Payal Kapadia Captured Student Protests with Uncommon Honesty in A Night of Knowing Nothing

Movies Features Payal Kapadia
Payal Kapadia Captured Student Protests with Uncommon Honesty in A Night of Knowing Nothing

This month, Payal Kapadia will make history with her sophomore feature All We Imagine as Light, becoming the first Indian filmmaker to enter the Official Selection in Cannes in 30 years. Kapadia is also one of only four women directors selected for the main lineup this year. Her new film follows two Mumbai nurses navigating their romantic relationships: Prabha’s monotonous life is upended when she receives an unexpected gift from her estranged husband, and her younger roommate Anu searches for a place in the city where she can be alone with her lover.

The last time an Indian filmmaker was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or was in 1994, with Shaji N. Kahun’s Swaham, also known as My Own, a non-chronological drama following a grieving widow in the wake of her loss. The film was largely poorly received by critics at the time, who found themselves impatient with the more leisurely pacing, calling it “overlong and repetitive.” Of course, a long runtime is not a valid reason to shun an entire country of filmmakers for three decades; if it were, there would be no festival at all.

It is on this historic occasion that I would like to highlight Kapadia’s debut feature, A Night of Knowing Nothing, as one of the major films for our current political moment—especially as we pass the six month mark of mass student protests against the genocide in Gaza. A Night of Knowing Nothing played in the Cannes Directors Fortnight section in 2021, and went on to win the Golden Eye, the festival’s documentary prize. The film is a work of creative docufiction narrated by L, a fictional student at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), as she writes melancholic letters to a former lover, who previously dumped her due to caste hostility from his family. L continues writing letters to him, even after his replies cease.

At the same time, we witness FTII student protests against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appointment of right-wing B-list actor Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman of their university, which the students saw as a move to make their curriculums and their campus more conservative. They also saw Chauhan’s appointment at FTII as a symptom of the larger problem, where many arenas of public life were growing more conservative. The students were correct in their assumptions; many were arrested, had their stipends cut and found that entry fees were scaled up. Many students at FTII are still fighting for their freedom for personal expression today, as many students across the world engage in protest in support of the Palestinian people.

Images of student protests are frequently weaponized against young people’s political concerns by both sides of the political media apparatus. Fox News recently ran an opinion piece claiming that recent pro-Palestine campus protests at Columbia are backed by jihadist terrorist organizations, which at this point is to be expected from an outlet on the far-right side of the spectrum. But when it comes to elevating more nuanced images of student protests, liberal outlets don’t fare too much better; an MSNBC columnist recently dismissed student protestors as ignorant, claiming that “the war in Gaza is not a primary issue for voters” and promoting a study that reported that the majority of Americans would like to see campus protests shut down. Where can students who are passionate about fighting deep-seated conservatism at home and abroad turn to critique fascism?

Mainstream films don’t offer much of an anti-fascist reprieve either. The mainstream movie in recent memory that might feel most relevant is Dev Patel’s Monkey Man, not a student protest film, but an action film that was ditched by Netflix and still doesn’t have a release date in India due to its commentary on religious bigotry and political corruption in India. Monkey Man may be notable for indirectly critiquing Modi’s growing authoritarianism, but as some critics have already pointed out, the film also misses some larger points regarding the optics of making a film like this with a primarily Western audience in mind.

With A Night of Knowing Nothing, Kapadia proved that it is possible to both forgo traditional political “spin” and buck the expectations of conventional movie studios in favor of showing the students, her friends, for what they are: people. People like L, who may ironically look back fondly on times of unrest, as they were precious times spent with her beloved. Kapadia’s gift for displaying human behavior—whether that’s dancing, protesting or simply existing—as dreamlike, and infusing that with narration, creates a purely poetic cinematic experience that perfectly expresses the tumultuous experience of being an idealistic young person fighting against injustice, with no guarantees for the future.

Kapadia herself was an FTII student, and began filming A Night of Knowing Nothing with her university friends before she really knew what the film would become; a film truly made by anti-fascist students, for anti-fascist students. Combining the personal and the political through its atypical structure, Kapadia’s film creates a contemporary cinematic language of resistance. Through a mosaic of phone footage, 8mm archival footage, 16mm black-and-white footage, her signature animations and viral internet videos, Kapadia gets to the heart of both youthful vulnerability and resilience in the face of discriminatory violence—all in a way that resonates as true. Through her slow, poetic rhythm and penchant for illustration and dreamlike states, Kapadia’s feature debut proved that her artistic voice is one to be reckoned with on a world stage. 

Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.

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