Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson’s new documentary finds a comfortable, first-person approach to examining the dynamic between humans and the forces we can’t control
Four stars out of five
Directed by: Sturla Gunnarsson
Running time: 108 minutes
By Katherine Monk
Whether you’re a weather channel junkie or just a person who likes rainy days, there’s a good chance you’ll be swept away by Monsoon.
It’s not a violent tug into a swirling eddy of environmental issues, nor is it a crashing wave of documentary force. Veteran director Sturla Gunnarsson’s latest is a slow rising tide that gently carries you down a river of thought as it contemplates the deeper meaning of the moist winds that annually shower South Asia.
Even the word “monsoon” has an alluring sonic quality that seems to capture the sound of rain hissing on hot roofs and gurgling streams sprouting from craggy cliff sides, and Gunnarsson captures all the romance of the event from the opening images, which begin on the solid dramatic footing of need.
We pay a visit to the parched agricultural lands of Maharashtra, where peasant farmers hope to see the cracked ground soften, but after years of drought, we wonder if the bleached landscape can ever recover.
Everything feels a little dire, but just when you fear a cameo from Sally Struthers and a teary plea for the children, Gunnarsson shifts gears and starts playing with humour.
He interviews the weather bureaucrat in charge of declaring the official start of “monsoon season.” Sitting behind his big government desk, he tries to explain the complications involved in his annual task: God forbid you declare a start to monsoon, and the sun shines all day long.
For this reason, there’s a whole gambling sidecar attached to the narrative: We meet Bishnu Shastri, a neon-redhead of a street hustler who makes a living betting on just about anything, including rain.
For him, the weather report is just another set of odds, but for others in the film, the monsoon means so much more. For the scientists who live in the mountains of Meghalaya (“Place of the Clouds”), the rainiest place on Earth, the rain is a personal and professional obsession. And for farmers and the people who live in the floodplains, it’s a matter of survival.
Because the entire Indian sub-continent has been drenched on a cyclical basis, century after century, the monsoon season has evolved into an entire ritual, played out in myriad ways by the masses.
Without announcing it to his viewers, Gunnarsson’s film focuses on this bizarre and somewhat befuddling – but perpetually beautiful – relationship between the people and the untouchable, overpowering forces that surround them.
Whether it’s watching the meteorologists stand with windblown brollies in the clouds as they talk about moisture content, or witnessing the masses bathe in muddy water as an act of worship, Gunnarsson shows us the depths to which the rains permate the Indian consciousness.
As the director who recently completed the TIFF Top Ten David Suzuki documentary, Force of Nature, Gunnarsson’s larger understanding of the changing climate is palpable in the frame, but he never pushes rhetoric.
This is a movie that’s more about people than the “environment,” but only because you can’t pin a microphone to Mother Nature. She has to speak through the people interviewed on camera, and through Gunnarsson’s own narration, which finds a comfortable, first-person tone that is both intimate and enlightening.
We can tell he’s vested in the exercise by the patience he demonstrates in waiting it out, watching the weather change. And you can feel his passion in every extended shot that lets the rain fall around us just long enough to pick up the rhythms of its descent, bouncing off corrugated steel and foliage before plopping in a puddle.
Combined with the different voices of his animated subjects and the score composed by Bombay Dub Orchestra’s Andrew T. MacKay, Monsoon becomes a symphonic weave of elements.
Gunnarsson never gives us just one note. He floods the frame with so many saturated images they start to pool in the back of your brain, where they eventually sink into the hardened mud of the modern mind and hit the ancient, gurgling aquifer of human experience.
Monsoon opens in Vancouver Friday April 24 at Strawberry Hill Cineplex, Saturday April 25 at Vancity Theatre. Sturla Gunnarsson will be in attendance at both screenings.