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Inner Landscape is the second of four films that Frank Scheffer is making about the way that traditional music cultures are disappearing fast all over the world, writes Geoffrey Macnab.

In each film, Scheffer invites notable figures to respond to the vanishing of musical forms that have been in existence for centuries. The focus of the new feature, supported by the Netherlands Film Fund, is Sichuan opera. The director asks Beijing-based Guo Wenjing to write a new piece that incorporates it into a modern setting. "His music spoke to me very much," the director says of the composer who wrote the celebrated opera ‘Wolf Club Village'.

Scheffer acknowledges it takes westerners a little while to attune themselves to Sichuan opera with its high pitch and extreme stylisation. "It took time for me to get into it but at a certain moment, I found out that the details and the subtleties in the singing, the nuances, are like fine woven silk. It is very precise and very rich."

The Dutch director may have studied industrial design and then filmmaking but his real passion is music. As he puts it: "music is much deeper than language in a certain way; it is more cosmic. It brings us together." There may be political conflicts and misunderstandings between nations but (his film argues) "everybody can feel music." He may not make music himself but he uses his Bolex film camera as if it is a musical instrument. He talks of "composing films."

The first title in his tetralogy was Gozaran-Time Passing (2011), about Iranian composer Nader Mashayekhi. The third one will be about a Syrian clarinettist and the fourth will explore ancient Indian music. Scheffer had already made a cycle of films about western composers - "from Mahler to Frank Zappa" - and he felt it was only natural to look further afield. Meeting Nader Mashayekhi in Iran convinced him that if he really wanted to continue to find "the soul of music", he needed to look east. He was also determined to fight against the homogenisation of global musical tastes.

"Like the Chinese composer in my film says, how can hair grow when there is not skin on the head? The idea that all these traditions are fading away leaves a situation like a desert. That is very scary. It's the diversity of cultures that makes them interesting."

Music, the director continues, helps different cultures to communicate with one another. He is dismayed by the ignorance of western audiences. They know far, far less about Chinese culture than the Chinese know about Western culture. "That is a serious problem since China is becoming so important in this century."

Shooting Inner Landscape in China presented obvious challenges. "The biggest problem is communication." He isn't fluent in Mandarin himself but counts himself very fortunate that he met Chinese producer Jia Zhao, who became his partner. "By talking to her, I was able to get deeper into the Chinese way of thinking and feeling."

One version of the documentary has already shown on TV but Scheffer says the theatrical cut screening at IFFR is "completely different" and should be regarded as a world premiere.

Warming to his theme, Scheffer talks about making his music films as a kind of bliss. "My earliest memories are about music. I loved music always so much," he explains. "The feeling with music, even as a young child, was already so strong (for me). I think when I was five, I wondered why the school comrades I was playing with didn't have this music in their heads. I constantly had this music in my head that I could sing. It occurred to me my friends didn't have that so strongly...from that moment on, I stayed with my love for music!"

SEE NL Magazine #34 November 2019 / Sundance, IFFR, Berlin and Clermont Ferrand issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by Eye International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.

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