Video Password: xlmnp20
Author: Aparna Sharma
Format: Digital Video
Duration: 51′ 12″
Published: September 2013
Two research questions underpin Kamakha: Through Prayerful Eyes. I begin with a discussion of the first that segues into the second. The question with which I began the film was: how to represent the formless — that which exceeds representation? This question was a provocateur and facilitator for thinking about the scope of the film in relation to the site that is its focus.
Kamakha: Through Prayerful Eyes surrounds the ancient fertility worship site, the Kamakhya Temple in India’s northeastern state of Assam. This temple is unique from most Hindu temples because it enshrines no image or statue of the Devi, i.e. the Goddess to whom it is dedicated. In the corner of a cave lies a rock with the impression of the yoni, i.e. female organs on it. These are considered to be the organs of Goddess Kamakhya and so the rock is sacred. It is moistened by the oozings of a natural spring. While it is considered a manifestation of the Goddess, no one ever sees Her. The rock remains covered at all times by a red cloth and heaps of red flowers that are a typical offering to this Goddess. All devotees prostrate before this rock and priests attending the Goddess guide their hands to touch it, reverentially. A devotee’s encounter with the Deviis thus not through sight, but principally through touch. This is unique because in the Hindu context, vision is understood as a means for darshan or encounter with the Divine.
As a filmmaker influenced by feminist thought, I was inspired by this. Woman, the female form is often the object of the gaze as seen in mainstream visual cultures spanning television, advertising and cinema. Woman has implied ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ as argued through the psychoanalysis-informed writings of such feminists as Laura Mulvey (1975). The Kamakhya Temple’s subversion of vision as a source of encountering a female divine and its containment of a female form from display and exhibition provoked me to ask how would one imagine or visualise this deity — She who is concealed, resides in secret, and is without form or image? How would a filmmaker — working principally through an aural and visual medium — represent Her?
Goddess Kamakhya is a key fertility deity in the northeastern region of India. Regional historians and folklorists hold that worship at the site of the Kamakhya Temple dates back to ancient times when the temple complex was a conglomeration of large rocks used by the matriarchal Khasi and Garo tribal peoples of Assam for sacrificial fertility worship (Goswami 1995: 03-04). Around the turn of the 20th century the site was Hinduised and Goddess Kamakhya brought into the Hindu fold and situated in its pantheon. Regional historians add that this was a move, on behalf of Indian nationalists, to culturally amalgamate the northeastern region into mainland India’s anticolonial movement and its burgeoning nationalist project at that time. This understanding of the site’s history — its tribal connections and later Hinduisation led me to ask as a second question linked to the first. Are there or have there been any non-Hindu, tribal, secular and non-nationalist interpretations or narratives surrounding Mother Goddess Kamakhya?
During pre-production research visits to the temple complex I posed this question to my informants including the Hindu priesthood of the temple; members of the local community surrounding the temple; prominent Assamese poet and art historian, Nilmani Phukan and eminent folklorist, Prof. Birendranath Datta. According to the Hindu view Shiva’s first wife, Sati immolated herself on learning the false news of her husband’s death. When Shiva learned of this, enraged he descended on earth to retrieve Sati’s body. As he carried her charred remains back to heaven, 51 parts of Sati’s body are understood to have fallen across 51 spots in India, each becoming a sacred pilgrimage site. According to this narrative Sati’s female organs fell where the Kamakhya Shrine now stands (Shastri 1991: 164-177). It is held that Tantric Hindu practices originate at this site and the sacred rock is the source of all creation. As such it must remain concealed at all times to preserve the site’s sanctity. The Goddess can at best be visualised through pictorial representations of the temple’s structure, particularly its iconic dome that towers above and encases the cave with the sacred rock. Images of the temple structure could, according to Hindu priests, be combined with popular bazaar images of Shiva as he is narratively linked with Mother Goddess Kamakhya.
No cameras or recordings of any kind including drawings are allowed inside the Goddess’s cave. Yet, when one steps out of the cave one enters a teeming plenitude, a rich multiverse of visual representations surrounding this site, evoking the Goddess. Herein lay my cue. The devotees and visitors’ photographs, bazaar arts, the temple’s statuary from Hindu and pre-Hindu times that adorn its outer façade and boundary walls, local artists’ and craftsmen’s renditions of this site — these all constituted a multifaceted play between devotee and Goddess, perceiver and the Divine. While the Goddess remains concealed from Her devotees; they — through their own means, exercising their particular aesthetic persuasions — attempt to visualise Her, memorialise their encounter with Her and evoke Her through tangible visual forms. I conducted extensive documentation in and around the temple complex, focussing on the ways in which Goddess Kamakhya gets visualised.
Most visitors and tourists from mainland India either photograph themselves before striking backgrounds of the temple and/or purchase Hindu bazaar arts including calendars, pictographs, statues, DVDs depicting an animated Hindu narrative of this site and CDs with Hindu devotional music. In contrast to them, artists and craftsmen from the temple vicinity and the broader Assamese community visualise the Goddess using local materials, emphasising the local landscape and how the Goddess sits within it. They draw upon the elemental qualities of the landscape: its iron-rich red, fertile soils; its dense rainforests; and local flora and fauna — all of which bear folkloric meanings in Assam. The local artists are aware of the site’s tribal linkages, reverent towards but nevertheless aware of the Hindu narrative as an imposition on this site and so their visualisations are characterised by an unrestrained and primal eros, which is censored in the Hindu interpretations. Most significantly, these interpretations are highly individualised and they in turn reflect how Kamakhya’s lack of a specific visual form facilitates numerous possibilities for visualising and evoking Her. A subtle dialectic can thus be observed between the masses of visitors who partake in the Hindu nationalist narrative, and the local community that bypasses that narrative evoking the Goddess on secular and erotic terms that coincide more with the pre-Hindu and tribal linkages of the Goddess.
Kamakha: Through Prayerful Eyes engages the film theory-practice interface. It clearly sits outside dominant cinema and visual culture representations of this site and the northeastern region more broadly. In the making of this work, I did not consider myself as a representative interpreting this site for outsiders. As an outsider myself, I was drawn towards the multiple narratives and forms of interpreting this site. Reflecting this multiplicity in my approach was crucial, since communities are all too often — particularly in postcolonial societies — perceived as homogenous and uniform. This can result in the quest for a singular and stable meaning/s or narrative/s. Apart from the apparent erroneousness of this quest for singular meaning, what is more crucially at risk is cultural plurality: the disparate ways in which humans make meanings and representations from the very same stimuli, such as at the Kamakhya Temple. My aim to reflect the multiplicity in the visualisations of this temple was provoked by this understanding and I did not want to adopt a direct or conventional approach of inventorying and displaying the various ways by which the Goddess gets visualised. Each form of representation I documented necessitated a specific cinematic vocabulary spanning cinematography, sound and editing. This arose because of my own responses as a practitioner to the materials to which I was exposed and, more importantly, because of the relations I developed with the people at this site. Some were more forthcoming and engaged with my presence, others less so, often for very justifiable practical reasons. A tourist on a day-visit to the temple was not in position to sustain a conversation with me as deep as that of a member from the local community who lives in the temple vicinity. Documentary vocabularies are devised in the moment, on location. Documentaries thus do not only share knowledge or understandings, but they are also witness to the processes through which those knowledges and understandings get elicited.
In my previous works I engaged with theories and practices of montage, particularly from the Soviet School, and through the figures of Indian parallel cinema, including Ritwik Ghatak and Kumar Shahani. Ghatak and Shahani were both inspired by Eisenstein’s writings and cinema, and they argued that montage was more than an ontological category, a film editing technique — in opposition to realist film techniques (the metre of montage vs. depth of field, for instance) as posited by west-centered approaches to film history and theory (Shahani 1986: 72). For them montage constituted a broader practice and discourse for critiquing dominant ideologies. Montage facilitated in composing a dialectically informed cinema, with the dialectic in the case of India involving the nation and those whom the nation actively others. This dialectic takes up the disparity between the dominant, ruling classes and those who are ruled upon. My attempt in Kamakha: Through Prayerful Eyes has been to plot multiple visual representations and explore their underpinning interpretations. Through focus on visual cultures, this work reveals that the dominant Hindu nationalist narrative is oneinterpretation that sits alongside others including those from the local community. In doing this I have attempted to open up Kamakhya as a site of multiple and competing, nationalist and non-nationalist interpretations thus engaging and lending complexity to the politics of postcolonial nations and nationalism/s, their constructions and how those permeate visual cultures.
The influence from the montage practitioners and theorists is not a purely formal one in my work. Deriving from Shahani and Ghatak, I hold montage as a critical discourse through which to disassemble dominant modes of representation and the ideologies they uphold. As such, in the making of Kamakha: Through Prayerful Eyes, I was not working with montage as a formalist technique for film editing wherein I placed two competing categories — a thesis and an antithesis in conflict with each other. My understanding of montage provoked me to explore non-mainstream, non-nationalist visual representations of the Goddess and this led to the documentation of multiple and competing visual representations. In my approach I was less engaged in positing a binaristic dialectic and more drawn towards reflecting the multiplicity and richness of cultural representations. Informed by montage as a critical discourse, Kamakha: Through Prayerful Eyes is constructed along a less didactic form in favour of a more poetic form of documentary. Against the persistent othering of northeast India both by mainstream nationalist discourse and mainstream Indian media sits my turn to the poetic form for it facilitates appreciation for the rich cultural life of this region. It would be too limiting to work with a dialectical form that posits the northeast as the binary opposite of the nation. That dialectical approach has its political uses; but the immediacy of my documentary making experience exceeded those binaries. The subjects who shared their working life before my camera did so not out of a gesture of speaking back against the nation, but because the space we shared was creative and intersensory — both for the documented and the documentarist.
Linked to mainland India via a narrow strip of land called the Chicken’s Neck, northeast India is composed of seven states. It is a region of rich cultural and ecological diversity. A corridor between south and southeast Asia, this region is considered to be closer to the cultures of the latter than the former (Sonwalkar 2004: 393). Geographical distance, a colonial history disparate from the rest of India, economic development fraught with contradictions and limited cultural understanding of this region in mainland India are some of the key factors that have contributed, among northeastern peoples, an overall sense of remove from and discontent towards the Indian nation (Baruah 2011, 6th ed: 26). Since the late 1960s the region has witnessed a range of reactionary movements of varied ideological persuasions and methods, some seeking actively to breakaway from the Indian nation state. The rise of armed conflict and the imposition of the Indian government’s military control through such controversial legislations as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA, 1958) have only exacerbated northeast India’s acute sense of otherness in relation to mainland India. This sense of otherness is intensified by the Indian media — spanning daily news (both print and television) onto the mammoth Hindi film industry. Controversial Bollywood blockbusters such as Dil Se (1998, dir Mani Ratnam) fictively set in India’s northeast, are in the region understood as perpetuating a ‘racial divide’ between mainland India and the northeast (Baruah 2005: 167-68; Bhattacharjee 2007). A profound loss of faith in Hindi, particularly Bollywood cinema resulted in a ban on Bollywood films in northeastern states such as Manipur and Nagaland in the early 2000s. Using Gramscian analysis of hegemony, Prasun Sonwalkar argues that an ‘us-them’ binary is a key discursive operative in ‘mainland’ India’s media representations of the northeast region. Discussing Indian English-language press’s approach to the northeast he states:
While the Indian English-language national press based in New Delhi stands out for its contribution to nation building, professionalism and freedom, it has failed to adequately report and represent the peoples, cultures and issues of the country’s Northeast. That the region’s inhabitants are still perceived as ‘Other—“backward”, “violent”, “underdeveloped”, [and] “tribal” in the worst sense — is in no small part due to the wilful ignorance shown this region by the national media. (2004: 400)
Sensitive to this background, I have had a long-term commitment  to developing documentary practice that provides insight into this region’s rich, complex and living cultures. Kamakha: Through Prayerful Eyes is the first of an intended series of documentary projects focusing on the cultural heritage and social life of northeast India geared for audiences in the northeast, mainland India and abroad.
The Kamakhya Temple is an iconic site from northeast India known across the Indian subcontinent. Travel related television programmes such as those focussing on devotional pilgrimages, television documentaries surrounding the Kamakhya Temple’s most famous annual festival Ambubachi when the Goddess menstruates, and locally produced DVDs narrating the tale of Shiva and Sati that are sold in the local bazaar — these are the pervasive visual media representations of this site. All focus exclusively on the dominant Hindu narrative related to it. Having learned how the site was Hinduised and researching pre-Hindu remains such as secular sculptures in the temple complex, I was keen to reflect this site as a container of no one stable narrative. More specifically, my aim in focussing on the various visual and expressive forms surrounding Kamakhya is to reflect the rich diversity that surrounds this site and which gets overlooked when this site is perceived in the most reductive terms as either tribal, or violent and discordant.
This work advances my practice-based research agenda to document cultural and social lives of communities marginalised, if not fully absented from the mainstream of the Indian nation.
Working under tense security conditions, in this project I wanted to challenge the dominant visual idioms used to depict this region. News footage and cinema often portray the northeast as a virginal landscape of dense rainforests that has been disturbed through violence and armed conflict brought upon by its own peoples through their confrontations with the Indian state. The region has been so cut-off, physically and imaginatively, from mainland India that sparse field-based scholarship or arts practice ever crosses the lines — real and imaginary, that separate this region from mainland India.
Kamakha: Through Prayerful Eyes was shot over three weeks in July 2010. Logistical support for this project came from the Guwahati University’s Folklore Department. The state of Assam was then reeling under the impact of the 2008 serial bomb blasts across the city of Guwahati, where the Kamakhya Shrine is located. In local circles it was rumoured that the Kamakhya Shrine was itself the target for future violence and attacks by local militia. In view of this, I was strictly barred from being outdoors by myself or working after sunset. My production schedule was devised for filming in the morning hours and using a small crew including one local filmmaker who functioned as my assistant and sound recordist alongside providing security cover.
As I started filming I found myself drawn towards techniques of observational and reflexive filmmaking. Observational cinema is a form of ethnographic film that emphasises the act of looking as a mode of inquiry and epistemology. A central tenet of this form is that people’s subjectivities are co-extensive of the landscapes they inhabit and the occupations they practice in it. Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz attribute this to the influence of Italian neo-realism on this form (2009: 14). Observational films emphatically depart from didactic forms of documentary based on argument and conflict. This was key for me as I was questioning the tropes of violence that dominate media representations of northeast India. Observational cinema is marked by an austere aesthetic grounded in deep respect towards the profilmic. Techniques including long duration shots that do not fragment the profilmic, depth-of-field, and minimal editing that preserves the spatial and temporal continuities of what is observed are recurrent in this form (Hockings 1995: 69). Observational films do not gather materials that are edited per any external logic or criteria imposed by the filmmaker. A film’s structure is based on the order of proceedings observed by the camera as also the unfolding filmmaking process itself.
David MacDougall, a key practitioner of observational cinema proposes a phenomenologically informed concept of ‘social environments’ through which we can understand the landscapes people occupy as distinctively influencing them and in turn being shaped by them. He states that their (social environments’):
… ‘authorship’ has been collective over time, employing the full range of available media: stones and earth, fibres and dyes, sounds, time and space, and the many expressive possibilities of the human body. Even in its shifts and internal contradictions, a community acquires a character that provides a distinctive backdrop of everyday life. (2006: 95)
I was further influenced by his concept of ‘social aesthetics’ — the everyday and visible means through which a community constructs and experiences itself. For MacDougall social aesthetics coincides with Pierre Bordieu’s conception of habitus and he states that ‘social aesthetics’ does not have much to do with notions of beauty in the abstract, but refers to a “much wider range of culturally patterned sensory experience” (2006: 99). The visual cultures — of visitors, tourists and the local community surrounding the Kamakhya Temple revealed to me interpretations and patterns — affective, temporal and rhythmic, through which this site is expressed and experienced. The local artists provided me greater opportunity for in-depth documentation wherein it was possible to show how their arts and crafts are integral to their ways of living. For example the sculpting of wooden replicas of the Kamakhya shrine by a local carpenter seamlessly co-extends with his other daily, economic and non-economically geared activities including livestock rearing, carpentry, calling pigeons and flute playing.
All expressive processes including photography, poetry, painting, sculpting were documented whole through single long-duration shots (including changes in camera angles and magnification). After filming I shared footage with all subjects including tourists and visitors whose photography I had documented. While most subjects responded compliantly to the images; the artists and poet shared further materials to expand my representation of their works. On instances they also suggested ideas to me for framing images in particular ways. For example, the painter Kandarp Sarma, would examine my compositions through the viewfinder and offer ideas to compose his paintings in a way that emphasized their kinectic properties. I later invited him to compose a whole sequence surrounding the Kamakhya Series of paintings that has been included in the final cut per the order in which Sarma displayed his canvases before the camera.
I took 9 months to preview my footage and prepare a first cut. This was 67 minutes long and I returned to Assam in 2011, where I screened this version for all artists in the film, folklorists and a group of local film critics. Respondents encouraged me not to be burdened to interpret the site as an ‘insider’ or as an interlocutor translating this site for the film’s audiences. I was advised that my perspective being that of an outsider was ‘fresh’ and this would be of interest to the Assamese audience. These suggestions informed my thinking for the final cut of the film. Though I was appreciative that my view as an ‘outsider’ was valued in Assam, I was aware that I would share my film with a wider audience and so the film necessitated some contextual information and for this I included literary and Sanskritic sources through intertitles in the first part of the film to give viewers a sense of the site’s history, meanings and proceedings.
Inspired by montage film I was alert to the dialectic between a dominant Hindu narrative with the more local renditions of this site. However I decided against using direct juxtapositions between these after a few experiments in cutting, because such intercutting appeared rhetorical, didactic, laboured and conflicting with the overall observational visual vocabulary of the film. The local community’s expressive processes sat within a whole panorama of everyday activities and social life surrounding the Kamakhya shrine. They were holistic and co-extensive of that context. The final film therefore creates sequences of particular sites and characters — namely the temple complex, the carpenter, the painter — and these are linked through images of the broader Kamakhya site that facilitate us to exit one space or character and enter the next — at all times anchored by the temple. I have attempted to maintain an inherent narrative unity in each subject’s portrayal, a narrative unity that respects the continuities, rhythms and temporalities of their everyday lives. This, in my view, would enhance the viewer’s engagement with the film’s subjects. I would risk losing this were I to impose a structuring principle, say a dialectical pattern of cutting because then I would approach the film’s subjects on limited grounds, in terms of their place in the dialectic. I do not perceive my shift from a more pronounced montage style based on juxtapositions towards a realism-influenced aesthetic as contradictory. The impetus of observational and reflexive methods advanced my interest in montage practice as more than a film editing technique, and facilitated me in exploring its further applications in a postcolonial context.
Kamakha: Through Prayerful Eyes demonstrates the application of observational and reflexive techniques to plot competing narratives beyond dominant, here nationalist ones. It demonstrates how ethnographic and reflexive film practice can afford multiplicity of perspectives — multiplicity that complicates the unitary and determinist meanings afforded by nationalist discourse. While observational cinema has been associated with a realist film aesthetic, reflexive techniques tend to be associated with modernist cinema including montage filmmaking. Within film theory these two forms of cinema have been posited as oppositional to each other.Kamakha: Through Prayerful Eyes combines techniques from both with a view to critiquing dominant nationalist discourse. As such the work advances understanding of realist and modernist film imperatives as more than fixated in specific techniques. This allows for a cross-fertilisation of techniques in response to the contours of the filmmaking encounter.
Kamakha: Through Prayerful Eyes was funded by the University of California Los Angeles, Council for Research Grant. The work was premiered at the Vivekananda Kendra, Guwahati, Assam. This was an independently organised screening open to the public and advertised through local media including newspapers and television. Following this screening the film was widely reviewed in the English-language and Assamese newspapers in Assam (see attached reviews). While the English-language newspapers circulate largely to an urban readership, the vernacular newspapers reach rural hinterlands of the northeast. Their coverage of the film has opened possibilities for screening this work in rural Assam. Following its premiere, the film was selected for worldwide distribution by Berkeley Media LLC, a non-profit, independent documentary and educational media distributor in USA. While Berkeley Media LLC will distribute worldwide, being a foreign media entity it will not be allowed to cover India’s northeastern states because of the imposition of AFSPA there. I am therefore seeking non-profit distribution for the northeastern territories for this film. The film is also being archived at the Indian Council for Historical Research, Northeast India Wing. The film was screened at thePoetics and Politics of Documentary Film Research Symposium, Aalton University, Helsinki, Finland in April 2013.
- Reviewed in Assamese (2012), Amar Ahom. 18 June, p. 9.
- Reviewed in Assamese, Bijoy Bezbaruah (2012), Dainik Assam. 6 July.
- Reviewed in English in Seven Sisters Post
- Distributed by Berkely Media LLC Catalog
Mulvey, L. 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’; in, Badmington, N. & Thomas, J. (eds.) 2008. The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. UK: Routledge. pp: 202-212.
Goswami, P.1995. Festivals of Assam. Guwahati: Anundooram Baruah Institute of Language, Art and Culture.
Shastri, B.1991. The Kalika Purana: Sanskrit Text, Introduction and Translation in English (3 volumes). New Delhi: Nag Publishers.Shahani, K.1986. ‘Dossier — Kumar Shahani’; in Framework 30/31: 80-101. UK: University of Warwick Press.
Sonwalkar, P. 2004. ‘Mediating Otherness: India’s English-language press and the Northeast’; in Contemporary South Asia, 13: 4, 389-402.
Baruah, S.2011 (6th ed.). India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality. New Delhi: OUP.
Baruah, S.‘India and its Northeast: A New Politics of Race’; in IIC Quarterly Vol. 32 (2& 3) Winter, 2005, pp. 165-76. New Delhi: India International Centre. Available at http://www.sacw.net/article63.html (visited on 20/01/2013).
Bhattacharjee, K. K.‘Problems and Prospects of Assamese Cinema’; in Barua, B. & Lahkar, B. 2008. Chitra Chinta. Guwahati: Guwahati Cine Club: pp. — 09-27.
Grimshaw, A. & Ravetz, A. 2009. Observational Cinema: Anthropology, Film, and the Exploration of Social Life.Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Hockings, P.(eds.) Principles of Visual Anthropology (2nd ed.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.MacDougall, D. 2006. The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
 The popular, Hinduised spelling of the temple and Goddess is Kamakhya. My film is entitled ‘Kamakha…’ as a way to pay homage to this site’s Khasi tribal roots.
 My BA (Hons) Journalism third year project at Lady Shriram College for Women, University of Delhi was a comparative study of national, regional and local newspapers’ coverage of news from northeast India. My conclusion in this project was that national level media lacked understanding of the social and cultural life and history of northeast India. They thus turned to this region only when there was negative news and covered that without adequate contextualisation and background research — thus presenting a limited understanding of the region’s problems. Since that project (1999) I had intended to work in the region, but it was only after completion of my doctoral studies at University of Glamorgan, UK, I felt I had acquired the necessary theoretical and methodological skills to work in this region understanding its unique history, culture and political complexities.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows
Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
The conductivity of screen work and statement in this project shows just how valuable practice-based research is when it comes to the application of theory within a professional working environment. The opening sequence of the film condenses some of the major theoretical points in the statement regarding co-extensiveness, environment and the observational mode, into a steady, rhythmic montage. The correspondence between the landscape shots and poetic narration raises questions about the ambiguous relationship between people and their environment, and how this ambiguity may be a factor in propelling us toward making sense of the world through cultural production.
I was particularly interested in the theme of co-extensiveness in relation to the development of different visual cultures. Since, for me, this difference is worked out in the lived environment, I found that the film was able to make a connection between environment and consciousness that was, however, missing from the statement. Regarding Suban, the model maker, you write about how his model making is co-extensive with his other activities, but not about the way/s in which this form of representing Kamakhya is influenced by his surroundings. This would have been pertinent considering your stated “attempt to plot multiple visual representations and explore underpinning interpretations”. In the film, I found this theme especially poignant in the section about the painter, for whom “the goddess resides in zero”, a sentiment that displays not only a non-nationalist interpretation of Kamakhya, but also points to how different environments give rise to different visual cultures, the zero point being allegorical for Merleau-Ponty’s “body-subject”. That is, the specific situatedness of a subject in the world.
While the film emphasised the disparity between different visual cultures well, I felt that the observational mode was inadequate for an exploration of the politics behind, for example, the mass production and commodification of religious icons. While it may not have been your intention to do so, looking at this would have provided a route toward closer analysis of the economic and technological disparities between India and its North-Eastern region. That said, I enjoyed the fusion of observational and reflexive modes brought about in the sequence where Kandarp, the painter, is being followed by the camera. This allowed the reflexivity of the film to be performed through an other, which contributed to breaking down the insider/outsider dichotomy written about in your statement. Of particular relevance here are Bakhtin’s theories on the interactions between cultures. I say this on the basis that, in your statement, you highlight the interesting position of being both an insider and outsider, and it would be worth going in to more detail in this respect, both in the film and the statement.
I also think that your statement would benefit from some unpacking of the how you translated your dialectical influence into a non-didactic form. How, for instance, does the lack of an external logic espoused by the observational form affect the dialectical content that arises from representing different visual cultures? Why did you feel that you had to avoid didactic forms to be able to question dominant media representations of North-East India? Finally, it seems that at times the language of your statement becomes a little cumbersome, as in the last sentence of the middle paragraph on page six, “A film’s structure is based on the order of proceedings observed by the camera as also the unfolding filmmaking process itself”. There are a few instances of this in an otherwise well structured and coherent piece. For this reason I would recommend some minor revisions.
Review 2: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
The Screenwork is novel in that it addresses a region rarely explored filmically. The formal approach was delicate and sensitive readily capturing a sense of the everyday work, artistic and spiritual, of the subjects and sliding between a more observational and reflexive approach. It is pleasurable to watch, lending a sense of authenticity yet indicating the intelligence and reflectiveness of its central subjects.
The novelty of the Screenwork and its impact is rather more limited. Ethnography has had a rich tradition of experimentation (Rouch, Minha), which this work may join, but this is not a groundbreaking film formally and conceptually.
The film succeeds in its portrayal of a cultural site. One has a strong sense of the tourist view and the local view, and of their economic interdependence. However, I don’t really see the film as clearly offering competing viewpoints to a nationalist majority view. The violence or marginalisation is difficult to determine through the formal approach assumed.
The statement was well written, although there were some grammatical issues that could be tidied further. It certainly added value and content to the Screenwork and if read prior to a viewing, would no doubt shape the way the work is understood. There are a few typos that need correcting.
The film’s ambition as expressed in the exegesis is to critique nationalism, i.e. that its competing narratives exceed dominant representations. Whereas the film feels gentle, spiritual and engaged with cultural expression, I’m not so sure that the critique of nationalism, the expressed primary goal of the film, is that evident in the film’s deployment of the observational/reflexive techniques. Although Nichols might posit these two modes as opposed, in fact, I think recent scholarship suggests the distinction is more blurred (works like Grey Gardens or even Wiseman’s body of work although categorized as observational have reflexive tendencies). So the writer may want to reflect on whether these modes are as polarized as she suggests – their joint polar opposite I would suggest is a more didactic, expository form of documentary which is not to say she should assume these strategies. Yet at the same time, there are political goals at least indirectly expressed – an undisclosed yearning to contribute to a culture clearly under pressure – this can be difficult to achieve when deploying a more experimental approach. I think there needs to be some more unpacking here as the filmmaker thinks through the goals of her work.
That said, through the limited contexts through which the film will be seen, I’m sure it will bring understanding and pleasure. The rigor and collaborative approach is to be applauded — the subjects and artists within the film are open and expressive, an indication of the filmmaker’s ability to communicate her goals and to share the creative space of filmmaking.
The above reviews refer to the original research statement which has been edited in response.