TIFF’s Wavelengths: From Other Places
Shambhavi Kaul discusses her work.
Wind blows through a forest at night, picking up as thunder cracks; branches shake violently until tendrils of mist appear, slowly curling above a village. So opens the artist Shambhavi Kaul’s fourth short experimental film, Mount Song (2013), which will receive its world premiere on Monday, September 9 within the Wavelengths program of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, then screen again as part of the Views from the Avant-Garde program at the New York Film Festival next month. Mount Song follows the increasingly rainbow-colored mist as it winds its way through what look like Oriental temples and around doors, cages, and lanterns, all of which seem to take on lives on their own. Ominous music swells, and the wind continues to echo. Like Kaul’s previous film works—two of which, Scene 32 (2009) and Place for Landing (2010), are available streaming here—Mount Song comes to seem both familiar and strange, made up of recognizable sounds and images whose origins can’t quite be placed. In the following monologue, created over the course of an extended e-mail conversation with Kaul, the artist tells the story of how she came to make Mount Song as well as her other films:
Shambhavi Kaul: I grew up in India, a country with a long, rich film history. To put this into perspective, the Lumière Brothers’ cinematograph arrived in India in 1896, along with their Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (1895), which had itself premiered in Paris just six months before. By the end of the year, Indian filmmakers had purchased the Lumière equipment and were beginning to make their own films. One of the earliest Indian films ever made, in fact, was The Arrival of a Train in Bombay Station (1898). I believe that all cinema is characterized by this type of exchange. The question of what is transported, translated, and erased through circulation—embedded already within this little piece of history—is very important to me.
My own family was involved in making cinema in the city of Mumbai, where I grew up, and many of our family’s friends were also filmmakers. They belonged to a small group of diverse artists who are now collectively referred to as the Indian New Wave, of which my father, Mani Kaul, was a prominent member. During my childhood (in the 1970s and 1980s), there was an ongoing discussion in my home about a possible formal language for a truly Indian cinema, and astonishing films came out of it. Growing up in this environment left me with the feeling that filmmaking was the only job one could do. Later on, I resisted this default position before coming to embrace it again, particularly as my own project began to find its direction within the experience of making another home in the United States and subsequently living a bi-continental life.
From a very early stage, I had assumed that making cinema was necessarily about reinventing cinema’s process of functioning. This approach is without a doubt the basis through which my work now belongs to another complex cinematic history, that of experimental cinema. The influence of Western avant-garde cinema upon my work has led to me to consider art-making as a process of research and experimentation. I often start with a shot or image or group of images that seem to work towards something I want to say and then elaborate. I also often start with one idea and end up somewhere else. The act of searching is vital to my work, both in the process of making it and in the way that I intend for it to be received.
For instance, while editing my first experimental film work, Scene 32, I discovered that juxtaposing the textures of hand-processed film and the bare openness of hi-res video created a tension so that, rather than a description of a particular place, I had an elaborate and descriptive question about that place. I discovered that I could make a landscape study that wondered at the possibility of knowing anything by means of these technologies. Scene 32 was shot in the North Western desert of India in the place where I was born. (This is also where the celluloid was then hand-processed, such that it has all the markings of the moment of being there.) The impulse to make such a work must be, at some level, an attempt to recreate the instant of origin, and it is true that Scene 32’s carefully ordered arrangement of desert views suggests something like the beginning of a new universe. Yet, by pointing to the poetic limits of media, I could point out the limitations inherent in describing a specific place as a site of origin. This eventually became my somewhat abstract way of expressing notions of identity in my work—also expressing the potential to remain in an uncertain place, rather than venturing into available frames.
My next work, Place for Landing, was made in my home in North Carolina, and the child that you see in fleeting glimpses is my son Kavi, who was two years old at the time. Every shot in Place for Landing is a mirror reflection, which I became interested in using because it seemed to me that within a house, the mirror presented an alternate place. Several of the mirrors in our house are old and mottled, and their textures became as much a subject of the work as did their reflections. The mirrors came to form their own landscape, not so much a site for self-reflection as a parallel universe within the intimate confines of the domestic space. I then reflected early satellite images of the moon into the mirrors and, with the use of extended focal changes, the marks on the mirrors began to float as if there were clouds over the moon.
Place for Landing thus became an in-camera layered collage that assembled images of my child, the moon, and my home. I added to this assemblage a special effects-laden musical soundtrack taken from a 1967 Bollywood sci-fi film. When I first screened Place for Landing in New York, the audience almost universally received the music as Cuban, while two of my friends in the audience—one Indian and the other Iranian—received it as unmistakably Bollywood. I found this mixture of reactions to be a really productive type of confusion because it made me realize, for the first time, that Cuban music had been appropriated into Bollywood. And if I were to speak about my engagement in a broader way, I could say that I am interested in appropriation—that is, appropriation in cinema, of subordinate meaning for the sake of some other more legible meaning.
Often these subordinate meanings are the aspects of cinema thought of as background elements, assumed or invisible. In my last two works, 21 Chitrakoot (2012) and Mount Song, I have been more overt about foregrounding them, actually repurposing older imagery for new works. I have been most interested in the imagery of films and television of the late 1970s and 1980s that were produced and distributed in networks outside America and Europe. In both 21 Chitrakootand in Mount Song, as well as in a series of videos to come, I have been exploring specific groups of cinematic production that fall into this category. They were realized during a time when Bollywood was not just screened widely in India, but also in Russia and Egypt and elsewhere. We watched Hong Kong cinema in India, and so these productions emerged in conversation, making it possible to imagine them as tied together with a thread that is neither national nor oppositional. More specifically, I am drawn to the depiction of place in these works. I have a feeling that the eve of the global era is recorded in these films by a very particular representation of place. It is one that retrieves, from the colonial era, a kind of imagery that may be internationally understood and exchanged, but that has been updated with sci-fi elements and special effects.
In 21 Chitrakoot, for instance, I reused the chroma-key backdrops of one of the most popular Indian TV series; in fact, it is among the most-watched TV series of all time. The backdrops, even before I excavated them, were made up of a mixture of machine-generated images and repurposed materials. This means that what appears to be the mountains of ancient India could actually be anything from an early video toaster effect to an image of the Swiss Alps. These images form an unspecific group, yet taken as a whole they represent India in a very visceral way. To some they are images of the East that could have been made in Hollywood or elsewhere, as one viewer suggested by remarking that they evoked ancient Rome.
Mount Song is an extension of the work that I began with 21 Chitrakoot. The piece consists of reconstituted imagery from Hong Kong cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, which was widely distributed though official and unofficial means in India as well as elsewhere. Here my interest centered on the set constructions and related special effects in these films that depict a much-circulated and easily recognized version of the ancient East. Within these works there is, on the one hand, a desire to present something specific, even powerful, about this past place of deep attachment, yet cinematic legibility may require the formation of a more generic narrative. The combined struggle to imagine and to be understood draws me to these works. I do not know what is replaced and reshaped during the process of struggle, and my small excavations are searching in nature.
Inasmuch as my work is imagined for the movie theater, I think of my projects as acts of recirculation, potentially creating small disruptions in the regular circuits of meaning-making where background actors may come up for re-experience. Hopefully, new responses are formed to some old clichés. Returning to Place for Landing, for instance, we might ask what the appropriation of Cuban music by Bollywood means. Are Indians predisposed to nostalgic feelings for Cuba when encountering certain Cuban music? This kind of displaced surplus response is what comes about when one re-circulates materials that have not attained a collective cultural understanding, or at least not a stable one. Perhaps then the experience of viewing my works has the potential to unearth genealogies of appropriation by the camera, by cinema—the parts of cinema that are not understood collectively, but upon which collective understanding is made possible.
I still lack an answer to my own question of how the act of viewing cinema can be productively disruptive today. Part of this search involves going beyond what is traditionally considered to be cinema. The complex experience of imagining community and even place though such dematerializing media as Skype, for instance, has raised productive questions for my cinematic work. Last April I collaborated with a writer who makes poetry from texts found on the Internet in an installation that combined repurposed video and text. It was a great experience, and alongside my single-channel work, I am now working on a new project that includes moving image, photographs, objects, and text.
I am excited about the possibility of including so many different media in what I still consider to be a cinematic practice. For those of us who make work with the movie theater in mind, perhaps this is one way to respond to the fact that after a hundred years of regarding the movie theater as a self-contained entity, we can no longer conceive of it as providing a discrete experience—meaning that the deluge of audiovisual content is no longer inside darkened rooms but rather all around us, and we must consider the consequences of this. I find myself thinking a lot about another cinematic moment—the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s, in particular the art collective that we now call Vertov, whose work also dealt with these questions. I think about how their ideas might play out in present times: in particular, rethinking the value of the social exchange that takes place in the movie theater.
These issues are all the more important to me because my work is generally shown at film festivals within curated programs of short films screened inside theaters. My experience has been of untold excitement when people assemble as a community inside a dark room for the sake of a show. There are so many different levels of intimacy in the theater, and the viewing experience itself can be an intense process of discovery as various works are imagined in conjunction with each other.
It is ironic that this discussion is appearing on a website that provides the opportunity to watch cinema online. I certainly share my work online; there is no doubt that I myself have cumulatively watched more work online than I have in the theater. Truthfully, I am also drawn to the other type of intimacy, the one with my personal computer, of sitting alone next to its screen with headphones and with the potential for repeated viewing. The Internet is by no means the movie theater, but it has created—and is still creating—new possibilities for circulating cinema.