Director Tareque Masud puts a human face on a period of history in The Clay Bird (Matir Moina), a worthwhile though heavy-going chronicle about Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan in the late 1960s. Masud based much of the story (co-written with his wife Catherine, the film's producer and editor) on his own childhood, and the personal element is what makes the picture more involving than it might have been. By the same token, the lack of suspense or humor in the narrative makes The Clay Bird a bit dryer than it might have been.

In rural East Pakistan (later known as Bangladesh), a young boy named Anu (Nurul Islam Bablu) is sent by his father Kazi (Jayanto Chattopadhyay), an orthodox Muslim, to a madrasa, or Islamic school. The sensitive youth suffers in the new, strict setting.

Back at home, Kazi and his wife, Ayesha (Rokeya Prachy), grow apart over Ayesha's newfound independence, while the country experiences its own conflict and eventual civil war between moderate and extremist forces of Islam. As Bangladesh emerges from the turmoil, Anu and Ayesha grow from their experiences.

Like the work of Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, but also Jia Zhang-Ke's Platform, the 2000 production that detailed China's political and cultural changes in the 1970s and 1980s through the eyes of young traveling performers, The Clay Bird humanizes major events and alternates between a sweeping history lesson and intimate family melodrama. The more one knows about the history, the better, although it is not necessary to understanding the basic storyline or the backdrop of events.

One also does not need to be an informed viewer to appreciate the formal elements: a restrained use of special effects (most powerful in the scene where Anu "goes crazy" hearing a locust swarm); the beautifully composed cinematography and lighting by Sudheer Palsane, Ranjan Palit and Maksudul Bari; a welcome interpolation of "bahas" folk songs in an otherwise spare musical score, and natural performances from a mostly non-professional group of performers.

While The Clay Bird might be a bit too restrained for its own dramatic good, at least the film sheds light on a significant part of world history in a way relevant to contemporary viewers.

--Eric Monder