Visible Evidence 2021

Documentary and the State Narrative

Anthony Adah
Anirban Baishya
Simon Aeppli
Neepa Majumdar
Chair: Pavan Kumar Malreddy
Wed, Dec 15
90 Min
Mousonturm (Studio 2), Online
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"Unmasked" (2021) and Slow Radical Cinema: Unpacking Nigeria in Covid-19 Pandemic

The proliferation of film creation tools in recent years puts the means of production in the hands of anyone who cares and dares. At the same time, the availability of image manipulation tools is so ubiquitous such that ‘fake,’ ‘untruths,’ and ‘post-truth’ are now more in critical usage as ‘objectivity’ and ‘authenticity’ almost slide into forgotten vocabulary. Under these circumstances, the documentary film, a genre committed to mobilizing evidentiary claims as method, is pressured not only to rethink its methods, but also to imagine new audiences and collectivities.

Against this background, Unmasked (2021), a Nigerian Covid-19 real-time documentary feature, provides an opportunity to contemplate these contemporary challenges facing documentary cinema. Directed by Femi Odugbemi and presented by Kadaria Ahmed, Unmasked charts Nigeria’s stumbling response to the Covid-19 pandemic from January 2020 to the completion of the film in January 2021. While the pandemic is the backdrop for most of the subjects, the documentary unpacks other more deep-lying structural leadership problems with, perhaps, more existential consequences than Covid-19. Unmasked partakes in the politics of information by revealing how gaps in information fomented distrust, a theme that cuts across several segments and how, in the closing moments, ordinary people mobilized social media to channel their disillusionment into coherent rage, in the #ENDSARS movement. This paper uses the framework of radical cinema to analyze Unmasked. At an operational level, Unmasked’s stylistic choice of slow cinema methods invites the viewer to “stay” with the picture so that reluctance to cut and manipulate the image is, in a Bazinian sense, a respect for the continuity of dramatic space and duration of events. In opting for a “slow” aesthetics, Unmasked also demonstrates how concepts such as radical cinema may be expanded to meet contingent crises at different locations in different times.

Anthony Adah

Anthony Adah is a Professor of Film Studies at Minnesota State University Moorhead, USA. His teaching and research areas are African cinemas and Indigenous filmmaking in Australia, Canada, and Aotearoa/New Zealand. He has published in PostScript, Film Criticism, Intellectbook’s Journal of Media and Cultural Politics. He is a current U.S. Fulbright Scholar at Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, Nigeria, where he is editing a volume on the Family in African Film and Media at the Nollywood Studies Center.

Communal Violence and Archival Alterity in Indian Documentary Cinema

Questions of postcolonial violence in India are often traced back to the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. The tectonic shifts in the frame of the national in that period still render their aftershocks in the body of the nation today. Traces of this violence can be seen in the consolidation of militant Hindu nationalism—commonly called Hindutva—in post-independence India. While fiction films such as Bombay (1995) and Parzania (2007) have tried to address the human tragedies left in the wake of militant Hindutva mobilization, the organized nature of the violence remains largely understated. On the other hand, India’s documentary cinema has taken the challenge headlong, countering official narratives of nationhood and community formation. In this paper, I examine three Indian documentaries — Ram Ke Naam (Anand Patwardan, 1991), Final Solution (Rakesh Sharma, 2003) and Muzzafarnagar Baaqi Hai (Nakul Singh Sawhney, 2015) which focus three such moments — the Bombay/Ayodhya riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the Gujarat pogroms of 2002 and the Muzzafarnagar riots of 2013. Collectively, the films map the impact of what Hansen (1999) has called “saffron wave,” over a period of three decades.

Such documentaries assume crucial political significance in the postcolonial state that is the controller of the “archive” of official memory, and simultaneously, the perpetrator of violence on the bodies of its citizens. The alterity afforded by the three films I examine is perched between this rift between lived experience and traumatic memory on the one hand, and hegemonic narratives of nationalism and the rhetoric of development on the other. If the state’s history silences the memories of survivors and victims, then such documentaries function as an alternative archive that salvage the scars of organized violence.

Anirban Baishya

Anirban Baishya is an Assistant Professor at the Communication and Media Studies Department, Fordham University. His current research examines selfies and the rise of digital selfhood in India. His research interests New Media and Digital Cultures, Social Media & Political Culture, Media Aesthetics, Surveillance Studies, and Global and South Asian Cinema & Media. His work has been published in International Journal of Communication, Communication, Culture & Critique, South Asian Popular Culture, Porn Studies, Media, Culture & Society and South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies.

Operation Bogeyman: The Folk Horror Landscape of 1970's Northern Ireland

This paper focuses on my PhD research into the story of how a clandestine military organisation called the Information Policy Unit (IPU), coordinated fake satanic rituals throughout Northern Ireland during the early 1970s to create terror and confusion across the province. The IPU used fear and superstition to tap into and confabulate the space between local supernatural lore and organised religion and is possibly one of the strangest tactics carried out by the British Military during the conflict.

Drawing on first-hand accounts from ex-intelligence officer, Colin Wallace and the original newspaper reports my paper explores the correlation between the staged imagery of the faked rituals and the iconic folk horror films being produced in 1970s Britain. There are uncanny parallels between Wallace’s black magic operations and the narratives within the genre of folk horror.

My research retraces Wallace’s footsteps through 1970s and present day Northern Ireland and will lead to the production of a personal essay film, which explores the interplay between landscape, haunting and buried histories.

Simon Aeppli

My filmmaking practice is situated in relation to an ongoing interest in excavating marginal histories from the conflict in Ireland and exploring how their ongoing legacies ‘haunt’ the present. I have made short documentary work that has been screened at festivals and galleries in Britain and abroad. My short films have been broadcast on CH4, FIVE and ITV London. Recently, I received an AHRC technē scholarship for part-time PhD study at the University of Brighton. I also work as a part-time senior lecturer at the University for the Creative Arts on the BA Film Production.

Sonic Space and Visuality in Siddheshwari (Mani Kaul, 1989) and Bhavantarana (Kumar Shahani, 1991)

In this paper, I consider two state-sponsored films, Mani Kaul’s Siddheshwari (1989), made under the aegis of the Films Division, and Kumar Shahani’s Bhavantarana (1991), sponsored by a more recent film program run by India’s Ministry of External Affairs as part of a series of films explicitly framed as “soft power” aimed at audiences outside India. Many of the FD and MEA films can be considered under the rubric of propaganda, which is relevant to understanding the complex aesthetics and politics of state-sponsored media production that took a stylistically experimental approach to their subject.

Because the two filmmakers, Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul, have long been regarded as central figures in the Indian New Wave, scholarly work on their films has been dominated by an auteurist lens. While attention to the larger body of work of each of these filmmakers and their specific approaches to documentary film practice are useful contexts for understanding these films, this is ultimately a limited approach. Siddheshwari, about a female singer, and Bhavantarana, about a male dancer, Kelucharan Mohapatra, engage with the dynamics of space, visuality, and sonic practices in a sound-centered music film and an image-centered dance film but should be understood in relation to the audiovisual aesthetics of the many other films about singers and dancers sponsored by FD and MEA. Sound is central in dissolving the division between the performance space of stages and the everyday spaces of domesticity and nature such as the kitchen, the river, the sea. Drawing on concepts such as metaphorical sound (Michel Chion), I consider the evidentiary, metaphoric, and affective role of sound in constructing the cinematic spaces of performance in the two films, keeping their state-sponsored production and exhibition contexts in mind, from the large screen to the small screen of YouTube.

Neepa Majumdar

Neepa Majumdar is Associate Professor of Film & Media Studies in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Wanted Cultured Ladies Only! Female Stardom and Cinema in India, 1930s to 1950s (University of Illinois Press, 2009). Her research interests include film sound, star studies, South Asian early cinema, and documentary film. She is a co-editor of the journals [In]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies and Music, Sound, and the Moving Image.

Chair: Pavan Kumar Malreddy

Pavan Kumar Malreddy teaches English Literature at Goethe University Frankfurt. He is the author of a monograph, Orientalism, Terrorism, Indigenism: South Asian Readings in Postcolonialism (SAGE, 2015) and several co-edited collections, including Reworking Postcolonialism: Globalization, Labour and Rights (Palgrave, 2015) and Violence in South Asia: Contemporary Perspectives (Routledge, 2019).