Review: A NIGHT OF KNOWING NOTHING Documents India's Student Protests with Poeticism
Payal Kapadia's documentary is a tapestry of grainy 16mm, archival and surveillance cam footage, beautifully capturing the spirit of youth and their undying idealism in the chaotic, uncertain times in which we live.
Payal Kapadia's debut film, A Night of Knowing Nothing is a tapestry of grainy 16mm, archival and surveillance cam footage, beautifully capturing the spirit of youth and their undying idealism in the chaotic, uncertain times in which we live.
A woman reading wistful letters written by L, a lovelorn student at The Film and Television Institute of India, narrates the film. Her belongings were found in the dormitory where she stayed as a student.
These letters, addressed to her boyfriend who is no longer in school, were written on a notebook and never sent. From that, we gather that her love is not reciprocated because of India's rigid caste system: his parents don't approve of their relationship and have taken him away. Kapadia and her team use her letters as a springboard for an essayistic examination of contemporary India.
A Night of Knowing Nothing starts and ends with black and white footage of young people dancing. These silent images of undeterminable time period are joyous, energetic, and emblematic of college life. They are dancing in front of a movie projected on a big screen. Cinema or visual image here is already tied to the past, invoking nostalgia.
There are images of young people in their rooms; some laying in bed half-naked, some watching Godard's Breathless on a small TV. There are empty darkened alleys and billowing curtains; sounds of rain and chirping birds accompany these images. Then there's a home movie shot in color, of a wedding, which seems like it's from the 70s, judging by their clothes.
As L writes to her lover about their mutual friends, we get a glimpse of the 2015 strike at the FTII, a public college, protesting the appointment of a Hindu Nationalist actor to the chair by the right-wing Modi Government. Their strike spreads to college campuses across India, protesting not only the government's assault on public education system but also the violent crackdown on the minority Muslim population.
The footage of protests and sloganeering is cheerful, at times. But the baton-wielding police in the streets and the surveillance footage of masked right-wing militia thugs breaking down the barricaded doors of a university building full of students and corralling them and beating them mercilessly are truly terrifying.
These issues are explained with the voices of newscasters and leaders of the demonstrators with or without visuals, always shot on grainy film. The mood and energy is tje same as that of May 1968, when universities across Europe exploded in protest against the governments and its policies and war in Vietnam. And just like back then, students question if their movement could be truly successful without the support of the country's working class.
This is especially true in a country like India, where the deep-rooted social tradition of the caste system make things a lot more complex and difficult. Justice for Dalit, the lowest in the caste system, becomes the theme of the protests. And L's love affair with a boy from another caste comes up again, tying the narrative threads together.
As the film plays out, L in her later letters, isn't sure if she was writing to her unresponsive lover or the ideal version of him, in whom she can confide her thoughts and feelings. Memories fade, but nostalgia remains.
From Godard and May 68, to mythical Hindu God films, to Chris Marker, A Night of Knowing Nothing weaves an intoxicating visual, textural contemplation of our relationship with cinema as an unintentional but nevertheless undeniably nostalgic medium, even if the image is from only a few years ago. It ends in a hopeful tone.
As one leader of the protesters addresses the crowds, saying that it doesn't matter what came before them or what's handed down to them and no matter what today's circumstances are, the moment right now is theirs for them to seize it. Keep on dancing.
A Night of Knowing Nothing opens Friday, February 11 in New York with a national roll-out to follow, via Square Eyes.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com