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The Clay Bird

Documentarian Tareque Masud’s first fiction feature, The Clay Bird, takes a child’s-eye view of the volatile mix of radical Islam and secular politics that rocked his native Bangladesh in the lead-up to that country’s independence from Pakistan in the late 1960s. The film won the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Prize at Cannes in 2002 and was compared to the work of Satyajit Ray and Abbas Kiarostami for its lyrical evocation of childhood, landscape and cultural ritual. These plaudits are all well earned, but even more importantly, the measured, thoughtful tone of Masud’s approach to his loaded subject is one that has become all too scarce on post-9/11 screens. Like Ray’s Pather Panchali, the film centers on a young boy, Anu (Nurul Islam Bablu), whose middle-class Muslim family reflect and respond to the tumult of conflict and change swirling around them. Anu’s father grows increasingly extreme in his religious intolerance and isolation in response to Pakistan’s political turmoil, literally building a wall between his family and the outside world. Anu finds escape where he can. Sent to a madrasah, he withdraws from the harsh discipline of his dogmatic teachers and gravitates to the eccentric imagination of a young, outcast friend and the mystic story songs of Baul folksingers that punctuate the film. In these musical interludes, where singers often take up the voices of dueling sects, Masud sheds light on a multifaceted Islam in which religious debate and disagreement is integral to its rich cultural flavor. While the director clearly comes down on the side of moderation and tolerance, he recognizes the humanity in the film’s more dogmatic voices. Masud situates all his characters within the ebb and flow of an ancient discourse and roots it in a rural Bangladeshi landscape soon to be scarred by war.

—Paul Malcolm

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