A Million Rivers will be screened today at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale, in rememberance of Om Puri. We connect with director Sarah Singh and she takes us through the stirring black and white film.
Sarah Singh, Filmmaker
A filmmaker, artist, award-winning documentarian and photographer, Sarah Singh was born in the Royal family of Patiala. ‘I consider myself primarily an architect of images and writing poetry is an intrinsic part of this architectural filmmaking process because it helps me distill the conceptual framework.’ As a very young child, her family moved to the US and it was not until her early 20s when she was able to psychologically connect with India, but once it happened, she was totally ‘seduced by it’.
Her latest artistic expression, A Million Rivers saw a world premiere at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and has since been screened at various festivals to much acclaim and applause. In the midst of her travels from one country and festival to another, I managed to connect with her to learn more about her debut film and her artistic vision.
Can you tell me a little about your latest release, A Million Rivers?
A Million Rivers is a surrealist work of film art. This is the kind of work that keeps evolving. It is not a film that should be reduced to a 'trailer' version of a narrative, partly because the narrative aspect of its creation is not its core reason for existence. There are many narratives that create the skeletal framework; some of these narratives are buried quite deeply and manifest as symbolic themes. It is more about evoking psychological experiences and altering filmic structure as a reflection of a hyper-real state because in a sense that is more representative of life. For me, this relates to the early 20th century style of Cubism.
This film has been in the process since 2008. Focusing on two strong characters remained central to the project while many other changes occurred, which is a necessary aspect of the creative process. It was filmed in stages across three countries depending on the availability of actors and funding. The goal was always to treat this work as part of my artistic practice, so I was extremely honoured that the Victoria and Albert Museum in London became the platform for the world premiere.
What prompted you to make the film?
Having made The Sky Below—an award-winning documentary about the northwest region of the subcontinent, I wanted to continue to explore this region further but within a primarily artistic framework. Nuanced political symbolism abstracted the notion of reality just enough to be able to re-present some of the themes I understood about the place, the people, and the idea of timelessness. Timelessness is a critical notion in the role of aesthetics. It is a deep psychological state of being where our complex ideas exist.
You have worked with two very prolific actors and created a black and white film. How did you decide on the cast and the treatment of the film?
I needed enigmatic faces because there was almost no dialogue; actors who could evoke a psychological state with sometimes nearly invisible gestures. There is a sense of the theatrical, in that the body language was an important tool for communication; this is not a Woody Allen 'telling by talking' type of film. Instead, the viewer is being drawn into an atmosphere. This atmosphere can then provide for more interpretative space; and the challenge for me as an artist is to find the right way to open up the dialogue.
This style made the sound design that much more critical. I was fortunate to be introduced to Italian-Swiss sound artist Fa Ventilato who understood that the notion of silence in a film like this did not mean the absence of sound, but instead the presence of sound as a feeling of absence.
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