On the surface, photographer turned filmmaker Johan van der Keuken’s selection of an ancient Indian folktale narration that opens and concludes The Eye Above the Well is a curious one. Recounting the tale of a man suspended precariously from a tree branch above a snake-infested dried-up well who, in moments before an inescapable, horrific death, nevertheless reaches to taste a drop of honey on the tip of a blade of grass near the well, the tale seems ideally suited to a facile interpretation of third world allegory for capturing moments of grace and humble beauty in the face of poverty, hardship, and inevitable death. However, perhaps what is intrinsically significant about the inclusion of the folktale is not found in the content of the parable, but rather, in its context – in the seeming incongruity of its existential orality within a visual and representational ethnographic cultural survey. Indeed, inasmuch as van der Keuken captures the travails and quotidian rituals of life within the rural and urban communities of Kerala near the end of the twentieth century without the overt intrusion of narrated (first world) perspective, he also chronicles the process of passage, continuity, commutation, and transference – creating a snapshot, not only of a captured moment, but also the reinforcing fragments of a future memory in an interrelated stream of collective consciousness.
Acutely aware that each superseding film frame is a figurative erasure of the previous one, van der Keuken’s gaze transcends that of passive observation or ubiquitous surveillance and instead, becomes a chronicle of the ephemeral – a theme that is reinforced in the establishing shots of the village through the veil of diaphanous smoke that suffuses the landscape. It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that van der Keuken’s sublime, extended traveling shot through the rural village as a moneylender embarks on his daily collection route visually prefigures the pervasive sense of displacement and migration of Chantal Akerman’s D’Est and rootlessness of Peter Mettler’s Gambling, Gods and LSD, where the organic happenstance nature of the passing images serve as a metaphor for existential transience. In contrast to fluidity of camera movement implemented in the rural sequences, the city is depicted through a quick cut montage that reflects the chaos of urban life (in a sequence that also prefigures the baroque visual strategy of Mark Lapore’s collage film, Kolkata). In his photography of the disparate landscapes, van der Keuken’s gaze lies, not in the details of the captured image, but in the intrinsic, subconscious destruction of that image within the sequentiality (and manipulation) of the film itself – the transformation from the physical (object) to the cognitive (memory).
In an early sequence, the image of a martial arts instructor overseeing his students’ flexibility exercises and kata-like drills illustrates the social process of imparting knowledge between elder and protégé, a passing of legacy that is reinforced in a subsequent shot of the middle-aged instructor and his student formally posed in the foreground of a wall bearing the portrait of the instructor as a young man and his own teacher. A series of subsequent encounters – a village schoolteacher, a spiritual cantor, and a Kathakali instructor – evoke the presaging image of the complex choreography of martial arts exercises to illustrate the repetition innate in the process of enlightened ritual. In another sequence, a moneylender traveling from village to village to collect weekly installment payments on outstanding loans represents the most immediately identifiable form of transference – financial transaction – as money changes hands through a succession of craftsmen, teachers, and shop owners, and is used to finance a loan for another local merchant. It is interesting to note that this commodification of social interaction is subsequently connected to the shot of a bicycle messenger transporting film cans to the local movie house when the moneylender visits the projectionist to collect payment on his debt. It is through this seeming chance encounter that van der Keuken illustrates the sublimative process of enlightenment and transference – the intersection between the physical (ritual) and the ephemeral (idea) through the intrinsic duality of film as both a material object and fictional, intangible, projected image.
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