Director: Joao Butoh
Writer: Joao Butoh
Cast: Joao Butoh
Running time: 29mins
João Butoh is a Brazilian dancer, choreographer and “multi-disciplinary artist”, a veteran of scores of projects and decades of performance. This half-hour film arrives garlanded with festival selections, awards and nominations. It’s dedicated to the late Brazilian Jewish theatre director Moisés Miastkwosky and claims to draw inspiration from the poems of the Greek humanist Georgios Seferiadis.
And, sadly, it’s not as special as it seems to think it is.
Butoh is responsible for almost every aspect of this film, and it shows. If ever a creative dynamo needed a dispassionate producer, this is it. There are several points where better, and perhaps more objective, decision making would have really helped. Most crucially, establishing how to connect the audience with the meaning of the film.
By the end of the opening titles, we’re aware of the supposed Seferiadis inspiration and that the film is called ALEPH, which is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Along with the dedication to Miastkwosky, we can hazard a guess that what follows may draw on Jewish, or perhaps eastern Mediterranean, culture. Which it sort of does, but only in a scattershot way that sails close to cultural appropriation. And there’s no further assistance regarding any sort of plot. Butoh enters the scene, veiled, then unveils and moves about a bit, before replacing the veil and returning whence he came. While arriving and departing, he drags two concrete blocks up and down surrounding sand dunes, in what could be a nod to the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus.
The mirroring of the entrance and exit is the closest ALEPH comes to anything approaching narrative. While the choreography in between may be intending to convey some meaning, Butoh’s rather one-note performance renders this unintelligible. His face fixed in perpetually affected anguish and his hands waving and clawing at nothing in particular, Butoh’s character comes across as someone who at first can’t find what he’s looking for and then can’t remember what it was he mislaid.
This is all a tremendous shame as the film’s opening moments held high promise. The fully veiled figure looms slowly into view, dragging its enigmatic burden, over the crest of a dazzling white sand dune. The horizon cuts like a knife into a sky of brilliant cobalt. Whatever else awaits us, it looks like the visual elements will be sumptuous. But this standard isn’t maintained. Soon the framing is cutting out the sky, leaving only a monochrome backdrop. Later attempts at close-ups on Butoh are ruined by wavering focus. There are moments when the camera seems to shake unintentionally and some cuts appear unplanned and amateurish. Near the end, a shot of the dune ridge reveals trees in the distance, shattering the illusion of being in the middle of a desert. Was that deliberate or just careless composition?
In fact, it’s a surprise to discover that operating the camera is one of the few things Butoh didn’t do. Nearly every shot is static and the occasions when Butoh drifts out of focus, and even out of shot, would be more understandable if he’d had no one else to film him. So why weren’t such obvious technical errors on the part of camera operator César Augusto Machado De Souza spotted and remedied? Well, the action gives every impression of having been shot in a single day. Maybe they had limited access to the location. Maybe it was a race against the light. Maybe it was a matter of budget. Yet again though, would a more disciplined producer not have made the case for some reshoots?
The failure to maintain the promise of the opening is also due to the music. In the absence of dialogue, it’s almost all our ears have got to go on. Of course, in ballet, a supremely narrative form of dance, the music often does much of the heavy lifting in determining mood, character and direction. But here the music is not bespoke. Understandable on a limited budget; however, it’s not even well chosen or used. Instead, there’s just a succession of tunes with no apparent relevance to what’s happening on screen.
The impression given is of a very second-rate jukebox musical but with only dancing. I knew I recognised the first piece – it’s John Williams’s setting of Im Eshkachech Yerushalayim from Schindler’s List. And it’s reprised in a different recording for the closing scene just to emphasise the mirror structure. So far so evocative, but also so predictable. It then turns out that every other bit of music is also what you get if you search for ‘Jewish music from 90s films’, with the exception of a piece from Emir Kusturica’s 1988 part-Romani film In the Time of Gypsies. This seemingly lazy approach to the music sums up a concoction removed from the oven too soon.
Butoh is obviously committed to his performance and to the project. But that can’t hide its numerous shortcomings. The problem is not one of creativity but of attention to detail. The sadness is that there’s clearly a version of this film in Butoh’s head where everything is perfect and it all makes sense, but we’ve been denied that.