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April 26, 2006

The Eye Above the Well, 1988

eye_well.gifOn 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.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 26, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Johan van der Keuken


I thought this documentary was quite esoteric because of the quasi-absence of commentary and at the same time there is a remarkable intuitive narration through a clever succession of meaningful images that you decrypt very well in this critique. Thanks a lot, I hadn't read as much into it.

What stroke me was how the figure of the moneylender emerges naturaly without a formal introduction by the filmmaker, without classic exposition nor interview.
The backbone of this rural community as a "Bank for the Poor" grassroot economy whiches debts seem flexible enough to be respected by all.
The display of manual culture is also really impressive, and contrasts with our western abstract and textual culture that lost touch with body language.
I didn't know about this Kathakali theatre. The work on eyebrow, eyeball and eyelid expressions along with the hand choreography is amazing.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on May 29, 2006 3:53 AM | Permalink

Thanks Harry, I really like the way this film evolves organically without a narrator having to "connect the dots". I can see how van der Keuken has influenced Trinh T. Minh-ha's cinema in the sense that her ethnographic documentaries are also interrogations, not linear thesis that have a theme and the film proceeds as a validation of that theme. His films are more about the transient processes. I guess that's part of the eye imagery too, the privilege of seeing things along the way that often get lost in our tendency to view the human experience in terms of cause and effect, rather than cumulative process.

The sequence with the young boys practicing to be cantors is another scene that struck me as having a particular physicality to it, in the way the teacher guides their heads towards specific directions as they repeat the chants.

I also liked how the young girl studying Kathakali then goes home and studies English - one, traditional, the other, a more contemporary pursuit - embodying this kind of cultural bridge between past and present that van der Keuken illustrates through the processes of instruction.

Posted by: acquarello on May 29, 2006 11:37 AM | Permalink

I don't know the cinema of Trinh T. Minh-ha at all... I need to put her name on my track-down list.
It's amazing how van der Keuken can make of a wordless documentary some kind of a fiction narrative drama, however understated and contemplative.
I also saw Brass-unbound in a double feature this weekend, where, like Marker in Sans Soleil, he confronts various ethnographic cultures around the world through the practice of a universal music culture in brass bands.

Mainstream documentarian could learn a few things from this type of documentary.

I liked a lot this cantor initiation scene. I was wondering what was the point of this training (why the head twists?), but the initiative "mise-en-scène" (1 instructor with 2 hands on the heads of children by pair, and each subgroup not paying attention to the de-synched singing of the next group)was powerful enough to be full of sense. The alternation of listening (the boys lip-reading cautiously) and repeating (the boys singing with their heads manipulated by the elder).
I imagined it was an oral transmission of a long mythical text, that the mnemonic chant and movements printed in a physical memory.
The preceeding ablution scene, also perfectly choreographied, made them look like little monk apprentice.

The spell teaching of a primary school with the kids tracing words in the sand and erasing with a brush of a hand is beautiful. (Reminds me of the callygraphy class in Hero, there might be such scenes in Satyajit Ray films too I believe) I like this idea of a class without paper, focused on the instantaneous acquisition of knowledge, without bothering to keep record or grade. Maybe that's where you got your idea of the "cognitive sequentiality".

You're going beyond what I could grasp with your analysis of the "cumulative process" and it's really interesting to read the work.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on May 29, 2006 4:45 PM | Permalink

Yes, I love Brass Unbound as well! The ending scene is almost like the end of Code Inconnu where the music reaches a kind of crescendo that metaphorically tears down all the barriers of geography, race, and culture. Note to self: running behind on those JvdK essays. :)

I didn't completely understand the head movement in the cantor scene either, you can see the boys tilt their head slightly as they learn the chants for the first time. It seems to be tied to pitch and trilling, but boy, does it look uncomfortable.

The students using the sand as their chalkboard is indeed a great scene, there's a scene in Hong's The Power of Kangwon Province that shows this sand erasure too, and since the character never reveals what she written before erasing it, it's one of those images that only exist in transience as well. There's no concrete "proof" of what was written, there's only the memory of it. That's really the idea that I was trying to convey with this notion of gaining knowledge/enlightenment being cumulative process.

Posted by: acquarello on May 29, 2006 6:46 PM | Permalink

Thanks for reviewing Brass Unbound. Now I'm looking forward I love $ ;)

Maybe Girish could explain some details of the cantor and Kathakali.

The Power of the Kangwon Province is another one on my must-see list...

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Jun 03, 2006 4:54 PM | Permalink

Hey, I'm churning them out as fast as I can before heading out to Human Rights Watch next weekend. :)

Posted by: acquarello on Jun 03, 2006 5:15 PM | Permalink

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