November 3, 2018 – Cinestaan
“Filmmaker and video artist Pallavi Paul’s The Dreams Of Cynthia is a three-screen film installation that was screened as part of The New Medium III section at the recently concluded Mumbai Film Festival organized by MAMI (Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image).
Curated by Shaina Anand, the section presented pioneering moving image works that fuse the boundaries of art and cinema.
Focusing on transformative cinema, The New Medium section has seen multiple iterations at the festival. This year, the section exhibited 16 multi-channel films and video installations by pioneering filmmakers and artistes.
Paul’s works have been exhibited at various prestigious art spaces across the world, including the Tate Modern, London, and Khoj International Artists’ Association, Delhi. She has been artist-in-residence at the Vancouver Biennale and the Delfina Foundation in London, amongst others. Her films have been showcased at the Films Division, Mumbai, and Experimenta, Bangalore.
In her latest work, Pallavi Paul engaged with poet Anish Ahluwalia’s poem ‘Cynthia Ke Sapne/The Dreams of Cynthia’, which chases the inner life of its protagonist. Cynthia is at once imagined as a literary character, a measure of time, a form of experience and a landscape. She also bears witness to the lives of two people — an executioner and a trans artist whose lives are intertwined within a small town in North India and with each other through an informal history of labour, violence and death.
In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, Pallavi Paul spoke of the inspiration for her latest work and her enduring curiosity as an artist fascinated by the moving image. Excerpts:
What do you think of this unique section exhibiting your work at MAMI which is blurring the boundaries between art, film, video, exhibition, and taking place for the first time in India at a film festival?
You are right that this multi-channel artist film in the cinema is the first time it’s happening, actually anywhere in the world. So, in that sense, it is really interesting and cutting edge. However, the section on single channel art films had been introduced in MAMI earlier as well and I think it is because of that that this three-channel viewing possibility has opened up, because the artist film was gradually introduced into what was largely a narrative film or semi-narrative film programme.
I think it’s a very welcome thing because experimental film practices are very much part of film history and how film was produced and viewed. But over the years, because of the logic of the studio system, economic factors and several other things that have come together, the entertainment form of cinema became the dominant form.
But I think in bringing the other forms of the moving image back into public engagement and viewing, what happens is that you open up the possibility of what the moving image can do for society and vice versa. So you open up a new dialogue, a new form of exchange between the moving image and the public. In that sense, it’s a welcome thing because it helps discourse and ways of thinking about how images are circulating socially and basically the future of the image and our stake in that future.
How did your film come about and how did you meld together the various stories, because there is the tale of the executioner and the trans artist, along with the poem that is weaving it all together?
I have been working on this film for over three years and this film is primarily about literature and images and language and poetry, so in that sense, the primary matrix within which all of these elements that you mentioned come into being and are enmeshed is the poem itself, which is called ‘The Dreams of Cynthia’.
It is written by Anish Ahluwalia and it’s from an out-of-print poetry anthology which was published in the early 1990s. What I found really interesting about this poem was that Cynthia was a presence in the poem. She was not a character in the conventional literary sense. Sometimes she was used as a description of landscape, sometimes she was a form of time, sometimes a witness to the goings-on of the epochs of world history.
She was this kind of a challenge, almost a provocation to the image, because how do you produce an image for a presence? You can produce an image for a phenomenon which is verifiable or tangible, but how do you produce an image for a sense or a presence?
For me that became one of the reasons why I wanted to create this tussle or tension between the documentary image, which has for long been bearing the burden of indexicality and verifiability, and this teasing, a sense of something, a sense of play between these two things.
That’s how it started, and then, of course, the poem has various episodes referring to industrial history, the lives of people in a city, and so on. Through those openings, I started to think about how to conjure up those spaces in the film and so the post-industrial landscape, and this is something I never mention in the film, but the towns of Meerut or Dadri, that belt of industrial ruin became the landscape across which then this story began to unfold.
Both these people in the film — and I have tried to use them not as characters in the conventional documentary sense, because it’s not their individual subjectivity or the story around their lives around which everything is congealing, but their observations about where they are at, which actually produces the momentum of the film — so I use them as hosts. How you would host a party and invite people over and their conversations exceed you? Similarly, the people in the film are like hosts, the premise for meeting them is, of course, the film, but then the audience’s journeys with them can exceed the film or exceed the way in which they have been introduced.
So together it became like a gathering of voices around this idea. I’m looking at digitality, the internet as an archive, analog technology, the observations that these people have, so the idea of the film really became layer upon layer of curiosity around this larger idea of visual culture, the implication of documentary within that, the importance of people and the way they tell their stories, but without trapping them under the burden of producing the true version of events of their life. That was really at the heart of the process of arriving at this form.
Like you said, the film is about layer upon layer of images and what the images conjure up for you, so when we are thinking about industry or technology, it’s not just film but also industrial technology and labour which comes through very evidently in your film — it’s the labour of the executioner, the dance; the shutting down of the factory fusing with the character in the poem who comes to find a job in the film industry, etc. Like with many of your films, I feel it prods us towards a second viewing to really get into all these various ideas. And even though it is musings on history in a lot of ways, there is a definite contemporaneity to it as well.
That’s an interesting observation because several people have spoken to me about this sense of needing to watch it again to think about what is suggested. I think perhaps that is the effect the film generates because the word you used, contemporaneity, is the precise way of describing it. While I was thinking about the structure, I kept feeling that everything is happening at the same time, there is a simultaneity to our experience, whether it’s the experience of technology, emotion, labour, industry. There is something chaotic but also simultaneous about it. And it is that sense that kept accruing as I encountered more material. And that is why the film has been designed across three screens.
While it’s a film that you watch from beginning to end, and it has all the underpinnings of telling you that by having an opening and closing credit, the need for these films to unfold simultaneously over these three surfaces is very much part of the way in which I experienced the material, so I think the word ‘contemporary’ is central to a discussion about a work like this.
There is a certain curiosity that underlines your work, which is that of the silences, and margins as spaces for exploration, and what it opens out for you as an artist. So what is it about the absent present that fascinates you? In this film, the poem is a conjuring up of the idea of Cynthia and then you offer us glimpses of the executioner’s life, which, like you said, is just a moment and not a whole. So what is it about these interstices that draws you?
For me, it’s a dual move, because when I am thinking of things for which there can be no images — for me it’s those moments, for example, in my film Shabdkosh where I use Salvador Allende’s last speech, where you have no photographic image of Allende delivering that speech where his palace is being bombed. Here also, there is no image of the execution, but there can only be a conjuration, and I feel that in picking up, perhaps, on those moments, I like to push the possibility of the image a bit further, where to uncouple the indexical and the cinematographic from the speculative helps me move with a certain kind of agility between the inner lives of people or social movements or the way time passes, so trying to work around something which cannot be cinematically captured in a simple way. I think it helps me push my own craft a bit more. It helps me push the possibility of an audience engaging with image beyond representation. So I always think of it as a challenge or a provocation to the craft.
Philosophically and ethically, one is committed to certain principles in favour of justice, against violence, which is against the weak. What is most exciting is the aesthetic dimension of that, where all of these things are tied into taking the image away from representation and away from the illustrative, bringing it into the zone of the speculative. So what you see is not a depiction of something but a thinking aloud or a thinking through of something that could have been.
Going back to the beginning of this interview, where we talked about the festival and your work, which lies between film and art, what are the spaces for exhibition for artists like yourself who are working with film, video, art and bringing it together and whose work veers away from conventional forms in terms of production as well as exhibition?
There are very few. I work within the space of contemporary art and because I am working with non-fiction but also speculative practice around the moving image, I find myself most accepted or heard in a contemporary art space. Now, even in the documentary circles, there is a lot of thinking through about the documentary form and what it means, but in terms of the spaces that allow for exhibition, it’s simply not commensurate with the ways in which practices are changing. Practices are changing very quickly in exciting ways because of the ways in which people are now connected through the internet and the material that is circulating.
But whether viewing practices have made place for that shift, I think that’s difficult to say because films are shown in a film festival context. The fact that MAMI has made space for this section will, perhaps, signal to film festivals to take note of this and try to bring such programming into their vision.
In my experience, it’s mainly contemporary art venues like museums or galleries or pockets which allow for the showing and sharing of such work. As far as a larger public engagement with this form is concerned, we have a long way to go…”