I Am Not Interested in Fetishizing the Form
Shai Heredia, member of 25 FPS's Grand Jury, talks about the festival program she curated, the history of Indian experimental documentary film, her work and politics.
Shai Heredia, filmmaker and curator, is the founding director of Experimenta, the moving image art biennial of India. Her films in collaboration with Shumona Goel – I Am Micro (2012) and An Old Dog’s Diary (2016) – have been exhibited widely to critical acclaim, winning several awards, including the Grand Prix at the 25 FPS festival. She has curated for film festivals and art venues worldwide. Based in Bangalore, Heredia teaches at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology.
Shai was the Grand Jury member at the 25 FPS international experimental film festival in Zagreb, Croatia. We seized the opportunity to discuss her festival program The Jury Presents: A Bit of That India, the history of Indian experimental documentary films, her own films and of course – politics.
KP: Traditionally, grand jury members at 25 FPS have their small program in which they show films that influenced their work. You decided to show us four very different Indian experimental documentaries. Why did you choose these films?
I was conscious of the fact that I would be showing films to a new audience who didn’t know much about Indian cinema so I decided to include a mix of four experimental explorations that resonated with my own filmmaking and curatorial practice. From animation (Pramod Pati’s Abid) to crazy experimental ethnography (S.N.S. Sastry’s This Bit of That India, available on YouTube), Ruchir Joshi’s film Tales from Planet Kolkata, a critique of representation and post colonial identity, to Priya Sen’s Noon Day Dispensary, a vérité insight into the health care system which is quite radical in its one-take form, a moment opens out into a dramatic narrative so to speak. So I thought that this arc would take you through different kinds of socio-political ideas.
KP: Why did you choose to focus on documentary films in your program?
I’m interested in the documentary form. My engagement with Films Division of India through a research project that I started in the early 2000s has been significant in both rooting and expanding my practice. At Films Division there was a collective of filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s who were making some super experimental films, but in 1975, when the prime minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency, their work was shut down and the films were abandoned in the FD archives. Since I started digging out these films I began to show the work at Experimenta and to a wider international audience.
FD was important for its experimental practice before 1975, but also, during the 1990s in the pre-digital age, it was the only place for funding experimental films. If you wanted to make a film, you needed 35mm film as that was our national cinema format. Unless you were making feature films within the industry, you needed state funding. FD, as a public institution, supported many experimental filmmakers who later became famous. They all explored documentaries. It was this context that allowed experimentation with the short format – to gain practice, you wouldn’t make a feature film, but a short film with the FD support.
KP: So what is Films Division? Is it a collective or a formal institution?
It was initially a British institution, called the Film Advisory Board. They made British newsreels in India. After India gained independence, it was renamed the Films Division of India and it basically worked this way: filmmakers would travel across the country, shoot footage and bring it to the production house in Bombay where films were edited (often different films contained the same footage). When films were finished, they were sent back out across the country and projected in 1000s of cinemas before the feature films. These films were used to construct the idea of a nation, because India is huge and diverse, different parts speak different languages. You had to construct the idea of India as a nation to bring all these parts together. That was the agenda, but also a way in which many experimental documentary films were seen by thousands of people across the country.
KP: But if Films Division was used for propaganda, how did its filmmakers produce such unconventional experimental films?
It was because Jean Bhownagary, the chief producer of Films Division, was very progressive and supportive of experimenting. He was a visionary, he was into cinema, he saw film as an art form, so he supported filmmakers who were actually creating subversive work, and the films were very often very critical of the state. When I show these films to my students today, they are shocked. For example, Explorer by Pramod Pati (1968), a stop-motion piece, has a close-up of text that says "Fuck censorship". My students are shocked that the state supported such films as today a radical image like that would be impossible to put out there.
Anyway, after Films Division was established, its employees, even bureaucrats, began to make films. FD even started an exchange program: one artist called Akbar Padamsee received funding to set up a space, the Vision Exchange Workshop, where he invited other artists like painters and sculptors to work with this new medium. They made some films, few of them are now accessible, but it opened the door for other artists to come to Films Division and start to explore the form. Again, that was happening in the 1970s. Bhownagary supported this, but after 1975 it began to peter out.
KP: Filmmaker Amrit Gangar claims that Indian experimental cinema is not "experimental". He suggests a different term, calling these works "cinema of prayoga". What does it mean? And what do you think about it?
Amrit Gangar is trying to create a certain formal theory that is rooted specifically in the Indian art historical context. However I don’t fully understand how his theory differs from other similar Western theories. Prayoga actually means "experimental". Anyway, to me cinema of prayoga is essentially about constructing a new canon. But I’m not interested in that. My practice is all about critiquing and resisting the canon.
KP: Why do you find it important to resist the canon? And how do you do it?
I grew up at a time when my only role-models were Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray for example. But I refused to accept that those were the only filmmakers doing radical work. We are such a cinema-rich country, for example there are so many unknown women who were making films. So I started spending time at Films Division and National Film Archives to find and show these films, speak to people, meet filmmakers. That’s also what kick started my curatorial focus with Experimenta. It became important for me to create multiple histories and resist the singular history that had been constructed by bureaucrats and academics.
Over the years I have shown amazing films like Chhatrabhang by Nina Sugati SR (1975). I found great films in the archive of Arsenal Institute for film and video in Berlin, which is much more accessible than archives in India which are highly bureaucratic and really gendered – I would basically need to be accompanied by a man with a beard to get access. I didn’t want to deal with this, so I started to work with the archives abroad – they had films which found their way there through festivals, I think. Arsenal had a print of Pattabhi Reddy’s Samskara (1970) that was filmed in Bangalore where I live now. We brought this print to Bangalore to show and discuss with the local community and artists who made the film in the 1960s. That’s what I’m interested in, not fetishizing the form.
KP: Yes, fetishizing canon films is very common, even in alternative film circles.
A lot of my relation to cinema has come from my exposure to the Western avant-garde and I have a great deal of respect for this context, but I think it can also be really oppressive for young practitioners. They think: "I have to make films like this and only then can my work be experimental!" So it has become a genre, which is a contradiction in terms. It’s experimental film – it cannot be defined, it’s about exploration!
KP: Indian experimental films are also clearly influenced by Western cinema. Joshi’s film Tales from Planet Kolkata directly mentions Godard and Pasolini. How were Indian filmmakers linked to the West?
There is an interesting project by writer and curator Shanay Jhaveri about foreign filmmakers in India such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean Renoir. He was researching transnational relations that existed through film. I think Indian artists were very interested in the cinema of the world. That’s why festivals and film societies were very important. We’ve always been exposed to films from the West, especially Eastern Europe because our socialism was constructed on the basis of the Soviet model. Our film institute and FD were inspired by Soviet institutions. We also had strong relations with socialist countries through the Non-Alignment Movement. FD authors were also coming to the former Yugoslavia and showing their films. There was always a dialogue – not so much with America, but definitely with Europe, especially socialist countries.
KP: How did the state support films during socialism? And how is it now during capitalism?
As any socialist state, India was actually encouraging culture and risk-taking. It wasn’t an insecure state. Of course, there were parameters within which you had to function, but India was open, progressive and it stuck to the values of democracy, until Indira Gandhi became insecure, started getting fascist ideas and declared a state of emergency from 1975 to 1977. But during the 1980s there was support for developing and producing art cinema... The state took this seriously as a part of its identity. That has changed as we are now in the full capitalist era. The state supports art house films, but not like before, it’s often as co-production with foreign funds. The production has become hyperindustrialized. Festivals used to provide a cultural experience, but now they function primarily as a market. And the state is participating in the market, facilitating the industry, which is obviously quite problematic. But we do have contexts like Netflix now which opens up a space for young filmmakers to make fresh and new stuff.
KP: Croatian filmmakers are often told that they should rely on the market to get their film funded. How does experimental cinema fare at the huge Indian market?
Ha ha, the market is not interested in experimental film! Experimental film exists in its own universe. It’s about community and distribution through film festivals. The market has no relation to it at all. Some of my closest friend make major feature commercial films, we respect each other, but our work is not connected in any way.
It is important, though, to stay open to a wider public. As a director of Experimenta, the biennial of experimental films, I’m interested in developing a sensibility, a sense of politics, a critical sense towards the world around you. So Experimenta is not only for filmmakers and artists, but we have lawyers, scientists, engineers, the general public... It is really open and people enjoy it. We have pretty large audiences – it took years to build this audience, of course.
KP: Together with Shumona Goel you directed two short experimental films, I Am Micro (2012) and An Old Dog’s Diary (2016). In both films you discuss the relation between art and wealth. An Old Dog’s Diary is a film about the famous Indian painter Francis Newton Souza. In the film he poses a question: "Do you need art if you don’t have bread?" Well, do you?
It’s a tough question! And I think it is essential for every artist in India to consider. You step out onto the road, and you are surrounded by poverty and class discrepancies. This is a perennial question that we are confronted by. And I think it’s important to talk about it even if there’s no definite answer. It’s something that we feel and experience every day.
I have a strong sense of art as labor. It took us many years to make these films because both of us have full-time jobs and full lives. So we are also processing this luxury we have to make the work we make. There is a struggle, for sure, but it is still a luxury. It is tough, we navigate through lots of stuff, sometimes we invest our own money, our struggles are very present in the films. For example, we like to shoot on film because it is a medium that we studied. We would find it hard to shoot digitally, simply because we’re not familiar with the medium. Aesthetically, we feel celluloid images are also softer, which we like. So we said to ourselves that we will shoot on film which was more complicated and time consuming. Our 10minute films take at least 3 years to make...
Our films are also a critique of the culture industry. I Am Micro is a critique of a particular idea of art cinema which manages to create outsiders even within that space. An Old Dog’s Diary reflects on FN Souza who was extremely famous by the end of his career, but he was still an outsider because his subjects were radical, like sexuality and Christianity. At the end of the film we hear the auction process as Souza becomes a commodity.
KP: Why did you decide to make a film about Souza? And how did you decide to make a film about a painter – in black and white?
We just like black and white! And we were commissioned to make a film about Souza. Frankly, Shumona and I were not that interested in his paintings. Sure, we love those from the Gentleman series that we have in the film, but our film was not about Souza as a painter. When we were asked to do a film about him, we were unsure. He seemed like an interesting artist, but he was very famous, like the Picasso of India. And then I went to an archive in London and found texts that he wrote, which were really powerful. Then we realized we have something interesting to work with.
We didn’t want to make a biopic, really. Both films are actually about us. Everything we selected revealed more about us. Souza had a lot of amazing essays, but we selected what we actually wanted to say and included it in the script. Souza is a mad artist, but his texts were very poetic, tragic and deeply philosophical. When some people saw the film, they said that "this is not who he was". But he wrote it! It is just that we weren’t projecting a common idea of the persona of Souza.
KP: You started Experimenta in 2003. In 2007 you moved the festival from Bombay to Bangalore. Why?
Because I got a job there! Also, Bombay is a commercial capital and a home to mainstream film production. If you want to start something there, it’s open, but it’s hard to sustain it, especially a festival of experimental cinema in this industrial context. In order to get money you would need to invite famous and influential people, but I didn’t want to do a festival that needed industry validation. So moving to Bangalore was better because the city is big and very open – it does have its own cinema industry, but not of this kind of oppressive scale as Bollywood is in Bombay. Bangalore is very interdisciplinary, it has many scientists and artists working together, which makes our audience very mixed.
KP: We talked a lot about 20th century in India, but nowadays India is in a very different, disturbing state. Could you tell us more about the current Indian political situation?
I try to use every forum possible to talk about this subject because people don’t understand how bad it is. The situation in India today is tragic and sad. Where to start? During the 1990s there was essentially a genocide in the state of Gujarat in India, Muslims were massacred. The entire country was horrified by this genocide. The chief minister of Gujarat at that time is now the prime minister of India. He belongs to the BJP party, who’s overarching organization is called the RSS. Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, was a member of the RSS. Need I say more?
This government has started changing democratic institutions and systems with a vengeance. They have decimated one of our major academic institutions. They are changing historical narratives in the textbooks. They are currently identifying and marking migrants. They have just created a Gaza-like situation in Kashmir. Fundamentally, their whole idea is to create a homogenous Hindu state, which is problematic and stupid because the basic premise of Hinduism is plurality – Hindus believe in the existence of multiple gods. That’s how secularism was able to exist in India, in a flawed way no doubt, but it is a constitutional principle that everyone respects... well at least until now.
But the reality is that this party was elected by a vast majority of people in India. People want a so called ‘strong leader’ and these politicians are very good at using social media and news to control the narrative. And there is no opposition. The main opposition was the Congress Party, very significant after gaining independence, but now it has just destroyed itself. Meanwhile, the economy is wrecked. So the situation in India is very scary. That’s why my introduction to the festival program seemed a bit cynical: "It’s a tragic situation, but enjoy the films!"