Irish Film Review: Pushtar

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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

 

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Competition: Win Tickets to ‘Pushtar’

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Alan Lambert’s film Pushtar screens at this month’s IFI Irish Focus on new Irish film and filmmakers on Tuesday, 16th August 2016 @ 18.30.

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.

Thanks to our friends at the IFI we have a pair of tickets to give away. To be in with a chance of winning, email filmireland@gmail.com with Pushtar in the subject line by 2pm Monday, 15th August when the Film Ireland Hat will consult with the elders and select a winner,

Director Alan Lambert will participate in a post-screening Q&A.

Book tickets here

 

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IFI Irish Focus: Director Alan Lambert on ‘Pushtar’

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Ahead of its screening as part of Irish Focus at the IFI, experimental filmmaker Alan Lambert introduces his film, Pushtar, to Film Ireland.

 

Although I have been using low-budget film techniques and working in non-commercial formats for many years, the origins of my film Pushtar are not to be found along a path of film development, or even in identifiable film formats, but along a path exploring theoretical strands of earth sciences that connect to my film work at a tangent. One such project emerging from these strands is ‘The Seventh Earth’, an ongoing concept driven website project. It touches on aspects of climate change and more specifically the predicted 6 degree global temperature increase, now a barometer for many climatologists.

In relation to The Seventh Earth, I often found myself in discussions with environmental scientists as frequently as with experimental filmmakers and artists. The conversations often followed a familiar path of exploring geo-engineering and practical scientific solutions – flooding the Sahara, draining the Yangtze, or dispersing tons of ash into the upper atmosphere to drop the Earth’s temperature by a degree. Necessary, fascinating and often charged though these conversations were I found myself increasingly aware of the absence of a certain idea within them, the idea that the people that were going to be dealing with these situations in the future were not going to be like us – no more like us than the 19th Century people dealing with the industrial revolution. Their mind-set would have fundamentally changed.

During the same period, I returned to Japan to complete some work after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The society I was greeted with was very different to the one I had left a month before. My friends and clients had not slept properly in weeks. They never knew when to brace themselves for an aftershock, of which they were experiencing four per day. The electricity was only being used at half par – street lights and shop displays were left off – everything was at half par. I felt like I had walked into Europe during World War II. The uncertainty was in itself exhausting. This intensified my feeling that the grand-children of people living with this uncertainty on a daily basis would have to adapt to it, practically and emotionally, in ways that we simply cannot foresee.

I felt that it would be worth using the low-budget film techniques that I had developed, and the non-commercial formats which I was free to work within, to make a film that placed the viewer within that future world – and close to people who regard their reality very differently. People for whom much that we take for granted has been un-learned – for whom the concept of stability itself has become alien.

But I wanted to avoid a certain trap of science-fiction – namely to set a futuristic premise and then simply proceed with a thinly veiled contemporary genre piece. I wanted to give the viewer time to really forget their own daily lives before beginning to feel close to any of my protagonists. I wanted to create a feeling that they were seeing these people and their daily lives at close quarters but also from an immense distance – like observing something in a microscope. And a feeling that it is being observed not entirely consciously, but perhaps through a half-waking, half-sleeping state – as if a film viewed from a higher consciousness, suggesting in many ways that achieving that higher consciousness is in itself the way to adapt – and perhaps the only way…

Pushtar is that ‘higher place’.

The story that emerges follows the path of children that have developed a unique sensibility to weather changes and are used by the elders as natural barometers, to warn of encroaching atmospheric changes – dangerous changes, as a drifting cloud of silent and deadly methane can replace the breathable air around them in moments. These children are paired with their ‘Pteradogs’, 8 foot tall hyper-bred wolfhounds that act as guides, mentors in a world they may intuitively know better.

As their community continues to move to higher ground, these children and animals develop forms of communication un-decipherable to the adults. The final threads of the world as we know it fade away.

As Max LeCain observed, “… ( the film is ) more like part of an eco-system in form than a narrative; something melting, a process… like a documentary inside a dream ” – or a child’s dream of a film.

In keeping with this premise of gradual, organic change, the film was made in a very improvisational and un-structured way. I let the children and the animals lead the way and shaped most of it in editing.

The film features newcomers Dean Cronin and Kashmira Larkin as the leading children, Keshet Zur and Ademola Oladeji as their guardians and Richard Marsh and Niamh O’Farrell as the head priests, with the voice of the master of ceremonies provided by French actor Dominique Monot. The soundtrack was improvised by European Sensoria Band and Guests.

 

The film was crowd-funded on Rockethub and Indiegogo and supported by the Arts Council of Ireland

 

Pushtar screens on Tuesday, 16th August 2016 @ 18.30 at the IFI as part of Irish Focus, a focus on new Irish film and filmmakers.
 
Alan Lambert will participate in a post-screening Q&A
 
Tickets are available here or from the IFI Box Office or on 01 679 3477 

 

 

 

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Review: Pushtar

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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.

 

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‘Pushtar’ Premieres @ IndieCork

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Alan Lambert’s new sci-fi feature Pushtar will premiere at IndieCork, in the Gate Cinema, Cork, on October 11th at 16:30.

The environmentally informed non-narrative sci-fi is set in the 2365.

Climate change has ravaged the Earth’s surface. As sea levels rise, cities are abandoned and people move higher into the mountain plateaus.

One such destination is Pushtar, a place which lies on the edge of the Himalayas, along the ancient migration routes that served civilizations thousands of years ago.

Here they live without technology. Their world is very different as the rising levels of carbon dioxide and dust turn the sky pink. With the depletion of oxygen levels speaking is limited and communication is achieved by body language.

The monitoring of the environment is entrusted to children that show a heightened sense of awareness in a particular field – a child that can feel changes in air pressure with an encroaching thunderstorm, or a shift in a distant mountain range. The warnings they provide are crucial to survival.

To the elders that watch them, civilisation as we know it is merely a distant memory.

To the children themselves, life as we live it is just a story.

 

Tickets can be bought here

Check the full festival programme here

 

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