Does Absence make the heart grow fonder as Tony Cross watched Ekta Mittal's documentary, thanks to Sheffield Doc/Fest recently...
I’m not sure where to begin with ‘Absence’. It feels less like a documentary and more like an impressionistic poem about grief and loss. This is expressed in Hindi by the word birha. And the film is about the search for the missing. Those Indians who have left their home villages to find work in the cities and whose families remain wondering what happened to them as distance and silence swallow them up.
It’s a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. The cinematography is wonderful and the sound design, combining real ambient sound, music and mysterious other stuff would benefit from a cinema’s sound equipment. There’s an almost 2001: A Space Odyessy power to it.
It’s hard to explain how I feel about this film because I’m not sure I understand it. It takes place in India but there are no names – almost – or locations to anchor yourself to. This could be the afterlife. There are moments when it feels like you’ve walked into a production of Macbeth with its blasted heath. There’s a long sequence with a woman dressed in black and a pack of dogs both of whom seem to wonder through a misty bonescape. There’s not much sound and then the dog start to bark and that weaves and seems to distort so that it could be the cry of human being. It’s an astonishing sequence and could have come from some dystopian science-fiction film. Or, what it reminded me of the most was 2017’s ‘A Ghost Story’ where the grief and loss was palpable and there was that element of long patience. In ‘Absence’ it feels like we’re looking for ghosts.
The film uses the Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s birha poetry as a guide. Of course, being English, I’ve not heard of Shiv Kumar Batalavi. Or birha.
I think that adds to the slightly discombobulated feeling that comes with watching this film. It feels like a dream. A vivid, disconcerting and painful dream. The kind you wake up from feeling you’ve lost something or someone, but you can’t quite remember what or who because the dream you had is slipping away from you leaving traces of images that however hard you try and hold onto them are also going to fade away. And you’ll know you lost something, and it’ll cause you pain but that too will fade.
If this all feels like a man struggling to express an opinion, then it probably is. Director Ekta Mittal has made a beautiful film, but it isn’t an easy one. Some people might call it pretentious, but that is often how people react to films that don’t fit into easy boxes, which this certainly doesn’t. Some might call it boring even. I never felt the latter but would have appreciated being in a cinema when watching it so that the many distractions that are presented by watching at home weren’t nibbling away at my concentration.
Is it enjoyable? Well, yes. If you like your films to feel like impressionistic poems. I liked it. I think parts of it will stay with me forever. I’d love to see it in a cinema on a big screen with a sound system that would wrap you up in this in the way I suspect you were supposed to be wrapped up in it. Documentaries come in many forms. Some are serious. Some are funny. Some feel like fiction. Some are calls to action. Some are old stories re-told. Some are new stories. This is documentary as poetry. And that’s the best I can do for you I’m afraid.
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Image - Sheffield Doc/Fest