Cannes 2021 review: A Night of Knowing Nothing (Payal Kapadia)

How does one vivisect a history not yet past, atone for a verdict not yet recognised? In Payal Kapadia’s oneiric feature debut, she trains her camera on the present nonetheless, nobly recognising the halting indeterminacy of her own perspective — and by extension, that of everyone else — in attempting to comprehend the shadowy truths of a wider world. A sense of melancholy imbues itself quickly into the film, first in its premise and then in its images; A Night of Knowing Nothing observes a narrative interlocuted between its unseen narrator and another unseen, unheard, unknown presence, or more accurately, absence. Its narrative traces a correspondence between two lovers, through letters written by one and not read by the other, separated not just by physical distance but, more achingly, a stratospheric gulf of socio-cultural circumstances and the divergences in political reactions that necessarily follow.

Your notes from the past meet mine from the present,” L. — a student at the Film and Television Institute of India — observes from the university, itself a paradox of time (and geography). Situated amid the throngs of urbanity, in one of India’s many megalopolises, the campus nonetheless encloses its own microcosmic landscape: trees rustling in the courtyard, crisply diegetic sounds of birds and winds, unblemished skies as far as the horizon may contain on a rainy day. Similarly, its denizens are sculptors, here of time: in the mere hundreds, they form a hermetic community of cinephiles, film theorists, experts on Eisenstein and political montage; the sons and daughters of a more traditionalist generation, faced with the daunting endeavour to derive knowledge and meaning out of their passion and profession but also haunted by the prospect of arriving at none. They direct one another, edit each other’s films, star in them; as they hold workers’ meetings late at night outdoors, discussing the need to balance between the tradition of their elders and the uncertainty of their future, a feeling of direction is conjured, only to be swiftly curtailed at the merciless doorsteps of history at large, in the flesh, beyond their wavering gates.

L.’s lover is K., whose face we never see and whose voice we never hear. She writes to him because he was withdrawn from attending the university at his parents’ behest after betrothing himself to her. K. is of a higher caste (which, we don’t exactly know) than L., and such a union would not exist in the hungry eyes of religion fed its legitimacy by the state. He vanishes from her life, back to the sanctity of rural living; a once-active tiger whose activism finds itself neutered over time and distance. Where previously his newspaper clippings of political activity and activism both bemused and bewitched her, his current existence as an imagined witness to her words, a bearer of their discursive presence, entertains a gradual but irrefutable evanescence, passing from a figure of reality to a spectre of imagination, and then slowly onto a trace of memory.

Memory, versus nostalgia, tussles for prominence and permanence in Kapadia’s epistolary texts. The latter almost always connotes happiness, just as the former recalls regret. Shot almost entirely in grainy monochrome, A Night of Knowing Nothing opens with a liminal image of both: of a silhouetted crowd of young men and women, dancing vigorously and ardently in the foreground, while the light from a film flickers from behind us, projected onto a screen in the background and illuminating their figures with faint puddles of it. No sound is heard, save for L.’s extra-diegetic insertion into the sonic frame, an imposition of text and meaning onto a stunning dialectical tension already present in the image: the youth of India, dancing as a collective, contextualised by the semiotics of the motion picture and its power as political tool (to distort, control) and aesthetic force (to inspire, rally). Atop this synthesis comes L.’s foreboding pivot towards the former, introducing the viewer over the incoming ten-or-so minutes to a brief history of violence and violation that continues to map the present and chart the future within the castes and classes of India. A history of strikes and civil disobedience, discrimination and widespread repression, beginning with university students protesting against the government’s encroachment into the arts by appointing loyalists to key positions within; quickly, the dissidents are written off as insurgents, unpatriotic and unfaithful to the nation-state and its people, dismissed as freeloaders and subjugated under arrests and curfews with little fanfare.

Bearing witness to the years of brutal crackdowns and curtailment of civil liberties that its people have undergone, India’s film schools occupy the identities of both agent and spectator in a cultural resistance towards religious dogmatism and the rampantly rising accretions of injustice and inequality; its students and filmmakers actively denounce such trends, their hunger strikes coalescing in brief media coverage for a while, before collapsing in fatigue and sustained inaction. So, too, are these universities repositories of dialogue and debate, a space for self-reflexive meeting, for theory and praxis to relate and unite, for the likes of L. to formulate and forge their spectatorship from a paralysed agenthood, and vice versa, a renewed activism from sagacious insight. Painfully, however, the paralysis threatens to overwhelm and metastasise into muted apathy. The newspapers report on religiously-motivated hate crimes, murders, the persecution of Dalits, the rape of Muslim children etc., each day’s headline a variation of the last, numbing the indignation down to a more subdued, submissive cynicism. “Each image vanished as quickly and horrifically as it had appeared,” L. laments the medium’s erosion.

For her, the suicide of one Rohith Vermula, a PhD student and campaigner for Dalit rights, continues to haunt her thoughts, words, letters to K. Precisely because this event bears direct relation to her world and her kin, it awakens more than just the quotidian reactions of horror and condemnation. L., perhaps a real-life figure, perhaps Kapadia’s own stand-in, rallies in the streets, surveying the proceedings of her people and that of the state, the shared humanity and divergent interests between the protestors and the police. She notes of the female cops a potential weariness to their lives, circumscribed by the same patriarchal institutions they defend, having to come home to cook for their families, wash the clothes, pack for the children’s next day at school. Offering refreshing insight — and liberal anathema — with an observation by Pier Paolo Pasolini, that the moral support should rest not with the activists, who come predominantly from bourgeois households, but with the police, the most egregiously exploited proletarian class, L. threatens to undermine our comfortable position as theorists in the face of practical unsolvables, a position whose very existence problematises its attempt at discourse and representation. Her radical suturing of bourgeois consciousness, one typically realised through the furtive comforts of the cinema, opens our lens to the real image of violence; at first a fleeting memory, and then later a souvenir, concretised in snapshots, video montages, snippets of a Catch-22 dilemma at the heart of a generational/artistic/ideological divide unable to unite against the disparate privileges accorded different groups to serve a ruling interest.

The titular night of Kapadia’s film, wherein three student leaders protesting against economic injustice and a lack of meritocracy were released from prison, begs an answer to the question: what now? Without the foolproof diagnoses and cures of doctors or the concrete blueprints of builders, how would a nascently united generation articulate and sustain its unity? A detainee refuses to testify his experiences in custody, for fear that the fear of torture would put his contemporaries and juniors off the streets, off protesting for their lives. Another student resigns himself to the moment, accepting an always-fluctuating movement of cultural and social interests: “time has put us in a certain place and we reacted in a way, how we could, and that has gained all the momentum.” Such fluidity comes as both strength and limitation to A Night of Knowing Nothing, a film whose documentary status jars and gels with its essayistic flourishes in equal measure, veering into didactic repetition on occasion yet postulating an account of truthful inertia in others. In the few and select sequences of colour, Kapadia resists this didacticism for just a while, reveling in a tide of potential pitched against this inertia. Of a dream L.’s classmate had, having eloped with a woman not of his caste: a river before him offers refuge from her angry father, and “if I would jump into it… I would not remember anything of my past… I would know nothing.” The escapism provided by determinism proves alluring in the advent of the militarised state’s propaganda machine — not just reliant on top-down manipulation, but also, and especially, the manipulation of grassroots prejudices and centuries-old beliefs — but it is not a sanguinely airy note that Kapadia ends on. Colour, on the other hand, symbolises rarity, action: on the margins of L.’s letters are doodled sketches of hands, grasping and penning truths and axioms too instinctive a human right to be denied the active mind. And thus, despite her unanswered letters, Kapadia draws from their presence an imaginary conduit into reality, a vision of India not yet clarified or perfected, but still very much in the hands of those resolved to mould and shape it. L., speaking of her editorial work at the university, dismisses the notion of editing as a carefully curated process of finding “some pattern that only I can see”. It is not true, she argues; “it is a complicated film and I think neither of us understand it.” Likewise, A Night of Knowing Nothing addresses the writer’s words to the reader, neither fully in the know of the other’s contextual obligations and ethical responsibilities. That, however, doesn’t stop them from trying to.