Can You Make a Magical Realist Documentary? 'The Cinema Travellers' Directors Think So
Sundance Lab Fellows Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s ambitious first feature brings a mystical air to a vérité doc.
The opening scenes of The Cinema Travellers immediately draw us into the colorful, swirling frenzy of a jam-packed religious festival in rural India. We are rushed and jostled around the dusty fairgrounds with the hundreds of other participants of the festivities.
And then, just as suddenly, an awed peace fills the screen and extends out into the audience. It's not the religious ritual of the fair that has lulled the characters onscreen into reverence—it's the worship of cinema.
The film follows three men who are involved in the decades-old Indian tradition of roving movie screenings set up in villages that do not have their own theaters. We meet film exhibitors Mohammed and Bapu, who travel from town to town, schlepping projectors, film reels, and even their own tents and screens; and Prakash, who was once sought after by projectionists from around the country as the crown prince of repairmen.
Audiences who are in love with movies will surely fall for this one, as did the jury at Cannes who awarded it a special documentary prize.
The film's underlying sense of ethereal nostalgia comes from the fact that change is ever-present—one exhibitor is transitioning to digital projection, another is having trouble filling his tent as villagers acquire their own TVs, and Prakash works in a decrepit paradise of rusting projectors, long-abandoned.
Audiences who are in love with movies will surely fall for this one, as did the jury at Cannes, who awarded it a special documentary prize. No Film School sat down with Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya just after their North American premiere to talk about transitioning from still photography to cinematography, the Indian film scene outside of Bollywood, what they learned at the Sundance Edit Lab, and much more.
No Film School: India is a huge continent that is full of stories, so why did you choose this one?
Amit Madheshiya: A lot of the single-screen theaters [in our city] were shutting down in favor of multiplexes, and we wondered how this change was being reflected in villages. We started traveling around the country and we met all kinds of people who were still taking traveling cinemas to the villages, and this struck us as a unique system. It was an untold story, but they've been taking films to religious fairs in remote villages in Maharashtra for about seven decades.
Shirley Abraham: Like you were saying, there are so many stories in India, and movies in India are their own story. Everybody talks about Bollywood and how Indians have this rabid demand for movies, but the discussion is always about city theaters or big production values—the mainstream narratives.
So there were these informally organized traveling cinemas that had been in operation for more than 70 years, but they were completely unresearched even by our own historians and scholars because they were believed to have disappeared. They used to be important to the economy of big films—like films made X percentage of their revenue from the circuit—and then people believed that, as standing cinemas came, these traveling cinemas had gone away.
“Technological obsolescence is not the story of humankind. It's the story of human imagination and creation.”
But when we saw them, they were flourishing. When we first went to one of these villages, we saw about ten traveling cinemas that had hitched their tents side by side and they were playing films from afternoon to next morning, back to back. And there were thousands of people just crouching on the ground and watching films. When we realized that the cinema comes to them only once every year, we knew that this is a story that we need to tell.
NFS: Wow. It's so different from my experience with cinema, where there are movie theaters everywhere.
Abraham: Yes. Even from our own experience, because living in Bombay, cinema is readily accessible to us. It is not built on anticipation and longing, this waiting for the movies to come to you once every year.
NFS: Is there an indie film scene in India?
Madheshiya: Bollywood is the dominant discourse that we have, but apart from that there are independent filmmakers. There are very few that get releases and distribution. There is limited release in big metropolitan cities, but they are not able to penetrate the smaller centers.
Not everybody's in love with Bollywood and the kind of films that they make. The art of cinema is missing from that, which [mainstream filmmakers] don't care about because they say, “we are here to make money, it's business, and we make tons of money, so what it that you are criticizing?”
"Not everybody's in love with Bollywood."
There are a bunch of people who want to make films that mean something and are reflective and creative, but it’s not really a thriving culture, because those films are not really finding space, and also the international film festival circuit is very competitive.
NFS: How did you develop the unique visual language of The Cinema Travellers?
Madheshiya: I'm a photographer and I was already photographing people a lot when we were exploring the traveling cinemas, so there was a visual language that we could rely upon from still photography. I'm not a trained cinematographer, so in transitioning from being a photographer, I think I carried that aesthetic into this film.
I was looking at things as I would look at for a photograph, and it doesn't always work in films, but we struggled with this and eventually found a way to integrate it in the film. Just this afternoon [at the premiere screening], one of the audience said it's a magical realist film.
NFS: I had that feeling, as well. Actually, I wrote down "magical" in my notes.
Madheshiya: That was the intention behind it. We wanted to create a magical landscape because we are talking about a kind of mythology. I think making films is all about creating myths, and stories have to begin like that. I'd only read books with magic realism, and that's where the inspiration comes from. I had seen it in films, but not really documentaries. So it felt like a huge achievement when that happened today.
"Making films is all about creating myths."
Abraham: We knew that this film would by default become a document of its time because it is going to tell the story of how this moment of change arrived, and how it was received, and who embraced it and who rejected and who's fallen off the grid. In that process we also wanted this film to become a moment to reflect upon why these people have created what they have created, why we have traveling cinemas, why we are keeping these cinemas.
NFS: What did you shoot with, and specifically how did you get those night shots? There were so many dark images that still came through, which is always a challenge.
Madheshiya: We started shooting this film 2011, and that was the time when Canon 5D Mark II was really at its peak, and I owned that camera. We didn't have any budget then, so having that camera meant a lot to us. It became our camera by default, but I think it was a good choice because having that small camera really helped us to get deep into these fairs where there were thousands of people and not disturb anything.
Then, technology changed over these years and there were far better cameras that came, but we stuck to that because I think the language of the film was dependent on that. For instance, you cannot have good pans with that camera. It really jitters the moment you pan the camera. So I was kind of on lock of composition for whatever I was trying to make happen. I think the technical limitation of the camera also gave something beautiful to us because in the few moments when we actually move the camera, it is meaningful.
NFS: Both your editing and music choices were noticeable in that they sort of matched the different locations. How much thought went into how you would edit differently in different scenes?
Madheshiya: So this also happens to be the first film that we edited.
"I think the technical limitations of the camera also gave something beautiful to us because in the few moments when we actually move the camera, it is meaningful.”
NFS: You edited it yourselves? That's impressive.
Madheshiya: Yes. We went to the Sundance Edit Lab in Utah with the shot footage that we had assembled together, and we screened the film. There were some really brilliant people in the audience, like Jonathan Oppenheimer and the like. Through that process, we actually learned what editing could do for a film, and we came back from that one week at Sundance knowing that we want to edit our own films.
If we hired a trained editor, he or she would come in with their own specific language, and here we experimented. We took a lot of liberties with it, a lot of things that you “should not be doing,” and we were brave about it because we could afford to do it in the sense that we didn't know the right or wrong way of doing it, so it was a good place to be.
Abraham: It’s like that with everything that goes into your first film, because you're just encountering things that you never have and sometimes you're wondering, “I never signed up to do this,” but you have to do it, and then you realize you can do it.
Madheshiya: We edited the film over a year and a half from the first assembly to the final cut, and it has been a learning process because, again, we knew nothing. It was a blank slate.
"After Sundance, Jonathan Oppenheimer joined us as our consulting editor, so we would send him a cut every two or three months and chat with him over Skype."
NFS: So how did you go from being “blank slates” to editing a complete feature?
Madheshiya: After Sundance, Jonathan Oppenheimer joined us as our consulting editor, so we would send him a cut every two or three months and chat with him over Skype. He really guided us in that editing process. He's a brilliant man.
We learned a great deal from Michael Ondaatje's book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. For instance, Murch talks about editing [Francis Ford Coppola’s film] The Conversation. There's certain material in the script which Francis Ford Coppola could not shoot, so when it came to the editing table, something was not making sense and Walter was really struggling with that problem and he came up with the solution: let's make it a dream sequence. That's when we see Harry Caul's dream sequence, which is just so suggestive and frightening at the same time.
We were also stuck with a similar problem in our film. There was something in the motivation of a character that we were really struggling with and we thought, why not do a dream sequence? And it worked perfectly well.
Abraham: As far as the actual editing style, at some point, we realized that we chose these three subjects because of the three different value systems that they have, so that set the tone for editing each of their parts.
Mohammad is the quintessential showman. He will promise you a show and he will deliver at the end. He could fool you a little bit in the interim but he's somebody who lives for the moment. And that also evokes the physicality, the glory of these cinemas. That then gave his character a certain rhythm. When we are there with him, the visual movement is fluid. We are in the moment and we are also in that hustle and bustle.
And then Bapu is looking at the glory of the cinema, and that for him is this nostalgia. There was a time when people used to come to his cinema and they're not coming anymore, and he's struggling with his own legacy. That's also why the dream sequence eventually worked for him—because this is a person who would look back.
Prakash is an interesting bridge between the two of them because, in his past, he's been this star repairer of machines, and even when we were out there in the field, people would talk about him like he was a myth. But he's also somebody who's constantly looking into the future because he believes if mankind creates, that is how we can move forward. And you need to keep moving.
They all have this different sense of time, so these dynamics also lend themselves to the rhythm of the editing, but we took a really long time to arrive at it.
NFS: What about the music? How did you design the soundtrack?
Madheshiya: The sound design, again, came from Sundance Labs. We were selected for Sundance Music and Design Lab after the Sundance Edit Lab, so we went there almost a year later, and by that time we had a good assembly of the film. It really opened a new world to us, how you can use sound in a film.
“Projectors in our film are almost like characters with distinct personalities.”
We tried a lot of things in this one. We understood from the labs that we should be aware of each and every piece of sound that we are using in our film and there are things that we could do with sound that could help us economize the images that we're using.
For example, there are a lot of projectors in our film. They are almost like characters with distinct personalities, and sound became a huge help in creating that. The sound of these projectors is really mechanical, so how do you make the machine relatable to the audience? I was just standing outside of the lab, and it's a beautiful place, and there was a swarm of bees and I heard the sound, and it sounded a bit like a projector sound.
We found a great collaborator in Pete Horner who was a sound designer at Skywalker Lab, and he mixed the mechanical sound of the projector with the sound of the bees and it creates a wonderful feeling, and suddenly you start seeing this projector as a human being, so when it dies, it really affects you. You have been through this journey with the projector.
NFS: At No Film School, we have a constant debate on our boards and in comments on our articles about film vs. digital. I was wondering if your feelings on the matter changed at all during this process. You shot on digital, but the movie was really about celluloid.
Madheshiya: I think Prakash really embodies this thread of this film, and what we also learned from him is that technological obsolescence is not the story of humankind; it's the story of human imagination and creation. Prakash could be seen as a failure because he made a pitch-perfect projector which he thought would become the gold standard, but nobody bought his projector because there were better ones. But he moved on to making newer and greater things. That is our takeaway from this film: it's human imagination that's truly important.