Interview: Payal Kapadia on A Night of Knowing Nothing
This article appeared in the February 24, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
A Night of Knowing Nothing (Payal Kapadia, 2021)
In August 1947, when India achieved independence from British rule, the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote “Dawn of Freedom,” a lament: “This light, stained and smeared, this night‐bitten dawn/Surely this isn’t the dawn we had waited for so eagerly.” Freedom had come at a great price; the nation had been torn apart into India and Pakistan, and the Partition had triggered a near-genocidal wave of communal violence, exposing the illusions of democracy no sooner than it was declared.
Coming 75 years after India’s independence, Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing, winner of the Golden Eye Award for Best Documentary at Cannes, dwells in that darkness before dawn, refusing the blinding light of false freedoms. Set mainly at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), where Kapadia and several key collaborators studied filmmaking, the film sews together a series of crepuscular documentary images from public universities across India—spanning nocturnal revelry, campus quorums, art-making, rousing protest, and brutal police violence—with a gossamer thread of fiction: a film student’s hushed voiceover, reading aloud letters to a lover separated from her by his upper-caste family.
Kapadia began shooting A Night of Knowing Nothing in the aftermath of a student strike at the FTII in 2015 (whose participants, including Kapadia, continue to face legal blowback) against the Narendra Modi government’s appointment of a TV actor and right-wing politician as the university’s new chairman. But the film eventually expanded to trace the wave of movements that have erupted across universities in India throughout the last five years, protesting a series of political assaults: fee hikes, privatization, censorship, Islamophobia, caste discrimination. The result is as much an elegy to the utopian promise of public education in India as an interrogation of the public responsibility of the artist. What does it mean to create in the face of destruction? To preoccupy oneself with matters of beauty in the face of rampant ugliness?
The false dichotomy at the heart of these questions, separating aesthetics and politics, comes undone in A Night of Knowing Nothing. Here, beauty emerges as its own form of resistance, and resistance emerges as a thing of beauty—a site of creative reimagination. Kapadia’s textured use of darkness and light, and particularly her inspired play with non-diegetic sound, give form to the feeling of protest, to the energies that bind together disparate individuals in acts of collective articulation. A crowd pulsates outside the famed Jawaharlal Nehru University with sonorous chants of “Azadi!” (freedom); a handheld camera roves over protest signs invoking Eisenstein and Pudovkin; in a heartbreaking denouement, the narrator tearfully recounts a nightmare—or is it a memory?—about friends caught up in a police crackdown at a rally, as we watch a long, excruciating CCTV clip of cops busting into the library at Jamia Millia Islamia University in 2019.
The filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak—whose portrait is glimpsed in the film, adorning one of the walls of FTII—wrote of cinema’s vocation: “A million clenched fists rise to the sky militantly asserting their existence, even as the beams of a fledgling sun fall aslant on a cluster of paddy stalks, touching their edges and turning them into shimmering lines. The film reports on both frontiers, fights both fights.” The sun is yet to rise in A Night of Knowing Nothing, but in the dark of a long night, it fights both fights.
A Night of Knowing Nothing screens at the Maysles Documentary Center on March 3.
You’ve said that you started filming some of the footage for A Night of Knowing Nothing in 2016, but the events at the heart of the film are from the last two or three years. How did the project take shape across this period of time?
Me and my partner Ranabir Das, who is credited in the film as the cinematographer, editor, and producer, started shooting when we were both at FTII. This was just after the strike, and there were a lot of things that were changing around us, in terms of the culture of the space. At the time, we started interviewing our friends, filming them hanging out and talking, but it was not clear to us what the film would be. We didn’t realize what the next five years would look like. Then a few years passed, we graduated from FTII in 2018, and we met some of our friends, like Prateek Vats, who is quite a well-known director himself…
He made Eeb Allay Ooo!, right?
Exactly. He and some of our other friends had been shooting at other universities around the same time. Prateek says, “I have all this footage, I don’t think I’m going to use it, so take it.” That was super nice and generous of him. When we got all this footage, we realized there was a whole other film that we should be making.
What was the new idea that emerged from the footage?
Earlier, the film was going to be FTII-centric. In the interviews we did with our friends, the topic of love would come up quite often—the difficulty of being with the people they wanted to be with, whether it was due to differences of caste or other problems. Everyone was talking about the pressure to get married soon. So this theme of love, its complexity, and the Brahminism that exists in our society, came through in the interviews. But later, we realized we also had to talk about the public institutions that were under attack. That’s the change in vision that took place.
We shot some more footage of the protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University against fee hikes, friends gave us more of their stories and footage, and we also discovered this beautiful archival material randomly on Pad.ma, an archive website run by an artists’ collective. It’s from a curator named Sumesh Sharma. It’s his grandfather’s home videos. So by 2019, we had this huge archive of the past five years, and even our own footage began to seem like it was found. So many years had passed, and we had changed so much as people. That’s when the idea of the found-footage film began to form. When we started working on the voiceover text and the archive footage, an interesting reflection and criticism of class also came through, which maybe some people get and some don’t.
I want to talk a little bit about your artistic upbringing. What were your formative experiences of cinema?
I had the privilege of going to a nice boarding school where we had a Bengali chemistry teacher who would show us films by Satyajit Ray, Ghatak, et cetera. Later, when I was in Mumbai, there was a festival called Experimenta, organized by the curator and artist Shai Heredia. She was the first person to bring experimental cinema to Mumbai. That really opened up my mind, and I decided I needed to go to film school. I didn’t get in [laughs]. I had to wait for a long time!
Was there a specific experimental filmmaker you saw at Experimenta who made an early impression on you?
I saw Amit Dutta’s films at Experimenta for the first time—his early films as a student, like Kramasha [To Be Continued, 2007] and Kshya Tra Ghya , which I like the most. His playfulness, use of voiceover, and joyous, childish love for the filmmaking form really come through in those. I thought: if FTII can produce people like him, then that is where I want to go.
FTII has produced many greats of Indian cinema, especially independent cinema. What was your experience at the school like? What kind of cinematic lineage did you find yourself within?
FTII had such good filmmakers: Mani Kaul, John Abraham, Ritwik Ghatak… We had to watch their films and study them. But more importantly, because FTII was designed on a Soviet school model, and because the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) is also right there, we had access to a lot of films. You would always know when the new batch of students had come in because they’d be showing Eisenstein or other early Soviet filmmakers in the theater. I watched an [István] Szabó film on a print there for the first time. We got to see a lot of Czech New Wave films. Even though sometimes all the colors would be red, and everything looked completely crazy, we got to see them, and that was such a privilege. That’s the legacy FTII left me with, and I hope it continues. They’re going to shut down the NFAI now, and the Films Division….
A tragic time, to say the least. What I love about A Night of Knowing Nothing is that you’ve contrived a specific cinematic language for protest. There are all these vérité scenes of protest, but the way you treat that footage visually and sonically emphasizes the emotional undercurrents—the grief, the rage, the joy, all of that.
I didn’t make overtly political films before this. I made quiet, slow films. I think that sensibility stayed on in A Night of Knowing Nothing. I always knew I didn’t want to make a film that was chronological. I was trying to articulate how, in the last five years, it’s been really emotional. We’ve seen one thing happening after another, horrific images that have been coming to us, whether on Facebook or in front of our eyes. I didn’t think I could approach any of that without emotion. I also wanted to build the film such that the scenes at the end [of police crackdowns on students] are experienced in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s happening someplace else, in some other time, but that there’s a connection to these people, an empathy and affection.
Can you tell me a little more about writing and recording the voiceover? Why did you decide to make the narrator, “L,” a lower-caste character in an intercaste relationship?
My co-writer Himanshu [Prajapati] and I were thinking a lot about the contradictions in our own movements, in our own families, in ourselves. We are standing up for this public institution, we are upset about the kind of people who are coming into power and what they’re doing, but really, the problem exists between us, in our positions of privilege, and this is something we need to address. We’ve even seen in the past year that some of our leaders, who we considered important at the time, have also fallen [off their pedestal] with the kinds of things they’ve said. There’s no point in saying that everything is good—it harms the movement. That’s something we wanted to explore. This guy that L is in love with is supposedly idealistic, but to what extent? Only up to the point that it’s convenient.
Why the format of the letters?
I’d been watching filmmakers who use double voiceovers, like Miguel Gomes, who uses both text and voiceover narration. I was thinking of how all these elements—and also the drawings in the film—could come together with some sense of materiality. There’s something about the idea of a found object that I was really interested in. I like this feeling of something homemade. It doesn’t feel like a proper film but like something you just knitted up.
The voiceover is in first person, and it is from the point of view of someone from a supposed lower caste. Did you have any concerns about using these “I” statements from a subjectivity that’s different from yours?
Of course, this is a difficult position for me, which is why I decided to have the filmmaker’s point of view be in the [on-screen] text. I thought that would be useful to distance the filmmaker from the letters that were found. I don’t know if it’s fully effective, but it’s the one method I thought of that could say, hey, this is not me. This is something I do think about a lot, and I hope it works.
I think the reason it works is because the film has so many different voices, so many shifts of registers, that there is no single authorial voice. A Night of Knowing Nothing reminded me of Handsworth Songs, by the Black Audio Film Collective. Both films deal with difference at the levels of both form and society, and in creating a montage of different formal elements, try to fashion something like solidarity.
That was one of the things we wanted to talk about: the student body, and by “body” I mean the dancing body, the protesting body, the bodies that form our collective.
Who are the two fathers of montage? On one side there’s Eisenstein, and on the other, there’s Griffith. The two political positions that these filmmakers represent are clear even now, after over a hundred years. So much of Hollywood comes from Griffith, and alternative cinema from the ideas of Eisenstein. Of course, Eisenstein made political propaganda, but so did Griffith. So montage has always been political. When people ask what I think about political films, I say all film is political. Even the act of saying “I’m apolitical” is political. That’s cinema.
Where did your approach to sound come from?
I really like using sound, it gives me a lot of joy. I have this sound recorder, and when I’m editing, I do my own sound design. Even while writing the script, I do sound design. Because sounds make me see images. There’s this nonfiction short I made, called And What is the Summer Saying. It was shot on video, but there were a lot of limitations at FTII for how much you’re allowed to shoot. We only had six days to shoot. So I would go into the forest randomly, with just the sound recorder, and I designed the film using sound. It was the restraint of the exercise that made me approach it through sound, but it also opened up a whole other world for me. From then on, I started experimenting with non-diegetic juxtaposition.
You shot the film on digital, right?
It’s a secret. [laughs] I’d rather not say how I shot it, because I like the ambiguity. But let’s just say it’s not celluloid.
Why the celluloid effect, then? Even though the footage is varied—some of it is in color, some of it is differently lit—the film has a uniform visual texture.
When we started shooting five years ago, Ranabir and I decided we wanted to make a film that looked as if it was 16mm. This was our romantic love for celluloid, but we didn’t have any money for it. We used to shoot on film; one of my shorts is celluloid. But after that, one of the changes at FTII—and generally, also—was that everything became digital. That move is also political. So we had this deep sense of sadness for losing celluloid, and we wanted to have this feeling in the film. It became a useful thing, because when you have so much diverse footage, it’s good to have some kind of homogeneity to the images. I had a great color grader, Lionel Kopp, in France, who really understands celluloid and knew exactly what to do.
You could have fooled me. It really does look like celluloid! I want to ask about the ending of the film, with the CCTV footage. That part made me cry the most, even though I’d already seen that footage—I vividly remember it hitting the news, and feeling like something had broken.
We found the unedited footage on a channel called Maktoob Media, who do really good work. They had put up the whole clip; it’s quite long and horrific. The way it starts, it feels so banal, you see a guy walking with his cell phone—and suddenly it’s like a horror movie. The sheer helplessness of the students, the feeling that you’re not safe at your own public institute, that’s what shook all of us. We really had to think about how to not just show this image of violence, but to figure out a way to work with such an image. We thought that having some connection to the main character, to her friends, would be one way to look at this horrible image. It was… a difficult time to edit the film, let’s say.