Poetry as a Warning Shot

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

by Axel Timo Purr

The documentaries at the 18th Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) show a torn India that seeks and questions identities and, in the case of the FIPRESCI winner, even goes to Iran to do so: “Bring me a lamp and a window through which I can see the crowd in the happy valley” (Forough Farrokhzad).

To see the documentary production of a country compressed into a film festival is like a profound psychological journey into the soul of the country; a journey that is all the more interesting when it comes to a country like India, whose complexity is rarely adequately captured in Western media. The 18th Mumbai International Film Festival for documentaries, short films and animated films, which took place from 15 to 21 June 2024, appropriately addressed this lack of supply with 30 national productions.

Not only was there a multifaceted, activist preoccupation with environmental problems (The Sea & Seven Villages; Catapults to Cameras; Submerged), failed urban planning (Memory Footprints) and sexual abuse (Gandi Baat; Pukaar; From the Shadows), but there was also a tendency to model the new identity that India has developed in recent years in terms of global politics and economics, including within society. Films such as Shubhangi Rajan Sawant’s Sahastrasurya Savarkar, for example, construct a historical bridge to the nationalist-Hindu ideas currently popular in India; on the other hand, films like the strong 6-A Akash Ganga and Herd Walk (Bheḍ Chāl) as well as Life in Loom, focus without political impetus on the question of what is lost when national identity patterns, such as classical Indian music, shepherds or the diverse weaving culture change or threaten to disappear completely.

Young director Sreemoyee Singh takes a completely different approach with her FIPRESCI award-winning debut film And, Towards Happy Alleys.

After studying at Calcutta’s Jadavpur University, Singh became increasingly involved in Iranian cinema through a doctoral project and got to know and appreciate Farsi, filmmakers such as Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Shirvani, and human rights activists such as Nasrin Sotoudeh, over seven years and countless trips to Iran to make a very personal, diary-like film that superficially deals with everyday life in Iran – an Iran barely visible to the world public due to the loud threatening political gestures and massive restrictions.

Sreemoyee Singh follows activists and goes to the graves of great Iranian poets; anyone who has ever been to Iran knows what that means, because at every great poet’s grave – even if it is in the vastness of the country near Mashad – people stand at the grave of their literary idols, recite their verses and play music. Sreemoyee Singh can be found filming at the grave of the legendary poet Forough Farrokhzad, who died young. One of Farrokhzad’s poems is also the poetic and at the same time very sober leitmotif of her film:

I speak out of the depth of the night

out of the depth of darkness I speak.

If you come to my house, friend

Bring me a lamp and a window through which

I can look at the crowd in the happy alley.

Singh contrasts the deep darkness of a totalitarian regime, its victims and its perpetrators, with everyday portraits and vignettes, showing what it feels like to resist when you are a filmmaker or simply a woman. Always at her side is Jafar Panahi who, as in his film Taxi Tehran (2015), drives through Tehran with Singh and not only talks openly and with a smile about his severe depression caused by the long ban from his profession and prison stays, but also meets one of his former child actresses from the early years of his work, the girl from The White Balloon (Badkonak-e sefid; 1995), a touching encounter that alone is worth watching in this clever and empathetic film.

The amazing thing about Singh’s And, Towards Happy Alleys is that the film does not angrily accuse a regime and take the people into protective custody, but rather tells passionately about this people without its politicians and about how artists and ordinary people survive such a regime and even have something like fun from time to time. It is as tender as it is curious, but always told with the universal humour that is the world’s sharpest weapon against totalitarian power.

In doing so, Singh also makes it clear that although this story is ostensibly about Iran and its people and, above all, Iranian cinema, it is also a subtle warning to the Indian homeland, a poetic warning to a world in which, according to the latest democracy index measurement by The Economist, only 7.8% of all people live in a full democracy. For wherever despotic politicians have come to power – as not only the Iranians but also the Slovaks have recently reported – the cultural sphere has always been one of the first instances that the new rulers have instrumentalised in order to anchor their ideas in the souls of “their” people.

Axel Timo Purr
Edited by Birgit Beumers