Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing – The Brooklyn Rail
Directed by Payal Kapadia
A night without knowing anything
In the opening scene of the documentary Oeil d’or by Payal Kapadia A night without knowing anything (2021), a group of students from the state-funded Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), dance exuberantly against a giant screen playing a movie. Shot, like most of the film, in black and white, the scene features vibrant young bodies, looming cinema, the future just out of frame – the enjoyment is palpable. Voiceovered by a fictional FTII student, L, reading a love letter, the asynchronous recitation makes the sequence almost unreal, as if it were a memory or a dream, the past and the future transforming the present as it unfolds.
Adopting the mode of docufiction, A night without knowing anything oscillates between chronicle of truth, imaginary narrative and private archives to capture the issues and the spirit of the student protests that have shaken India since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling Hindu nationalist party, came to power in 2014 The film includes both found and made footage, interspersed with Hindi/Bangla letter readings and occasional drawings by L (a resident of FTII hostel room S18), and old color home videos. high saturation image belonging to the family of curator Sumesh Sharma (from an online moving image archive called Pad.ma). This mixture of techniques brings out the tension between collective history and the personal encounter with it, as an individual and as a member of society at a given moment. The adaptation of an existing film positions cinema as a form of memory, a critical companion to history that arrests its intensities.
The strong public university system of postcolonial India was set up to provide free or heavily subsidized education to a largely poor population. Since the rise of the far right, this ambition has been undermined by various strategies such as the encouragement of privatized education and the weakening of state-funded academies through fee hikes, the free rein of historical institutional oppression, as well as the appointment of party supporters. as university administrators. Protests, police crackdowns and attacks by right-wing activists at public universities over many years of majority government (including the director’s alma mater, the Film and Television Institute of India, as well as Jawaharlal Nehru University , Hyderabad University, Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University) become the backdrop on which A night without knowing anything distills the experience of being young in the age of fascism. The choice of a grainy, monochromatic palette mimicking celluloid is meant to express “nostalgia for the times we live in”, and the use of an all-encompassing non-diegetic sound design challenges the indexic relationship between reality and representation. . The poetics of the public college campus, personal video clips of bygone sociality, and letters as a metaphorical framing device produce a texture that contextualizes contemporary “found footage” of state violence and citizen resistance that is the basis of political documentary.
The camera lingers on the edges and shadows of hostel facades and interiors, absorbing the disjointed character of campus life through evocative images – trees rustling outside a window, figures lounging in bed, a cat prowls in a hallway. When a goldfish bowl refracts light against the wall behind it, it’s almost an iteration of the film’s palette, emphasizing the twilight before the titular night. These tenuous fragments of the Indian university experience are rescued from indulgence by scenes of students consuming news of a deteriorating political climate, organizing against the government and holding union meetings. The vapourity of the early campus scenes is all the more poignant due to the devastation that becomes apparent as the film progresses – the universities become sites of unrest, police brutality and party-backed violence. in power. The word “campus” comes from the Latin for “field”. In A night without knowing anythingthe campus is the field of vision and action from which the darkness of the Modi regime is detected and navigated.
The film’s sound design makes haunting use of silence, allowing room tone, long pauses and atmospheric heaviness to heighten the impact of the fictional narratives, real speeches and testimonies that accompany the footage of the protests and repressions. In the aftermath of the 2016 suicide of Hyderabad University student Rohith Vemula, young protesters make art on the roads as a Bahujan student denounces the Brahmin state’s efforts to exclude Dalit communities education. During protests against the unconstitutional Citizenship Act (CAA) in 2019-20, a twenty-three-year-old Muslim student describes his ordeal of arrest and custody as the camera drifts through crowds of students in train of slogans, chanting and carrying banners condemning the government. Their stories are all the more compelling for being disembodied, as if they could be any of the fierce protesters putting their bodies at risk.
While on the surface, the film’s compilation of found footage of protests brings it into conversation with political documentaries like Chris Marker’s smile without cat (1977), Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică Videograms of a revolution (1992) and, more recently, João Moreira Salles In the intense now (2017), A night without knowing anything upends formal expectations of what the chronicles of youth in revolt look like. The drama in the streets rages alongside the private unrest that unfolds in life. Infusing a contemporary canon of images of repression and defiance with an aesthetic of intimacy, Kapadia’s film is less concerned with analyzing nationwide student movements and more with its eros. The evidence is almost a banal fetish at this point; what does fascism do to the daily affairs of life? For example, what does it reveal about the act of loving? In a caste-based and conservative society like India where love is controlled, contentious and punished, its challenge to social and political tyranny is particularly powerful. It is intimately linked to the condition of youth, symptomatic of rebellion, romanticism and the possibility of forming relationships outside feudal structures, precisely in public universities, for example.
The film’s epistolary punctuation emphasizes the anguish, grief, and social paradoxes that even serious youthful rebellions have to deal with: in one instance, L asks his upper-caste lover/recipient how he might stand with him against the government and yet be unable to withstand his own family’s disapproval for being in a relationship with a lower caste woman. The promise of radical love seems as improbable as the national utopia that Indians once dreamed of. Dreaming is a recurring motif in the film – the characters dream of loving freely, of making movies, of surviving state violence. In a particularly poignant sequence, L recounts her nightmare as the infamous CCTV footage of the Delhi police’s invasion of the Jamia Millia Islamia library in December 2019 is seen. She recounts the horror of seeing all her friends disappear one by one, the real friends of the director (thanked in the credits) giving way to the names of young Indian dissidents braving prison for their principles (Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal and Safoora Zargar have since been released; Umar Khalid is still imprisoned ).
The theme of friendship runs through the body of the film like a charge, from its opening dance party to its final moments (“For our friends.”—he concludes). The act of creating art itself, as in the case of cinema, is a communal exercise: this is underlined by the fact that L’s letters contain reports of his work on the films of his friends and comrades of class. This aspect of A night without knowing anythingcombined with political angst, black and white moodiness and the use of the letter as a frame, recalls the spirit of Amma Ariyan (report to the mother ) produced by another FTII alumnus, John Abraham, as part of the Odessa Collective. Kapadia explained how A night without knowing anything reunited with the help of her filmmaker friends who shared with her footage they shot of student protests in other cities.
For many Indian students, the struggle to protect their alma maters and their nation occupied their youth. For viewers, like me, who studied in beleaguered universities during those turbulent years, recognizing a familiar face or name or hearing a familiar voice in a movie brings little joy and a reminder of what we have lost. It is the nostalgia for the present that has slipped away, the longing for our homes, whether it be our mid-century inns, the company of our friends now in prison, or our commons now under constant surveillance. and monitored.
A night without knowing anything is an elegy for the civic life of young people. It’s a life lived in the roles of classmates, friends, comrades, allies and fellow citizens of the republic at a time when the promise of a utopian future may have been irreversibly shattered. Or maybe dawn is imminent. The Marxist Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, whose verses electrified young Indians during protests against the CAA, once wrote: “Long is the night of sorrow, but it is only the night. Maybe, like the last frame of the film, we will dance again.