Dutch director Sander Francken's Bardsongs is a captivating musical trilogy of folktales, sung by celebrities and actors local to their respective region. In one, "The Plastic Collector," a recycler's tale of the wheel of fortune is told in the old city of Jodhpur. The tale itself has been around; it's an anecdote claimed as a Zen story at the end of Charlie Wilson's War. Recalling Manny Farber's review of Lawrence of Arabia ("the only interesting shape in the whole movie was a camel"), you have to rejoice at the way Francken films the dromedary beasts, speeding along with native carts, ungainly-beautiful symbols of good fortune.
Secondly, Francken takes us to the UNESCO world heritage site of Djenne in Mali, where a young boy seeks wisdom from the men around him at the mosque; the griot Afel Bocoum narrates. Though he's non-Moslem, Francken was allowed to shoot inside the astonishing mosque, an adobe palace that has been on the spot in one form or another for centuries.
Lastly, in desert Asia, a dispute over the fate of a draft animal (a dzo, a middle-sized cow-yak hybrid) creates incidents out of Aesop. It's a road trip through the little known Ladakh area, which has only been open to outsiders since the 1970s.
Universality is Francken's aim here, and he achieves it without seeming touristy, and without the dullness that sometimes occurs in ethnographic documentary. Inviting to the eye as they are, these cultures are not shangri-las. The pressure of the outside world is visible in the intrusion of plastic bags, motor vehicles, war and in the general scarcity. What seemed like the long-living folk culture in these places may be as fleeting as a song in the wind. That's what makes Bardsongs so worth seeing: the contrast of transience and permanence, of the eternal and the ephemeral.
'Bardsongs' screens Saturday, Oct. 22, as part of the Petaluma International Film Festival at Boulevard Cinemas (200 C St., Petaluma; 5:45pm; $10). For complete schedule of over 40 films, see www.petalumafilmfestival.org.