Bubbling within the many arching themes of the Hum, two regularly emerge – a passion for the sounds of India, and one of near equal weight dedicated to Latin American avant-garde. As unexpected as it may seem, this is a joining of those worlds.
Roughly a month ago, a film entitled Kalinga Utkal by the Argentine filmmaker Pablo Picco crossed my desk. In addition to his film work, Picco is a member of Bardo Todol and Ø+yn, the later having releases a slew of albums on Winebox Press, Eiderdown, Sky Lantern, and a number of other labels of note. He also recently had a cassette of his field recording from Nepal issued by More Mars. With no explanation for why – knowing almost nothing about it or its creator, I was compelled to press play. I immediately tumbled down the rabbit hole, falling in love with what I saw.
While Kalinga Utkal was filmed in India and Nepal, and is a documentary of sorts – a journey, its encounters, and the people and cultures therein, it is not a documentary as they are most often understood, nor is an effort in ethnography or anthropology – so much so, that purist advocates of these forms should probably flee before they begin. This film seeks an honesty of a different form.
More of less since its introduction, the medium of film has been a darling of the avant-garde. Because of its materiality – the ability to present moving image and sound in real time, it can activate a suspension of disbelief to a degree which no other art form possesses. It is, at its best, an enveloping world. It can also, because of the pervasiveness with which moving images occupy our lives, have inevitable pitfalls, not the least of which is a developmental comfort with it banalities.
There was once a broad recognition that film sculpts a bizarre unnatural world. It is a circus mirror, within which reality is inevitably manipulated and bent, and that it should be recognized and harness as such. The history of medium’s early years is threaded by incredible efforts – radical interventions through editing, speed, light, camera angle, perspective, sound, and narrative, illuminating the strangeness of everyday life and its happenings. As weird of a world as film sometimes depicts, it still falls short of the oddities of the real, when recognized. Sadly, because of its increasing pervasiveness, the realities of film have begun to drift the other way. Rather than lead us toward a vision of how remarkable life is, it has commonly become a tool to placate our spirits – to distract us from living, rather than encouraging us toward the wonders of the world.
This, in part, is why Kalinga Utkal is so remarkable and beautiful. It binds film, as an avant-garde and experimental medium, to the spirit in which so many of its early practitioners pursued it. Through its weirdness, the film achieves an accuracy of truth rarely observed. It is a mirror, to which the circus has been returned.
One of the central axis of 20th century anthropology and ethnography was a developmental recognition that introduction of a foreign body – the anthropologist, ethnographer, camera, etc, would alter the contexts, and modify the behaviors, that where being documented. In effect, that it was impossible fully capture an accurate understanding of cultures or situations to which we do not belong. An adjunct to this, was a recognition that medium of documentation, in this case film, bears inherent limitations. It is only capable of capturing so much. This is compounded by how it is shot and edited. Both of which deploy unavoidable influence over how we understand a situation. This consciousness was illuminated by Tim Asch and Napoleon Chagnon’s 1975 film The Ax Fight, which documents a conflict in a Yanomami village in southern Venezuela. What is remarkable about their effort, is that the subject is only partially what appears before the lens. The true focus is the filmmakers themselves – their effects and limitations, and those of film itself. It achieves this by offering the viewer access to three different renderings of the footage – one raw, one edited, and one altered by narrative and speed of playback. In each case, without fully taking stock of the interventions, because of their familiar use in the medium – our comfort with their presence, our understand the situation in each case emerges as radically different. While not entirely the filmmakers’ intention, within The Ax Fight the lens doubles as a mirror for the eye, while each rendering becomes a metaphor for the subjective influence of the mind.
While Kalinga Utkal is neither anthropology or ethnography, the influence of a medium, our eye, and mind over how we view and understand the world around us, with the situations we find ourselves in, is a central theme. Through pop culture and and documentary efforts, most people have encountered a steady stream of imagery from India. The country’s chaos, beauty, and cultural singularity are often the focus of film’s voyeuristic eye. The imagery and circumstances captured by Picco’s effort will be reasonably familiar to most. Crucially, the way they are handled and deployed is far more singular and unique. Not unlike the Ax Fight, through the techniques of film making – editing, speed, direction, the manipulation of time, sound, narrative, and voice over, the the strangeness of everyday life and its happenings are are illuminated. As the subjective vision and interpretation of filmmaker is pushed to the fore, the film itself opens as a metaphor and a guide for the wonder and oddity of how we experience the world.
In my view, this is a remarkable piece of work, and should be watched by all. It is filled with stunning beauty, modeled by a brilliant creative vision. It is a reminder of the potential of the avant-garde and experimental practice, displaying the unexpected paradoxes of their ability to help us form a more accurate vision of the world. It comes with the added bonus, in addition to all the incredible sound captured while filming, of a fantastic soundtrack with contributions by Pan Del Indio, Calato, Ø+yn, Mariano Rodriguez, Uton, and others. Dig in. I hope you enjoy it is much as I have.
Pablo Picco – Kalinga Utkal (2017)