Film Trilogy / IMAGINARY HOMELANDS

Mt. Witness POSTER

Mt. Witness / SUKMUT SAYAK 

Mt Witness is the story of a storyteller, and his stories. The stories he tells / sings / performs are seeds within which forests and mountains, rivers and spirits play hide and seek with human universes. Here the memories of a whole race spread over the entire Eastern Himalayas, now splintered by sociocultural shifts, find pastures of old riddles and mysteries rekindled amidst the dusty wastelands of history. Sonam Tshering Lepcha of Kalimpong is one of the last great Lepcha masters. Subject partly to mass behavior and automatic norms, denied both the rights / relevance of old ancestral practices and partly negotiating consciously with a peculiar ‘endangered’ ethnic status that modernity has bestowed, the Lepchas, as the world knows (or doesn’t) one of the most ancient tribes, have lost themselves to the TV and Shangri-la, lottery and adventure sports. One after another he picks up Lepcha themes like Nature worship & the Great Flood, genesis of Lepcha Tribes and their manifest design. Sometimes it’s a song relating to life and times of culture hero/legends Geybu Achyuk who Sonam has dug out from virtual oblivion and mapped in actual geo-mythic locations.

With Sonam, one is brought to the play of rich ideograms parallel to Tibetan Buddhist axioms about ‘everything’. Sonam works in different ways, and his ways have grown over time. But now we can see them all merging on his invisible map and calendar. To the Lepchas of the present generation their tribal language itself is rarely spoken and with it the stories lie precariously suspect as idle ramblings of hyperactive ancestors of use only to anthropology etc.. Hardly anyone had any idea about how to live outside the language of history which can become a tasteless monster of cruel arid facts. When the storyteller saw that there’s no marked difference between the poem or the song, the ballad or the tale.. he started seeing that everything has it’s own place under the sky..

The museum and the stories. Sonam moves around in search of tales and objects, people to hear and receive from, people to tell and transmit to. The archaeologist and the narrator. Sonam plays a crossroads for object and tales. Everything in the museum that he’s collected writes the language in which lost fables and songs, games and rituals can be read and heard. He finds them resonate like living syllables of a language inscribed in perennial war and peace. He attempts to give us the living world in which spirits continue to live, the wind is a chance messenger, a world immersed in magic; every little insect, every pebble sustains delicate wombs of tribal memory and existence. These are suspended passages of imaginary homelands within the noisy climate of history. A small conversation with Sonam unfolds strange twists and turns in the ethnic epic-historic saga of a race who, as History would have it, at some point of time provided shelter to the distressed Tibetan émigré and signed a bloodpact with them, much later to have been subject to similar cultural cleansing in the later democratic times. And yet, he’s not anywhere near the center of the mainstream of Lepcha political history. He figures marginally , if not nowhere on the many websites and blogs, public petitions and debates that abound the radically altering and anxious piece of breakaway territory called Kalimpong ( now in West Bengal, a separate state) whose fate is interlocked with the issues of a separate Gorkha state formation cooking since the late eighties or even the Sikkim Govt’s policies regarding building of multiple hydel power projects on the Teesta and Rangit rivers . Gorkhas are originally people from adjoining Nepal who introduced Sikkim to terrace cultivation and democracy. Now they are a demographic majority ( over 80%) and rule the Sikkimese parliament by default. Teesta and Rangit are rivers sacred to both the Tibetan Buddhists and the Lepchas. Sonam has even written dramas on their lovelore, given them songs in the ballad of Geybu Achyuk. Today, he seems all too cynical to walk the now pedestrian tracks that his journey’s themselves had etched as also nothing of what he has won as reward will get back fractions of what disappears everyday. The mountains echo a void. Sonam answers this scream with lonely prayers and rituals, every time; often alone…

Later each becomes a festival.

LISTENER’S TALE

The ink. The reed. The mind. And words appear…

Listener’s Tale is a journey into hinterlands of a magical history; a stroll along the margins of Time. In search of everything… Sikkim / Beyul Demadzong, an erstwhile Tibetan Monarchy, is revered as a land of hidden treasures consecrated and blessed by Guru Padmasambhava, the immortal messiah of Tibetan Buddhism in the 8th Century AD, so that Dharma finds home in troubled times. In the 12th century, a blooodpact is signed between Lepcha chief Thekung Tek, and Khye Bumsa, a wandering Tibetan king.

The great snow mountain Kanchendzongha, guardian deity of the land, stands witness. Chakdor Namgyal, its 18th century legendary Tibetan monk-king, dreams of the mountain dancing with his warriors in the court of Lord Mahakala.

He writes the Pangtoed Chham dance to immortalize the Lepcha–Bhutia alliance. Pangtoed Chham is a code of hidden memoirs etched on the epitaph of sacred mysteries. Its spectacle unfolds in the film as an ageold whisper amidst the chorus of modernity and scepticism. Listener’s Tale goes on a journey into this ever changing canvas witnessing fact and fiction dissolve in the dialogue between artist and medium

Listener’s Tale is the story of a triple journey. First, a journey in Sikkim. Next, a journey in time, tracing back the course of history from the birth of the kingdom of Sikkim and its people, the Lepchas. Finally, an initiatory journey, with art (painting, music, dance, architecture) and religion (Buddhism) as its mean vectors. It is actually one and the same unreal, circular and majestic journey, within a web of materials, images, colours, sounds, texts and prayers, landscapes and objects, traces and dates, men, gods and places. With its tormented history of alliances, betrayals, invasions, liberations and prophecies, Sikkim is revealed, concealed, diffracted and celebrated. This story comes to us from various sources: the wind, rain, the humidity and mold on the mountain slopes, the babble of streams deep in the valleys and the branches’ wailing, the thangkas now painted in workshops, the large frescoes with eroded colours on temple and cave walls, the lush vegetations, the stubble-burning on the site of the kingdom’s first capital, the monks’ prayers, the historian’s questions, the powerful protection of the “mountain god”. And finally from the filmmaker himself, in the eye of this strom. Multiple and fragmentary, unfinished and epic, it has no author, it doesn’t itself exist. Only someone who hears it can reconstitute its movement.

-Yann Lardeau. Cinema Du Reel

Format   DV / Colour & B/W         Duration   76mins.

Language   Hindi         Subtitled  in  English

Year of  Production    2007

Director     Arghya  Basu

Camera      Arghya  Basu    Manas Bhattacharya

Editing       Arghya  Basu

Production    Seasongray

SCREENINGS

International Premiere at IFFR ’08 Rotterdam, Netherlands
French Premiere at Cinema Du Reel, Paris
Signs Film Festival’07. Kerala. India
Jihlava Int. Doc. Film Festival ‘08, Czech Republic
Asiatica Filmmediale ‘08, Rome, Italy
Cinema Verite Iran Int. Doc. Film Festival’08, Tehran
World Film Festival ’08, Bangkok
Kerala International Video Festival’09. India
Images : Listener’s Tale

Reviews and Interviews

A Listener’s Tale is first and foremost a sensuous evocation of this place’s unique historical-spiritual-geographical coordinates.
http://www.sf360.org/features/arghya-basu-evokes-the-mystical-and-everyday-in-a-listeners-tale

An article in the Tehelka magazine about Arghya Basu,  filmmaker, known for having directed films like ‘Listener’s Tale, Death Life Etc.‘
http://mlfblog.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/arghya-basu-an-article-in-tehelka/

Almost like melodious Buddhist chanting, the film, in a very fitting slow pace, depicts the life of the various ethnic groups: the Bhutias – Tibetan immigrants who came as settlers to Sikkim as early as the 12th century; the Lepchas – the aboriginals of Sikkim; and the modern, mixed Sikkimese population.

http://atrickofthelight.wordpress.com/2008/10/09/atolwishlist-for-wfbkk-2-a-listeners-tale/

A NOTE FROM THE MAKER :  LISTENER’S TALE

Listener’s Tale goes on a journey into this ever changing canvas witnessing fact and fiction dissolve in the dialogue between artist and medium

Listener’s Tale is the story of a triple journey. First, a journey in Sikkim. Next, a journey in time, tracing back the course of history from the birth of the kingdom of Sikkim and its people, the Lepchas. Finally, an initiatory journey, with art (painting, music, dance, architecture) and religion (Buddhism) as its mean vectors. It is actually one and the same unreal, circular and majestic journey, within a web of materials, images, colours, sounds, texts and prayers, landscapes and objects, traces and dates, men, gods and places. With its tormented history of alliances, betrayals, invasions, liberations and prophecies, Sikkim is revealed, concealed, diffracted and celebrated. This story comes to us from various sources: the wind, rain, the humidity and mold on the mountain slopes, the babble of streams deep in the valleys and the branches’ wailing, the tankas now painted in workshops, the large frescoes with eroded colours on temple and cave walls, the lush vegetations, the stubble-burning on the site of the kingdom’s first capital, the monks’ prayers, the historian’s questions, the powerful protection of the “mountain god”. And finally from the filmmaker himself, in the eye of this strom. Multiple and fragmentary, unfinished and epic, it has no author, it doesn’t itself exist. Only someone who hears it can reconstitute its movement.

-Yann Lardeau. Cinema Du Reel

Format   DV / Colour & B/W         Duration   76mins.

Language   Hindi         Subtitled  in  English

Year of  Production    2007

Director     Arghya  Basu

Camera      Arghya  Basu    Manas Bhattacharya

Editing       Arghya  Basu

Production    Seasongray

screenings

  • International Premiere at IFFR ’08 Rotterdam, Netherlands
  • French Premiere at Cinema Du Reel, Paris
  • Signs Film Festival’07. Kerala. India
  • Jihlava Int. Doc. Film Festival ‘08, Czech Republic
  • Asiatica Filmmediale ‘08, Rome, Italy
  • Cinema Verite Iran Int. Doc. Film Festival’08, Tehran
  • World Film Festival ’08, Bangkok
  • Kerala International Video Festival’09. India

Images : Listener’s Tale

http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/sredir?uname=105305118724128831661&target=ALBUM&id=5446995494073002721&authkey=Gv1sRgCN6kpor1qKjI4wE&feat=email

Reviews and Interviews

  • A Listener’s Tale is first and foremost a sensuous evocation of this place’s unique historical-spiritual-geographical coordinates.

http://www.sf360.org/features/arghya-basu-evokes-the-mystical-and-everyday-in-a-listeners-tale

http://mlfblog.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/arghya-basu-an-article-in-tehelka/

  • Almost like melodious Buddhist chanting, the film, in a very fitting slow pace, depicts the life of the various ethnic groups: the Bhutias – Tibetan immigrants who came as settlers to Sikkim as early as the 12th century; the Lepchas – the aboriginals of Sikkim; and the modern, mixed Sikkimese population.

http://atrickofthelight.wordpress.com/2008/10/09/atolwishlist-for-wfbkk-2-a-listeners-tale/

A note from the maker :  Listener’s Tale

DEATH LIFE ETC.

Death Life Etc. is about homecoming…a homecoming made possible by a carnival in the traditional mountain society, some relationships, a few tales, stories and perhaps the film itself… A chronicle of the passage of seasons over scattered habitations tucked amidst Himalayan frontiers between Sikkim and Tibet, mapped by historic facts and fantastic tales.

Jigme Norbu Lachenpa is keen on promoting tourism in Lachen, his home village. a settlement of semi nomadic tribes trying to strike balance between the Buddha and BRO (Border Roads Organization). Jigme and his friends want to take us to a corner of the world where telephone and satellite TV have not yet penetrated. Rocks and wind, snow and darkness make perennial war and peace. People come home for the Lossar (New Year) festival, carrying the City in tiny gift-wrapped packages; Dish TV and Handy cam.

Paradoxes haunt present -day Bhutia societies grappling with shifting memories and traces of ancestral rituals; lives and times lost and found in contemporary fiction.

An entire community skirted by oblivion prepares to take on a demonic icy winter. Barren pastures transform into habitable territory; at the heart of epic wilderness one consecrates space as homeland.

Sheer hillsides, wafts of mist, colorful prayer flags, a stream, snow, monks, singing bowls and melodies… Lachen in North Sikkim lies hidden in the Himalayas between Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal. Semi-nomadic tribes have inhabited this place for generations. Until recently, only a dirt track led up here into the mountains, but now progress has arrived. An army of Lorries and diggers have moved in. Thanks to the freshly lain tarmac the tourists are on their way. Young men showcase their handcrafts and antiquities. “Lachen will be the hottest destination”, they confidently proclaim. Families still wash themselves in the stream, but the building works for a new bridge press on. The chopping of firewood has been forbidden since electricity arrived in the village to provide all the light the villagers need. Before there were just Tigers in the forest, now there are satellite dishes on the rooftops. There are dances and firecrackers, a party and a procession, magnificent garments and old prayer books, will tradition soon be just folklore? The meticulously composed audio-visual essay describes a village in transition counts the costs of progress.

– DOKFEST’09, MUNICH, GERMANY

DV/   80mins/ Hindi/  2009    Subtitled in English

Dokfest’09 Munich, Germany; Asiatica Filmmedialle ’09, Rome , Italy, Aliance Francaise, Mumbai

It is the 4th of January in Lachen village, North Sikkim, 10,000 feet above sea level. Jigme waits for the storm. “Shortly everything will be covered in snow. You will hear the ant breathe,” he says.” And sure enough, as we continue to watch Arghya Basu’s Death, Life, etc, we are transported from the many-tongued babel of Losar (the Buddhist New Year) to the unimaginable stillness of a man walking through fields of snow. We hear the ant breathe.

The power of documentary has long been misunderstood to be something akin to that of a drumroll: beat the drum loud enough and your message will reach its audience. But, in fact, its power lies in the conjuring up of alternate worlds – worlds no less real for being put on screen. The real attraction of documentary films may be that they give the viewer access to images she may not otherwise see – or if she sees, may not ordinarily look at. Sometimes this may be true despite the drumroll. As Satyajit Ray said of Sukhdev’s India ’67 (one of several films commissioned by the Films Division to commemorate the 20th year of India’s independence), “I like it, but not for its broad and percussive contrasts of poverty and influence, beauty and squalor, modernity and primitivity – however well shot and cut they might be. I like it for its details – for the black beetle that crawls along the hot sand, for the street dog that pees on the parked bicycle, for the bead of perspiration that dangles on the nose tip of the begrimed musician.”

Documentary has always been at the cutting edge of cinema’s relationship with the real. But if an older generation of documentary filmmakers were certain that they had a handle on reality, the current crop is equally certain that they don’t. Director after director speaks of the need to put oneself in the frame, of “transparent filmmaking”. While there is an unswerving admission that the filmmaker’s presence alters the quality of interactions, both in life and on film, there’s also a keen sense that the personalised narrative has somehow acquired a greater claim to truth in a world full of faceless information. The “subjective documentary” can range from the meditative, free-ranging cinematic essay (aka Death, Life, etc) to scrutinising the filmmaker- subject relationship (like Shyamal Karmakar’s I’m the Very Beautiful, an unsettlingly intimate but transformative account of the filmmaker’s on- and offscreen relationship with a singer called Ranu). The cinema, Godard said, is not an art which films life: it is something between art and life. The filmmakers profiled here are all striving towards finding their particular place in the middle.

“He who writes the story seldom knows the tale it spins. Everyone except him has a tale when finally it relents,” reads one of the inter-titles in Arghya Basu’s film, Listener’s Tale (2007). The film’s title, too, is meant to underline Basu’s belief that the author is not so much a creator as a transmitter – he or she is a listener more than a teller. But the 38-year-old filmmaker has no illusions about being able to represent ‘the truth’. (He quotes Mircea Eliade: a true story in one place can be a false tale in another.) All he wants is to use the cinematic apparatus to explore the world. “The camera opens up a different mode of enquiry,” he argues. “It’s a machine. Like a microscope or a telescope, the world seen through it is a different world.”

Certainly, the world as it appears through Basu’s lens is both starker and more lyrical than it might seem in everyday life. Lichens turn ghostly grey on rocks, smoky clouds cover the mountains, tales of a blood pact between the Lepchas and the Bhutias “at the junction of epochs” create a Sikkim haunted by history. But just as you’re settling in for a beautifully executed slice of exotica, the music becomes electronic. Wires stretch taut across a city shrouded in mist, and shots of Gangtok town are overlaid with the tinny engaged tone of telephones. A self-declared “anthropological filmmaker” with an interest in the relationship of art to history, myth and philosophy, Basu’s Listener’s Tale (2007) and Death, Life, etc (2008) create a stunning Sikkimese landscape in which the bare bones of trees are as crucial as the lines of television antennas. “Are those beliefs that have survived for centuries more true, or the modernity that threatens to efface everything? I don’t know. But I think it’s a problem to keep chronologising. Things co-exist.”

Basu, who teaches at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), is inspired by cinematic giants like Godard and Cocteau. He is driven not by a desire for documentation but by the poetry of the image. “I don’t want to be part of this myth of the real that documentary perpetuates. I want a cinema that will create memory.” Amid the excitement about fresh work in documentary in India, Basu sounds a note of caution – or several. He accepts that more documentaries are being made – even being watched – but worries about where we’re headed. “Finance doesn’t only encourage, it is also an auto-censor. The foreign funders coming to India want only “current affairs”. There’s not enough critical interest in life itself.” Other funders promote what he disparagingly calls “keyhole cinema”, demanding a certain intimacy with the subject. “When you’re paid for telling ‘the truth’, what kind of truth will you tell?”

-Trisha Gupta in conversation with the filmmaker

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s