Saturday, December 6, 2008

Blame Nobody

The flowers are here because they are pretty.

I can't find a link to today's article on Here is today's article as I submitted it:

Blame Nobody

Frames of War by Prem BK and Kesang Tseten will be shown in the human-rights section of the 6th Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival, being held between 11 and 15 December, 2008. It is part a bouquet of vignettes and part promotional material for the book A People War. It suffers whenever it stops documenting the recollections and reactions of photographers responsible for the images, and the public who saw the traveling show of the book, and focus on Kunda Dixit instead, and thus sullies the solemnity of witnessing what actually matters.

There are many precious moments in the film: the gravely comedic exchange between a mother and father who correct each other about the date when their Maoist son disappeared, or the brave sermon by the daughter of a disappeared policeman about how the dwellers of huts are as happy as palace-dwellers, and therefore nobody should have her happiness taken away. The true picture of the conflict emerges in exhibition venues and in the vignettes collected in the homes of the bereaved as their rigid cocoon of discomfort is broken by seeing something so familiar as tragedy reflected in the eyes of total strangers.

Never mind Dixit's hammering of the cliché about pictures speaking a thousand words—it is when words come and halt in memory of the burn and terror and deaths and bereavement that filled the rural lives of the protagonists of the war's story that the photographs gain meaning. They come detached from the efforts of those who collected and edited them into a book that is also a travelling show, and become what they were originally meant to be: conduits of empathy, mirrors of the common, careful score of our quotidian fare of injustice and mindless violence.

That violence and injustice are daily staples seems to be a theme shared by Suma Josson's documentary I Want My Father Back. Whenever the narrator isn't saying sentences that make you want to head-butt a wall out of frustration, what we see is a broken string of vignettes about the cotton farmers of Bidharbha, in Maharashtra, for a while now driven to suicide, and evil multi-national companies based in the USA who should be held accountable for their deaths.

There are three vignettes in the film that summarize its intention. A grandmothers sits by her orphaned grandson, who sings a children's rhyme on a charpoy. Looking past the camera, the boy grins happily. This gets his grandmother crying. The boy turns to look at her, and as if punishing himself for the brief lapse away from her grief, his face quivers in empathy. His father killed himself after loans accumulated beyond his capacity to repay.

Illuminated by a naked bulb, two young men talk of the choices before them: suicide or banditry and insurgency. They choose banditry. In another vignette, a father unpacks a suitcase of clothes as the narrator reads a note left behind by the man's daughter, who killed herself in order to lessen the burden of loans on her father to make way for her sisters' wedding. In her note, she asks to “blame nobody” for her death.

Vandana Shiva tries hard to persuade that all evil comes from outside the farmers' idyll—politicians, businessmen, globalization, liberalization, genetic engineering, corporate greed. But this hides a fact: these men and women were not murdered, but driven to suicide. Not just by debt and preying greed of faraway men, but by their neighbors and brothers, by centuries old codification of honor and shame. They chose not to be thieves, and found suicide easier. It is the community that is really evil in this picture.

Both Frames of War and I Want My Father Back seem inauthentic because they purport to be documentaries while being merely non-fiction. Both have dictatorial voices telling the viewer what her opinion should be after watching the documentary. These are inadequate narrators who spend more than necessary portion of the film to establish themselves, and miss the speeches and actions of their subjects. They don't dwell on what is truly profound in the behavior of their subjects because they are too eager to return to themselves.

Jawangka Jindagiharu, by Ramesh Khadka, is far superior to the two documentaries mentioned above, as simple documentation of a people's lives. It isn't merely non-fiction. Yet, it is filled with characters—an entire village of Chepangs living in Dhading—and it reaches into mysterious distances to dig for verity. It isn't a clunky string of vignettes, but a delicate narrative with internal rhymes and echoes, of nature and change, man and his recalcitrant desires, of the cyclicity of ordinariness. It is a film that deserves praise while it is being shown. It deserves an entire essay dedicated to it.

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