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Film, TV, Video

Janet Staiger Lecture in Gender and Sexuality: Shumona Goel

University of Texas at Austin, February 8, 2024
David Roche

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1The film screening and talk inaugurated the Janet Staiger Lecture in Gender and Sexuality.

2Associate Professor Lalitha Gopalan introduced director Shumona Goel. An artist who “lives in her mind somewhere between India and America,” Goel, who studied film in the US, is at the forefront of the second generation of experimental filmmakers in India, which represents the first generation of self-declared experimental filmmakers. The emergence of this generation in the early 2000s coincided with the digital turn and India’s shift toward a capitalist-based economy.

3Goel thanked Gopalan for the introduction and, more generally, for “acknowledging her work in a serious way,” then took a few minutes to introduce her own work, kidding that her father had recommended she explain to audiences “what [her] films [we]re about.” She immediately noted that gender and sexuality were not central themes in her work but no doubt essential aspects on a more covert level. Goel’s films are spiritual and focus on her inner life; they are a way for her to work through the peace and conflicts of that life, to make sense of emotions such as anger and courage. The inner world is for her a space of possibilities, of dreams and desires, of the imagination. Yearning for freedom is an essential part of her identity as an artist and a woman. With her films, she seeks to create a mood, poetry, and to incite empathy in audiences. Her subjects are metaphoric and come from ordinary life, nature, and her relationships with people. She enjoys filming familiar faces and endeavors to bring out the mysterious quality of ordinary life. People and objects represent mediums to express both her inner life and the human condition.

4Goel says her filmmaking education was iportant to her and that she admired the work of her teachers at Bard College. She is not a prolific director; the process takes a long time for her (both films screened today took a long time to make) and she has always had other jobs to support herself. She shoots in black and white because she has yet to fully explore its potentials; black-and-white allows you to pay special attention to composition, lines and shapes.

5Goel has been very active politically in indigenous, anti-hate and –fascism movements, as well as on environment issues. Political work has taught her the value of solidarity and gives her the hope necessary for artistic creation. If her films are not overtly political, she emphasized how much she valued the collaborative dimension of the production process and that, for her, making a film also means exploring the relationships and friendships that are part of the filmmaking process. She is now ready to start working on a film on the landscapes she lives in.

6Two short films—I Am Micro (2010) and An Old Dog’s Diary (2014), both co-directed with Goel’s friend Shai Heredia—were screened, with a brief pause between the two to allow the audience to soak in these very different experiences. I Am Micro was screened at the Guggenheim in Berlin and at the Toronto Film Festival.

7The subsequent Q&A engaged both with the films themselves and with Goel’s experience as a woman in a very masculine artistic scene.

8The voice-over in I Am Micro belongs to Kamal Swaloop, director of Om-Bar-D-Bar (1988), and would be immediately recognizable to anybody familiar with Indian experimental cinema. Indeed, Swaloop directed four films and worked outside the independent art cinema scene. Goel and Heredia were part of a group of six or seven followers who recognized him as the forefather of Indian expertimental cinema. They frequented him on a regular basis and recorded his voice, thus eventually constituting an archive of sound. Swaloop’s own work was hard to see even for the director himself, since the films usually belonged to the institution that had funded them or were restricted to the archive who owned them. One of Goel’s friends Heredia had nonetheless managed to screen some of them at Experimenta.

9There are two main locations in I Am Micro: an abandoned camera factory and the location where students are making a documentary about Swaloop. Located on the outskirts of Calcutta, the factory holds an important place in South Asia’s colonial history since the British empire made lenses there for microscopes and the first Indian still camera was made there. Goel and Heredia wanted to evoke the sad mood of the death of analog but also capture the lives of the people that inhabited the space as if someting dramatic had just happened—a bit like in the Lumières brothers’ 1895 film.

10Goel and Heredia used reversal film stock which was developed by a friend in Berlin; this type of international cooperation is typical of experimental cinema.

11An Old Dog’s Diary was commissioned by the South Asia Art Institute as a work in honor of Indian artist Francis Newton Souza. Recent research has linked Souza to the black movement internationally and also to abstraction (Gopalan believes his work resonates with feminist abstraction). The challenge here was to “say” something new about this famous artist. Goel and Heredia didn’t like the idea of reenacting the artist and decided it was about “all of us in this space.” So they took the artist’s letters to his mother as a starting point and did not edit the text.

12Neither film was storyboarded, everything was done “on the fly” and “pieced together” with very little material. The music was donated by the pioneering sound artist of “deep listening” composer named Pauline Oliveros, a sound artist who lived in Austin, with excerpts from Dada’s Room.

13Both films express wariness about artistic creation. I Am Micro is about how to make a film, whereas An Old Dog’s Diary expresses the fear of selling out, something which the use of black-and-white might serve to counter.

14The lack of women in both films testifies to their conspicuous absence on the Indian experimental film scene. It is thus a structural absence. Goel admitted that she has often been the only woman in an environment dominated by men and fraught with conflict. She mentioned one occasion where an important scholar organized a session of Cinema Prayoga with only men, and Goel and Heredia turned up to make a mockumentary. Goel recalls that, early on in her career, a feminist friend of hers had pointed out that one of her films was problematic politically speaking. Goel admitted that she felt more comfortable making films with men—“I don’t know my female subjects”—and felt she herself had no voice. She believes that now she has “the confidence to assert [her] voice.” For Gopalan, the act of making such a film in a man’s world is already a “feminist intervention,” especially since in India there is a certain pressure of what a feminist film should look like, of many women directors having opted for realism or documentary. Goel says that, for a long time, she worked to keep her artistic and political work separate, but that now she feels confident enough to bring her art into the political space, even though environmental activism is also a very male space in India.

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References

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David Roche, Janet Staiger Lecture in Gender and Sexuality: Shumona GoelMiranda [Online], 29 | 2024, Online since 22 April 2024, connection on 21 June 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/59822; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/miranda.59822

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About the author

David Roche

Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3
david.roche@univ-montp3.fr

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