An Article about a Play about a Play

An Article about a Play about a Play

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In case you missed Theatre Mitu’s production of Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet that premiered at NYUAD’s Arts Center on 16 April, here is—not a review, but more of a reflective program guide to a theater experience unlike many others.

HOW TO EXPERIENCE HAMLET/UR-HAMLET:

  1. Show up to the Arts Center 30 minutes prior to the show. Not fifteen, because by then the line gets ridiculously long and if you haven’t gotten your ticket by then – tough luck.
  2. While lining up, go through the pamphlet and notice the 6-page bibliography. Silently question (or out loud, depending on whether or not you want to make small-talk with the stranger in front of you) whether or not you’ll be able to understand the play without knowing any of the works cited. Find the N-Sync song within the bibliography, and laugh because maybe you’ll be okay. Silently/out loud curse yourself for not being as worldly and intellectual as the bibliography clearly expects you to be. Maybe if you took that one theatre class with that one professor from that one Ivy League school, you would’ve been more prepared. Stupid class registration.
  3. Continue lining up. Realize that you don’t know what to expect.
  4. Make a lame joke about how this play-slash-theatre piece will “exceed your expectations,” partly because you don’t really have any.
  5. Hamlet is the one where the guy’s wife goes “UNSEX ME HERE,” right?
  6. Listen to director Ruben Polendo’s opening remarks, and then be ushered into the theatre in groups. Realize you’re not going to a conventional play. You’re not going to be sitting down for the next hour and fifteen minutes.
  7. Walk around the set pieces at your leisure, trying not to bump into people while also appreciating each individual piece while also keeping in mind that you can’t stay in one exhibit for too long because at one point rock music will play from a plastic box in the middle of the set to signal the staged performance.
  8. Hear the rock music and gather to the centre of the theater. If you’re early, watch as people slowly trickle into the front. Feel a sense of collectivity as your pulse quickens to the beat.
  9. Watch as Aysan Celik and company dominate the glass stage. They’re elevated above the rest of us, they’re caged and yet clearly in charge. Everyone is in awe.
  10. Repeat steps 7 – 9 two more times.
  11. A female voice, almost like a robot, says “the installation is now closed”. There is no curtain call. You clap anyway.The performance ends.

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Before I went to this Theater Mitu production of Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet , I had to admit something to myself: I am sick of Hamlet. God forbid, though, that a literature major should say that. What many others saw as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, I saw as a play about an arrogant (but, I will admit, really witty) teenager who messes everything up because he feels like he can – as if seeing a ghostly apparition is the same as getting supernatural powers.

None of that mattered, though, because Theater Mitu’s production has very little to do with being a faithful representation of the Bard’s play. When you walked into the theater space, you were greeted by a scrolling synopsis of the play, where certain words change on screen in a way that completely alters the meaning of the text (ie. Horatio as Hamlet’s friend/lover/buddy/soldier). If we take the opening piece as a sort of introduction to the rest of the installations, it becomes very clear from the onset that whatever the audience believes Hamlet to be won’t necessarily be seen for the next hour and fifteen minutes. I suppose that’s the problem that Theater Mitu’s production wanted to tackle: when everyone thinks they know what Hamlet is, who’s to say what the right interpretation is?

This epistemic dilemma is at the heart of the production. As the audience waited in line to enter the installation, Ruben Polendo encouraged everyone to take their time with the exhibit and experience the pieces in whichever order they please. This wasn’t a play to see with your group of 20 friends, where your opinions become heavily influenced by what your current crush thinks. You’re encouraged to be on your own and revel in your isolation. In a way, I suppose, the isolation makes you like Hamlet: with all the deception surrounding him, only Hamlet can say what it’s like to be Hamlet.

I guess that makes Hamlet (the character) like us. No one can really know what it’s like to be you except you yourself: the experiences you go through, the choices you make on what influences you is all a matter of subjectivity. Aysan Celik plays a minor role in the individual set pieces – standing in a corner with her back to the audience while an old reel of Hamlet plays on her naked back – but onstage, as Hamlet, she mixes with the flurry of it all. As soon as the rock music stops, the actors perform alongside videos looping on the monitors attached to the cage. All the while, audience members shift around the cage, hoping for a better look. It’s very chaotic, but also very funny. At one point Celik/Hamlet performs a piece where she stands trial while mimicking the gestures of a 60’s singer (think Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) on the screen. The famous “to be or not to be” speech gets re-imagined as a playground rhyme-slash-tap dance piece.

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Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet was a lot to take in. If I were to sum up the piece, it would be about Hamlet’s struggle to find himself – or herself, for that matter. The video pieces that cut into the onstage performance, coupled with the diversity of the installation pieces suggest aspects of our experiences: what influences us, as well as what we choose to influence. Although each installation piece seemed utterly detached from everything else, each piece draws from Shakespeare’s play. Everything is influenced by Hamlet, but onstage Hamlet is influenced by everything. The beauty of Theater Mitu’s piece stems from the very fact that it does not resemble the original play, and you could easily get away with a marginal knowledge of the original text. As I was walking around, I noticed people of all ages experiencing the show. I’d bet that only a handful of people could recite the whole play by heart, and that some people in the audience have never read Hamlet at all.

At the end of the day, though, the “true meaning” of Hamlet doesn’t matter. We may argue about the merits of deconstructive theater and how much a play should resemble the original text, but with Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet, everyone’s a winner. When I saw the show, I tended to focus on ideas of psychology and the self, but that’s not to say that that’s the only thing I noticed. In fact, I could’ve written this article about the portrayal of sexual relationships, the idea of love in general, the role of gender…the list goes on. What I think of Hamlet may not be what you think of Hamlet, but it doesn’t matter.

Oftentimes when we approach a canonical piece of literature – especially with Shakespeare – we get obsessed with finding out what the “correct” interpretation is, what the “true meaning” of the text is, and what Shakespeare meant the play to be. While we should take into consideration all these things, the beauty of studying these literary texts also comes from the idea that we inject our own meaning into it. Different readers will approach Hamlet in a different way, and that’s what Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet strives to achieve. It’s not a theater performance meant to represent Hamlet in the years to come, but rather an invitation for the audience to re-experience what it’s like to construct meaning for themselves.

[Photos courtesy of Theater Mitu]

Dreams and Delusions

Dreams and Delusions

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Because I’m taking a “Pathways of World Literature” class called Dreams this semester, I signed up to watch a program of short films called “Dreams and Delusions,” which was part of last month’s Imagine Science Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Despite my stint with high school science classes, I would never consider myself a “science person.” That isn’t to say, however, that I don’t enjoy science: I do on rare occasions — just like I occasionally enjoy hitting the snooze button on my phone three times in a row instead of the standard two. I thought, however, that it might be interesting to supplement my coursework by examining dreams from a non-literary perspective.

The Imagine Science Film Festival was organized by Imagine Science Film, a nonprofit organization founded by Alex Gambis, (who is currently serving as a Visiting Assistant Professor in Biology and in Film and New Media at NYUAD). The organization’s goal is to merge the world of science with that of film. The film festival was held at NYUAD in late February, offering a mix of both short and full-length films, panel talks, and an experimental exhibit that was housed in the Arts Center.

The “Dreams and Delusions” program comprised eight short films from different parts of the globe and examined both dreams and neuroscience. I was interested in the program’s focus on short films. As someone who readily admits to being wordy when it comes to almost anything, the act of condensing — into a short film, a poem, or otherwise — fascinates me. While there were admittedly some films that I just did not “get” (i.e. a one minute short that was composed of rapidly evolving drawings reminiscent of all reasons why I don’t consume energy drinks), I did appreciate how all of the films played with the concept of a reality that isn’t really there and of thoughts that are so vivid they might as well be walking in the park.

The films presented in “Dreams and Delusions” weren’t as (neuro)science-heavy as I expected them to be: the closest was Jeannette Louie’s 2013 short Amygdala, which personified the bundle of neurons as a way to examine its role in how we perceive fear. The hippocampus made an appearance towards the end of the film, and I sat in the back row of the theater with a triumphant, “I-remember-this-from-high-school” smile on my face.

As we exited the screening room, we were asked to fill in a short survey to see which film would get the “People’s Choice Award” at the end of the festival. I chose Julie Englass’s Blame it on the Seagull, a 12-minute animated film that explored the ways in which our thoughts can interfere with our reality. The line between the narrator’s daily life and his fixation with avoiding death was constantly blurred, with color blotches and other images interspersed with Englass’s hand-drawn animation visually representing the blur. The narrator recalls the past events with the same buzzing intensity that the visuals convey. Blame it on the Seagull opened the “Dreams and Delusions” event and created a personal look at how the mind works, setting aside textbook definitions.

I can’t say that the event left me with a better understanding of how neuroscience works in relation to dreams. What I can say, though, is that I liked the films because I connected to them. I’ve been in situations where my mind has wandered off somewhere else, where I’ve had dreams that seemed so real I could’ve sworn I was awake, and where I actively began daydreaming in order to escape the reality of life.

Moreover, as part of a festival centered on science, these films seem to me some of the most accurate representations of science I’ve ever seen. More often than not we put science on a pedestal as an answer book to “Life’s Big Questions.” We often forget that science is the art of discovery and that people are drawn to the field because of the process of discovering.

In a way, I’m glad that I didn’t really “learn” anything from the short films. I don’t know how dreams work; I don’t fully know how the brain works—and maybe I never will. If Imagine Science Films seeks to establish a conversation between science and film, the “Dreams and Delusions” event struck a perfect balance: neither field overpowered the other; instead, they instead played off one another other productively and creatively.

The Dust Behind the Magic: Volunteering at ADFF

The Dust Behind the Magic: Volunteering at ADFF

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Red carpets … movie stars … and glamour! Aren’t these the words we often think of when we hear about the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, or any film festival for that matter? We see movie posters on the walls and blinding lights that are trying to capture that beautiful smile an actress gave when she walked in. The smell of buttered popcorn surrounds us as we enter the movie theaters, excited to watch and evaluate new movies. We hear the soft chatter of people waiting in lines to buy tickets for films featuring their favorite actors and actresses, the joyful laughs of eager children, and the energetic interviews conducted at the festival. In short, we get a taste of a really wonderful cultural and intellectual experience.

But rarely do we glimpse culture behind the curtain to see the hard work of all those passionate people who help this event come to life every year. Luckily, through a volunteering position, I got the chance to see a glimpse of what it’s like to be on the “inside” of such a huge event, and for a few hours, I got to see the dust behind the magic.

As a volunteer for the 2014 Abu Dhabi Film Festival, I attended a short orientation session where the woman n charge of the volunteers briefly explained the job of a volunteer. This session took place a few days before the festival, and we could see how the ADFF staff were rushing around with papers and small headphones trying to sort out all the logistics before the countdown to the opening night. The woman in charge of the volunteers was very appreciative of our attendance and explained that they worked hard to get people to participate in this festival, and that volunteers are essential to the festival’s success. She proceeded to give us information about the various tasks we would take on, how shifts work, and who to refer to for help. She assured us that the volunteering captains, who are enthusiastic individuals who devote their time to lead volunteers and provide help when needed, will surround us the entire time. She emphasized on the fact that volunteers shouldn’t tolerate any rude behavior and anything of that sort should be reported to the volunteer captain, which made me feel very comfortable and appreciated. While she was talking, her colleagues were in a constant state of mobility, setting the scene for the “magic” to begin.

As ADFF volunteers, we get the chance to be a part of something that’s opening intellectual and cultural doors for the entire country, and creating the opportunity for cultural exchange. The ADFF gives the community an opportunity to engage in film culture, giving those talented directors, screenwriters, actors, and other film professionals the chance to enter the film industry and get what they need. These sorts of projects have one main component to their success, which is the enthusiasm of the youth in the society.

When I arrived for my shift at VOX Cinema in Marina Mall, I was told to check in with my volunteer captain: a calm young man who looked quite exhausted. I found this man’s capacity to handle everything at once and keep a smile on his face very admirable. The ease with which he performed his job, maintaining a schedule even more hectic than us volunteers, made our jobs seem easy in comparison. When we entered the volunteers’ office, I saw how cluttered it was with notes, schedules, and lists. Volunteer captains and other ADFF staff were always running around ensuring that each movie theater had enough volunteers. At certain times, they had to take on certain tasks themselves because volunteers were free to end their shifts when they please, thus resulting in times where the staff had to cover for lack of volunteers.

I learned from one of the student volunteers I met there that the film festival administration needed volunteers, and they got a lot of applications, but when people learned that the position was unpaid, they cancelled their shifts. It was sad to hear that these volunteers, who were mostly students, reneged on their commitments, knowing how much effort the people organizing this event spend to execute the festival. Maybe if they saw how much effort was put into organizing it, they would’ve considered sacrificing a few hours of their time to lend a hand in a project like this. What I found impressive was how the staff and remaining volunteers managed to make everything work despite that obstacle, allowing the festival to proceed smoothly.

At first, there was nothing for me to do as all the work spots were filled with volunteers, so all I could do was ask people to fill out a survey regarding their experience at the film festival. I know my next statement is going to be a shocker but brace yourselves: with the exception of some people who gladly gave me a few minutes of their time, people weren’t that enthusiastic about filling out a survey! Standing there, and waiting awkwardly for someone to show some interest in giving feedback about the festival, I remembered how many times I turned my head away and avoided such surveys. Doing this job got me thinking that maybe, just maybe, this feedback is actually needed; otherwise, the film festival administration would not make the effort to design it and have volunteers carry out this task during the festival days. The people who worked so hard to provide us with such a fun and educational experience need our feedback to improve things in the coming years. Even though ADFF employees/film professionals go through a year’s worth of work to provide an enjoyable, comprehensive film experience for the audience, movie-goers find three minutes for feedback too demanding. This doesn’t make much sense, now does it?

The volunteers whose shifts ended started leaving, taking away their complimentary movie ticket and food voucher as a thank you for their time. I was placed at the door of one of the movie theaters as a ticket-taker. While my job wasn’t the most fun in the world, I thought about how lucky I was to have the luxury of volunteering to gain insight about the film industry with the relatively short commitment of three days. The task may have been dull, but it allowed me to see what audience the ADFF attracted. On the door of that movie theater, I saw diversity; I saw families going in for a night of entertainment, mothers spending their ladies night at the screening of one of the movies, students coming for a night off from course work, and many film professionals who come to enhance their experience. All these people were gathered in one place, and they all had the chance to express their opinions about the movies by placing their vote in a box at the end of each screening. This box had a collection of votes that came from various types of people, achieving the goal of the festival and engaging every single person of the community in film culture.

My experience at the film festival was short, but it opened my eyes to several issues of which the most important one was how such events enrich our culture. Frankly, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see any movie stars up close because my shifts were always at Vox Cinema, and movie stars are usually at the Emirates Palace. Nonetheless, I’m still happy that I got the chance to see the hustle and bustle behind the curtains, and see how this initiative is attracting and engaging everyone who’s part of the community. These initiatives won’t succeed without the contribution of the people they’re aiming to benefit: us.

Frankenstein and Technophobia

Frankenstein and Technophobia

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Let’s begin with a word that isn’t in either the 1818 or the 1831 texts of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: robot. In fact, the word robot wasn’t coined until 1921, when it first appeared in the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by the Czech playwright, Karel Čapek. The word was actually coined by Čapek’s brother, Josef., and it comes from the Czech word robota, which means “servitude” or “forced labor.” R.U.R. is an allegorical play that depicts a company whose founder is named Rossum, from the Czech, rosum, which means “reason.” He’s discovered how to make artificial persons. His nephew realizes, afterwards, that by simplifying his uncle’s process and stripping the artificial persons of feelings and other unnecessary attributes, he can create the perfect worker, the robot.

Rossum’s robots are much in demand, but eventually, predictably, they are used as mercenaries with devastating results. When the wife of the company’s director secretly has one of its scientists enable the robots to transcend some of their limitations and to develop emotions, because she feels sorry for them, disaster ensues. The robots revolt.

At the conclusion of the play, all the human beings but one, a worker, are killed. The play ends when two robots, one male and one female, develop fully-fledged emotions. And it’s they who will repopulate the Earth with a new race of super beings.

The term robot is thus linked, from its very inception, to the idea that technology will destroy its creators if it isn’t used properly and responsibly. The play was a big success in Prague in 1921, and it opened opened the following year in London, where it sparked debates and commentary from prominent intellectuals including George Bernard Shaw.

Critics quickly recognized that one of Čapek’s key sources was Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, which has the subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus,” recognizing that the Prometheus myth is all about technological progress. Prometheus, we might remember, essentially creates human civilization by bringing technology from heaven to earth. That technology is called fire.

Shelley made a connection between the Prometheus myth and her era’s increasing faith in scientific and technological progress. Her novel is actually very steeped in some of the latest debates about what constitutes life. It’s fascinated by the new science of animism and by experiments with electricity. Her modern Prometheus is deluded by his mastery of technology into thinking he’s a god.

I must confess that it wasn’t Shelley’s image of the monster that I grew up with. I grew up with this one:

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It’s the monster created by Boris Karloff and make-up artist Jack Pierce in the 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein directed by James Whale. It’s this image of Frankenstein’s monster — with the flattop head and the prominent forehead scar — that has become an icon of global popular culture, rather than the creature that Shelley describes.

Actually, if I’m being honest, it was exactly Karloff’s monster that I grew up with, but rather this one:

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That’s right: Herman Munster, played by Fred Gwynne, in the 1960s sitcom about American suburban life called The Munsters. By the time the show premiered on television in 1964, Karloff’s Frankenstein was firmly established in American popular culture.

What makes Karloff’s monster so horrifying, I believe, isn’t the flat head, or the scar, or the monstrous stature, but rather the implantation of metal bolts into his neck as a result of the creation process. It’s the bolts that make him seem inhuman. Karloff’s monster is an early version of that ubiquitous what science fiction character, the cyborg.

Let’s step back and remember how Mary Shelley describes the scientific breakthrough that her scientist, Victor Frankenstein, makes:

After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter. … What had been the study and desire of the wisest men since the creation of the world, was now within my grasp.

What you won’t find in Shelley’s novel is a description of how the animation of lifeless matter is actually achieved. Victor Frankenstein tells the novel’s narrator, Walton, who is also a seeker after forbidden knowledge:

I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be: listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject. I will not lead you on, unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery.

In short, Victor tells Walton and us, he doesn’t want anybody else to make the same mistakes that he’s made. So he deliberately won’t tell us how he’s done it. In fact, the description of the creation of the monster is simply this:

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

The 1931 film adaptation isn’t so reticent about the process of bringing the monster to life. It takes some words that constitute a metaphor in Shelley’s novel — the “spark of being” — spark, and makes it literal. The dramatization of what occurs in Frankenstein’s laboratory retains not only the “spark” but the rain from Shelley’s description, but it calls attention to the role that’s played by machines, Tesla coils, lightning, and electricity.

 

The film makes it quite clear that it’s science and technology that enables this Victor Frankenstein to become God. So if R.U.R. was influenced by Shelley’s novel, I think this film was, in turn, influenced by R.U.R. In fact, in the sequel to this film, which was called The Bride of Frankenstein, we have Victor Frankenstein saying, “I created a man. And who knows? In time, I could’ve trained him to do my will. I could have bred a race.” In other words, that Victor becomes interested in precisely the things that interest the scientists in R.U.R.

Kids who pretend to be Frankenstein’s monster during Halloween tend to walk stiff-legged, with arms held out. It wasn’t Boris Karloff who gave the monster this robotic gait, however: somewhat ironically, it was Bela Lugosi. After originating the role of Dracula in Universal’s 1931 film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, Lugosi had assumed that he would have the starring role in the studio’s next horror picture, but he ultimately decided that the role of the monster in Whale’s film adaptation was too limited to make sufficient use of his talents. Twelve years later, he would finally play the role in the fourth Frankenstein sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Blinded by a botched brain transfusion in the previous film, Lugosi’s monster walks with arms outstretched, with the same kind of stiffness seen in early film and television representations of robots (see for example Robby the Robot in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet).

Universal made lots of movies about monsters: in addition to Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, the studio gave us the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Phantom of the Opera. But that one that really took hold in American popular culture and then global popular culture was the monster with the bolts in his neck, the technological monstrosity. This image of the monster links Mary Shelley’s novel to a post-industrial-age fear of technology, to the fear of what happens when the tools that we create get out of our control.

All of this leads me to a final question. If Frankenstein has been popular because of its dramatization of technophobia, why have we all recently become so obsessed with vampires and zombies? What are we afraid of now?

 

Cyrus R. K. Patell is Associate Professor of Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi and Associate Professor of English at NYU.

The Problem of Point-of-View in Documentary Film

The Problem of Point-of-View in Documentary Film

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Five minutes into a film a friend described to me as “a documentary about the First Intifada,” I stared incredulously at the stop-motion animation of four cartoonish cows. The narrator introduced them as proud Ruth, pacifistic Rivka, overly dramatic Lola, and Goldie, the political activist. The graphics looked amazing, but I did not quite understand what animated cattle had in common with the power relations between Israel and Palestine. I soon found out the cows were a means of reducing Palestinian economic dependence on Israel — but they were also a lens for the representation of an important chapter in the Palestinian history. The Wanted 18, an inherently political film avoided politicization by narrating its story from the perspective of apolitical actors: cows.

A few days later, I found myself listening to a talk titled “Point of View: Objective Truth or Personal Perspectives in Documentary Filmmaking,” which brought together the director of The Wanted 18, Amer Shomali, and two other filmmakers, who were also members of the documentary film jury, Christina Voros and Amar Kanwar. The event was organized by the eighth Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which offered many feature and short films screenings, as well as special events ranging from various workshops to Q&As and discussions on contemporary issues in filmmaking, with a focus on the Arab world.

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ADFF Point-of-View Panel: from left to right: Amer Shomali (director of The Wanted 18), Amar Kanwar, Christina Voros.

The discussion about the place of documentary film in today’s world started with a discussion about truth. Voros pointed out that in contrast with reality television, the fundament of the documentary film is the element of truth. Kanwar probed the concept of truth and its usefulness: truth is fluid through time as well as through perspective. Therefore, he observed, we have to say “no” to static vocabulary and adopt an equally fluid, ever-changing form of documentary filmmaking to keep up; new genres keep appearing that escape the narrow label “documentary film.” The Wanted 18 plays with audience expectations and combines animated drawings with archival footage, interviews, and reenactments to produce a nuanced testimony of a historical moment.

Regardless of our consensus about truth — whether one thinks it is absolute or relative, subjective or objective — we cannot overlook that once we attempt to capture it on screen, we frame it. A square two-dimensional motion picture is but a limited re-presentation of reality, and even without a narrative persona guiding the viewer experience, a restricted selection of scenes from real life is but a filmmaker’s perspective. I could not help but notice parallels in discussions about literature and film: documentary film can to some extent be compared to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European literary realism and naturalism. The trope commonly used to describe the literary movement at that time was to record everyday reality in order to depict it as objectively as possible, as if observing it through a camera. The perception that a camera can objectively represent the whole of reality with all its contingencies, however, is a fallacy. A camera is equally liable as the literature that invokes it to fail at recreating reality because even recordings of reality are necessarily filtered and subjected to an editing process that may include multiple points of view. The same applies to any work of literature trading on cachet of truth: neither is pure and unadulterated truth. Instead of talking about “truth,” I think it might prove much more useful to think about point of view.

Point of view is one of the most important issues in writing but often remains unquestioned in film, especially in documentaries, which general audiences nowadays still perceive to be “objective.” In fact, point of view is the main and continuously dynamic tool of structuring the narrative: now a Palestinian activist is telling his story, now an Israeli commander, now the cows are mooing and wondering where they are and why. A self-reflective filmmaker will acknowledge his or her presence while addressing the limitations imposed on the art. He or she needs to navigate the waters of personal investment, avoid drifting into autobiography as well as propaganda, and open up space for the audience to come in with their interpretation. Similar to creative nonfiction in literature, documentary film uses reality and remakes it into an independent artwork. Voros explained that in documentaries, she values intimacy over sophistication, and emotion over beauty: a director employs what is true in order to give the audience access to a place they could not otherwise go.

Neither literature nor the film industry however, have managed to escape the impact of the profit-driven economy that remade social relations in the twenty-first century. A member of the audience, an independent documentary filmmaker himself, asked the panel how to reconcile all the demands of the market: cinematic qualities, length, format, festival requirements… and ultimately, to abide or not to abide by audience expectation. Kanwar warned against making films according to a misleading idea of what is supposed to be “appealing” — to the general public, the target audience, the critics, a non-monolithic “million-headed monster,” as Voros dubbed it. She agreed with Kanwar, saying she only keeps market demands in the back of her head and instead pitches her films differently for different audiences.

As a literature student, I look everywhere for crossroads between social phenomena and literature, and the two-way relation of one imprinting itself on the other. Even the arts are forced to conform nowadays to the consumerist mold in order to subsist; we hear they need to be more entertaining because entertainment sells. We live in the tyranny of entertainment. Something as seemingly neutral as the news media has been remade into “infotainment”: truthful news crucial to informing and raising awareness of global dynamics, but remade into hip, flashy, popular commodities, attractive to the consumer. The birth of a “docutainment” genre comes as no surprise when the market wants to sell us an entertaining truth: documentaries in which enjoyable and appealing elements supplant the connective tissue of unbiased representation of truth. The Wanted 18 walks a thin line and begs the question of when the stylish and funny animations start to hinder the “truth” the documentary is trying to present. Literature has long been experiencing an impulse to commodify as well: paperbacks of trivial literature and formula fiction occupy the lists of best-selling books and fill the bookshelves of airport shops in special promotions to “buy one and get one free.” Arts are perhaps losing their autonomy when they are preoccupied with an idea of audience perception and have to look for ways around it, as the panel expounded.

(Creative) writing and filmmaking have become accessible to the masses: anyone with a smartphone can make a mini-documentary and post it online; anyone can write stories and many more get published than in the past.  Constantly, professors tell their students to “show, not tell” a story. In his book on writing, subtitled A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies, Sol Stein explains this direction: “The reading experience for a twentieth-century reader is increasingly visual. The story is happening in front of his eyes.” As an editor, he knows the books that sell most are the ones that show, unfold the story before the reader. I enjoy literature that consumes me, not just my sight, but my hearing, smell, taste, my body temperature, my balance, the sensory cells on my skin. Despite the contemporary impetus to push the narrator in the backstage in the name of objectivity, we should pay attention to and reevaluate the narrator’s place in literature, the same way we should always keep in mind the director of the documentary film and his or her point of view. The Wanted 18, for example, counts on the viewer to extrapolate and evaluate the narrator and point of view from parallel accounts: interviews, reenactments, and archival footage.

The question “Objective Truth or Personal Perspectives” in the title of the discussion at Abu Dhabi Film Festival is therefore a false dilemma: whatever the truth is, it is fluid and can never be captured as a whole in an artistic work, but that still does not make it a subjective personal opinion. It is a dialectical synthesis of both, a representation of truth that is neither universal nor a mere private insight: it is an author’s prism through which audience should constantly reassess the truth and its place in the world.

[Photo Credits: top, Still from The Wanted 18; bottom, screenshot from ADFF website. Courtesy of Abu Dhabi Film Festival.]

The Lasting Appeal of Sholay

The Lasting Appeal of Sholay

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Film is one way — perhaps the most important way — in which India makes sense of the teeming, heaving and chaotic multiplicity and the sprawling diversity of this tumultuous nation state.

Bollywood is ‘ordered chaos’ or pastiche, Bedlam at its chaotic best.”

Anurag Subramani

The lights dim,
the music builds and
a train stops —
at the village where Gabbar Singh prowls.
Kitne aadmi the?

Two men emerge:
Jai and Veeru
Veeru and Jai

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(they are the good guys)
out for revenge;
find romance instead.

Plot synopsis 1:
Tragedy follows
comedy follows
romance follows
tragedy follows
Holi.

Plot synopsis 2:
Two good guys, two girls, one bad guy.

Plot synopsis 3:
Song — bang — song — bang.

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In the midst of chaos
harmony reveals its hand —
Jo darr gaya
Samjho marr gaya
says Gabbar Singh: “He is who afraid is dead.”
Gabbar loses and doesn’t die; Jai wins and…

When the train leaves
only two stay behind,
not Veeru and not Jai.

Thirty-nine years after the movie came out,
I finally see what the fuss was about.

*

Or at least I think I do — Sholay is a love-story; Sholay is a thriller; Sholay is a tragedy; Sholay is a comedy. Sholay occupies a unique place in the Bollywood imagination for spurring the whole genre of “masala” films and the reason it retains its appeal to this day is because it still strikes us as contemporary. The aesthetic that worked so successfully in Sholay continues to inspire modern-day films: these two movie posters are separated by 37 years.

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Above all, Sholay is a riddle. The plotline twists and turns; it delights one moment and frightens the next. Like much of Bollywood, the fun lies not in deciphering the riddle but in puzzling over it, in going along for the ride. The question is not whether the boy gets the girl — because of course he does — or whether or not the bad guy loses — because of course he does — but how does the boy get the girl? How does the bad guy lose?

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, because it’s not an ordinary cup of tea. It’s masala tea.

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