'Sing Me a Song': Film Review

Courtesy of TIFF
A provocative doc about lives upended by technology.

In a follow-up to an earlier documentary, French director Thomas Balmes returns to a village in Bhutan to explore the impact of modern technology on a once-sheltered society.

A number of films have tried to scrutinize real people over a long period of time. Perhaps the most notable example is Michael Apted’s series of films that began with 7 Up and followed a group of British youths through their childhood to middle age; the latest installment, 63 Up, is due to be released soon. In the fictional realm, director Richard Linklater decided to follow a group of characters over a period of more than a decade in his acclaimed film, Boyhood. Now French director Thomas Balmes releases Sing Me a Song, his follow-up to a documentary he made six years ago, and it proves to be an admirable addition to this mini-genre of watching the changes experienced by people over time. The film may not travel far beyond the festival circuit, but it is definitely provocative.

Balmes’ 2013 film, Happiness, which won a cinematography award at Sundance, chronicled the introduction of electricity to a remote village in Bhutan. The central character was a young boy named Peyangki who was training to become a monk. The film caught the excitement of a new world opening up to the residents of the Himalayan village, Laya, but it also stirred questions about what the end results would be. Balmes remained haunted by his experiences in Bhutan and set out to answer those questions by returning to Laya and reconnecting with Peyangki. The results of this return odyssey are disconcerting.

The new film, which was directed and also photographed by Balmes, begins with footage that he shot years ago of the eight-year-old Peyangki. Then it jumps to 10 years later, when the now-teenage Peyangki is embracing the new world of technology that did not exist in his country when he was born. Everyone in the village is now on cellphones, and Peyangki is connected to an app called WeChat and corresponding with a young woman who lives in the capital city of Thimphu. Eventually he travels to the city to meet her, where he learns that she is older than he thought and has a young daughter she did not tell him about. (The perils of Internet dating are apparently universal.)

But the film goes beyond this personal story to portray the other surprising and sometimes disturbing consequences of the technological explosion that has transformed this once spiritual society. Back in Laya, Peyangki and the other monks play violent video games and also play with toy guns that are easily acquired. And they enjoy setting off firecrackers to mimic the explosions they have seen all over the Internet.

In a poignant moment, Peyangki says to a friend, “I’m too far from Buddha now,” which raises the question of how a traditional way of life can be sustained once this particular genie of technology has been released from its bottle. Like Happiness, Sing Me a Song is beautifully filmed, with sharp contrasts between the pristine scenes in the mountain village and the more chaotic urban world that tempts Peyangki and others from his town. This film will not resolve the question of whether technological “progress” represents an advance or a decline in civilization, but it certainly will provoke conversations about that issue. And the focus on a real person over a period of years certainly adds pungency to the debate.

Production: Participant Media

Director-producer-cinematographer: Thomas Balmes

Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann

Editors: Alex Cardon, Ronan Sinquin

Music: Nicolas Rabaeus

99 minutes