Pondicherry, on the southern coast was under French colonial rule. In 1962, it merged with India.
French Citizenship was offered to local Tamils; 6,200 opted for French Nationality.
In Apr’ 2017, 4,600 were eligible to vote for the French Presidential elections.
These statements flash on the screen at the very beginning of Two Flags, a documentary film directed by Pankaj Rishi Kumar, outlining its theme and focus clearly. The film follows the small community of the Tamil French (who are not Indian, but French Nationals) living in Pondicherry and their engagement with the 2017 Presidential election in France.
The film, which is mainly in Tamil and French (with English subtitles) and some English, introduces you — the viewer — to the Tamil French community on the occasion of French National Day celebrations in Pondicherry before diving into the main narrative of the 2017 French Presidential elections. The viewer watches community leaders discuss the merits of different Presidential candidates and predict the percentage of votes their preferred candidates will get. You visit the houses of other members of the Tamil French community, as the leaders exhort them to vote in the elections, sometimes even telling them who they should vote for. You realise with a start that if not for the French-sounding names of the candidates and the occasional French spoken, one could very well be watching the campaigning for elections in India.
Just when you are settling into the film and French election politics, parallel narratives on French language and culture, and another on French citizenship is introduced. And suddenly, Two Flags is not about the 2017 French Presidential elections anymore.
In the darkened screening room, the audience chuckles as the 12-year-old Lior Liebling delivers the last line with a naughty smile and a twinkle in his eye. Lior, which means “my light” in Hebrew, is the protagonist of an award-winning film by Illana Trachman, Praying with Lior. This documentary film is about Lior, a special child, a child with Down’s Syndrome, and a child who loves davening (traditional Jewish prayer) and singing, and who every one thinks has a special relationship with God. His faith and belief in Hashem (Hebrew for God) is simple: when asked if God has a smell, a taste or a form, Lior says, “No, no, no. God is God.”
Two little girls, sisters, are seated side by side and are prompted by their dad to sing “Happy Birthday” for him, while he films them for a home movie. The sisters happily oblige. The scene changes and we see footage of the two sisters and their parents at picnics, other birthdays, on a ship (the father is in the merchant navy), etc. Watching the scenes unfold, one after the other, the viewer is led to think that these are glimpses from the life of a happy family.
This perception changes when the conversations begin—telephone conversations recorded in 2006, which are played out against the backdrop of the 20-year old footage of “happy” family memories. These are telephone conversations between the sisters, Santana and Simran; between the mother and Santana; and between Santana and the father. These conversations reveal something totally contrary to what the images convey—that this is not a happy family unit. The parents have separated and the mother does not speak to the father, and Simran also does not speak to her father and wants to have nothing to do with him. Only Santana talks to her father. Sometimes. The reason for all this is the father’s alcoholism.
As curator, Pankaj divided these 9 films into 4 sections: (i) Home movies as genesis of explorations (Straight 8, The Dust, These Old Frames, and Grandad with a Movie Camera; (ii) Politics of home movies (Khoob Asti Afghanistan and I for India); (iii) “Happy” home movies and strange truths (Bare and Tarnation); and (iv) Conclusion: the way ahead (Phantom Limb). The films were screened in this order and the complexity of the use of family footage in the larger narrative of the documentary film increased as we progressed from film to film, and section to section to experience a range of amazingly simple to multi-layered, complex films. Bare was the 7th film to be screened that day, and the disturbing contrast and disjunct between the visual moving image and the audio track has ensured that this film has imprinted itself on my mind. That is the reason why I began my post with that film.