Amar Kanwar is an independent documentary filmmaker based in New Delhi whose subject matter includes ecology, politics, art, and philosophy. A past recipient of a MacArthur award, Kanrwar’s film King of Dreams was awarded the Juries Award at Film South Asia 2001. A Season Outside, exhibited last year at Documenta 11, will be shown at Peter Blum Gallery from February 5 to March 20. On the third day of the New Year, Rail publisher Phong Bui had a telephone conversation with the filmmaker about his work.
Phong Bui (Rail): Let me begin with the issue of politics and the complexity of the cultural dynamic which has been the perpetual conflict especially in post-colonial countries in India and elsewhere in Southeast Asia— my country, Vietnam, included. The struggle is to maintain one’s cultural identity against the many imposed forces of assimilation. I am sure it’s certainly more complicated with the caste system in India. Nevertheless, the intellectuals in some ways are usually a small privileged group who’ve been educated by Western thinking and particularly, the arts— by a Western aesthetic. Take Satyajit Ray, for example. He was the least Indian of Indian filmmakers— he had a degree in economics, studied painting, music, worked in an advertising agency, but he was also a serious student of Indian literature and philosophy and knew Tagore intimately. Were you always conscious of this early history, and how do you account for your work in that difficult relationship?
Amar Kanwar: I find myself inspired by a wide range of stimuli— music, a few images from a film, the people I meet. India is incredibly diverse, there are many traditions to relate to and many traditions to learn from— from classical Indian dance, for instance. No doubt I am aware of some of the great filmmaking traditions in India and probably do evolve in some continuum— however, I do not relate specifically to any one filmmaker or film tradition. When I spend time with a psychiatrist friend, a classical dancer or a street performer, I find my work gaining immensely from their inputs— both in its content and form— so it is difficult for me to assign myself a specific filmmaker tradition. Audiences are filled with complex individuals with their own histories and understandings. Each individual is filled with so many multi-layered feelings, personal histories, etc.— it’s more interesting for me to find ways to enter the inner selves of different people with their stories. Short films and documentaries are going through very interesting changes, especially in Asia, aided by the availability of low cost digital equipment. Filmmakers find it more exciting, I think, to chart out new courses, find techniques to tell stories, get rid of the tiresome burden of assembling together a jigsaw of images that ask from you to fit in with pre-conceived notions or even artistic aspirations. To answer your question more specifically— it is important to protect oneself so as to be able to opens one’s mind across cultures but still relate, intervene and actively experience your immediate surroundings. Then if you work with the feelings in your gut the problem that you refer to in your question does not surface.
Rail: When did you become interested in making film?
Kanwar: I became interested in making films in the mid-80s. I was involved in many other issues at that time but two events in 1984 were important for me— one was the massacre of Sikhs immediately after the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi (my film A Season Outside is related very closely to those events). I was involved in relief work as well the campaign for justice. The second was the Bhopal gas disaster. These events also helped me to decide which way I wanted to go, I had just about survived the education system and needed to find a profession that gave me more space to breathe. It was only in the early 90s that I got a few opportunities to take chances with telling stories.
Rail: A Season Outside is one of three films that was shown at MoMA in late December. It focuses on the resurgent nationalism in the region due to the tension and anxiety with Kashmir. The film began with a strange gate-closing ceremony that takes place right at the Kashmir border of Indian and Pakistan with citizens of either side cheering on their own soldiers as they march down the street competitively. What is poignant about the film is its poetic and powerful implication of the philosophy of non-violence. How do you relate to the current state of politics in India and especially the War in Iraq?
Kanwar: In A Season Outside, I wanted to traverse different zones of violence, through private and public territories. I wanted to relook at the issues of violence and non-violence, and the film became a real journey which subsequently allowed varied people to participate in as well. My film To Remember is about the smell of death that has arisen from both the war in Iraq and the state-supported massacre of Indian (Muslim) citizens. We have a right-wing Hindu fundamentalist party in power in India, that has reaped huge benefits from the activities of the Muslim fundamentalists and even more so from the politics of the war on Iraq. This is the same political party whose mother organization was responsible for the killing of Gandhi, and it is now in power. And it is voted in by our democracy— just as Bush could get voted in again!
Rail: Let’s shift the subject to other Indian films. My slight knowledge and awareness of Indian film came from my admiration of Satyajit Ray’s films and several others filmmakers including Mrinal Sen, Prakash Jha, or Aparna Sen’s. Most of those films were fiction, whereas video or documentary films being made in the last ten or fifteen years or so has a different purpose. Do any of them bear some similarities to your own work in spite of most of your films being uniquely a mixture of documentary, poetic travelogue, and visual essay?
Kanwar: No, I do not see any of my work as similar to or inspired by the filmmakers you have mentioned. I am concerned with issues of justice and that resonates in my work. I like to tell stories, and I find that documentary has tremendous possibilities— of being able to enter spaces and tell stories in a way that is quite magical and maybe at times useful. I have made several different films and the past has always been important, both as small or big events as well as collective and personal memories…
Rail: In A Night of Prophecy, which features music and poetry of tragedy and protest performed by many regional artists from Maharashtra to Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland, and Kashmir. What connects the central shifting between the bridge with its traffic above and the activities of the people below which depicts the crowded and impoverished environment of urban life, and the rural landscape is the distorted and blurred images particularly the traffic in the highway. That to me appears to be a use of montage, not only to heighten the sense of urgency, but also the intimacy of reality which in turn unifies all the artists’ performances with their immediate environment. Could you elaborate a bit on the making of this film?
Kanwar: When I seek to myself at this point in time, I see obvious definitions or tags— name, place, profession, then father, husband, friend, and so on. Very soon, I move into past events that have been important, soon there are memories— some clear, some comfortable— some unclear, not comfortable. Soon I find that who I am is actually too many things— some immediate, some illusive. Each of these are critical and hidden within them are more moments that if found, can open up even more layers. Yet no matter how deep I dig, everything I find is closely linked with today, so my present reality then becomes the story of me. The more I absorb and integrate with a place or location I tend to search for all those clear and unclear fragments (or images ) that are actually constituting the present moment. The terrain that you refer to in A Night of Prophecy— herein can be found images/symbols where both intimacy and remoteness lie next to each other, urgency and silence are natural companions. So it is this terrain that I travel through, almost wherever I go and the images reflect this. This allows you to enter the inner world of a single artist/region/space and also simultaneously unify all artists and thus all audiences.
Rail: In Baphimali 173, made with excerpts from films of the Jandarshan Project— which is also known as "The People’s Vision"— shows how a network of several organizations is working to develop the use of video as a way of communicating social change in India. It’s an interesting project because it provides video training for young people from the state of Chattigarh, helping them make films about their own experiences. The Adventures of Ecogirl and Environman, for example, was made by students of Jiva Public School in Faridabad. It deals with air pollution and the problems of disposal of garbage and waste at public places. Or even better, another film called Mrityuchakha, made by children from across India about the drinking water of Pauna River which is grossly polluted. Do your films have any direct connection with these films?
Kanwar: Baphlimali is the name of a hill in the eastern state of Orissa in India. It has within it 173 million tons of bauxite and so the name Baphlimali 173. The film is about a decade-long resistance movement by the tribals living around the hill— against international aluminum cartels who are trying to mine the hill. It is a simple film about the peoples movement there. The film actually was not made with excerpts from the Jandarshan project, it was not part of the project either. Jandarshan wanted to screen my film along with films that emerged from their work— to which I had no objections. I have always worked with "non-filmmakers" and communities interested in using film in their struggles. I occasionally help teach them how to use film and find that their passion and insight often creates very interesting and powerful short films.
Rail: Besides getting your work to be screened at different film festivals around the world, do your films get to be seen in other capacities in India?
Kanwar: Several years ago I realized that my films have to survive outside the broadcast world, and traveling and screening my films in India is very important for me— and I do it extensively. My films are screened all over— in schools, colleges, film clubs, conferences, by non-governmental organizations and in campaigns of different peoples movements. I also feel that for films to survive they need to find new homes and continuous screenings to small or large numbers. That creates a situation where other people take the film forward, allowing for the film to live and keep getting screened.
Rail: Have your films ever been shown at Anthology Film Archives, one of Jonas Mekas’s great creations?
Kanwar: No, my films have not been screened at the Anthology. It would be nice to meet Jonas and screen my films there in the future.
Rail: Finally, how did your show at Peter Blum Gallery come about?
Kanwar: Peter Blum saw my work at Documenta 11 and wrote to me about his reactions to my films. Subsequently we met a few times and decided on the exhibition this February.