Playing at Cannes in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar, Blue Bird has certainly been a film that’s been widely promoted within the festival market, regularly gracing the cover of the the daily market screening program – and deservedly so.
Watching this film proved one of the most charm-filled moments of my Cannes experience. The blue-tinged infusion of images throughout the film, rather than detract, adds to the beautiful simplicity of the cinematography, and to the magical journey that real-life brother and sister, Bafiokadie and Tene, embark on. Devoid of any special effects or fancy camera work, the story nonetheless unfolds as a magical mystery – a spiritual road journey.
I have to admit that on first learning about this film, although delightfully intrigued, I was a little wary of what a white man would do with a story about two African children journeying through spiritual realms as they go in search of a lost bird. Spirituality, particularly African spirituality, is often viewed, particularly in the west, as superstition – but not everyday superstition like walking under a ladder bringing bad luck, or throwing a pinch of salt over your should for good luck, but the kind of superstition that’s rife with evil, demonic forces and the need for blood sacrifices.
Belgian director Gust Van den Berghe, however, has taken what could have been an “ethnic” “tribal” or “ritualistic” tale of African other-worldliness and made a delightfully enjoyable film based on a story by Belgian Nobel Laureate, Maurice Maeterlinck (29 August 1862 – 5 May 1949). I’m unfamiliar with Maeterlinck’s work, but apparently he used a lot of symbolism and anti-realism. The original story was set in Russia, not Africa – hardly surprising at that time period, although I’d like to think (or at least hope) that Maeterlinck was not of a similar persuasion to King Leopold II who felt justified in setting about collecting the severed hands of the people of the then Congo Free State (basically his privately owned African colony, now the Democratic Republic of Congo) if they had not fulfilled their quota of rubber production, leaving swathes of the population in a state of despair leading to slow death and starvation.
Although the setting is not named, Blue Bird was filmed in the rural, savanna landscape of Tamberma in Togo, West Africa. In the official Director’s Fortnight brochure for the film, Van den Berghe says of Blue Bird:
…I wanted to distance myself as much as possible from the stereotypical Africa, the ever-suffering Africa, but without necessarily falling into the trap of “exoticization”. I researched the authenticity of the Tamberma beliefs and traditions and these were a source of inspiration for BLUE BIRD.
Seemingly concurring with my view of the universality of this story in my initial preview of this film prior to Cannes (which you can find HERE), the director goes on to say that:
BLUE BIRD is a universal story and I told it with little or no financial backing. Working in this way is not without risk, but I benefited from an extraordinary freedom. This freedom is intrinsic to the project: it is freedom for the director to interpret the text as he chooses, but also the freedom the audience has vis-a-vis the film. This is what I want to offer to the public: neither truths nor answers that are ready made, but a chance to participate in the construction of the film. A good story cannot bear fruit until after it has been told. It’s the same for a film. Just as we cannot judge a man’s journey until he’s taken his final bow.
…the story is universal and could have any country in the world as its backdrop: it is about children who lose their innocence and enter into the world of adults. I chose Togo, but I could just as well have situated it in Latin America. However, once I had decided upon Africa, I specifically chose to film it in Tamberma territory, a region in the northern part of Togo. I was drawn to its specific anthropological characteristics. This area has never been colonized and its inhabitants live according to very specific rites, including the way they practice their religion. A number of things about these people remind me of the play, like their exalted connection to nature, or their animism.
And while there were many questions, the film certainly doesn’t provide any pat answers or suggestions. The themes of life and death pervade the film – not in any morbid or depressing kind of way, but in sometimes childlike curiosity as when the children find the bird and wonder if it’s alive or dead, almost making a game of it; or in a humorously dead-pan manner as when the motorbike passenger of the children’s father asks if he can stop the vehicle, only to lay down beside the road and give up the ghost, much to the calm yet exasperated disbelief of the motorbike riding carpenter who, as it happens, has just made a coffin; or when their grandfather sings a dirge-like song about death and being dead, irritating his also dead wife who dryly wonders why he doesn’t sing a song about her instead.
One of the most charming scenes for me is when Bafiokadie and Tene meet the unborn children with their funny hats that, perhaps not coincidentally, happen to resemble sperm. The king of time comes along with a megaphone, conducts a roll-call, cites the rules before they set out on their journey to be born, and reminds them that some of them won’t make it and that it’s not about winning, before they’re herded into a truck to be taken to what, surely, must be the moment of ejaculation that’ll set them on the journey down the mothers’ birth canals and, if they’re lucky, to life in the physical realm.
It was tempting, me being of West African descent, and it being an African film in look, sound and tone, to try and read some symbolism into every scene, moment and event, but the film is best enjoyed as presented – simply, with each moment being what it is, saying what it means and showing what it wants without fanfare, mystery or surprise.
The children are bathed by the mother near the beginning of the film and then bathed again on their return from their quest near at the end of the day. Could these ablutions represent the routine/ritual cleansing at birth and again at death…? Were the children actually no longer of this world themselves, hence their ability to mingle with dead grandparents and unborn children…? Or have they merely transitioned from one phase of their lives to the next…? The death of one phase and the birth of another? Maybe. Like Van den Berghe said, it’s not about truths or answers but perhaps, and as the children are told in the film, to pursue life’s pleasures instead of chasing after fanciful blue birds who will only fly away when their time with you is done.