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Film Programme

Curated by Shanay Jhaveri

Image: Ayisha Abraham, I Saw A God Dance, India, 2011, video still, 19 minutes, courtesy the artist, ©Ayisha Abraham


Shanay Jhaveri

Nirad C. Chaudhuri was born in 1897 in the small town of Kishoreganj in the district of Mymensing, now a part of Bangladesh. A tiny and frail man, standing at five feet and weighing just about 43 kilograms, Chaudhuri was a writer and scholar, who took himself and his experience of life as his primary subject. Chaudhuri died in 1999 three months before his 102nd birthday. He published his first book The Autobiog­raphy of an Unknown Indian in 1951 at almost precisely the halfway point of his life. Chaudhuri witnessed a flourishing empire, its decline, the birth of a ‘new’ modern nation, its initial socialist incarnation and then its eventual transition into a capitalist behemoth. Very productive, he penned several polemical books, and moved to Oxford in 1970 and never returned to India. He was 57 years old when he made that journey, one that he had prepared for his entire life.

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian is a ground-zero account, apparent almost from the very first pages, of how an ordinary citizen of India interfaced with the British Empire, physically, emotionally, as well as intellectually. Chaudhuri, when writing the book, was literally the unknown man of his title, living modestly in Delhi, writing scripts for All India Radio. What makes the book so distinctive is that Chaud­huri wrote with no literary model or precedent. The life of the common Indian, unacknowledged in any sphere, had not until the middle of the twentieth century been scripted on a page. Not being born to privilege, or granted its advantages, Chaudhuri assembled his knowledge of all things European at Cal­cutta’s Imperial College and by purchasing books at tremendous personal cost. Committed to cultivat­ing his intellect, Chaudhuri consciously shed certain traits and habits. For instance, once he began to live in Delhi he gave up writing in Bengali (it is completely absent from The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian) and, for the first time in his life, started wearing Western clothes and eating non-Indian food.

Chaudhuri’s book leads with a dedication to the British Empire, which occasioned much controversy on publication, but he was no apologist for the British, frustrated as he was by their resistance to Wester­nised Indians. On the other hand, he shared with the British little enthusiasm for nationalist leaders and Indian nationalism. His views on India were often unpleasant, and at times unjustified. Clearly, Chaudhuri was not writing for the fallen Empire, nor was he addressing the new nation: neither he nor his prose fell into a particular political or national regime. It would seem that Chaudhuri is a fitful example of Edward Said’s assertion of “gone are the binary oppositions dear to the nationalist and imperialist enterprise… new alignments are rapidly coming into view, and it is those new alignments that now provoke and chal­lenge the fundamentally static notion of identity that has been the core of cultural thought during the era of imperialism.”1

1Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, New York: Random House, 1993, xxiv-xxv

The 1972 documentary by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of a Civilization commissioned by BBC, vividly and unapologetically captures Chaudhuri in England, living out his western affectations. The film is a captivating portrayal of a postcolonial intellectual and forms the primary point of orientation for my film programme Passages for the 3rd Edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, which will play across two spaces in the Shilpakala Academy. Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of a Civilization will show on the hour every hour in an independent ancillary space to the Academy’s auditorium where rest of the programme, organised into thematic group screenings will be projected at scheduled times.

The thematic screenings build off concerns that come to bear in Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of a Civilization. The most direct association can be made to those films in the programme that preoccupy themselves with the lives of individuals who have lived between various geographical contexts, and like Chaudhuri “challenge the fundamentally static notion of identity.”

These include Ayisha Abraham’s I Saw A God Dance (2011) about the self exoticizing, transracial gay dancer Ram Gopal who popularised Indian classical dance in the West during early half of the twentieth century, an extract from Leslie Thornton’s The Great Invisible (ongoing) which focuses on Isaballe Eberhardt, a Victorian woman who dressed up as a man to travel freely in North Africa during the late nineteenth century, or Aykan Safoğlu’s Off White Tulips (2013) a semi personalised account of the queer American writer James Baldwin’s time in Istanbul in the 1960’s. The trips made by the filmmakers themselves are also integrated, as in Anita Fernandez’s Un Balcon En Afrique (1980) where Fernandez is seen living in a tree house somewhere in Bissau, observing the city from above, but not physically interacting with it and conversely Narcisa Hirsch’s dreamlike Patagonia (1976) that centers itself on a corporeal engagement with the plains and mountains of Patagonia.

Alongside, these films is Mati Diop’s A Thousand Sun’s (2013) set in contemporary Dakar, which follows the cattle herder Magaye Niang who was the star of one of the most iconic films of African cinema Touki- Bouki (1973) made by Djibril Diop Mambety, who happens to be Mati Diop’s uncle. In Touki-Bouki Niang along with his then companion Mory conspired to find ways to migrate to France, but A Thousand Sun’s finds them 40 years later still in Dakar, no closer to Paris. The film is a heartbreaking reflection on the notion of self-exile and failed aspirations. Djibril Diop Mamberty himself makes an appearance in ‘Passages’ in Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s short filmic portrait Grandma’s Grammar (1996) in which the legendary filmmaker ruminates on filmmaking and the potential the cinematic holds in telling stories of an emotional and affective nature. The subjective and intimate condition of being in exile, and the complexity in expressing these circumstances is further explored in Bouchra Khalili’s Chapter 1: Mother Tongues (2012) from her Speeches Series in which Khalili collaborated with five exiled people based in Paris and its outskirts, inviting them to translate, memorise, and relay fragments of texts from political thought and contemporary culture written by Malcom X, Abdelkrim El Khattabi, Édouard Glissant, Aimé Césaire, and Mahmoud Darwish.

The film programme seeks to move beyond a literal understanding and consideration of travel - one that might focus exclusively on, say, works made by traveling artists - and consequently devotes a section to those films that relate the journeys made by objects across differing contexts and scenarios. It pairs Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’s Statues Also Die (1953) that reflects on African tribal objects that have been gathered by ethnographic museums in the West, with Bahman Kiarostami’s The Treasure Cave (2009) where the story of the The Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran and its comprehensive collection of modern western art is told. Yto Barrada’s False Start (2015) is an observation on Moroccan fossils and the counterfeiting industry that has sprung up around them, while Lois Patiño’s hallucinatory Night Without Distance (2015) is a portrait of border smuggling between Portugal and Galicia. Objects like LP covers of jazz, blues and salsa in Kader Attia’s Silence Injuries (2013), the pieces of fabrics that Jodie Mack’s delightful animates in her films, kitschy dinnerwear sets in Ana Vaz’s Occidente (2014), a roll of film itself in Jennifer Reeves Landfill 16 (2011) or the collections of objects gathered by artists in their homes or studios as witnessed in Ben Rivers Things (2014) Narcisa Hirsch’s Taller (Workshop) (1975), and Kohei Ando My Collections (1988) are regarded as having expressive potential, and able to convey particular cultural and personal histories.

A broader inquiry into other kinds of voyages, is part of the programmes itinerary, and while some of the aforementioned films recount literal acts of travel across territories by people and objects, it also makes room for work like Lisl Ponger’s Phantom Foreign Vienna (2004) in which Ponger does not leave Vienna, but films over seventy different cultures and nations, simply by visiting different neighborhoods in the city. In Ponger’s film Vienna becomes ‘global’, so to speak. She is constructing her own world map, reinforcing that map making itself is an ideological act, something which is further underscored by Anna Bella Geiger in her Elementary Maps No. 3 (1976), where Geiger dwells on the shifting cartographic lines that depict Latin America, and the numerous stereotypes and myths that are projected onto it. Place as an abstraction, the way it resides in memory, but also the more phenomenological and emotional experience of geography is a distinct strand of the programme, most forcibly felt in Claudio Caldini’s pulsating Vadi Samvadi (1981), Sylvia Schedelbauer’s overwhelming Sea of Vapors (2014), Ashim Ahluwalia’s subtle Events in a Cloud Chamber (2016) and Alexandre Larose’s mesmerizing Brouillard – Passage # 15 (2014) in which a single unedited roll of 35mm is exposed 39 times as the filmmaker walks along the same forest path to a water body.

Landscapes themselves hold emotions, those particularly that are scarred by violence, and this is suggested in a cluster of films that comprises Mani Kaul’s rarely seen but stunning film on Kashmir Before My Eyes (1989), Soon Mi Yoo’s Dangerous Supplement (2005) assembled from found footage shot by American soldiers during the Korean war, Nguyen Trinh Thi’s Landscape Series # 1 (2013) in which anonymous people are pointing to landscapes across Vietnam, Lamia Joreige’s Untitled: 1997-2003 (1997 - 2003) filmed in Beirut after the Lebanese war officially ended and Basma Alsharif’s Deep Sleep (2014) that alludes to the situation in Gaza, but by filming ancient ruins in Athens and Malta. The trauma, terror, fear, discomfort and threat that lurks in urban cities like Bangkok and Luanda is compellingly communicated in Taiki Sakpisit’s A Ripe Volcano (2011) and Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Concrete Affection – Zopo Lady (2014) respectively. There is also the unknown, the landscapes of outer space in Frances Bodomo’s Afronauts (2014), and of future Vietnam submerged underwater in Freddy Nadolny Poustochkine and Minh Quy Tru’o’ng’s Mars in the Well (2014).

As is evident, this film programme is committed to exploring certain colonial and postcolonial conditions – belonging, difference, exile, displacement - that are part of the regions history and present day reality, but with a resolutely transnational perspective. It consciously eschews a regional focus, and presents films from across the world, hoping to manifest as an expansive constellation of shared affinities and empathies, but one where each work still retains it own specificity. Perhaps, ‘Passages’ itself can be regarded as a veritable travelogue, snippets and fragments, of images and sounds, gathered together, to evoke, provoke and trigger emotional responses and memories, and by doing so initiate a set of reflections as to why, when and how do we travel? The experience of any place, here, there, elsewhere, is never static or fixed. It is informed and charged by our interior state of being, by a brew of reminiscences and past resonances that constantly shift, oscillate, and change, as we keep moving. Claude Lévi-Strauss has written in his masterpiece Tristes Tropiques:

“the accident of travel often produces ambiguities such as these. Because I spent my first weeks on United States soil in Puerto Rico, I was in future able to find America in Spain. Just, as several years later, through visiting my first English University with a campus surrounded by Neo-Gothic buildings at Dacca in Western Bengal, I now look upon Oxford as a kind of India that has succeeded in controlling the mud, the mildew and the ever encroaching vegetation.”2

2Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, Penguin, 1974, 35.

Maybe, like Lévi-Strauss, Chaudhuri found Dhaka in Oxford?

Will we find Oxford in Dhaka?


- I Saw A God Dance, Ayisha Abraham, India, 2011,

19 minutes

- Off White Tulips, Aykan Safoğlu, Turkey, 2013,

24 minutes

- The Great Invisible (Excerpt), Leslie Thornton,

United States of America, ongoing, 20 minutes

Total Running Time: 63 minutes


- Mapas Elementares No. 3 (Elementary Maps No. 3), Anna Bella Geiger, Brazil, 1976, 10 minutes

- Speeches: Chapter 1 - Mother Tongues, Bouchra

Khalili, France, 2012, 23 minutes

- Mille Soleils (A Thousand Suns), Mati Diop, Senegal/France, 2013, 45 minutes

Total Running Time: 78 minutes


- Un Balcon En Afrique, Anita Fernandez,

Guinea-Bissau, 1980, 17 minutes

- Patagonia, Narcisa Hirsch, Argentina, 1970,

10 minutes

- Phantom Foreign Vienna, Lisl Ponger, Austria,

1991-2004, 27 minutes

Total Running Time: 54 minutes


- Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die),

Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, France, 1952-53,

30 minutes

- The Treasure Cave, Bahman Kiarostami, Iran, 2009,

43 minutes

Total Running Time: 73 minutes


- La Grammaire De Ma Granďmère (Grandma’s

Grammar), Jean Pierre Bekolo, Cameroon, 1996,

9 minutes

- Silence’s Injuries, Kader Attia, Germany, 2014,

13 minutes

- Occidente, Ana Vaz, France/Portugal, 2014,

15 minutes

- Faux Départ (False Start), Yto Barrada, Morocco, 2015, 23 minutes

- Noite Sem Distância (Night Without Distance),

Lois Patiños, Portugal, 2015,

23 minutes

Total Running Time: 83 minutes


- Persian Pickles , Jodie Mack, United States of

America, 2012, 3 minutes

- My Collections, Kohei Ando, Japan, 1988, 10 min­utes

- Blanket Statement # 1 - Home is Where the Heart Is, Jodie Mack, United States of America, 2012, 3 minutes

- Taller (Workshop), Narcisa Hirsch, Argentina, 1975,

11 minutes

- Razzle Dazzle, Jodie Mack, United States of Amer­ica, 2014, 5 minutes

- Things, Ben Rivers, United Kingdom, 2014,

20 minutes

- Undertone Overture, Jodie Mack, United States of America, 2013, 10 minutes

Total Running Time: 61 minutes


- Before My Eyes, Mani Kaul, India, 1989, 26 minutes

- Landscape Series # 1, Nguyen Trinh Thi, Vietnam, 2013, 5 minutes

- Dangerous Supplement, Soon-Mi Yoo, South Ko­rea/United States of America, 2005, 14 minutes

- Deep Sleep, Basma Alsharif, Greece/Malta/

Palestinian Territory, 2014, 12 minutes

- Untitled 1997 -2003, Lamia Joreige, Lebanon,

1997-2003, 8 minutes

Total Running Time: 65 minutes


- A Ripe Volcano, Taiki Sakpisit, Thailand, 2011,

15 minutes

- Concrete Affection, Zopo Lady – Kiluanji Kia Hen­de, Angola, 2014, 12 minutes

- Afronauts, Frances Bodomo, United States of

America, 2014, 13 minutes

- Sao Hoa Noi Day Gieng (Mars in the Well), Freddy Nadolny Poustochkine and Truong Minh Quy,

Vietnam, 2014, 19 minutes

Total Running Time: 59 minutes


- Vadi Samvadi, Claudio Caldini, Argentina, 1981,

6 minutes

- Brouillard - Passage # 15, Alexandre Larose, Cana­da, 2014, 10 minutes

- Events in a Cloud Chamber (2016), Ashim Ahluwa­lia and Akbar Padamsee, India, 2016, 15 minutes

- Landfill 16, Jennifer Reeves, United States of

America, 2011, 9 minutes

- Meer der Dünste (Sea of Vapors), Sylvia

Schedelbauer, Germany, 2014, 15 minutes

Total Running Time: 55 minutes

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