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Review: A Thousand Fires (2021)

A Thousand Fires (2021)

Directed by: Saeed Taji Farouky | 90 minutes | documentary

Myanmar oil farmer Ho asked Palestinian-British filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky what prompted him to travel all the way to the other side of the world to make a film about him. Ho thinks they know each other from a past life. Ho is a Buddhist and believes in reincarnation and karma. The fact that he now has such a hard life as an oil farmer is probably because he hurt someone in a previous life. Ho resigns himself to his fate; he digs a hole and pumps crude oil from the ground with a simmering diesel engine. After days of pumping it will have two or three barrels full.

It doesn’t make him and his family rich, so their hopes are pinned on their son, who has been scouted to play at a football club in town. He does not want to follow the example of father Ho and hardly helps with the maintenance of the machines and pumping up oil. They regularly visit palm readers and spiritual guides to hear about their chances and that of their son. The palm reader advises to go to the temple and make an offering (money) and show their respect to the dragon. In the temple buy a cup with a liquid (dragon food) which they throw into a muddy hole from which gases bubble up. The gas is the breath of the dragon sleeping under the hill, everyone agrees.

Director Farouky uses this evocative fact to dress up the otherwise straightforward documentary style of ‘A Thousand Fires’ (2021) with atmospheric images of scorching fires, mysterious clouds of smoke, writhing snake bodies (dragon scales) and swirling oil. And with those sometimes abstract images, we hear sounds that are played with a lot of delay, such as rumbling thunder under water. It reminds me a bit of ‘Eraserhead’ (1977) by David Lynch. Including the hopelessness and filth. We see close-ups of oily and sweat-stained hands, slippery pipes disappearing into the muddy ground, rusty oil drums, rusty machinery, and above all, oil everywhere. Everything is covered in oil and everything needs constant cleaning: bodies blackened with oil, scooters sticky with greasy dirt, a rusty oil drum being cleaned with brown water from a filthy bucket. An endless cycle of cleaning and getting dirty again. And in the background always the constant chatter of the oil pump.

‘A Thousand Fires’ is a beautiful portrait of family relationships and an industry the likes of which we have never seen. Instead of derricks and pumpjacks and an industry that extract millions of barrels of oil a day, we see ordinary people extracting the oil from the ground with their own hands, barely a barrel a day. It’s not glamorous, but at least Ho doesn’t have to get on his knees, like his soccer-playing son, to beg the coach’s forgiveness for a badly played game,

At the end Farouky shows a different side of the story. We see Ho growing vegetables on a green, fresh field, like an ordinary farmer. The oil and filth has given way to clean, fertile soil. Perhaps Farouky is already taking an advance on the better future promised by the dragon.

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