Jeebesh Bagchi on Jashn-e-Azadi on the Sarai Reader list. A provocative meditation.
>>jeebesh at sarai.net|Sun Mar 18 14:12:05 CET 2007|
Reflections on Sanjay Kak’s Jashn-e-Azadi
A father stutters in remembering the name of his son in an ice covered martyr’s graveyard. He is looking for his son’s grave.In a found video footage from the 90s, a girl in her late teens passionately, but viscerally, describes the body of a young man in the neighbourhood, killed during an army operation. The body is lying in the crossroad amidst the houses; no one is allowed to approach. “Even the dog did not go near it,” she says flatly.In an OPD ward of the post-trauma centre, the doctor listens to the story of a woman. In her dreams, figures in white shrouds appear – and never reveal their faces. Sanjay’s film is a cautionary tale to not make light the depth of the feelings around the word “Azadi” in today’s Kashmir. The feeling is deep and resonant with halted lives of 100,000 dead over the last 18 years.The film discovers this latent, almost volcanic, subterranean layer by entering the journey through the dead. It uncovers video archives of the dead, moves with a team that is trying to ascertain the count of dead and disappeared, stands in at doctors’ chambers in a post trauma therapy center, moves with a funeral procession, visits a camp where orphans sing Iqbal’s ‘Sare Jahan se acha’ and records the ashes left behind by relentless military operations (highest and unimaginable civilian to military ratio anywhere in the world.
To recall the dead and to make it speak, is at all times a difficult existential and philosophical task. It is to the filmmaker’s credit that he attempts this and we will try to understand how he does so and what are the conceptual difficulties he is working with. Hopefully through this we may achieve a vantage point to think with and beyond the film, into the landscape of the unsayable, incomprehensible terror that the film wants us all to wake up to.The conceptual axis is built around understanding of the reverberating word ‘Shahid’. The martyr. The one who has given his or her life for a defense of a conception of life. The word Shahid vibrates at all corners of the landscape of the film. It is the mute, troubled figure that links Zulm (oppression) and Azaadi (freedom).The film tries to give a new entry point to this given conceptual structure by bringing in the latent meaning hidden in Shahid – that of a witness in its Arabic etymological roots (and we may add also in its Greek etymological roots). So martyr is no longer just the dead, but a person who has a testimony.Agambem in his commentary (Remnants of Auschwitz) on testimony and the archive opens out an internal tension in the concept of witness and the martyr. One meaning of witness could be one who is brought into the trial as a third party and the other is one who has been a part of the event from the beginning and therefore bears witness to it. The second sense of the term is not concerned with the trial or the judgement, but opens us to the gray zones of life, questions that law or juridical reason do not or cannot exhaust.
Martyr could be seen as someone who bears witness to a destruction. A martyr cannot but remember. It is she who remembers to keep alive a conception of life. But, martyr is also someone who is a sufferer or felled by that which is horrible, terrifying, without a life giving form, without sustenance. A martyr death is also a senseless death, a death that its perpetrators or executioners visit upon people without an understanding of what has been undertaken. A death visited, that halts a life, it is without purpose. A death that a future must abjure.
The film tries to organise our relationship to the years of terror and mutilation by a repetitive visit to sites and images of violence in more or less similar ways. The reoccurring shots of the walk back of army contingents after an assault on a settlement creates an overwhelming spiral with no end in sight. An inchoate weight of senselessness is produced. Shot over two years, the filmmaker communicates over each journey a sense of life that is perpetually halted. An emptiness soaks into the way it renders landscapes and places. Death roams around loud.
This repetition is sought to be balanced by poetry and metaphors from poetry. Only popular performers/jesters (bhands), poets and silent nature can speak the unspeakable. The possibility of language to think can be found in an unblinking look at the lyrical beauty of nature, a poet’s anguish and popular performers’ indomitable spirit to produce meaning and a sense of what it means to live in these times. These are also the few remaining bleak signs of life in the film.
Within these two threads – one relentless, overwhelming and the other fragmentary, fragile – nests the archive of the dead and the testimony of the one who bears witness. The images that we referred to in the beginning appear here. They are a stutter, a visceral detail, a nightmare, difficult accounts that refuse to slip into settled frameworks of knowing. It is here that the film starts encountering its problem. The idea of martyr as dead, fixed and organized in a language of politics, mobilized for judgement collides with the martyr who bears witness. The film does not allow this collision to take shape and grow. The collision gets further frozen by the stance of the filmmaker who produces the account of a third party in his voice-overs. A fall back on the idea of witness as “outside”.
The two classical documentary modes – a disembodied voice that contextualises and a juxtapositional play to comment and draw meaning – are deployed by the filmmaker to cohere the various trajectories that his journey had opened out. It is here that the films weakens itself and lends itself to simpler ideological readings. These ideological readings will play on the inclusion and exclusion that any narrative will need to produce to cohere. But, the crucial vector, as to why these aesthetic modes were deployed, would remain unthought.
The filmmaker is there in the film in its very grain. But the structure that is built on repetition and fragments creates a problem of stance. The voice tries to intervene. The unease of not achieving a stance is mediated by the voice and juxtapositional commentary. For example, the rapid “cut performance” with tourism industry’s vulgarity and tourists’ ennui is an extremely weak ground to stand on when the ambition of the film is to engage with the deepest dilemmas of today. Similarly the voice takes an authority to comment on ghost figures. One wonders what in the encounter or the material is this authority being drawn from. It is in these moments that one misses most the “diary” of the filmmaker during his journeys. If the landscape and the archive is barely audible, one would have thought that the filmmaker would let us enter this space of silence, this space of death through his attempts to listen to this inaudibility. The urge to comment thwarts the process of making sense in a trying journey. The logical impossibility of various meanings of witness and martyr ever meeting remains unacknowledged.
The way the film captures the feeble and shabby attempts by the armed forces to produce for itself an image of also being a carrier of signs of life is moving. The images of the school, the orphanage, the donation of portable radio sets mark a total depletion of the signs of “development”. A hollowness that is haunting.
A retired army-man now counts, names and locates the dead. A battle with his’ and others memories to keep alive atleast a faint recollection through “just the name”. He acknowledges that a few could have been left unnamed. A witness who cannot do anything else but try to remember.
A fire in a building that refuses to die out. The electric wires keeps burning. The mounting debris of ash and wood remains.
Also remains an unfulfilled promise of the deeper acknowledgment of the materials and the notes. We would make a comradely request to the filmmaker to not see the film as the end of this specific journey. The materials and the notes need to appear in other forms, and then maybe over a longer period we will learn and educate ourselves, as to what it means to live in the now that the film opens for us.