The Clay Bird Review
The Clay Bird (Matir Moina) is set against the background of the democratic upheaval that would lead to civil war and the independence of Bangladesh from the military rule of Pakistan, but first and foremost, it is the story of a young boy growing up in a secular family during a particularly turbulent period of the 1960s.
Concerned with the political unrest that is becoming more evident even in their little village and worried of the influence his rather more progressively minded brother is having on his son Anu (Nurul Islam Bablu), Kazi (Jayanto Chattopadhyay), an orthodox Muslim and homeopathic practitioner, sends the boy to be educated in a madrasa, a centre for Islamic learning. The teachers are very strict and demanding, but Anu is an intelligent child who applies himself to his lessons and scripture, mastering a number of languages. He is however unhappy in the madrasa, treated as an outsider by the other boys who come from bigger towns, but finds friendship with another boy, Rokon (Russell Farazi) who is shunned by the others for his strange behaviour.
Despite the political setting of the film, this alien world with its confusing laws and traditions is seen almost entirely from the point of view of a young child, or rather the memories of the filmmaker of his own childhood. This is an important distinction, because the focus therefore remains on the things the boy witnessed himself and the things that stand out in his memory of the period as things that are important to him. Hence the focus is on his family and friends, his teacher at the madrasa, the good times watching the boat race with his uncle Milon (Soaeb Islam), the impression of feeling like an outsider, the influence of his devout father, the loss of his sister and the subsequent grief of his mother. It’s on this level that the film operates, as a universal memory of childhood and the formative influences that direct the rest of our lives. And in this case, the political climate only further underlines the personal conflicts that the young Anu has to undergo.
Funded by French producer Marin Karmitz of MK2, The Clay Bird therefore has everything you expect from a European funded Asian film – i.e. it’s one that conforms in every way to western expectations. There is plenty of exoticism, everything meticulously framed and beautifully lit, the screen bursting with the colour. Above all these is the worthy political subject, a conflict between secular and political beliefs that has a deep impact on one particular family. It’s obligatory also that this conflict is couched in symbolism, even better in this case when that symbolism is dressed up in exotic traditional songs that speak more of the political and personal turmoil than anything that is actually seen on the screen. The clay bird of the title is referred to in a song lines “Why did you infuse my heart with longing / If you didn’t give my wings the strength to fly.”, symbolising young Anu’s growing awareness of the world moving in parallel with the restrictions on his freedom demanded by adherence to strict Islamic laws. It also speaks of the martial law that is declared, denying the people the democratic choices they have voted for in the elections.
This says much more than the film actually shows. There is unfortunately no resolution to any of the situations put forward, neither the implications of the strict religious upbringing, the subtle distinctions in the variety of teachings, nor the consequences of the political upheavals are seen to have any significant impact on the characters, of which there are too many and most of whom simply disappear by the end of the film without ever having achieved any kind of character development. As for the political situation, it is alluded to merely through the procession of a well-behaved crowd filing down a village street, Anu’s uncle and his friends light-heartedly debating the situation, and the sounds of gunfire that are heard at the end of the film - but here least of all do we get any sense of the importance of what has happened. An estimated three million Bengalis were killed during the actual conflict, but you wouldn’t know that from watching the film. What we do get are songs, symbolism and lovely colourful cinematography, none of which make up for the otherwise dull, plodding and ultimately inconsequential storyline, which has great ambitions but falls well short of the mark.
The Clay Bird is released in the US by Milestone. The disc is encoded for Region 1 and is in NTSC format.
Rather like their edition of The Big Animal released alongside this, The Clay Pigeon is taken from an almost pristine print, but is unfortunately rather poorly transferred. It’s anamorphic at a ratio of 1.78:1, not the film’s original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, nor is it progressive, the interlaced transfer blurring and bobbing in its movements and camera pans, causing shimmering and artefacting throughout. It’s a real pity because the print has no other flaws, with rich colours, and a clear and well-defined image. There is edge-enhancement, and shadow detail is not perfect, but this often looks striking nonetheless. With proper DVD authoring, this would be an almost flawless transfer.
The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and it is fine throughout, both dialogue and particularly the singing having depth, clarity and accuracy of tone.
English subtitles are provided, in a clear white font and are optional.
The extra features are excellent – you really couldn’t ask for more informative features on the film, the filmmakers, the cast and the cultural background details of the period, politics and religious references. Tareque and Catherine Masud take the viewer through their own footage of the location scouting, casting sessions, rehearsals and filming in the half-hour Making Of, recalling incidents during the shooting and difficulties faced. Brief Interviews are conducted with all the main cast in the film, most of them non-actors, talking about themselves, how they came to be in the film and how they approached their characters. Some of those playing religious leaders talk about the issues raised there and their authenticity, the singers talk about how they normally perform their folk songs. The director and producer, Tareque and Catherine Masud, also talk about the film, its autobiographical origins and their hopes for Bangladeshi filmmaking that The Clay Bird has opened up. Three Selected Songs are included in audio only versions, and the US Trailer and French Trailer are also included. Additionally, all the additional information you could possibly want is included in the Press Kit information in the DVD-ROM section of the disc, including a synopsis, character descriptions, historical background, a director biography, extensive in-depth interviews with the husband and wife director and producer team, cultural background details on the making of the film and the issues it raises, as well as lyrics for the songs which play a huge part in the film, critical response to the film and even a glossary.
The Clay Bird attempts to show the impact of growing up in Bangladesh during a particularly important political period, on a young boy torn between adherence to the importance of his religious upbringing and the wider freedoms being offered by democracy and independence, but it never successfully makes any of its points with sufficient depth or clarity or anything like the kind of brilliance and coherence that Salman Rushdie would achieve in a similar treatment of the history of Pakistan in his novel Shame. Whereas The Clay Bird has the advantage of some fabulous cinematography that captures the sights and sounds, the people and the tradition, the songs and the lifestyle, it has none of the novelistic richness in the numerous levels that it rather over-ambitiously tries to show as seen through the eyes of a child. Milestone’s presentation of the film is almost flawless, presenting the film well and with exceptionally useful extra features, but surprisingly not going the full way with a disappointing interlaced transfer that causes numerous artefacting problems.