Beau Travail 1999
Beau Travail 1999
We got here along a 10 mile trail of deep soft dry sand. We came in a straight line at right-angles to the main North-South Highway. We were going West.
We spotted a stopped vehicle at the junction and the occupants were fussing around the wheels with a tyre pump. We waved as we turned off the tarmac and they waved back - so they were OK and we thought we would be.
Ah! We exchanged a look as we steadily sunk deeper into the sand.
"Don't stop whatever you do." She said to me as the wheels sunk into the sand and the engine slowly died.
"What the Hell am I supposed to do? It'll stop like a fish hitting a tree if I change gear. Then we'll be sunk."
"Slip the clutch, raise the revs and do the fastest down-shift you've EVER done."
Clever woman! It worked. We kept moving axle deep in the sand. The revs were OK. The Hilux kept moving Westward. My hands were sweating and my neck was stiff. We passed a 20-strong group of workers - male and female - who were doing something at the edge of the scrub. They turned and watched us blankly as we slowly dug our way past. We didn't stop. It took us two hours to get here.
'Here' was a small group of hills. We stood halfway up the furthest one looking at the setting sun. Between us and the horizon was a vast expanse of nothing. Some scrub, some 2 metre-high undulations and not a lot else. The huge flaming sun bathed it all in a deep dusty yellow silence as it dropped out of the sky. It was going to be dark very very soon - very dark.
"- they were letting air out of their tyres- " She muttered.
"Uh Huh." I replied.
"Oh well - next time we'll know."
"Yup." I said.
I could not take my eyes off the great massive nothingness of it.
We were staring at hundreds of square miles of Kalahari - that astounding desert that runs west away from Botswana, through Namibia, and then onto the coast. It is big. Stupidly big. Ridiculously amazing. It is hard to comprehend.
And it is quiet. There are no trees. No streams. No roads. Just scrub and sand. Lots of sand. Golden yellow burning sand at the height of the day that turns to a deep, almost moist, brown as the sun disappears.
This part of Africa can bring an overwhelming sense of isolation. To us Westerners, we miss any kind of infrastructure. Modern Western Man (WMM) has a requirement for tarmac roads, telephones, deodorant and routes of escape such as airports and stations. Try putting Modern Man into an isolated place like this and take away his means of communication. He'll get scared and he'll panic. When the panic wears off, then he'll feel isolated…
There's a lack of things.
We are camped behind the hill. There are in fact trees here and a few small springs around the hill's base. Meaning there are animals.
As the amazing view fades to black, so I begin to hear again. I can pick up the quietening birds, the distant bark of a jackal, the hum of the insects.
We add our own hiss to the local ambience with our petrol stove as it heats water for our mealie-meal. The camp-fire is going well, and we sit with our backs to the tent as we eat our nutritious dinner accompanied by a tasty beverage of water mixed with iodine.
Most of our evenings in Botswana were spent like this. Sitting, watching, listening. We would talk to each other. But it wasn't necessary. I felt that somehow once the sun was gone, so was the day and I was happy to simply absorb the warm evening spirit of the African wild.
When I was younger, I read a lot. Adventure books mostly. The world was still culturally Post-war (Roger Waters was singing his confusion at his father's conscientious objection and Alistair MacLean was writing Where Eagles Dare) and there was a wealth of post-colonial Africa books to read. Wilbur Smith provided the bodice ripping whilst H. Rider Haggard gave me all the creation myth I could handle. Laurens van der Post on the other hand told stories that seemed real. Perhaps they were. His books were a mix of Born Free and Lassie the WonderDog. They featured colonial stereotypes, cross-eyed lions and Bushmen.
They do sound trite and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't read one now. At the time I was looking for experience and van der Post writes with a skill reminiscent of Graham Greene - his books have 'Spirit of Place'. After reading a van der Post book, I need a shower and have to spend an hour or two picking the grains of sand from between my toes.
It was books like these that gave me the 'language' to understand the African landscape. And to realise that the colonial saying 'Africa gets under your skin' refers not only to elephantiasis.
So I recognized African isolation in the film Beau Travail.
It's filmed documentary style - the camera is slightly too far away from its subject, it bobs and weaves, the sound is overly ambient and under produced. In fact I think it's this last point that leaves an indelible mark on the watcher's experience. Waves gently crash, boots scrubble in the gritty dust, voices echo in windowless cinder-block houses. An incessant wind blows off the Arabian Gulf - sometimes wild, sometimes soft. Even the sharp-edged volcanic rocks crack loudly in the formidable Sun.
And yet this is a silent movie. There is barely any dialogue other than some enigmatic narrative. The story is told slowly, gently and from a distance. We are dropped into a situation that we can barely recognise with characters who we never seem to know. Like those people who watched me drive through the Kalahari sand, they are unreadable.
In the manner of Apocalypse Now, we observe the characters in Beau Travail as they interact with the landscape and each other. We aren't judged and we don't judge them. It's a film that flows past us as we passively sit on the riverbank.
They are soldiers and soldiers are known for doing very little unless they are doing a lot. We watch them coping with the minutiae of life - painting rocks, breaking rocks, performing balletic exercises amongst the rocks. Ironing shirts. Wearing very short shorts.
There are enigmatic, nearly sexual encounters in the dust. Knives are waved in an underwater scene that is rich in homo-erotic metaphor.
And there is Disco where the soldiers take their silence and weave it amongst the knowing teenage locals.
And all this stillness and isolation.
Our viewing distance somehow makes the story extremely tightly wound. Something will happen - it has to. Solitary segregated groups of men cannot stay so still in this dusty heat... And yet there is a soundtrack and a section is from Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten. The choral piece is full of wind and waves and solitary angst. Eerie ululations swamp us as we silently watch these wordless men slip toward disaster.
This is truly an epic film. And it's French. Leave the subtitles turned off. Enjoy it like you enjoy the Café scene in Lindsay Anderson's 'If':- Watch the movement, the sweat, the animal repression and the dreams of allure.
Watch the landscape wear away your stereotypes. Feel the sand between your toes and feel the tight skin that remains after a hot windy day. Know the Foreign Legion is a place to hide a past.
A place to play.
A place to disco.
COMMENTS? - Visit the blog and make a comment under the film you're interested in.