New York Film Festival 2020: Letter From Your Far-Off Country remixes the history of Indian protest
Letter From Your Far-Off Country, currently playing at the New York Film Festival, boldly draws from different eras of Indian revolution, from the writings of Ambedkar, to fallen Indian communist leaders in the 1980s, to more recent demonstrations, like those at Shaheen Bagh.
The 58th New York Film Festival is officially underway. Fittingly, its first digital edition is home to a number of boundary-pushing experimental works, which run the gamut from Black revolutionary re-framing of the French New Wave style — in Ephraim Asili’s The Inheritance — to self-reflexive neorealist works like Hidden, Jafar Panahi’s meta-remake of his own 3 Faces from 2019. Among the fest’s more avant-garde selections, however, is Suneil Sanzgiri’s Letter From Your Far-Off Country, an India-US co-production featured in the “Free Radicals” lineup of new age shorts.
And radical it most certainly is, though even before the slightest hint of its themes emerge, Sanzgiri’s use of form combines the visual fabric of past and present, using images belonging squarely to the digital age — 3D maps of Kashmir’s mountains, screen-recordings of iMessages exchanged with his father, and digital renderings of letters to the dead, flying off into an infinite void — which he grafts onto a battered, off-center 16mm film print.
Its medium alone sets the stage for a mesmerising piece, one that boldly draws from different eras of Indian revolution, from the writings of Ambedkar, to fallen Indian communist leaders in the 1980s, to more recent demonstrations, like those at Shaheen Bagh. Although, rather than merely mimicking history of Indian protest, the way the film wields its potent images — analog and digital, old and new — speaks to a contemporary political malaise, in which history repeats itself in unending permutations, and in which the nature of images themselves have begun to feel violent.
The film feels, in certain moments, like ghosts reaching out through the fabric of the screen, at once near and far away. Perhaps to warn us, perhaps to teach us, perhaps to let us reflect.
Most of the film is narrated by Sanzgiri's father, as he reads letters and poems which speak to the heart of revolutionary narratives (those narratives also appear on-screen as accompanying text). They are, by their very nature, at once personal and impersonal, stemming from unique individual impulses, but capturing broader spectrums of the human condition.
Sanzgiri's father begins by reading the poem Dear Shahid, written by Kashmiri Muslim poet Agha Shahid Ali, but told from the perspective of someone writing a letter to the poet himself. The film takes its title from the poem’s opening lines — “I am writing to you from your far-off country. Far even from us who live here” — and this prism-shifted perspective captures a sense of displacement and diasporic longing (Ali would later move to the United States). This longing runs through the film’s 17-minutes, mirroring the kind of emotional and spiritual dislodging that might occur when a place, and a people, are placed under duress, forcefully removed from their own sense of culture and identity.
The poem is both near and far away for its author, the way the second letter the narrator reads is both near and far away for the filmmaker and his father. The author of this letter fears it may never reach its recipient, the filmmaker’s distant relative Prabhakar Sanzgiri, a communist leader in Maharashtra who himself chronicled, through books, the pro-worker and anti-caste ideologies of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. With Letter From Your Far-Off Country, Suneil Sanzgiri inserts himself into the long history of Indian revolution (both those who lead it, and those who record its story). He contrasts the words of the real Ambedkar — written, of course, many decades ago — with uncanny digital images of his walking avtaar. The filmmaker animates him imperfectly, conjuring his presence the way a clay idol conjures ideas, as if to make manifest the warring spirits of the written & spoken word and moving image.
It’s an exercise bordering on gaudy, made even more so by the reverence with which Sanzgiri frames Ambedkar; one gets the sense that Ambedkar wouldn’t have taken kindly to this specifically Hindu idolatry, the very worship propagated by those who re-enforce the structures of caste. But what stops this digital puppeteering from veering into tasteless territory is that the film questions this near-mythological framing too.
The film seems to ask whether images need to go hand-in-hand with ideas (or whether they even can), reflecting on the nature of myth and why we mythologize in the first place. Images of temples and other places of worship abound, though Sanzgiri refuses to separate them from the spectre of political violence that defines them in the modern world.
The violence in the film is implicit in ways that haunt and linger. Backed by scattered images and audio that report on modern India (and its descent into authoritarianism), Sanzgiri explores holy monuments through panoramic digital photos. But even these images are unable to truly mirror reality in all its subtext and nuance; these photos of life motion capture people as a series of errors, as if they were spread across space, their limbs and bodies torn asunder by the mere movement of the lens. It’s the kind of technological accident that occurs every day — shoot a “pano” photograph on the street, and moving objects become scattered — as even technology can’t be separated from the violence it begets. So many instances of slaughter begin, after all, as anti-Muslim or anti-Dalit propaganda on phone screens (the very medium Sanzgiri presents to us in his opening images, as a tool to discuss long-forgotten poetry with his father).
Every image has a political dimension, and a spiritual dimension, and Sanzgiri seems to force both to the surface at once.
The violence of the moving image becomes almost literal at one point, bursting through the screen over archival footage of Shabana Azmi’s acceptance speech at the IFFI Awards in 1989, during which she protested the murder of communist playwright Safdar Hashmi. The medium of cinema can both capture and sanitize real-world brutality, but in Sanzgiri’s film, that brutality is captured on the fabric of the very celluloid on which he tells his story. In the moments Azmi speaks of Hashmi’s murder, the film strip itself appears to manifest physical agony, appearing so scratched and battered that it feels like the film itself is combusting from within.
It’s a discomforting notion. But whether it represents a literal fire — perhaps an inevitable reprisal against Azmi, her speech, and the student activist she mourns — or a fire blazing from within, like a burning desire for justice, is left to one’s imagination. What the film has to say in literal terms isn’t nearly as important as the truths it evokes through its visual discombobulations. The terrifying, disorienting reality is that both these flames exist hand-in-hand in the lengthy story of Indian revolution; the spirit with which people stand up and fight, and the violent fury that often follows them.
Ultimately, Letter From Your Far-Off Country is a haunting entry into India’s parallel wave of experimental cinema. It is, at once, a rousing oral reminder of a history to which we all belong, and a visual conjuring of that history through mutated and manipulated moving images, as if the new norms that surround us have been turned inside-out, forcing us to examine their every facet.
This year marked my seventh New York Film Festival (NYFF), but it was the first one I attended from 8,000 miles away.
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