Jonathan Victory takes a look at Alan Lambert’s film Pushtar, which screened at the IFI’s monthly Irish Focus on new Irish film and filmmakers.
In the distant future climate change has devastated the Earth. Pushtar, a tundra on the outskirts of the Himalayas, is home to a disparate settlement Among them, a breed of hypersensitive children acting as weather vanes to atmospheric changes that are guided by 8ft tall ‘Pteradogs’, and governed by a council of Elders.
This is one of those films. It’s good but it’s too weird to get the audience it deserves. Experimental film often eschews sequential narrative structure in favour of evoking an emotional journey; the viewer is meant to be engaged by the aesthetic or imagery rather than by the characters or story. Yet the story of Pushtar is not only one that could be followed, it should be followed for its approach to an issue so important yet surprisingly difficult to explore on-screen; climate change.
Acting as his own cinematographer, Irish director Alan Lambert explores the future of Earth and humanity should we allow greenhouse gas pollution to continue unabated. Set in the year 2365, Pushtar opens with space imagery that evokes the spirit of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The planet Earth has changed so much that for all intents and purposes, it is a different planet from the one we know and human behaviour has changed along with it.
Three centuries ago, our culture, technology, lifestyle and language were vastly different from what they are now. So why do films set in the future rarely deviate from characters who talk and behave like we do? Of course, to project what speculated changes humanity will undergo in centuries to come runs the risk of alienating audiences if the characters are too different from us. But that is precisely the challenge Pushtar runs towards.
The context of life is different now that climate change has ravaged the planet. The remnants of humanity live in the world’s highest mountains, avoiding merciless heat, ferocious storms and lethal clouds of methane, as they struggle to survive in living conditions similar to our cavemen ancestors. And that’s the part of Earth that’s still habitable.
The film opens with a group of racially-diverse nomads seeking the titular Pushtar, a community of humans living in a Nepalese cave. Children have evolved the ability to detect changes in the weather, making adults dependent on their guidance for survival. As they travel across rugged mountains, they must avoid speaking to conserve oxygen which is now low in the atmosphere. Much of the film’s dialogue in the first 20-odd minutes is through the sign language of American Plains Indians.
When they finally reach the oxygen-rich refuge of Pushtar and are inducted by an Elder, his deep, Caribbean voice says, “History is Dust” and relieves the tension of eerie silence. This film suggests that we take more than just speech for granted. The Elder outlines how little knowledge remains of the civilisation that came before theirs, intoning that “Passion is Dust. Requiem is Dust. Symphony is Dust.” Theirs is a “scientifically-run society” where survival is such a conscious priority that there is simply no time for prejudices of ethnicity, religion or ideology. Yet their technocratic mindset is itself ideological and leads to tension between those who trust the Children to keep them safe and those who advocate the use of genetically-engineered Pteradogs.
The Pteradogs are an interesting concept but are clearly wolfhounds super-imposed to appear larger. This is one of many times where the film’s budgetary limitations show in its special effects, which often just consist of the imposition of stock footage. At other times, the special effects are impressively seamless. The Pteradogs themselves are a disappointing aspect of the film, moreso for how repetitive they become. They do very little other than stand around panting so we never see them use the abilities they are prized for. Whoever first said directors should “never work with kids or animals” might take some consolation that at least the young cast playing the Children convey so much effectively in their silent scenes.
One could imagine this premise being approached any number of ways such that it would make for a compelling but more conventional genre piece; Some YA fantasy where the Children protagonists realise the Pteradogs are being pushed by some shadowy conspiracy; An eco-conscious Leonardo DiCaprio drama where he’s trying to keep the frayed community together; and so on. This story could have had a big budget to match its big ideas and yet we are presented with a low-budget experimental piece with an ambiguous ending.
At times, it evokes qualities of Terrence Malick and Nicholas Winding Refn. Indeed, its aspirations towards transcendence with its philosophical contemplations, striking visuals and racially-diverse cast, lend it a spirit similar to films like Ron Fricke’s Baraka or Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. The form ends up meshing with the content well. The budgetary constraints may lead to tighter framing but that leads to a greater sense of claustrophobia, intimacy and intensity.
Indeed, a recent talk by Alan Lambert at the IFI revealed more insight into the filmmaking process. The camera is usually static, yet snowflakes and wisps of smoke give scenes a sense of motion and energy. The size of cavernous spaces is conveyed through echoes. The landscape’s shifts from calm to hostile back to calm are conveyed by the pulsing soundtrack and diverse yet consistent changes in colour palette.
And although some vista shots were captured with Australia standing in for Nepal, most of the location filming was actually done on Killiney Hill. A lot of interior scenes were shot in the basement of Filmbase. This is an outstanding contribution to Irish cinema if for no other reason than demonstrating what kind of high-concept genre-piece can be accomplished when funded by no more than crowdfunding and an Arts Council grant.
And what of the film’s message? Does Lambert effectively communicate the dangers of climate change by focusing on how human behaviour would be impacted? When asked at the IFI talk, whether the film presented an optimistic or pessimistic scenario for humanity, Lambert’s conclusion was that the whole point of the film was to depict a society completely different from ours. Therefore projecting our own value judgement onto it would be missing the point.
The film expects a lot from its audience to engage with such ideas on such an advanced level. Pushtar stands out among Irish cinema for its visionary sweep and global consciousness. It is worth seeking out, even if it doesn’t have mass appeal, it has mass relevance. Irish film would benefit from more thought-provoking genre pieces like this.
Pushtar screened on Tuesday, 16th August 2016 @ 18.30