From Nepal and South Korea, Yi Seung-jun’s Children of God, which Yi also photographed, examines poverty, dying and Hindu rituals attending death at and near a temple in Katmandu on the banks of the Baghmati River. Its principal settings are the river and adjacent streets, a service center hospice, and the cremation site on the sacred Hindu temple grounds. What emerges from Yi’s silent observation of activities and the mosaic of brief remarks by various participants in these activities is a deceptively casual social portrait—and a brilliant suggestion of the compensatory role of religion in an oppressed and variously suppressed community and society. This is an astounding documentary.
Although Yi’s film is blissfully free of chattering experts and outside narration, one of the participants, pre-teen Alesh Poudel, provides intermittent guiding voiceover that accumulates into a poignant metaphor for the compensatory strategies that enable individuals to negotiate and navigate a debilitating environment. (I was reminded of the narration of the child-character played by Linda Manz in Terrence Malick’s fictional Days of Heaven, 1978—perhaps the only aspect of that film that moved me.) Alesh, in short, may be deluded into believing he is reasonably “on top of things” by his crafty ability to extract income from funereal events and, along with other children, gather up ritually tossed coins by diving into the Baghmati; but the filth of the river, itself, ironically undercuts his resourceful, hopeful, “positive” stance, rendering it all the more heartrending. (Alesh may be barely treading water and close to drowning.) Repeating what he has been taught to believe, Alesh tells us that the river flows into heaven; but its pollution clouds our perception of his conviction while underscoring the implicitly infinite distance between the boy and any kind of deliverance from poverty and struggle. Yi has orchestrated a vision of terrible clarity and depth.
The enveloping irony, of course, is that religion helps entrench the fate for which it compensates; its obsession with death and the dead distracts from the plight of the still-living poor such as Alesh and other children: part of the future of Nepal; part of the future of all of us.
Do not miss Children of God, which is available on DVD. Watching it opens one’s third, more keenly insightful “eye.” It is unblinking—and overwhelming.
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