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FILM REVIEW: From the 84 Days – Sheffield DocFest

Reviewer: Rich Jevons

Director: Philip Hartmann

Philip Hartmann’s musical documentary does so much more than simply record the orchestra’s performance; the camera actually responds to the musician’s improvisation but you might be quite bewildered by the introduction of the film – a taxi journey into the Bolivian city of La Paz. Soon we realise that this is the home of OEIN (Experimental Orchestra for Native Instruments) and they are on a trip to Germany, where, due to COVID, their German concerts are cancelled and they are forced to isolate in the Music Academy in Brandenburg. This venue is also home to PHØNIX and noiserkroiser and it is with these groups that this film is made.

The musicians are filmed in a most unorthodox manner, panning and tracking from each player and often using extreme close-up. The OEIN instruments are also as you have never seen before, pipes as long as a didgeridoo and flutes that are like unusual pan pipes while the more conventional instruments are played in off-beat ways such as an electric guitar with a tube blowing air onto the strings and a prepared piano (John Cage being one of the composers they perform).

The principal influence though is German Avant Garde legend Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ‘Aus Den Sieben Tagen’. This piece consists of instructions to the musicians in writing to describe the improv they are setting out to do. This is to be done with no discussion before or after to add to the freshness and spontaneity of the performance. The results may be abstract, but they can be highly emotional too – from being eerie and ghostly to soft relaxing ambiance.

In Stockhausen’s ‘Unlimited’ the percussionist plays the bottom supporting the bass drum rather than on the skin itself producing a metallic rattling so the piece becomes aggressive and noisy, a chaotic cacophony with piercing wind instruments and feedback (South America’s answer to Jimi Hendrix!)

The film not only superbly captures these performances but also reveals to us the daily lives of the musicians and how they feel about this challenging environment, missing home, of course, and under lockdown restrictions. For another piece, the groups begin by imitating the whining and screeching of cats and dogs, clearly having fun with a sense of laissez-faire.

In a way, these post-dinner meetings are almost like magic rituals and the improv form allows for brisk changes of mood. One of the Bolivians calls the technique “composing in real time” and there is certainly enough intense concentration for this to be the case. They also note the liberating sense that “the moment will never happen again”. One musical thing to note is the lack of a time signature which adds to the “necessity and obligation to listen” and they disprove the common misconception that improv means you can “just do anything”.

While some of the outcomes are quintessentially South American, there is also a lot of fusion with Western music and, inevitably, the kind of forms that Stockhausen envisaged for his piece. At no point, is anything that more conventionally would be described as ‘nice’ or ‘moving’, it just is what it is, like it or not. One recital sees the troupes dotted around different spaces of the building in corridors and stairways to highlight the idea that they are working from spaces not to them, demanding a “new type of perception”.

Financially the virus and its resulting lockdown has been a financial disaster for OEIN and the film discusses the relationships between art, money and society. One lighter moment shows Hartmann asking the company members what they think COVID would sound like. The interviewees reply either chalk squeaking on a blackboard or an untrained violinist.

There is something of a ‘state of shock’ when the Bolivians are told they can return home and the film then ends where it had begun with the taxi entering La Paz, the lights of the city looking beautiful at night. The word ‘beautiful’ best describes this inventive and innovative film, with a form that matches its content.

Reviewed on 12th June 2021 at Sheffield DocFest

The Reviews Hub Score

Beautiful, Experimental

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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