An Extraordinarily Promising Directorial Career

in Vienna International Film Festival – Viennale 2021

by Michael Phillips

All first-time FIPRESCI jurors should be so lucky. At the 2021 Viennale I had the excellent fortune of hashing things out with first-rate fellow jurors, Marietta Steinhart of Vienna (and Brooklyn, N.Y.) and Veronika Zakonjšek of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Among the first- and second-feature directorial efforts under review for the FIPRESCI Critics Prize, truly stimulating work vied for serious consideration. From everywhere.

These included, but were hardly limited to, The Tale of King Crab (narratively unpredictable, elegantly wrought folklore, an Italian/Argentinian/French coproduction which won the prize); the teeming, gorgeously acted Serbian comedy-drama Celts; from Iran, Panah Panahi’s bracing family odyssey Hit the Road; and the Spanish/USA coproduction Planet, a disarming, bittersweet depiction of a mother and a daughter tightrope-walking the high, thin line of homelessness.

From my own perspective, our films under FIPRESCI review also yielded a slippery, elusive feature directorial debut that qualifies as some kind of masterwork.

A Night of Knowing Nothing didn’t slip into the Viennale unnoticed. Prior to Vienna the French/Indian coproduction from director and co-screenwriter Payal Kapadia premiered in the Cannes Film Festival Directors Fortnight, aka the Quinzaine. There it won the best documentary prize. At Toronto a few months later it received an Amplify Voices Award. The intrepid distributor Cinema Guild is releasing Kapadia’s film in the U.S.

It’s undeniable: The pandemic, coupled with the threatened collapse (and practically certain contraction) of specialty theatrical distribution, has made it damned difficult to get a film such as this in front of the audience it deserves. All I can do here, briefly, is  to convey why this supple docu-narrative hybrid signals an extraordinarily promising directorial career.

The premise is simple, its unfolding gracefully complex. At the Film and Television Institute of India film school, a stash of love letters written by “L” to her lover and fellow student “K” have been found in a cupboard. In voiceover (read by Bhumisuta Das) we hear L’s side of a painful story: how this star-crossed affair sparked, then cooled, as K’s upper-caste family discouraged the relationship and K’s idealistic streak of rebellion failed a crucial test under pressure.

Working with her fellow screenwriter Himanshu Prajapati, Kapadia creates fact from fiction, and back again. The narrative framework is pure invention. The letters, along with the film footage found in the same cupboard at the increasingly repressive film school in Pune, are fictional. But much of what we see, collage-like, on screen in A Night of Knowing Nothing bubbles up from recent, roiling history: the newspaper clippings, the archival video and film footage of police/student clashes, the larger student protests against the Modi government.

At the Cannes premiere the filmmaker spoke of her producers (who had momentarily stalled on finding financing for her first narrative feature) asking her if she had anything else to pursue. Well, she said, I have this idea that involves a massive wealth of archival footage I’ve gathered from my film school days — the direct inspiration for this project.  “I’m trying to find a film in it,” she remembers saying of the footage.

 She found it. “A Night of Knowing Nothing” may be packed to the point of bursting with ideas, images, feelings, but that feels right for a first feature, at least one working on this level of visual, aural and poetic invention. Kapadia has made a movie about precarious young love, the dark clouds of nationalist politics — and a film ardently in love with the possibilities of cinema itself.

I can’t wait to see it again.

Michael Phillips is the film critic of the Chicago Tribune.