A conversation between the Berlin filmmaker Philip Widmann and the Indian filmmaker and curator Shai Heredia on Widmanns film Fictitious Force. The film shows the last day of a popular religious festival that is called Charak Mela, which takes place every year during the Bengali new year in mid-April.
Let’s first say something about how this conversation came together: You’re Shai Heredia, filmmaker and founding director of Experimenta India, the only experimental film festival in India. The festival was based in Bombay from 2003 to 2006, and moved to Bangalore in 2007. We met during the last Bombay edition in 2006, and in 2015 you screened my film Fictitious Force at Experimenta. The film was shot in India, and it was the premiere screening in the country where it was made, although in a place 1500 km from where it was shot.
I figured it would be a good occasion for a conversation on the film to be published here, and now, several months after Experimenta, here it is.
A dialogue, yes. Perhaps you could summarise the film to get started: What is it that we see in Fictitious Force?
What appears in the film is the last day of a popular religious festival that is called Charak Mela, which takes place every year during the Bengali new year in mid-April. In the case of the film, the Charak Mela happens in a market square in north Kolkata, the oldest part of the city.
The sannyasis performing in the festival, 12 men from two neighborhoods close to the market, are devotees of Shiva. For several days, they purify themselves and perform symbolic self-mutilation to please Lord Shiva. The final day is basically a wedding party for Shiva and Lilavati, who he takes as his wife on one of the previous days. There is a large funfair in the street outside the market, and inside the market the sannyasis one after the other swing on a rope through the air at a height of around 15 meters, throwing God’s gifts into the audience. The rotation is meant to be connected to fertility, which is why it is popular among people wishing for children.
So you first encountered and photographed this folk/religious festival while visiting Kolkata in 2008. It’s interesting that you chose to go back to re-engage and re-shoot it on film. It seems like the film, as experimental ethnography, became your attempt at deciphering, comprehending, and participating in the cultural context.
In 2008, I spent several months in Kolkata. One of the first things I did was to join a local friend for a walking tour – she offered these professionally at the time, the walks explore parts of the city that are a bit off the map, even if this sometimes just means turning a corner. At some point during this walk, we reached a market, and there were these flying men. I remember that I had only a few exposures on my roll of film left, and that I left with the feeling of not having been capable to actually turn what I experienced into images.
Some years later I rediscovered these photographs, and the impression of a certain ineptness in capturing what I saw persisted. So the project started out of a desire of coming closer to my own perception, and a certain fascination for what these men are doing in the ritual, their determination, and how everyone involved deals with the obvious risks that occur when you tie someone to a rope to make them fly. At the same time, I realised that I didn’t have a clue what the ritual was about, so I started contacting people. Now of course, I know more but still not enough to attempt to make it a part of the film.
I’m not entirely sure about the term »experimental ethnography« though. Of course, the film references a history of ethnographic film through its subject and also through its materiality, being shot on 16mm in black and white.
It also references documentary because it shows things that would have happened without the presence of the camera. What it doesn’t reference is experimental film, I think. So it sits a bit uncomfortably between all chairs. The film gets shown both in experimental and in documentary contexts. For myself, it’s more something like an attempt at ethnographic poetry, even though this is not a film genre. Since you brought up the term, where would you place the film? What discourse does it belong to?
I think Fictitious Force falls between the cracks and defies genre classification – it slides between documentary, visual ethnography, and experimental film contexts. I see the film referencing experimental film quite directly as its content is significantly embedded in its meticulously crafted formal abstraction – the aesthetic, materiality, texture, and grain of the image. You are attempting to make a cinematic study of the difference between perception and experience by exploring the term »fictitious force« within the context of a Hindu ritual, without really offering an in depth study of the ritual in cultural terms. You, in fact, quite candidly mentioned your distance to the subject. It’s important to note that you chose to address this distance in terms of physics. Also, shooting with the restrictions that 16mm brings seems to have impacted the way you have engaged with your subject.
The term »fictitious force« in physics describes forces that appear for instance when someone rotates through the air on an amusement park flying carousel. If one was to watch this from the ground, the forces perceived are different from the ones that the person flying around experiences. Thus the fictitiousness.
Eventually, the film speaks about difference itself. About not having the same bodies, languages, and experiences. Which doesn’t mean that there is no way to share and exchange. Of course there is. But one has to deal with the gaps somehow.
We shot the film on 16mm black and white. When thinking about whether and how to turn what I had seen in 2008 into a film, I decided at some point to emphasise the visual aspects. I already knew that language, and a mediated access to the people I was dealing with would stand in the way of doing anything that comes close to a documentary, analytic, or even ethnographic approach. So the decision was to focus on the visual expressions of the different forces present, to do something that is primarily concerned with the body and light and motion. Color would have been an obstacle for this.
The second decision was to also introduce risk for us, shooting something that happens only on one day with a limited amount of film stock. Not for the thrill of it, but rather to somehow find an approximation or an equivalent to what these men are doing: performing physical work and taking risks. During the preparation we learned however that there is a re-run for the neighbourhood on the day after the main festival.
I imagine it must have been quite difficult to get access to what is a rather closed community that practices this ritual. Negotiating the cultural gap must have been a complex experience during the research and shooting of the film. The issue of access is obviously crucial to the choices you had to make while filming and deciding how to represent the ritual.
I’ll try to answer that from the other end – from the perspective of the finished film:
When I showed the film at Experimenta in Bangalore I realised once more that India is a multitude of places, languages, and cultures, and that for people in Bangalore what is being depicted in the film is as strange as it is for me. For different reasons, but strange in any case. I mean, I’m talking to you about the film, as an Indian, but you are not Bengali, not Hindu, and not male. And Charak is a very male affair, which is why the friend who had taken me there first in 2008 refused to do research for the film – because she is female and her family is not Bengali. She just wouldn’t have got any access.
Eventually, I worked with an all-male local crew. For financial reasons, we had relatively little time to spend with the people that appear in the film prior to the shooting. I arrived in Kolkata two weeks before the shooting date, and while the people I worked with had done some initial research before my arrival, contacting the sannyasis, the people in the market and from the trust that is organising the festival, all took place within these two weeks. Creating access was not that difficult as the sannyasis get quite a lot of media coverage for what they do every year, and while our shooting with them was somewhat exceptional – visiting them in their homes, staying for the whole duration of the Charak, personal talk – it seemed to be more something of a PR procedure for them. They were very pragmatic, and we also had to choose a pragmatic approach, as much of the preparation was dedicated to solving the logistics of the shooting. This contributed to a distance that is very perceptible in the film.
Very early in the process, I realised that an »informed« representation of the ritual was out of reach. Not that it was my wish to be able to do such a thing. I was looking for something that’s beneath that on a level of perception – an outsider’s perception of course – and during the making of the film I came to realise how far outside I was in fact. It’s probably highly symptomatic that during the main shooting I was on a roof opposite the market, with no control whatsoever. This »removed-ness« then became crystalline during editing, and I started looking for ways to liquefy and address it from within the film.
After showing the film in Bangalore, I’ve had the possibility to show the film to the main protagonist and his uncle who is the head of the 12 sannyasis who perform in the Charak. There was little reaction. A few handshakes and smiles, that was it. So after all, the screening situation affirmed the type of pragmatic relationship we had: a barter relationship. I got my film; they got money for their cooperation. Very unromantic, especially when one thinks of how documentary lives off the romantic concept of coming close to someone, gaining their trust, and maybe even resulting in a confession of some kind. That’s very desirable of course, but I think especially in ethnography it has been widely discussed that the motivation of the observer and the observed in a cooperation often differ fundamentally, and that this is actually worthy of open reflection rather than concealment.
You have attempted this by bringing your negotiation process to the fore through the use of text, audio, and language. The complexity of language both spoken and written is also interestingly explored as a filmic device.
In the film, Bengali and English text appears alternately in black on white or white on black, similar to the title cards of a silent film, but in terms of position and size also referring to subtitling. The text seems to be something like a fragmented dialogue, perhaps between you and the main protagonist of the film? What were your intentions, and why the inversion of »positive« and »negative« title cards?
Both Bengali and English were the working languages. The people in front of the camera spoke only Bengali, the crew spoke Bengali and English, and I had to rely on translations between Bengali and English. In a way, that is an escalation of the estrangement and distance I described above. It’s not only not possible to experience what the other experiences, even communicating about it needs mediation. We dealt quite well with this during the preparation of the film, but without a possibility for direct exchange there eventually seemed to be a major gap.
The text is partly based on actual conversations and their translations, partly on pure imagination. I wanted to mark the difference: One party speaks in white type on black background, with Bengali being on top. The other party speaks in black type on white background, with English being on top.
There is a tendency in my work to always return to language. The lack of a common language during the making took up so much space in the process that I had the desire the invent a common one. As a very simple exchange.
When I think of previous projects, spoken or written language was always a means to communicate with something that has passed – history, the dead – or that is absent. So in the case of Fictitious Force, it does something similar. Language addresses the absence of language.