Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fotografias (2007).. A documentary

Theater N in Wilmington held the Latin Beat Film Festival 2007 this past week. While I have no idea what kind of an audience most of the films on the slate got, I have to say I was one of the five audience members who got to see an interesting Argentine documentary Fotografias” (Photographs), made by Andrés Di Tella. On good days you may get a decent audience for independent cinema in a small city like Wilmington but documentaries have it much harder. Not a lot of people want to see documentaries, and making good documentaries is truly an art.

This fact was brought home to me as I watched Fotografias. It took a while for the documentary to catch on with me. It is however a noble effort and has its moments. It appealed to me since it deals with issues of identity, what makes you who you are and it is not an easy question to answer if at all there is an answer.

The documentary tracks the story of Andrés Di Tella son of an Argentine father and sociologist Torcuato Di Tella , and an Indian mother (Kamala Aparao) who is from a princely family in Southern India, a rather unusual union. Andrés claims that he was not really that much in to the Indian part of his identity, not till his mother passed away although he was aware of it. I wondered how much of that had to with his experiences with racism while at school in England, in addition to the fact that his mother shielded him from that part of his identity.

It is this part of this identity that he starts to explore in an attempt to understand how and why so little of it his mother has left behind. And he does not have a lot to go on, just a few letters, pictures and film that his mother has shot. In addition to that he has memories of his visit to India when he was 11. And so begins his quest on which he takes his wife and son Rocco along, which begins with trying to track down someone who is not related to his family but happens to be Indian (a Ramachandra Gowda, the adopted son of the wife of an Argentine spiritual guru who had his awakening in India). This was the part of the documentary that I thought just dragged, I thought Andrés was profiling this part as he really had no other connections to build on and in a sense it almost felt like he was grasping at straws, but at the same time it perhaps was borne of a more serious question of one's identity, especially when it is fractured the way Andre’s seems to be. There is also some footage of Andre’s son Rocco playing with dinosaurs. I understand the need to introduce him as he becomes a part of the film maker’s search to resolve, integrate and comprehend his dual cultural identity, but I thought we could have done without this part.

Given the dearth of material Andrés has to carry out his research using the few artifacts he has from his mother’s life, talk to his father and her many relatives back in India. It was here that the film got the most interesting for me as bits and pieces about his mother start coming together through interviews, pictures and fascinating anecdotes from her life as narrated by her relatives and friends and visits to homes including her ancestral land and palace.

The mixing of Argentine and Indian culture coupled with the gaps left by Andre’s mother will make you empathize with Andre’s journey and his need to resolve questions of his fractured identity, multiculturalism and self in relation to the world around.

So what exactly are the gaps left by Andre’s mother Kamala? Born in a conservative royal family, where women were expected to conform with little personality of their own, she became something of a rebel and identified with the socialist cause. Perhaps the die was cast then and further grew stronger with her relationship and marriage to Andre’s father and her move to Argentina. How do you hold on to your cultural identity when you have no sense of it in your surroundings? How do hold on to it, what is your identity when you don’t have strong roots to begin with (as is Kamala’s case). There are really no answers here and things don’t get tied up neatly.

Andrés recalls a memory of himself and his mother when he was a child of being in a car when they were almost out of gas, and they were going downhill and his mother was not worried. “She felt so carefree.. free of the bonds/issues of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality and culture” (not verbatim). And perhaps that is what she was trying to be in her life.. free, while some of us celebrate this aspect of ourselves and take a lot of pride in our culture and heritage, not everyone feels this pull as strongly. I can certainly identify with that.

While I will not call this an excellent documentary it certainly was interesting to watch, and I know at least one other audience member did not share that sentiment. As she walked out behind me I heard her mention to one of the theater volunteers "What was all that about?" .


Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

I know I have said this before but you are really lucky to have this theater showcasing international cinema in Wilmington. I don't know if a documentary like "Fotografias" will ever be released on DVD, so it's wonderful you got to watch it.

Seems to me that Andres mom, Kamala, wanted to break free of her heritage completely, but in doing so I think she unfairly robbed Andres of his. As a mother bringing up children away from her motherland I am acutely conscious of the big effort involved in making my children aware of their Indianness. It's not always easy doing it alone, you really do need the help of the Indian community which I suppose was almost non-existent in Argentina those days.

What is your identity when you don’t have strong roots to begin with (as is Kamala’s case).

Yeah, rootlessness can result in an identity crisis sometimes. I always tell my kids they are lucky to have a hyphenated nationality. I think they are equally comfortable being Indian-Canadian as I am being Indian.

Thank you for giving us your thoughts on "Fotografias", as usual, it made me think about cultural identity and to what extent does it defines who we are.

Great post Sanjay!

Sanjay said...

I guess it is lucky that I have this theater so close in Wilmington (15 mins to drive to, park and be in the seat) and it costs only $6 for the ticket, popcorn & parking is just a $ each. The theater is run by the city (renovated auditorium in an office building) and run by volunteers. I did not actually go see a movie there for more than year after being here and knowing it existed, I am sure I missed some wonderful movies.

You are right that Fotografias" may never make it do DVD but it may end up being viewable online, which is the direction in which acquiring/renting movies will be moving, since it is very easy now to hook up a PC or a similar hard drive to the TV too.

I love your interpretation of the documentary with regards to Kamala robbing Andres of his hertiage as a result of her denying it and her difficulty in keeping it alive due to the time that she was in Argentina and the lack of other Indians. I never thought of it that ways. Now thanks to you I see this documentary in a different light!

I truly think you are doing a commendable job in keeping the Indianness alive in your kids.

I am glad that you and the kids are all comfortable with your identities and that the review got you thinking about issues of identity. It made me think too.

Thank you so very much for your comment and have a great Tuesday ahead.

literary safari said...

This looks like a fascinating documentary. I'll keep my eyes peeled for it. I wonder if it'll be showing in NY.

AVIANA said...


thanks for bringing this movie out...i will definitely look into this if it comes on netflix...

have a nice day...

Sanjay said...

Literary safari.. Thank you for stopping by. You may have missed this, in NYC. Apparently there was a Latin Fest at the Lincoln Center earlier this year when it played, but I so hope it runs again or better yet comes out on DVD.

Aviana, thank you for stopping by.