Saturday, March 10, 2012

Please Don't Beat Me, Sir!: A Review

I have been thinking about this for weeks: What qualifies me to write a review for an ethnographic film? As of now, I am eight weeks into a course on visual anthropology and two-and-a-half years into an anthropology degree. I don’t know film theory (and frankly don’t care for it), and as it regards this particular film, I know next to nothing about the cultures of India, let alone India itself. And then I thought: Who is the intended audience of such ethnographic film? With the exception of those that find a wider audience (like Melissa Llewelyn-Davies’ 1984 BBC series, “Diary of a Masai Village” [sic]), most of these films are intended for institutional-use – I am the intended audience, and I guess that is my qualification.

The oft-asked question throughout my visual anthropology course has been based on the core of Karl G. Heider’s Ethnographic Film: What is “ethnographicness?” To really get to the heart of such a difficult (and at times, contentious) inquiry, I ask, Who speaks on behalf of the film’s subject? It is from this perspective that I review the film, Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir!

This is the story about the sons and daughters of “criminals,” their choice to turn away from the ways of their elders, and how they cope with a world that is not ready for their metamorphosis.

The film opens on the congested streets and alleys of Chharanagar, India. A crier is booming through an old, beaten metal megaphone, “Listen up! Today we’re having a play!” The camera follows the throng to an outdoor stage. Within the first three minutes of the film, we are introduced to the Chhara by the Chhara themselves. About half of the cast, playing what seem to be the police, ask the other half, “Who are you? Why have you come here? How long have you been here?” The other half, playing the roles of recently-detained Chharas, responds, “We are nomads, Sir! To fill out empty stomachs, Sir! Longer than you!” This troupe of street theatre actors is managed by Daxkin (the crier) and Roxy, and with the help of the actors, it is they who guide us through the journey.

Now far be it for me to start quoting Foucault (for a multitude of reasons), but I will say that the filmmakers, P. Kerim Friedman and Shashwati Talukdar, dive head first into the various power structures that make up the incredible breadth and depth of the cultural narrative. The police force the criminals – thieves and bootleggers – to pay bribes for turning a blind eye, and the cycle continues as the police pay bribes to be stationed in Chharanagar. Police brutality results from nonpayment for a variety of reasons. People are beaten in the street or in front of the Police Station on display. To understand why such a system exists, the film presents the many components of “that complex whole.” Even if it were my job as a reviewer to regale you with the details, I wouldn’t even know where to start. While the story is not linear, nor the topics fluid, the film as a whole is presented in sequences that flow beautifully.

I will, however, share an overview of the component that struck me most: The elders of the community – people that actually lived under British rule – are incredible sources of information. Amadbhai, Roxy’s great uncle, shows us pictures of nomadic Chharas from the 19th century, and provides an oral history of their subjugation. Dadi, the grandmother of Daxkin, tells the story of her forced marriage and that of her father’s murder, both of which took place in a British-run internment camp. (Incredibly, she tells these stories while she sits in what remains of that very camp!) Together, their perspectives are bittersweet – it is appalling that humans have been treated this way by other humans, and yet I am humbled for having heard a story that must be told.

There is a reason I haven’t yet mentioned the utmost focus of Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir!, as it answers the question posed above: Who speaks on behalf of the film’s subject? The Budhan Theatre, composed of Chhara sons and daughters of thieves and bootleggers, speak on behalf of themselves. They tell the stories of colonialism, police brutality, bribery, job discrimination, as well as a retelling of Mahasweti Devi’s “Breast Giver.” It is through these skits that we come closer to understanding their plight, but it is also through the preparation of skits and the reactions that they illicit that we can appreciate their motivation to spread awareness and educational value. But, at the end of the day, the troupe of performers are simply a vehicle for the message they intend to portray, which the film captures marvelously.

As a technical note, I’d like to mention that if it’s one thing that I’ve learned from watching a century’s worth of ethnographic film in the last eight weeks, it’s that I apparently have a very strong opinion when it comes to narration and intertitles. Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! utilizes the most effective and appropriate form that I’ve seen. Information is only provided when it is absolutely necessary and never by narration or intertitles that cut away. The anthropologists behind the film rarely make themselves known (except in some exciting confrontational situations), but otherwise the film almost feels like it could be auto-ethnographic. In many cases, the interviews are conducted by members of the Budhan Theatre Group.

I’ve reviewed this film a few times, and the complaint that consistently surfaces is this: There is no geographic context for the student with no education on India. It took me quite a while (and some simple research) to realize whether Gujarat, Surat, and Chharanagar were regions, states, or cities. (The Budhan Theatre even did a skit on it, and I was still confused.) On the other hand, during institutional-use, I would assume that an educator will be on hand to answer these questions. Once I realized where the state of Gujarat is in relation to the rest of India, the scene with the RSS (National Volunteer Organization) made a lot more sense.

I highly recommend this film to educators. It flows easily enough for an introductory anthropology course with a variety of discussion topics. It is also detailed enough for those upper-division anthropology courses that might want to concern themselves with a case study in systems of “power-knowledge.” I recommend this film for classes in Visual Anthropology as a model of perspective and voice. The film is a relevant interlocutor of the lasting effects of colonialism and it sets the standard for that type of ethnographic relay.

Production of Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! was funded by internet donations, the Bhasha Trust, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Asian Cinema Fund. International promotion was funded by a Kickstarter campaign. (And this is why I love living in the world of crowd-funding.) If you’d like to make a donation to the efforts of the Budhan Theatre, to continue making a difference in India on behalf of Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (like the Chharas), check out Vimukta.org or head straight over to the Budhan Theatre website to check out their latest projects.

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Please Don't Beat Me, Sir!
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