Film In Conversation
SHAINA ANAND with Xin Zhou
Since 2007, Mumbai-based collaborative studio CAMP has been making art out of a variety of media, ranging from cycle rickshaws, wooden ships, state records, web browsers, and basic public works like water and electricity, as well as institutional environments like C.C.T.V. control rooms and archives. CAMP was invited to give a talk at the Asia Art Archive in America this May, and I took the opportunity to discuss with Shaina Anand, one member of CAMP, ways of complicating the act of documenting, the triangular relationship between subject, author, and technology, and the everyday life of video today.
Xin Zhou (Rail): You’re one half of CAMP, and also co-founder of Pad.ma, an online archive of densely text-annotated video material.
Shaina Anand: I’m one founding part of CAMP, but there are three others, and a number of members—it’s a set-up that is more fluid, a collaborative studio, and not an artists’ collective. Pad.ma, short for Public Access Digital Media Archive, is much larger than CAMP. It’s a platform we have shaped and run in collaboration with some comrades at Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore and 0x26.20 in Berlin. The online platform opens up different ways of looking at moving images, documentary images in particular ways that conventions of editing and making films tend to suppress or leave behind. I think one thesis for us is that filmmaking needs to be not just beautiful from the outside but also beautiful from the inside. And by that I mean that we need to think really hard about the artistic process.
In our practice, the process is always evident in the finished work. There’s a kernel of how this was shot in the moment of filmmaking that is retained when we follow normal filmmaking devices, such as editing, constructing, giving things a certain length. But somewhere the kernel of what went on, and every intentional act that is present in the moment of filming, is visible. It’s there for you to read, whether you choose to read it or not. The genesis of that footage, the very process and clarity of how the film was made, what may have proceeded—even though it’s edited, you have a sense of what came before and what came after the footage. In Pad.ma, there is the possibility of being able to see video beyond the finished film: its fuller self, rather than a part—and to be able to read and write over it, by way of textual annotations.
Rail: I want to go back to the project made in East Jerusalem, The Neighbor Before the House (2009 – 12). A big part of the project is making the whole filmmaking process visible, instead of only showing the product, as a film normally would.
Anand: Just to rewind a little: as a filmmaker, when I was coming into my own authorship of material, I was asking really basic questions, two of which were: “What’s post-colonial? What’s post-feminist?” Why then when we make films do we just say, “I’m an Indian woman and I’m making a film.” Yeah, that’s post-colonial, and post-feminist, if you will, but then why am I using the same imaging devices, the same ways of framing, the same similar kind of techniques of engagement? Why isn’t this being ruptured or at least being radically reconfigured? And so a lot of our, or a lot of my, experiments came out of that problem of this triangle between the director, the events behind the lens of the cameraperson, and then the subject, who is framed a certain way, who is massaged a certain way to give themselves over to the technology and the author.
And this flows one way, it’s pretty unidirectional, and we’ve always wondered why we can’t change this. And in a slightly more sincere way, if you’re going to be the seven hundredth filmmaker from the outside going to a place like Palestine to make a film just because you feel politically for the cause, you have to question yourself and say: “Palestinians are living in this permanent state of exception.” If you go there and ask them the same questions, because you want answers about “what is it like to live in this permanent state of exception,” then you will repeat what we all know, what they all know. And how is this liberating for anybody? Not just the audience, but the Palestinians, the subjects. So how do we trouble this, and how do we interrupt it?
In Jerusalem our questions were quite simple: 1) how not to be the type of filmmaker who’s going to make that kind of film, 2) how to really make an independent film without any Israeli support—to not get police permission, or any such thing, or, you know, letters of authority to say “I’m so and so, I’m researching this film, could I be allowed to film on such a street?” You don’t want to go to the Israeli authority because you don’t acknowledge the power of the authority. So I guess both of these conceptual questions and problematics were put to use, turned around by us using CCTV.
So the Palestinian families chose to mount the camera in a position of vantage, usually their own terraces, or their own verandas. They chose the positions. And often it was on top of their own houses. Like a tripod made of stones. And the wires went down into their bedrooms or living rooms. And they watched it on the television, their own TV sets or on a monitor, speaking live over what they saw. In one case, settlers had moved into their home, a couple of months ago, and the Palestinian family that had lived there for 60 years had been evicted, and had been given a restraining order to be 150 meters away from their house. The family was looking at their home from across the street, controlling the camera by panning, tilting, zooming with the joystick with the camera mounted on a neighbor’s roof.
Rail: It’s like a cyborg kind of thing, to let them speak with the camera rather than for the camera. What about the name of the film?
Anand: The title Neighbor Before the House comes from a Quranic saying. It just means “Consider the neighbor” or “Think of your neighbor, before you think of your house.” Which is like, “Love thy neighbor”; I don’t know if you ever say that in Chinese. In Sanskrit they say, “The guest is like a god in your house.”
Rail: Comparing From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (2013) to your previous project, which is based on one fixed site, this film covers a vastly expanded network. In the film, sailors are given the cameras and document what’s happening on the sea.
Anand: Yes, that’s quite interesting because in The Neighbor Before the House there are eight families, in a claustrophobic East Jerusalem. It is a structure mapping each of the neighborhoods, but all of them are seen from one static position in each location. A panopticon view—the camera turns and does a 360-degree pan and a 180-degree tilt up and a 220x digital zoom. It is static, rooted in one place, and in many ways it is also about the question of mobility for Palestinians.
What excited us most about From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf was the idea of freedom. It depicts a kind of de facto free trade, which exists because Somalia has no united government, and is not serviced by the U.N., or Médecins Sans Frontières, or The World Food Programme, ostensibly because of the phenomenon of piracy. So these sailors who travel from the Gulf of Kutch—who may never have a passport and may never even have been to the capital city, Ahmedabad, in the State of Gujarat—are traversing the entire Western Indian Ocean, in giant wooden boats built by their cousin or their uncle, or even themselves. A very robust and vital form of free trade is happening in the Western Indian Ocean, of a different world trade order. This mobility of goods, of people and even money here is something that is really unusual, vital, and important in this time of homogeneity, security, globalization. Bernd Cohen said empire is the view from the boat; this then is Engseng Ho’s view from the other boat.
Rail: A lot of this background is missing from the film itself, however.
Anand: It’s there. You could say the film has no structure, but it has an unbelievably precise geographic structure. It’s a liner journey—one season at sea. It begins in the west. In the Gulf of Kutch, the boats are being built. They take form, and leave for the open seas. They sail sometime empty into the Persian Gulf, meeting similar wooden boats from Karachi and Iran. They dock in the downtown creeks of Dubai and Sharjah, which will be “home,” or base for the season, usually nine months at sea.
The boats are loaded with everything from macaroni to petrol pumps, used hospital equipment, diesel, and cars. Some head across the strait to nearby ports in southern Iran, but most take a 14-day journey to the Somali Region. There are destinations, journeys, storms, songs, food, work, and leisure as goods and boats move between ports on the east coast of Africa and the littoral nations around the Gulf of Aden. If you pay attention to the ports, if you pay attention to the goods, it’s pretty precise. The geopolitics is present; the geography is present. We edited the film with Junas Bhagad, one of the sailors who co-presents the film with us. We had a beautiful shot of them praying on the upper deck that we wanted to use at the start of a particular journey, but no way: in that sequence we were heading from U.A.E. to Bosaso, and the direction or the sun, of Mecca, the wind, the color of the water would all be wrong.
The film does have some complexities that are harder to read, but nonetheless clearly present. There is also a whole text working for the sailors that even an Indian audience won’t read, down to the meaning of the Hindi title. It’s a coded radio call sign.
Rail: To talk about the quality of the images, do you prefer to use DV or miniDV?
Anand: In From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf there’s VHS, there are videos from 2002 that are 120 pixels and only 10 frames a second. There’s 13 frames a second, there’s 1080 HD, there’s HD camera EX-3, there’s single-chip old handy-cams, mini DV’s. So there’s everything and we flattened it in the film. While there’s the linear journey in the sea, the storm sequence, for example, was taken from 14 different cellphone clips over four years, but it is edited as one storm. So in the temporality of the film, the video quality changes and the time frame changes even though there is a linear structure of going from here to there, as one year at sea.
Rail: What you just said reminds me of the essay by Hito Steyerl.
Anand: “The Poor Image”? Yes. It’s fine but, for me, these images are not the lumpen proletariat, or the wretched orphans of the image regime that need to be defended. For one, they are created to live, circulate, and die in their own circuits, and much like the trade, they have some autonomy, and they escape capture. The provenance of the music videos in the film is important—that the images were found, married to the songs, and have been edited in situ and in-camera by sailors. They were found circulating in a blue-tooth world, boat to boat, port to port, to be deleted to make room for newer ones. Cinematic ephemera. These videos existed in the sailors’ world long before our film project came along, and yet I’ve read reviews that said we gave sailors cell-phone cameras to film with (they do have their own!) and asked them to put in music of their choice. That gives the film a whole other patronizing spin. Talk about appropriation!
But back to the everyday lives of video. The CCTV image from The Neighbor Before the House is not a “poor image.” Neither is the video feed we claimed from the largest shopping mall in Europe. Look around: I can see in this tiny Chinatown cafe five CCTV cameras staring at us. In our post-9/11 world, we have to think hard about the how and why of creating images. We’ve just begun researching the history of hidden camera “sting operations” in India, and we recently had a government that called on every citizen to be the police, to use their cellphone as their weapon. There is a mound of evil media, there is richness in broken pixels—all gestures in video should be measured, or rubbed up against, its own everyday. We have to place ourselves in the front-end and back-end, get inside these systems to make sense or poetry out of images today.