Unmediated

Close-up and up close

Print edition : November 28, 2014

Exterior shot of the prison wall in Necati Somez's "To Make an Example Of" (2007). Photo: By Special arrangement

From Marc Thummler's documentary "Cyclist" (2008). Photo: By Special arrangement

Abdul Nasser Madani in K.P. Sasi's "Fabricated" (2013). Photo: By Special arrangement

Adam Palenta's "Interrogation" (2010). Photo: By Special arrangement

THE contemporary documentary movement in India, as perhaps elsewhere, is less a movement and more an amorphous subconscious awareness behind, and often against, the in-your-face mainstream visual media, namely television and cinema. You can, if you have an ear to the ground, feel its vibrancy, like a pressing undercurrent tracking and eddying around the myriad ills and injustices afflicting our society, which should really shock and rouse our collective conscience, but do not, because the normative media we consume gloss over or neatly skirt them and keep our sensibilities cocooned in blithe ignorance or placid indifference. Denied outlets in multiplexes or on television screens devoted, for the most part, to pathetically risible fare which we seem to relish with such gusto, documentaries find refuge in the social media, where some of them catch on and go viral, and festivals of different hues, which showcase them, thematically or otherwise. A thoughtfully curated festival, like the one by the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) held in the Films Division, Mumbai, recently, can become a force field that impels you to contemplate a series of related issues hinging on a broad theme—the theme, in this case, obliquely formulated as “Our Lives ... To Live (Seeking a Just World)”.

The ways in which the right to a free and time-bound trial are systematically and cruelly shortchanged so that the undertrial finds himself/herself languishing in prison for long spells may vary from situation to situation and country to country. But for the person at the receiving end, they have the same agonising effect of becoming what seems a collateral casualty in the process of the inscrutable operation of criminal justice in a so-called civilised society. The reasons why Abdul Nasser Madani finds himself incarcerated for such long spells (first in Tamil Nadu for nearly 10 years on the charge of being involved in the Coimbatore blasts of 1998, a charge of which he was, less that period from his lifespan, legally absolved; and now again in Bangalore for the blasts there in 2008) would be laughable, but for the poignancy of his debilitated and deteriorating physique and physical estrangement from his family—wife, two sons and aged parents.

In his work, Fabricated (2013), K.P. Sasi boldly and forcefully captures this distortion of justice and the pain and suffering it imposes on Madani and on the lives of those around him who are caught in it. The parvenu politician, the spiritual leader, the inspired orator, the trusting friend, the gullible professional, the affectionate family man, the inconvenient religious fellow traveller lay claim, at different points in the work, to our sense of admiration, sympathy, pity, helplessness, righteousness and indignation. What hits one with devastating effect is the home truth one of the respondents delivers: that anyone, really, can be picked up on trumped up charges and put away for a long stretch of time pending trial. Bail being the norm and jail the exception no longer necessarily holds true. Recent reports indicating that a third of those in prison in India are undertrials point to the magnitude of this problem beyond Madani and the few other known faces in a similar predicament. “Innocent until proved guilty” is poor rhetorical solace for the guiltless who find themselves behind bars for long periods before, if, they are let free. The wait, imaginably, becomes unbearably excruciating for convicts on death row with no reprieve in sight. The letters sent by those who went to the gallows, the wrenching memories of the odd one spared death in the last minute, the judge who has handed down several death sentences but is more penitent about his shooting a bird dead when he was young, the one who witnesses a hanging and is haunted by it, and the remorseful retired jailer are part of the emotionally clinching resource for Necati Somez’s Turkish documentary To Make an Example Of (2007). Turkey formally did away with capital punishment in 2002; there has been no death sentence carried out since 1984. The director harks back to the 1920 to 1984 period, during which 712 persons, including 15 women were sent to the gallows. It seems as if for him it is important to remember, even if only in order not to forget. As John Berger put it in the context of the mnemonic value of the photograph, “Memory implies a certain act of redemption. What is remembered has been saved from nothingness. What is forgotten has been abandoned.” It is as if he seeks to save these 712 names from nothingness, even rolling them all up on the screen year-wise, in the order in which their lives were put out, along with the end credits.

The calm and resigned tone of the letters penned by those hanged, on the eve of their hanging, to their dear ones, is eerily unsettling. Ironically, the two jails where many of the hangings took place have since become tourist centres. But what for the rest of the visitors is vicarious evocation, is all too differently and traumatically real for one person among them, who had earlier spent years in one of these jails under sentence of death, and fortuitously been spared the noose. He remembers with contained pain the preciousness of the sights of the outside from his dank cell. Clinging desperately to the high-set barred window, fingers frozen, he would gaze for hours at the ships in the dock beyond. For those inside and facing certain death, the big conversations of life, he says, are done. “Everything is over. Everything has been said.” Small talk is all, and becomes all-consuming.

Early in the film, a lawyer quotes a professor to suggest that actually witnessing a death sentence being carried out makes all the difference: “Whatever you say about death penalty is insufficient. We have to witness it.” Moving accounts of the final minutes on the scaffold are graphically recalled by those who had witnessed those hangings. These, one would imagine, would have a lasting deterrent effect. But then executions in the United States by the electric chair or by lethal injection are invariably watched by a group of people; and the practice, including botched executions that prolong the agony for the victim, continues in several states of the country. For someone from a country where capital punishment is in force, the documentary has the effect of a searing accusation and indictment. Sixty-nine countries, it reminds us as a parting shot, still send their citizens to death as ultimate punishment for their crimes. At the time the documentary was made, 20,000 persons across the world were on death row. That number may have gone up since. One shudders to think that that number may include those, even if a few, who may actually be innocent of the crime they have been sentenced for; as indeed has been surfacing in investigations of past executions carried out in the U.S.

The accounts, real and exaggerated, factual and fictional, of those jailed and tortured in totalitarian regimes are by now legion and have, with the Cold War behind us, lost much of their ideological fizz. But along comes this disarming docu-featurette by Adam Palenta, Interrogation (2010), in which a soldier of the Polish resistance movement convicted by the Stalinist regime when Poland was under Soviet control in 1946 speaks to the camera about his ordeals in jail, with a certain zest and panache. What he undergoes is by no stretch of imagination funny; the manner of his recounting it, almost defiantly, is. It is dark humour, the darkness accentuated by the cutaway visuals representing the bleak prison setting and barbed wired surroundings. The punch line—absurd, funny and sad at the same time—is that he does not know why he is being tortured. He is asked to own up to and sign all kinds of things. When the body cannot take any more pain, he does. And so it goes, this cruel funny business of extracting imaginary confessions and cooking up incrimination.

The German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a surveillance state has been convincingly portrayed in The Lives of Others (2006) and fairly widely seen across the world. Marc Thummler’s docufeature Cyclist (2008) is a tongue-firmly-in-cheek coda to that film. It dips into the 200-page dossier the Stasi in East Berlin had put together of the dissident photographer Harald Hauswald over 12 years—a daily, hour by hour, snoop account—before the wall came down. Juicy snippets from that surveillance tract are strung together as the audio track and Hauswald’s photographs of the city, frowned upon by the East German authorities for the drab realism in which they capture everyday life on the street, constitute the matching visuals. As Hauswald explained in an interview, the reason the establishment was upset with his work was because “officially there were no depressed and unhappy people in the GDR”.

A striking feature of these and the other fascinating offerings in this mini festival collection is the iterative power of the first person conversational or testimonial voice and/or face in close-up. It remains an oft-used yet the most direct and refreshingly credible mode of sharing a lived experience for a documentary. The close up has a different physiognomic function in the mythos of fictive cinema—to iconise and hierarchise. The star aggregates the maximum number of cosmetic close-ups in a film and in the process sets himself apart as more and more unapproachable and superior to those who share screen space with him, and to the viewer.

The ordinary documentary close-up, on the other hand, rendered honestly and without artifice, illustrates and narrativises pain, protest, want, hope, happiness, despondency, subjugation, or rebellion, even when the words spoken by the solitary face in the frame remain what they are— naked words, not clothed in denotative or connotative visuals. It has extraordinary, almost telepathic, power, and takes us instantly up close to the heart of the matter. Itself a distinctive signifier image, it is at the same time the antidote to the overkill of images in the age of the haphazard accumulation of spectacles.

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