For me, filmmaking is an inward and intimate journey through an extremely extrovert process: a personal vision constructed through a maximum public enterprise. Shooting is more like tearing both reality and a script apart with its shots and editing is putting those fragmented realities together. The former is more like shopping in the market and the latter is like cooking in the kitchen. One is prosaic and the other is poetic. But both processes have a common attribute—making an arbitrary rectangle credible. “Film is a chain of lies through which we try to reach a greater truth,” says Abbas Kiartostami, I like to rephrase Kiarostami reinforced with my own experience – filmmaking is an ugly process through which we try to attain a greater beauty. The journey towards truth and beauty has been always deceptive. “The path of [your] creation is strewn with a strange web of lies,” wrote Rabindranath Tagore. Although art is essentially created for the public, in some cases it can also be just self-gratifying for the artist him/her self. If you are a musician and you feel down on a lonely evening you can pick up the guitar to play for yourself. If you are a painter you can play with your watercolor and take refuge in it. So creative pursuit can be a means to meditative retreat for the artist. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about film work. Thus it is natural, when Kiarostami writes haiku he titles the book ‘walking with the wind’. A closer look at his film career will reveal that he has been rather walking against the wind with film as his fellow traveler!
When looking at something from a afar, whether from an Eastern or a Western perspective, even the moon seems flat. At closer range, more details appear, revealing complexity instead of complacent compliance with preconceived notions. Seeing things from too close a perspective can also be misleading. Rabindranath reminds us: “Earth looks deceptively flat because we are too close to it.” The painter S.M. Sultan, who turned his back on modern art to immerse himself in naive painting, once said, “Peasants were always major subjects in my painting. But I used to look at them from a bird’s eye view, now after living closely with peasants over the last 30 years—I see them from a frog’s eye view. They used to look like dots or decorative elements in my landscapes, and now in my painting the peasants are larger than life – a map of the human-scape!”
What does this mean? Does it merely mean perspective is determined by the way the subject is perceived, or the subject sometimes have an active and transformative bearing on its viewer? Artwork brings one closer to life, particularly from the artist’s point of view. Abbas Kiarostami not only gets closer to his subject but also to himself through his film Close Up, whose original Farsi title Nameye Najdik literally means “closer look”. Speaking about the film, Abbas says, “Instead of making the film, the film made me.”
I didn’t understand the real meaning of this statement until I went through the experience of making Muktir Kotha (Words of Freedom). This documentary grew out of our experience in showing our earlier film Muktir Gaan (Song of Freedom) to rural audiences in remote villages. In the process of making Muktir Kotha, we discovered that the audience exchanged places with the protagonists of the film they were watching. Prompted by the images they’d seen, they began narrating their own life stories to us. They became the active storytellers, while the characters on the screen were their mute witnesses.
There begins the return journey. A journey within ourselves, a journey without judgment. The struggle begins with transformation from a voyeur to a viewer. How to turn an outside curiosity into an inside question? How to fly like a single bird alongside a winding river that flows over all kinds of changing landscapes? Our personal flight may join the river of Bishwa Vivek (Universal Consciousness) to cross the mountain of Bhober Bazar (the Global Market)
What happens when the bird is not free to fly? When the river cannot flow? The river itself is the ultimate bridge betwe n regions. Building too many bridges over the river can impede its flow. Like birds, the singing bards also travel. They not only travel from place to place, they also travel from one time to another, as their words travel from one mouth to another. Their texts continue to grow, and the meaning never gets frozen. A pond freezes over, but a river continues to flow even beneath ice.
Who can claim the ownership of the flowing river? Ripples belong to the banks they touch, – eventual authorship of a film belongs to the audience.
Journeying doesn’t only mean travelling physical distances. We sometimes travel in time. Going back to the past is also a journey. To go ahead you need to go back. The making of Muktir Gaan (a film based on archival materials of the Bangladesh Liberation War collected from all over the world) led me to explore national memory. Sometimes even recent past history needs to be dug out when the evidence has become as buried as in an archeological site. It was fascinating to rediscover the images of the 1971 war that had been frozen in celluloid for 25 years. When we ran them in a projector, the still frames melted and blended together, becoming a fluid fountain of history. Is the winner of the history the owner of it too? Hopefully not always!
For me, this journey into national memory was also a personal one. My childhood coincided with the formative phase of the nation itself. Muktir Gaan was a pilgrimage to the birth time of the nation.
Matir Moina (The Clay Bird) was an intimate trip to my own childhood. It was a self-therapeutic experience for me to address my troubled adult life by going back to childhood memories-deal with my childhood trauma with an adult time.
Returning to childhood doesn’t mean only returning to a time. It also is a return to the place of your roots. For me it was returning to my village.
When S.M. Sultan left behind the name and fame of the art world and went back to his village he was also returning to his childhood. I grew up in a village but village life never intrigued me when I was a child. Rather, I used to tremble with excitement at the experience of visiting the city. The city looked like a big fair to me. It was only much later that I discovered the splendor of village life through Sultan’s eyes. He was the subject of my first documentary Adam Surat (The Inner Strength). He agreed to cooperate on the condition that, rather than being the film’s subject, he would pose as a catalyst to reveal the film’s true protagonist, the Bengali peasantry. Seven years passed in the making of this film. I traveled all over Bangladesh with him, hopping between folk festivals and mystic gatherings. The film itself became a by-product—the experience of richness of rural Bengal in Sultan’s company overshadowed everything else.
With Sultan I discovered hundreds of small streams of culture rather than one big stream of national culture. I found that people who are close to the soil, like adivasis (indigenous people), ironically don’t necessarily fit into the mainstream. They are outsiders in their own society. Was Sultan himself an outsider in his own village? He was certainly an outsider in the urban art world but he was also a lonely traveler in his own milieu. Once I asked him, ”Why do you dress like a woman?” Sultan said, “So that people think I’m crazy. In villages mad people are considered outcasts and accepted with sympathy.”
When I lived in New York for a few years, I felt it was a place that I really belonged. I had always enjoyed watching the spectrum of skin colours in Manhattan crowds. After Sept. 11th I returned to New York and paid homage to Ground Zero where one of my friends was killed. Strangely enough, for the first time I felt like an outsider—I felt I was being rather watched for the color of my own skin, hair and eyes—none of which represent my true identity. Ironically, I hardly feel an insider in my own homeland! We have a double-edged sword to parry. On the global scale, we have to defend an identity that we seek to disown at the local level.
Our new film, Antarjatra, which literally means inner journey, is about homeland- a story of returning “home”. Is home just land? Is land home? Is home-land only in our imagination? Where do we belong? Where do we come from? ”I’m not from the East, not from the West—my place is placeless—a trace of traceless.” Thus writes the great Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi. Did he feel an outsider in both Kandahar (where he was born) and Konya (where he died)? Perhaps he belonged to somewhere in between—to the journey itself!
A renowned film maker of contemporary time. His first feature film ‘The Clay Bird’ premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002. His another important work, Muktir Gaan (Song of Freedom) is worth mentioning. Received the National Award for Documentary as well as a special Jury Prize at Film South Asia. Based in Dhaka, Bangladesh