Two-way Vision: the Task of Student Filmmakers
Anne Rutherford, University of Western Sydney
Inaugural address: 8th Cut-in National Student Film Festival, 21 December, 2015, SMCS, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
Firstly, I’d like to thank Anjali and Jayasankar and the School for this invitation – I was here for Cut-in about 5 years ago and it’s great to see the festival going from strength to strength.
I think Cut-in is such a great name for a film festival held in this city, because cutting in seems to be the only traffic rule that everyone in Mumbai follows – you have to cut-in wherever you get an opportunity if you’re going to get anywhere. It’s also a very appropriate name for the challenge faced by student filmmakers. In many senses the challenge all of you face as upcoming filmmakers is how to push open spaces and make opportunities where they don’t necessarily already exist. Of course, the opportunities made available through new technologies are enormous but still the economics and logistics of filmmaking can be extraordinarily challenging and it can take a lot of bravado and determination to take them on. Also, the nature of the medium is changing so rapidly that there is not necessarily any template for the kinds of cultural and political spaces that you will occupy and the kinds of films you will make. It is really your task to invent them but you need to cut a wedge in to the established orthodoxies, push open a space to allow you to do that. As I see it, there are two things that are most important to help you take on this challenge – firstly, passion and dedication to the film work you’re doing and secondly, to always understand that with every work you do you can reinvent the medium.
I am familiar with some of the student films from TISS, which to me do this in very interesting ways and Anjali and Jayasankar’s recent book, A Fly in the Curry, looks at how the tradition of independent documentary in India has also worked over decades to open up new spaces for cultural and political dialogue and new possibilities for how to work with documentary film.
It is this look in both directions that I think is really pivotal for student filmmakers to keep in mind, this two-way vision: look to the society; look to the medium – always both together.
Over the last year I have been looking very closely at the work of Indian filmmaker/artist Amar Kanwar and I think he’s a really good model for us to study to think about this kind of two-way vision. He is a filmmaker who has a strong political commitment but is equally constantly reworking the language of documentary film and working at a very high level internationally to reshape the the medium and open up new possibilities for the moving image.
Kanwar started out making documentary films that rely strongly on densely layered spoken texts, but in these early films he was also exploring how to synthesize the rhythmic, tactile, sensory and intellectual dimensions of the medium to engage heterogeneous audiences on multiple levels. When he talks about these films, he says, his aim was to work with all of the dimensions of cinema – ‘sound, music, ambience, image, rhythm, colour, narrative’ – to create what he calls a ‘constellation of experiences’. This idea of a constellation of experiences is a very rich and productive one. Kanwar says that if you understand that this is what you are doing – that you’re creating a range of experiences – it can give you a foundation to think about how to work both with the multiplicity of life and with very diverse audiences. It reminds us that film is the most incredible language with so many different layers that you can work with.
Cinema is such an exquisitely fluid, flexible medium with so many possibilities. No-one would question this rich expressiveness in music and in cinema it is just as important. This medium is very mysterious – after 120 years, film scholars and filmmakers are still trying to grapple with this elusive quality of the medium: for example, how sensitive the camera is – how small fluctuations in rhythm and composition can completely transform the experience of the shot. It’s something that Anjali and Jayasankar work with a lot in their films and to me it is this understanding that lifts a film from being just a fairly pedestrian matter-of-fact work into one that is a magic machine for producing experiences that can move and transform us, take us out of ourselves, even if just for a moment.
In his early films, Kanwar was working with this flexibility in documentary. He was straining against the unifying tendency in documentary, playing with a tangential relationship between image and voice-over and exploring the rhythmic and associative possibilities of the image. This was a multi-layered, aesthetic engagement with film as a medium that is polyvocal – has many voices -– and with its possibilities to intervene in his political context.
Some of you may have seen Amar’s recent work, the installation, The Sovereign Forest, that is on here in Mumbai at the moment. In this work, he has completely reinvented his idiom. He talks about this transformation – he says he was ‘searching for a language, a way to speak’ and wanted to ‘to experiment with ways of seeing, showing, perceiving – the opening up of and the dialogue with a multiplicity of senses.’ The Sovereign Forest is about the struggles over sovereignty of the commons, as the state and industrial and mining corporations appropriate rural lands in Odisha and Chhattisgarh, and the protest movements mobilized to resist the dispossession. I have not seen the version installed here in Mumbai but I saw the first version of the installation a few years ago at documenta, the major international exhibition of contemporary art in Germany.
At documenta, the installation combined digital film projections, written texts, objects and photo books, extended across the space of a two-room gallery installation.
In one room, a digital film projection filled the entire wall of the small room. This film, called The Scene of the Crime, documents landscapes, places and spaces in Odisha that were about to disappear. In lieu of the dense text of Kanwar’s earlier film work, this single channel film was in a very rhythmic, sensory, contemplative mode, as the viewer was drawn in to a sensory engagement with the fluid movement of trees, wind, water and grass and the precariousness of the land.
In the second room, laid out around three walls, three digital projectors beamed images down from above, each one projecting onto a large book about a metre wide. The pages of these books were manufactured from banana leaf paper, which was a bony, yellowy colour, and the paper itself was heavily textured with ripples, grooves, folds and gnarly knots. Each book had fragments of text printed on the left-hand page and the image was projected on the right-hand page. The images were documents and footage of the struggle and protests – so in a sense conventional documentary footage – but something happened in this interaction between footage, printed text and banana leaf paper. The viewer had to turn the pages of the banana book to follow the text, feeling its greasy, leathery texture, its weight, its fragility and the need for care in the interaction. The projected image merged with this very tactile encounter, so that the materiality of the banana fibre became part of the concept.
The capacity of digital projectors to allow you use anything – any surface, any object, any space, any texture – as a screen is capacity that many filmmakers have started to work with in fantastic ways that produce these strange and exciting new kind of hybrid forms. This is radically different to our idea of the screen as a neutral receiving surface and changes our whole encounter with the film footage.
At the other end of the room in the documenta installation, six ranks of small rectangular wooden boxes stretched in an arc around the width of the room, 272 in all, each filled with a different variety of rice seed a different colour, shape and texture. The immediate temptation was to smell them. At intervals, inserted into the ranks of seed boxes, were several photo books that recorded the suicides of indebted farmers.
When I saw this installation, I was really struck by the sensory experiences of the work – how the documentary medium had been expanded to include touch, smell and rhythm, each sense bringing in a different quality of experience and evoking a different mode of engagement.
This structure of awakening the senses in one medium and then multiplying this sensory quality through a dialogue with other kinds of sensory experiences was, for me, quite astonishing and seemed to produce a very embodied kind of experience that was layered and unfamiliar and quite different to the experience of the cinema spectator in the auditorium. The sensory dimensions of The Sovereign Forest opened a pathway into a different kind of engagement with the work. Something about this multiplication and amplification of sensory experience that seemed to produce a very rich experience.
The Sovereign Forest is motivated by the documentary impulse but that impulse has been thoroughly interrogated, its limitations challenged, its speaking positions ruptured and transformed into new modes, new voices, new kinds of evidence, new ways of articulating knowledge. In The Sovereign Forest, Kanwar says, he is taking the investigation beyond ‘the limits of a factual ontology, challenging the constraints within which documentary has ‘painted [us] into a corner’. He asks:
which vocabulary has more capability to understand the scale and extent of the crime? If I do not understand the meaning of loss, its scale, its extent, its multiple dimensions how could I even know what it is that is lost?
Kanwar’s work is one great example of a flurry of contemporary work by filmmakers moving to explore the possibilities of an expanded cinema – some of them in the gallery and some moving out into public spaces – in a way that is really reinventing what cinema is and can be and how we can use and experience the moving image in new dynamic ways.
Kanwar’s understanding of how to work with the poetic registers of documentary to produce a constellation of experiences is pivotal here in his ability to invent ways of opening up this panoply in a form of expanded cinema. By splitting the documentary work into multiple phenomenologically distinct encounters, the work amplifies the knowledges and understanding it can evoke and in doing so has the potential to address multiple audiences on different levels.
This emerging installation work demands that we learn new viewing practices: that in the process of ‘inventing a new medium’, as Rosalind Krauss writes in another context, this work is also inventing new modes of reception.
The curator of an earlier documenta, Okwui Emwezor, defined his role as constructing ‘a horizon of the possible.’ The way I see it, this is also your task as upcoming filmmakers – to work with the constellation of experiences that explore and expand the horizons of the possible: to reinvent this amazing language of sound and image in a way that is alive to and speaks to the qualities of your experience, your time and your culture and the things that are important to you. To do this, just like Amar Kanwar you need to cut a wedge in to the established orthodoxies of cinema, push open a space and constantly keep reinventing what cinema can be.
I will leave you with the image of an opera singer who raises the pitch of her voice until she reaches just the right frequency that will make all the chandeliers resonate and sing. This is how you need to work with this incredible medium of cinema – you need to constantly sharpen and refine your understanding of the medium, to tune the language of cinema until you find exactly the point that makes something vibrate and resonate for your audience.
In this spirit, I hope you enjoy the festival and learn much from the achievements of your fellow students and all of the amazing filmmaker role models who have gone before you.
Bailey, S. (2014), ‘On sovereignty: Amar Kanwar in conversation with Stephanie Bailey’, <http://www.ibraaz.org/interviews/141%3E.
Downey, A. (2014), ‘Okwui Enwezor in conversation with Anthony Downey’. Art Dubai 2014: Global Art Forum 8, <http://www.ibraaz.org/channel/6%3E.
Sardhesai, A. (2014), ‘Interview with Amar Kanwar’, Art India, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 50-3.
Rutherford, A. (2005), ‘ “Not firing arrows”: Multiplicity, heterogeneity and the future of documentary’, Asian Cinema, 16. 1.
Rutherford, A. (2015), Moving image installation, the embodied spectator of cinema and Amar Kanwar: learning from intermediality’. New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 12: 3, 225-238.
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