I’ve already reviewed a number of documentaries screening at Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival, not because documentaries are suddenly big again but because film festivals are the perfect place to catch films which don’t conform to the usual standards for what gets released. This one is a bit out of the ordinary, and like Mariner of the Mountains, very much defies categorisation, landing somewhere between poetic essay and political drama enfolding students and the nation as a whole under Narendra Modi. It’s not a film I expected to like, not beforehand nor even while watching it for much of its running time, but it wove a sort of magical grip on me by the end.
One thing I love about going to film festivals is seeing a far greater range of documentary expression than gets released to cinemas (where the documentaries tend to be studiously fact-based and talking-head in format). Like many modern works, though, this carefully balances itself between what’s familiar about the format, and something at a higher poetic register. Grainy 16mm footage of students dancing opens and closes the film, and in between this darkened almost clandestine world of university study and protest becomes evident, while on the soundtrack a soft voice narrates (presumably fictional) letters being written from a single-lettered unknown person, providing a glimpse into a turbulent time in Indian history when universities, academic freedoms, intellectual life and freedom in general is under threat from fascist governmental forces. There’s something at once calming and reverential but also incendiary about what the director is doing here. If it at first seems disconcerting, by the end it has conjured up a distinct and impressive mood that makes the usual run of fact-based filmmaking look dull by comparison.
Director Payal Kapadia; Writers Kapadia and Himanshu Prajabati; Cinematographer Ranabir Das; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Tuesday 9 November 2021.