Forest of Bliss (1986) is a film by Robert Gardner, depicting the rituals of death and subtleties of the everyday experiences of life and death in the Holy city of Benares in India. Because the film lacks narration and voice-over commentary, it received serious criticism from the academics, and more precisely Anthropologists regarding the “ethnographicness” of the film.
However, as Banks puts it, “Ethnographicness” is not a thing out there which is captured by the camera, but a thing we construct for ourselves in our relation to film. After watching the film, I think the most apt way to describe my experience of watching Forest of Bliss, is what Ostor puts as:
“It is difficult to be inter-subjective about death, yet the film is as much about ourselves as it is about Benares.” And so is every ethnographic work, isn’t it? When James Clifford called ethnography a “fiction”, he meant something similar. Every ethnography, whether written or visual, is inventive and interpretive in one way or the other. It plays with what is there in subtle ways, to produce what we call “ethnography” or “anthropological truth” or “socially scientific”. Banks has discussed the criteria and standards used for judging the “ethnographicness” of a film in particular, and of ethnography in general. To me, it seems, we cannot establish any scale or criteria “universally agreed upon” to measure the ethnographicness of an anthropological work, whether it be a film or a written document. Still, we decide, judge and filter all the time as to what is a good ethnographic work and what is not. Is it only the subjective judgement of the readers or viewers or is there anything objectively good or bad about an ethnographic work? While these questions are generally important in our discipline, I would like to restrain myself to the film Forest of Bliss.
Moore and Parry have clear problems with the ability of the film to convey Anthropological knowledge. They point out the confusion between seeing and knowing regarding the film. In my opinion, while an Anthropologial film is a certain mode, or genre of the “production of knowledge”, we cannot delineate knowledge in terms of science and we cannot determine the amount of knowledge to be disseminated by a film. As Ostor rightly points out, one should see what is there in the film instead of pointing out what is NOT there, and whether what is there is able to make a story, a point, or an argument for that matter. This should indeed be the criteria because no ethnography or film can include everything in it, for obvious constraints of time and space. So, my point is, while added knowledge of the subject would certainly add to the understanding of the film, the film should be judged independent of that. And Forest of Bliss, very nicely depicts the intimacies of the life/death in Benares. Knowing the context and background would certainly help understand certain things better, for example, the significance of yellow colour as the colour of life might not be intelligible to a person who has no knowledge about Hindu rituals and symbolism of life and death. Still, the film does have the potential to make an overarching perception of the cyclical nature of life and death, repetition of rituals, juxtaposition of scared and profane and transcendence through its powerful visuals, imagery and most important of all, sequence of occurrences.
Moore calls forest of Bliss “an aesthetic master-piece”, “visually absorbing”, and relying only on “one mode of perception”. I disagree with all three of these points. First of all, I do not find this film an aesthetic master piece, the sounds of crows crowing and dogs barking, which penetrate the whole duration of the film, and accompany the images most of the time, is very disturbing, and not at all aesthetic. Yet, this is what creates the atmosphere of Banares, by recreating the particular, harsh acoustic experience. These sounds symbolize the overarching grip of death over the city, death which prevails over the city all the time, yet because of its permanence in that setting, it has become a part of the every day occurrences just like the sounds of crowing and barking. For me, this experience was particularly harsh, It took me some time to get over the effects of these sounds after watching the film.
Secondly, this film is not at all visually absorbing. In fact, while watching it, I had to pause it at several instances and divert my attention (for example to facebook), because the images were simply too harsh to be absorbed easily. The dogs eating the flesh, the corpses being dragged to the river, the dead bodies floating in water, and many other images were simply too disturbing. I wonder how can it be called visually absorbing?
Third, it does not use one mode of perception. Radhika Chopra mentions that it makes use of all the senses, and it does so. I have already pointed out the powerful use of sounds. And In my view, the use of mode of hearing is at least as important as the mode of visuals in this film. Visuals without the sounds of crows, dogs, temple bells, wood being cut, oars of boats, and wailing of the people would have been a completely different experience. (Eka has posted a clip from Baraka, and there we can see what difference does the sound track creates).
So, finally, I would like to say that critics like Moore and Parry, who talk about details and “knowledge” in the flim, simply miss the trees in the forest, as rightfully put by Ostor in his response to the reviews. The film does have a very strong imagery, sounds, and sequences of images and sounds, which creates the perception (which is more than knowledge in this case) in the mind of the viewer, a very clear perception of the opposition of life and death, and that all life comes from the holy water of Genges and goes back to it. In the whole film, we see, everyone working towards two things: bringing the water of Ganges to life through various rituals, and then bringing “life” back to the waters through parallel rituals. Thus, the whole city is driven to keep the cycle of life and death going through the medium of holy waters.