In Brazilian-born César Paes’s Tales from Madagascar, an ethnographic documentary co-directed by wife Marie Clémence Paes, we hear storytellers recount founding myths of Malagasy culture; rather than these folk historians, who appear in occasional inserts, or dramatic enactments of the tales they tell, we see instead people in the here and now, principally, at work, myths flowing through them, informing who they are and what they do in their everyday lives. Their myths continue to explain their environment.
We begin at the beginning: the Malagasian creation myth—voiceover set to images of sky, sea and earth. Thunder and lightning—war—was the result of conflict between the Gods of Sky and Sea, both of which coveted Earth. The sight and sound of the matching meteorological display obliterates the difference in time. Past is present; all, eternal. Earth raised mountains to attack Sky, but both Gods struck an accord, inventing peace, and decided on a joint project: the creation of the human—shaped from mud, invested with spirit. Set to this voiceover is a long-shot of a boy running towards the camera. Once created, humanity became a bone of contention, reviving conflict between the Gods and within their human creation.
Bored and lonely, humanity made fire, hence, smoke, so God of Sky sent down his daughter to keep Man company. But she missed the taste of rice, so she and her mate visited her father, stole some of his rice and returned to earth, planting the rice. Set to this voiceover are images of rice harvesting. We see, for instance, women chattering away at work, up to their waist in muddy rice paddies—like the original boy, creatures of the mud themselves now, but also part of a sociable community.
Myth and reality flow as one river throughout this radiant film.
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