The hiss and scratch of time
In February 1988, when we started to shoot the film that ended up being EGARO MILE, the intention was well within the corral of what was deemed possible. Before the first day’s shooting the idea was to make a tight 30-minute film about a group of Bauls (Bengal’s traditional wandering musicians) who had gathered in a semi-rural suburb of Calcutta. We would film them – first preparing for a concert, and then performing in the evening at a venue in the city. What we encountered on that first day sent us on a journey that ended three years and several stock permits later.
There was no way to airbrush away our presence and how that changed the situations we went to shoot; the form of the film arrived at a first-person diary recounting all our confusions and missteps, all the absurdity and conflict that the filming both witnessed and created. The subjectivity embedded in the final film didn’t come about by intellectual/cerebral planning but neither was it an accident – it was something that grew from repeated, stumbling but conscious efforts at an honest engagement with a group of people living in a very different reality from ours; a group that was nevertheless very conscious of audio-visual technology and the world beyond Bengal in which the products of the technology found play.
The good times of Channel 4
In personal terms, EGARO MILE sits across a divide: a film typically begun with chaotic impulse and rudimentary wherewithal that, through luck and some hard work, ended up being completed in London and Paris with the best available 16mm technology. I was lucky, with filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s help, to get through to Alan Fountain, a commissioning editor at UK’s Channel 4. Fountain was a man who was passionate about cinema, willing to risk mistakes in experiments with the medium, willing to put those experiments to the test of a wider viewership on his slots on the channel. The hard work involved making a decision to not have a tame, easy, ethno-exotica of a film and then putting together a trailer that reflected that choice, which in turn led to Fountain giving us the funds to complete the film properly.
EGARO MILE, finished in 1991, led to Fountain and his department indirectly funding two more films that would have no chance of finding any TV money today – MEMORIES OF MILK CITY (14mins, 1991) and TALES FROM PLANET KOLKATA (38mins, 1993).
The fact is that all three films were, at least in the Indian context, a contradiction in terms: shot on 16mm yet centrally built upon the first-person diary, the subjective essay and the meditative-poetic form. Within three years of the completion of the last of these, advances in video technology meant that filmmakers could own or access light-weight cameras that captured broadcast quality images and sound, and edit films at least to the point of a finished rough cut on their home computers, taking out the chief hurdles that interfered with a more flexible approach to non-fiction filmmaking. The first-person approach that included the filmmaker and crew that was unusual between 1988 and 1993 began to be seen far more frequently by the end of the ’90s.
At the time Alan Fountain was commissioning work for Channel 4 many of us made the mistake of assuming that the kind of freedom he espoused in programming was there to stay, but history had a painful lesson in store for us. Within a couple of years of the completion of TALES FROM PLANET KOLKATA, Fountain was gone, forced out from his position at Channel 4 by a regime change at the top. (…) The period (from the early ’80s to the early ’90’s) where experimentation with form and non-mainstream content was welcome on British and European television was over. (…) In India, there was a brief period when Jai Chandiram headed DD3 when alternative programming found a place, and the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (BSBT) initiative carries on commissioning some oddball non-fiction but not that much. By the turn of the millennium, makers of non-fiction films in India found a new opening where their work could meet potential addressees, which was in the art gallery spaces both here and abroad.
The digital restoration
Recently Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin began work on the digital restoration of the three 16mm films, EGARO MILE, MEMORIES OF MILK CITY and TALES FROM PLANET KOLKATA. The work began in 2016 and by the time I reached Berlin last summer, the negatives and sound had been captured digitally and the files were ready for the technicians and myself to do the colour correction on the picture and the adjustment of the sound. Throughout the month-long period I felt a strange push and pull, a double or even triple-layered connection with the films. On the one hand, this was my work and I knew the material really well, a lot of details coming back to me quite precisely.
On the other hand, one couldn’t escape the feeling of looking at these strange artefacts from another lifetime being pared apart by the latest post-production software, or magnified film-like on a screen after years of watching the films on DVDs. Things were both familiar and alien, the ghost of the film sprockets on the monitors, the well-remembered scratches and damage from when the WBFDC lab had messed up the processing of certain sequences, new “events” on the negative, the handwriting of time on hibernating emulsion, the mysterious mismatch between the “A” roll and “B” roll of the older negatives, the clicks and smudges of the soundtracks, one’s own voice from decades ago, the refreshed, re-watered voices of those who were no longer with us.
When we’d finished the sound mixing for EGARO MILE, A.M. Padmanabhan, “Paddy”, the sound engineer who mixed the film, told me: “Listen carefully to what we have done and enjoy it, because this is the last time you will hear it with this richness. The optical soundtrack will take away at least 30% of the sound quality.” So, we listened to the fully finished soundtrack while watching a terribly scratched and taped picture, of mixed black-and-white and colour rushes battered by a long editing process. Later, when one saw the pristine, final, colour-corrected film print, there was indeed a lot less depth to the optical sound. The transfer to video from the magnetic mixed track meant that the sound was much better on tape, and later DVD, but then again, the quality of the picture had been compressed. Now, as I sat in the Arsenal Kino theatre, watching the corrected digital image accompanied by the cleaned-up soundtrack, it felt as if I was watching my own film properly for the first time after waiting for over two decades.
Modern technology meant that we could have cleaned up every small segment of the image, enriched the blacks, taken down the grain, sharpened things, changed the colour and zapped most of the scratches. But we had agreed, the Berlin colleagues and myself, that we would do our best to retain the quality of the images as they would have been when first completed, with as much fidelity to the material on which they had been shot. The sound, too, was cleaned up to a point, the depredations of time removed as far as possible, but it was not enhanced in any way. This was my work, no doubt, but in this fresh avatar it was also a marker, audio-visual evidence of that time, and the way we made documentary and non-fiction films in that technological matrix and in that pocket of history. The films belong to the present and the future, where the restoration is but a step towards putting them back into circulation in dialogue with other work, but they also belong to the hiss and scratch of time. (Ruchir Joshi)
Excerpted from “The Hiss and Scratch of Time” by Ruchir Joshi, published in Documentary Now, Marg Vol. 70 No. 1 (September-December 2018), with the permission of the publishers, The Marg Foundation, Mumbai.