- Kinshasa Symphonydirected by Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer, and: Eastern Voicesdirected by Frank Scheffer and Günter Wallbrecht
Most films about music are made by non-musicians. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is that musicians are generally not trained as filmmakers. The goals of non-musicians, however, often run contrary to what musicians want to see and hear on screen. In Kinshasa Symphonyand Eastern Voices, we have prime examples of how good films in all other respects perhaps fall short when communicating musical information to a musical audience.
Kinshasa Symphonyprofiles the only symphony orchestra in central Africa, the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste headquartered in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With beautiful cinematography, polished editing, and a well-construed documentary narrative, the film is a portrait of life in the midst of urban Africa. To the filmmakers’ credit, much of the story foregoes the temptation to exoticize the region’s colonial past and recent civil war. Rather it remains centered on the orchestra’s musicians and the role of music as a stabilizing factor in their sometimes troubled existence. As a musician, however, I am reminded of the constructed nature of this narrative at a few key moments. For example, at various points in the film, each profiled musician is filmed performing in the dusty city streets amidst a swirl of traffic and passersby. I was drawn out of the fly-on-the-wall illusion of the film each time this type of sequence appeared. I simply could not understand why the musicians would be in the middle of the street if the filmmakers had not asked them to be there. At other times, the musicians are heard whistling, humming, or singing the theme of Beethoven’s Ninth while doing mundane tasks, so much so that one wonders how often they were directed to do so. Narrative tension in the film is predicated upon the orchestra’s preparation for a large public concert. I found myself looking forward to this concert so that I could see lengthy performances of Beethoven’s Ninth, “O fortuna” from Orff’s Carmina Burana, and other pieces heard in rehearsal scenes. When the moment finally arrives it is anticlimactic, obscured by too much up-close camera-work and quick cuts that abbreviate the performance to little more than a footnote. The musicality of the orchestra is therefore subsumed within the vicissitudes of the documentary form, a rather unfortunate aspect of an otherwise well executed film.
The Morgenland Festival Onsabrück has since 2005 programmed musical collaborations that seek to reevaluate ideas about Eastern art music. Eastern Voicesdocuments rehearsals and performances by the Morgen land Chamber Orchestra—as the liner notes suggest, “a meeting point for musicians from Azerbaijan, Iran, Syria, and Germany” directed by Iranian composer Nader Mashayekhi—in collaboration with art music icons including Alim and Fargana Qasimov (Azerbaijan), Salar Aghili and Harir Shariatzadeh (Iran), and Yulduz Turdieva (Uzbekistan). The traditional repertoire of these musicians is captured in very high quality audio and video; the audio mix in particular is well worth viewing the film on its merits alone. However, the cinematographic style may irritate claustrophobic viewers. There are far too many extreme close-up shots of musicians’ facial expressions when better musical information could be transmitted with wider shots of their whole bodies. Not once are we given a wide shot of the entire ensemble nor performance space, though scenes of the exterior architecture of a Medieval church and tight shots of a crucifix and other icons are repeatedly intercut to give some sense of the venue (an unidentified church) and clearly also to highlight the “East meets West” theme of the film. The bonus materials include three short performances by the featured musicians, yet these too are plagued by the same issues as the film itself and at only twelve minutes in total length hardly do...