SURYABelgium/2006/Dutch, French, Turkish, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Nepali, Chinese, Vietnamese & Roma dialogue with English subtitles/Colour/35mm/76 mins
Director: Laurent Van Lancker (Polymor Films)
I cannot remember the last time I saw such an innovative and original piece of filmmaking. Although shown as a documentary in the Dubai Film Festival, Surya completely defies simple categorisation. It is a movie in its own right, a kind of non-fiction as fiction. It is an international odyssey, a cultural anthropological study and a humanist's dream.
Surya’s underlying concept is a children’s game where a story is created as each child adds their own part to it. The filmmakers applied this concept to an international journey in which they travelled as far as they could over land without the need for boats or planes. This epic trip began in Belgium, took nine months and ended in Vietnam taking in Slovakia, Turkey, Syria, Kurdistan, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal Tibet and China on the way.
The film opened with a storyteller in Belgium who starts the story off. In each subsequent country the filmmakers found a well-known local storyteller and asked them to continue the tale. Each of them added their own part to it until the story was complete.
It was an amazing trip and an amazing story that unfolded as the camera moved through Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Each new part of the tale was told in the language of the storytellers and in very different styles depending on where they were. Many of the storytelling traditions were accompanied by music and in some cases the story itself was sung rather than told. Sometimes the settings were quite informal and the additions to the tale quite spontaneous. At other times the stories were given very much as normal performances to local audiences. This was a particular delight in the case of Syria, Iran and India where you felt like you had been transported to that location and were part of that audience.
As well as the narrative thread of the ongoing story there was fascinating footage of border areas and passing scenes, including extra songs and performances from people encountered en-route. The visual splendour of many locations in terms of landscape and colour, plus the palpable excitement of all those participating, added to the feeling that you too were part of something very special.
In the Q and A at the end the filmmakers said this project had been regarded as too risky to secure funding so they ended up making it largely at their own expense. Since production the response has been much better but at present the film is only showing in festivals, universities and small art house cinemas. It really should be put on general release. Not only because it's a fantastic film but also because it demonstrates that positive and innovative interpretations of what globalisation can be are still possible. It is also a welcome reminder of our common creativity and humanity, a fact not reflected in political and economic reality for some time.