In one of the earlier shots, the cinematographers of UNDERGROUND ORCHESTRA take us down stairs and around a corner that will feel familiar to many a city dweller, or airport pathway pedestrian. We hear alluring music getting louder as we get closer and ready to make the turn. We can’t see the music’s source yet, but the melody builds appetite for full volume. Upon arrival at the musicians’ impromptu performance space, we may stop to give a donation—shyly or with a brave smile— to say thank you for the moment of serendipity. We connect, if only for a moment. We may not speak their tongue, or they much of ours, but music clearly has no borders.
Remember that scene and cycle back to it in your mind. It works as a metaphor for the film as a whole, which takes us further and further down the path to meet the musicians working for tips. The ride is soothed by the musicians’ great skills. So much so, that when the story burrows further down the rabbit hole to reveal the varieties of exile pains these musicians feel, we may not be able to recall exactly when we got there.
This OVID.tv Film Gem Takes Us On a World Tour
We are in Paris in the late ‘90s. These musicians have come from Romania, the Balkans, Algeria, Vietnam, Latin America, and Africa. We may never have heard the instruments they are playing, nor recognize the songs, but we know in an instant this is music from their soul. The camera deftly lets us see ourselves as teenage girls keenly interested in the musicians, but afraid to show it. Or, as a professional musician admiring a unique Armenian instrument and its skilled player, tentatively giving recognition. And also with the stinging words of quick smiling Black musicians who make light of the harassment they receive, because they look like the other. We also meet a husband harp player, whose music so intrigued the woman that would become his wife, that she couldn’t resist approaching him, in spite of her mother’s warnings to above all avoid the street musicians.
A polyglot African chanteuse and sometime backup singer explains how her illegal status results in exorbitantly high rent, as she nurses her youngest baby. We watch a Romanian family hand off instruments during parent to adult children shift changes. A disaffected professional cellist from the same country recounts how and why he decided to lose his career, and stay in Paris for his childrens’ sake. One of Mobuto’s child soldiers, now a haunted insomniac in a 7-story walk up small apartment he calls his cell, plays his almost shrieking compositions in between half telling his personal tale. A Vietnamese woman shows her homesickness as she explains the music’s recounting of the countryside she left behind. An Argentine survivor of torture who narrowly avoided being disappeared, recounts his ordeal, and all of theirs, in a composition that is titled to convey the loneliness of exile.
Love is guiding both camera and narrative, in this writer’s view. If you know Paris of that timeframe you too may become nostalgic and hunger for a return visit.
This is a top pick film for anyone who loves documentaries that distill the variety of human experiences in ways that seep below your skin.
Director Heddy Honigmann
Production Pieter van Huijstee for Pieter van Huystee Film
Cinematography Eric Guichard
Editing Mario Steenbergen
Sound Piotr van Dijk
Music Hugo Dijkstal
Screenplay Heddy Honigmann, Noshka van der Lely
For more information and to watch this film, visit the webpage on Ovid.tv for THE UNDERGROUND ORCHESTRA
Images courtesy of Ovid.tv.
About the Author:
Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.
Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.