17th Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival 2021

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The 17th edition of the Festival has now finished. Thank you to everyone who joined us both in Berwick and online. We are so pleased and humbled by the support and enthusiasm for the programme and it has been wonderful to be able to connect with audiences this year.

Although the Festival is over there is plenty left to do. You can watch back all past online events, listen to filmmakers discuss their work on our podcasts series and read insightful essays that explore the programme in more depth.

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An intro to Amma Ariyan / Report to Mother

by Omar Ahmed

Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother) was filmmaker John Abraham’s final work before his untimely death in 1987. It is a film that details the history of revolutionary politics in Kerala through the prism of the road movie, adopting an iconoclastic structure in which flashbacks, ellipses and inserts punctuate the narrative with personal and historical reports on social resistance and political disillusionment including the militant labour riots of Cochin in 1953.

Indian Parallel Cinema was in many ways the first true de-colonial filmmaking practice to emerge out of India after independence and a political work like Amma Ariyan was very much part of a broader collective revisionism taking place at the time. John captures a time of crisis and upheaval where resistance seems to be everywhere and comes most readily from a Keralan youth galvanised by the impact of the Naxalite Movement in the late 1960s, a peasant insurgency that had widespread political implications for the establishment and Leftist political thought in India.

Purushan, played by actor Joy Matthew, functions as a guide on what becomes a deeply intimate journey through the Keralan landscape. On his journey, Purushan comes across people and individuals engaged in an open political dialogue about the past. In one instance a body of medical students who have organised themselves are depicted protesting the government’s attempts to privatize health care. This work was John’s analysis of Communism and came from his own committed Marxist stance and which is evident in the acts of political mobilization that he visualises throughout the film. John’s father was involved in an underground political movement and he himself was politically active during his time at college and beyond.

It is also worth stating that John’s perpetual criticism of orthodox structures in Indian society including the caste system, religion and the arts was something he adopted and embraced from the cinema of Ritwik Ghatak, one of his teachers at film school and perhaps the single greatest influence on his work. Many Parallel Cinema filmmakers are often compared to the great Bengali master Ritwik Ghatak but whereas Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani were enamoured by Ghatak’s fractured melodramatic Epic style, it was John’s films that often came closest in terms of distilling a political revolt, anger and critique of a rotting, corrupt system that remained unchanged even after independence.

Another way of understanding this film is to think about the ways in which trauma is continually in play. John presents trauma as neither singular or plural but a multilateral phenomenon. John frames the Marxist political histories of Kerala in a space in which a historical trauma is on-going and which has impacted the lives of working-class people in debilitating and murderous forms. There is also a looking back at trauma from the fallout of revolution and the ensuing violent repression by the state against political protest. What emerges from the reports that structure the narrative is an open wound, a rupture that cannot be repaired and which remains in contest.

Clearly the most romantic theme and the one that resonates emotively is the Mother concept, deeply rooted in Indian culture and part of a broader mythology. In the film there is a constant deference to the Mother. Towards the opening of the film, Purushan gives his mother a letter to read, magnifying an inseparable bond between mother and son that is intrinsic to Indian and Keralan culture. John opens and closes with the image/symbolism of the Mother and in many ways the Mother is like the fulcrum of society who keeps everything in check. In the few interviews that John gave he also argued that for revolution to take place with the truest of intentions it had to come from the Mother, an idea that is crystalised in the closing moments. The Mother as a witness to the trauma of a state repression and the failure of political revolution is a major theme, he borrows from the rich dissenting literature that was pouring out of the many regions of India through the 1960s and 1970s expressly the novel Hajar Churashir Ki Maa (Mother of 1084) written by the famous Bengali social activist and writer Mahasweta Devi.

Much of John’s work is not that well known outside of India and in fact many of his films have never been publicly screened in the West including the UK so what you are about to see today is something very special and sort of a first really. This screening of Amma Ariyan is the UK Premiere of the new restoration from the NFAI. With the extreme wide-angle shots, a liberated camera continually on the move and a quasi-documentary aesthetic, John’s style recalls the Latin American Third Cinema of the 1960s (especially Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba) manifesting a creative hybridity in which indigenous film practices and modernist cultural sensibilities intersect with broader international influences. But in many ways, it is not really the style or politics that makes this film exceptional but the means by which John made the film. Odessa, the film collective founded by John, took around seven films, a 16mm projector and went from village to village, using the contributions to finance the film. In this context, Amma Ariyan was made completely outside of dominant structures nor was it released commercially – a film by the people and for the people!

After John’s death, Odessa published film journals as an attempt to keep the collective going. The following is an excerpt from an article written in 1988 that remembered John in vivid and memorable terms:

‘John was the real man of the streets. He wandered on the lanes and the virtuous paths of the villages, sheltering his lean body in the muddy long clothes; he entertained and enjoyed himself, by clapping and singing for people. He asked people to shed the middle-class culture that has begun infiltrating their minds, and to find their real roots. His words would have become sharp at times; his eyes would have shined…He made mockery of their pretentious morality. Often, he screamed at his own audience. That was John: the prophet with a long beard.’ (1988)

Omar Ahmed, Sept 2021

Berwick Film Festival

(Excerpt from the article “John Abraham” by C Vasudevanunni, Guruvayurappan College, Kozhikode; Odessa Journal Issue 2; May 30, 1988)