Red Ants Dream: Of Stories Untold
By Bobo Khuraijam
“Protest is when I say I don’t like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don’t like. Protest is when I say I refuse to go along with this anymore. Resistance is when I make sure everybody else stops going alone too”.
– Ulrike Meinhof
At a time when the worshippers of neo-liberalism flex its muscle of high growth, at a time when mission to the moon is being envisaged at a future not so far away, it is prudent not to sweep aside the vast army of unemployed and ever increasing rate of farmers committing suicide out of distress. This is the state of Indian democracy after its sixty years of independence. Its triumphalist placard of being the world’s largest democracy has been put to test, relentlessly, by these voices of dissent. These voices are dealt with an iron fist by the Indian State with heavy repression in pure Chanakian fashion. Is there a right time per se to register protest against atrocities? Or is there a way to interrogate the system which employs violence as a means to curb any uprising or protest?
In a lecture at the Sydney Film Festival in 1991, Dennis O’ Rourke pondered on the ‘The Ethics of Non-Fiction Film Making’. He contested the conventional narrative representation of documentaries. The conventional understanding is that documentaries primarily serve to make the audience feel ‘good’, feel part of an enlightened elite, as though they have achieved some cachet or absolution for themselves by the simple act of watching a film. He went on, “I travel on a journey of discovery, on an unmarked road to see where it leads. And I travel not in order to return. One cannot return to the point of departure because, in the meantime, one changes, so, I don’t make film, the film makes me”. He further maintained that the magic of documentary film is that one can start to create with no idea of narrative and concentrate all thinking on the present moment and thing. In this fashion, Sanjay Kak’s Red Ants Dream does not serve to make us feel ‘good’. And one does not feel to be part of the enlightened elite. However, the film definitely is a journey of discovery of the social and political distress and unrest, which are innate with the Indian State.
There is a film by Warner Herzog with a slightly similar title, Where the Green Ants Dream. Herzog’s film focuses on a tussle between the Aborigines and a mining company in Australia. The continental country’s history is chequered with tragic discordance between the Aborigines and the White settlers. Generally speaking, history is witness to bloodsheds and hostilities between the early settlers and the expansionists. Their world views are not only diametrically opposite but also differ on the priority of interest. While the sole interest of the expansionists is to plunder any available resources, the Aborigines, on the other hand, believe the earth and the human body to be one. Any assault on the earth is regarded as an assault on their own body. The Green Ants Dreams captures the Aborigines’ vehement fight against the mining company. The film was featured in the Cannes, 1994.
Red Ants Dream treads on the similar theme of Herzog’s film. In both the films, the central thrust is on people’s struggle against any force, which threatens to annihilate lives for profit. Sanjay Kak is a film maker who has made films such as Jashn-e-Azadi (about Kashmir), One Weapon, Words on Water (about the movement of the Narmada Bachao Andolan) and others. All his films are about the resistance of the people. Needless to say, he is in his element in Red Ants Dream, too. Amidst the darkness of a dusty highway HGVs hurl its headlight directly to the camera. The intimidating image sets a thematic premise of the film from its very opening visual. Guerrillas in battle-green outfit gearing up for an observation in a jungle, voice from the All India Radio (news in English), reads out that the government is going to continue its operation against the Naxals unless they abdicate violence. The voice reports, Home Minister, P. Chidambaram’s statement that the operation is carried out not to kill anybody but to re-establish administration in areas where the Naxal has its control. It then jump-cuts to a juxtaposing visual of the anti-Naxal commandoes carrying out their daily work out. The next location is at a village in Punjab. Poet Avtar Singh, popularly known as Pash, was killed by religious fanatics, killed on the same date of another great revolutionary, Bhagat Singh. Punjab has a history of violent resurrections. According to the narrator, the recent-most resurrection was “Violently snuffed out and the bloodshed was masked by what was called Green revolution”. Villagers bearing flags and banners took to the streets, sloganeering the glory of Pash’s and Bhagat Singh’s ideals. A group of young school girls sing:
The fruit of their labour they will get
A Heaven on earth they will make
Equal shares of happiness for all to live by
No tyrant there’ll be to drink our blood
The red flag will fly on high- O comrade
The sky will dance
The earth will sing …
Red Ants Dream intersperses on varied geographical locations ranging from the Niyamgiri Forest in Odissa to Bhagat Singh’s birth place in Punjab and Dandakarnya jungle in Baster. These diverse locations, however, share a single umbilical cord – of resistance, of love and conviction of an ideal.
At Kamker, deep in the jungle of Chatisgarh, there is a retired army brigadier who trains hundreds of state armed forces. He looks after the Counter Terrorism & Jungle Warfare College. Here hundreds of young men are tailored to fight the Naxals with advanced methods of warfare and weapons. In the Retd. Brigadier’s own words, “It is a politico-military-socioeconomic-psychological counter Naxals campaign”. However, one often hears about the state commandoes suffering more casualty than their counterparts who are ill-equipped and perhaps not even half-trained in modern warfare and weaponry. The reason could be perhaps, the guerrillas are familiar with the terrain like the backs of their hands. In fact, the jungle is their home.
The guerrillas have two tasks in hand – to defend themselves from the onslaught of the state apparatus and to educate the villagers. For the guerrillas their primary task is to overthrow the regime. Whether they will succeed or not is altogether a different proposition. It is beyond the scope/ambit of a film. Yet, if one is asked to point out the indexicality of the film, I would say, it is the power to question. A film that can spotlight a story, which has for long been swept aside by the Indian State, has acuity in itself.
It is worthwhile to recall that the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Manmohan Singh, declared the Naxal Movement to be the biggest internal security threat of the country. This declaration came at a time when the well-trained state commandoes suffered maximum casualties one after another. The rebels have a different take on the security of the land.
If the security of the land means
That every strike crushed
Makes that peace stronger.
Martyrdom is no more
Than death at the borders.
Art blooms only at the Palace window,
Intellect only drives the water wheel
That irrigates the ruler’s crop.
Labour is little more than a broom
At the palace door.
Than the security of the land
Is a threat to us …
One cannot speculate on Sanjay Kak’s next venture. Perhaps, he might pan his camera at another movement, which has been termed by the Indian State as ‘Low Intensity Conflict’. Insurgency in the Northeast India has also been a long drawn one. There has been news that some major groups of the Northeast have made alliances with the Naxals in Central India. They have even carried out joint military exercises. These outfits in the Northeast also swear by the word ‘revolution’.
One can say that film maker like Kak perhaps draws inspiration from “Third Cinema”, a movement that started in the 1960s civil rights and human rights movement; struggle against colonialism, nuclear weapons, which all marked a time of political ferment. Many of the film makers of “Third Cinema” see themselves as cultural vanguards for change. The movement along with the technological breakthroughs heralded the birth of cinema verité and the video age. Kak’s sprinkling of words from names like Marx, Clausewitz, Pattanayak and Bhagat Singh in the frame within the narrative invite interrogation as well as interpretation.
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