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Jane Enkin


by Jane Enkin, June 6, 2013

The Ballad of The Weeping Spring
Director: Benny Torati
Israel, 2012
Shown May 25, 2013 in the Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival  (put on by the Rady JCC and the Asper Foundation)

The sound of a guitar and a simple drum, spilling from an old stone building into the dark street, draw us in to the beautiful, sweet film The Ballad of the Weeping String. The movie has many fine acting performances, but the star of this film is the music – Muzika Mizrahit, inspired by the sounds of Jewish music from the Middle East, North Africa and Iran. Music is what all the characters value most, it is what bonds them, heals divisions, creates and fulfills dreams.
The plot is a simple quest. Young Amram comes to a lonely tavern in search of the legendary Josef Tawila (played by Israeli Film Academy winner Uri Gavriel). Tawila is a recluse, and refuses to meet the young man, until Amram plays a sad air on a gourd-shaped violin. Seduced by the sound, and the memories it brings back, Tawila receives Amram's message: sheet music for The Ballad of the Weeping Spring. Tawila agrees to go with Amram to play the piece for Amram's dying father, honouring an old promise, but he insists that they arrive with a full band.
For the rest of the film, Tawila is occupied with finding musicians and enticing them to join in. Tawila needs the finest oud player, the best flutist, a singer who is a master of traditional ornamentation. The contexts for some encounters is melancholy, for others really funny – there are excellent surprise laughs and running gags in this film, which is for the most part gently paced and moody. Along the way, the musicians develop friendships and grow as individuals.

All this takes place in a fantasy Israel – a beautiful, haunting landscape of greenery and stone. Although the time period is indicated by a few references to be around the 1970's, there is no plastic in sight, either in people's homes or on the streets. An exquisitely beautiful, delicate woman moves through her home in a wooden wheelchair. And there are no Ashkenazim in sight either – this is a Mizrahi world.

The landscape and the beautiful buildings are Middle Eastern, but the feel of the film is “spaghetti western.” I've never seen The Magnificent Seven, but I could recognize the imagery – a lone traveller walks into a deserted bar, a determined group of outsiders, instrument cases slung over their shoulders, stands silhouetted against the sunset. The mention of Westerns in the publicity for the film led me to expect violence, but there is none – references are all metaphorical, sometimes played for laughs, sometimes for beautiful, wistful effects.
Everywhere they go, the growing, quirky band hears live music. Guitar players sit around a campfire, a blind man plays his wooden flute alone, a girl plays a Persian-style oud in her garden, a jilted bride is accompanied in her fury by a group playing vengeance music. Many scenes take place in taverns, where an appreciative audience applauds, pays as the musicians pass the hat, and shouts for more.

The music is all acoustic, and all sounds traditional. In the soundtrack, however, it is often manipulated to sound very “live”, very vivid and present for us. Within the parameters – all acoustic, all popular music to enjoy in a tavern – there is great variety in the ensembles and the sounds they create. I loved all these talented performers, their energy, their rhythm, their seductive way with an audience.
Director Benny Torati has created a delicate sense of fantasy in landscape, time and relationships. The light is always mellow and golden; the stone buildings, ancient rounded graves, and the sudden, welcome sight of a lush garden are familiar to me from my visits to Israel and yet transformed by being lifted out of any modern context. The people are tender, and take time with one another.

The “traditional” music is also a fantasy, with significant roots. Composer Mark Eliyahu, who also acts
the role of one of the mysterious musicians, wrote the gorgeous soundtrack.

Music is all important in the lives of these characters. Young Amram, although well-trained and skilled on the kamanca, (a rounded, bowed Persian instrument) dismisses his father's style, and says his interest as a composer is in rock music played on synthesizers (which is never heard in the film.) The older musicians lament nostalgically and firmly that no one learns the old music any more. “Tamimim – We were innocent.” The brilliant irony of Torati's film is that it is populated with young musicians, those with major roles who become part of Amram and Tawila's quest, and many more who appear at each stage of the journey. Traditional music lives on, composers like Mark Eliyahu explore it, and many young musicians put in the time and effort to learn from masters and become masters themselves.

As Tawila tells us, “Playing an acoustic instruments connects you to your soul.”

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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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