Researching Film: Seeing three films on India through the “Ethnographer’s Eye”
What does inequality look like and who does it effect? In this collection of films, the curator will explore the many intersections at which inequality lies, together showcasing the nature of marginality in contemporary India. Refusing to treat the hardships faced by farmers, Mumbai’s slum dwellers, Kashmiris fighting for freedom, and Bangladeshi migrants as mere spectacle, these films make important and explicit connections to the economic and political apparati which shape life for the marginal. Finally, the curator reflects on the affordances of these films within university classrooms. In what context might these films be useful learning aids for students? What might the filmic reveal which textual representations of suffering and hardship cannot?
Four years ago I sat in a class called “Ethnography, Documentary, and Research” with a few of my fellow graduate students and professors at the University of Pennsylvania. The task of the class was to think seriously about what it would mean for a social scientist to “publish” a film just as if he or she were to publish a text on the same subject. Could we, for example, create a film as our dissertations? And, if so, what would that look like and how would we evaluate it? On the one hand, the task seemed foolhardy: the academy was and always will be “text-centric” and to think otherwise was to place oneself on the margins. On the other hand, nearly everyone in the class was a dedicated filmmaker, eager to understand what types of new knowledge might emerge from a serious engagement with the audiovisual sensorium.
Since these initial struggles a group of us have created camra (www.camrapenn.org), a collective of researchers dedicated to legitimizing “multimodal” forms of research – multimodal standing in for a whole array of audio, filmic, and online productions. We realized early in our endeavor that the problem of legitimacy was not merely about “scholarly” value. In fact, many professors were eager to begin integrating film and multimodality into their research and teaching practice. The biggest bottleneck, it seemed to us, was that researchers did not know how to evaluate the “filmic” (what I use as a kind of shorthand for digital productions) as research. In other words, they did not know what to look for or how to integrate their social scientific sensibilities into how they produced or analyzed filmic products. The result was a feedback loop in which a lack of evaluation criteria meant that administrators would not permit scholars from including non-textual materials in their tenure portfolios, which in turn led to a disincentive for scholars to create audiovisual research which, in turn, meant that there was no pressing need for evaluation criteria.
Given this loop, camra started with two key assumptions: 1) that everyone in the organization should assume the scholarly value of the filmic and create filmic products as part of their own research; 2) that everyone in the organization would “work backwards” from these initial products to understand exactly how and why these productions were as legitimate as their textual counterparts. Through our experiments in film production, we developed a few important thematic rubrics for evaluation of social scientifically driven filmmaking that we have been using since to evaluate proposals for our annual Screening Scholarship Media Festival, a space intended to push the limits of what might be considered scholarship. Broadly, these were grouped in four major categories: 1) contribution to scholarly knowledge; 2) methodology deployed; 3) ethics of the filmic engagement; 4) filmic aesthetics and production quality. Each of these thematic categories were appraised with an “ethnographer’s eye” (Grimshaw, 2004), that is, by evaluating products from the point of view of those who take the ethnographic method seriously, nodding to the long ethnographic film tradition in anthropology, which has always existed on the margins of anthropology’s field and text based practices (See, for example, Ruby, 2005).
To speak of a “contribution to scholarly knowledge” is to acknowledge the ever-expanding citation-based practices at the heart of the university. If the filmic was to be legitimized, the products themselves would have to shed light on and contribute to these expanding fields of study in ways which were unique to the audiovisual form itself. Second, for researchers, a strong articulation of methodology i.e. how the research was undertaken and a justification for these research methods, is the basis for proving the validity of research. For the filmmaker-researcher, the same criteria applied. If their work were to be considered “research” the methodology employed would need to be “shown” in the film itself. The dilemma was, of course, that a filmmaker, unlike a writer, would not have to necessarily articulate their methodology explicitly and therefore the reviewer needed a “visual literacy” to see the implicit articulations of study duration, number of interview subjects, cognizance of ones positionality and its effects on ones research, etc. Third, and maybe most importantly, the visually oriented social scientist needed to address the ethical considerations which have emerged from a long history of orientalist, racist, and patriarchal representations of the “Other” i.e. anyone marked as not white or part of the “civilized”, “developed” world (Rony, 1996; Minh-ha 1989). These anxieties have only been increased over the past twenty years as more and more non-Western “indigenous” populations have gained access to film technologies, creating what Ginsburg terms “the parallax effect”: a researcher anxiety based upon the increasing likelihood that a researchers work will be viewed by those beyond his intended academic audience and critiqued by those who were the film’s subjects. In light of these concerns, the filmmaker-researcher is evaluated on the questions: How does the filmmaker shift the camera’s gaze to avoid objectifying his subjects? In what way does the filmmaker elicit participation? Are those being filmed aware of how and why the film is being produced? In most cases, the very methods of filming can speak to these questions. A filmmaker might depict interactions beyond formal interviews or narrate the dilemmas he or she faced when trying to introduce a camera into a new context. Fourth and finally, the filmmaker is assessed based on the film’s formal aesthetic. By placing this consideration last, the filmmaker researcher is clearly defined in different terms than his or her film industry counterpart, whose foremost consideration is “quality” assessed in terms of film school technique. By contrast, the research film genre can ostensibly take any form – shaky unclear footage as legitimate as crystal clear, well planned shots – as long as there is a clear logic to the shot choices, editing decision, and narratological strategies. To assess a research film is to learn how to watch films with these considerations in mind, what I call a “critical visual pedagogy” (Shankar, 2014).
I bring this “ethnographer’s eye to the discussion of the film’s reviewed here, each of which address the economic, political, and cultural fault lines upon which particular groups are excluded from “India Rising”, the phrase used to characterize India’s development into an economic superpower in the thirty years since it liberalized, opening its borders to global trade, financial, and corporate regimes (Lukose, 2012). What has accompanied liberalization is a large increase in social inequality, reflected most profoundly in the images of massive slum settlements next to five star hotels catering to India’s elite. For (research) filmmakers working in India, these stark inequalities are unavoidably present and shape what and how they can film. Indeed, each of the films reviewed here – Powerless, Nero’s guests, and Char: The No-Man’s Island – struggle to find adequate means to show how those who remain “outside” negotiate their exclusion, developing their own informal networks to fight the economic, political, and social power of those who control India’s development. This attention to issues of power has, in a sense, caused these documentarians to “go ethnographic” drawing them into the discussions mentioned above: how should we represent marginalized peoples? How do we self-reflexively engage with positionality? What economic and political inequalities must we unpack for the viewer? How do we film without producing the worst affects of Othering?
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The film, Powerless, takes its name from the massive electricity outages that shape the lives of those living in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Ebbs and flows of darkness set the stage for a tense battle between KESCO, the state government’s electricity supplier, and katiyabaaz’, individuals who “steal” electricity and supply it to those who have been left in the dark. For the directors, Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa, the electricity issues reflect the demise of Kanpur’s economy, once home to a burgeoning textile industry (“The Manchester of the East”), but slowly having lost nearly all of its manufacturing sector in the continued de-industrialization of India’s second tier cities. The filmmakers get incredible access and always seem to position themselves in the right place at the right time, moving back and forth between formal documentary techniques and handheld journalistic methods. We never see the filmmakers or hear from them, though there are moments where people talk directly to them, in formal interview settings and during moments of frustration. Still, they are positioned so well that I wondered whether the whole film might have been staged. To the ethnographer’s eye there were immediate questions of access, method, truthfulness, objectivity, and time-in-the-field. What was the “real” relationship between the directors and their subjects?
The story’s two main characters are KESCO Managing Director Ritu Maheswari and local katiyabaaz, Loha Singh. Maheswari, ambitious and disciplined, is adamant that delinquent payments and the stealing of electricity are the direct cause of the longer powercuts in Kanpur. She sets about cracking down on those who steal electricity by cutting off power, raiding homes, and laying hefty fines on those who have been caught using electricity supplied through the katiyabaaz’ informal economies. Simultaneously, she re-structures the entire system of electricity payment by implementing the first electronic bill payment center in Kanpur. “The digital” enters the script, then, not so subtly, facilitating centralization, promoting efficiency, and catering to the middle-classes while further marginalizing those who were receiving electricity through informal networks. This is the kind of digital culture the government seeks to cultivate and control in an India overridden by thousands of informal economic networks, like the katiyabaaz’, which proliferate in parallel with the formal economy (Benjamin, et al., 2007; Sundaram, 2012).
Loha Singh, a short stocky man with a crooked, uneven smile, plays the film’s Robin Hood, laughing as we watch him steal electricity, ridicule the government, and remain resolute in performing an occupation he believes is vital. His stance is simple: the government has never taken the needs of the poor seriously and so, as always, the poor have found a solution themselves. He shows off his “battle scars” to the camera, pointing to a finger that has been permanently bent out of place during a job gone bad. His work is dangerous and he knows it, only heightening an egoistic altruism he flaunts throughout the film.
As Maheswari cracks down on electricity theft, encounters between the government and city dwellers only worsen. A crowd beats up a KESCO employee after being left without power for ten hours; a local politician – using the electricity issues to further his own political aspirations – storms Maheswari’s office and demands that something be done immediately before being escorted out by the police; Loha Singh fights off newcomers who encroach on his territory, eager to tap into this burgeoning black market. It’s a cycle that never ends, more power outages meaning more theft meaning more power outages; a cycle that disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable populations. It is the most obvious of class-based distribution of electricity, only exacerbated by the bribes taken by bill collectors who leave behind them angry men and women bemoaning the “rascals” who steal their money. And finally, it is a reminder that all money in India is a certain shade of grey and a question as to who the real criminals are in neoliberal India.
These are the sentiments echoed in the words of P. Sainath, the hero of Nero’s Guests, as he barks into the camera while driving past one of Mumbai’s sparkling malls, “Most of the electricity of the city is consumed by the malls and the multiplexes. [For] a twenty minute power cut in the main Mumbai, you can give two hours of power to all the troubled districts in Vidharba…” Sainath is a rural journalist, formerly of the Hindu, who, over the course of ten years, documented the growing number of cases of farmers’ suicides all over India. The farmers’ suicide epidemic has, in many ways, become synonymous with India’s neoliberalization and concomitant agrarian crisis (Munster, 2012), with over 200,000 documented cases in the past twenty years. Directed by Deepa Bhatia, the film follows Sainath as he interviews the families of suicide victims, speaks at conferences around India, and sits at home, sifting through pages of notes, images, and audio recordings he has taken during his fieldwork.
Bhatia makes sure to highlight the painstaking rigor of Sainath’s journalism, a vestige of a bygone time before the media met the blogosphere. Inner titles arise on screen as if we are viewing word documents, and close ups of keyboards, computer screens, and notebooks illustrate the meticulous process of data collection, organization, and translation that goes into every one of Sainath’s lectures and writings. The camera is never still, moving awkwardly as it tries to follow Sainath in his travels, jostled by the obstacles which one encounters when intruding on an unfolding reality. Yet, the cameraman remains silent, but for one moment when Sainath ridicules him for being from a Europe which no longer grows any crops of its own, but instead imports much of its agricultural product from India, creating an incredibly unbalanced market relationship. “But we grow potatoes…” begins the cameraman as Sainath shakes his head in frustration.
The film is narrated around Sainath’s retelling of Tacitus’ Nero and the Burning of Rome, in which Emperor Nero holds the greatest party ever seen, attended by “everybody who was anybody in Rome”. The problem that Nero faced, like the people of Kanpur today, was that of lighting – a problem he solved by burning prisoners and criminals at the stake to illuminate the gardens in which the party was to take place. Sainath wonders aloud about Nero’s guests, who enjoy their party as people shriek in anguish. Who stands by as these atrocities occur? How do those with money and power remain blissfully ignorant of these visceral (and extremely proximal) moments of suffering?
Images flash on Sainath’s computer screen: a shot of a donation box set on a counter during one of Mumbai’s many parties. Women with high-pitched voices, bright pink lipstick, and luxurious black dresses talk about their attempt at ending poverty by partying. One women says, without a hint of irony, “We need to see the have-nots as key to our survival. We can’t see them as different creatures from a different world. They are the fresh laundry we have everyday. They are the fresh cut flowers in our bowl. You know, they are the fact that I have nicely blow-dried hair once in a while. They are our manicures and pedicures…” It’s the contemporary instantiation of Nero’s Guests, those who see the poor as objectified, non-humans, useful only for their labor. Another set of images flash across the screen, this time from the Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai, an event covered by 512 accredited journalists. Sainath comments, “There is not a single newspaper or channel in this country [India] that has a correspondent working full-time on poverty.” This is Sainath’s direct critique of the media; a media which is the “fastest growing, politically free media in the world, but completely imprisoned by profit.” Fashion sells, poverty does not, and hence the current state of Indian media. In this instance, the digital is simply another tool for capital accumulation, a part of the military-industrial-media-entertainment complex that only exacerbates inequality by leaving little room for the circulation of stories that do not have a significant exchange value (Giroux, 2002).
These images of Indian opulence are juxtaposed with those from Sainath’s travels amongst farmers in Maharasthra. Each of these moments are heart wrenching: wives holding (digital) photographs of their dead husbands and children describing the last time they saw their father alive. We hear the daughter of one such farmer read her father’s poems, including the poem he wrote just before his death. This farmer – very much an organic intellectual in the Gramscian sense – had written a series of poems about agricultural suffering, and these poems flash onto the screen to remind us that those who die are not dying because of some weakness or pathology, but because the agrarian crisis which they face has left them beyond hope. The most devastating of these scenes happens by chance. As Sainath goes to talk to doctors about “national rural health”, a farmer is rushed into the hospital having just swallowed pesticides. He cannot stand and he writhes in pain clutching his stomach while lying on a stretcher waiting for his stomach to be pumped. These stories, and the filming techniques which convey these stories, create a sense of absolute despair; a loss of control so great that all one can do is to die in protest, a body worth more in death (especially if captured on film) than it was during life.
It is this same sense of despair that those living on the island of Char fight against everyday in Char: The No-Man’s Island, directed by Sourav Sarangi. Rubel, a Bengali Muslim boy of fourteen, rows across the Ganges with bags of rice to smuggle from India to Bangladesh while he talks to Sarangi (in Bengali) about his life. “Char has no future but we have for sure… Not just hope. It will happen. Not now maybe, but someday ahead…” This is the “horizon of possibility”, to borrow Chua’s (2014) framing, which (unlike in Nero’s Guests) balances depictions of intense suffering with aspirations and dreams for the future.
In Char, as in Kanpur and rural India, the psychological affects of living in suffering are always entangled with the infrastructures of governance. The movie starts with text on black screen: “Dams are the new temples of modern India…” It’s a reference to the Farakka dam, built by the Indian government in 1975, which changed the course of the Ganges River and flooded a large portion of land at the Bangladesh-India border. Years later the island of Char formed and was populated by the homeless who had been displaced by the earlier flooding. The island itself belongs to neither India nor Bangladesh and is patrolled by Indian border police who try and stop smugglers from crossing into Bangladesh to sell rice and, more pressingly, phensidyl, a cough syrup that contains trace amounts of alcohol, which is banned in Bangladesh. Rubel, his brother, and many other men and women who live on Char make the dangerous trek across the border at night, hiding contraband in their shirts, saris, and schoolbags as they row across the river. The film moves back and forth between the present story of Char and flashbacks to 2002, during Sarangi’s earlier trip to the region, when river erosion first displaced the men and women of the area.
Sarangi’s voice is always present and he talks openly with the men and women of the community, asking questions, following them on their treks, and capturing their hardships as they unfold. Unlike the other filmmakers, Sarangi never hides himself (though his face is never seen), and the ethnographer’s eye notices a relationship between Sarangi and those within this Char community that were not evident in the other two films. The impact on the camera is striking as it whips around with the residents of Char, exploring the darkest places in the family’s lives.
Sarangi’s approach is also ethically confusing. He films women shooing him away as they sneak away to smuggle phensidyl (dyl), women shouting at border police after being held for over ten hours, and men lying quietly waiting for border guards who want to beat them. As he gets deeper into these stories, there are immediate questions about whether the camera’s presence might actually get them into more trouble. Other times, Sarangi imposes his directorial will on those who are experiencing loss. He films a grandmother who stands and waits for her grandson, Sofi, throughout the night, though he never comes home. He continues to question her from behind, trying to pry into emotions that she does not want to divulge. “I’m just sitting and watching,” she says as a concluding remark, clearly her mind concentrated somewhere far away from the camera. It’s an uncomfortable scene and one which might be unnecessary – does the audience need to see this moment to understand the gravity of the situation faced by families living on Char or is it merely taking advantage of suffering towards another, less altruistic goal?
The heart of Sarangi’s film is his relationship with Rubel and his family, who struggle to survive after his father’s hernia keeps him from working. Instead, the father sits at home watching television or wandering out to find loans, though there is always an undertone of infidelity to these trips away. The family’s struggles are only exacerbated when they are forced to marry off their daughter after she was caught talking alone with a boy in the community. The 50000 rupee dowry demands are excessive and the family’s anxiety only increases each time they try to find a method to pay the dowry. Rubel himself is constantly torn between his hopes for the future, his longing to go to school and learn, and the needs of his family. In some of the most poignant scenes of the film, Sarangi captures Rubel’s arguments with his family when they refuse to give him his school fees, when he cannot move his neck after carrying rice on his head throughout the night, and when he takes a moment to listen to Bollywood music while playing a game on his mobile phone. The last of these scenes reminds us that no one, not even those stranded on a “no-man’s island”, are truly outside of the digital world, nor is there anyone who is not constructing a digital culture. It’s a shot that harkens back to Ray’s Apu Trilogy Part 1: Pather Panchali, when Apu and his sister Durga stare at the train passing by as they stand in a field, a signifier of globalization’s ‘wave two’ in the same way that Ray’s shot marks globalization’s ‘wave one’ (Kobrin, 2008).
Rubel’s hopefulness is juxtaposed to his festering feelings of guilt and shame at the work he is forced to do. He knows that smuggling goods can never be seen as “honorable” – marked by the constant surveillance of the border police – and he tries to justify the actions of those in his community. “No work is sinful,” Rubel says, “Smuggling dyl is not a sin when you cannot feed your family…” and earlier “I can’t afford a good way. People call me a bad guy…” At which point Sarangi’s probing questions prompt Rubel to stop talking entirely. Rubel himself will only smuggle rice because he knows that getting caught with dyl will bring his school “a bad name”.
It is the same tension faced by others working in these informal economies and echoed in the words of Loha Singh at the end of Powerless. After a night of intense drinking, Loha begins arguing with his uncle about the ethics of his work. His uncle insists that no matter what he says “his work is shameful” and that no matter his justification Loha will ultimately always be a thief. His dialogue, and the anxiety that it produces in Loha, brings into focus the socially structured ideas of worth and value which work on the psyche of those who are forced to function in these informal economies. When one’s work no longer fits into the neat confines of market logic and exchange value (and in most cases are systematically destroyed by market logics), nor is it protected by the formal apparati of governance and policing, one’s moral value also comes into question. It’s a psychological trauma that’s faced by those like Loha Singh and Rubel, but also by those who take their own lives, rendered criminals in the act of suicide itself. If nothing else, these stories suggest the entanglements that are the result of a moment in India when those who are supposedly “outside” of the formal politico-economic-technological apparati are never really so, consciously negotiating their exclusion, both physically and emotionally, as part of their everyday existence.
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