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A Thousand Fires and Death Is Certain but Not Final

Alexis Herrington

As part of a three day live screening in Bristol, the RAI Film Festival showed the film A Thousand Fires, followed by a performance lecture by its director, Saeed Taji Farouky, titled Death Is Certain But Not Final. This pair of events was arguably the most memorable part of the festival, its significance lying in the emotional test that it created for the audience.



A Thousand Fires is a film about the life of a family in the Magway region of Myanmar. Parents Thein Shwe and Htwe Tin hope for their son to escape the laborious life of oil mining that has plagued their reality, worrying about his indifferent attitude and hoping for him to succeed. In the end, their wishes come true as he decides to pursue a football career. In doing so, however, he must leave his family behind. The film alternates between documentary-style scenes of the family, as well as artistic shots of the oil and fire that is part of their daily lives.


A Thousand Fires leaves you with a feeling that can only be described as irritation. The slow nature of the film seems unfavourable to a more dramatic style of storytelling that would have been able to more powerfully portray the life of this family. It proves difficult to find significance in the quiet scenes, as they seem distracting from the purpose of the documentary. However, these very sentiments are then put to the test during Farouky’s post-film lecture.


Farouky, a Palestinian-British filmmaker, opens his lecture by discussing the role that absence plays in our lives, and how this can be a powerful tool within the art that we create. He differentiates absence from nothingness, the first being the lack of something, and the second being the lack of anything. He claims that the absence of something creates the ability for us to reflect on its presence with a higher level of appreciation than if it had actually been there.


Farouky discusses the duality of the medium that is film, establishing his disdain for the commodification of art. He criticizes Hollywood’s obsession with linear plot, asking: “Why would I make a film about the hero's journey when I don’t believe in heroes?”. The overarching critique that Farouky makes is that, with an overreliance on plot and a predetermined sequence of events, Hollywood films leave no room for presence of moment and for reflection, which is essential for a quality film. 


Farouky proceeds to introduce the Buddhist ritual of clearing your mind with purpose. This is the ethos that Farouky has used for his own film. He explains that any anger or impatience felt by the viewer is constructed by him intentionally. The slow form of storytelling adopted by him is a purposeful tool which allows the viewer to sit with their own emotions, inspired by the use of absence as a form of spiritual liberation within Burmese Buddhist reincarnation. 


The nothingness that is so central to the film is a “space into which we can project our worst fears”. The absence is a “horrifying void” which allows us to be present to a degree that makes us uncomfortable. This is the terrifying power of A Thousand Fires. The sense of absence that the viewer feels directly mirrors that of the parents in the film, who hope for their son to succeed but know that in doing so, they must part with him.


The absence generated by Farouky serves as a reminder of life’s only certainty: that change is inevitable. It brings to mind the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s quote: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man”. This quote about the flowing of a river over time symbolizes the idea that there is nothing more inevitable than change. 


The simplicity of this metaphor is mirrored in the film, where slow scene progression creates the same effect. It shows life not as the hero’s journey that Farouky criticizes, but as a chain of events that progress with no set direction. This is experienced by the family as their son leaves home, and is also felt by the viewer through watching the family live their daily lives. 


A Thousand Fires emphasizes the simplicity of each moment without a purpose or conclusive destination, inviting you to create meaning out of its mundaneness. In this way, Farouky is able to personalize the film to each person who watches it. The use of absence creates an experience that is more dependent on the identity of each viewer than on the content of the film itself.

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My own work is self-labelled as documentary photography, out of a lack of a better title. By carrying a camera daily, I aim to embody the spirit of the Brownie in making the means to photography ready to me at every moment, without obstruction – by doing so, I can take a photograph of anything that captures my eye and interests me enough to preserve. Any of us can do this these days, with a camera readily available in our pockets around the clock – and many of us do so without even thinking about it. Next time you take your phone out to take a photograph, whether it is of your friends or of something that caught your eye, think about how you are participating in the act of documenting your life through photography. Make prints of your favourites, display them on your walls, share them with your friends and family. Follow the tradition of those who came before you and took their own snapshots documenting their lives. Everyone is a documentary photographer today, and this is a good thing.

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