Documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak talks about his new film, Red Ant Dream, and the architecture of revolutionary desire
The third in a cycle of films that interrogate the workings of Indian democracy, Red Ant Dream by Sanjay Kak looks at the revolutionary ideal as it exists in India today. Moving between Punjab, Bastar and Niyamgiri, the film documents the songs, histories and struggles of people who try to imagine a different world into being. The director responded to questions in an e-mail interview:
Can you talk about the beginnings of Red Ant Dream? When and why did you get interested in making this film?
It’s always difficult to say where the beginnings of a film lie, because in a sense what you put into a documentary could be the summation of many years of thinking about an idea, your whole life even! For more than a decade all my films have been about resistance – Words on Water was about the movement against big dams in the Narmada valley, Jashn-e-Azadi about Kashmir, and now with this new film we look at the stirrings in Bastar in Chhattisgarh, the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha, and briefly Punjab. More specifically, I think Red Ant Dream was a reaction to the way in which the rebellion led by the Maoists in central India was being depicted in the media and in public discourse – as an isolated, autonomous outbreak of something like a pestilence, something alien called Maoism.
What resonances did you see in the three distinct movements you have focused on?
From where I stand it’s been clear that what was happening in Bastar was part of a much longer and widespread tradition of people’s resistance, a more militant – if you like, a more revolutionary – tradition than what we have usually accommodated within our accepted vocabulary of politics and resistance. That’s what connects the words of Bhagat Singh to those of the radical poet Avtar Singh Pash, that’s what connects protesting farmers and landless Dalits in Punjab to the fighting people of the Niyamgiri hills, and of course all of them to the armed rebellion in central India. I’m not saying they all add up to the same thing, of course not, just that if you care to, you can see the wires that join them, and once you see them, you cannot help but notice how distinct that desire for revolutionary change is, how different it is from a more reformist nibbling at the edges of the current system that we have. It’s the old division you know, sangharsh aur nirman…
The film also shows us the ways in which the memories of Bhagat Singh and Pash, and the Bhumkal rebellion are kept alive. How central are these memories to revolutionary imaginings?
I think these are more than memories, and it would be reducing them if we were to dismiss them as nostalgia. These are what help construct a genealogy for these movements, this is what gives fighting people a history: and without a history what are people? So for Punjabis to remember the contribution of the Ghadar rebellion of 1915, or for the guerillas in Bastar to invoke the Paris Commune of 1871, or from more recently, for the fighting Dongaria Kondhs of Niyamgiri to remember the movement that led to the stoppage of the mining of the Gandhamardhan mountain in the mid 1980s, all of that goes into the construction of a revolutionary imagination. And what else is a revolutionary imagination other than the desire to turn this terribly unfair world upside down, and build a better, more ideal world for tomorrow?
Compared to Words on Water and Jashn-e-Azadi, Red Ant Dream is more diffuse. What were the challenges of narrating and editing it?
I think it probably might appear so because the earlier films were specific to one space, and one easily identifiable issue around which the resistance centres – large dams in the Narmada valley, the idea of Azadi in Kashmir. Here we take that idea of resistance and run that taut wire across quite a range of landscapes – Bastar, Odisha, Punjab…
The film did not involve a great deal of shooting – probably eight weeks in all. But the edit took very, very long. The argument of the film was really built on the editing table by an exceptional collaborator, my editor (and co-writer) Tarun Bhartiya, over probably a year and a half of intermittent work. You see if there is no straight narrative, no one geographical zone, not even a set of ‘characters’ on whom you can hang the story, then the task becomes more difficult. You’re left with the challenges of an essay film, but one that is constructed not with abstract images but with the brick and mortar of verite, observed material.
The film also incorporates found material - interviews with Azad, footage of a Salwa Judum rally and Maoist ambush videos. To what end did you seek to use these?
I suppose the logic of found material is that you could never even begin to approximate the effect that they carry: the audio recording of Azad is an old one, which has been circulating amongst journalists and others for years; but here it stands in for an insight into the minds of the Maoist leadership, which otherwise is opaque and closed to us. So is the material of the early Salwa Judum – that was shot as Government propaganda, but we managed to chance upon the unedited material, and that begins to tell a story which is completely hidden in the finished propaganda film. So are the Maoist videos, not just of attacks but also the interviews recorded sometimes literally a day after the havoc was wreaked upon people in Bastar, often recorded amidst the destruction and smouldering debris of their homes. What other images can ever convey the look in the eyes of those who’ve seen their loved ones hacked to death?
What are your hopes of the film? Where all do you plan to take it?
That it will be seen, and talked about and debated. That it will re-open a conversation about what real change can and must mean – that’s what the persistence of the revolutionary ideal is about at the end of the day. The film is already moving – it has been shown at festivals in Gorakhpur and Banaras, and this past week in Delhi, Chandigarh, Amritsar and Bhatinda. Documentary films have an amazing circuit, although it is mostly invisible. That’s what makes its practice so exciting in India today: there is very little mediation between the film-maker and audience, it’s not really up to the distributor to decide which film is worthy of release and which one isn’t. In all the screenings I’ve mentioned there hasn’t been a spare seat