Tana Bana (????) the new film from acclaimed Irish filmmaker Pat Murphy arrives at the IFI this week. It is the story of the traditional versus modernity amidst the city of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges in India. And yet there is more to it than that. It doesn’t sit still; more it meanders through the town and picks up on areas such as the changing roles of women in this world and implicitly the prevailing western attitudes towards the Muslim and Hindu people. Recently I caught up with Pat Murphy ahead of its release to find out more. I started by asking as the structure of the film is set up to show one day in this area how long did the actual filming take.
“Well when I conceived of it we thought of it as a day in the life of the city” she begins. “Then when we initially went there to research it was a long time ago, maybe 2008. When we went there to film it was in 2010. I was shooting a lot as well while I researched as I figured that a lot of the research that I was filming could end up in the finished film. The filming in 2010 was over three weeks and I then went back in 2012 for another three weeks. So it was quite intensive and long, visiting the same people again over that length of time. Before we went back for the filming in 2012 I had started editing the earlier footage so even then we were moving towards a structure. But as I was filming I wasn’t too sure whether this day in the life idea was going to work and that it was possibly just a structure that I hung on it just to get me into the film. But as the editing process took shape the day in the life structure emerged again naturally and organically like the idea that had occurred in the beginning”.
And it is a lovely structure that anchors the film. But lest you think it is a rigid piece of filmmaking nothing could be further from the truth. I mentioned to Pat that I grow weary of documentary filmmakers overtly shaping the story and pushing you down particular narrative alley ways. The feeling in watching Tana Bana is much like the people in the film an unhurried unfolding of the story. I was greatly please not to see the directors hand here and I mention this to her.
“I am really glad to hear that” she says, ” because actually there was some questions from people as I was going through this process like why can’t you follow one person and their story and some people were not trusting of the fact that the story of this would emerge. I think people also think of documentaries as a form of journalism so there has to be a big story in your face that you have to tell. And when I went there to research there was big stories because the crisis that the weavers were going through was huge but those stories were being covered by the major news channels and I think what was happening with me was that what we were doing was important but it was not news it is not going to be over and out of date tomorrow. This is what goes on here all the time.
There is certainly a timeless feel to the film. What we are seeing has been done for a very long time. “I think that is true” she says, “someone came up to us after the screening at JDIFF this year and said that on one level you are watching the film unfold but on another level you are watching living history”.
Living history is a very apt description. And yet in a world of industrialisation the historical skills are being lost. Why would pay for something hand woven when you can buy something made by a power loom for a fraction of the price? “It would be a devastating loss if those skills disappeared” she says with feeling. “There is a man in the film that talks about the looms and this is where the collaborative aspect of the film comes through because the crew I was working with, the photographer and the sound woman are Indian but I don’t speak Hindi so when we went to meet this man it was to be all about the power looms. Then he happened to pull these beautiful clothes which were his wedding clothes. They were stunning. He knew quite a bit about them and the sound woman began to push at him to talk about them. It revealed him to be an incredibly interesting man; he had such an appreciation of the generations of his family that created this precious work. And at the same time he is the person who is selling these power looms and has these power looms that are changing the face of things. So he is not like a simple capitalist and that is really interesting to me”.
And it is the people that make this film so good. I ask about the wonderful school girls who give an interesting alternative to the western view of Muslim or Hindu girls. “Yes”, she says with delight, “One of the things that the film is useful for particularly these days when there is an awful attitude towards the Muslim world is to ask people to listen to what they are saying and you realise how complex and interesting and vivid those young women are and that they don’t actually fit the picture of oppressed Muslim womanhood. It just says that things are more complex than the kind of reductive statements that are made really”.
Amen to that. Tana Bana is an excellent film and it will certainly challenge the usual western spin draped over Muslim stories.
Tana Bana is on release in the IFI from Friday October 9th.