“Keep Asking the Questions”: PSBT’s Open Frame Film Festival
September 22, 2017
The 16th edition of the Open Frame Film Festival was held at the India International Center and the Max Mueller Bhavan from the 13 September to 19 September, 2017, with screenings of a selection of PSBT-produced films being screened between the 17th and the 19th.
The Open Frame Film Festival this year started with the catchphrase #KeepAskingTheQuestions. It is to be largely understood that the thematic coda of the festival, as well as its broad operative mandate, is contained within the same phrase, to "keep asking the questions"; and this is what the festival intends to do and/ or facilitate. To ask the questions insistently and persistently would be, then, the festival's first principle. But one cannot but recognise the immediate directive or even prescriptive nature of the phrase: it is not merely the festival which is organised around the question of asking the questions, but it is also the attendees of the festival – presumably the viewers of the films being screened – who must take the phrase as their own personal doctrine and adhere to it while watching the films and attending the festival. The onus is on us, the attendees, to #keepaskingthequestions.
What does it mean, then, to ask of someone or something (including the organised festival itself), to keep asking the questions? Who do the questions belong to? What ethico-political imperative must be "kept" so as to make the asking of the question possible in a manner that is retentive and kept? And, finally, who is it that mandates from us this retentive practice, this task of the "upkeep"?
Indeed, at some primary level, the keeping of the “asking the questions” is indeed what is the foremost requirement in a time of a rampant mode of discourse which tries to avoid the asking of questions, and at its most successful, makes us believe – or keeps us believing – that the seemingly simple act of questioning is in itself an anti-productive and even “anti-national” project. There has been, then, a clear movement within the dominant political discourse of the contemporary times which seeks to keep us from asking the questions. In such a scenario, the mandate of the Open Frame Film Festival indeed seems like a singular first step toward any conditional possibility of challenging the said dominant discourse.
Most of the films presented within the program do directly, or indirectly, adhere to this keeping. Either formally, or in their respective subject matter, each of the films assesses and analyses this act of persistent questioning, either by presenting itself as an enquiry, a question regarding the “truth of the matter” hitherto unheard, be it regarding lesser known aspects of a city, or the search for an obscure artistic practice. Some of the films also posit the question in a self-reflexive manner, by investing in an enquiry into their subject matter, while simultaneously performing an investigation regarding the documentary form itself. One of the most remarkable films of the festival, which also simultaneously meditates on the above question, is Kamal Swaroop's Atul, a “biopic” of the well-known contemporary painter and installation artist Atul Dodiya.
The film provides an immersive portrayal of Dodiya's work spreading across decades through a commentary by him regarding his thought processes and interpretation of a selection of his paintings, as he meditates on his choice of subjects and his varying influences which led to the production of an oeuvre that defies definitive categorisation. His oeuvre also seems like an eclectic and unique blend of several artistic traditions including the paintings of Picasso, Matisse, Jasper Johns, the films of Godard, and several authors of literary modernism. However, for Swaroop, the answering of the (un-presented) questions by the artist himself, is also wrapped around a central concern as to how to represent that which is primarily the stillness of the paintings through the cinematic form which emphasises movement, and further, how to encompass the essence of several decades of work into a documentary that is a little less than an hour long. The conceit with which he works is to introduce several “fragments” and parts of each of Dodiya's paintings through several smartly produced pans and shifts across the frame of the paintings about which Dodiya's commentary is played out as the voice-over. He also, sometimes, plays the paintings purely as fragmented mise-en-scenes whose totality is only revealed to us through the commentary, but not as a pure presence on screen. Thus, he creates a tension, or rather, anticipates a tension around which we must contemplate and imagine the paintings while immersing into its world in part or otherwise. By doing so, Swaroop ably manages to not only give us a peek into Dodiya's substantial oeuvre, but also lets us create our own linkages and codas regarding what it is that is the “essence” of the works presented, and the “essence” of the titular Atul.
A similar strain of questioning occurs in Amit Mahanti's Scratches on Stone wherein, a few inter-connected narratives reveal both the problem of the essential truth being always already un-encompassable in its entirety, while simultaneously recognising the presence of nature itself as an important witness to the violent and complex history of the “Independence war” of the Nagas in Nagaland. The “central” subject of the film is the photographer Zubeni, who recollects how she grew up in Dimapur in the 1980s and 90s amidst the very violent “independence struggle” by the Naga communities against the Indian state and the Indian army. Seemingly shocking details and consensus is revealed which place the sovereign status of the Indian state in severe crisis and stone edicts are seen around the state which have open declaration of “Naga martyrs who lost their lives at the hand of the cruel Indian army”.
Amidst all this, we encounter an old man, Cheno Khuzuthrupa, who resides in the town of Mon, still believing in the non-violent struggle against the Indian state and still persistently producing wooden artworks which portray the villainous nature of the Indian army. It is within this setting that Zubeni wonders about representing the essential nature of the Naga people. Her photographs seek to deconstruct the problematic imagination that most people possess regarding the Nagas as “head hunters” and violent people whose manners and lives are “barbaric” and “primitive” in nature. A crucial “culprit” in the representation of the Naga people as the same is seen by her to be the Austrian ethnologist Cristoph von Haimendorf whose 1930s photographs from his book The Naked Nagas popularised the Naga people as they are seen within the mainstream discourse both within and outside of India. However, as she goes around trying the find the “true” Naga people, she realises the complex nature of her exercise. In order to get photographed, all of her subjects present themselves in their traditional clan costumes adorned with weapons and headgear, and thus, any photograph that she would take would inevitably have a representative effect that is not very dissimilar from the supposedly orientalising ethnography of Haimendorf. In order to “solve” the problem, ironically, she has to intervene as the photographer and produce a paradoxical “artificial naturalism” by telling her subjects what to wear and how to pose so as to highlight what she considers to be the truth. She thus recognises the inherently self-effacing nature of her project and goes on to work with the photographs of Haimendorf, rather than against them. By focusing on her dilemma as an artist out to record a supposed historical truth, the film seems to be posing crucial questions regarding the very nature of a documentary that is attempting to locate an unarticulated historical truth that may challenge the hitherto perceived regime of truth, and how it can do so.
While each of the films drives the coda #keepaskingthequestions with its own verve and method, the directive and prescriptive nature of the phrase is perhaps most directly actualised within the format of Q&A sessions which happen after selected films, mostly with the presence of the filmmaker herself. Any definite attempt to formulate an answer regarding what it is that the “keeping” of the asking questions must keep within itself this questioning of the Q&A sessions and the questions that we the attendees ask. Perhaps it is here, however, that the most obvious shortcomings of any ethico-political program which subscribes to the mandate of #keepaskingthequestions become most readily apparent. The questions often reject any possibly concrete reflection or retention of the festival's mandate: the questions often come hesitantly and when they do, they almost every time insist on either a general engagement with the theme of the film, or try to insistently fit in their own personal narratives and opinions regarding the subject matter. A question, for example, regarding Anirban Datta's Kalikshetra – an impressionistic presentation of the complex pre-modern history of Kolkata – would be a “why not”: why not show X rather than Y.
The question would thus prove that not only has the audience refused to engage with the film in its own terms, but also says that a film must inscribe to the questioner's worldview. Similarly, Gouri Patwardhan's In a Shadowless Town – a film about the casteist bias present in the “heritage walks” within the city of Pune – would elicit several uncomfortably asked questions which would largely try to absolve the questioner from their own respective caste-guilt by trying to limit the casteist bias to the city of Pune itself and refusing to self-reflectively engage with what may be a casteist bias of one's own.
It is through this presentation of the questions, that one starts to recognise the inherent problems that are engendered within the prescriptive order of “keep asking the questions” that the Open Frame Film Festival tries to organise itself around, but, ultimately forces us to rather ask, “what are the right questions” that one must keep asking?
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.
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