Courtesy Square Eyes Film

Winner of the Golden Eye award for Best Documentary at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, Indian writer-director Payal Kapadia’s feature debut ambitiously merges fiction and nonfiction techniques to elusive effect. Kapadia (who cowrote the film with Himanshu Prajapati) frames the film with a fabricated correspondence from “L” to her estranged lover; his parents made him quit the film school they’d both been attending and forbid him to continue dating L, who’s from a lower caste. An interstitial at the beginning claims that the letters and footage were found in a locker at the film school, a somewhat needless device that feels gimmicky. In the letters, L details the political strife at their university and across the country as activists demand equality among India’s various castes; the malcontent results in turbid protests and violence against certain minority groups. The accompanying footage—of student life, of the protests, of that violence—is made to look artsy rather than realistic. It’s rather distracting and almost makes the occurrences seem fictitious. In this overmodulated way, the film also purports to be an homage to cinema itself; some shots seem pulled directly from Chantal Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle, while in voiceover, L considers Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial sympathy for the Italian police rather than protesters, considering them to be more proletariat than the bourgeois students. Not surprisingly, the film evokes parallel cinema as well, though the hodgepodge of influences adds to the overwrought muddlement. In Hindi, Bengali, French, and English with subtitles. 97 min.

Gene Siskel Film Center