immersive, almost musical structures, highly complex layering of time and radically oblique approaches to narrative that often consist of story being mysteriously suspended, are the product of a truly independent cinematic sensibility.
Pushtar, his new film, which recently received the Spirit of the Festival Award at IndieCork, has all these qualities. Essentially a work of science fiction set in a future where climate change has led to the collapse of civilization as we know it, it was made on a very small budget indeed. Given this fact, what is immediately striking from the very first shots is its sheer visual gorgeousness and impressive sense of scale as spectacle. However, Lambert’s almost uncanny ability to conjure imagery worthy of well-budgeted sci-fi TV from the simplest of resources might set us off on the wrong track for, as Fergus Daly so aptly put it, “it’s as if Hollywood was suddenly taken over by artists”.
The story we assume will start unfolding does not materialise or, at least, not at all as we might expect it to. The wordless first twenty minutes of the film plunge us into the cataclysmic world of an unfamiliar future society and it starts to feel like we are adrift in someone else’s dream, the dream of someone from a culture that is unsettlingly foreign to us, denoted by historical landmarks we are unfamiliar with. And yet the ‘dream’ could also be one we experience having nodded off late at night in front of some old science fiction show on TV, an intensified distillation of the fleeting moments of pure poetry that pop up intentionally and unintentionally in mainstream science fiction. Or perhaps of our childhood memories of these moments retrieved from a time when the world itself could seem as mysterious as science fiction.
As the narrative gradually, hazily emerges it transpires that childhood dreaming is in fact a crucial factor in the film and the society it evokes: the decisions of the community’s governing council are predicated on the insights of a group of children with psychic capabilities. The form of Pushtar’s narrative comes as a major surprise. Within this oneiric phantasmagoria, Lambert sets forth what feels like almost a documentary account of certain decisions the council must make. Their debates form the dramatic meat of the piece in a way that strongly recalls a body of work that is the stylistic opposite of Pushtar: some of late-career Rossellini’s historical television films. This is not only a case of sharing a form in which debate over a society-altering decision is central. What is so compelling about these debates in Rosellini is how alien the ideas at stake can often seem to our culture and this is what connects us with the eras he recreates. By coming to grips with the initially strange importance of these ideas, we enter another way of thinking. Likewise, in Pushtar the discussions around whether or not to allow a breed of giant dog to exist seem slightly mysterious but gripping and oddly real in their otherness.
To again call upon late ‘60s/’70s Italian filmmaking, it could be said that Lambert does the opposite of what Fellini set out to do in Satyricon (1969): Fellini described that film as science fiction projected into the past rather than the future. Lambert projects a remote historical document into the future rather than the past. But he does so wrapped in a feverish childhood dream that is at once utterly alien and mysteriously familiar.
Maximilian Le Cain is a filmmaker and former editor of ‘Experimental Conversations’, based in Cork.
His new feature film Cloud of Skin will premiere in the Cork Film Festival on 7th November.