‘Man with a Movie Camera’ – a ‘Fiction of Objectivity’

Dziga Vertov’s ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ (1929) explores maybe as many themes as the perspectives in his film. It deals with the part played by montage in the film making process, the relationship between man and technology, the multiple perspective and dynamism of the kino eye, and what this does for the anthropologist’s research… all gathered up in a lovely, energetic urban symphony.

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What first drew my attention to this 1929 film was how incredibly modern it looked for its time – the chosen perspectives, regardless of their impressive number, the ways in which reality can be depicted, the limits of objectivity, even the beautiful soundtrack by the Cinematic Orchestra. Also, the harmonization of man and machine was a modern theme to be dealt with in cinema at the time. ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ makes it seem as if it all fell into place – the film maker’s camera becomes his own eye, and sometimes ours, other times it becomes the eye of a bird… in some ways, we are being shown that, even in the camera ends up limiting our perspective, it might end up enriching it through uncovering the perspectives of others, which our eye is incapable of reproducing. However, the movie camera isn’t. By not having to deal with pure, untouched realism anymore, we now enter, according to Nichols (1991), a ‘fiction of objectivity’. In Vertov’s neo-realist approach, reality has a life of its own.

tumblr_lgz31epsn21qgaq7oo1_r1_400_2225The soundtrack and plot are very well synchronized, in that the music does not only complement the film well, but it synchronizes with it in terms of rhythm. This also represents the fast movement of urban life, along with the advancement of technology, which allows us to increase our rhythm of life in the exact same way the music and pace of the film change. In the end, it might not even be important that not even the camera can catch all possible perspectives objectively, because as it misses some details in order to make way for others, we do more or less the same thing. Moreover, now it is not only us who can get acquainted with all these perspectives – the entire world can be introduced to the film maker’s kino eye.

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Vertov did not want actors to star in his film. What he insisted on was a genuine depiction of the surrounding urban environment. We do not hear a narration, or anything else that could spoil the exclusivity that is given to the camera and the film maker’s eye in painting a ‘fiction of objectivity’. He did not edit the film though – his wife did, and we can see her editing it in this very film, by Vertov’s choice. This is indeed about the film making process as well, but it is also about its potential to be well received and understood. Socially speaking, film would appeal to the entire population, regardless of class or social position – everyone is meant to be able to understand it. For Vertov, film thus becomes an essential tool on the path to good, objective communication.

manwithcamera_2559803bSometimes the people were aware that they were filmed, but many times they weren’t. However, the camera is the main character. The camera captures life in real time, not only in matters of space, but also regarding life events (death, marriage, birth, divorce) that seem to happen all at one time. All along, the camera is at the same time above and among this agitated, fast and crowded urban life.

There is a ‘superhero’ touch to the camera and, implicitly, the kino eye, similar to the heroic ‘new Soviet man’. Indeed, governing perspective is not an insignificant capacity, and the movie camera makes it all possible. Vertov created an innovation and ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ probably re-defined the cameraman’s work as noble, necessary and powerful. I really enjoyed watching this film – it is obligatory for any novice film maker, especially one interested in the power of montage.

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‘Titicut Follies’: A Controversial Journey into the History of Psychiatry

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Before anything else, I think it is important to take a look at the context in which this film was made.

In 1967, film maker Frederick Wiseman reveals the unacceptable conditions to which inmates at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts are being subjected. Having been filmed in the ’60s (1966, to be more precise), it marked a significant moment in the history of psychiatry: the Anti-Psychiatry movement.

This movement concerned stopping commonly used methods of psychiatric treatment, considering that the consequences of using such methods imply an unequal power relationship between doctor and patient and a highly subjective diagnostic process. Some examples of these methods include insulin shock therapy, electro-convulsive therapy and brain lobotomy. These methods were seen as invasive, dominating and repressive and were taken severe action against in the 1960s.

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There is a fine line between sanity and insanity that Wiseman explored plenty in ‘Titicut Follies’. Not all the patients thought they should be there, and surprisingly, the most coherent and eloquent ones were the ones refusing their treatment situation. We are in the company of the cameraman’s perspective, but without a narrator. We are never being told who is right, who is wrong, and who does what and why. However, it is obvious that the main point was made – the conditions under which patients were kept were not decent at all. They experience a loss of dignity and sense of self, not to mention the feeling one might get, as a viewer, that the hospital was similar to a bubble – not a protecting one, but definitely an isolating, cold and lonely place to be in.

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Privacy is missing at that state hospital, but there is loneliness. At some point, one man is being shaved twice – while alive, and while dead, with barely any difference on screen, as if it were the same thing. Isn’t it almost the same thing? How much can they really live inside that facility, and how capable is it of curing, or at least helping them? Their living and treatment conditions were traumatizing. Strikingly contrasting with this, they are being engaged in artistic activities. The title of the film was chosen after the name of a talent show performed by the inmates: ‘Titicut Follies’.

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There doesn’t seem to be much commitment from the staff either. Their attitude is sometimes ironic, always cold and distant, without empathy, even though they theoretically are doing their job just fine. Patients, however, lack moral support completely.

What caught my attention while reading about ‘Titicut Follies’ was that its attempt of censorship by the Massachusetts state government would mark  the first known instance in the history of the American film industry that a film was prohibited from general distribution for reasons other than obscenity, immorality or national security. The claimed motive behind this was that, apparently the film was infringing upon the patients dignity and privacy – which is pretty odd, considering they had been granted no dignity or privacy to begin with.

Wiseman declared that he had the authorization of all the people portrayed in the film or else their legal guardian’s (the superintendent of Bridgewater). He believed that the government of Massachusetts, concerned that the film portrayed a state institution in a bad light, intervened to protect its own reputation. The state initiated legal action after  Governor John Volpe received a letter from a citizen who expressed shock at a scene involving a naked man being taunted by a guard.

The first and only US television airing of the film was in 1992, and it aired on PBS.

‘Titicut Follies’ was groundbreaking from countless points of view for both the history of American cinema and the one of psychiatry. It is indeed very graphic considering that it was released in the 1960s. Revealing such a reality takes courage, and Wiseman did an impressive job. It is not a pleasant film, naturally, but it is not meant to be entertaining. It challenges all the human senses – touch, sight, sound, taste and smell. This is a film that absorbs you into its world, even against your own will.

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‘Jesus Camp’ or ‘Training the Army of God for War – If They do it, why shouldn’t We?’

‘Jesus Camp’ is a place where kids and adults from all over the United States can join together for multiple purposes, but mostly for Evangelical religious education and practice. It is centered around two opposed perspectives of two Christian personalities: a Penticostal children’s pastor (Becky Fisher) who constantly organizes conferences, sermons and camps with religious purposes for people all over the country, and Mike Papantonio, of the ‘Ring of Fire’ radio show. Born and raised Christian himself, Papantonio becomes ‘the voice of reason’ throughout this peculiar documentary film.

So far, so good. It would be possible for me to adopt a different approach to this, had things not gotten completely out of control. There are many realities one may not want to get to know about, and the one this film depicts can definitely make the list.

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Apart from creating ignorance by perpetuating science-defying accounts of global warming and Darwin’s theory of evolution, along with others related to the issue of abortion or homeschooling,  Jesus Camp is the place where a new ideology is created, in support of peculiar purposes. This Evangelic ideology is apparently, but superficially built along Christian lines, as it becomes more and more similar to the ideological aspects encountered among the followers of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham). The camp becomes increasingly more like an army than a summer camp, an army for which people, mostly children, are being ‘trained’ (in their own words) in order to serve God. Becky Fisher, the pastor who leads this initiative, explicitly states at some point in the film that she wants to train these children as the Muslim fundamentalists train theirs. This becomes obvious even without them having to say it, when the children start performing a war dance making use of face paint. The will to go to war for religious causes, and even the will to die for one’s religion are elements that positively impressed the pastor, who is now trying to implement these values and principles into the Penticostal American society (mostly focused on children).

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Children are the center of these activities because, as said in the film, they are basically easier to teach and flexible, ready to believe anything and prone to auto-suggestion. All this is though hidden underneath the ‘new generation’ discourse – these children are the future and they will become the ones who take over, thus making sure this emerging ideology will be perpetuated.

It can not be called an independent ideology, since it is strongly tied and derived from American Conservatism. Moreover, it promotes American Conservatism, materialized in the person of former United States President George W. Bush, whose idolizing becomes absolutely ridiculous when a plastic, or cardboard (I’m not really sure) silhouette of him is brought on stage, and children have to applaud it as if they were applauding him. At the same time, they are assured of Bush’s presence in spirit, and his support of their movement.

camp1Meanwhile, at the radio station, Papantonio is trying to make sense of this structure of beliefs, but fails every time:

“Look, rape this world, rape this Earth, take everything you want from it because you know what? ‘It doesn’t matter. We’re not here for very long — Christ is coming to take us away from Earth. So cut down our trees. Use all of our oil. Take advantage of everything that the Earth has to offer.“That’s why you hear them getting involved with issues like global warming.” – he declares sarcastically for his listeners.

On the other side of Christianity, he is hurt and deeply offended that it is these people who now claim to speak in the name of Jesus. For him, the fact that the world might now look at being Christian in a way that has nothing to do with actual Christianity is a source of frustration. That, among other reasons, is why he makes a point out of offering a more reasonable discourse alternative. The discrimination against Evangelists that may arise from this documentary is in no way potentially worse than the one already happening against non-ISIS Muslims., who probably feel the same way Papantonio does.

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The most interesting and, at the same time, the scariest parts are definitely the ones showing the rituals. Seeing children ‘speak in tongues’, not to mention the war dances and face-painting, and entering a powerful trance that culminates in tears and seems to leave them devoid of energy and will to live is certainly not an everyday experience. That did not scare me in itself – what I found terrifying about this, at the same time humbling and empowering, was the power of our minds to be such effective tools in order to serve our psychological purpose – sometimes our own, sometimes, that of others.

Is this an ideological stand or the beginning of a new religious war? How much of what we see on camera is authentic and how much is meant to impress an audience? And which audience – us, or the children who go to Jesus Camp – or both? And is ‘ideology’ the right term for what these Evangelists are slowly building? I’d say it is, even if it’s not independent. It is an ideology that serves another. After all, ISIS was described in a US publication as a “distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior.’. It doesn’t sound that different from what you will see while watching ‘Jesus Camp’.

‘Eux et Moi’ (2001)

How much and in what ways does the presence of the anthropologist alter his field research? During and through his research of the native population in Papua New Guinea, Stéphane Breton found a possible answer.

‘Eux et moi’ is more than a contribution to the research progress made in the field of anthropology – it is a real guide for beginners in terms of anthropological field research. Unconventional, but delightfully original, it prepares one for all kinds of obstacles that could interfere with one’s work, from a social point of view. The film speaks about the research itself, but also about the researcher – about making himself accepted by the people he interacts with during the study, about the appearance of misunderstandings and how to overcome them, about the depths to which he can communicate with the people he’s studying, and why not, about the satisfactions gained as a result of the hard, but beautiful work put into creating interpersonal relationships.In the end, these relationships are what give us a better understanding of things we could not otherwise fully comprehend.

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Breton does not share his first encounter with the local people of Papua New Guinea. During this film we are witnessing an encounter that had clearly been preceded by others, in that he already speaks their language and they have even allowed him to build a house in their area. Moreover, one local even expresses his wish to live close to Breton and become his neighbor. He even calls one of the natives his ‘son’, given that he was the one who helped him integrate into their society, learn their language and gain acceptance. This is what brought them closer, allowing a certain relaxation in the way they interact – they joke around, make fun of each other, and confide in each other.

We can notice a clear difference between ‘Eux et moi’ and ‘Cannibal Tours’, precisely in terms of interpersonal relations between locals and researchers/visitors. While in ‘Cannibal Tours’ there was a completely superficial engagement with the natives, here the quest for proximity is systematic, meticulous and made on a deeper level – even if the results aren’t necessarily perfect. In the end, the ‘us and them’, ‘him and us’, them and me’, all these paradigms remained unchanged, but somewhat tamed. The camera doesn’t seem to help much either, adding another difference to the already perceived ones between the two groups.

Papou-Hautes-TerresAnother aspect that contributes to the constant separation of the two is economic inequality. Even though the locals had their own currency, consisting of decorated shells, they had gained a good understanding of money, and they gave it the same value as they did their own currency.

Now, the shells were theirs, but the money came from the white anthropologist who, as they said in the end ‘gained their trust’, but who also controlled the actual money they didn’t have and that they had to spend on basic necessities. It was very clear to me how money not only contributed to a greater separation in terms of perceptions of the other, but it did so by placing the white, Western man in a superior position; not only did he have better access to the money, but he also had the means to travel and use that money for personal purposes, paying people to do things he needed for his career.

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With this memoir-type approach Breton makes it seem like he’s allowing us to enter his personal diary. ‘Eux et moi’ is even more engaging because of the personal touch it was given.. We are witnessing both success and failures in the process of gaining proximity to the people we learn about. This proximity is essential to an in-depth, comprehensive and complex research in terms of field work.

‘Cannibal Tours’: How ‘Refined’ is a World that Can’t Interact with Others?

‘Cannibal Tours’ is definitely among the most meaningful, straightforward anthropological documentary films I have seen due to, or during this class. Directed by Dennis O’Rourke and released in 1988, the film follows the Sepik tribe in Papua New Guinea as it was at the time, while remembering its past, comparing the situations then and now, along with the way colonizers and white Westerners have changed them.

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It begins by giving us essential information on the history of the Sepik, especially the colonial one, which imposed diametrically different values on them. Somewhere in coastal Papua New Guinea, a white tourist is being shown around while listening to a local who’s telling him where ‘they used to kill people’. Not only have the Sepik been prohibited their spirituality (which conflicted strongly with Christian values by means of incorporating human sacrifice among the rituals performed by the local population) by their colonizers, but today they remain merely pieces of touristic entertainment to the Europeans and Americans visiting their home.

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From what we are told, the Sepik have lost core-aspects of their identity once the colonizers arrived. Even if some remember fondly the German colonization period, others do not share their enthusiasm. Most of them are also exhausted and offended with the way tourists behave within their environment, and with the easily perceivable differences between their lifestyle and that of the tourists. Having been introduced to the concept of money once the colonizers took over, they are visibly bothered by the great inequality of chances they see all around them, and by the generally superficial and greedy behavior of the visitors.

Due to a great lack of understanding on both sides, prejudice dictates the way one group perceives the other, thus creating a strong ‘us versus them’ paradigm regarding the type of interaction that occurs between the two groups. There is obviously no possibility for the Sepik to learn about the tourists’ cultures, because of poverty and consequently, the incapacity to travel and get to know different populations and places. During an interview, one local expressed his wish to be able to travel just like these tourists did.

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On the other hand, the white visitors have a very superficial knowledge of the Sepik’s culture. They know basic information, for practical reasons – such as the fact that cannibalism was no longer practiced by them. However, they act based on prejudice. They automatically assume that the artifacts crafted by the Sepik and sold to them do not have much value, and that bargain is in order, so they try to get the lowest possible price, usually second to the initial one which was low to begin with. The locals do not share these views though. Bargaining is not one of their favorite things to do, and they interpret it as a sign of undervaluation – and they’re not exactly wrong in their interpretation. One interviewee explains during one scene how tourists are not willing to pay much for their artifacts, and they always pick the smallest, cheapest works to buy.

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One thing I appreciated in ‘Cannibal Tours’ is being able to see multiple perspectives through Dennis O’Rourke’s camera lens. We are not only hearing from visitors, or locals – and, more importantly, even within these groups we are being introduced to different points of view. Nevertheless, the messages are well conveyed and there is an interesting a-temporal sense in the film that suggests the persistence of the situation.

Another interesting element in this film is the social construction of reality through visual tools, such as photography. ‘Cannibal Tours’ is truly a constructivist’s dream, in that it clearly shows the discrepancy between reality and the image that is popularized. Whoever did not take this tour and was waiting to see pictures taken by friends or acquaintances who went on that trip to Papua New Guinea will have a completely distorted image of the locals and the way they engaged with tourists. The most memorable of these ironic and sadly, darkly amusing scenes is the moment when a white woman wants to have her picture taken with local children, to make it seem like everything is cleaner, friendlier and more enjoyable than it actually was, and to create an image of herself as a charitable, benevolent human being. However, she insists on not standing too close to the children – just far enough to be able to display a falsely kind attitude for the camera.

For me, this scene constitutes a real symbol for the superficiality of intercultural interaction between white tourists and locals in Papua New Guinea. There are many other similar photography scenes though, and seeing the conditions under which they were made helps put things in perspective.

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While locals were aware of their lack of knowledge on their visitors, tourists were pretty sure they were well informed on the Sepik tribe’s culture. In fact, none knew much about the other, but they built social images of ‘the other’ out of a necessity to relate to him somehow.

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‘Cannibal Tours’ teaches us about numerous things: the impact and social consequences of ignorance in an intercultural context, social and economic inequalities, the implications of mutual lack of understanding, along with the importance of good communication, an example of anthropological observation and the perpetual risk of creating and absorbing distorted imagery of others, intentionally or not.

This film was obviously a necessary project – not only did it enrich the anthropological documentary film world, but it teaches lessons that need to be taught urgently. It was filmed with a dose of dark humor, and it conveys messages in a straightforward, graphic manner. I found it inspiring and it is a significant contribution in terms of ethics in field research.

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Childhood from Another Time – The Abandoned Camp at Bogda, Romania

It finally happened – I shot my first short film.

It wasn’t easy, but it was eye-opening. It was an adventure and it was a great experience.

First of all, I would like to mention, I do not own a camera, neither have I bought a video editing software. I am lucky enough to have wonderful friends who have experience with all this practically coached me into everything: camera movement, video editing… but now, back to the film.

I wanted this film to show more than one thing.
First of all, I was interested in memory: children’s camps from the times of communist Romania. I chose this particular camp not because of the comfort offered by geographical proximity, but because it has something different. It looks like a miniature Chernobyl in the shape of a children’s camp. It looks like it was left suddenly, because many things have remained there for tens of years, some of them for almost a century. There is still furniture in the buildings, beds, books, children’s art work, even old washing machines and wall paintings.
Second, I traveled back to present times and meant to capture one of the countless places that remained abandoned and forgotten in Romania after 1989. This is a common thing in former communist countries – once the regime fell, so did factories, children’s camps, everything that belonged to the state as a result of the 1950s nationalization.
When a few people take advantage of a major regime change inside a certain state, and instead of investing money, they steal it, this is what happens. And once these things are forgotten, there is no turning back – this is what I thought of when I filmed those rotten stairs, impossible to climb.
This camp was particularly popular and loved; it offered great living and educational conditions. My father went there as a child, and he told me a lot about it. Unfortunately, the film is way too short to fit in everything I would have liked to.
The summer camp was a good opportunity for kids, in that one only had to pay 400 lei for one child at the time – the minimum salary was of approximately 2000 lei. A working family with 3 kids could send all three of them to camp for two weeks during summertime.
Nowadays things have changed – very few school camps are still functioning in Romania, compared to the old days. The majority of the people are still not rich though – and opportunities such as this are fewer and fewer.
There is still time to save this camp though, and there is a lot of openness from local authorities – the problem is at the national level. The camp is currently the Romanian state’s propriety and local authorities have no power over national ones in this case, even though they want the camp, so that investors can be found. Unfortunately, there is no cooperation at the national level, which is why short films like this might draw attention not only to this particular place, but to many others which could be saved, so to say.
My father’s face lit up when I showed him the final version of the film, but at the same time it was filled with regret: ‘Look, look! That was my room over there, in that building, right at the bottom of the stairs!’, he said enthusiastically as the film kept playing. ‘If I won the lottery, reconditioning this camp is the first thing I’d do!’, he continued, very convincingly. It is strange how memory works. One sees this camp now, and this causes a clash between one’s memories of it in the context of happy childhood times and one’s shock after seeing it in its present state. This clash causes great emotional discomfort, especially in a country marked by an ongoing transition from one political regime to another.
One knows one can’t go back, but at the same time one would always travel back to a better time, and memory ends up altering reality – my dad probably won’t win the lottery, but another person with memories of this camp might end up doing something for it. This scenario is far-fetched though – if anyone would have wanted to take this matter into their own hands and invest, they would have probably done it a long time ago. However, even today, memories of the Bogda camp do not leave people untouched. One can easily notice the secretary’s sadness and nostalgia in his facial expressions. It was not even difficult to convince him to cooperate – fortunately, he was more than willing to. It was touching to see people genuinely caring about their surroundings, and the people in their community.

All in all, I was very lucky and very inspired.

Special thanks:

Ciprian Dan Bilencu and Monica Herman – Happy End Film Studio Timisoara, Romania

Mircea Sârbu – Bogda Village Hall, Secretary

Elena-Ligia Jebelean – my mother, who kindly and promptly helped me through the paperwork process

Alexandru Sântean – he drove us and patiently joined the fun (and got a nasty cold afterwards)

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Photos by Monica Herman, Happy End Film Studio, Timisoara, Romania.

Robert Gardner’s ‘Forest of Bliss’ (1986)

Located in Uttar Pradesh, on the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism, and it is often called ‘the spiritual capital of India’.

It is here where. as countless dead bodies are being sent on their way to oblivion, we are being reminded of the inevitability of grief, loss and death. “Everything in this world is eater or eaten, the seed is food and fire is eater.”- the entire cycle of life is captured in this single quote, at the beginning of the film, while a dog walks calmly on the shore, and then emerges into a fight with other dogs for the defense of territory. This is not only the opening scene (the dog walking on the shore), but also the ending scene, thus symbolizing the repetitiveness of rituals and their importance for the survival of identities. We will notice this is a central theme, seeing as through all its 90 minutes we are being introduced to specific rituals being performed and repeated – healing, funerals, praying. However, the main ritual Gardner is concerned with is obviously the funeral.

Moore observed the difference between the concept of purification in Varanasi and purification in the Western conception – as a Westerner, one is shocked by the unsanitary character of ‘purification’ rituals. As an inhabitant of Varanasi, cleanliness has more to do with spiritual practice.

The voice-over is missing, and it should indeed, in my opinion. It is enough to imagine the film and re-run it in one’s mind in order to notice that the voice of a narrator would seriously diminish the film’s capacity of absorbing the viewer into it’s atmosphere. One can not absorb the solemnity of the sacred while paying attention to constant heard information. Even a church seems most sacred, most imposing when quiet. One can hear every step, every echo, and every move seems to matter because one can clearly hear it. It does not feel the same during a mass. For me, it was the same with ‘Forest of Bliss’. The absence of the narration allowed me to ‘be there’, to hear the steps of the dog walking on the shore, the dead bodies slipping into the river, and even things that are not normally heard, such as the fall of the evening during the sunset. By not adding a voiced narration, Gardner obtained an enhancement of the viewer’s senses – all of the senses. One can smell the ashes, the dirt, the water and even the flesh.

From an ethnographic point of view, it meets the requirements, even with no narration. It clearly shows more than words can capture, and knowledge can be found in more than one way. There is no ‘universally accepted best type of knowledge’. Just because this is an unconventional film, it does not mean that it won’t give out crucial information, even on an ethnographic level. We see social equality, but total equality in the face of death. We see rituals and everyday life scenes, we hear, smell and feel everything that happens on screen. This is a kind of knowledge that is gained by quiet observation – through observational cinema, naturally.

Thinking back to the harsher imagery (flesh-eating dogs, dead bodies, disease), but also to the beauty of Varanasi, splendidly captured by Gardner, I conclude that his film is much like life itself – it has an unconventional beauty. Alexander Moore rightfully described it as ‘visually absorbing’. The beauty is there, but it is not always what we expect it to be. Sometimes it’s in a melancholic sunset over the Ganges, or in the overwhelming quantity of flowers pouring over the many sacred elements around the city, sometimes it’s in the very materiality of death and the way it is accepted and understood.