There’s a magnificent match cut at an early juncture of While You Live, Shine — from a microscopic view of the grooves in the 78 RPM record supplying the film’s soundtrack to the craggy landscape of the Greek mountains from which the music comes—that demonstrates in an instant this wonderful documentary’s innate understanding of the power of art to transport us. Taking its title from one of the mirologia, Greek folk laments comprising some of the oldest surviving musical compositions, this is a movie that quietly and compellingly comes to lose itself and us with it in the ancient wonder of these soulful tunes, and in so doing derive profound insights into the nature of community, culture, and the sense of self to be found in both.
Our entrance point is Chris King, an American record collector whose audiophilic purism—“anything recorded after 1941 is garbage”—the film looks upon with a healthy dose of arched-eyebrow scepticism. That’s a great talent of director Paul Duane, heretofore best demonstrated perhaps in his Barbaric Genius, to allow his effusive subject unobstructed freedom of expression and to interrogate his outlook implicitly with astute editing and intuitive imagery. The result is a film that’s neither hack job nor hagiography, bearing witness to King’s journey to the mountain-cradled village of Episus and affording the audience the space to assess his fondness for a culture that, as he shrewdly notes, its own people have been abandoning en masse for generations.
Duane encounters no shortage of the latest crop on his travels, and harvests from them telling tales of limited opportunities in this rural locale; there’s an intriguing dialogue at work between the outsider affection espoused by King and these disaffected insiders, enamoured of their culture but aware, like him, of its specificity in time as well as place. It’s a nuanced idea captured with subtlety and sensitivity by Duane and his intuitive cinematographer Paddy Jordan, whose instinctive sensibilities make for a wealth of in-camera coverage beautifully befitting the haunting tunes to which it’s set; there is at once in the film’s captivating aesthetic the immediacy of live performance captured candidly and the appearance of shots and scenes carefully mapped out for maximal effect.
That’s as much the impact of considered cutting, of course, and in editor Tony Cranstoun, Duane and Jordan have found a collaborator who serves their footage superbly, carving from it a naturalistic yet meditative musing on the nature of music and memory, culture and community. “Those discs stand before me like the black monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey” intones King at one point, and it’s to the filmmakers’ great credit that the incidental allusion to that great evocation of awe doesn’t seem altogether untoward. He describes them as “this mysterious source of dark, unnatural power”, and as Duane and his team shrewdly cede the film to extended village celebrations for moments at a time, it’s difficult to disagree that there’s something sublime in sharing this ancient art.
There’s an extraordinary moment in the wake of a particularly moving miroloi, with a dolly zoom-style pan across a mountain path, that serves not only to visualise the manner in which great music can shift our perspectives on the world, but evidences too how documentaries like this can do much the same. Such unassuming effects are emblematic of Duane’s subdued style, which supplements but never supplants; for all the seething anger of King, for all the quiet sadness of a culture slowly fading away, there is to this film a deep-seated serenity. In the contradictory confluence of timelessness and transience there is but a moment, here and now; inviting us to share it, and to savour, While You Live, Shine makes of its title a lesson to cling to.