Manta Ray is the first release from Snowdrops, the French keyboard duo of Mathieu Gabry and Christine Ott. The soundtrack to Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s film of the same name, which won multiple awards, including Best Film in the Orizzonti section at the Venice Film Festival. Manta Ray is an exploration of borders, belonging, and banishment. The Thai film gazes into the wild and often frighteningly cruel side of humanity by training its eyes upon two men. One is a fisherman, and the other is described as a ‘nameless stranger…stuck in a foreign land’. The lack of a Christian name is important, implying an imposed insignificance when a life is anything but. This stranger is supposed to be a Rohingya of Myanmar, and their continuing persecution is put into sharp focus.
The soundtrack gives a name to the nameless, and it has a real heart. There’s a real person living and existing behind the cruelty of persecution, behind the tag of ‘refugee’, a human being fleeing a trail of destruction and death, often leaving loved ones behind. A human being, forced to become a stranger in a strange land. No one deserves that. The music sympathizes.
The Government of Myanmar denies the Rohingya people citizenship, and excluded them from the country’s census in 2014, refusing to recognize them as a people. But these two French citizens, worlds apart, do recognize them.
This moving story includes some magical realism. Intertwining notes glitter like fairy dust, and the complex nature of the film welcomes ambiguity. Built on a foundation of keyboards from different generations – including a Mellotron, MS2000, and the Ondes Martenot – ensures a dark and twisting path, a trek taken by the refugees, and the music walking alongside them, sharing in their trials and in their suffering. The music isn’t removed from the situation – far from it – and nor does it take a backseat in its pursuit of the people. It’s right there with them.
In some respects, then, Manta Ray can be thought of as a document, the true meaning of a soundtrack, giving air to a real problem and an ongoing injustice, in some instances being a witness to rape and murder – nothing short of a genocide, and the world wants to keep it under wraps. No one talks about it. That’s another shocking side to the story: the general unconcern and malaise of the international community, its inability or unwillingness to do something is stark proof of a wider cruelty, a venomous paralysis. It sends the message, ‘we don’t care’.
Covered in swirls of sand, the music lies at odd angles, becoming surrealist and highlighting a strange landscape. For those who aren’t natives, it’s a thoroughly alien and hostile place. Haunting, immediate, the duo obscure themselves in clouded tones, immersing the audience so much as to take the focus away from the artist and magnify the art instead, giving full attention to the music, and so to the crisis. This is an incredible achievement. Sometimes cold, sometimes stark, the keys weep, sliding down in tone as they cry out. But the music isn’t just an accompaniment to the film: it coalesces with the very image, smudged into its fabric like a swirling watercolour, embedding itself inside its visual paint and syncing up with certain scenes to create powerful, lasting imprints.