Tomorrow We Disappear


Sometimes we all feel like puppets on a string.

Sometimes we all feel like puppets on a string.

(2014) Documentary (Old Friend) Puran Bhatt, Maya Pawar, Rahman Shah, Dilip Bhatt, Krishnan the Juggler. Directed by Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber

Florida Film Festival 2015

The slums of India tend to be among the worst in the world; poverty in India is as abject as perhaps anywhere else on the face of the planet. Children play on exposed electrical cords, the smell from fly-infested canals filled with standing algae growth and from excrement and filth in the streets can be horrific.

The Kathputli Colony in New Delhi is at first glance much like any other slum until you take a closer look. The inhabitants are mainly folk artists, street magicians and contortionists, all carrying on Indian street arts that are quickly disappearing. They have lived here for generations, passing down their art to their children and making a meager living performing in the streets of Delhi.

A developer has purchased the land that the slum sits on from the Indian government and proposes to build a multi-use skyscraper with high end apartments, a shopping mall, restaurants and entertainment. It will be New Delhi’s first skyscraper, something the entire city can be proud of.

However, to the residents of Kathputli, it is troubling. Part of the deal that the government of India made with the developer is that those being displaced by the project must have proper housing built. A temporary relocation camp has been constructed to house the residents while their final homes are being built.

Three residents of the colony take differing viewpoints about their displacement. Puran Bhatt is India’s premiere puppeteer, having toured the globe promoting the distinctly Indian version of this art and having won a National Award presented to him by India’s president no less. He is the most famous person living in Kathputli, and he is very troubled by what he sees as a direct threat to the colony, the traditions that live there and the unity of its residents. He fears that this will signal the end of these valuable and culturally defining art forms that are already becoming scarce on the Indian cultural landscape.

Rahman Shah is a street magician who is finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. Corrupt police officers expect bribes in order for him to perform and often the amount they ask for is more than he takes in during a performance. His sons worship him as young sons will worship their fathers, eager to follow in his footsteps and yet he is still pessimistic about the future of his art. He feels that it is being pushed out of the way by corruption and indifference and will eventually disappear from view entirely.

Maya Pawar is an acrobat who sees the change as something positive, an opportunity for the colony and its people to grow and flourish. She is concerned that the desperate poverty of the colony actually inhibits the creativity of those who live there, and better living conditions will allow them to devote more time to their arts. She doesn’t feel the same connection to her art that Puran and Rahman do; she’d be just as happy teaching school as she is performing acrobatic feats.

The residents band together for protest marches and while the developer tries to assuage their concerns, when they tour the temporary relocation camp it feels like their worst fears have come true; the dark and ugly flats, hastily built with shoddy workmanship, are not places to live so much as they are places to die and what was promised to be a transitional place to live for a year or two looks to be their homes for much longer than that and given the corruption that often exists in these matters may certainly end up as permanent dwellings if the developer reneges on his promises.

The first part of the documentary is actually quite powerful as we get to meet the colorful people of Kathputli and see the pride they take in their home and their art. As poor as their lives are, they decorate their little corner of the world with bright colors, electric light from rickety jury-rigged wiring, and a sense of humor that they maintain even in the worst pressures being brought to bear on them. There is a sense of change overwhelming the people of the Colony and most aren’t quite sure how to react or what to do. It is heartbreaking in some ways and in others an interesting study of a traditional lifestyle being decimated by the needs of modern life. Whether modernization is a good thing for the inhabitants of Kathputli is certainly open for debate.

The trouble is that in the second part of the documentary, things fall apart a little bit. We get a lot of shouting matches between colonists and developers, and amongst the Kathputli residents themselves. The sense of unity that the residents had is disintegrating which might account for the more chaotic feel of the second half. It feels though in some ways that the story has lost its momentum and we’re just watching things deteriorate which is an unsettling feeling for the viewer; it might well be what the filmmakers were going for in order to give the audience a sense of what the people of Kathputli are going through, but it left me feeling like the movie just lost its momentum.

The story is ongoing and the people of Kathputli continue to fight relocation; late last year police raided the colony, beating colonists in an attempt to intimidate the hold-outs to move into the relocation camp (these events took place after filming of the documentary had been completed and aren’t referred to by the filmmakers). The story remains in a bit of flux, which often real life stories tend to be. This isn’t something that will be settled quickly which you get a sense of from watching the film, although you don’t really see beyond the developer’s promises just how much the government is arrayed against the colonists. I would have liked to have gotten a better sense of that.

The first part of the movie does tend to trump the second; the people are so extraordinary, so indelible that you won’t soon forget them. Whether or not you agree with their stance regarding the relocation of the colony (and I tend to be skeptical that the developer and the government will keep their promises), i think you will agree that should these artists and their art disappear from view it will be a terrible blow for India and their cultural heritage.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Residents of slum are interesting people you want to get to know better.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses steam during the second half. We get very little sense of the forces arrayed against them or the corruption surrounding them.
FAMILY VALUES: A few mild bad words.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival a year ago.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hamara Shahar
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Proud Citizen

Encounters at the End of the World


Encounters at the End of the World

In the sea, in the sea, in the beautiful sea...

(2007) Documentary (THINKfilm) Werner Herzog, Henry Kaiser, Kevin Emery, Ashrita Furman, Douglas MacAyeal, David Ainley, William McIntosh, Peter Gorham, Regina Eisert, Clive Oppenheimer, Samuel S. Bowser, Ernest Shackleton, Jan Pawlowski. Directed by Werner Herzog

 

At the bottom of the world there is nowhere more desolate, more cold. It is a land without sunrise for six months, without sunset the other six. It is an alien world, inhabited by creatures found nowhere else who can survive in this harsh environment. It is also inhabited by people, people with great courage and also big dreams to sustain them in an unforgiving wilderness.

These are the sorts of things that draws in filmmaker Werner Herzog. With such documentaries as Grizzly Man to his credit, Herzog has a history of being drawn to people with big dreams that the rest of the world might term as odd or unusual. You won’t find anyone quite as unusual as those willing to live in Antarctica.

Herzog was originally drawn there by video taken of the area by his friend avant garde composer, musician and filmmaker Henry Kaiser. Kaiser had himself been brought there by a grant from the National Science Foundation for a writers and artists program in the Antarctic. Herzog got a similar grant but warned the Foundation that he wouldn’t be making a typical wildlife documentary. “No fluffy penguins,” he huffs on the narration. To their credit, the NSF agreed.

What we have here is not only a look at the penguins but also the creatures that exist below the ice, the microscopic life forms who lead a surprisingly violent existence but of more interest to Herzog is the men and women who live at McMurdo Station (the main settlement in Antarctica).

These are an eclectic bunch, some of whom are there mainly for the scientific discoveries in zoology and microbiology (which give insight as to how life evolved here on Earth and, potentially, on other planets), but also gives a front row seat at the apocalypse. The climate and ecological changes man has wrought upon the Earth manifest themselves first at the bottom of the world and the news here is pretty grim.

The images are incredible, particularly of the dives into the Ross Sea. Divers must drill a hole in the ice and then into the dark waters of the ocean they go. They wear no lines in order not to restrict their mobility and range and must trust that they can find the hole again to resurface before their oxygen runs out. However, while the life in these frigid waters is sparse and a little alien, it is beautiful in its own right.

So too is the desolate Arctic wilderness. There is a particularly compelling scene in which a penguin leaves the safety of the nesting ground, walking off the wrong way into the barren interior of the continent. Certain death awaits it, but it trudges on. Earlier, Herzog had asked marine ecologist David Ainley if there’s insanity among penguins; there is certainly some with suicidal tendencies.

There is also a passageway beneath McMurdo where “souvenirs” of those who have lived there before are stored; perfectly preserved by the cold, dry air. There’s a sturgeon from waters far from Antarctica, tins and other human debris, put into alcoves in the ice and left for future generations…assuming there are any.

Me being a history buff, one of the segments that appealed to me was the examination of Ernest Shackleford’s cabin, one built for an expedition almost 100 years ago – perfectly preserved. That expedition ended in disaster and one of the most heroic incidents of the 20th century – but that’s for another day.

Herzog has an obsession with the dreams of men (not in the nighttime sense) and labels those who toil at McMurdo “professional dreamers” and he has a point. However, Herzog often has a tendency to put himself front and center in the documentaries, making himself a part of the stories – he also has been known to stage incidents in his documentaries which I’m fairly certain he didn’t do here but one never knows.

That puts him at direct odds with documentarians like Errol Morris, who rarely get on-camera and take great pains to let his subjects tell their own stories. Herzog is instead more like Michael Moore, who like Herzog has a definite point of view and uses his camera to bolster it. Calling these films documentaries is a little misleading; there’s elements of propaganda to them as well (and I have to point that out, even though I agree with much of the points of view that Herzog and Moore take).

Still, this is a film that pleases the eyes quite a bit, even if some of it is unsettling when you think of the ramifications. There is a lot to think about but one wonders that since the politicians of most of the developed countries can’t see beyond their own narrow self-interest if they really have the ability to see the survival of the species long-term. Kinda makes you think.

I wish Herzog had been a little less in the camera eye and ear here; he’s a great interviewer, yes, but there are times that I wondered if the documentary was about him and not so much about who he was interviewing and what he was filming. Never a good sign.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t one of the great documentarians on the planet, which he is. He makes some very valid points here, takes some incredible pictures and finds some interesting, clever people to chat with. Normally, all that would add up to a much higher mark in my books, but I couldn’t help thinking that a little less Herzog and a little more silence would have done this film more justice.

WHY RENT THIS: Some gorgeous and desolate footage. Lots of quirky interview subjects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Herzog and his obsession with dreams is front and center, perhaps a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s nothing remotely offensive here or unsuitable for small children; however they may wind up being a bit fidgety and the animals and landscapes may not appeal to them much.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is dedicated to critic Roger Ebert, an early supporter of Herzog’s work.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an abundant amount of extra footage shot by Herzog and Kaiser, as well as an interview of Herzog by filmmaker Jonathan Demme.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; the movie in all likelihood made its budget back but probably not much more.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Good