Dispatch from DIFF: A Night Of Knowing Nothing is Full of Synthetic Joy and Authentic Pain

Payal Kapadia’s film won the Best Documentary Award at Cannes in 2021 and was screened at the 11th edition of Dharamshala International Film Festival
Dispatch from DIFF: A Night Of Knowing Nothing is Full of Synthetic Joy and Authentic Pain

Perhaps I should begin with how I watched the film (I promise, it is relevant). In an inflatable theater at the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF), with indoor air-conditioning and a Dolby 5.1 surround sound, the audience had covered every inch of space, seated even on the steps of the aisle, sweatered and shawled; the shadows of their heads, their hair, falling over the lower half of the screen, mixing with the impressionistic images of Payal Kapadia’s film, A Night Of Knowing Nothing.

In between there was a powercut, a blackout and a stunning silence remained while the generator purred the film back into action. No movement, no uneasy shifting, just reeling from a shock to the senses — a meditation but also a citric sharpness. Later, someone I met at the festival told me he was thankful for the blackout, that we needed an interval, to just breathe. Another person, a filmmaker, recounted watching the film with a college audience with a terribly grainy projector and somehow, she would not have it any other way.

I say film, but I mean something more expansive. (Kapadia prefers the rather mechanical term “hybrid documentary”.) For one, there is a lot of reading, a lot of text on screen. It is a stylised archive of our broken, fighting generation, where the brawn and brutality of the oppressive state and right wing goons infest the imagination, trying to break its spirit — from the clobbering of students at Jawaharlal Nehru University as they chanted slogans against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens, to Rohith Vemula’s suicide, to the 2015 protests at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) protests over the appointment as chairperson of television actor and right wing enthusiast Gajendra Chauhan. Quoting the poet Aamir Aziz — “Everything will be remembered” — Kapadia has stitched together footage of pain. It is an archive and to question the film — as you must for its brave but broad and unwieldy strokes — is to question the need for an archive. Over these visuals is the voiceover of a woman, L, a fictional concoction by Kapadia, reading out her love letters. (She used a similar device in her 2016 short, Afternoon Clouds.) At once, the question hits you — how does the romantic sound voiced by the calming timbre of Bhumisuta Das and the stylised or politically-charged archival visuals connect?

The love letters are to a man who refuses to stand up to his parents, who refuse to let him pursue his love with L, from a marginalised community. In one of the most probing moments of this film, L asks if he could stand next to her protesting the state, the right wing, the powers that be, what stops him from standing up to his own parents? Why do the politics you perform so emphatically on the streets recede once you enter your home? What do you call this convenient progressive posturing?

In another flipping-of-the-switch moment, L recounts a protest where she is face to face with a police woman, armed with a baton. For a second, she thinks about her, the labours the policewoman must have sweated through to be at work— the breakfast made for the husband, the house decked, the children sated and burped — and that giving this thread of sympathy to the police woman does not absolve her of the violence she then goes onto commit. That the two feelings can co-exist, however uncomfortably. It is here, when the film recognises how destabilised and unironed the politics of the progressive voice — or really, any voice— is, that it truly is able to elevate itself to something more than just a moving collage of devastation.

Devastation? Kapadia would not agree, perhaps, because she bookends the film with scenes of joy, of people dancing with an infectious, raucous energy. That the revolution, as splintered and poisoned by irony as it is, can be joyful too. That Lenin told us that revolutions are festivals of the oppressed.

It is here that I take issue with the film. The joy she shows feels synthetic to the pain that she archives, like an afterthought, like something that does not belong here; like something she wants to belong here, but that chafes at this inclusion. It is there on screen — we can read it, we can hear it, but how do we feel it when we just rewatched the video of goons breaking into a campus, police battering kids in the library, a hammer about to strike, a baton about to shatter some bone? No. There is no joy here. Just devastation.

Kapadia’s work, what critic Najrin Islam called “post-photography gestalt exercises”, have this remarkable quality of thrust and animation even when things are still. Her ability to capture a moment and make it feel like it has no future, is astounding. That the present is all there is. That you can lounge and watch Godard movies as someone does in this film — movies with young characters deadpanning through life — unconvinced of a future.

Edited and photographed by Ranabir Das, there is something so beautiful and bold about the stylised, black and white film. It is so comfortable keeping its characters in shadows, so unperturbed by the lacking light. Sometimes there is a breeze in a frame and a table cover, until then in the thick black of a shadow, suddenly comes into the light. And you wonder, how much of the frame did you not know until now? How much of knowing nothing are we okay with? When will the breeze nudge us towards the light?

The film was shown at the 11th edition of Dharamshala International Film Festival, from 3 to 6 November 2022. A digital edition of DIFF 2022 will go online from 7 to 13 November with a truncated lineup.

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