Quarantine chronicle April 2020
A quarantine film festival's been going on for 20 days now, at home. It is one of the most challenging assignments I ever had. One, coz it's family I have as audience. And second, coz it has participants from age group 15 to 83! It is a difficult period, when we are all suddenly quarantined inside our homes fighting an invisible virus, while outside, the world as if, is coming to an end in all ways possible. Apparently we are all together in this.
Cinema can take care of a lot of things that tend to go awry in such disorienting and confounding times playing havoc with human heart & head and more. So we go on, stumbling-ly in our film journeys. And I wish many others could be part of this experience. Every evening, I must pick a film in a series that is with each evening now, taking us a step deeper into our collective understanding of be-ing human. Collective viewing is so critical to cinema. Some films have been seen before, some are new like, Hannah Arendt we saw yesterday.
There are few films everyone likes, others not so; each screening brings surprises. And the surprises are the most interesting part, as the lines between this and that keep shifting.
Today was Krsyztoff Kieslowski's
A Short Film about Love Thou shalt not commit adultery
With films like Camera buff, Blind chance, Double life of Veronique, when it all comes together in a film, it is no more possible to talk about the different components of research, story, script, screenplay, production design, camera, sound, music, editing, acting as separate elements being good or not so. What comes before or after? Which is better or what could have been better take a back seat and the vacuousness of the star rating system reveals itself gloriously. Some other questions take center stage. Where does it all come together? What role does the Director plays in the making of a film? When was the film made? What was going on in that country at that time? What was happening in the world? Etc.
Kieslowski makes the film with the keen understanding of what one lives by, and what one dies of. How we perceive reality and how the memory operates upon it. How a story is told and how it is visualised? How is it watched and what will form a memory of this watching? What after all, would be understood as be-ing human? What is the relation between beauty and truth, if at all?
There is so much beauty in a Kieslowski film. And moulded by the colour and light of the suspended moments- an otherwise inexpressible Truth. All that is here, is inexpressible any other way. There is much looking, reflecting, listening. There is very less talking, few words spoken but much that seems to be heard. You may forget the camera at times but you may still 'watch yourself watching' as it unfolds on screen, as-if in real time, in the very moment unfolding before your eyes.
The perception of time is palpable here. It is coded in every face that stays on screen for the duration it does. I wonder what it would mean to ask a camera student in a film school to light up faces like in a Kieslowski film? Do they teach such things in a film school? Do they study a filmmaker's mind? Or do they only use their look and style as 'references' to mould their own narratives on, or use it simply for effect? Do they study how a story is told as much by light & colour as by the idea, performers and dialogue?
What is it that makes the faces unforgettable? What that renders the moments memorable? What is the factor that decides how as a viewer I will remember the film? Wherefrom will it start fading first in mii remembrance of it? What are the images that will flash upon mii inner eye long after the film projector gets switched off? Which impression will I carry in mii memory 'for ever after'? What is that which will make mii return to the film again, and again?
Why does a filmmaker make a film? goes the refrain...
Remember thinking for a few days: Do we say what we mean? Do people mean what they say? Answer seems to be in the negative. We do not seem to say what we mean. We do not really mean what we say. Hardly. Perhaps, never. We say something and often mean something else. We do not seem to know what we want. Not really. There are somethings that go in the category of 'everybody knows'. We don't usually talk about them. Some questions are better left unasked.
But may be, says Kieslowski, we should try formulating some of those questions. That is, if one senses one does want something. Coz when we really do, our job becomes difficult. Often when we get it, we can't help noticing that the joy is not as grand as we imagined; it is short lived; quite fleeting like the desire itself; ephemeral, like our lives. Sometimes, by the time we get the thing we thought we desired, our desire has moved someplace else. Now we do not want it anymore; we want something else. And so on. Moving from one desire to the next, we forget what we wanted in the first place and why. And so, may be how does it matter if we do get what we desire...or what we desire-d. Curious how it is always in the past.
What the mainstream film is condemned to forget is what the non mainstream cinema is obliged to remember- that which is always beneath that which appears to be.
It questions, challenges, problematises that which appears on the surface. It makes us want to re-look at what we thought we knew. The mainstream and the commercial thrives on appearances and conditioning bound by its box office contracts to tread ever so softly on the fragile belief systems or societal codes, promising to not disturb the delicately balanced conditioning too much and guaranteeing to entertain its patrons. The non mainstream and the non commercial invites the audience to collaborate in whatever measure they are willing, to participate in the process of creating a new understanding that can only promise to expand the horizon of understanding life, as it is lived or ought to be lived. It is difficult. There are costs involved. It runs the risk of not being 'popular'. Artists are usually not selling anything like a product or even an idea; they do not become rich. They must however be able to live, make a living, to continue to create.
How do you make a living as a filmmaker? is a question the charming Bhanumati keeps on asking R. V. Ramani in his latest film Oh that's Bhanu! However I am not telling you his answer. Your guess is as good as mine. In India, some of these filmmakers do not make a living; they live. They also grow and change with each work; hopefully also plant a seed of something in their viewers through their work. The changes sometimes are huge and mind bending, however they may not be visible as an index on the box office. It is not about numbers, often like in the most valuable of things. The impact is often subtle and more organic than one can measure. it can nevertheless be felt and understood.
Which is why, one must watch some films; like this one- about which I don't want to speak today.
A Short Film about Killing Thou shalt not kill
The film had visibly shaken everyone in the room today. And the strangely monochromatic raw images seen through a green filter literally hung over our eyes. Talking about the colour, in this film, Kieślowski credits his cinematographer, Slawomir Idziak, for this deliberate visual unattractiveness accorded the film by the use of colour. When Kieslowski first showed Idziak the screenplay, he said: "I can’t even read this! It disgusts me...I’ll shoot it only on the condition that you let me do it in green and use all my filters, with which I’ll darken the image." It seems Cahiers Du Cinema wrote that it was the most originally shot movie in Cannes that year.
What is an artist? What is the value of Art to Society? To individual? Questions pop up as Jacek the protagonist, passes by a street artist drawing the portrait of a little girl in the street. A shadow hangs over every routine everyday image that hits us from the screen right through the build up till the very end.
The convicted boy Jacek, who is sentenced to death, asks to meet his lawyer before his hanging. When he meets him, he says he wanted to meet him because the lawyer shouted out his name from the window above when he was being taken to the prison in the police van. 'I am 21' he says 'and still I had tears in my eyes when I heard you call out to me.'
Jacek doesn't call for the priest. But makes a confession to the lawyer nevertheless- the lawyer who lost his case; who could not save him from capital punishment. Jacek wants him to know how what happened could have been avoided; may be. There is only half an hour they have before the hanging. Jacek wants to tell him so much more. About her kid sister dying so much before her time, his enlistment in the army, his leaving the village, his mother back home and his father's grave which has space for three. He wants the lawyer to tell his mother to let him be put in his father's grave. He has already checked with the priest and the priest told him it is possible. Even if he must die on the gallows, he may be allowed to be buried in his father's grave; be laid beside his little sister.
The senior judge tells the lawyer his was the best case he has heard in years, in favour of the abolishment of capital punishment. Lawyer says he wished he could have noticed the boy in that cafe last year, on the day of his appointment to attorneyship. They were in the same cafe that day and while he celebrated his appointment, Jacek apparently was testin his rope under the table. Lawyer thinks he could have saved him, could have prevented what was to come. We know the moment when they were together in that cafe. We have seen Jacek scare the little girls peering in at the pastries through the window glass. May be they were her kid sister's age, we think. It is nothing short of a relief when the little girls laugh back at him un-afraidly while inspiring Jacek to smile back. At the same time, we are only too aware, even if painfully so, that it is a momentary relief.
As the convicted resists his doom, an army of policemen struggle to hold him and take him to his hanging, as if they are on the front trying to save their country from a traitor. A brave patriot act.
The prosecutor meets the lawyer on the stairs and stops to congratulate him on becoming a father, even though, he adds apologetically- it may not be the right moment to congratulate him.
What is the right moment for anything?
Tajo Maru in Kurosawa's Rashomon says, but for the breeze that day, that moved the veil of that woman being carried in the palanquin, nothing of what ensued would have unfolded; he would not have ended up in a court trial defending himself against the murder of the Samurai. The fateful moment. The crime and its punishment.
Capital punishment is not awarded to the person for the crime he committed ,but always as a preventive threat, as an exemplary case, as if warning people to keep themselves from involving themselves in any such thing. What a clever ploy by a clever society to prevent crime and promote peace. Only, does it work? We teach our children in school to be competitive, to come first, to aim for the top. They are told to not take anything lying down; to stand up for each blow dealt out to them; to serve back; to always be a winner. Only, at the top there is space enough for one. Do we remember or forget that?
The system gets away with all crimes possible. Individuals are hanged for the crimes of a society. Because? Well, you can't hang a society, can you? Besides it is so complicated to analyse, understand, discern, find out who is responsible. It takes a long time and patience to really understand something. Coz when you really do understand, it is difficult to pass verdict or condemn. Society runs nevertheless on the principle of reward and punishment. It is no surprise that we must draw a line between the good and the bad, point fingers, dispense justice. Justice, for all the nobility it is accorded, is a human idea-l.
Love or War, it's forever been- the Individual versus Society.
F'or each individual that hangs, we are responsible', argues the lawyer. He is told, as many others are in the Kieslowskian universe that he is too sensitive for the job.
Try as he must, he cannot prove this in the court of law; cannot save the boy from hanging. As for this film, in particular, we are told it goes on to make history. It seems the year of the film's release coincided with the abolishment of capital punishment in post communist Poland. And some well known critics have acknowledged the role this film played. The film was widely seen outside Poland; also winning many awards.
It is important to recall that Kieslowski started in documentary, the direct referencing of it can be seen in the deeply disturbing and remarkably scripted film Camera Buff. It was when he realised how difficult the state censorship made it for the documentarian to speak the truth, that Kieslowski turned to fiction. Some truths it seemed to the young film artist, were only possible to essay through crafting a story universe around it. That he was a remarkable documentarian, does not merit underlining. The lines between fact and fiction are challenged very early on in his work, with the presence of the camera and the power of image-making often assuming metaphysical dimensions. The nuanced power accorded the act of looking via camera, cannot help but bring the work of another master, Abbas Kiarostami to mind, an impeccable voice of our times.