19 February 2014

Two Ethnographic Films on Muslim Music

Ethnomusicologist John Baily researched, directed and edited two films during a two-year Leverhulme Film Training Fellowship at The National Film and Television School (NFTS) in the United Kingdom. 'Amir: An Afghan Refugee Musician's Life in Peshwar, Pakistan' was made in 1985 (with photography by Wayne Derrick), and 'Lessons from Gulam: Asian Music in Bradford' in 1986 (with photography by Andy Jillings). In each film Baily worked with a student cameraman who was in his last year of studies. The films are very much in the documentary style of the NFTS, forged by its director, Colin Young. The film making process is acknowledged in the films rather than hidden, and the (short) commentaries are spoken by the film maker in the first person. While editing the films, Baily was able to benefit from feedback by other film makers at the NFTS during regular weekly screening of the work in progress.


In Amir, all the dialogue and interviews are subtitled, as well as the song texts. In Lessons from Gulam the performers, Asian immigrants in the British city of Bradford, speak English, thus subtitling was unnecessary, but Baily did not subtitle the song texts (for financial reasons or to leave the image free, or for both reasons?). The audience that does not speak and understand Urdu would certainly be grateful for translations of the songs, and not every film spectator will have the opportunity to read the forthcoming booklet where the translations are given.

It is worthwhile reproducing the film maker's stated aims, since some ethnomusicologists and anthropologists claim that ethnographic or ethnomusicological films should be made (and judged) with a well defined audience in mind (e.g. archive, university, museum, TV, etc.). The accompanying booklet indicates that Amir had to satisfy several audiences, as noted by Baily:
  1. The general audience.
  2. Specialists in ethnomusicology, anthropology and regional studies. For them the film is a report on the condition of Afghan refugee musicians in Peshawar.
  3. The Afghan audience, for whom very few films had ever been made in their own languages, Pashto and Dari.
  4. It had to satisfy the cinematic criteria of the NFTS audience, concerned less with anthropology than with making good movies.
Lessons from Gulam had similar aims, with exception of the general audience, to quote Baily again:
  1. The Bradford audience; not only had the interests of the musicians themselves to be paramount, but if one of the goals of the film was to help promote Asian music education in Bradford then it was important to present the musicians in as positive a way as possible according to Muslim values.
  2. The film had to have an educational content and be of interest to school teachers who were faced with the problem of introducing Asian music into their curricula.
  3. The film had to be ethnomusicologically sound. 
  4. was identical with point 4 for Amir.
According to the film aesthetics of the NFTS (summarized by Baily), there should be 'no supplementary information, all the information needed to interpret the action (or to arrive at an interpretation) is provided by the action itself.' In other words, each film should stand by itself. I have seen (and enjoyed) Baily's films on several occasions (ethnomusicology and film colloquia) without supplementary information other than his introduction and answers to the audience's questions. But in reading the manuscripts of the forthcoming booklets, I was struck by how much more informative the films become when complemented by the written texts. These not only give a general introduction to the historical and social context, and to the research, but also discuss shooting and editing strategies, and provide shot by shot analyses describing the conditions in which each shot was made and why it was edited in that way, as well as what happened before or after the shot, and what had not been kept in the final editing of the film. There are also transcriptions of Baily's spoken commentaries and translations of the song texts (but not of the dialogues and interviews).


Many ethnographic film makers claim that films should be accompanied by printed study guides. John Baily provides an outstanding model for such booklets for ethnomusicological films. One might only regret the absence of musical transcriptions and analyses. The main focus of the booklets is film making, and on this topic I would have liked to know a bit more about the actual working methods with the cameraman during shooting. Who made decisions about focal length, angle, framing, length of the shots, mobility or fixity to the camera, etc.? From the booklet we learn that, in the case of Lessons from Gulam,
the shoot was characterized by endless self-questioning and discussions with Andy Jillings (the cameraman) about what we were doing, about the subject of the film, with constant reviews of what had been shot and what else required to be shot.
I have heard from other film makers that it is difficult to control efficiently the shooting while simultaneously making the sound recordings. The soundman has to choose the best position to pick up the best sound without being in frame, he has to be careful not to get extraneous noises from the microphone and cables, and he cannot communicate in sign language with the cameraman, tap on his shoulder or guide him in lengthy sequence-shots. Ethnomusicologists who consider making films with a similar minimal crew would certainly be grateful for more information about how Baily managed to both direct and record the sound. As the study guides are not printed yet, it is maybe not too late to include something about that.

Amir is a film portrait of an Afghan professional musician, a refugee in Pakistan. Amir is presented in a wide range of situations, showing the environment and conditions of a refugee's life: in Peshwar's street, at his home, in his band leader's office, in a cemetery and at a shrine, etc. He plays the rubab in the band of a well-known singer and harmonium player, and we see him playing solo and in the group at private sessions and during a Pakistani wedding. He takes music lessons from a Pakistani master musician who speaks with some beautiful metaphors about the value of music. While the spectator might expect that refugees perform many resistance songs, an interesting discussion about an audio cassette reveals that their condition forces them to record love songs 'for business' instead. There are some striking cinematographic high points in the film. At the wedding nationalistic songs which have meaning for the Pakistani wedding guests as well as for the Afghan musicians are filmed in a virtuoso sequence-shot. The camera follows the playing, dancing, offering of money and the shooting of a rifle (with the additional dramatic insert of a Kalashnikov being fired). Another strong emotional impact is achieved by a special editing effect in image and sound. Speaking about his life as a refugee Amir starts to weep and, hearing an aircraft approaching, he looks up to the sky. This, of course, evokes bombers devastating his homeland. The sound amplifies and cross-fades into the sound of the next image showing a river, a ‘metaphorical river of tears.’ After the first surprise, the emotion is taken away as quickly as it arose when we discover Amir sitting by the river in his usual cheery mood, speaking about this resort where he passes Ramadan in the cool mountain air.


Lessons from Gulam is a film about ethnomusicological research. As Baily says:
The data shown--the lessons and rehearsals--are the research data, they are not illustrative of a wider investigation or set of conclusions. They show some facets of musical enculturation in Bradford, but the film does not tell us what these add up to. Rather, they should prompt further inquiry.
The film is also a double portrait of two friends, Gulam and Shaukat, amateur musicians respectively of Gujerati and Pakistani origin, living in the British city of Bradford, who specialize in a type of Muslim religious music called qawali, which has been popularized through films and records. Inter-titles introduce each scene and thus reveal the overall structure of the film. Scene one, 'Introduction to Gulam and Shaukat,' presents the two friends in their environment: John Baily has a short lesson from Gulam. In scene two, 'Shaukat’s Ghazal Lesson,' Shaukat has problems in playing harmonium and singing at the same time. Scene three, 'Workshop,' focuses on rhythm: a third member of Gulam's group appears. Norman, an English guitarist and sitar player, who demonstrates metric cycles to a school class; later a young boy teaches an adult tabla playing, Gulam's father, formerly a professional drummer, gives a demonstration of his art. Scene four, 'Qawali Rehearsal,' shows the main performance context for Gulam's group: playing on Sunday afternoons for the musicians' own enjoyment. In scene five, 'The Touchstone,' we are again at a workshop where Norman teaches the schoolchildren a well known movie-song, and Shaukat performs another song. Scene six, 'Ramadan: The month of Fast,' is a section without music but which talks about the fast. The high point of the final scene seven, 'Celebrating the End of the Fast,' is the performance of a song by Gulam accompanied by his group. The film ends somewhat abruptly with a very short shot showing Shaukat arriving in the street and saying to the camera: 'Am I a bit late?' In the booklet, Baily justifies his choice of cutting in this shot taken on a different day, saying that for cinematographic reasons it was 'essential to end the film with Gulam and Shaukat in close proximity.' To that I would argue that with his last shot the proximity is not shown (they are not together), and that this abrupt ending gives the film a conclusion which is at odds with its main focus, musical enculturation. Baily honesty reports Shaukat's complaint that 'it made him look as though he was always late.' But apart from this ending, which I dislike as much as Shaukat, I admire the way the film is carefully thought out and edited. Those who believe that making movies is simply a matter of pressing a video camera button and putting the shots together as they come may learn a lot through studying the booklet and analysing the film at a micro level (cutting from one shot to another) and at a macro level (the overall structure). Besides taking Lessons from Gulam in performing qawali music, one can take 'Lessons from Baily' in how to structure a film.

Despite this compliment about the editing of Lessons from Gulam (which was more difficult to edit than Amir), I think Amir is more successful from the cinematographic point of view, since the success of portrait films relies heavily on the personality of the figure portrayed. Amir is a stronger personality, more articulate and more open about himself, and his situation as a refugee contributes to the emotional power of the film. In contrast, in Lessons from Gulam, Gulam and Shaukat are shy, 'even when performing,' as Baily writes in his booklet, admitting that he had to ask 'too many questions in order to elicit information.' Indeed, the viewer gets the impression that every bit of information had to be squeezed out of the musicians. This situation, of which Baily was fully aware and about which he felt uncomfortable, prompted him to resign his status as unseen film maker and interviewer, and enter the film as an actor, a learning and performing musician. 'Through joining them on the other side of the camera I was able to experience something of what I was asking of them, and at the same time give them more confidence.' Besides the difference in personality and the social and political context, Amir's more open response may also come from the fact that he is an old friend of John Baily who had worked with him in Afghanistan ten years before, and they share memories of life in Herat before the Soviet invasion. On the other hand, Baily's short period of fieldwork with Gulan and Shaukat in Bradford was conducted just before filming started.


Both films have longer shots than most conventional TV documentaries, with many spectacular takes, for example when the walking cameraman accompanies walking people, even following them during changing light conditions (these are 'training films' and the cameraman wanted to show his professional skill). The remarkable long sequence shots are particularly relevant since they allow one to see the performance techniques of the different musicians of the group, and the interaction amongst themselves and with their audience.

For ethnomusicologists who judge the quality of a film by the quantity of musical performance (I know at least one who criticized Amir--and other films--for having too little music), Lessons from Gulam should be slightly more satisfying since it has more than 25 minutes of musical performance and lessons, while Amir has 'only' 19 minutes out of a 52-minute film. In my opinion, both films are fascinating for ethnomusicologists and music lovers. Furthermore, Amir appeals very strongly to a general audience through its human and emotional portrait of a refugee. Thanks to this film we become close to him and we would greet him as an old friend it we had the opportunity to meet him in reality. At the fifth ‘Bilan du Film Ethnographique,’ Paris 1986, a ‘Prix special du jury’ for film schools was attributed to the NFTS in England for the film Amir.

Both films show that with good training in film making, lengthy work in editing and careful reflexion about what one is doing cinematographically, it is possible to make films which are 'ethnomusicologically sound' as well as being 'good movies.' Accompanied by their study guides (and John Baily's other publications), the two films should be acquired by every ethnomusicology program, institution, archive and museum department. Not only are both films highly interesting for area studies in Asian music, but they are also outstanding examples in the methodology of filming music and musicians.

[The foregoing was written by Hugo Zemp and originally published in the Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 20, 1988, pp. 257-60. Both films were originally shot and edited in 16mm but they're now available on DVD with PDF study guides from Documentary Educational Resources here and here. The DVD releases appear to be taken from black and white prints of the films, although as suggested by the two clips above Amir was apparently shot in color. Lessons from Gulam is listed on DER as being in color, but from the preview clip above the DVD appears to be in black and white.]

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