Bodies sway to a beat we cannot hear. Instead a hushed, disembodied voice (Bhumisuta Das) murmurs over flickering black and white images that look soft to the touch, like a love letter turned velvety with repeated reading. A film is being projected behind the dancers. Sometimes one of them will strut into the beam and become, for a moment, a part of the screen. Other times little dramas — embraces or arguments — occur. But mostly there’s just mute, almost ghostly movement, silhouetted and shadowy: Only a few seconds into Payal Kapadia’s shimmery, poetic essay doc “A Night of Knowing Nothing,” it feels like we are a few hours deep into the excavation of someone else’s memories.
Kapadia’s film was shot during her time at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and it is unusually interested in mulling over the role that third-level institutions can play in times of enormous social upheaval. Among DP/editor Ranabir Das’ beautiful, penumbral images, often dark to the point of abstraction, are casual shots of FTII’s dorms, hallways and outdoor spaces, where student activists gather. And somewhere in one of its rooms, we’re told, a cache of letters was discovered, detailing a love affair thwarted due to casteism. So the voice of “L,” the letters’ author, mingles with that of the narrator, who may or may not be Kapadia herself, to present an interiorized, retrospective impression of issues churned up by the rise of India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and the resistance movement — in which universities played a key role — that sprang up to oppose him. In every sense except the pejorative, “A Night of Knowing Nothing” is a student film.
There is a disconnect between the woozy mood and the sharp, still-raw events to which it refers, and this gives the film its peculiar power. Moinak Bose and Romain Ozanne’s sound design is particularly instrumental in creating this strange dislocation: Often shots of clamorous chanting crowds will play in an eerie silence only briefly broken by a little sync ambience kept low in the mix. It makes front-and-center footage of passionate speeches and dramatic protest marches seem somehow faraway and fragile; the sparing use of brooding, unidentifiable electronica instrumentals also contributes this floaty feeling, as events from 2015 and after play as though they’re ancient, or maybe unrooted in time altogether, eternal.
The actual facts the voiceover outlines are frequently shocking. News excerpts create a parallel between the rise of Trump and India’s resurgent fundamentalist nationalism. The narrator ponders the meaning of the infamous lynching of a dairy farmer by Hindu extremists (so-called “cow vigilantes”) and the 2018 gang rape and murder of an 8-year-old Muslim girl. She worries at her memories of the day that Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at Hyderabad Central University who came from the Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) minority, committed suicide due to institutionalized victimization and isolation.
With so much on its mind, and so many different fragments — Super 8 home movies, archive footage, newspaper headlines, brief abstract bursts of color — it’s arguable whether the love-letter framing device is necessary or simply another complicating factor. But it does provide an otherwise scattered collection of moments and meditations with a very loose structure, as L’s communiqués to her lover change in tone. The language, first full of yearning and youthful ardor, becomes harder and cooler as disillusion sets in, ending with recriminations: “Maybe you were never brave the way I thought you were.” Perhaps this is designed to mirror the process of political awakening as experienced by the students of Kapadia’s generation. The initial elation of solidarity and righteous activism cedes to the gradual realization that the status quo will not be so quickly budged, which in turn gives way to an exhausted understanding that often, years of struggle for freedom of expression and freedom from oppression will see neither goal attained. Only the struggle persists.
There is a certain melancholy to that observation, maybe even a kind of despair, that is enhanced by the strangely nostalgic atmosphere Kapadia evokes. But in her evident cinephilia (in one intriguing moment, she stops to wonder what Pasolini would have made of her confronting a police officer at a march) there is a glimmer of hope. In pictures soft as the fabric of oft-worn clothes, in a voiceover hushed as dusk, the sheer sensual pleasures of filmmaking become their own kind of motivation, reminding us that cinema is not just a useful tool in the fight against injustice and tyranny. When there are films as curious, expressive and intimate as “A Night of Knowing Nothing,” it is also what we’re fighting for.