Finding Lost Tune

An interview with Reetu Sattar

By Young Film Critic André Shannon

I meet Bangladeshi filmmaker Reetu Sattar in a café to discuss her short film Lost Tune, set to world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2019. In the work, a group of musicians sit still playing a loud noise on harmoniums – a traditional Bengali instrument that resembles a boxed accordion.

Meeting an impressionistic filmmaker like Sattar makes you want to respond to their work through Impressionism. So, without compromising the weight of Sattar’s words, a film was made from our conversation, combining footage of Bangladesh with a speech by Sattar. Our meeting starts as a talk about art in Bangladesh, and will probably become a film work in itself.

Lost Tune is her latest in a project of works unpacking ideas of childhood tradition. The 13-minute short film shows motionless performers playing harmoniums – an instrument as common to Bangladeshi homes as pianos are to West homes. But, she tells me, "it is not a household instrument anymore, that's why it's a … lost tune. The instrument is the harano sur (lost tune); the noise is the present situation." In the film, the performers sit around scaffolding, playing a collective hum. The result feels like a statement on her nation’s sense of self while addressing the fabric of her own childhood. It is immediately impactful while loaded with subtext.

I ask about the subtext of Lost Tune, and it illustrates a country in flux. Sattar is based in Dhaka, and like most artists must grapple with a sudden rise in extremism. In 2016, a group of armed gunmen stormed a bakery and killed 20 people. Since then, security measures have been put in place to avoid violence, but that didn’t stop 20 people from being killed in the lead up to the general election. On top of this, our interview comes days after the tragic death of Mrinal Sen, one of Bengali cinema’s greatest creatives. He was a contemporary of Satyajit Ray, and passed away age 95. Cinema and social unrest converge in Lost Tune.

The purpose of Lost Tune is clear. She explains she "didn't want to say anything very directly; I just wanted to create noise, and it was a statement." Why did she choose to make a 'loud' work when artists were expected to be discreet? "You know, bringing together these musicians whose kind of music they practice - Nazrul Sangeet - [which] is our national poet … these are like old classical raga-based, Indian classical raga-based music, and Bengali based language. In their artist community, they are a minority… I felt like 'how does it feel to be a minority?' … You can read a lot about it, but if you’ve never [felt], how does it feel to be one?". Her commitment to community-based art outplays her fear of backlash.

Sattar goes on to explain her feelings growing up in Bangladesh, a 'new' country she explains that's existed for 48 years. She speaks of a liberal upbringing, where a sense of family was more significant than any sense of religion. But, in hindsight, she feels alienated. "The biggest issue here is freedom, freedom of the way you want to lead your life. I felt this threat on my own freedom and on my own identity." While the harmonium has been neglected she positions the work as an expression of living, a way to concretise the instrument.

Filmmaker Mrinal Sen is brought up during the conversation. For him, the impact of sound comes from a place where the sound is much needed. She agrees with this. When asked about cinema she speaks enthusiastically about Andrei Tarkovsky, and how Bangladeshi filmmakers are attracted to his magical realism. She is moved by filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, and the work of Jane Campion. She recounts seeing Agnès Varda speak at the Liverpool Biennale – which supported her work Lost Tune – and falling for the reinterpretations of her own films. "The way she is revising her work … and making triptychs; these are amazing things! Sometimes being a performance artist you deny yourself making things that are like really substantial, that will stay forever. Sometimes for performance art, it's actually a dialogue not to stay, it's to be lost, just to be in the memory."

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This last line sticks. Burmese Indian art critic Richard Bartholomew once wrote of films as a way to regain memories, remind us what we have seen ourselves. Sattar, while working with ideas of memory in her previous performances does not describe her short film through memory, but real energy felt. "It is the true energy of true sense talking to the audience, it is not any other thing. To me, I guess I am not that sort of artist." The attached film is a creative response to our interview, set against the backdrop of Dhaka, shot on iPhone 6.

Photo in header: Filmmaker Reetu Sattar