Suffer the little sheep

poster.jpgThe last HK film festival screening I could squeeze into (ticket scarcity is ever-present here) was for Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep from 1977, plus three short films of his from 1969, 1973 and 1995.

Charles Burnett. A half-familiar name lurking in the shadows of cinematic history. Killer of Sheep. His debut feature that was his MFA thesis, and which went on to win critical acclaim.

I don’t know much more than that, but I do know that the film contains many a shot and scene that will stay in my mind’s eye. It serves up a hearty serving of vignettes from an African-American family’s life in the 1970s, and is so frank and unswerving in its depiction that I can hardly doubt the truth that lies in its veins.

Yet it is never dreary or depressing. I heartily concur with Nelson Kim’s view that ‘It’s a poem that feels like a documentary, and one of the saddest, happiest movies imaginable.’

In a way, the film can be linked with Ann Hui’s The Way We Are (天水圍的日輿夜) — both strive to present pictures of troubled societies, and both apply unique tints to their portraits. (Burnett appears more willing to lay things bare, though.)

Movies have become our campfire stories, our cultural clearinghouse, our ancestral tales — I think the world would be a better place if we sit with storytellers like Burnett and Hui instead of … whoever is behind Norbit and Good Luck Chuck. Then again, I might be putting too much stock into the life-changing power of a story. Or am I?

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