Artist Cinemas presents
Kush Badhwar, Blood Earth | Take Me Back: Week #6
Saturday, September 26—Friday, October 2, 2020
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Kush Badhwar, Blood Earth (still), 2013.

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for the online screening of Kush Badhwar’s Blood Earth (2013), on view from Saturday, September 26 through Friday, October 2, 2020.

Kucheipadar, a Khonda tribal village in Odisha, India, is a bauxite-rich block that since India’s economic liberalization has been the subject of violent conflict between the indigenous Adivasi inhabitants and a mining venture. The singing and writing of songs has come to articulate creative forms and political structures that steered a resistance movement from subalternity, through solidarity, into dissolution. Blood Earth interweaves the efforts to record song, farming, village life, and a political meeting to improvise a junction between voice, music, silence, sound, and noise. 

Blood Earth is the sixth and final installment of Take Me Back, a program of films, video works, and interviews convened by Jumana Manna, and comprising the third cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film. It is presented here alongside an interview with the filmmakers by Fawz Kabra.

Take Me Back will run for six weeks from August 19 through October 3, 2020, with each film running for one week and featuring an interview with the filmmaker(s) by Manna and other invited guests. The last day of the program, October 3, will wrap with a one-day repeat of all the films.

Kush Badhwar in conversation with Fawz Kabra

Fawz Kabra (FK):
The story that develops in Blood Earth is particular, but also echoes the hardships and injustices that happen globally, where industry forces itself onto a rural community, ravages the natural resources, and violently uproots the land’s inhabitants. Could you provide some background about the people from Kucheipadar and shed light on their struggle? 

Kush Badhwar (KB):
The village where Blood Earth is shot is mostly Kucheipadar, a predominantly adivasi (indigenous) village, located in Rayagada district of the state of Odisha in the east of India. In the early to mid 1990s large deposits of bauxite, which is processed to make aluminum, were discovered in the area. Utkal Alumina International Limited (UAIL), representing a consortium of Indian and international companies, was established in 1993 on the basis of a state-sponsored lease of the land. Communication with those who live in the area started with no clarity or consultation about the company’s intentions. Acquisition of land—often not agreed upon and involving violence and forced acceptance of compensation—took place. People of the area had already seen the harsh effects of similar projects in nearby areas, and they organized under Prakutika Sampada Suraksha Parishad (PSSP) (Natural Resource Protection Committee), undertaking protests, meetings, and blockades. 

Following one of these blockades, police entered the village, killed three people, assaulted and injured others. Some of the companies such as Norsk Hydro and Tata pulled out before or after this event, but as of today, Utkal Alumina continues extraction under the Aditya Birla group. At the time of making Blood Earth, the movement was facing severe repression, different levels of dissolution, and amongst people from the area more broadly, different levels of participation and negotiation with the company in terms of jobs, rehabilitation, relocation, and livelihood. Even today, those in positions of power still act with impunity, conducting arrests on the basis of old, fake, or flimsy cases; and, as a short-sighted cash-grab of limited resource, spill the blood of the most vulnerable at the slightest sign of dissent and massacre the land they inhabit.

Blood Earth is a literal translation of the Kui word for how the land of that area is referred to. The blood part of the word refers to the color of the land, which is a rich red. This red color is partially due to the presence of bauxite, which contributes to the fertility of the land cultivated by some and exploited by others. 

FK:
Could you talk about oral histories, how they are retold and remembered in song and indigenous instrument, such as with the singer/musician we see in the passageway? The young man in the film also continues this tradition, as we witness him in a scene writing a song down and trying to recall it. Can you tell me about the political agency of this form of storytelling, and what roles this has in the village among the community? How do folk songs become an active and dynamic way of politicizing the current situation?

KB:
The instrument is played by Salu Mahji, who sings about the area, its history and other aspects through long, memorized story-songs. We see small portions of the song that he sung over a few hours.

The songs we hear from the younger men are those that were written and performed for political purposes, often in the process of organization to resist the mining company. Song is an integral aspect of the lives of the people of that area, sung in the course of work, celebration, and other times. I think that’s partly why it was adopted in the course of political work and organization. As a familiar form, it can be easily adopted and well employed to inform and express from place to place. 

Going to Kucheipadar, we had certain ideas of what the songs were, through reading and seeing films about the area. But when there, we quickly realized that these were songs for particular times, places and purposes, which did not necessarily coincide with our being there. As a result, the recorded moments encompass lapses of memory and performances that are different compared to how they are experienced in the course of large political gatherings.

FK:
While the music in the film is used to spread information and empower the community, and is significant in itself as a fragment of oral history, can you also talk about how you have used these recordings?

KB:
The film is part of a project called Word Sound Power, a project initiated by reggae/dancehall vocalist Delhi Sultanate and electronic music producer Chris McGuinness to connect with musicians around India on issues of social justice. Generally speaking, forms such as reggae, dancehall, electronic music etc. are often performed in small, privileged pockets in urban centers such as clubs, hotels, festivals etc. Simultaneously, they are performed in proximity to and in relation with structures of capital—through the sponsorship of corporations, and with the coverage of at least a part of the mainstream media. Word Sound Power is an effort to break out of that and connect with a long tradition of protest music around the country. The music attempts to disturb the bubble around power and capital and obliviousness of outlooks held and decisions made in urban centers and their larger effects. The audio recordings of Blood Earthformed the basis of an album and, later, a remixed version of the album by Dr. Das from Asian Dub Foundation (both versions available here).

FK:
Can you talk about your approach to documentary work as it relates to forms and histories of filmmaking?

KB:
Broadly speaking, there is a long tradition of independent and activist forms of documentary filmmaking in India, which itself is a response to longer histories of state-controlled type of documentary, newsreel and, before India's independence, actuality film. I am interested in these histories, but I don't necessarily see them as stable. Precisely situating myself in these narratives is, at this stage, beyond me. I've tried, and continue to try, various approaches that sometimes relate to documentary and filmmaking and sometimes extend from it, including collaboration, research, writing, improvisation, and other things in the process of figuring it out as I go along.

In the process of Blood Earth, I read what I could get my hands on and saw films that had been made in the area such as Kashipur - Development at Gunpoint (directed by K.P. Sasi, 2002), Kashipur 2010 (directed by Debaranjan Sarangi) and Development Flows from the Barrel of a Gun (directed by Biju Toppo and Meghnath, 2003), made by filmmakers of the region or by others who embedded themselves in the area for long periods of time in the process of partaking in the politics of the area. Into the process it became clear that Blood Earth couldn't perform the same function as those films, at least not as well as had already been articulated. After this, it drifted into a process of intense discussion about both the film and the music between Taru (Delhi Sultanate), Chris, and I. And, now at least, I perceive the film as remnants of these discussions.

FK:
I am curious about how you and the filmmaking crew are implicated as we see you participate in the film and the story—talking to people, wading across the river, carrying equipment etc.?

KB:
The filmmaking crew was just me, although Taru and Chris were there to record/make music. There were active discussions and assistance exchanged between us and people of Kucheipadar, thanks to well-established networks of solidarity in the region. At various moments, activists, journalists, filmmakers, and others would spend long periods of time there, working alongside the villagers both in politics and in daily life. Even though the area is quite remote, it’s through these networks that writing, song, film, people (through processes of migration) and, generally, knowledge of what was going on there began to extend out, through the media, academic writing, distribution of films, and eventually to urban centers—and into the ambit of, say, Word Sound Power

The film attempts some honesty about our part in these networks and solidarity itself— it’s in formulation, and ideas about the company and our presence there are not one-dimensional, which some of the more uneasy interactions in the film attempt to deal with. 

FK:
Could you tell me more about the women’s role in the struggle? While their presence isn’t evident in the film, they hold roles within the movement that I am curious to learn more about. 

KB:
As three male guests to this space, we end up more privy to some spaces and less to others. The meeting you see in the film is one such space—it appears to be only men. At one point you see women outside the room. I included it to show the presence of women; to be at the meeting is not happenstance but an active effort and there may be forms of influence (and issues therein) between, in, and outside the room. Why women are not front and center of that moment in the meeting is a larger question I currently don't know the answer to, but their involvement and strength was evident to me when I was there. Women such as Ambai Majhi have been active leaders in the struggle and it can also be seen in the films I mentioned earlier. 

FK:
How have the youth been impacted? I wonder if they have had a role as well?

KB:
One story that Bhagwan Majhi told me was that his first interactions with the company happened in his youth. He was first seeing people surveying the area for what would become the mine and the company, at the same time, he was reading about indigenous rights to land in his school books and deriving inherent contradiction between what he read and what was happening around him. If I recall the story correctly, when he approached people from the company about this, he was told that their rights are up to a certain depth of land and everything under that is the company's. 

FK:
Can you talk about the light in the video and the time of day you were meeting with the individuals in the film? 

KB:
The film is shot mostly in the day because of the availability of light. Often, there was no electricity. Shooting Salu Majhi's song started during the day but given the duration of the song, crossed over into dusk. In the rushes, the song and the footage end on a black frame because the song continued beyond the time that any light was available. This did not make a difference to the visually impaired Salu and I remember thinking, while I was struggling with the availability of light, battery and card space, how much more robust his art form was than mine.

FK:
The tension and chaotic arguments in the scene of the “townhall” meeting unfolds as a reveal of internal betrayals, but also of the troubled self-organization within this struggle. I wonder what that tells us about these struggles that happen on a micro level, yet have universal implications to how people survive and move while their source of life/livelihood is expropriated and made finite by industry. How did you consider this scene in the larger space/context of the film? 

KB:
The meeting reflects some of these tensions and struggles. It represents an organization of actors between the needs and desires of the original occupants of the land and those of the company. Like any meeting, there is a range of perspectives on the matter. At the time it was convened, the company was already fairly established (unfairly established, however). As a result, there are various shades between acceptance and outright rejection, and various and simultaneous types of negotiation regarding the presence of the company and its involvement with, and impact on, people's livelihoods. While some of the content of the meeting is dealing with immediate and pressing issues, what's also apparent is the normality of the practice of meeting itself in the course of protracted conflict and negotiation.

There are different audio presences—voice, music, silence, sound, and noise—and part of the editing process involved considering how different audio material transfer or hit against each other and improvising junctions between them.

FK:
There are layers in the way the narrative meanders, not coming around full circle, but rather leading us to the indeterminacy of the struggle as it continues to scrape by. The piece ends with a new speaker: standing among the tall grass, he explains how his father was head of the villages… he repeats his name, “Dora,” and tells us that they are building the plant in “Doraguda” and signaling that his land, too, will be taken by the company. It is a hard truth that it is the end and there is no resolution. 

KB:
Even though the movement may be at some kind of standstill or dissolution, some people may work for the company, or the presence of the company may still influence lives in different ways. As expressed by Debaranjan Sarangi, mistreatment still takes place, resentment still exists, and there’s no reason the movement against the company could not revive at any time. The movement started in response to what was happening to people and their land, but also with knowledge of what others had suffered from similar projects nearby and over the course of time. One can’t negate this movement in terms of informing and inspiring others as long as this continues. 

It's interesting you mention the circle. I don't recall it being consciously intended at the time of editing, but there is some form of awkward circle created between the beginning moment in which Rama Majhi stops the bike on our way to the refinery—deciding it's not a good idea for us to go there with me and my camera—and the last, in which Jagabandhu Dora insists I record him.  

The interaction between recording apparatus and site is another tension present in the film. In filmmaking more generally, there are ideals, which in turn interact with a perceived ideal of sound and image. It kind of reminds me of Bhagwan Mahji's story about who owns what layer of earth. Underneath a thin layer of infrastructure, in which the recording apparatus or technology operate according to perceived ideals, there's a large realm in which things of our making don't have easy relationships with the way things are, let alone live up to perceived ideals. Cameras and sound recorders probably consist of aluminum. Ideal sounds and images are temporary, not forthcoming or honest. The moment we see the leaves rushing by the roadside, there's distortion of sound from the wind hitting the microphone and the camera is unable to register straight lines as straight. Of course, there are probably no straight lines in the roadside bushes, and I push the settings of the camera further in that direction, and try to hold on to it in the edit to see how long we can stay (implicated) in that moment.

-
Kush Badhwar is a filmmaker interested in collaborative practice, improvised and informal political engagement, and the ecology of sound and image across stretches of time. waydk.com

Fawz Kabra is a curator and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She is co-founder of the curatorial project Brief Histories and co-editor of the zine Tame the Wilderness? Fawz organized exhibitions at Bric Arts and Media House, Brooklyn; The Palestinian Museum, Birzeit; and the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, New York where she also edited the reader No to the Invasion: Breakdowns and Side Effects (CCS / Barjeel / RAM 2017). Her collaborative work includes the album A Live Declaration with artist Annabel Daou and musician Gabriel Cyr. She was co-director of School is a Factory? at Global Art Forum13, Dubai. Her writing appears in Art PapersCanvasIbraaz, and Ocula.

For more information, contact program [​at​] e-flux.com.

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