A Season Outside: Kanwar’s camera captures fragments in time showing the present to be an unstable moment, its peace only momentary. These scenes from the opening sequence, which is shot on the Wagah border, between India and Pakistan evoke the dizzying sense of encountering one’s violent historical past. Each image then stands out rich and vibrant, as if being seen for the first time.
The militaristic ritual takes on the character of a ritual dance …
…choreographed to the minutest detail…
...that is repeated every evening...
… as the ever encroaching camera shows a state of mind stunned by the re-enactment of the violent splitting of families and lives.
Kanwar’s camera looks repeatedly at the lines and colors that mark territory. Here goods are exchanged over the border…
...as workers pass their loads across the line.
Fences, windows, lines that divide and demarcate territory, whether the home or nation are a repeated pattern in this film. Here we see an Indian soldier looking across the border at Pakistan. This shot is rhymed later in the film where we see a woman look out of her window at a militaristic parade, as the voice over speaks of violence within the film maker’s home.
The film combines direct cinema with analysis, the experience of trauma with detached contemplation through the juxtaposition of voice-over and image. Here, over the shot of a street play by Buddhist monks, which at first sight appears to be a real attack by the police, Kanwar begins to narrate an imaginary conversation with a monk.
Amongst the last shots of the film is this romantic moment as we see a child look past the bars for a season outside...
Why the personal is still political—some lessons from contemporary Indian documentary
I give you a break today
perhaps, the poem,
Indian socialist poets, like elsewhere, have nurtured radical movements with songs and poems that express the desires and hopes of social transformation. Their work flames protest against unbearable conditions and builds courage by awakening, in the words of Faiz, “desire even in the absence of hope.” Like any radical theory or artwork, such poetry hopes for its own demise once its work is done. Then perhaps another kind of poetry, one not so urgent, even of the bourgeois kind, can be written. Indian Marxist poets articulate their opposition to bourgeois aesthetics by presenting the dilemma of the revolutionary poet. How can bourgeois poetry’ main themes—personal experience, particularly admiration of nature and love for the beloved—be written about? Because of material conditions, such poetry mocks the lives and experiences of the marginalized and laboring majority. Against bourgeois insistence on aesthetics as the defining feature and function of art, revolutionary poetry asserts its political use value to the movement(not to be understood narrowly as something quantifiable), and it is the struggle for change that gives birth to that poetry and is also the reason for its existence.
While poets can both write poetry and disclaim its bourgeois variants, so strong has been this thinking in the Indian left that politically committed documentary cinema has tended to steer away from a lyric voice that might be construed as either personal or poetic. Recently, however, documentary filmmakers have turned their attention to subjects imagined as “personal” prior to the women’s movement—i.e., sexuality and the domestic sphere. These filmmakers also make an epistemological claim for the subjective and poetic as the basis for knowing. In this paper, I discuss how this turn in the arts redefines the relation between the personal and political, between poetry and politics in Indian documentary. My case studies are two recent films, A Season Outside (Amar Kanwar, 1998) and Kumar Talkies (Pankaj Rishi Kumar, 1999). As I contextualize these films in relation to the Indian political left in general, and documentary film in particular, I want to foreground how this turn to the personal is quite different from the chronologically parallel, Western, post-structuralist retreat from the political.
In recent years, as any international film festival will demonstrate, documentary films have come to be predominantly structured around the first-person narrative. This aesthetic approach can be seen as a shift towards a more politically engaged public sphere, as Julia Lesage had argued in relation to feminist documentaries that use the personal as a standpoint from which the world can be known and changed. But in many other documentaries from the eighties and the nineties, the autobiographical turn may signal that the personal in fact, now serves the filmmaker as a device to withdraw from the political. This is especially marked when the genre attempts to deconstruct documentary’s claim to being a springboard for action and substitutes instead the trope of the bourgeois white male filmmaker as a lost and unwitting figure.
A prime example of this tendency, which Paul Arthur aptly categorizes as the “aesthetics of failure” occurs in the narrative structure of Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1987). The film centers on McElwee’s failure to complete a historical film on General Sherman’s march. His journey shows him sidetracked into numerous failed encounters with women on the way. We could possible read the film as “political” if we find that McElwee’s comparison of his own bumbling efforts with Sherman’s aggressive pursuit of goals serves as an historical record of the fall of white Southern middle-class masculinity. However, McElwee successfully diffuses any tension around the male filmmaker’s loss of power through self-deprecation, and thus the film as a whole belies documentary’s claim that the world can be known and changed. Underlying McElwee’s self-mocking gestures is another political assumption: Since the filmmaker is incapable of knowing himself, much less the world, any search for truth through documentary filmmaking is bound to fail.
The documentarist’s personal voice, in this case, serves to present a self-indulgent and relativist view upon which no political strategy of change can be based. Countering such individualist tendencies in documentary media making, in which the film’s personal focus diffuses political impact or analysis, is another kind of personal documentary work, one strongly rooted in what Bill Nichols calls the “politics of location.” Here the filmmaker literally uses his/her own body, as did the feminist filmmakers earlier, and connects it to a broader truth about society. For example, Marlon Riggs, at the time HIV positive, brought his own condition into a more general representation of the struggles, joys and solidarity of gay black men in Tongues Untied (1991).
Indian documentary traditions
Both of the above strategies in personal documentary filmmaking explore an identity based on the historical construction of one’s body, using the self, especially the social/material self, as the primary foundation from which one can know and understand the world. Where does this leave filmmakers whose personal location may differ from their subjects in terms of class, gender or race? This question particularly confronts Indian documentary filmmakers. Because media making usually implies middle-class knowledge and skill, progressive Indian documentary filmmakers, like their Western counterparts, as Chuck Kleinhans has indicated, often have a different class position than the subjects in their films.
Since one of documentary’s primary impulses has been to contribute to political struggles, documentary filmmakers are invariably called upon to identify with the Other. Only a severely cynical view of humanity would deny such a possibility of thinking beyond the self, of giving up self-interest and narcissism, whether conscious or otherwise. One of Marxism’s lasting legacies has been a secularized and rationalist world-view. Previously mainly the religious person might recognize the possibility of transcending socially determined identities in an endeavor for social justice. Now, for many doing activist media making, comprehending reality and changing it is taken on gladly as an ethical responsibility. Thus many contemporary Indian documentary filmmakers show an awareness of the challenges they face in speaking for the Other, especially their privilege—of class, caste, gender or sexuality. However, within the documentary genre, there is a marked absence of narratives whose primary objective is to showcase the impossibility or refusal to represent the Other. Rather, Indian documentary’s interest in depicting the Other, often without problematizing that very process, has continued unabated.
What is new in Indian documentary, however, is the insertion of the self in relation to the Other. In the filmmaking community, this represents a break with tradition that is quite strongly contested. In my discussions with filmmakers I encounter many filmmakers’ distinct discomfort with personal and autobiographical voice. They say that a personal perspective is a narrative style imposed by jurying practices at international film festivals that now favor this kind of filmmaking. And the filmmakers need recognition at international film festivals, since screenings will follow in university campuses in North America and Europe, and grants from international agencies might be more effectively pursued. Since grants are now a major source of funding for Indian documentarists, given the exchange rates with the dollar, the filmmakers often feel they need to accommodate themselves to this kind of aesthetic pressure from abroad.
Both filmmakers whose work I discuss in this paper have received this kind of funding and international recognition. Kumar Talkies was funded by the Hubert Bo’s Fund of the International Film Festival, Rotterdam; A Season Outside was commissioned by a non-profit Indian group that raised funds from various sources, including international funding agencies. Interestingly, these filmmakers do not make work for festival success but rather define their primary audiences as Indian and locate themselves in relation to the Indian documentary tradition. This means that their films, like other political documentary work in India, is primarily screened in private homes, schools, community centers, university campuses, women’s groups, and on improvised screens in urban slums.
Traditionally Indian documentary has emphasized the collective rather than the individual and thus has eschewed personal perspectives. As Tom Waugh has characterized it, the Indian documentary tradition overwhelmingly favored the didactic social documentary in the Griersonian mode; such a documentary approach was prevalent during the first four decades after independence in 1947. In the 80s, Indian documentarists moved towards the direct cinema style prevalent in the West in the 60s, adopting its realist aesthetic and reliance on interviews while continuing to retain Griersonian voice-over narration.
However, as Waugh points out, in contrast to Western documentaries’ emphasis on individual protagonists, Indian films relied on the collective in representing its subject, including the collective interview. In place of the private home was the street. Waugh contextualizes this formal aspect of documentary in the cultural, political, and economic imperatives of a post colonial society. Within this social formation and political orientation, the group rather than the individual and public spaces rather than private ones become the primary sites of political discourse and cultural expression.
To rely on isolating the individual, whether in representing a community or in teaching American film, Waugh argues, comes out of Western social ideology that validates the individual and its religio-cultural tradition based on confession. Films as diverse as Roger and Me and Shoah begin their analysis with an isolated individual confronting trauma. The talking head expert also hails from the confessional tradition— in this case, granting authority to the filmmaker’s voice.
Another reason for the emphasis on the collective in Indian documentary is the left’s general dismissal of the personal as bourgeois self-indulgence; such a view predominates among those who want to represent material conditions urgently in need of transformation. Moreover, filmmaking has significant expenses, as compared to writing poetry or fiction. Spending a large amount of money further imposes a political imperative to witness, record, inform, and analyze. If one is to spend a significant amount of money t make a film, rationalist evaluation of political use value often wins out over the more subjective and expressive aspects of filmmaking.
Consequently, until the 90s autobiographical, experimental or self-reflexive styles were virtually non-existent in Indian documentary. Now, a quick glance at Film South Asia, the Festival of South Asian Documentaries held in Nepal in October 2001, shows this to have changed. The films shown took up subjects previously considered personal, such as sexuality. And aesthetically, their forms varied, now also encompassing the diaristic, self-reflexive, experimental and poetic.
This new moment in Indian documentary was probably spurred by the Indian women’s movement in the 80s, when this generation of filmmakers came of age. It also represents a widening of the aesthetic of the political documentary, now made at the intersection of the global demands of international film festivals and the demands of internal political struggles. Without lowering the stakes of documentary and still seeing it as a participant in political change, some of these new films have recovered one of the best traditions in Indian radical culture—poetry. Others have experimented with self-reflexivity. In discussing two films that, in my view, best exemplify this change I hope to show the challenges that underlie this reinvention of the documentary form.
A Season Outside
Amar Kanwar’s A Season Outside (India,1998, 30 minutes) is a lyrical and thoughtful film that asks viewers once again to examine why they might consider violence a valid response to violence. The film begins with Kanwar on the Wagah border—the line that divides Pakistan and India—one amongst the crowd of strangers who gather around to watch the “change of guard” ceremony that happens there every evening. The sights and sounds of this place —voices, flags, barbed wires, badges, uniforms, people’s faces, and, the border line itself—seem filled with the expectation of finding an answer to what spurred the violence of national partition in 1947.
Kanwar’s camera confronts the present, as if for the first time, by stretching and fragmenting time. Beginning with a slow pan that starts from a lighted shed across the barbed wire fence at night, we see quickly cut together feet, identification badges, people, and colors. The ritualized military ceremony at the border becomes a slow dance whose fascination for our collective psyche lies in its repetitive performance of a violent past that will not lie at rest. Kanwar evokes the border both as the concrete evidence of violence and also as a symbol whose power runs deeper than its physical limits.
The film’s power lies in the simplicity and minimalism of its structure, which is an interplay between Kanwar’s voice-over narration, images and a sound track. The narration brings up the past as it connects Kanwar’s personal family history to a larger history. He speaks his words in the nature of personal introspection. The camera, however, lives in the present in public. In contrast to the thoughtful, meditative quality of Kanwar’s voice over, the present saturated with history meets the eye as the site of danger. A suggestive sound track that hints rather than screams connects the two, underlining the political urgency of examining the present and de-familiarizing it.
At one point in the opening sequence narration and image come together, poignantly indicating the contingency of the past upon the present, uncovering alternatives buried under violence and suggesting what might have been. Here Kanwar recounts in voice over Gandhi’s testimony before the Hunter commission; there Gandhi defends his position on non-violence. The visuals show an Indian soldier at the border who raises his right hand, as if to take an oath. However, in contrast to Gandhi’s defense of non-violence, the soldier’s movement is part of military performance.
The voice over here speaks the filmmaker’s subjective position but it also speaks for a collective. The film assumes that the viewer already has a position, an inevitable connection to the long history of violence in the country. It is this taken-for-granted, shared history of violence that becomes the fabric of which Kanwar’s personal story is only one thread. He offers his story to to us to prompt us to examine our own decisions about how to respond to violence. As Kanwar uses the film as an occasion for his own introspection, in the process he uncompromisingly brings into public view the full extent to which violence is rooted inside us. The film’s most haunting and lyrical moments underwrite this sense of being unable to stand outside or to find a “season outside” as violent assaults on human dignity saturate both the home and the world outside it, past and present.
Kanwar connects the slow, repetitious, hidden nature of domestic violence with public militaristic spectacle through a sequence of a street shot from inside a window. The camera and light inside the window remain stationary while the scenes on the street change quickly, highlighting the essential sameness of the relation of inside to outside. In voice over he recounts his mother’s memory of women protecting themselves during the partition of India (1947) from riotous mobs by hammering nails in windows; at that time he had a recurrent dream of his mother with a hammer and nails but no windows. In another sequence a present day train traverses the same tracks as the 1947 trains filled with fleeing refugees and their corpses. It seems oddly strange as it moves in slow motion while the passengers wave to the camera.
The film’s stance on non-violence as a personal commitment echoes Gandhi’s notion of satyagraha, the struggle for truth. It calls upon the satyagrahi, one who strives for the truth, to be willing to die for one’s truth but not to impose it on the other through violence. Gandhi’s lesson is that all truth is ultimately relative. Appropriately, the film begins by quoting Gandhi in the narration and ends with his image on a television screen. The concluding narration recounts a dialogue between the filmmaker and a monk about violence with a monk; the essence of their conversation is the Gandhian position of satyagraha. This coming together of image and narration, an, the circular way in which the end echoes the beginning gives the film a closure that it has so far resisted. The film ends with a rather wistful hope that the key to the “season outside” lies in the “big eyes of a little child.” At this point, we see the image of a child’s face pressed against the gates of the Wagah border.
However, to posit here that the future can be seen in the eyes of a child is a conclusion that is sudden and romantic. It imposes a false sense of comfort that undercuts the film’s overall power. Instead of presenting the child as the hope for the future, Kanwar would have been more consistent if he showed the child as most at risk. For me, the most impactful image from the end of the film is that of the adult man who stares back at Kanwar from across the gate of the border. That image leaves open the question of finding a “season outside” open but sees it under threat.