The world of documentary filmmaking is as diverse as that of its fiction sibling, although what’s regularly shown on television or in larger theater chains may lead you to believe otherwise. While fiction is seemingly freer to imagine different stories and forms, the culturally dominant approach to nonfiction cinema hardly suggests its possible dynamism. Since documentaries are often hamstrung by notions ironically imported from mainstream fiction filmmaking—character arcs, straight-forward storytelling, satisfying conclusions—the kind of nonfiction movies that achieve broader cultural interest tend to be neatly packaged delivery vehicles for information one could easily glean much more quickly from an article. This approach while most visible is hardly the norm, and the world is far too messy and filmmakers far too adroit at being inspired by this terrific confusion to be limited to the commercial standards of truth-telling. After all, while the truth is a necessary component of living, it is hardly, if ever, a lucrative motivation for making a movie. The motivation lies elsewhere, and from it come films that are awed and angered by the world, and strive to find ways to communicate this in a relationship with the audience that is not one of dictation and passivity, but rather one of urgent, even overwhelming, sharing and encouragement.
A forceful example of this is Anand Patwardhan’s Reason, which stood out at this year’s True/False Film Fest in a number of ways. This documentary film festival rightly prides itself in showcasing a wide-range of nonfiction approaches, this year ranging from immersive ethnographies (the 1990s films of Pirjo Honkasalo, a short but rich program), artful essay films (the Annie Dillard, Zadie Smith, and Marx-quoting The Hottest August), and movies that adapt real people into quasi-fictive stories (Zhang Yang’s excellent Up the Mountain), to once-suppressed and now-released portraits (Amazing Grace, on Aretha Franklin, and The Celebration, on Yves Saint Laurent), and delightful wild cards (Nathan Fielder’s what’s-it Finding Francis). Yet still Reason was unusual, a film to be reckoned with—something suggested already by the inclusion of a 250-minute film at a 4-day festival with a tight selection of 38 movies. It is indeed a difficult feat at such an event to fit such a sizable film into the logistical puzzle of an optimized movie schedule, but for those who generally scoff at the idea of watching such a long movie, and especially one presented in the thick of an alternatives-rich festival, perhaps consider the sacrifices curators have to make to their program to include such a film. And also how bad, boring, or misguided most long movies are and therefore what it means that one was chosen. Programming Reason then becomes a gesture of something, an acknowledgement of worthiness and of passing a bar that a 90-minute film never has to struggle with. (It is very much worth noting, and a testament to True/False’s audience in Columbia, Missouri, of the packed house of the 9:30am screening of Patwardhan’s film. It is also worth noting that Reason’s world premiere was at the Toronto International Film Festival, which remarkably also showed Wang Bing’s 8-hour Dead Souls and Mariano Llinás’s 14-hour La Flor. Finally, since I’ve committed to this now-lengthy aside about run-times, that the conventional bias against long movies by audiences is frequently shared by programmers against mid-length films that are over 25 minutes but under the 75 that is deemed “feature length.” True/False admirably featured more than a few of these misfits as well.)
Patwardhan needs every minute of Reason, as occasionally grueling and frequently distressing as they can be. The film is a sprawling compendium in chapters of the cultures of religious mystification and fervent Hindu nationalism that plague today’s India, and a brave attempt, per its title, to advocate for rational thought and truth-telling. Its structuring motif is blunt and horrible, that of the continuous occurrence of murders of representative rationalists, ranging from prominent thinkers and a communist community leader to a police chief, a journalist, and a protesting student who was, emblematically, a member of the Dalit caste of “untouchables.” (Patwardhan’s last film, Jai Bhim Comrade, was similarly a broadside of sharp reportage about the Dalit discrimination.) In one of the few overtly poetic gestures in a film whose main approach is resolutely of aggressive citizen-journalism, we plow through the dark night on a roaring motorcycle, a vehicle associated with the drive-by shootings of several of Reason’s protagonists. The vehicle starts and ends the film, a roving and unstopped threat, and that we are on the bike, as if we are the perpetrator and not the victim, suggests a frightful complicity in the status quo of this violence.
In broad strokes it is easy to see why this film is essential to present at an American festival, as it would be in a British, Brazilian, Russian, or Philippine one—or, god help us, so many other countries—but the universality of its theme is achieved through an almost overwhelming immersion into the details, both broad and anecdotal, of the last five or so years in India. Two chapters are devoted to the thoughts of two public rationalists, one a doctor trying to dispel the exploitative mysticism that in many instances has co-opted Hinduism, especially online where fake miracles are easily shared, and the other a communist lawyer advocating for the social enfranchisement of the poor and lower castes. Through both of these subjects Reason soon zeroes in on the current strain of blindly nationalist political fervor that uses a willful or ignorant misunderstanding of history, funnels it through the class and religion-based hate of the caste system, and blesses it with an understanding of Hinduism that strives to reinforce old structures of oppression and discrimination with spiritual endorsement. There’s a lot here, and by traveling around India, talking to regular people and relatives of victims, filming protests and rallies, and assembling found footage the film traces the loose but dangerous connections between the misunderstanding of Gandhi’s assassination, the misappropriation of historical figures, the fascist and cult-like thinking of the extreme right-wing spiritual group Sanatan Sanstha, and the links of youth groups and more mainstream conservative political groups—the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), as well as the currently governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a member—to a perverted, exclusionary, and violent form of nationalism.
Due to this expansive canvas the texture of the film is frequently very rough, for Patwardhan is reporting from the streets and his editing room with a precarious urgency in which frequently his subjects and his own safety is at stake. (In one Sanatan Sanstha press conference, which one might assume is being excerpted in Reason, since the film uses a great deal of found footage, a representative of the group calls out Patwardhan by name as a rabble-rouser, and the camera whip pans to reveal the director in the audience with his own camera filming the proceedings.) Clips and graphics used have a similar shaggy quality that only reinforces the fact that a film discussing such issues would never be given the resources consummate to the exigency, anger, and desperation it espouses over the pall of mystification that seems to cover so much of India. Reason’s argument for clear-thinking, historical antecedents, investigative journalism, and confronting both those in power and those on the front lines being manipulated for the purposes of those in power is made again and again as the film pivots from one specific subject and situation to the next. In so doing it suggests less a complete film than an on-going project, distressing but absolutely necessary, to chase the nefarious reaches of the old guard that so desperately, violently wish to remain powerful, and in so doing promotes an ideology founded on ignorance and hate masquerading as pride, passion, and godliness. It is a film whose sequel is very easy to imagine, yet its very existence, the brute work and perspicacity it took to make such a film as Reason, and the personal danger courted by releasing it, is an effort of education, of exposition, and of resistance. It is a film as information-driven and didactic in its approach as any conventional television documentary, but without the easy answers, the comfortable format, the safety of a problem already worked out for the audience. This problem is still in progress, and Patwardhan has made a powerful work that bears the impact of the dark, messy, and dangerous fire being stoked in his country that has analogies in many others. Reason portrays a world that needs to be changed, and by portraying it, becomes a tool for that change.