Avijit Mukul Kishore, Ayisha Abraham, Iram Ghufran and Shambhavi Kaul discuss their experimental creations with Jaideep Sen.
The multifarious selections at this year’s Experimenta, in many ways, represent the as-yet shifting and extending idea of experimental avant-garde cinema in India. Indeed, a few of these films – There is Something in the Air by Iram Ghufran from Delhi, and Vertical City by Avijit Mukul Kishore from Mumbai, for instance, both of which were made earlier this year and feature in the line-up of the festival – have been noted as, and even garnered awards as documentaries.
Ghufran’s film hovers over a Sufi shrine at the district of Badaun in Uttar Pradesh, exploring a miscellany of spiritual concerns, vexations and beliefs that inhabit the area, as narrated by worshippers and visitors at the shrine, and thus suggesting links between matters of supposed paranormal phenomena, mental afflictions and mysticism. In equal parts arresting and disarming, Something in the Air plays out as a lyrical take on legerdemain and conjuration, and in the process, abandons a few requisites of the documentary format – of specifics, for instance, of the identities of people in the film, or the indicated illnesses.
To an extent, Vertical City too circumvents a conventional documentary structure, by leaning towards a visually inspired approach, which while focusing on a slum rehabilitation project in Goregaon, Mumbai, reveals itself as an unexpectedly awing spatial experience. Where Ghufran (who also works at the Sarai Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and teaches photojournalism at the Jamia Millia Islamia university in the capital) dabbles with fictive elements in her film, Vertical City makes for a more abstracted and dramatic perspective; reason enough, perhaps, for viewers to discern an artistic intent in both the films.
The essentially observational and exploratory nature of Shambhavi Kaul’s films, on the other hand, illustrates an experimental idiom to a more extreme end. As works that would seem to belong in a gallery space, Kaul’s short films subsume stipulations and norms of art and filmmaking, in as much as they amalgamate the forms. Scene 32, her 6-minute film from 2009, opens as an examination of the salt fields of Kutch, before hurling the viewer through an almost cosmic sequence, of combined hand-processed 16mm footage and hi-def video. Place for Landing, her 2010 short film (also 6 minutes in duration), offers as wildly abstracted an experience, shot and captured entirely through mirrors and constructed as a study of refracted images and reflections.
The unclassifiable nature of the works of Kaul (she also works as a visiting instructor for the Arts of the Moving Image programme at Duke University, North Carolina, and is the daughter of Mani Kaul, the late filmmaker) is shared, in some measure, by the works of the Bangalorean filmmaker Ayisha Abraham, which are devoted to found footage. En Route or of a Thousand Moons, Abraham’s new film, pieces together fragments of found and salvaged home videos, of personal moments, familial gatherings and conviviality, to almost resurrect “phantoms of the past”, as she put it. While distanced in its attempt of reconstructing an era bygone, En Route also endears owing to the nature of its material. Over a series of email exchanges, the four filmmakers, whose works will be shown at Experimenta this fortnight, discussed their attempts at testing, pushing and redefining the boundaries of creative expression.
What are your views on “experimental avant-garde” cinema and art as a definition – rather, as a stretching of definitions, as we now find it?
Shambhavi Kaul It is interesting to think about the cultural and political contexts in which these definitions form, and later become challenged. From my point of view, the lines between these genre distinctions – documentary, experimental, etc – have always been blurry, so I am not too concerned if works get defined differently in different contexts. There is an ongoing debate if these distinctions should be affirmed or discarded, but I rather like the way, that recently, it seems they are becoming fluid. This both affirms their meaning as well as expands their scope.
Ayisha Abraham I have never been able to quite find a category for my work. I studied painting and often think like a painter, and I value form as much as I do content. Painting was dissatisfying, as it ends up becoming illustrative. As I did not have any professional training in film, I often work without specific rules. However, I cannot use any formula – every film, because of the distinct material, demands a different approach.
Avijit Mukul Kishore There has been a free flow of ideas across these genres – narrative and experimental, documentary and fiction – in our history of filmmaking, mainstream or otherwise. While documentary in India was associated with propaganda in the first three decades after Independence and activism in the next two, there have been great examples of films that did not limit themselves to these constructs. Filmmakers have experimented with film all through, whether within organisations like Films Division, or independently.
How do you believe such a divide is conceived of – between a documentary given to abstract shades, and an experimental work – and eventually received by audiences?
Iram Ghufran I generally try to escape definition. The more porous the borders of form are, the more comfortable I am. I would choose complete anarchy over formal ghetto-isation. How else will new form, new approach and new language develop? There is no one way of expression. Let there be a multitude of voices and formal deviations. Let’s not be purists. Believe me, we need some chaos.
For me, experimental is an approach to work, to thought – and is indicative of openness towards form as well as content; though I don’t like to think of the two as completely segregated. A desire for exploration is intrinsic to my practice. Experimental for me is not an end in itself. I don’t go about thinking, “I’ll make an experimental work”. I am glad that Something in the Air is being discussed as experimental, as obviously, someone in the selection committee has understood what I was trying to do with narrative structure through the film. I’m happy that it has found varied contexts.
AA There is a history to experimental film, as dominant modes of filmmaking in the previous century were coming out of an industry, and techniques were slowly prescribed. Some of the early pioneers were much more experimental, as they were shaping and using the medium for what it was.
As mainstream filmmaking became more rigid, many artists started subverting the rules – for example, by overexposing films, or having sound or interviews disjunctive or out of sync. However, once a process has been explored, it stops being experimental, and there is a need for new ways of using the medium, and sometimes primitive ways of handling it, or slowing down a pace. In an age of technology, speed and special effects, it becomes more thoughtful, evocative and sensitive, and thus, worthy of capturing an audience’s attention. Calling it experimental is then what the curator or critic decides. It is slippery terrain.
Is it a tad difficult and ambitious perhaps, to expect a manner of discernment, and interpretive ability, among a large number of viewers or the general public for that matter?
AA It’s hard to generalise. One is always surprised with the ways a film is received by varied audiences. The fascinating thing for me about recycling home movies is that it comes from the raw material filmed, and consumed by the lay public. It is then recycled over time and represented in a new form. This provides a bandwidth for people to recount their own experiences with earlier forms of camera technology. It often leads to my finding more footage and meeting interesting amateur filmmakers.
SK It is true that, historically speaking, the potential of cinema to operate as a mass medium has been its singular quality, recognised by profiteers and revolutionary artists alike. However, a hundred-plus years after cinema’s inception, this may not be its singular quality for an artist, even if it remains its singular quality for the market.
I can say that I am not aiming for the largest audience possible. There are those who are curious and interested, and I observe that there is a significant and growing audience for this kind of work.
We’re assuming that there’s bound to be a new language of appreciation emerging here, to comprehend some of these works.
AMK I have been working primarily as a cinematographer in documentary films, and in visual art with artists in the installation medium. I am interested in the possibilities in the dialogue created between the visual and performing arts and cinema. I like the interface between the languages of each medium, and how one can engage with it cinematically.AA Filmmaking has become an ubiquitous hobby, and even profession. Technology has thrown the doors open, [also]
for thinking about composition. The appreciation is growing slowly, and that could be because it is so much easier now to see a range of work.
SK Certainly, years of engagement with the filmmaking process, as well as watching experimental work, has made me more receptive to its nuances. So, yes, I would agree that a certain enculturation takes place. However, experimental works are not mere puzzles to be decoded by intellectuals. These works operate at multiple levels, and an affective response is as valid as, and sometimes even more valid than an intellectual one.
Is the making of a mixed reaction – to create an unsettling and possibly discomfiting experience for the viewer – in essence, what redeems the experimental format?
AA Difficult question – because none of what you eventually see is obvious to me, when I begin to conceive of a work. Images lead to sequences that lead to a mood or a story, and though one may have begun with a single thought, or idea, the film is shaped much like clay is moulded in pottery. It may have been through stages where it looked like nothing much or outright “bad”, and that would never have qualified as anything – experimental or not. Different people get different things out of film.
SK I can speak to my work here: keeping the cinematic image in question – that is, constantly challenging its truth-telling potential – is very important to me. I think this is what you refer to as its “unsettling nature”.
For instance, in Place for Landing, every image is refracted through a mirror, so the mirror becomes both the subject and the medium of the image. This is what engaged me as the maker, but again, a spectator might find other points of engagement that are equally valid.
How essential was it to remain objective in making Something in the Air – to stay with its many suggestions, and resist including identifiable, direct references to the people, and situations?
IG This is a deeply personal film. Some of the stories came from people I know well. So the lines between personal and not-so-personal are fairly blurred. Besides, I think there is no such thing as “objectivity”. There are only varying degrees of distance one creates between the story and the audience. One can have factual information in a work, but that is also always “subjectively” read.
However, one can have balance in terms of an argument, if you’re so inclined. I had no desire in using faces, real names of people, and other visible identity markers. I was not producing “witnesses”. My characters are telling anecdotes – many are based on rumour and hearsay. All the women in the film suffer from various “afflictions of the air”. The film is not making any truth claims at all. And providing factual information beyond the minimum was not a primary concern to me.
Did the subject itself then, in a way, define the film’s indistinct structure?
IG I didn’t want to lose focus from the “affliction” – whether you read it as spiritual possession or a mental illness – and its possibilities. The film is a landscape of ritual and performance at the Badayun shrine, where every speech or act claim to be true.
I was also exploring structures through which I could express longing, fear and pain, as well as transgression and tremendous freedom. It was not an easy task. I was not working with a cohesive singular narrative. There were no biographies to be told, just fragments as material – fragments of lives and dreams.
What kind of reactions have you found in viewers of En Route?
AA To those who have been able to stay with the film, and accept the blemished, staccato nature of the image, the film induces a dream of consciousness state, where family and memory are evoked, and from where the private worlds of banal picnics, birthday parties, and interiors, come together. Or it can fit within the visual histories of early public life, and development projects. This unfolds subtly and requires quiet attentiveness.
There appears to be an underlying consideration in En Route, of a certain western influence on the notions of social interests, pastimes or mannerisms, as determined in the early decades of a post-colonial India.
AA The adopted westernisation was a reason why I made the film, and chose to tell the story the way I did. My initial idea was to portray that generation after Independence, which chose to go to England or Europe, and return empowered by that very imagination that had constructed the world.
How much of your driving intents are rooted in India – in the manner that resulted in Scene 32, for instance?
SK I am most interested in the notion of “place” as it relates to an ongoing history. I hope that my work is informed by a past, a present, as well as some projected future. Scene 32 could be described as a landscape study of my birthplace. But, of course, any notion of an origin is imbued with myth, so the work becomes about the impossibility of documenting it.
How did the hybrid documentary-fiction form arise, and evolve, in your mind? What does it mean to work within a documentary format versus working within the experimental or more hybrid formats?
SK “Documentary” is a word that calls up a certain history of cinema, and sets up some clear expectations for works that are defined as such. It can be a useful word if you want to place your work in that historical context.
For me, moving away from that framework was about trying to expand the ways in which I engaged cinematically, and this quite simply, led my work to be defined as “experimental”. The word “experimental” has its own difficulties, but it’s broad enough in scope that I am more or less content to use it.
AA With my practice, I have just improvised my way. There have been many short filmmakers and film essayists who have inspired me. I have always liked documentary, because it unravels unknown social histories, and it can represent the ordinary person’s voice. It makes visible that which would remain hidden. The process of looking for old footage has itself been stimulating and enriching. The form emerges much later, and can either be straightforward, or explorative. I like to have the choice, and am not worried about making a conventional film too.
How apprehensive are you of the internet for the proliferation of video works? How much of that coup de foudre – unsubdivided, firsthand and direct – experience, do you believe is lost over a laptop or iPad?
AA I am less of a purist now, and appreciate the different experiences. I find sitting in front of a computer and experiencing the world limits you. And yet, you are limited by what is available around you in the real, non-virtual world anyway. So, in today’s world, we need it all.
SK The theatre stresses on undivided attention of the spectator. Perhaps in comparison, the internet seems haphazard. Then again, the personal computer could offer something of intimacy that is precluded from a public theatre. As far as I can tell, the work is being installed within a context in each case – in the theatre, gallery or the personal computer.
However, the curatorial input, I believe, is vital. Finally, the clutter is everywhere, in physical and virtual spaces. And this clutter is only made sensible by an act of curation. And, I am using the word broadly – it’s not just “curators” who are curating. Art practice itself can be defined in terms of a curatorial impulse, at least, in as much as it involves the purposeful arrangement of material and culture.
Is it largely about going the independent route to find viewers?
IG Audiences come from us. I wouldn’t assume a great distance between the spectator or consumer of an artwork and the artist or creator. If you and I can understand and appreciate art, and the experimental avant-garde, I would assume the audience can.