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Movie Review: Complaints Choir

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Complaints are funny. When you listen to the complaints of complete strangers, some are familiar, some are dramatic, some are funny, and some are sad. Most complaints seem cries of frustration, as though the speakers don’t think anything can or will ever be done about the things that annoy and worry them. Not many people find beauty in complaints.

Tellervo Kalleinen (Finland) and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen (Germany) are conceptual artists who have turned huge numbers of complaints into things of beauty. They assemble groups of complainers all over the world, elicit their complaints, and turn them into a choral piece sung by the complainers. The singers are not required to have any musical talent, no one who wants to participate is turned away, and those who change their mind about membership in the choir may simply walk out.

A composer takes the complaints which have been turned into a set of lyrics and writes a score (and it must be upbeat!). What are the complaints about? You name it. What have you complained about? What have you heard complaints about? Relationships. Bosses. Teachers. Jobs. Parents. The Chicago Transit Authority. The Metropolitan Transit Authority. The government. Garbage floating in the ocean. Catalogs. The list goes on and on, and when it becomes a choral piece, it is amazing.

Collections of people spanning all races, ages, religions join together in public spaces and sing. Beautifully. These performances take place all over the world, and the choirs at each performance are drawn from the area where it will be performed. Challenges arise depending on geographical locations.

In the United States things go relatively smoothly. Singapore offers stumbling blocks and barriers about which Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen could easily complain. For example, in Singapore it is illegal to complain about many of the things that Americans complain about every day. If the people are caught discussing those issues, they are subject to imprisonment. Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen planned to present the Singapore Complaints Choir at a “Speakers’ Corner,” however no foreigners could legally speak (and, presumably, sing) there. Bureaucratic interference made us doubt there would be a Complaints Choir in Singapore.

All of this is documented by filmmaker Ada Bligaard Søby in the independent film, Complaints Choir. It is a fascinating study of the difficulties and joys Kalleinen and Kochta-Kalleinen encounter in their travels. From concerned citizen to drama queen, participants voice their complaints, first to the camera then later with the choir in an indescribably infectious performance. We see rehearsals and planning sessions, and watch the productions come together.

There is much humor in the choral performance of what are mostly common complaints. Listeners are sure to hear complaints with which they have grown tired, but find amusing in this context. It’s astonishing that grievances and grumblings set to music can provide a wonderfully melodic experience. There are so many forms of angry art, but none are as peaceful as Complaints Choir.

Complaints Choir is currently making the rounds of the North American film festival circuit, and will be screened at the Toronto Hot Docs Festival May 5 (Cumberland, 9:30 p.m.) and May 6 (Innis Town Hall, 4:30 p.m.).

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