Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Yeh Freedom Life, A Life Fully Open To Love

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In our next article in our essay series, Abby Sun writes about the work of Priya Sen, focusing on the many short works that led into her first feature, Yeh Freedom Life.

Yeh Freedom Life, Priya Sen’s captivating first feature-length film, is a debut whose emotive urges and formal control are buttressed by dozens of short videos, site-specific installations, and ephemeral exchanges between Sen and her subjects/collaborators within contested sites. Her work appears to satisfy the observational urge of traditional ethnography while also questioning lexical modes of understanding, in unexpected spaces. 

After finishing her MFA at Temple University (Philadelphia, US), Sen returned to Delhi. She received funding from India’s public broadcaster, Prasar Bharati, to make a documentary on “alternative sexualities” for TV. The result, About Elsewhere (2007), captures with an insider’s intimacy the formation of queer identity and community a decade before the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the legal prohibition against same-sex conduct leftover from British colonial rule. The film’s fragmentary structure, perceived irreverence, and manipulation of text retain a vital energy today. Unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, Sen was blacklisted from receiving further public broadcast funds.

Sen’s subsequent video works showcase her nimble artistic practice. For instance, And as an extra added feature, you spin on the planets’ carousel for free (2013) is a two-channel video installation documenting the spectacle of the circus. But the projection is surrounded by multiple wireless signals of field recordings from the circus and nearby spaces, interviews, and other related references and miscellanea, disturbing a traditional speaker setup. In contrast, I Am Not Out To Create Atmospheres (2010) is a contemplatively paced bit of salvage ethnography that records the nighttime demolition of Delhi’s slums in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. 

What happened to the displaced is one of the focuses of Noon Day Dispensary (2014), a 30 minute single shot film in the government-run stopgap of a medical dispensary in Savda-Ghevra, a resettlement colony on the periphery of Delhi without basic services like hospitals. Part of a series of spontaneously filmed videos, the film’s cold open starts with a patient loudly accusing the lone doctor of discrimination and negligence. The duration marks Sen’s refusal to stop looking through filming the thorny situation and also reveals the myth of the invisible camera in cinéma vérité. Instead, the camera provocatively acts as an uneasy witness for all, with both the accuser and the accused claiming it for their truth. 

By following two subjects over a year of their lives, Yeh Freedom Life is more narrative than Sen’s previous work, though it hinges on many similar themes. But the film starts without either Sachi or Parveen, and while its interstitial scenes feature heterosexual marriage ceremonies and festivals as well as snippets of the music and TV that surround its characters, these moments are often destabilizing and lack much of the authoritarian contextualization that typifies urban ethnographies. Similarly, in post-screening Q&As, Sen is quick to say that she doesn’t know the answer to a question, especially if it is a question about something her film is doing or supposed to do, and then often poses the same question back to the audience. This resistance to dominant forms and systems has thankfully generated incredible warmth and delight in Yeh Freedom Life despite—and or maybe because of—the uncertainty of a life fully open to love.

Abby Sun is a freelance programmer and critic.

Priya Sen’s Yeh Freedom Life screens on Saturday 7th September at Regent Street Cinema.