An arrestingly minimalist and slow-paced look at architecture, nature and the nature of the outsider.
One of the fascinating phenomena of recent years has been the quiet rise of slow TV – productions that stand in relaxed contrast to the endless sound and fury of most modern TV and cinema and the obsessive desire to be young and cool and edgy that drives most producers. It’s something that we have long planned to discuss in more depth and probably still will – but there’s no hurry, right?
I mention this because Bawa’s Garden has the minimalist, relaxing vibe of these productions. It is, on the surface, a documentary about Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, the man behind some of the most fascinating buildings in the world. His work is not especially fashionable. It’s not of the moment, it doesn’t often feel like it is making some sort of grand statement – other than by being a remarkable and often unimaginable combination of art and nature, which is probably as grand a statement as you could get when you think about it. Look at the extraordinary Heritance Kandalama hotel, built into the natural rock in a jungle setting and seeming to exist as though it has always been there. Bawa’s work was driven by the natural world and the desire to make buildings co-exist with nature while still being remarkable works of creation in their own right. The title and the opening narration refer to Lunuganga, Bawa’s garden estate that he began to create in 1948 and continued to build until his death in 2003; it is currently managed by his estate. You might think, as the film starts, that it is a lost and forgotten place – and within the context of the film, perhaps it is. But Lunuganga acts primarily as the excuse for a strange and gentle road trip through Sri Lanka, following the trail of Bawa’s work and his associates.
As such, it is both a documentary and… well, not quite fiction, but a created narrative. ‘Documentary fantasy’ as the description goes, where everything is real but also structured to create a narrative that goes from the sacred to the surreal, bringing in moments of eeriness and beauty that are found simply in the atmospherics of the visuals. While this is a film full of talking head interviews, the story is really told simply by what we see – and what we see are mostly moments of contemplation and natural splendour. The vast landscapes, the small moments of jungle solitude and the stylistic purity of Bawa’s designs that bring the natural and the manmade together in a seamless marriage are what drive this film as it allows us to simply sink into it.
Director Clara Kraft Isono allows what we might consider in a different sort of film to be the lead actor, Lea D’Albronn Allexandre, to be her on-screen representative, taking us through the exploration that feels like a road trip – even if much of it takes place on water – and a contrast between the cluttered, Tuk Tuk-driven world of the Sri Lankan cities and the silence of natural world where everything and everyone is moving at its own pace, removed from the hectic world around them. Even the interviews feel more like gentle conversations, the speakers being given room to develop ideas and tell their stories – and these are fascinating stories of creativity from Bawa and those he influenced and inspired. The incredible balustrading by Laki Senanayake in the Lighthouse Hotel, the women’s cooperative creating traditional fabrics, the nuns and children of the Nazareth Chapel of the Good Shepherd Convent – everything here has a remarkable sense of serenity and atmosphere, of creation at its own pace. The whole film is determinedly minimalist in its approach, not simply taking a ‘less is more’ approach, but also allowing scenes of near-stillness to carry on for much longer than you would expect or hope to find in any modern film. There is a tranquillity and a beauty within this film that is hard to describe.
The film plays with ideas of being an outsider – the filmmakers and Bawa both, given that the architect was from a wealthy family and was increasingly removed from Sri Lanka’s mainstream in the turbulent post-colonial days of civil war and conflict, where he refused to take sides. It presents the country as seen through alien eyes, which is no bad thing – what we all take for granted, the outsider sees as remarkable and strange. Certainly, it doesn’t feel like an extended travelogue, which is always the danger when exploring the nature and architecture of an unfamiliar place – throughout the film, there is a certain edginess in watching this French woman negotiating an unfamiliar society, seemingly alone (this, of course, is a conceit – she clearly had a film crew with her). But equally, the film is about different groups of people being brought together, most notably in the cross-denominational convent where most of the girls are Muslim but the ceremonies are Catholic, the sort of thing that might cause outrage in some circles and which might, in other circumstances, feel rather like indoctrination but here feels like a moment of hope and similar to Bawa’s mix of modern buildings and the ancient natural world. Bawa’s world feels like an oasis from everywhere else, the rules and restraints that bind us in the ‘real’ world. The arrival at his garden is perhaps the most unremarkable moment in the film – despite the suggestion that it is a secretive place that has been carved out of the jungle, it looks more conventional than many of his other buildings (and in fact exists on the grounds of a former rubber plantation and is now open to the public – two points that go unmentioned, presumably for fear of ruining the mythology that the film has built up).
Of course, this won’t be for everyone. There’s an artificial mystery that runs through the film and that feels rather contrived, as does the breaking of the movie into chapters and the philosophical (French language) narration that seems rather Godardian in approach – I’m not sure the film really needed that as it sometimes takes away from the simple pleasures it presents. More significantly, not everyone is going to appreciate the leisurely pace of this story – and if you are not interested in the infinite possibilities of architecture, then this certainly won’t be for you. But there’s a simple charm and beauty here that outdoes any sense of pretension – and while that beauty might not be the creation of the filmmaker, the interpretation of it certainly is.
Bawa’s Garden screens at Raindance on October 27th 2022.
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