A Night of Knowing Nothing
by Ruth Gilbert
In an early shot from Payal Kapadia’s debut feature a projection of an unnamed film falls onto a group of young people dancing. The projected images are obscured as they refract over and through exuberant bodies in motion, towards a screen in the background. There is no music or diegetic sound. Instead, a voiceover reads from a series of love letters between two young film students, explained via intertitles as found in a box of reels and artefacts at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). It isn’t clear whether this personal correspondence is fictional or historical, but it expands over found footage, drawings, and original film to create a vivid tapestry of student resistance during the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise to power in the mid-2010s. The letters between two lovers – identified only as ‘L’ and ‘K’ – shape the film’s loose narrative. Initially sensual and dreamlike, the mood is soon punctured by a bold filmic exploration of contemporary India’s political rupture under Prime Minister Modi’s regime.
The viewer learns that the casteism of K’s parents has impacted upon his love for L, and the impossible nature of their relationship is realised as the instability of India’s present moment unfolds on screen. Of course, the personal is political in this rigid hierarchy of oppression, and L’s focus soon turns outward to her circle of friends in their fight for creative and intellectual freedom, as the narration shifts tone from one of romantic longing to that of fear and rising dissent. This break is initially achieved through a deft approach to sound design.
Early in the film, archival footage of daily life in the FTII residences paints a carefree picture of L’s ‘Sunday morning on campus’. These reels provide a visual reference to the love story, as well as creating a prosaic impression of a less turbulent time at the institute under a left-wing administration. An artist’s impression of revolutionary filmmaker and former IFII teacher Ritwik Ghatak is shown on one of the housing blocks. The leisurely sounds of a weekend are ever-so-slightly exaggerated: breakfast crackles in a pan; pet cats mew and stalk the corridors; students laugh and discuss party plans, all sharpened into crisp audio focus in the editing suite. In contrast, Kapadia makes significant use of silence during moments of collective action and state violence, creating a starkly evocative space for the viewer. Footage of demonstrations captured by Kapadia and her friends during their own student days is presented soundless as images of chanting and mobilisation play out, illustrating strike action in protest at the appointment of BJP loyalist Gajendra Chauhan to chairman of the film school. The students are seen resisting not only Chauhan’s appointment, but as voiceover explains, the creeping infiltration of Modi’s ideological influence into India’s arts and cultural institutions more broadly.
Kapadia has created a poetic compilation film, arranging appropriated footage and artefacts alongside original film to draw parallels between overlapping histories of resistance and accelerating state violence. But A Night of Knowing Nothing is not an expository historical documentary, and its non-linear approach maintains a challenging narrative structure. Kapadia employs a speculative, associational method of cinécriture, taking an essayistic approach where the film’s constituent parts are often elusive but nevertheless build towards a more unified whole.  This is further evidenced by the overlay of drawings and text into the frame, giving the film a tactile, palimpsestic quality. Images of a housing estate are animated with scribbles of stick figures and hands, lifted from the margins of L’s letters. These personal abstract images contain no obvious narrative function, but slow cinema often rewards patience. Soon after, sobering newspaper clippings cut through the calm, reporting horrifying acts of gang rape and lynchings enacted upon marginalised Muslims and Dalits during a time of rising nationalist power. L laments these ‘fleeting memories of violence […] not one clipping leaves me no matter what I do’. In one particularly visceral scene a university occupation is captured on CCTV, showing students trapped in a teaching space being beaten by police. Visible in shot, some students film this barbaric act on camera phones, but whether that evidence still exists is left to the viewer’s imagination. Indeed, these images won’t soon leave you.
A Night of Knowing Nothing is ambitious and intelligent filmmaking which maps a route through the personal experiences of a group of students as they come to terms with the political landscape of an India in crisis. It is also a love letter to the revolutionary potential of cinema, with its formal and political influences clearly worn in both image and dialogue. Identifying the ideological lineage of Kapadia and her contemporaries during their student days, young people are seen marching to chants of ‘Eisenstein, Pudovkin! We shall fight! We shall win!’ Notably in this scene sound and image are defiantly unified. Similarly, the film’s epilogue is its most expository and polemical act. In the grounds of the FTII a student or teacher addresses a gathered crowd. Attempting to historicise the present he laments the resurgence of fascist politics in India and beyond while refusing to be drawn into a value judgment on the current conjuncture: ‘This is how it is! It is not black and white…’ he muses, evoking Walter Benjamin, who reminds us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception, but the rule.  By resisting linearity and historical positivism, Kapadia’s enquiry finds more value – and a certain hope – in a materialist filmic analysis of intergenerational and overlapping anti-fascist struggle. As young people in present day India dance silently into the night, the film’s final frames mirror its opening as both a moment of collective joy and a promise to tomorrow.
-  Cinécriture;(cinema-writing), coined by Agnes Varda to refer to her method of filmmaking. For more see: Emma Jackson (2010) ’The eyes of Agnes Varda: portraiture, cinécriture and the filmic ethnographic eye’ in Feminist Review, October 1st, 2010
-  Benjamin, Walter. ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations (1968) ed. Hannah Arendt
Ruth Gilbert is a writer, educator, and trade and tenants’ union activist living in Glasgow. Since 2020 she has been a member of the Workers’ Stories Project team. She is currently completing a PhD at the University of Glasgow, a cultural materialist analysis of archives in contemporary nonfiction film.