In the Partial Dark: Payal Kapadia’s “A Night of Knowing Nothing” ￼
Payal Kapadia didn’t exactly set out to document discriminatory casteist university education from the perspective of film students in contemporary India. But a bad situation took root around her, and she rose to it; Kapadia’s Cannes prizewinner A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021), her feature debut, embeds variously sourced student-protest footage within a fictional narrative love-letter framework, at once relating a singular political coming of age and refining a personally specific filmmaking style.
It calls to mind the cinema of Chris Marker, so often a delivery system for poetry as communiqué, and vice versa, but the real thrill of Kapadia’s project is its advance into her own uncharted territory. That title already works as a disclaimer: Neither diatribe per se nor presumptive claim on any official record, A Night of Knowing Nothing suggests an artist driven to do right by her material less through the dictation of meaning than the expression of feeling. With its charged quietude of intimate whispers, its smudgy images treated to look like charcoal rubbings of the events they show, the film invites us to see the social conscience of young adulthood as both a romantic ideal and a nostalgic peril.
Although positioned differently until now, this dusky ambience is something of a Kapadia specialty. In retrospect we see how well her exquisite short-form work, said to concern itself with “that which is not easily visible, hidden somewhere in the folds of memory and dreams,” has equipped a lucidly subjective feature-length impression of her own historical moment. This isn’t to say the style lacks precision, or accuracy; on the contrary, there’s something respectfully exact about a coming to consciousness staged to evoke the state of being not yet quite fully awake.
And for all the shimmer of translucence, at least one sequence lands with bracing clarity: an unblinking fixed-angle CCTV shot of police storming a university library. Without mercy, the shot goes on for a long while, its growing crush of boxed-in bodies verging on some nightmare parody of a Marx Brothers routine. Or maybe the more appropriate echo is that slyly funny sequence in Kapadia’s own 2015 short “The Last Mango Before the Monsoon,” where foresters rig up a camera in the woods ostensibly to monitor the behavior of wildlife, then test it by pretending to be animals themselves. Each of these energizing moments is conspicuous within its artfully languid context, and each provokes a similar cluster of questions: What responsibility do we take by turning on and pointing a camera, and by asking anyone, including ourselves, to witness what it records?
As our overwhelmingly mediated world reminds us daily, pushback against authoritarianism takes many forms — including cinema, with all its seductions and elisions, and all that’s implied by its fundamental act of projection. A Night of Knowing Nothing exemplifies freedom of expression, not least by leaving open the question of whether we consider it a disservice to romanticize resistance to injustice or a greater failing not to.
A Night of Knowing Nothing, a Cinema Guild release, is now playing in select US theaters.