Initially, the antipathy between India and Pakistan captured in A Season Outside, Amar Kanwar’s intensely affecting 30-minute documentary-style film/political treatise/lament/love poem, seems wholly foreign, even ludicrous to us. After a while, however, a queasy feeling arises: You realize that our own red-state-blue-state separation is almost as noxious. These days the left and right hate each other with the same fervor that seethes through A Season Outside. Watching Kanwar’s 1997 film, you wonder if the two Americas aren’t only a decade or so from coming apart or coming to blows.
At the beginning of A Season Outside, Kanwar pictures a ritual that is at once gripping, pitiful, terrifying, and absurd. In a short sequence that seems to step outside of time, we see a spectacle of almost primitive proportions and heartbreaking intractability. It is sunset at the Wagah-Atari border in the disputed Kashmir territory between India and Pakistan. A metal gate separates two large crowds. On the Indian side, hundreds of Hindu nationalists gather; on the Pakistani side, an equal number of their Muslim counterparts. So much violence has passed between these two warring nation-states that passage between them is now strictly regulated. The groups mill about, glare across the border at one another, or simply stare. Friction and listlessness fill the air.
Before long, soldiers appear on both sides of the barrier. Outfitted in multicolored bandannas and elaborate feathered headgear, festooned with ribbons and metals, and armed with swords and looks that could kill, they have the demeanor of agitated, exotic birds. One by one, in a rigid, intimidating, angular fashion, each soldier swiftly high-steps the 20 feet or so to the metal gate. With each stride, the foot is kicked above the head, then jerked down at the knee. The boot comes crashing to the ground. The soldier then jerks his head, grimaces toward the other side, and lets out a huff. This insane display of alpha male behavior is riveting, menacing, and comical. Each soldier stops just short of a 12-inch-wide white line painted on the street that runs between the border. This ritual unfolds on both sides of the fence. At first you think the two countries have choreographed it, but the tension tells you this exhibition is more ominous. Each side is sending the same message to the other: Back off and keep out! It’s a performance from hell—history played out by grim-faced, resplendent demons. That both crowds applaud makes this ceremony all the more diabolical and tragic.
Although the film gets muddled, the sense of deadlock, spite, and violence is multiplied and enacted in many other scenes of A Season Outside. Just before the soldier sequence, we’re shown feet approaching each other from either side of the border. One after the other, these feet come toe-to-toe, almost pushing against one other, as if fighting. Then the camera pans up and you see Pakistani workers clad in red and Indian ones in blue, passing huge bundles to one another from atop their heads. As with the soldiers, these men are working in perfect harmony to stay worlds apart. It’s chilling and mesmerizing. Kanwar, in a haunting voice-over, utters charged phrases like “spectacles of bravado,” “Every move is always watched,” and “The boundaries of your division begin to smell like a putrefying corpse.” It’s Barbara Kruger meets Mahatma Gandhi.
Kanwar, 40, was born and lives in New Delhi. He has a poet’s way of rhyming images so that every interlude conspires with and reinforces the other. We’re shown men releasing rams at one another. Each animal has had its head painted either red or blue. Elsewhere, Kanwar lingers over a puppy being preyed upon by a gaggle of ravens. In one extended sequence, shot in a Tibetan refugee camp not far from the border, Kanwar shows us one boy mauling another, bored young men pacing the street, and blank-looking old ones squatting outside a shop called Dreamland. In each episode, a psychic window opens onto a world of emptiness, separation, loss, and pain. The film concludes with grainy scenes of Gandhi and Kanwar’s spoken contemplation of his own conflicts about nonviolence. “We must not,” he says, “return pain for pain, evil for evil,” adding that he also wants to “act strong.” For its part, India’s nationalist government is all but erasing Gandhi from the history books. No mention is made of his assassination in 1948 by a militant Hindu nationalist. When Gandhi is referred to, it is often to lay the blame for the subcontinent’s partition on him. A legacy of peace is being turned into one of wrath.
Although Kanwar was a standout in the last Documenta and is well known in the film world, this is his New York gallery debut. It is an auspicious one. With A Season Outside, he joins artists like Anri Sala, Zarina Bhimji, Kutlug Ataman, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Fiona Tan, Isaac Julien, Omer Fast, Francis Alÿs, and Johan Grimonprez, among others, who are making films and videos that manage to escape their own pedantic weight and exist in a lyrical realm where politics, poetry, passion, and form meld—a psycho-visual place where propaganda bleeds into consciousness and opinion become tangible.