Documentaries Between Humanity and Nature

in 18th Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Short Fiction and Animation Films

by Alexandra Porshneva

It is always difficult to start writing about a film or a program that evokes a variety of feelings, from delight to bewilderment. Yet the most interesting thing is to layer all these contradictions and patterns on cultural impressions – language, event, and country. As a result, it turns out that the festival program always speaks more clearly about the history and traditions of cinema than any museum or ceremonial speech. It is not for nothing that I am drawing a parallel here, because having visited the Cinema Museum during my stay at the 18th International Festival in Mumbai and having observed the preservation of old film inventions, I thought about the conservation of time and space again. During the program of the national documentary competition, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to consider some of its important trends.

Documentary filmmaking is a camera obscura. The nature of observation and recording in documentary has always reminded me of voyeurism or even peeping. It is interesting that, having turned the world of things upside down, its nature becomes clearer and more understandable. An interesting trend emerged in the focus of our program. Firstly, this is a comparison/connection/unification of man and nature: both universal symbols and very specific heroes. Secondly, the language in which these unifications are expressed: each time it is either a formalist cliché or an original author’s interpretation; there is no third. Accordingly, this is a counterpoint to the problematic – the synthesis of the author’s intonation and the echoes of time turn into the rhythmic pattern of the film.

Surely, a good program is not so much a composition of artistically successful films as a cross-section that defines the characteristics of a society where reality is different. Therefore, the program of the national documentary film competition, along with interesting author’s statements, embraced the typical intonations of news programs: both about natural wonders and about not less glorious heroes of the past and present. This determines not only the “fork” of understanding the current topics and problems (by the way, a very broad one), but also the tools of documentary filmmaking and furthermore, a utilitarian attitude towards a documentary film as an element of propaganda.

In my opinion, reflections on humanity and nature are obvious, but quite interesting. It is extremely curious that the authors of the documentary program are simultaneously interested in both of these objects, and their opposition and unity at the same time. Certainly, a person as a hero most often wins the temporary “race of life,” just as he wins the competition for the author’s attention (Live in Loom, Caretakers). However, in most truly interesting films, counterparts become a part of not only the narrative, but also artistic allegories and metaphors.

An inquisitive example for analyzing this trend is the film Herd Walk (by Ankit Pogula, 2023), which tells about the survival of the shepherd tradition, but in fact states the eternal conflict of changing and transforming life and traditions that do not fit into this passage of time. This well-known question “where time goes and what will remain after” without notations and narrative in the form of endless offscreen presenter’s commentaries gives us time to understand that flow and change are the life itself as times are always changing. Visually, this idea is reinforced by the clash of traditional elements, creating an archaic image of shepherding (a statue of a sheep in the shepherds’ temple). This image seems especially consonant with the shepherds themselves. This is an unshakable belief in the importance of the system, a desire to follow the same paths. And this is neither good nor bad, but simply natural for all participants in this resistance. It is here that the view of nature’s opposition to everything man-made is constructed. This is evidenced by footage of a city that is moving closer and closer to this tradition of hermitism and instinct pursuit. On the other hand, the construction of the material in a leisurely, somewhat meditative manner, as well as meaningful non-illustrative shots breathe life into this work balancing on the edge of anthropological popular science and documentary films, at that without moralizing and one-sided aggression.

The film The Sea and the Seven Villages (by Himansu S Khatua, 2023) speaks the reverse language to the previous film – man and nature are also in conflict here, but in a more rapid and fatal way. On a philosophical level, the film is in tune with the duel and, at the same time, with the unity of man and nature in the style of Hemingway. And although the rehearsal nature of some episodes is confusing (especially the interviews at the beginning of the film – they are very tautological), the main cinematic discovery is the image of a person and a temple, which the sea gradually reaches with its absorbing power. The person who has practically nothing remains devoted to the gods, whose plan became fatal to his destiny. So, the confrontation between man and nature becomes a looped systemic problem which includes someone else – and this is God, as a unification of the highest order and fate. At the same time, the relationship between decrease in the number of characters and the concentration of problems in the structure of the plot is curious. The episode set in the final part of the film with altarage to the gods in a half-ruined empty temple without an altar becomes an accent, an ellipsis, and a reprise at the same time, because in the coordinate system of these relationships a person always suffers, but continues to remain a part of the natural and even trivial fate of events.

Speaking about the synthesis of nature and man, we must note one of the most memorable and touching films of the festival. 6-A Akash Ganga (by Nirmal Chander Dandriyal, 2023) is a portrait film in the genre definition. There is no direct conflict, but there is a complex relationship with human nature. First, the story of an elderly traditional music performer does not leave anyone indifferent. The audience is captivated by her service to music and her life itself, which is similar to music – with dramatic passages and measured pauses. The biography, which could be an average anniversary documentary, is appareled in a fine form. There is no weak bedridden woman on the screen, no offscreen insinuations about the life she has lived. However, there is a person, in essence, a disciple, and his worship of this goddess – his Guru, mother and love in one person. This is expressed in the brilliant selection of material, in the construction of a complex system of times (work with archives, interviews, diary memories, and observation). There is a good connection of times. Secondly, the film pace is balanced, unhurried, but not protracted; the film is neither boring nor overly dramatic. Thirdly, the picture is filled with clearly thought-out images and well-placed accents. Thus, for example, the scene of blowing dust off an instrument is allegorical – its time comes, and the hero inherits the music and life of his teacher. In the end, the idea of a balance of silence and music, both acoustic and visual, works exactly with the idea. We enter the holy of holies – the heroine’s room – as if the temple of a goddess. But we find ourselves face to face with reality: in a small room with a bunch of junk and a hospital bed, old notes and portraits. This is all that remains even after idols. This touching and poignant theme of lifelong service (to music and to people) is another mystery of the nature of human feelings. They just consist of all those everyday trifles and attachments, of grievances and deafening silence, of care and superstitions filling the life.

Likewise, And, Toward happy alleys (by Sreemoyee Singh, 2023) is a unique film about the deep anthropology of feelings. This poetic and intimate work is a fascinating yet hurtful journey into a world of big questions. There are a lot of them: where does one’s own end and the border of someone else’s begin? Does a woman cry sincerely or only following man’s orders? When will poetry defeat the dictatorship of reality? How many plastic surgeries to correct the nose will take place before the objectification of women’s appearance stops? The answers cannot be found in the film. But the way they are presented, with what love, empathy and sincerity they are asked (first of all by the author to herself) cannot but excite. In the context of fragmented views and sometimes artificial confrontation of cultures, it is important how the director does not hesitate to immerse herself in another culture and how interestingly the viewer thus builds a connection of perception and a parallel between his native (Indian) and close (Iranian) cultures. The film, in addition to other incredibly beautiful and stunningly truthful images, has undeniable documentary value. Just look at the ironic approach to capturing Jafar Panahi, constantly sitting behind the wheel of his car. How touching is the bitterness of regret from the impossibility of meeting with Abbas Kiarastami – he remained unattainable by myth. The episode when the already matured actress cries on the orders of Panahi is shrill and precise in defining the place of a woman in the social hierarchy of Iran. The ending is accurate and meaningful – will these girls in hijab become different or will they continue to sing the anthem of love for a man? The poetic, but not torn off from reality, episodes at the grave of the poetess and director Forough Farrokhzad, where the musician plays the sitar, and at the same moment branches from the trees are cut over the grave, are beautiful. The river that has left the city is a metaphor for life leaving the region, in which a woman without a hijab is not a person, but an object that gives birth to sons: new blood to ensure the war and continue the pain of loss. And, of course, soap bubbles scattering like the poetess’s poems and the thoughts of the film’s author are melting memories of freedom. All these symbols, like a potent fusion of essayism and gonzo journalism, create the impression of entering a secret dark room of emotions, thoughts and feelings – a true example of documentary as a way of dissecting human nature.

Alexandra Porshneva
Edited by Birgit Beumers