Cinema and eco-system.

(an essay on filmmaking and ethics in society)

Saumyananda Sahi


A film is like an eco-system: it works best when all its parts are in a balanced relationship. It is not as mechanical as a clock, which also has parts in relationship that when oiled and moved work together to show the time. The difference is that an eco-system has parts that are both autonomous to some degree (i.e. free) as well as dependent on one another (for food, reproduction and in the case of humans, meaning). It is possible for guppies to over-breed as well as for human beings to kill off a whole species of birds and making them extinct, though the eco-system as a whole continually struggles to maintain the balance. The creation of a film, I am going to argue, is like a sub-system of this larger eco-system in which we all exist, and has parts and relationships contained within its context.

One of these parts, and a very important one, is the audience. Unless a film is seen, it is nothing more than celluloid, a MiniDV tape, or a DVD. It is only when both the creators as well as the viewers make the film their own that it begins to live in their imaginations. It is because of this that I feel a film can never and should never be made by one person alone. The medium is more than personal: it is public and personal.

As with the landscape painters before Cézanne, I feel there should always be a space somewhere within a film that is open, that is an invitation – a point of entry. The best films are left incomplete – they need to be filled, and depend on the other to do this. These are the films that acknowledge the different histories, associations and psychologies that each person inevitably brings with them towards the act of seeing, and encourage the audience not to be passive but active. These films make the viewers use the colour palettes of their own lives to fill in the empty spaces, to connect the missing links, and guess towards its ending. Thus, each viewer participates as a filmmaker and as a dreamer too, and finds the truth of the film through their own involvement. (Although the above argument is obvious when it comes to the use of a medium and is by no means particular to film, I am extending it to talk about the content as well.)

Orson Welles said about his own work, “I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theatre meaning: when it becomes a social act.”

A few years ago I attended a workshop given by Mohsen Makhbalbaf, and he said that if there was any form of fascism that was still thriving in the world today, it was filmmaking. This comment has troubled me greatly, because I have found more instances to support Makhbalbaf’s claim than I had hoped. Even the great humanist filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky were ruthless when it came to getting what they wanted from their actors and crew. Cinema seems to be realized by the (capitalist) idea that everything is a means to an end, and the end – whether it be the screen or your bank-account – is what is most important. If it is necessary to lie to a little boy and tell him that his grandmother died so that he cries on camera for a particular scene, Makhbalbaf advised us all that we should. These instances are masked under the term ‘techniques’ instead of being acknowledged for what they really are: outright manipulation.

Hollywood and Bollywood filmmakers take this manipulation to the level of a profession: it is a rule of thumb within the industry. Directors want to get the most out of every person who works for them, while paying them the absolute minimum. Plagiarism is rampant, and bigger directors like to hire a group of young aspiring filmmakers as if it were a favor, and then see how much they can get out of them while paying them a mere stipend.

However, at least there is an honesty (however perverse!) to this form of professional manipulation. I think it is far worse when an independent director who doesn’t have the money but has ample amounts of ‘passion’ and ‘ideas’ tries to both manipulate and underpay his crew while convincing them that it is for some greater good, for some magnificent dream. While I would define the manipulation of the film industry as merely capitalist, I would call the manipulation of the director with a dream truly fascist.

In film theory, in the 1950s, there emerged a more masked and timid word for this: the director with a dream was to be called an ‘auteur’. The so called ‘auteur theory’ (first propagated by the Cahiers du Cinema) upholds the view that a director’s films reflect the director’s personal creative vision, and that the director is truly the ‘author’ of a film in the same way that a writer is the author of a book. In law, the auteur is the creator of a film as a work of art, and is the original copyright holder. Some exceptions are made, and film producers might also be allowed to call themselves authors, or at least co- authors, of a particular film they have worked on. Recently the ASC (the American Society of Cinematographers) was trying to ensure that the Director of Photography also gets credited as a co-author, because the cinematographer plays such a crucial role in the realization of a film.

But why stop there? Isn’t a script-writer also deserving of the credit of being a co-author? And what did the sound designer do to deserve being omitted from the list? And what about the production designer? And the lighting technicians? The editor? Are not all of these people also responsible for the way a film gets made, and what reaches the audience in the end?

To return to where I began – a film is like an eco-system, and works best when all its parts are in a balanced relationship. Filmmakers look to the world as well as towards their collaborators to fuel and channel their creativity, and there is a certain amount of symbiosis (i.e., as Heinrich Anton de Bary defined it, "the living together of unlike organisms"). To demonstrate the nature of the process, Walter Murch uses the analogy of ‘the game of twenty negative questions’, which was first invented by John Wheeler. It is very similar to the usual game of ‘twenty questions’, in which one person leaves the room while the remaining people decide on an object that is to be guessed in fewer than twenty yes/no questions by the same person when he/she re-enters. However, in Wheeler’s version of the game, when the person leaves the room the remaining people do not agree together on an object, but silently choose one individually for themselves. The person who re-enters the room assumes that everyone else are in agreement about the object to be guessed by him, and so continues to ask his/her questions as if it was just a normal game of twenty questions. With each question and answer the people in the room have to re-think the object they had chosen to fit the new considerations, and so a complex vortex of ifs and thens is set up, spiraling in, hopefully, on one object which fits all the qualities affirmed or denied of it during the game. However, it can all break down catastrophically if one of the people in the room fails to find an object that ‘fits’ and answer the next question – thus letting in the ‘objective’ person who is guessing – the one who left the room and is now asking the questions – on the fact that no one actually knows what the ‘object’ is until they have found it.

Walter Murch argues that in the making of a film, the script forms the basis and the framework for the game, but no one knows how it is to be interpreted and put into images and sounds. Each of the people working on the film assume that the others know, and are constantly modifying their preconceptions of the film in relation to how someone else is acting or to what colours the set designer uses, indeed in relation to each and every decision that is taken. Unfortunately the ‘director’ has a particularly difficult job here because he/she must re-assure the cast and crew that their efforts are headed somewhere, and pretend to know each and every step that must be taken in reaching there. I am not saying that the director is just as clueless as the spot boy about any given scene, but rather that the director is only guessing towards something and is not someone who ‘knows’, and the spot boy may have a different point of view about a certain scene which could enrich (and in the hands of a good director will enrich) the completed film. This end product always tends to be a surprise, a new thing, even though it was made through a strange mixture of logic and instinct. A film does not belong to any one person; it is the result of working together and so belongs to everyone involved, and to the audience too. A tree belongs no more to the person who planted the seed than it does to those who water it, to the earth in which it stands and draws nourishment from, or to the air which rustles through its leaves.

However, while the analogy of the eco-system provides us with a way of approaching and relating to film, it nevertheless has its limitations. With an eco-system it is difficult to pinpoint an end or a goal that motivates the parts to work together. Of course, as I have already mentioned, we can certainly see the concerns of health, survival, reproduction or meaning manifesting themselves in the need for relationship, but the fact remains that when a group of people get together to make a film they are endeavoring on something far more clear-cut and unambiguous – indeed, the creation of a film! The process is geared towards that end, and everyone involved is grasping for different means to aid them in achieving it. This is why I mentioned that filmmaking is a microcosm, and has the possibility of ends and completeness within it.

My argument, however, is that these ends can never become a justification for the means, for that would lead us to a very destructive form of superstition that believes in the transcendental necessity of its goal. The shortest and most effective route would thus become the best, whatever suffering or manipulation it may entail on others. I completely disagree with such an attitude, especially in the case of art, because indeed what real, indispensable necessity do we have to paint or make films? Is art that important that we may kill others (to take the most extreme example) in order to produce it? Indeed what in the world can be so important to ever, ever justify such means in order to attain it?

In all our aspirations and efforts, I hold that the means we choose and the path we take must, must be consistent with the fact that we are human beings living with other human beings within an environment and a culture, and that there is a connection between others and ourselves. As in the case of an eco-system, there must be harmony for it to be healthy as a whole.

However, by saying this I do not mean to dismiss the importance of ends and goals! Indeed, without them a film will never be made nor will a tree grow and sprinkle its roots with blossom. These ends are contingent and impermanent, but it is in these that we find real involvement and meaning. Constantine P. Cavafy has written a remarkable poem in which he tells his readers that if they seek the perfection of a land like Ithaka, home of Odysseus, they should all look forward to a long journey. He hopes that the reader will wake up to "many summer mornings when, / with what pleasure, what joy, / you enter harbors you're seeing for the first time." In the end, when and if you ever reach Ithaka, you will thus be already so rich with experiences that you will not expect Ithaka to make you wealthy. Cavafy goes on to conclude, “And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you. / Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, / you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean."

I find Cavafy’s words so profound that I am extremely hesitant to interpret them here to mean anything about film, as that would be a parasitic cleverness of my own that would reduce the poem to something it is not. However, I do find that filmmaking is, as most things in our lives, a journey, and that there is great significance within the journey itself, even in those rare instances when there is none at the end of it. Our reward is most often not in the treasures we seek to find, but in the experiences we live in trying to find them. Nevertheless, we must not forget the reason, the goal – for that was indeed the beginning.

Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris) once said that we human beings are different from donkeys in attitude, and also superior, because we are rational enough to walk in a straight line when we want to get somewhere. For donkeys, if left to themselves, have a tendency to stray off the path, to linger at a rubbish dump, to doze in the shade of a tree. However, Olivier Toutain, who is a city-planner, said that this is exactly where Le Corbusier went wrong. Olivier Toutain was ready to support the attitude of the donkey as equally, if not more, valuable than Reason, and which unfortunately has been very neglected by our species.

I think it is a great misconception to see the completion of a film as something we must hurry towards and do quickly in the most economical and rational way. Of course there are limitations of time and space and means (both in terms of input as well as financial support) – but just because our lives are surrounded by a latticework of limits it does not mean that we should not meander and loiter and take interest in some ants on the path or a kite dipping in the sky. Indeed, we can do all those things and more while still filling our bellies and pro-creating and other such-likes! Further and moreover, I think it is also a misconception to think that the finished, physical product of a film is its end. For as I said at the beginning of this essay, unless it is seen a film is nothing more than celluloid, a MiniDV tape, or a DVD. It is only with the participation of the viewer that a film lives, and continues to live long after they walk out of the theatre in their memories. It is for this reason that Peter Brook called the audience a kind of concave lens that was responsible for the finite source of meaning (the art object, or art experience) to be refracted and amplified infinitely in all kinds of different ways. The completed film is like a tree in full bloom, and the viewers are like the bees, squirrels and birds that are attracted by its nectar and fragrance.

When talking about the process of filmmaking itself I think it is best to compare it to a game of chess – for you play it within a set of given frameworks or rules. One of these is that there are two sides – the makers and the viewers. Added to this are the producers and distributors who provide the board and pieces for the game and the space in which it is to be played. Most people today seem to be playing the game of filmmaking according to the rules of capital – which are the rules of means and ends, self-interests and manipulation. However, I would want (and sincerely hope that it is possible) to play the game with the rules of non-violence, objective fairness and ethics. By ethics I mean our basic human-ness – our need to depend on and exist with each other, while inheriting and passing on a culture that we change and add to through the course of our lives.

Moving further into the chess analogy, I would like to add that the side playing white – the filmmakers, who make the first move – are not inherently unified, but a conglomerate of individuals who have somehow got together with a common interest. These people have to organize themselves so that they make the right moves and thus involve the audience in something more than just a dolling out of chance. Further, the filmmakers have to play a game against an infinite number of people all at once – and while one side is a team, the other side is not! Their game, therefore, has to be open to differences and cater to the possibility of interpretations. The moves are not haphazard or random – they are planned, premeditated to an extent, and have hopes and patterns embedded within them. If both sides play well, there is interaction and each of the viewer’s moves, though unpredictable, are still in response to the moves of the filmmakers. The strangest thing about the game is that it is not about winning or losing, but about enjoyment and meaning. It has no ending, but lasts as long as the interest sustains.

I am very curious as to how it is that the filmmakers stay together in this endeavor, and save themselves from falling apart. I see a necessary sense of teamwork here, and as with most team sports, there is a need for a captain. This captain is a person who knows the game and plays it, and he unifies his teammates so that each does his best, each can have his solo, but within a certain scaffolding. The captain has a certain ideology, method or strategy that is to then guide, contain and motivate all the players in the team. It is important to note that this ideology or method is no more than a plan, and is flexible – it depends on how far it seems to be working, on the moves of the other team, and the conditions/limitations in which each particular game is played. I do feel that it is best when the team is small and there is more communication between each of its members, enabling the director to have a very personal relationship with as many of his team members as possible. Only, I would want to stress over and over again that the director is also a part, not someone above the whole process. The director depends on the involvements of others – of the producers, of the cast and crew, and of the audience. The least a director can do is to respect this collaboration of others, and acknowledge it.

Here, finally, we come back to a question raised very early on in this essay: who takes credit for the completed work? And who owns it? And why?

Indeed, I think the very question is a fallacy – for it assumes that some form of copyright should actually exist. How can we chain anchors to clouds in the sky, or build fists to clench the currents of the sea? Ideas are not made of matter to belong and be held by some particular person alone. There is a famous analogy to demonstrate this: If you and I have one apple each and we exchange, we will both continue to have one apple each. But if you and I have one idea each and we exchange, we will both be left with two! When we are born, we do not come into the world equipped with a complete set of innate ideas. Throughout our lives we inherit, perceive, distort, mix and pass on ideas of various kinds. We are all active participants within culture, and add to it. Immanuel Kant argues that Reason often deceives herself about the novelty of her knowledge in taking it for her own child, whereas actually it is nothing but the bastard of the imagination fathered by experience. Even if we feel that certain ideas are our children, we have to let them go. For a child is a part of and belongs to the world, and deserves better than to be locked up in the cellar by over-protective and possessive parents. (My mother once told me that being a parent was all about having the strength to let go, while also equipping the child with a good lunch-box of memories, skills and attitudes to draw sustenance from on their journey into life.) Furthermore, a film is not the child of one or two parents, but of a whole team – the growing up and going out of the film is something everyone should have a hand and a say in.

The Marxist critics have been very interested in the link between art and society, and add to the above argument by saying that ‘creativity’ is never merely an individual affair. The idea that a work of art was related to ‘genius’ or ‘talent’ is indeed a surprisingly recent invention, dating back perhaps to no earlier than the Renaissance in the west. It most probably emerged alongside the capitalist theory that saw the ‘human potential’ as something to be capitalized on. Social institutions began to slowly pick out important individual ‘artists’ to be the standard against which others are judged or compared – be they poets (such as Dante), or sculptors and painters (such as Michaelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci). These individuals came to be regarded as super-human, and were to be honored as creators on whom the whole culture depended. The founders of the banking system, like the Medici of Florence, probably added to this trend by pricing the artworks according to the ‘name’ of the artist. Paintings had to be made ‘valuable’ and therefore rare for the bankers and others to invest in them. Thus what becomes highly ‘priced’ (or the art that is put in galleries and exhibitions and is hoarded up in private collections) is hyped by a whole latticework of art-critics, art-education, the media, etc. – all of which and all of whom, whether aware or not aware of this, are co-conspirators in this larger capitalist effort. My brother, Kiran Sahi, has always said that each and every one of the artists who made it big in a way wanted to and struggled to – there may be many other artists equally ‘talented’ and ‘skilled’ who chose to be quiet and modest about their work, and so never became known. I would add that even if the artists themselves didn’t want to make it big – I am sure there are examples of artists who became great symbols and ‘stars’ without any ambition to be such – it is because society (and all of us within it) do want big names, movements, martyrs and meaning. We find it very hard to do this without putting up examples on a pedestal as our heroes, as unstable stabilizations of what we value most.

However, it is not that I want to ignore the real worth of our heroes. Even in this essay I have quoted people – like Immanuel Kant, Constantine P. Cavafy, Walter Murch, my father, and some of my friends – and this in itself is a kind of hyping of importance, of drawing on a value system that favors some over others. We do need to acknowledge the giants on whose shoulders we stand, and to give them names, in order to justify how high we are standing and how far we may see. I would like to add that the naming of some people as ‘greats’, while definitely a form favoritism, is nevertheless based on very real set of criteria – some people are more skilled in ways which others are not. After all Immanuel Kant did write the Critique of Pure Reason, just as Constantine P. Cavafy did write a remarkable poem called Ithaka. However, I am not saying that these people are the only ones who had that idea of theirs either. This is not to belittle my friends or my family, or any of the people I mention – I am greatly indebted to them all, because they understood a certain idea themselves and then were able to put it across to me (and to others) in such a way that I was inspired and affected. This is a real skill to have, and a skill that is priceless. The people I quote, and the people I feel are great, are the people who have changed me. Not for a moment do I doubt that there are many others who I have not had the pleasure of hearing or knowing, and that there are many other great people who may not even be acknowledged – for there may be many who never got a chance to even voice their ideas to the public, or they may be those who live their understanding rather than diluting it with words. There may be still others who have ideas and are creative, but don’t feel the urge to share it with others. When it comes to all these people and the rest and those who I meet and interact with, I always remember Graham Greene’s words – “Never judge a man according to what he is, but according to what he could have been.” In other words, try not to judge a man at all!

My problem is not with heroes, but with the clever bankers and institutions behind them. I have a problem with the people who catch hold of heroes and put a price tag on them. I have a problem with the institutions that claim ‘copyright’ of something that actually belongs to the public, and use their trump cards to dismiss and belittle the achievements of other people. I have a problem with the people who chain up our heroes as well as our art, and then try to ticket the public if they want to go and see them.

I have been thinking about the great teachers like Buddha and Jesus, and how despite the fact that their whole philosophy seems to be about the caring and loving of the other, they have become ends in themselves – they have become institutionalized, become crystal and pure, and so petrified into stone. The Church seems to think that it is more important than Christ because it is not just a person but an organization. I am sure that if there is ever to be a Second Coming, the Church would be in shambles because it would not be able to handle the intensity of that creative (and seemingly irrational, disorderly) impulse towards the other, and would either want to get rid of him or undermine him or hide him, or otherwise face their own utter dissolving.

However, religion has nevertheless provided a context for art over the ages, and a context that allows the artist to be personally involved and yet not be egoistic. Strangely, in this respect, the fact that it has become institutionalized has helped, because it takes care of that otherwise extremely problematic issue of money and funding. The Church, though censoring all things it doesn’t agree with and only supporting Christian artworks, has nevertheless been an extremely important patron of creativity. (As an aside, I was surprised to find how accurately the word patron describes this form of sponsorship. Patron is derived from the Latin ‘patronus’ or protector, and ‘pater’ or father. In ancient Rome, a patron was somebody who had given a slave his/her freedom but still retained some rights over them.) What I want to stress here, however, is that the artist was working not for himself but for God or society as a whole. In his book ‘My Name is Red’, Orhan Pamuk tells us that in Islamic miniature painting a signature (not only of the name, but even of the style) was considered to be an imperfection. All painters had to aspire towards God’s eye, and therefore had a completely metaphorical use of space. The plot of the novel, in a way, revolves around the ‘threat’ posed to the traditional miniature-painters by the Renaissance invention of perspective, which depicted the world of the painting as seen from the eye of the individual artist. This was considered to be against God, as it put the human being in the centre of the universe whereas art was supposed to be a form of prayer and a reaching towards the divine.

I find the ideas of ‘objectivity’ and ‘seeing from the eyes of God’ highly questionable, as they make us impose (illusory) structures and definitions on a world that is actually fluid. Jean Baudrillard talks about what he calls ‘hyper-reality’ which is perhaps what one might call the ‘pure gaze’ – objectivity liberated from the object. Here we have the perspective of the miniature-painters combined with the perspective of the Renaissance painters. It is an art that is no longer dream or fantasy, but the real's hallucinatory resemblance to itself. What I gather from this is that subjectivity is not to be taken as completely unreal. The colouring of metaphor, framing and paint, while definitely being a contribution of the writer/artist to the world he/she sees, is nevertheless a part of that world – a response and an effect at the same time. It is a hand in the blur.

Coming back to the selflessness of art when within the context of religion, however, I would like to briefly talk about the building of the great temples in India and cathedrals in the West. To me, these represent the true immensity and power of people coming together and constructing a home for both God and the arts.

It is said that at one point the Cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. However, according to the legends, the news spread and it was not long before people from all corners of Europe and from all walks of life began to travel towards and congregate at those ruins. The legends go on to say that these people began to collectively re-build the Cathedral on the same ancient foundations. They stayed and lived there until the immense building was completed: architects, workmen, artists, jugglers, nobles, prelates, and also ordinary middle-class people. Their names were unknown, and even today there is no record of who actually built the Chartres Cathedral.

Ingmar Bergman, who, through his writings first informed me of this wonder, was moved immensely by its example. Indeed, he went on to write, “Without saying that this should cause you to prejudice my beliefs or my doubts – which in this case are not important – I think that art lost its significance to life at the moment it separated itself from worship (religion). It broke the umbilical cord, and it lives its own separate life, surprisingly sterile, dulled and degenerated. Collective creativity, the humble anonymous man, are relics, forgotten and buried, destitute of value. My little griefs and moral stomach-aches are examined with a microscope sub specie aeternitatis. The fear of the dark that characterizes subjectivism and the scrupulous conscience has become the great thing, and we run finally into the dead-end where we argue with each other on the subject of our solitude, without any of us listening to the others or even noticing that we have pressed so close to one another as almost to die of suffocation. It is thus that the individualists see themselves in their own eyes, denying the existence of what they see and invoking the omnipotent obscurity, never testing, even once, the saving joys of community (working together).”

Bergman, however, does not despair without hope, and neither does he shy away from those joys of community himself. (His work bears testimony to that!) The Cathedrals in Europe or the Temples in India were the ultimate focus point of a whole culture, and ‘belonged’ in a way to the community. It is this belonging that Bergman craves for and seeks in the world. We must ask ourselves whether the slow dying away of religion, especially in the West, has stripped us of the umbilical cord that Bergman speaks of, the umbilical cord that joined us to our belonging.

Immanuel Kant felt that religion is not the source of morality or ethics in society, but the condition that is only possible if we are moral or ethical to begin with. Indeed, Kant argues, we must be moral in order to be even deserving of religion! Without morality, religion is nothing but superstition. Although many aspects of our world are highly immoral, violent and manipulative, I am still convinced that as long as we are to live within society and culture, we can never, never do away with ethics. If we all start killing each other, manipulating and cheating, and also distrust each other and see everyone except ourselves as enemies, it will not take long for us all to get wiped out. Ethics is a precondition for us to live together (as a family, as a community, as a species, as an eco-system) while both depending on as well as supporting one another. After all, as Bill Watterson had Calvin’s father say in his ever profound and entertaining comic book, “We are all someone else to someone else!”

If two people are fighting and one of them surrenders, there is no saying whether the stronger one will stop hitting or even killing the weaker one. Animals have an instinctive restraint which human beings seem to have lost, and we rely instead on culture, on value systems and the fear of punishment to restrain ourselves. I think art and education are (or can be) the lead players in passing on this second skin, this socialized gene – and stress the basic, practical, rational need for ethics. Equally, however, art and education can be the most manipulative, powerful and violent mechanisms of control – not physical control, but control over what people eventually internalize and begin to believe. Art has the capabilities of both infiltration as well as pollution. Suggestive violence in films (especially, I think, of rape) is the worst crime against society, because it puts up an example that could excite a viewer who is prone to being violent, and encourage him to go out and do something similar.

Art is a framing of life that is put up on show, for the public to see. With this there has to be a necessary sense of responsibility, both towards the process as well as towards the content of the final product. While artists and filmmakers certainly have the leeway to be playful and cannot be asked to account for each and every thing they say or do, I think it is still necessary for the artist/filmmaker him/herself to begin with some kind of ethical framework. By this I mean a basic concern, sensitivity and compassion for the other, whoever that other may be. We have to realize that it is rational and practical to be non-violent and tolerant of each other, and take this as the foundation for asking further questions, for experimentation, for invention, for relationship and dialogue.

Richard Kearney argues that telling stories is as basic to us as eating. “More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living. They are what make our condition human.” It is only when haphazard happenings are transformed into story, Kearney argues, and thus made memorable over time, that we become full agents of our history. This becoming historical involves a transition from the flux of events into a meaningful social or political community – what Aristotle and the Greeks called a polis. Without this transition from nature to narrative, from time suffered to time enacted and enunciated, it is debatable whether a merely biological life (zoe) could ever be considered a truly human one (bios).

Ultimately speaking, however, Carl Jung argues that the individual has no control over his/her unconscious. In one sense the artist has no control over the creative process and what it eventually leads to either. Jung argues that the artwork, including the story, or what might be called the poetic intuition, ‘arises’ and ‘takes possession’ of the creative person. The artwork is always greater, and as Bergman wished, does indeed belong to the whole community – perhaps even to the ‘collective unconscious’ of humanity. It is therefore not only difficult to say that this work belongs to this person (a point I think I have already argued about enough), but also to say that a work belongs to this or that time in history. The work of art, according to Jung, belongs not only to the whole community, but also to the whole of time. This is the really great work of art, which I suppose we could call the eruption of the unconscious into the conscious field.

In the past, as Ananda Coomaraswamy points out, artists (like the prophets) were thought of as ‘inspired’. A breath was to be given, breathed into them, giving them life. This breath comes from outside, from the cosmos, or who knows where. But it does not ‘belong’ to them. We are ‘possessed’ by something, we do not ‘possess’ anything ourselves. It is like the tribals who were asked whether the land belonged to them, and they were surprised even by the question. "We belong to the land," they replied, "how can the land belong to us?" In the same way, art, being the projected landscape of our unconscious, is something we belong to and not the other way around! Helder de Camara once said that the artist speaks with the Voice of the Voiceless. For some reason we may never know or be able to articulate, individuals are ‘called’ to speak for humanity as a whole. They are even seen as ‘mad’ as a result, they have what in India was termed an ‘anya manas’, ‘another mind’, which means that they are, when they create, not even themselves but only instruments of a higher Will. We could call this the Will of God, or we could also call it the Voice of the Voiceless.

To the question of why he made films, Bergman replied:

I want to be one of the artists of the cathedral that rises on the plain. I want to occupy myself by carving out of stone the head of a dragon, an angel, or a demon, or perhaps a saint: it doesn’t matter; I will find the same joy in any case. Whether I am a believer or an unbeliever, Christian or pagan, I work with all the world to build a cathedral because I am an artist and artisan, and because I have learned to draw faces, limbs, and bodies out of stone. I will never worry about the judgment of posterity or of my contemporaries; my name is carved nowhere and will disappear with me. But a little part of myself will survive in the anonymous and triumphant totality. A dragon or a demon, or perhaps a saint, it doesn’t matter!

The Cathedral of our culture will never be completed, and should never be – perfection, purity, clarity and completion are all things which nag and pull our minds into being involved and putting in our entire effort towards the world, but I feel that our work and lives should never stress too much on these hopes. Here I return to the example of the donkey who wanders and observes and takes interesting paths through landscapes with many stops and pauses. Do not mistake this donkey for being lazy or lethargic, nor for being uninvolved. We should be careful not to patronize this dear beast, but rather step into its feet. The donkey has needs and urges, and if I were in its body, definitely emotions and passions too. (The fact that I will never know what goes on in the donkey’s mind need not mean that there is nothing there at all!) Indeed, the donkey also contributes, raises its own foals, and is inventive and creative in the finding of new paths. I do not want a complete change or a revolution in the world (or for that matter in the making of films), but want to work with what is there in the best way I can. This Cathedral I want to contribute to is a continuation of the Tower of Babel which fell. However, the falling and degeneration need not mean that we should become subordinates of God (which is the conclusion of the myth). Even if we do not succeed in reaching Heaven (if indeed it exists), the building is still meaningful and is somehow something we share. In continuing our building we really become true children of the world. Enlightenment, as Kant understood it, was a growing out of the immaturity of accepting the divine right of kings or of directors or of any such power, and reach the maturity of being involved as autonomous beings. At the heart of this is the stepping out to meet the other, to become participants in society – and ethics and morality is the base we need to do this.

Mother Teresa saw the suffering Christ in the poor and wretched around her and began to selflessly reach out to them and care for them, and indeed this is the greatest involvement possible to humankind. Mother Teresa is an exemplar of the best of Christian virtues, and unfortunately there are very few like her. However, this example proves that the problem, as Kant pointed out, is not religion, but the moral ground which nurtures it. Buddha said that when we break down our self-centeredness, we see that each and every person in this world is a fellow sufferer – we must be charitable even to the likes of George Bush and Adolf Hitler, for they are and were fellow sufferers too, except with too much of a free hand over far too many people. In such cases we need to resist and motivate others to do the same and thus overthrow the power structures that uphold dictators, fascists and corrupt leaders. But in the process we should not forget where we started, and in fighting we also need to become more hospitable and honest, and change ourselves so that our contributions are rooted in that very concern, in that openness and warmth for the other.

Unconditional morality is something not all of us can achieve, but within our conditions and contexts we can at least aspire towards it. No one, I think, is completely immoral – even killers and murderers have at least someone or something for which they care. It is said that Hitler was so attached to his dog that before he committed suicide, in case the dog might suffer and not be cared for later, he chose to shoot it and take it with him. There is also a poem by Robert Browning where a lover has gone to the extreme of killing the person he loves, because he is afraid that their attachment may fade or disintegrate over time and he wants to save them both from that horror and suffering. I think what we call evil, or wickedness, is often not more than a misplaced and exaggerated virtue. We cannot exorcise ourselves of greed, selfishness or violence, just as much as we cannot exorcise ourselves of fever – because both are potentials, and are based on what is within as well as without. As human beings we are all prone to sickness, and even if the reasons for us falling sick are external, there is still something that is susceptible to that sickness already embedded within us to begin with. In any case, we must never dismiss anyone as someone who should be put to death for being evil, because they like the rest of us are suffering and need care. Our efforts both in regarding ourselves as well as others should be finding the conditions that make us fall sick and attempting to avoid them, and helping to ease the suffering of others. We can do this in any number of ways, and begin with our own family and friends. How far we can stretch, and how unconditional our caring can become, is not a question for us to ask – it is something that guides us and possess us and intuits the stories of our lives.

K. K. Muralidharan, who works in the Mumbai film industry as a set designer, once told me that a film was like a big chariot pulled by hundreds of people. Those on top yell orders and make decisions and feel like they are in control, but finally no one knows where the chariot will go. Those pulling are not all working together either – indeed, often one of them steps aside to smoke a cigarette or perhaps have a cup of tea. The moving of the chariot does not depend on each and every in-put in isolation; it depends on the totality. Sometimes it is good to remember this so that we do not place too much importance on our efforts, and don’t have to go through that painful process of tearing down our illusions later. But equally, it is important not to take this analogy as a justification to drop out more often, or even completely, and not be involved at all! When working on a film, and especially in the industry, if you start taking things too lax, you won’t be getting your pay-check and may go hungry at the end of the month. And in life too, if you extend this same analogy and start taking things too easy, the result is no less and no worse!

When I asked Murali more about his chariot analogy, he told me that it was inspired by something he read about ants. Indeed, it is always amazing to watch ants and wonder how they manage such great teamwork and all be so hard working, and carry those massive crumbs of bread so methodically into the cracks in the walls. Murali told me that apparently there has been some scientific research into this, and it has been found that ants always instinctively move to where there are other ants – and they congregate where there are most ants already! It is a kind of an intuition of the others, combined with a team spirit, which makes ants all work together so beautifully. Indeed, the chariot of filmmaking and society, too, always moves to where the others are – it seeks for support within its members, it seeks for numbers, it seeks an intimacy with the whole and scrambles from one to another, and in the case of a film, it seeks for the audience too. I would like to add here, as a small aside, that while our contributions as artists and human beings should (and usually do) become anonymous in the long run, it might be a mistake to run after it ourselves. Within the context of capitalism, a few people wanting to be anonymous in their efforts will most probably only become a resource to be exploited. Those with power will take anything that seems to be in their interest and then claim that it is theirs and always has been. Moreover, wanting anonymity might also reduce the individual’s sense of responsibility in all that he/she does – and as I have already argued, responsibility is a necessary corollary to make art truly ethical. With this in mind, I would argue that all artists and individuals should be equal before the law, and that their work bears their name. This is not a signature of ownership, but a small temporary credit to be embraced or forgotten by the unknown.

I began this essay with this issue of belonging in film and society, and I think I have strayed like a true donkey. I hope it was not tedious for you to follow, and that I did not stop where you would have passed on, or pass over what you would have liked to ponder over a little more. In any case, these differences are to be expected. Our world is contingent, and is made whole by many subjectivities interacting with one another, all trying to find what we can agree on without distorting or manipulating what we see. Immanuel Kant’s greatest gift to philosophy, I think, was the recognition that in perceiving we also add something to the world, something that wouldn’t be there without us. What we each make of the world may vary, but that does not change the world itself. There are no essences, but we all flock to where the others are like ants, and so ethics becomes increasingly important.

When we think of the ‘Hidden Order’, the ‘Book of Nature’, or the ‘Reason of History’, we may easily lose ourselves in meaninglessness and abstraction. It is therefore absolutely necessary for us to compliment our thoughts with practice, with our everyday lives – so that our branches may also have roots. Leadership is something that emerges out of and within a given context, but it is not an essence – it is only an unstable stabilization that will dissolve into nothing as soon as the context has changed. So let us no worry about the reason for leadership, but rather make good use of it if it be in our hands so that others may benefit as well as ourselves. I do not think I need to say that the ‘auteur theory’ I spoke of earlier is not only unfair, but completely and utterly untrue to the process. Capitalism is an evil we succumb to because of our own selfishness and greed (both of which, for some reason, we are terribly susceptible to), or perhaps because we would like to think we are more important than we are, or perhaps because we would like to have comforts and money which, because of popular gossip and the greed of others (most importantly, the advertising agencies and the people they advertise), we think equals happiness. However, there is no end to this wanting, and it makes us more and more alone.

At the end of the first part of this essay, I feel like I am bending down and breaking a law – but instead of salt, I want to pick up our stories and our art. I am most certainly not the first; after all I have said it would indeed be ironic if I were to assume such a false and arrogant pretence here right at the end! But with the present situation of copyright laws and manipulation and capitalism, I would urge you, that is, if you are not already with me or if it is actually me joining you, to bend down and take what is yours. Take it and do not keep it, but pass it around!

Saumyananda Sahi is a cinephile, writer, a student of philosophy and an aspiring filmmaker.Justify Full


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