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In the Eye of The Beholder : A Review of Varial Cedric Houin’s film, “Wakhan : Afganistan”

by Alex Shoumatoff with Bob Olivier

It is always exciting to be present at the moment of emergence of a major talent, and this excitement was in the air at the opening of the exhibit of Varial Cedric Houin’s stunning photographs and the premiere of his extraordinary film about the Wakhi and Kirghiz peoples and the mountain landscape of the Wakhan corridor of northern Afganistan on the 17th of October at the Arsenal, a huge, gorgeous space for modern art exhibitions at 2020 William St., in the Griffintown quarter of Montreal. (The show will be up for three months, with screening of the film twice daily.) The people wandering around and taking in the images seemed almost in a rapturous daze. I keep hearing the word wow !

Varial’s film is at once minimalist and epic, self-effacing and audacious. It defies the conventions and pushes the envelope of documentary film-making, which the genre badly needs, particularly in Canada, where it is taken so seriously that a certain stodginess has set in. There is no narration and hardly any dialogue and no artificial building up of suspense. The viewer is made to suspend his addiction to anticipation and to relax into the time of these these nomadic yak and sheep herders eking a living out on this 4000-foot plateau of the Hindu Kush, and by the time its 76 minutes end, you have a clear picture and sense of this bleak but monumental landscape and the austere but cozy existence of its inhabitants and their isolated life-term, extended-family social arenas, which have not changed appreciably in hundreds of years. Varial accomplishes this with an intricately modulated and choregraphed suite of images which he descibes as a “cinematic poem,” but whose flow and tempo, accompanied by David Drury’s ethereal but deep-resonating unobstrusively powerful scores, is symphonic and seamlessly edited by Cyril Lochon. Time-lapse photography that gives you the sense of the passing of a whole day, the movements of the people and the animals and the clouds and of the progress of the star-plastered night sky, collapsed into a minute or so, alternates with recurrent images that are like re-statements of a musical theme, of shy but irrepressibly curious and playful children squirming in front of the camera, kicking a plastic ball, throwing stones at a pail, loading plastic gerrycans full of water on to mules, reciting their lessons inside the yurt; men threshing buckwheat; a woman standing by a wall with her baby in her arms; family groups posing, which convey indelibly and luminously the impression that these are people just like us but not prisoners of gizmos, individually inconsequential parts of their ecosystem, closer to the way humans have been for most of our history. The war has not reached this part of the Afganistan, the Taliban is not fighting over it.  And you find the hospitality and humility of people whose individuality is subsumed by their kinship group, whose individual existences are dwarfed by the grandeur of their world, of the infinite celestial space and vast mountain views in which they are enveloped. The modern ego has no place here, and only someone who is humble himself, as Varial, whom I know personally, is, could have captured this so well. Varial is a refreshing change to the huge egos that flourish in the top ranks of artistic photography and film-making. And it is no accident that his production team, starting with producer Victorine Sentilhes, are all lovely people. We will be hearing more from all of them. Varial grew up climbing in the French alps and loves and understands the mountains and he loves wild places and traveling to the far-flung corners of the world. So this show is a perfect wedding between an artist and his subject. What is interesting is that the beholder has no sense of a subjective or cultural filter in the images he is being presented with. Varial keeps himself out of it, in the documentary tradition, and instead he opens your vision up to the full drama and cosmic wonder of what he is beholding. Wakhan could be described as a psychedelic documentary, and with the searingly beautiful enlarged photos in the adjacent part of the show, the visitor is left with an unforgettable whiff of the uncanny, with the sense that he has been given a privileged look at what it really going on, and that he is the walrus. In the end Varial is Everyman who has traveled to the ends of earth and hung out with these exotic people, many of whom are light-skinned, light-haired, blue or green-eyed, and discovered that he been here for thousands of years. He has brought us back in touch with the essence of our souls, and this is the highest achievement of artistic self-expression.

If you can’t make it to the show, here is the teaser for for film :

And here is the site for the show :

thanks to bob for catching the inadvertent cutting from the earlier post the kudos for cyril lochon’s seamless editing, a big part of the success of this film.


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