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About the 2006 edition
A point of view about the world is a point of view about cinema. If one expects any film to incorporate a point of view about the world, today one should also note the importance of stressing almost the inverse: in the midst of the present audiovisual saturation, the productive use of the means of the cinema claims for an even stronger engagement, exigency and clarity concerning the place of cinema in the modern world. As much as a point of view about the world, the production boom claims for a point of view about cinema as a consequent part of our vision of the world.
The 2006 seminar includes some examples of this, films and film makers that define the landscape, and, consequently, may guide us along a journey through some key trends of contemporary cinema. Starting with films where each shot reveals a strong construction method, we will then rather concentrate on the recent methodologies of direct cinema.
Regarding the latter, we will propose a confrontation between different filming strategies, including an analytic approach of various parameters: treatment of space, treatment of time, handling of the camera, sound, editing.
The 2006 edition shall run according to a new structure of debates, in three distinct levels: dialogues on specific films; thematic presentation on formal strategies; collective debate.
Transcription of the debates
Fitfh debate, after the film by Rahul Roy
15th JUNE, THURSDAY
Film shown before the debate:
The City Beautiful, Rahul Roy
Catarina Alves Costa (CAC)
Rahul Roy (RR)
CATARINA ALVES COSTA: I just wanted to begin by saying that one of the goals of Doc’s Kingdom is to try, each year, to bring films that aren’t widely seen and films from other countries. For the first time, we have someone from India at Doc’s Kingdom, who is Rahul Roy. I would suggest that we try to open up this debate as much as we can to your questions, leaving as much time as possible to listen to Rahul Roy.
First of all, this is the third film I’ve seen by you. Both (from 2000) and When Friends MeetMajma (The Performance, from 2001) are films about men, they present the issue of masculinity. The City Beautiful is much more complex than previous films. It goes very far as a film talking about the way people’s lives and the economic conditions affect relationships. I feel this is the main subject of the film, and I would like to talk about the way this affects your cinematic language. One of the most interesting things in your film is that you have both a very observational approach and at the same time you connect with people, you talk, you ask questions. As the film goes by, we feel that people can talk to you, and these dialogues are always going further. There’s a very interesting scene where the mother comes in and you start discussing with her where you live. She doesn’t get it right and you insist, which means you were really communicating, trying to sort it out. Was it a decision from the beginning that you would be talking to people or observing? How do you manage to do both at the same time? In your film, you have both situations where people would respond to you and situations where you would just observe. I would also like you to reflect on something else: you picked a theme that is really very hard to get in pictures, which is how relationships are, especially between men and women. I would like you to talk about these gender differences in Indian society and how they affected your film. This film is about the process of decline of both the economic situation and emotional relationships (between husband and wife, mother and kids). We see this world that is coming to pieces through the film. At the same time, it is very connected with daily life. It is dramatic but we feel the way people deal with it. You focus on very specific details, and I like that very much.
Another thing is the metaphor of The City Beautiful: the place, the neighbourhood, and how it appears in a very abstract way, trying to tell us that this is a microcosm of what happens in a very globalized world. Things are changing everywhere; as usual – things always change. You have both the very concrete daily life details and at the same time the very abstract and poetic shots of The City Beautiful’s buildings. The buildings being constructed are also a metaphor for relationships trying to be constructed and being destroyed. Space and houses are metaphors for people’s insides.
RAHUL ROY: First, to really tackle your question about observational cinema and other ways of working. I am very, very fond of observational cinema. That’s something I love, and I enjoy watching, and I use that strategy for my own filmmaking. Having said that, I would also say that I don’t believe in purity. I’m not a purist. It’s a political choice, actually, given the place I came from. This obsessive engagement with purity is really a right-wing fascistic agenda. David McDougal very interestingly once made this statement about the documentary being an empirical art form and actually about found objects... For me, the strategy is important in terms of: with each strategy, what do you find? If the objects are there in the world, lying around, and if, as a documentary filmmaker, my task in a certain sense is to find those objects and to make meaning out of them, what is interesting is: which objects do I find with what strategy? In this film (as you’ve said and as you’ve observed), there are different strategies used in different places. My attempt was to, within one film, have different ways of finding meaning representing the same people and to get much more out of the people I was working with. What fascinates me about observational cinema (and that I use here to a certain extent) is how the people you are working with make use of that filmic space when there are no instructions or no questions posed. There’s that element of performance. People are always aware that there’s a camera, an outsider, someone there – but then how do they use that space? To begin with, it generates a lot of anxiety. Not in me, but in the people I’m working with. Gradually, what happens is people fall back on their own experience of using that space. In that sense, the performance somehow becomes a performance of how they feel that space has been used in the past.
Another issue is that whenever you start working, there are ways in which people are interpreting you and making sense of what you want. Here, the people I was working with felt that I was interested in what was happening to the handloom, in terms of their work, because they came from a community of handloom weavers. As you know, in India the kind of work you do is pretty caste driven. The handloom weavers come from a caste that has traditionally been a weaving caste. So, to begin with, without me asking, they would reveal to me, in a serious of ways, what was happening in their lives and their work. That’s simple, that’s easy to get, in a sense. How you get beyond that becomes the really tricky and challenging issue as a documentary filmmaker.
CAC: A lot of things are not said in daily life, and it’s very beautiful how you end your film asking her, “What are you thinking about?”, and she says, “Nothing.” When you ask a question, it’s always about something that’s not being said. It could be an emotion, or it could be some objective data about what is happening. Is there a political importance in getting everything said, in getting things verbalised in the film or was it because you felt you had to respond? The first shot, when the woman comes in the house and asks, “Did you serve him tea?” – from that moment on, we felt they were quite worried about (in the sense that they were very conscious of) your presence. Was it something that happened during the shooting or a decision from the beginning?
RR: That was a decision right from the beginning, and, in fact, I keep playing with that (I’ll come to that sequence with Radha’s mother, when she questions me). One issue that was troubling me in terms of following a very strict observational cinema strategy was the fact that I was dealing with both families in just one room and for most of the shooting I was not even in the focusing range (I shot most of the film on macro).
CAC: Do you do the camera yourself?
CAC: Do you have a sound person?
RR: I always work with a sound person. Given the noisy situation in India, you need a good sound person. I knew that in this film I’d be really one foot away from people throughout. But I shouldn’t enter a situation where the film got so close that people would forget that there was a filmmaker and a camera. That was one issue that I needed to tackle right from the start. So I used different strategies within the film. There are certain things which I could only find through observational cinema. At the same time, it was important that there was a certain distance between me and the people I was working with. Finally, to come to what you raised about Radha’s mother, when she questions me. The way she came when she saw us (she put very direct questions to me), I felt I couldn’t really edge around it. I just had to explain as to where I came from. Besides that, if you were from Delhi, you would know that what was also happening within that sequence was that we were talking about two very different Delhis. The Delhi I come from and the Delhi where I was shooting. In that sense, there is a certain irony being played out there. We were actually trying to understand each other. It’s just thirty kilometres from where I was staying (and the distance I was covering every day of the shoot), but it’s really two different worlds. It was very, very important that I had that sequence because that really is the part of the film where the differences are laid out. It would be very clear to someone from Delhi.
CAC: I have the feeling that in your film there’s also a great deal of thought about image as something people consume. We see televisions all the time, and people are always talking and watching television at the same time. They’re consumers of cinema (in the film she talks about it), and we know there’s a strong self-consciousness of being filmed in this society. I wanted to ask you if I’m right, if you wanted to talk about it in the film and reflect on the way image is present in people’s lives. At the same time, how do you feel a western audience would understand this sort of things? To represent people that are not like you but from the same culture – does it affect the film and the way the audience sees it? You’ve been going to festivals, so you already have this idea: how the film reaches people, what’s inside the film and what’s interpreted by the people that see it.
RR: In India, what has happened is that in the last ten, twelve years, given the television boom, visual literacy has really blown out of the roof. Especially with news. If people have to talk about their difficult circumstances or about something that’s happening in their area, they now always refer to it in the terms of news channels. Media is also something that people feel as the way in which their stories can reach out into the world. That’s a very strong feeling in India nowadays. There’s still a certain belief in television, that television can change things. If you go anywhere to shoot, there is a pretty developed sense in people of articulating their story, of getting their story out. There’s something very human about telling stories, but it’s getting that political edge to it. You feel that’s one way you can reach out and cause some change. In fact, there were several times in the film where I’d let it be. Even in the sequence where there’s alcohol, where they’re drinking. One of them comes to me and says, ‘You know, we’re giving you our stories so that you can help in breaking this deadlock’. They also know that I cannot. It’s rhetorical but it represents a certain desperation. I could have removed it from the film but, again, I just felt that it was serving the purpose of distance and of separation that for me was very important in this film.
CAC: And the gender issue (women and men) – how did it interfere in your film? We feel you are very close to both women and men.
RR: That was actually something I was trying out in this film. In some of my previous work, I was kind of if not attacked, at least criticized for not having women. Which I disagree with. It’s not that women have not been in my films. They may not be there physically, but metaphorically they dominate￼all my films. As we were discussing earlier, India is a highly segregated society. I couldn’t have hung around with Radha and Shakuntla alone. There would have to be family around for me to even have a conversation, even as I was going for my research and earlier meetings. In fact, that’s an issue that I’ve been discussing with another filmmaker friend of mine. It was something we were trying to resolve for ourselves as men filmmakers: if you’re shooting, especially in rural or conservative areas, how do you really represent women? In my earlier films, I tried to work the other way around, having a very strong presence of women through ideas but I wasn’t really getting into any interaction with women. Here, I decided to take it down in another direction. To begin with, it was difficult, because the men would go out to work, especially in Rahda’s case. It was very uncomfortable.
CAC: Is the sound recordist a man?
RR: Yes. Even before the shooting, it was difficult to just go and chat. Just to hang out, just for her to know me and for me to know her. I really forced myself in a sense, and I was rather surprised as to the ease with which both women opened up with me, and took me on, and talked very intimately. In that conversation about her husband, she’s talking to me about his sexual insecurity, which would be rare for an Indian woman with her background to open up with another man. I was really privileged.
ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO What about lighting?
RR: I didn’t use any lighting, just available light.
KEJA HO KRAMER When you show a film like that in India, what kind of reaction does it get from the public?
RR: It depends on the kind of audience. People who are interested in watching really strong political films about working class tell me this is not political enough. There isn’t that much of a strong observational cinema tradition in India. I’ve had people that think they’re watching a fiction film, that it is being acted out. We don’t have very formal screenings, since there are no theatre releases and no television as far as documentary is concerned. Documentaries are mostly screened either through universities, colleges, schools or through NGOs, political groups, and documentary filmmaker forums. That’s why it’s very difficult to answer your question, because you get very diverse reactions and all these audiences are pretty segregated. If you show it in the university in Delhi, you’ll get one kind of reaction. I’ve shown it where it’s been shot and other similar areas where it was very different – the people recognize themselves and what’s happening...
CATARINA MOURÃO: First of all thank you, I really loved this film. I wanted to try and understand how you start up. Do you choose a theme and then you go and look for your characters or is it the other way around: you establish some kind of chemistry and access to people and then...? How does it work? In terms of the research, what happens?
RR: One peculiar problem we face in India is that there’s no government institutional cultural or television funding as far as documentaries are concerned. Most of the funding for documentaries is coming from the developmental sector. So there is a certain agenda which is constantly dominating you as a filmmaker. When you are pushing for a certain idea and raising money for a certain kind of film, very clearly, if it doesn’t fall under an area which can be sold, then you have to put in your own money and shoot it if you’re really passionate about making that film. In the last five, six years, my work has been essentially around the working class of Delhi, and I’ve been trying to do different kinds of stories. It never started as a project, but now somehow it is taking on the life of one. Even the film that I started working on now is again in Delhi, on another working class area. I wanted to do a film on families. It was coming out of my last two films. I’d done a film on four young men and their angst toward life and sexuality and growing up. After that film, I felt that I needed to look again at those same themes but in a public sense. I went back to almost the same strands which were in that film, but I was looking at what kind of stories emerge when they are put in a public sphere and the relationship between sexuality and institutions and things like that. After that, because that film was entirely shot in a public space and on the streets, somehow I felt like going inside a family. The stories are very similar.
CAC: Since there’s this kind of agenda you were talking about, do you have to limit yourself to work in some kind of way or are you free to work in any way?
RR: It depends on how old you are, and how much you can push the people who have the money. Now I manage to push them, more or less, because the one ones sitting on the money are now much younger than me. It doesn’t always work: sometimes you can do it, sometimes you can’t. It is certainly limiting. At least on paper, you have to make an argument that fits into some kind of developmental paradise. Once you’ve got the money, you can go and do whatever you want, but to begin with, someone who’s reading it should feel that it’s their agenda. Certain ideas you can just forget about it. Either you do it with your own resources, or it’s not going to work out. Certainly.
CAC: It’s interesting that your films have been going to ethnographic film festivals. They’re very well received by the community of anthropologists and people interested in this kind of things, and I think it’s because in your films there’s an ethical position towards your subjects – the way you film. You give space and time for things to happen and people to be represented, but at the same time you don’t want to get too close or too poetic, so that people would just look at how they live and think how strange or exotic they are. You want to give the human insight and the economic and political context. Everything is there. In this film, all the shots of the city have this kind of meaning: they are forcing us to look at the world, at the situation. This ethical position is very important. It reveals also a cinematographic point of view, it’s not just a question of moral. What do you think?
RR: One of my major concerns as a filmmaker is the kind of relationship that documentary makes possible with people you’re working with or shooting with. The second is: what do you do with that relationship, especially in terms of a self-conscious political film in worldwide terms? In a sense, I’ve been working very consciously as a reaction to them, because I just find it very, very problematic for people to get instrumentalized. You’re talking about change, because of the kind of situation people are in, but if you look closely at those films, people are there only because they’re justifying a certain political argument for you and they don’t exist beyond that. If they say even half a sentence which does not fit or support your political agenda, that space won’t be there in the film for them. What I’ve always found fascinating about documentaries is that you go in with a certain sense of people and their lives, and you try to get meaning out of that situation, but human beings are always unpredictable, they always surprise you. As a filmmaker, if I can get that unpredictability of human nature and allow that space to be created... Unpredictability doesn’t happen on its own, you know? As a filmmaker, it’s up to you to allow it to be there in the first place. For me, that’s very important, because that’s when the people you work with become human. Lots of films actually dehumanize people by straight-jacketing them, by making them exist only for your film or your politics.
CAC: Sometimes in your film we feel you were not there (in some very important moments, like when he comes back), but you would go there and ask questions about those moments. This unpredictability, how did you do it? Were you living in Delhi at the time? How do you decide, every day, ‘I will go there today’ or ‘I will shoot for one week and then stop’? Did you phone them and ask what was happening or did you just go there?
RR: I knew that various things were happening in Buddhist families’ lives. Initially, I was working with about six families and, finally, I decided to shoot with these two. There were incidents almost on a monthly basis. I knew that something would be constantly happening, and right from the beginning I wanted to follow these stories about the families as they unfolded. I shot several other stories which are not in the film. How does it work? Well, sometimes it’s possible to know what’s going to happen tomorrow or the day after, or in two weeks. Other times, it would be impossible, for example, to know when he would actually come back because he was completely out of touch. I stopped shooting after some time, and when I went back after two weeks he had just come back the day before.
CAC: It’s funny how they start laughing about their condition and, even in the relationship with you and the camera, there’s this kind of telling the story as “A funny thing that happened to us. Look at our destiny”. It’s almost like they were already fabricating the story to tell it to you. That’s very interesting.
RR: They were very keen to tell me the story. They thought it was very funny. They were waiting for me to come, so they could narrate the entire story, because they just felt that it was good for me (for the film).
CAC: Did you sometimes feel uncomfortable with them? Like being inside a family and having to leave the house, because something was happening and you were not supposed to be there. I find it very strong, the way you ask the question. What were you thinking about? This is a very intimate and personal question to ask someone, it’s something you’d ask your friends.
RR: I must confess that that was a question I thought I would ask, and there’s a reason for it. It was the last day of my shoot and I didn’t have an end, I didn’t know how to end the film. I’d been through that similar situation, where Radha would sit silently at the doorway and brood. For me, the closure in a film like this, is when someone tells you, ‘I’m not thinking’, when the person is actually thinking. ‘Enough, you go home now’. It was a question that I’d thought I would ask, and if this was the answer then that would be the closure.
CAC: It works very well. You have the children talking to the father in between the mother and the father, which is very strong because it’s all about communicating and not communicating. I think the whole film goes through a process where communication becomes different. In the beginning they talk a lot, everyone talks and tells stories and then, by the end, the communication... Even with the ritual. It’s very interesting that the rituals come in the end, because they reveal another way of communicating: with dead people. It’s kind of a metaphor for the impossibility of communicating as they used to, and finding other ways.
RR: In fact, that’s what I really found fascinating (especially with Radha and Bal Krishan): the means of communicating with each other. In different circumstances there could be lighter moments and really heavy ones when they were not talking to each other, and even then the communication would be through children. Radha is constantly needling him through the children. That sequence right in the beginning where the little daughter was asking him for money. She didn’t go on her own. You can hear it in the film, Radha’s saying, ‘Go ask your father for money’. So she goes to Bal Krishan and starts asking him for money. In that other sequence, where (just before the stuff is being packed) Bal Krishan is leaving, she’s prodding the son to ask him where he’s going. They’re very short dialogues, you can’t subtitle it. It was very interesting the way children are, in a sense, means of different kinds of communication in the film. Also, in Radha and Bal Krishan’s family, the children are very much integrated. They are very close to both parents and very central in the family.
CAC: Everything is said in front of them. They know about the conflicts, but also about the laughter, because they were always there.
RR: It was very good. It’s rare for that kind of conversation to take place in front of children.
CAROLINE BARRAUD: I feel very pleased and comfortable when I see a director who doesn’t have to justify the place where he has to be or where he has to shoot. What is very touching for me in the film (and I think it’s very pure) is that the characters themselves justify your presence. They return to you the reason why you are there.
We are watching a culture of handmade production that is going to disappear, and the way you built the film little by little makes it a handmade film too. Like building a carpet just with the colours, the way you shoot the hands, the feet, everything is just based and done from what they give to you. There was no moment in the film where I asked myself, ‘Why is he here?, why is he shooting from here?’ Everything is very natural. For example, the rhythm of the film is taken directly from the rhythm of the way they work, of the machine, and it’s a very, very slow lamentum. This is a film without any music but with a great rhythm.
I just feel very pleased that you cannot answer Catarina when she asks you why were you shooting from here or from there. I don’t need any answer, because it’s said by the characters themselves in your film. At one moment, the man said to you, ‘Thanks for being here. You need to be here and tell what we have to tell’. There’s no other justification for that.
CAC: Thank you so much for coming and for your film.
RR: No, thank you. In fact, I should have thanked everyone in Doc’s Kingdom right in the beginning. It’s a real privilege to be here. Thank you.