Cinema of India


Adoor Gopalakrishnan in conversation with Maithili Rao

Adoor Gopalakrishnan is not much of a speaker. He has written the screenplay of all his films and composed several books on cinema, but the spoken language is something he appears to steer clear of. So it’s perhaps fitting that the two-day masterclass he conducted at the Bangalore International Centre on November 23-24 began with a screening of Kathapurushan, the story of a writer who suffers a speech impediment. It’s also perhaps the reason that the masterclass was conceived simply as a series of moderated Q&A sessions instead of a monologue supported by film extracts. While the moderators, film critic Maithili Rao and writer-filmmaker Basav Biradar, provided useful interpretive frameworks to give shape to the discussion, Adoor’s comments proved rather tangential, veering into generalities in response to specific questions, preferring to dwell on personal authorship over collaboration and remaining focused on the films’ literary aspects when probed on formal choices. But as with all significant artists, we are glad to receive whatever we get.

Adoor describes Kathapurushan (The Man of the Story) as an “incisive look” at himself. Spanning forty years, the film charts the life of Kunjunni (Vishwanathan), the scion of a feudal household who suffers from a stuttering problem. Kunjunni’s personal story—his legend-like birth, his fatherless upbringing, his relationship with the working-class family employed at the house, his blossoming into a young intellectual, his imprisonment and his eventual “cure”—is set against larger events from the history of Kerala. Like many of Adoor’s characters, Kunjunni is a barometer of the upheavals that saw social relations transition from feudalism to communism. His stutter goes just like it came: in reaction to a specific institutional violence. Adoor constantly jumps in time with ellipses that arrive unannounced. These vast temporal leaps are in contrast with the real-time sequences that populate the film. In Kathapurushan, the filmmaker accentuates his characteristic editing style that involves intervals of dead time bookending action or dialogue within a shot.

In the exchange that followed, Adoor touched upon the co-production offer by NHK, Japan, and described how he was urged by the film critic Tadao Sato to take up the offer even though he had no story idea at that point. Speaking about the colours in the film, he recounted how he wanted to shoot the film between rains in peak monsoon in order to capture the various shades of green proper to Kerala. He insisted that he storyboards his sequences beforehand, with the cinematographer responsible primarily for the lighting. This explains the stylized shot division of the film’s most memorable sequence: a raid at Kunjunni’s revolutionary press shown entirely through close-ups of typesets, pamphlets, strewn paper, marching feet and cuffed hands. This manner of synthesizing shots against continuity recalls the work of Sergei Eisenstein, as does the use of actors. Especially in Kathapurushan, the actor’s work is objectified into individual packets of information—gestures signifying discrete ideas like crying, grieving or rejoicing—whose purpose is to support the wider thematic scaffolding.

If Kunjunni represents the first type of Adoor protagonist, the individual who rises above the station his situation consigns him to, the principal characters of Vidheyan (The Servile) are wholly products of their environment. Both Patelar (Mammootty), the malevolent feudal relic who runs roughshod over a village in Dakshina Kannada, and Thommi (M. R. Gopakumar), a migrant settler who becomes his trusted vassal, are products of a social structure that has no legality anymore. Right from the first shot of the film, where Thommi is interpellated by Patelar’s humiliating call, the two are bound in a master-slave dialectic in which each derives social-existential legitimacy from the other. If Vidheyan remains Adoor’s supreme achievement towering over the other films, it’s perhaps because, here, his style finds a subject matter that’s an organic extension of it, inherent to it: the shot divisions, the backlight and the use of off-screen space all become emanations of the central idea.

Talking about the genesis of the script, Adoor said he changed the Patelar character from a serial killer in Paul Zacharia’s original short story to a naïve being out of step with the times. He also revealed that he had offered the short story to his friend and fellow filmmaker K. G. George. The latter, it appears, turned it down as he was more interested in the social politics of migrant Malayali settlers in Mangalore, in place of this abstract meditation on power. Adoor also rejected the moderator’s proposition—after Suranjan Ganguly—that his films were about outsiders, maintaining that they were only about individuals. Discussing his casting of Mammootty as the antagonist, Adoor said that he doesn’t differentiate between novices and professional actors and usually casts actors in small roles before giving them meatier parts in subsequent films. That this was his third production featuring Mammootty made the star comfortable in portraying as repulsive character as Patelar.

If Patelar and Thommi are products of a system, Basheer, the protagonist of Mathilugal (The Walls), rejects all isms and asserts his irreducible individuality. Adapted from Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s autobiographical novella, Mathilugal, in fact, centres on the dissolution of an institution, namely the police force, into individuals. The story is set a few years before independence in a Travancore prison where Basheer (Mammootty) is held for writing against the state. At the facility, he gets a preferential treatment, with both jailers and fellow-prisoners willing to provide him with his indulgences. Basheer, in turn, is not only brotherly towards them, but affectionate to the plants and small animals on the premises as well. He thinks of a jailbreak, but the romance he develops with a woman prisoner across the high walls of the prison makes him rethink the meaning of freedom. Mathilugal is a tender film for Adoor, gives in as it does to the vagaries of human desire and behaviour instead of putting it under the microscope.

Adoor remembered his collaboration with V. M. Basheer with great fondness and respect. He described how the author was sure the film will turn out well when he learnt that the sole woman character in the story will not be shown, but only heard. Adoor spoke about the authenticity of the period details and the prison set that was built with brick and mortar. He stated that the central challenge of adapting the novel was to turn the ‘I’ of the novella into a flesh and blood character. Answering the moderator’s question about the casting of the Mammootty as Bashir, he said that, in his writings, Basheer had a lofty self-image, which he wanted to bring out through the image of the handsome actor. In the film, Basheer perambulates the prison corridors, amusing himself at first but soon descending into a marked depression—a change in tone that Adoor mapped to the Basheer’s real-life spells of schizophrenia.

The last screening was that of Elippathayam (The Rat Trap), arguably Adoor’s most academic, but also most rigorous film. Another chronicle of the response of the powerful classes to disempowerment, the film follows a landed family living in an ancestral house: the entitled, lazy-to-the-bone patriarch Unni (Karamana Janardanan Nair) and his two sisters, the suffering Rajamma (Sharada) and the self-absorbed Sridevi (Jalaja). Unni’s incurable fear of change eats Rajamma away and prompts Sridevi to flee the house in a gesture of self-preservation, while he remains locked up in the house like a trapped rodent. Elippathayam is a highly abstract work like Vidheyan, and Adoor gives each character in the film a single defining trait. Every shot, sound and detail of the mise en scène has a fixed place in the film’s meticulous structure and serves to illustrate the thesis. Adoor’s characteristic, Platonic attention to objects vested with social significance, such as ancestral furniture, saturates the film with meaning and intellectual heft.

Adoor mentioned that Elippathayam was a film about “sharing”, about our reluctance to respond naturally to change. He detailed the reasons why the film was shot in colour: the Moraji Desai government, having gotten rid of licensing limitations for the import of film stock, enabled the flourishment of colour stock in the country to the detriment of monochrome. The highly coded colour choices of Elippathayam were thus a virtue made of necessity. He asserted that films, whatever else they are, must function at least as social documents, pointing to the authenticity of the way of life depicted in Elippathayam. For all its ills, he added, the feudal system fostered a more intimate relationship between the landed class and the tillers, as well as between the tillers and the land—something that vanished with the disintegration of joint families and ancestral homes.

The four films screened at the masterclass, all of them Bluray projections, offered an excellent cross-section of Adoor’s body of work. Even with Adoor’s limited commentary on them, it was evident that they stake a claim for the filmmaker as one of the true modernists of Indian cinema. The novelistic, classical quality of his script—personal stories set against historic transformation like in John Ford—are given a critical edge by the self-conscious form, the countless doorways that double frame his shots and the carefully curated panoply of ambient and artificial sounds. In all the four sessions, Adoor reflected on the long periods of inactivity between his films. He explained that the hardest part is for him to be convinced that an idea is worthy of a feature-length production; the rest follows. It’s good to get stuck working on an idea and return to it after a while, he went on, instead of compromising the idea. He said that he constantly asks himself why the audience should see his films, that nothing will change if he doesn’t make films. The last thing the seventy-eight-year-old filmmaker wants to do is to repeat himself.

 

[A shorter version of this report was published in Film Companion]

Jallikattu, the South Indian bull-taming sport, both lends its name to and serves as a metaphor for Lijo Jose Pellissery’s new film, which premiered in Toronto last month. Like the sport, which is not just an opportunity for young men to showcase their bravery and machismo, but also a yearly excuse for dominant castes to flag their importance, Jallikattu is about an animal that becomes a pretext for men to give expression to their aggression, resentment and anxiety. The film opens with a volley of shots lasting one second each—a metronomic editing pattern that will recur several times throughout the film—of yellow-lit faces opening their eyes to the dawn of a new day. Scored to the sound of percussions interspersed with vaguely primal choral utterings, the sequence weaves in shots of ants and worms in movement, in effect situating humans and nature on the same order of things. This rate of 60 shots per minute already puts us on our toes, but the intensity will unwaveringly increase without breather or detour until the nightmarish, all-consuming climax.

This mosaic-like scheme carries over to the first post-credits sequence as well. In a series of extremely brief shots cut to a monotonic rhythm, we see the routine of a tiny town in Kerala on a Sunday morning: a buffalo slaughtered before sunup, the meat sold to thronging crowds and delivered home by Antony (Antony Varghese), a mass at the church, an instance of domestic violence, another of uninvited romantic advance. There is some dialogue, but no central narrative movement except for the general description of the community with a few simmering tensions. It’s only when the film comes out of this pulsating rhythm that the narrative is set in motion. One particularly recalcitrant buffalo escapes slaughter and goes rogue, prompting men from the village and its surroundings to go after it. That’s it. The entire film is the increasingly violent hunt for the animal and its ugly repercussions.

The animal is presented at first as a force of proto-political anarchy that doesn’t see human constructs like fences, religion, private property and political parties. In a parody of communist revolution, it destroys plantations, shuts down businesses and galvanizes the villagers into a collective united in purpose. In a film without guiding perspectives or characters in the conventional sense, the buffalo serves as the absent centre that centripetally holds the separate points of view, presented here as fleeting vignettes. The existential reaction of an animal trying to evade death—a revolt of the Other, in the film’s cosmic view of things—binds the community in a common fear of the Other. But the buffalo turns out to be simply a catalyst that triggers the unstoppable combustion of the village. Long-repressed resentments, sexual jealousy and communal fault lines emerge, which find a violent expression in the course of the hunt.

As the animal flees from the deserted streets of the town into the jungle, the community too splinters into unruly mobs and regresses from civilization (like in Yojimbo, the gun-toting hunter proves to be less effective than the one with the machete). Like the animal, they stop respecting private property and enter other people’s houses. They catch an adulterer and humiliate him. Civility, law and order breaks down and the hunters—all men without exception—torch police vehicles and beat a cop up. Antony enters the house of the woman he desires and forces himself on her. Like in the Jallikattu sport, mob courage masks individual cowardliness, which resurfaces every time the animal charges at the men to disperse them into individuals. By now wandering the jungle harmless, the animal nevertheless becomes an issue of collective and individual male egos, leading to a bloody dogfight between Antony and his sexual rival, who charge at each other like raging bulls.

Progressively removed from naturalism and a sense of reality, the film escapes into pure abstraction after Antony stabs his opponent and runs out of the woods into a meadow. The discrete mobs meld into a fascist collective to pursue Antony. In the oneiric, painterly, Lars von Trier-like end sequence, an inexhaustible mass of possessed men jumps on Antony, continuously piling on top of him until they make up a single mountain of men, the formation covered in sludge, with Antony trying in vain to emerge out of it as an individual. In a brief, possibly redundant coda, the scene shifts to a cave where bare-chested men fight with torches over the carcass of a dead animal. If it’s startling enough to see a supremely tight, 90-minute film getting a mainstream distribution, the stylized final passage of the film—beyond the question of its merit—is a veritable miracle to have graced the screens.

The simplified, whirlwind tour of social ideologies that Jallikattu drives us through—capitalism, communism, anarchism, fascism, what have you—may not be for everyone’s liking, but it shouldn’t be the case with Pellissery’s exceptional sense of image making. Composing in deep space with direct sound, he has precise visual ideas for the film, which progresses from full field of daylight to reduced visibility of the night lit by flashlights and torches. The progression also corresponds to a shift from slender tracking shots through the village streets, relaying perspective from one character to another, to shots handling increasing amounts of humans in frenetic motion. The latter half of the film, with barely-lit animal and human bodies hurtling across the frame at high speed, push the image into the edge of perceptibility where, like in a Willem de Kooning painting, we notice the essential elements of form, but not the exact details. The sound mix, consisting of human cacophony in escalation, is equally a work of sonic abstract expressionism.

Pellissery hardly uses a closeup in the hunt, wide shots of men scouring the landscape being the norm. Characters insult one another, but there’s never a tight shot to capture reaction. Images of hundreds of men bearing torches descending the slope have a pointillist decorativeness. But for the most part, the emphasis is on depth of the frame. A large part of the movement in Jallikattu takes place along the Z-axis. Like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Pellissery’s fractured narrative uses a video game aesthetic where the Steadicam follows or leads character into and out of the frame—a pattern echoed in the numerous zooms in and out of tangential information on screen (a branch of a tree, insects, a sunset). These opposed movements are also characteristic of the men’s movement with respect to the animal: they rush towards it when it’s running away and fall away as it retaliates. In a mini set-piece within the larger set-piece that is the film itself, the hunters try to rescue the buffalo, now stuck in a pit, with a makeshift pulley system. Just before the animal lands on safe ground, Pellissery cuts away to secondary detail, returning only to capture the aftermath of the animal’s resumed rampage. It’s a striking example of how deliberate the film’s stylistic choices are. John Abraham invested masses of human bodies with meaning. Pellissery dissolves them in chaos.

The sixth edition of the Urban Lens Film Festival, organised by the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, Bangalore, opened with the premiere of Lalit Vachani’s Recasting Selves. Revolving around the Centre for Research & Education for Social Transformation (CREST) in Calicut, the film is a respectful but not a celebratory description of the institute’s activities. With an aim to hone students from Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi (DBA) background for jobs in the private sector, where there’s no affirmative action, CREST conducts five-month-long diploma courses for batches of thirty-odd students. Participants are trained in public speaking, presentation, group work, assertive body language, positive thinking and personality development. They learn the basics of corporate etiquette through engaging audiovisual support. The teachers are dedicated and nurturing, but don’t have illusions about the course. They acknowledge that it’s too limited an experience to be transformational. Recasting Selves, which follows the induction and graduation of one particular batch of students, is not a success story; yet some progress is made at the end: some students get placed, some become first graduates from their community, and some others go back to their traditional professions.

The film is a mix of talking-head interviews with the institute’s staff, vignettes from the classroom and scenes at students’ homes in villages far from Calicut. In the latter, we get a peek into the Aranadan community, to which one student belongs, their non-Vedic beliefs and their disappearing language. At the home of another, we have a conversation between the student, who wants to start a fashion boutique, and her tailor father, who advises her to take up a stable job. These exchanges are performed for the camera, which is a little discomfiting for the viewer as it is for the participants. Back in the classroom, during the presentation sessions, the handheld camera stands close to the students, sometimes making them freeze in fear. It redoubles their consciousness of being seen and heard, which is what is the course helps them overcome. On the other hand, the students are more articulate when the camera is on a tripod. They talk about their aspirations. They recount their personal experience of caste discrimination, or lack thereof, and present their opinion on reservation. All of this in English.

The batch is fairly divided between boys and girls. It’s a much better gender ratio, in any case, than at the IIM campus they visit for a workshop on public speaking: the sight of CREST girls in their colourful salwar kameez, moving as a mass into the IIM lecture halls implicitly questions the gender distribution at IIMs. Recasting Selves points out that, beyond their social identity, these students are also products of a pan-social generation. Not just in their entrepreneurial ambitions and ease with technology, but in their tendency to substitute questions of opportunity for questions of rights. In their desire to rise beyond politics and assimilate into the corporate workforce, they represent a paradigm shift within Kerala’s social politics. One Adivasi student, we are told, was actually a BJP candidate of his constituency, a choice that he explains in terms of exposure and personal progress. Politics, whose ubiquity Vachani captures in shots of party posters across towns, appears to have lost its hold on this generation, whose symbolic counterpart is the English-language coaching centre banners competing with the party posters.

There are traces of institutional critique as well. Vachani asks the head of CREST about the lack of DBA teachers in their campus. The director doesn’t see that as being an issue, while quickly promising to include “at least one Dalit faculty” soon. In an awkward moment of hand-wringing, a programme coordinator says he doesn’t think there’d be Dalit pedagogues willing to teach the social theatre that’s part of the curriculum. Likewise, a famous newspaper that recruits CREST students as interns discusses the under-representation of DBA groups in their newsroom—a concern that comes across as a PR talking point. These institutional blind spots call to mind an early scene in the film, where the CREST direction, apparently none of them from a DBA background, is choosing candidates based on representational quotas. The scene prompts the question of self-sustaining privilege in even socially-conscious academic and journalistic institutions, of who gets to say which groups are more vulnerable and need opportunities.

Running through the film is a tension between an assertion of the students’ caste identity and its suppression. The film was shot just weeks after Rohith Vemula’s suicide, and the discourse surrounding the event prompts students to confront their identities. They take cognizance of the invisible barriers they have come up against during their schooling. They recast their experience in terms of discrimination and envy. It is plain that Vemula’s suicide has instilled feelings of vulnerability. One of the boys points out that it could happen to any of them. At the same time, many students make it clear that they want to move on. Recasting Selves brings this dialectical line into sharp focus in the final sequence of the film. As part of their end project, students are required to mount a street play together. The choice of subject is between Vemula’s suicide and Bengali immigration to Kerala. Working with activist and theatre director Dakxin Bajrange, they research the two topics, make presentations and take a vote. The second topic wins by a significant margin. Asked why they don’t want to talk about Vemula, one of them says discussing caste isn’t going to fill their stomach. Another is just fed up of having to talk about discrimination all the time.

Going by their line of questioning, the CREST faculty are strongly in favour of the first subject. So is the film: when the students present the perceived ills of Bengali immigration—criminality, terrorism, job loss, lack of hygiene, language barriers—Vachani accelerates his editing to produce a feeling of dread that wasn’t present in the presentation on Vemula. It is evident that the film is underlining the intersectional nature of oppression, and the irony of the film crew and the non-DBA faculty wanting the students to engage with DBA identity politics isn’t lost on the film. Recasting Selves recognizes this as a double-bind in the discourse around caste. The students’ refusal to perform caste is located in a political landscape where communist consciousness has suppressed discussion about caste (one faculty member mentions that Kerala accounts for the fewest inter-caste marriages), itself couched within a climate of assertive identity politics.

In this light, their choice to speak about Bengali immigration scans as the other side of the coin: by deflecting the question of caste onto immigration, the students, it appears, are able to assume a broader Malayalee identity—a mainstreaming that the subject of Vemula’s suicide doesn’t afford them. It also speaks to their generational anxiety about vanishing opportunities within the fixed pie of neoliberal order. Vachani’s film demonstrates that this dilemma of the students is, moreover, the institute’s own. CREST intends students to work through their complexes by owning up to their roots. Their curriculum involves participants researching into the history of their communities. Outside their classroom, the boys and girls unite in folk ballads about feudal oppression. At the same time, the institute is forward looking; through its training in the theatre of social relations, it helps students be corporate-ready, to shed their caste identity and blend into the wider middle-class. Recasting Selves resumes this identity crisis in its the cut from the hardy face of an Aranadan woman at her village to a laptop screen in the classroom.

 

[An edited version was published in The Hindu]

I am excited to announce that I will be curating a retrospective of Indian filmmaker Amit Dutta at the Bombay Art Society in Mumbai between the 8th and the 10th of December, 2017. The event is organized by Matterden CFC. It is the filmmaker’s largest retrospective to date and features six (!) world premieres. Here is the catalogue I wrote for the programme.  Do drop by for the event if you are in town.  Schedule at this link.

 

Experimenta

The ninth edition of Experimenta, the now-biennial experimental and avant-garde film festival of India helmed by Shai Heredia, took place between 25th and 29th of November in Bangalore. Besides the international competition section, the roster consisted of sidebars on the politics of film form, the materially violent personal films of Louise Bourque (curated by Lauren Howes), the digital-video and television-based experiments of Bjørn Melhus (himself), the tranquil cine-haikus of Helga Fanderl (herself) and contemporary Indonesian (Akbar Yumni) and Filipino experimental cinema (Shireen Sono), each of them introducing me to unexplored territories of the avant-garde. The festival also sought to respond to the recent happenings in the country and show solidarity with the student protests at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Three realizations from the festival:

  1. Although a forward-looking curiosity to explore what the formats of the new century have to offer finds a salutary counterpoint from a tendency to militate for film (Melhus’ cinema, always in conversation with the latest technological developments, and Fanderl’s Super-8 partisanship that includes the act of changing-reels as part of the presentation), the exigencies of festival programming and the ease of breaking in to the filmmaking scene has, at least in this festival, rendered digital video ubiquitous (only 4 of the 30 films in competition were made on film, and these too were projected digitally).
  2. Dictatorship and state repression, for better or worse, continue to be very productive frameworks to work within and supply artists with perennial inspiration. The Philippines has come a quarter century since the Marcos regime, Indonesia’s been recovering for 17 years since Suharto’s fall and Thailand’s reeling from last year’s military coup. The films from these countries in the festival all respond to them in ways direct and oblique.
  3. Apichatpong’s opened a Pandora’s box.

(The following are some notes on 23 of the 30 films in competition. I could not see the rest and will update this post if I get to see them any time soon.)

 

32 AND 4 (Chan Hau Chun, China, 2015, 32min)

32 And 4Chan’s diaristic digital work is divided into chapters named after family members and unfurls as a process of piecing together of familial history. Through various confrontational interviews with her mother and father, the filmmaker attempts to understand their failed marriage, her strained relation with her step-father and the violence that has structured them both. Chan’s decision to put her entire life-story on film is a brave gesture, but the film closes upon itself, satisfied to be a melodrama valorizing personal experience over broader frameworks. (Consider, in contrast, the rigorous domestic formalism of Liu Jiayin or the socio-political tapestry of Jia Zhangke’s early work.) Chan misses the forest for the lone tree. Winner of the Adolfas Mekas award of the fest.

BEEP (Kyung-man Kim, South Korea, 2014, 11min)

BeepBeep assembles anti-communist propaganda material from the 60s and the 70s commissioned by the South Korean state that was based on the mythologizing of a young boy, Lee Seung-bok, slain by North Korean soldiers. With the unseen, absent boy-hero at its focus, Kim’s film depicts the dialectical manner in which a nation defines itself in relationship to an imagined Other. Kim makes minimal aesthetic intervention into the source material – our relation to it automatically ironic by dint of our very distance from the period it was made in – restricting himself to adding periodic beep sounds to the footage, producing something like a cautionary transmission from another world.

BLACK SUN (Truong Que Chi, Vietnam, 2013, 12min)

Black SunBlack Sun opens with a composition in deep space presenting a metonym for a country in the process of development: high-rise buildings in the background as a pair of actors in period costumes rehearse a scene in the foreground. In a series of Jia Zhangke-like vignettes of Saigon set in middle-class youth hangouts scored to pop songs and television sounds, interspersed with images of a metamorphosing city, we see the distance that separates art from reality and the middle-class from the changes around it. The film culminates in a complex, home-made long take following the protagonist across her house and out into the terrace, where she dances, presumably to the eponymous song.

CLOUD SHADOW (Anja Dornieden & Juan David Gonzalez Monroy, Germany, 2015, 17min)

WolkenschattenThe most challenging and elusive film of the competition I saw is also the most hypnotic. Cloud Shadow gives us a narrative of sorts in first person about a group of people who go into the woods and dissolve in its elements. The film is obliquely a story of the fascination with cinema, of the trans-individualist communal experience it promises, of the desire to dissolve the limits of one’s body into the images and sounds it offers. With an imagery consisting of sumptuous tints, and nuanced colour gradation and superimpositions, the film enraptures as much as it evades easy intellectual grasp. The one film of the festival that felt most like a half-remembered dream.

DOG, DEAR (Luca Ferri, Italy, 2014, 18min)

Dear DogFerri’s teasing, playful Dog, Dear appropriates the filmed record of a Soviet zoological experiment in the 1940s in which scientists impart motor functions to different parts of a dead dog. In the incantatory soundtrack, a woman – presumably the animal’s owner – repeatedly conveys messages to it, with each of them prefaced by the titular term of endearment. Ferri’s film would serve sufficiently as a blunt political allegory about the dysfunction of communism, but I think it’s probably fashioning itself as a metaphysical question: the dog might well be kicking but is he alive? His physical resurrection will not be accompanied by a restoration of consciousness. He will not respond to his master’s voice.

ENDLESS, NAMELESS (Mont Tesprateep, Thailand, 2014, 23min)

Endless NamelessPut together from footage apparently shot over twenty years at a Thai army officer’s residence, Tesprateep’s film shows us four conscripts working in the general’s garden. We witness their camaraderie, their obvious boredom, the empty bravado in entrapping small animals and intimidating each other. The misuse of power by the officer in employing these youth to mow his lawn reflects a broader militaristic hierarchy, as is attested by the youths’ casual violence towards the animals and their brutal torturing of a prisoner. Endless, Nameless recalls Claire Denis in its emphasis on military performativity and Werner Herzog in its juxtaposition of idyllic nature and seething violence, all the while retaining an immediate critical concern.

FICTITIOUS FORCE (Philip Widmann, Germany, 2015, 15min)

Fictitious ForceIn Fictitious Force, Widmann incidentally poses himself the age-old challenge of ethnological cinema; how to film the Other without imposing your own worldview on him? The filmmaker smartly takes the Chris Marker route, avoiding explanatory voiceover for the rather physical Hindu ritual he photographs and instead holding it at a slightly mystifying – but never exoticizing – distance. Widmann’s film is about this distance, the chasm between experience and knowledge that prevents the observer from experiencing what the observed is experiencing, however understanding he might be. Fictitious Force’s considered reflexivity carefully circumvents the all-too-common trap of conflating the subjectivities of the photographer and the photographed.

FISH POINT (Pablo Mazzolo, Argentina, 2015, 8min)

Fish PointFashioned out of footage that the artist shot during his visit to the titular natural reserve in Ontario, Fish Point comes across as an impressionist cine-sketch of the locale. The film opens with Daichi Saito-esque silhouettes of trees against harsh pulsating light – near-monochrome shots that are then superimposed over a slow, green-saturated pan shot of a section of a forest. This segment gives way to a passage with purely geometric compositions consisting of alternating browns and greens and strong horizontals and verticals. Forms change abruptly and tints become more diffuse and earthly. We are finally shown the sea and the horizon, with a rough map of the area overlaid on the imagery.

HAIL THE BODHISATTVA OF COLLECTED JUNK (Ye Mimi, Taiwan, 2015, 7min)

Hail The BodhisattvaA music video for a song that reportedly riffs on a holy chant and the traditional cry of the local ragman, Ye’s film starts out with shots of old women and men lip-syncing to the titular melody before turning increasingly darker. The rag picker of the poem progresses from accepting material refuse to buying off diseases, emotional traumas and even intolerable human characters. Ye builds the video using shots both documentary and voluntarily-performed that portray everyday life in Taiwan as being poised between tradition and modernity. The junkman of the film then becomes a witness to all that the society rejects and, hence, to all that it stands for.

IMRAAN, C/O CARROM CLUB (Udita Bhargava, India, 2015, 14min)

ImraanSet in a suburban Mumbai slum, Bhargava’s film takes a look into one of the reportedly many carrom clubs in the area where young boys come to play, smoke and generally indulge in displays of precocious masculinity. Where Imraan, the 11-year-old manager of the club, seems reticent before the camera, his peers and clients are much more willing to perform adulthood in front of the filming crew. While some of them are acutely aware of the intrusive presence of the camera, urging their friends not to project a bad image of the country, the film itself seems indifferent about the ethics of filming these youngsters, asking them condescending questions with a problematic, non-committal non-judgmentalism.

MASANAO ABE – CLOUDGRAPHY (Helmut Völter, Germany, 2015, 5min)

CloudographyVölter’s visually pleasing and relaxing silent film is a compilation of scientific documents of cloud movement over the Mount Fuji recorded from a static observatory by Japanese physicist Masanao Abe in the 1920s and 1930s. Abe’s problem was also one of cinema’s primary challenges: to study the invisible through the visible; in this case, to examine air currents through cloud patterns. The air currents take numerous different directions and these variegated views of the mountain situate the film in the tradition of Mt. Fuji paintings. The end product is a James Benning-like juxtaposition of fugitive and stable forms, a duet between rapidly changing and unchanging natural entities.

MEMORIALS (Korou Khundrakpam, India, 2014, 25min)

MemorialsThe most narrative film of the competition, Memorials situates itself in the tradition of 21st century Slow Cinema with its elliptical exposition, stylized longueurs, (a bit too) naturalistic sound and its overall emphasis on Bazinian realism. A young man revisits his father’s house long after his passing and starts discovering him through the objects of his everyday use, while a dead fish becomes the instrument of meditation and grieving. Though rather conventional in its workings, Memorials offers the details in its interstices fairly subtly and touches upon the usual themes of inter-generational inheritance and posthumous rapprochement, while also gesturing towards a necessary break from the past.

NATEE CHEEWIT (Phaisit Punprutsachat, Thailand, 2014, 20min)

ExperimentaPunprutsachat’s work is a straightforward document of the protracted rescue of a water buffalo from a man-made well on a sultry summer afternoon by dozens of village folk. Shot with a handheld digital camera and employing mostly on-location sound, the film presents to us the efforts of the villagers in chipping away at the edifice, restraining the animal from agitating and finally allowing it to go back to its herd. Natee Cheewit attempts to encapsulate the idea of eternal struggle between man and animal and, more broadly, between nature and civilization. The remnants of the demolished pit and the dog wandering about it are reminders of this sometimes symbiotic, sometimes destructive interaction.

NIGHT WATCH (Danaya Chulphuthiphong, Thailand, 2014, 10min)

Night WatchNight Watch is reportedly set in the days following the military coup in Thailand in May, 2014 – a period of state repression dissimulated by triumphalist propaganda about reigning happiness. Chulphuthiphong’s debut film showcases one quiet night during this period. Jacques Tati-esque cross-sectional shots of isolated apartments and office spaces show the citizenry complacently cloistered in their domestic and professional spaces, much like the sundry critters that crawl about in the night. Someone surfs through television channels. Most of them are censored, the rest telecast inane entertainment.  Night Watch underscores the mundanity and the ordinariness of the whole situation, which is the source of the film’s horror.

REPLY; REPEAT; REPEATED; DELETE; FAVORITE; FAVORITED (Ouchi Reiko, Japan, 2014, 6min)

reply repeat repeatedA rapid editing rhythm approximating the audiovisual assault of the information age, a visual idiom weaving together anime, pencil-drawing and Pink Film aesthetic and a soundscape consisting of reversed audio and noise of clicking mice and shattering glass defines Ouchi’s high-strung portrayal of modern adolescent anxieties. In a progressively sombre, cyclic series of events, a teenager navigates the real and virtual worlds that are haunted by sex and death around her. Ouchi’s pulsating, mutating forms and her preoccupation with the hyper-sexualization of visual culture are reminiscent of Nobuhiro Aihara’s work and the spirit of Maya Deren also hovers above in the film’s centralization of the female body and mind.

SCRAPBOOK (Mike Hoolboom, Canada, 2015, 18min)

ScrapbookOne of the high points of the festival, Scrapbook consists of videograms shot in 1967 in a care centre in Ohio for autistic children with commentary by one of the patients, Donna, recorded (and curiously re-performed by a voiceover artist at Donna’s request) in 2014. Donna’s words – indeed, her very use of the pronoun ‘I’ – not only attest to the vast improvement in her personal mental condition, but also throw light on the psychological mechanisms that engender a self-identity. For Donna and the other children-patients filming each other, the act of filming and watching substitutes for their thwarted mirror-stage of psychological development, helping them experience their own individuality, reclaim their bodies. Bracing stuff.

SECOND SUN (Leslie Supnet, Canada, 2014, 4min)

Second SunCanadian animator Leslie Supnet’s hand-drawn animation piece is an extension of her previous work First Sun (2014), with the monochrome drawings of the latter giving way to bright primary pencil colours. Like its predecessor, Second Sun extensively employs basic geometrical shapes to represent cosmic phenomena and is scored to an exhortative percussive soundtrack hinting at a ritual, a summoning. The figures move strictly horizontally or vertically on checkered paper as though underscoring their mathematically precise cyclicity, with the central solar circle spawning clone stars, moons, planets and an entire solar system. The overall impression is that of witnessing a trance-inducing cultic invocation.

THE ASYLUM (Prapat Jiwarangsan, Thailand, 2015, 10min)

The AsylumAccording to the program notes, the project brings together a real-life DJ who has lost her job after the coup d’etat in 2014 and an actual illegal immigrant boy from Myanmar at a secluded pond in the woods to allow them to do what they can’t in real life. We see the DJ perform for the camera, talking with imaginary strangers, giving and playing unheard songs, while the boy is content in tossing stones into the moss-covered pond. Like a structural film, The Asylum, alternates between the DJ’s ‘calls’ and the boy’s quiet alienation, taking occasional albeit unmotivated excursions into impressionist image-making, to weave a vignette about ordinary people made fugitives overnight.

THE BACKYARD (Yusuf Radjamuda, Indonesia, 2013, 12min)

The BackyardA Kiarostami-like narrative minimalism characterizes Radjamuda’s naturalistic sketch in digital monochrome of a lazy holiday afternoon. A young boy perched near the window of his house engages in a series of self-absorbed activities, while actions quotidian and dramatic, including a hinted domestic conflict, wordlessly unfold around him off-screen. A series of shallow-focus shots rally around a wide-angle master shot of the backyard to establish clear spatial relations. Literally and metaphorically set at the boundary between the inside and the outside of the house – home and the world – Radjamuda’s film is a pocket-sized paean to childhood’s privilege of insouciance and to the transformative power of imagination.

THE LAST MANGO BEFORE THE MONSOON (Payal Kapadia, India, 2015, 19min)

THe Last Mango Before The MonsoonThe shadow of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work is strongest in Kapadia’s three-part work about the cycles of life, death and reincarnation and the interaction between mankind and nature, between the real and the surreal. Set in various regions of India and in multiple languages and shot predominantly between dusk and dawn, the film has a beguiling though mannered visual quality to it, with its appeal predicated on primal, elemental evocations of the supernatural. While Kapadia’s superimposition of line drawings on shot footage to depict man’s longing for and transformation into nature demands attention, the film itself seems derivative and a bit too enamoured of its influences.

THEY’RE NOT FAVA BEANS, THEY’RE SCARLET RUNNER BEANS (Tânia Dinis, Portugal, 2013, 10min)

Fava BeansA potential companion piece to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014), Dinis’s digitally shot home movie unfolds as a commentary upon itself. Consisting of scenes from the everyday routine of the filmmaker’s animal-loving grandmother, overlaid with a spontaneous conversational commentary on them by Dinis and her rather talkative and humourous granny, the film is partly a tribute to the latter personality and partly a reflection on the capacity of cinema to preserve memory of people, time and place. Like in Porumboiu’s movie, cinema furnishes the possibility of continuity between generations and the opportunity to meditate on the similarity and difference between them.

WHAT DAY IS TODAY (Colectivo Fotograma 24, Portugal, 2015, 13min)

What Day Is TodayAt least as formally innovative as Rithy Panh’s The Missing Image (2014), What Day Is Today, made by a young film collective from Montemor-o-Novo based on testimonies from older compatriots, digitally carves out from newspapers and newsreels human figures that act out the history contained in them. Charting the course of Portugal from the fascist period, through the Carnation Revolution and up to its Eurozone woes, the film depicts a nation which overcame oppression, poverty, superstition and inequality only to lapse into a passive consumerist catatonia, in the process abandoning the vision of the revolution and letting itself be hostage to a host of external economic forces.

WIND CASTLE (Prantik Basu, India, 2014, 14min)

Wind CastleWind Castle opens with a complex composition made of an unfinished (or destroyed) building behind a burnt crater, with the moon in full bloom. We are somewhere in the Indian hinterlands, a brick manufacturing site tucked inside large swathes of commercial plantations. Basu’s camera charts the territory in precise, X-axis tracking shots that form a counterpoint to the verticality of the trees. Noise from occasional on-location radios and trucks fill the soundtrack. A surveyor studies the area and trees are marked. ‘Development’ is perhaps around the corner. But the rain gods arrive first. Basu’s quasi-rural-symphony paints an atmospheric picture of quiet lives closer to and at the mercy of nature.

(Images courtesy: Various film festival websites)

Nirbaak  (2015) (Speechless)
Srijit Mukherji
Bengali

 

NirbaakSrijit Mukherji’s Nirbaak (“Speechless”) tells four stories of doomed, extraordinary love. There is, first of all, a man in love with himself (a delightful Anjan Dutta), one so self-absorbed that the only time he reaches out to another person outside himself is when he imparts pithy advice to a heartbroken girl: “Love yourself”. There is, secondly, an unrequited love of a tree for a woman (Sushmita Sen) featuring arboreal onanism and animist BDSM – a pressing subject that, I daresay, has never been attempted on film till now. The third segment is about the jealous love of a dog for his master (Jisshu Sengupta), while the last speaks of a love beyond the grave. A professed tribute to Salvador Dali (a monument of self-love and self-pleasure, if there was one), Mukherji’s rather well behaved exquisite corpse nevertheless contains ideas outré enough to make Kim Ki-duk envious. For a good part of the movie, the filmmaker weaves his scenes nimbly, cycling through a few precise camera setups, experimenting with some zany angles and having fun with an anti-realist sound palette. It is in the third section, where psychological realism supplants absurdist comedy and bland shallow fields replace the interesting wide-angle interior cinematography so far, that the mildly amusing tips over into the annoying. What should have been a weird but strangely dignified image of a dog’s possessive love instead becomes kitsch, suffused with absolutely redundant POV shots through the animal’s eyes rendered in monochrome. That, and not the intent to portray the toxic love between man and animal, is anthropomorphism. The ultimate impression of Nirbaak is that of an earnest student film: too focused on its conceptual framework to allow for accidents, too transparent in its technique to sustain mystery and too disciplined to befit the personality it is dedicated to.

Experimenta 2013

By the time I got to know the details, I’d already missed half of this year’s Experimenta, India’s most prominent experimental film festival founded by Shai Heredia in 2003. This year’s edition was impressive not only in its expansiveness, being categorized into competition section, country focus, artist talks, live performances and artist profiles, but also given that it was entirely crowd-funded, which surely calls for some cheers. I congratulate Experimenta and wish them bigger successes in the years to come. Here are some notes on exactly one half of this year’s fest.

 

INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION

(Curated by Anuja Ghosalkar)

 

MOUNT SONG (Shambhavi Kaul, India, 2013, Video, 9min)

Burning StarShambhavi Kaul’s elusive, melancholy and richly atmospheric film starts with images of storm inside an artificial jungle. We don’t see the storm, just the idea of a storm, which is befitting for a film that traces the elements that constitute a sensorial experience, as when watching a film. Gliding through what looks like haunted, dilapidated sets for a Chinese martial arts movie, Kaul’s film preoccupies itself with pure form, such as the amorphous outline a wisp of synthetic smoke, visceral, staccato edits between shots and the mysterious interplay of light, dust, colour and camera movement, under the veneer of an abstract genre piece located somewhere between Masaki Kobayashi and Tsui Hark.

BURNING STAR (Joshua Gen Solondz, USA, 2012, Video, 4min)

Burning StarModest in scope yet hypnotic in effect, Solondz’s 4-minute animation in colour is admittedly a dedication to the artist’s father who apparently wanted him to “make a more colorful work”. Colourful, it certainly is. We see a twelve-sided star, alternatively imploding and exploding in dazzling primary colours, with spiky patterns that complement its periphery moving towards and away from the star’s pulsating core, which serves both as the visual and true center of the symmetric image. The soundtrack dominated of what sounds like radio interference, reminiscent of Peter Tscherkassky’s work, attains a musical regularity that makes the film easy to groove to.

PLAY LIFE SERIES (Ella Raidel, Germany, 2012, Video, 11min)

Play Life SeriesRaidel’s four-part study of performativity in the visual media begins with a rigged-up sword fight between two actors suspended on ropes in the woods – a scene that is soon revealed to be a part of a film shoot, prompting us to reflect not only on the artificiality of the fight, but also the film crew itself. This Brechtian gesture of exposing the inescapable element of performativity that marks all filmmaking becomes the organizing principle for the rest of the film, which emphasize the artificiality of earnest forms – melodrama, music videos and even everyday confrontations – by creating an ironical distance between them and the audience through the presence of a film crew – hardly experimental.

PARTY ISLAND (Neil Beloufa, France, 2012, Video, 9min)

Party IslandPerformativity and ritualized interaction are also at the heart of Beloufa’s raunchy video work that is set in an artificial, back-projected beach, where a bunch of actors stiltedly playing vacationers go through the codified rituals of vacationing, socializing and seducing. More interesting than its ham-fisted, part-Surrealist illustration of the sexualization of images and the subliminal representation of sex through phallic imagery are its formal pleasures – its tableau-like arrangement of actors in a claustrophobic setting, the equally suffocating chopped, restrictive images, the double framing of actors through geometric shapes, the intuitive, tactile editing pattern and the intriguing interaction among multiple visual planes.

BLACK POT AND MOVEMENT (Chaoba Thiyam, India, 2013, Video, 13min)

Black Pot And MovementA simple, direct and even schematic equivalence characterizes Thiyam’s modestly but precisely named film – that between the fabrication of the eponymous black pot and the formulation of a new movement by a pair of dancers. However, like its title, Thiyam’s sepia-tinted film is entirely materialist in approaching this comparison, striking an equation between the pliant material using which the pot is made and the equally malleable bodies of the performers. The juxtaposition between the rhythm of repetitive labour and dance movements also attempts to collapse the gap between the artist and worker figures – a chasm that artists have always struggled with.

ASHURA (Köken Ergun, Turkey, 2012, Video, 22min)

AshuraOne of the more assured and less academic entries in the programme, Ergun’s compilation of vignettes from Ashura Day – the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, in the Battle of Karbala by minority Shia population in the outskirts of Istanbul – is a sketch of collective mourning, a reflection on the cultural regulation of expression of grief. Through an unforced collocation of theatrical religion and religious theater, the film demonstrates how heightened, artificial, popular forms become the most cathartic form of communal grieving and, in a general sense, how art’s purpose of embodying and representing collective apprehensions still remains central.

BLOOD EARTH (Kush Badhwar, India, 2013, Video, 40min)

Blood EarthSquarely located in the now-too-recognizable genre in Indian documentary of partisan filmmaking against the repercussions of globalization, Badhwar’s film is an account of the reactions of the residents of Kucheipadar village in Odisha to the acquisition of their bauxite-rich land by mining corporates. Shinsuke Ogawa it isn’t, but Blood Earth’s documenting of the often-glossed-over fault lines in a popular movement gives it a transparency frequently absent in its contemporaries. Its best moments, however, are completely apolitical: a protracted, fixed-camera shot of a room full of noisy, convening villagers that results in strange visual patterns over time and a Daïchi Saïto-esque tracking shot of roadside plants that delightfully takes the film for two minutes into a non-representational realm. Winner of the Adolfas Mekas award of the fest.

A+ (Nobu Adilman, Canada, 2012, Video, 6min)

A+Commissioned by the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto, Adilman’s charming, humourous and even suspenseful short video, scored to a guitar solo, presents us glimpses from the meticulously maintained, hand-written film-viewing diary of super-cinephile Moen Mohammed spanning the year 2011 (inferred from an entry on Trash Humpers), consisting of movie names, year of release, director name and grades. The result is not only a straightforward documentation of the tastes of one Antonioni-loving, Godard-disliking film buff, but also an indirect snapshot of the boons of new millennial cinephilia which facilitates the viewing of such a vast, variegated repertoire of films within a short period of time.

TRAVELS ABROAD (Karl Mendonca, USA, 2013, Video, 7min)

Karl MendoncaMendonca’s petit film diary was shot in 8mm apparently over six years (go figure!) and charts the filmmaker’s return home from New York to India. We see the filmmaker’s ride back home through the eyes of an outsider, his (grand?) parents and his trekking into the local woods presented in a typical home video aesthetic, sometimes presented in time lapse. Marked by circular motifs, Travels Abroad is a self-proclaimed exploration of themes of migration, identity and belonging, but, in actuality, it never rises about its home movie banality and accomplishes little more than what any everyman equipped with a video camera flying back home would have shot.

PULSE (Anuradha Chandra, India, 2013, 16mm, 15min)

A sketch of Rotterdam in 2008, Chandra’s 16mm project presents out-of-focus, low frame rate, time lapse images of the city and its environs that are abstracted till the limits of perceptibility. Owing to high exposure times, people, vehicles, seasons and the time of day are abstracted out and the residual record of static structures underscores the strongly geometrical nature of urban constructions. These images, frequently dominated by a single saturated colour, carry a tension between movement and stasis. On a level, Chandra’s film is an Impressionistic portrait of a city (with pointillist images) that explores how far a geographical entity can be visually abstracted so as to retain its identity.

DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (Joe Hambleton, Canada, 2012, Video, 8min)

One is reminded of Chris Marker, especially the melancholy Level Five (1997), while watching Hambleton’s refreshingly widescreen structural film that employs a repeating element – the camera looking through the windshield of a car rolling on a highway before slowly zooming out and refocusing onto an object fixed to the car ceiling – while a voiceover recites what sound like diary entries of a gamer wandering internet message boards. We are in the far future, it would seem, and the current day objects – joysticks, electronic toys and other curios – in the car appear like shards from a past. The result is a meditation on memory, a reflection on how geography and everyday objects bear the trace of history.

ANOTHER COLOUR TV (The Youngrrr, Indonesia, 2013, Video, 9min)

The Youngrrr Collective’s simple and amusing critique of the isolation of the middle class from history would perhaps have been more effective as an installation, wherein the contrast between the two sections of the screen we see – a mute assortment of various local TV telecasts serious and frivolous and the reverse-shot of a middle-class household hooked to soap operas, ‘reality’ television and religious sermons and literally imprisoned within the frame of the television – would have been even sharper when placed face-to-face. Nevertheless, by locating tawdry television productions alongside their passive consumption and internalization, the film brings to surface the artificiality of the family’s time together and the ideological-mediation of their private conversations.

NEW HARVEST (Pallavi Paul, India, 2012, Video, 11min)

A discordant combination of talking-heads interview of a politically dissident poet, educational documentary about the desire of scientists to alter nature’s rhythm of day and night and morsels of letters real and imagined between two writers shot in digital video with harsh light sources that form deep chiaroscuros, Paul’s project revolves around things utopian – ideal yet impossible – images unmade, roads not taken. The segments or the fragments of narratives within each are linked by a dream-logic which suggest a impossibility but seem to look forward to a future where these dreams might be realized. The outcome is a set of vague stabs at anarchist political hopes.

ARS MEMORATIVA (Scott Miller Berry, Canada, 2013, Video, 20min)

Ars MemorativaArs Memorativa – Art of Memory – refers to the methods and techniques we use to remember things, but in Berry’s four-part examination of audiovisual media as incubators of personal memory, it also points to cinema as the preeminent art of memory, of remembrance. Amalgamating analog and digital video, celluloid and audio recordings, whose scratches, smudges and crackling noises, in their own way, act as traces from the past, the film partly ruminates on the purpose of cinema as an authentic document, as evidence of a person’s existence. Berry’s film is a modest reflection on how home movies, music records and photographs, after a person’s passing, develop the quality of preserving the history of the person’s life.

 

SPECIAL FOCUS: JAPAN

(Curated by Chris Gehman)

 

GESTALT (Takashi Ishida, Japan, 1999, 16mm, 6min)

With a beguiling organ-driven soundtrack, Gestalt impresses us with the transparency its of intention, as the title makes clear, and the single-mindedness of its approach. Ishida’s delectable study in 16mm of the malleability of our perspective of space, apparently achieved by continuously repainting the walls of a room, founds itself on the interaction of various geometric and non-geometric motifs that make the space appear alternatingly two and three-dimensional. The effect is to continually keep altering our impression of the room space, and in critical theoretical terms, to undermine the artwork’s interpellation of the viewer as a subject and to destabilize the Albertian perspective on which his/her relationship with the image is based.

A FEATHER STARE AT THE DARK (Naoyuki Tsuji, Japan, 2003, 16mm, 17min)

In the dream-like way normally unrelated objects segue into each other, Tsuji’s hand-drawn illustration of a made-up Creation myth reminds one of the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse, and perhaps even the works of Dali. Tsuji’s method involves drawing with charcoal on paper, photographing the result, erasing the plate and redrawing the next frame. The result is that the each frame carries a trace of the previous and, consequently, the film chronicles its own history, its own making. Tsuji’s drawings are unrealistic, disproportional, undignified and composed of fluid forms that throw his method into sharp relief. The outcome is closer to sand animation than traditional drawing

YELLOW SNAKE (Nobuhiro Aihara, Japan, 2006, Video, 10min)

Pitched between non-representational and traditional 2D animation, Aihara’s purposefully unwieldy video work, made 5 years before his demise in 2011, consists of two distinct visual planes – a periodic flux of semi-representational figures (bottles, fingers, planets, doughnuts) progressively growing in size to give an appearance of coming out of the screen (and hence the appearance of three-dimensionality) and a realistically drawn two-dimensional yellow hand with a pointed index finger that keeps poking into this swarm of monochrome objects – laid over a discordant soundscape. Mischievous and gleefully indulgent, Yellow Snake, if not anything else, is a reflection of the artist’s own playful relationship with his drawings.

MY TOWN (Tomomichi Nakamura, Japan, 2007, Video, 17min)

A mélange of even wider variety of animation techniques marks the quasi-Cronenbergian My Town, which draws from low-resolution photography, stop-motion animation, commercial anime drawing and video game graphics on which rudimentary pencil sketches without much foreshortening are overlaid, which, in essence, inscribes two-dimensional objects in three-dimensional space. Nakamura’s part-science-fictional part-fantastical narrative seemingly about a virus outbreak, an ensuing nuclear war and the eventual wiping out of humanity is distinguished by its soundtrack – a combination of drum beats, electronic music and low-frequency noise – and its cinematic approach to space – its simulation of film camera and its depiction of flat objects in three-dimensions.

SPACY (Takashi Ito, Japan, 1981, 16mm, 10min)

Intermittently stitched together from hundreds of photographs taken inside a gymnasium exhibiting these very photographs, Spacy is a structural study of cinematic space that creates a mise en abyme of photographed spaces into and out of which we move until we are no longer sure of which ‘level’ we are in. Despite the rapid stream of images shot at us, our focus remains firmly fixed at the geometric center of the image around which the configuration of represented space changes continuously. This trait, along with the absence of any vertical camera movement and the many levels of space negotiated, places the film alongside contemporary First Person Shooter games like Doom.

ZONE (Takashi Ito, Japan, 1995, 16mm, 13min)

Ito’s intense and claustrophobic piece, positioned between postmodern music videos and generic horror, shows the reanimation to life of a headless man wrapped in gauze and tied to a chair in a room populated by mirrors, a bandaged toy truck, a masked figure with light sources on him and framed photographs of eerily empty locations. Rife with movement – pleasing lateral tracking shots, time-lapse photography, reverse video and stop-motion animation – Zone plays on Kracauer’s idea of cinema as resurrection of dead objects from the ghastly stillness of photography. Ito’s psychologically motivated film is closer to classical Expressionism than his earlier structural work.

JAPANESE KITCHEN: THREE STORIES (Tabaimo, Japan, 2000, Video, 9min)

Japanese KitchenA more traditional style, closer to commercial Japanese animation, marks the three-episode Japanese Kitchen, which presents sketches of a housewife trying to imitate recipes shown on daytime television. The manner in which the banality of the situation is superimposed over chilling body horror – beating small men and women in a mixer to produce babies, deep frying the male brain and seeds that have people crawling out when soaked in water – betrays a trace of populist horror cinema, television and literature. Tabaimo’s tongue-in-cheek triptych – commissioned for television whose audience is the very subjects of her film – proposes tantalizingly easy and morbidly humorous solutions to the demographic problems of Japan.

INCH-HIGH SAMURAI (Tanaami Keiichi and Nobuhiro Aihara, Japan, 2007, 16mm, 8min)

Inch-High SamuraiOne of Aihara’s last films, Inch-High Samurai is admittedly a tribute to and a re-imagination of a popular manga series the directors used to read as kids that presented the adventures of a Samurai measuring an inch in height. The difference is that this film taps directly into the libidinal foundation of the manga and crystallizes the sexual and violent forces brimming beneath. Hyper-kinetic, raunchy and decidedly over-the-top, the film opens with drawings of various body parts floating on the sea from where the little phallic Samurai begins his extremely telescoped set of frenzied adventures that is, quite literally, the stuff of wet dreams.

CHILDREN OF SHADOWS (Naoyuki Tsuji, Japan, 2006, 16mm, 18min)

A ghastly spin on Western fairy tales, especially Hansel and Gretel, Children of Shadows is a tale of survival and growing up that is constructed with fluid, curvy and continuous forms that facilitate and highlight Tsuji’s charcoal on paper approach. The artist uses his POV like a moving camera and negotiates a three-dimensional space even when he abstains from providing a stable reference as in traditional drawings which makes it tougher to judge location or proportion. The movement of characters is slowed down, as though traversing an oneiric space, there is an affinity for closed forms and the humour is black and the drawings joyfully vulgar.

GOD BLESS AMERICA (Tadasu Takamine, Japan, 2002, Video, 12min)

Takamine’s God Bless America gives us the artist and his female assistant sojourning inside a red-walled studio while working on a massive lump of clay present in the center of the screen and the room. We see them pass 18 days working, eating, socializing and having sex in time lapse while the clay head is moulded in such a way that it appears to sing the titular hymn in real time. If this construction of twin time frames within a single film derives from music videos, the integration of the work of art into lived-in space derives from architecture, where it becomes an object to be experienced intuitively by habitude instead of through active contemplation.

 

ARTIST PROFILE: JACK CHAMBERS

(Curated by Lauren Howes)

 

HART OF LONDON (Jack Chambers, Canada, 1970, 16mm, 79min)

Stan Brakhage called this final film of Canadian visual artist Jack Chambers, who died of leukemia in 1977, one of the greatest films ever made. Chambers’ predominantly found-footage film exhibits touches of Brakhage’s own work, especially Dog Star Man (1961-64), in its use of roving secondary exposure, image overlaps, negatives, faster frame rates and high-velocity montage and its partly phenomenological approach to images. Opening with footage of a deer hunt – an event that would haunt the entire film – the first section of Hart of London is scored to the sporadic sound of the elements of nature and engages with visuals of architecture and everyday life in London, Ontario, superimposed with a negative that results in stereoscopic images at certain points, and, at times, abstracted away from photorealism to the point where we only observe black dabs on a white screen. Towards the midpoint, the film moves away from superimposition towards montage as the primary technique for meaning creation. It is from hereon that the film crystallizes its exploration of the cycle of life. Images from a slaughterhouse are intercut with those of a baby, dead sheep fetuses are juxtaposed with a human newborn. The architectural marvels of the first segment are responded to in the second by destruction and demolition of buildings, which become as much a spectacle as the former. On one level, the film is certainly an indictment of human egotism, which places humanity at the center of the universe and deems it as being the prime mover of all things. But it is also a meditation of humanity’s ceaseless capacity to learn, endure and survive and the film abounds with symbols of birth, rebirth and resurrection. This view of humanity from a detached, godlike-perspective takes the film closer to the oeuvre of Artavazd Peleshian, whose ultimately hopeful view of life, Hart of London echoes, however less emphatically.

 

ARTIST PROFILE: PANCHAL MANSARAM

(Curated by Shai Heredia)

 

INTERSECT (Panchal Mansaram, India, 1967, 16mm, 6min)

Panchal Mansaram was already established as a collage artist when he came to cinema and this transition is evident in the approach to his material in Intersect, which mashes footage shot during his interactions with Satyajit Ray, Ravi Shankar and Marshall McLuhan with excerpts from TV and radio commercials. “East and West are becoming like each other” goes one stray audio bite. Evocative of the many fine experiments at Films Division – yet not as pointed or as rigorously thought out – Intersect was completed after Mansaram’s emigration to Canada and reflects the director’s own transnational status – an autobiographical element which he explored further in his mixed-media installations.

DEVI, STUFFED GOAT AND PINK CLOTH (Panchal Mansaram, Canada/India, 1967, 16mm, 16min)

An assortment of impressionistic vignettes from the city of Bombay – a place that Mansaram calls “collage in motion” – strung together by the pervading presence of the beautiful lady of the title, her stuffed goat and a piece of pink cloth, this 16mm quasi-Nouveau Realist project tries to comprehend a city partly through its extraordinary human specimen, decrepit objects and familiar images. Some passages of the film, scored to a mix of flute, trumpet and percussions, seem straight of a René Magritte tableau in the way they piece together completely dissociated commonplace objects, even though this disruption of everyday logic seems less like an ideological intervention than a gleeful vagrancy of a mischievous imagination.

REAR VIEW MIRROR (Panchal Mansaram, Canada/India, 1966-2011, 16mm, 13min)

45 years in the making, Rear View Mirror spans the entire career of Mansaram as a filmmaker and opens with the voice of the artist reciting a piece of autobiographical information. Seen through the eyes of two young tourists entering a city on a horse cart, the film unfolds as a kind of ‘re-entry’ into and ‘looking-back’ at his life in India, especially his early years in his hometown of Mount Abu in Rajasthan, suffuse with reds, yellows and browns. The images of the convivial atmosphere at the local fete is complemented by sundry images – spiritual and profane – from the city linked together by the director’s characteristic sense of humour.

 

ARTIST PROFILE: AKBAR PADAMSEE

(Curated by Lalitha Gopalan)

 

SYZYGY (Akbar Padamsee, India, 1970, Video, 6min)

Bombay-based abstract artist Akbar Padamsee made his transition to cinema with the help of ace cinematographer K. K. Mahajan and was apparently held in high regard by Mani Kaul. A product of the short-lived Visions Exchange Workshop (VIEW) founded by Padamsee as a platform for enabling interaction between painters and filmmakers, the soundless animation Syzygy begins with basic geometric figures moving on the screen in regular patterns. With mathematical regularity, these figures morph into word grids and number lines representing distances, which in turn, gradually, give way to more complex intersection of line segments – mazes, meshes and networks. The resulting images bear similarity to the works of Mondrian and Kandinsky and serve to illuminate emotional correlatives to purely aesthetic forms such as the sense of spaciousness and liberation offered by a diagonal line slashing across a matrix of verticals and horizontals. Despite its ostensibly stream-of-consciousness approach, all the images have a regularity, harmony, and balance which throw light on Padamsee’s structured and perhaps even classicist thinking process.

Die, die, die, 2012! Besides being a period of personal lows, it was a bad year at the movies for me. Not only did the quantity of the films I watched come down, but the enthusiasm with which I watched, read about and discussed films plummeted. That the amount of good films made this year pales in comparison to the last doesn’t help either. Not to mention the passing of Chris Marker. Unlike the years before, there are barely a handful of movies from 2012 that I’m really keen on seeing (most of them from Hollywood). The following list of favorite 2012 titles (world premiere only) was chalked with some struggle because I couldn’t name 10 films that I loved without reservations. Here’s to a better year ahead.

 

1. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada)

 

CosmopolisSurely, it takes a bona fide auteur like David Cronenberg to locate his signature concerns in a text – such as Don Delillo’s – that deals with ideas hitherto unexplored by him and spin out the most exciting piece of cinema this year. Holed up in his stretch limo – an extension of his body, maneuvering through Manhattan inch by inch as though breathing – Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) comprehends the universe outside like cinema, through a series of moving images projected onto his car windows. Why not? This world, whose master he is, is experiencing the epistemological crisis of late capitalism: the increasing abstraction of tactile reality into digital commodities. Packer, like many Cronenberg characters, is more machine than man, attempts – against the suggestions of his asymmetrical prostate and of the protagonist of Cronenberg’s previous film – to construct a super-rational predictable model of world economy – a project whose failure prompts him to embark on an masochistic odyssey to reclaim the real, to experience physicality, to be vulnerable and to ultimately die. At the end of the film, one imagines Packer shouting: “Death to Cyber-capitalism! Long live the new flesh!

2. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)

 

Holy MotorsUn chant d’amour for cinema, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is an ambitious speculation about the total transformation of life into cinema and cinema into life – the death of the actor, audience and the camera. The European cousin to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Carax’s return-to-zero work draws inspiration from the process of film itself – death, resurrection and persistence of vision – and takes cinema to its nascence – fairground attractions, popular theatre and zoopraxography – while opening up to its future possibilities. Uncle Oscar (Denis Lavant, the raison d’etre of Holy Motors), like Cronenberg’s Packer, cruises the streets of Paris in his limo in search of purely physical experiences – a series of performance pieces carried out solely for “the beauty of the act” – only to find that the city is a gigantic simulacrum in which everyone is a performer and a spectator (and thus no one is) and where the distinction between the real and the fictional becomes immaterial. At the very least, Holy Motors is a reflection on the passing of “things”, of physicality, of the beauty of real gesture, of the grace of movement of men and machines.

3. differently, Molussia (Nicolas Rey, France)

 

Differently, MolussiaNicolas Rey’s third feature, consisting of 9 short segments (reels, to be precise) projected in a random sequence, is a radical project that re-politicizes the cinematic image. Not only does the randomization of the order of projection of the reels circumvent the problem of the authoritarianism of a fixed narrative, it also exposes the seam between the semi-autonomous theses-like segments, thereby making the audience attentive to possible ideological aporias that are usually glossed over by the self-fashioned integrity of filmic texts. Furthermore, the existence of the film in the form separate reels is a breathing reminder of the material with which it was made: 16mm. The persistent dialectic between the visual – shots of highways, industries, farms and modernist suburban housing in the eponymous fictional city registering the sedate rhythm of everyday life – and the aural – snippets of conversations between two politicized industrial workers about the invisible tendons that enable a society to function smoothly – strongly drives home the chief, Althusserian concern of the film: the essential unity of the various, seemingly autonomous, strands of a state, contrary to claims of disjunction and autonomy.

4. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)

 

TabuA film that is reminiscent of Weerasethakul’s many bipartite films, Miguel Gomes’ singular Tabu, too, works on a range of binaries – past/present, youth/old age, city/countryside, abundance/scarcity, modern/primitive, colonizer/colonized – and sets up a conversation between the carefree, profligate days of the empire full of love, laughter and danger and Eurocrisis-inflected, modern day Portugal marked by alienation and loneliness. The opening few minutes – a melancholy mini-mockumentary of sorts chronicling the adventures of a European explorer in Africa with a native entourage –announces that the film will be balancing distancing irony and classicist emotionality, donning an attitude that is in equal measure critical and sympathetic towards the past. In Gomes’ sensitive film, the heavy hand of the past weighs down on the present both on aesthetic (silent cinema stylistics, film stock, academy ratio, the excitement of classical genres) and thematic (collective colonial guilt, residual racism, punishment for forbidden love) levels and this inescapability of the past is also functions as (sometimes dangerous) nostalgia for the simplicity and innocence of a cinema lost and an entreaty for the necessity of exploring and preserving film history.

5. Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl, Austria)

 

Paradise-LoveWhat partially elevates the first film of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy from its rather undistinguished concerns about emotional alienation and old age loneliness is the nexus of intriguing cultural forces that it brings into the picture by having a relatively affluent, 50-year old Austrian single-mother (Margarete Tiesel, in a no-holds-barred performance) indulge in sex tourism in Kenya along with five other women friends. The result is a rich, provocative negotiation along class, gender, race and age divides that upsets conventional, convenient oppressor-oppressed relationships. In doing so, the film wrenches love from the realm of the universal and the ahistorical and demonstrates that between two people lies the entire universe. Seidl’s heightened, bright colour palette that provides a sharp chromatic contrast to the bodies of Kenyan natives and his confrontational, static, frontal compositions (Seidl’s nudes are antitheses to those of the Renaissance), which make indoor spaces appear like human aquariums, both invite the voyeuristic audience to take a peek into this world and place it on another axis of power – of the observer and the observed.

6. With You, Without You (Prasanna Vithanage, Sri Lanka)

 

With You, Without YouSri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage’s exquisite, exceptional adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Meek One (1876) aptly locates the Russian tale of matrimonial discord between a bourgeois pawnbroker and the gentle creature he weds within the ethno-political conflict between nationalist and rebel factions of the country. Unlike humanist war dramas that, often naively, stress the underlying oneness among individuals on either side, Vithanage’s intelligent film underscores how the political haunts the personal and how the tragic weight of history impacts the compatibility between individuals here and now, while deftly retaining Dostoyevsky’s central theme of ownership of one human by another. Though liberal in narration and moderate in style compared to Mani Kaul’s and Robert Bresson’s adaptations of the short story, Vithanage, too, employs an attentive ambient soundtrack that counts down to an impending doom and numerous shots of hands to emphasize the centrality of transaction in interpersonal relationships. The metaphysical chasm between the possessor and the possessed finds seamless articulation in concrete sociopolitical relations between Sinhalese and Tamils, between the army and refugees, between the poor and the wealthy and between man and woman.

7. Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, Hong Kong)

 

WalkerThere has always been something intensely spiritual about Tsai’s films, even when they seem to wallow in post-apocalyptic cityscapes and defunct social constructions. In Tsai’s hands, it would seem, an empty subway corridor shot in cheap digital video becomes the holiest of spaces ever filmed. Walker, a high-def video short made as a part of the Beautiful 2012 project commissioned by Hong Kong International Film Festival, crystallizes this particular tendency in the director’s work and centers on a Buddhist monk played by Lee Kang-sheng (a muse like no other in 21st century cinema). As the monk walks the hyper-commercialized streets of Hong Kong at a phenomenally slow pace for two days and two nights, his red robe becomes a visual anchor in stark contrast to the greys of the urban jungle and the blacks of people’s winter clothing and his very being, his eternal presence, becomes a spiritual grounding point amidst the impersonal hustle-bustle of this super-capitalist Mecca. Part performance art with a gently cynical punch line, part an exploration of the limits of DV, Walker is a deeply soothing and often moving work from one of Asia’s finest.

8. Celluloid Man (Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, India)

 

Celluloid ManMoving unsteadily with the help of a walking stick, the 79-year old founder of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), P. K. Nair, despite himself, becomes a metaphor for the state of film archiving in the country. It is of considerable irony that, in a nation that prides itself for its rich cultural heritage, film archiving is considered a useless exercise. During the three decades that Nair headed the NFAI, he was instrumental in discovering the silent works and early talkies of Bombay and south Indian cinema, including those of Dadasaheb Phalke, the “father of Indian cinema”. Celluloid Man, bookended by scenes from Citizen Kane (1941), draws inspiration from Welles’ film and sketches a fascinating if reverential portrait of Nair constructed from interviews with international filmmakers, scholars, historians and programmers and curiously hinged on the fact of Nair’s “Rosebud” – ticket stubs, promotional material and assorted film-related curios that the man collected during his childhood. Shivendra Singh’s film is a irresistible romp through early Indian cinema and an endlessly absorbing tribute to a man who is fittingly dubbed the “Henri Langlois of India”. To paraphrase one of the interviewees, Phalke gave Indian cinema a past, Nair gave it a history.

9. Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, Canada)

 

Laurence AnywaysAlthough it might appear that it is perhaps the hollowness of Xavier Dolan’s previous feature that makes his latest, 160-minute music video look like a cinematic coup, Laurence Anyways really does succeed in accomplishing more than most of contemporary “LGBT-themed independent cinema”. While the latter – including this year’s Cahiers darling – almost invariably consists of realist, solidarity pictures that use social marginalization as shorthand for seriousness, Dolan’s emotionally charged film takes the game one step further and probes the inseparability of body and character, the effect of the physical transformation of a person on all his relationships – a transformation that is mirrored in the flamboyant, shape-shifting texture of the film – without sensationalizing the transformation itself. Rife, perhaps too much so, with unconventional aesthetic flourishes and personal scrapbook-ish inserts, the film rekindles and enriches the youthful verve of the Nouvelle Vague – a move that should only be welcome by film culture. If not anything more, Laurence Anyways establishes that critics need to stop using its author’s age as a cudgel and look at his cinema du look as something more than a compendium of adolescent affectations.

10. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA)

 

Moonrise KingdomLet me confess upfront that putting Wes Anderson’s (surprise!) whimsy, twee and self-conscious Moonrise Kingdom in my year-end list is less a full-hearted appreciation of the film than a confession that I find Anderson to be an important voice that I’m genuinely keen about, but can’t entirely celebrate. I don’t think I’ve seen any film that employs so many elements of industrial cinema yet feels meticulously artisanal, a film that, on the surface, seems to (literally) play to the gallery yet is so full of personality and one that is oddly familiar yet thoroughly refuses instant gratification. Moonrise Kingdom appears to have every ingredient of an obnoxious family comedy, but the unironic, straight-faced attitude and the single-minded conviction with which it moulds the material into an anti-realist examination of the anxieties of growing up, alone, is something not to be found either in cynical mainstream cinema or in the overwrought indie scene of America. Anderson’s neo-sincere film is, as it were, a classicist text couched within a postmodern shell, an emotional film without affect. Paper blossoms, but blossoms nonetheless.

 

Special Mention: The Queen Of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, USA)

 

Mati Manas (1985) (The Mind Of Clay)
Mani Kaul
Hindi/Marathi/Tamil

 

Mati ManasCommissioned by NFDC and the handicrafts division of Ministry of Textiles, Mani Kaul’s Mati Manas centers on potters and terra cotta artisans located in and around Rajasthan and unfolds as a fictionalized version of Kaul’s journey into the region as an outsider and a documentary filmmaker. We have documentary passages that elaborately detail the art and business of terra cotta making and the way of life that revolves around it interspersed with sections where we see the in-movie documentary crew shuttling between museums showcasing earthenware from the Indus Valley civilization, excavation sites and various potter villages while narrating to us the various myths, legends and folk tales of the region that reveal how mud/earth has become, for these artisans, an element inextricable from imagination and practice and has gone on to develop maternal associations with its capacity to nurture, shelter and produce. Suffused with Cezanne-like still life and images of potters at work, especially the weary, skillful hands that lovingly, spontaneously shape raw earth into little, wondrous artifacts, Mati Manas comes across as a tribute to the dignity and grace of human labour. Perhaps more importantly, Kaul’s return-to-zero film unveils a society where people’s relationship to art is still habitual and tactile, a pre-reflective, non-reductive, phenomenological way of experiencing art that stands in opposition to modern, appropriative, optical approaches – a split that is reflected in the chasm between how ancient pottery is exhibited in museums and sketched in textbooks as icons of heritage and triumph of archaeology and how it might have been perceived by people of its time.

 

 [Capsule added to The Films of Mani Kaul]

Interview: Girish Kasaravalli

[The following is an interview of Girish Kasaravalli I did for the latest issue of Projectorhead magazine. Talking in person to the director whose films I deeply admire was a rather revelatory experience in that it not only cleared me of many misconceptions about these works, but also exposed interesting differences between how a filmmaker conceives his films and how a viewer receives them. Heartfelt thanks to founders/editors Gautam and Anuj for giving me this opportunity]

 

Your films are rife with rituals, ceremonies and legitimization games. This is perhaps most apparent in Ghatashraddha (1979), your debut feature. What interested you in dealing with such conservative constructs?

Although they are present in the later films as well, rituals and ceremonies are central only to Ghatashraddha. I wouldn’t say I am interested in rituals or castes as such. I liked the scenario of Ghatashraddha, which is about this pair of people Yamunakka and Nani who are marginalized and outcast by this religious institution. She is a young woman who naturally feels the need for male companionship. Nani, otherwise rather sharp, finds it difficult to learn these scriptures. Both of them are ridiculed and outcast by the establishment.

Your direction of Meena Kuttappa in the film is highly stylized. It is not exaggerated, but it is not natural either. It is almost Bressonian. This kind of acting is not found elsewhere in your filmography.

Yes, we were familiar with Bresson’s cinema that time and Meena’s performance is similarly very stylized. It was a de-dramatization gesture. Much of our acting assumes that emotions are to be expressed. I wanted the emotions to be expressed not through the acting but the events of the story. Throughout the film, Yamunakka stays in a single register of suffering. Nani, on the other hand, undergoes a marked change. He realizes that he has to help Yamunakka. While he cannot do a whole lot, he does what his strength and age allows him to. That is why, his performance, along with other characters, is more naturalistic. Even the lead performance in Thayi Saheba (1997) is stylized the same way.

 

(Full interview at Projectorhead)

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