Payal Kapadia has an impeccable sense of tonal rhythm, understanding how to use silences, cacophonous chants and intimate letter-readings, be it to juxtapose, establish a flow, or highlight similarities between two sectors of life. In these moments of great contrast, the sound design seems intuitively notable.
Kapadia, here, directs a holistic narrative about Indian early adulthood. We hear letters of yearning and passion, married with brutal visuals of police brutality at protests demanding creative freedom. The near-perpetual monochrome implies a history and cyclicality to the grand questions and contemporary injustices the film grapples with. The film’s content successfully attempts to transgress the crude black-and-white dichotomies the state and media create throughout these protests.
While there is a viscera within the students’ protests, Kapadia, again, transgresses superficialities and plasticity with a student speaking about the importance of intent, among the arrests and lives lost. This call for simplicity is used as yet another form of oppression against the working class, “lower” caste students. The film does not hold back on criticisms of the media. Expressing the rage and tragedies it benefits from to make a day-long, forgettable spectacle, while each story brings with it collateral effects.
The title plays an integral role in understanding the film’s construct. The love letters are delivered with a natural doubt, often getting in the way of knowledge – about L.’s estranged lover’s condition, or love itself. And the humanity and criticism L. grants, especially the female police officers with plants a sonder, making viewers revaluate how aware they or anyone alike is about their political climate and what they fight for. Another point the monochrome accentuates – this idea of being in the dark.
Oftentimes I find films struggle to make a fair and engaging balance of the personal and the political when the two are made so explicitly distinct. I also tend to be hesitant of films drawing such harsh separation between the two, but A Night of Knowing Nothing meshes these two fields symbiotically. Not only does Kapadia find a balance but a thrilling and emotionally potent way of converging these two worlds. At first, the introduction of a political sphere seems abrupt, but once contextualised and blended with the flow of the film, Kapadia and the students she includes, make arguments and moments worth witnessing.
A Night of Knowing Nothing is a stellar exploration of young love, socio-political unrest and moral and existential dualities imposed on our everyday lives. The documentary inquires about what it means to be human under a “theocratic” state that labels you a ‘citizen’, and what this labelling entails. The collaged footage is dispersed fashionably and considering this level of fine-tuning within such a small crew, this film is nothing short of incredible.