Director/Cinematographer/Editor: Aneek Chaudhuri
Documentary Film Review by Andrew Moore
Aneek Chaudhuri’s Comic Fingers is a documentary (of sorts) about Indian satirical cartoonist KV Guatam. The film muses over his life and career (with interviews and clips of his motivational speeches) set against the wider roles of cartoonists in the world today, their freedom of expression (without persecution) in the light of incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the rights/perception of women in India (and their safety). Additionally this is juxtaposed against grainy newsreel footage from the past and colour saturated images of more recent events, frequent colour and tonal shifts (alluding to the Indian national flag), montages and references to European auteur cinema in posters (Fellini, Tarkovsky and Eisenstein for example). To that effect it’s as much an experimental film as a documentary that’s further augmented by its use of background sound and editing techniques.
That the film manages to make comment on the often dangerous role of satirical cartoonists in the world today, and the honour and courage the role entails (whilst also placing cartoonists in wider socio-political and historical contexts is of course to be commended), as are the serious issues of the curtailment of freedom of expression (illustrated in the reoccurring candle montages throughout the film). What I took umbrage with was that the experimental techniques often only served to take the viewer’s attention away from what was serious documentary commentary. I felt that it was only around the half way point that the film managed to acquire some real zest, substance and engender interest (which sadly dissipated again later on). Whilst I accept the film isn’t solely for them, a Western audience probably wouldn’t be so aware of the work of many Indian cartoonists and so surely employing experimental techniques in a documentary relating to them doesn’t work as an accessible introduction. This was a problem, I found myself wanting to discover more, starting to glean some information but then suddenly all the tonal shifts, colour saturation, focus changes and an often irrelevant background soundtrack constantly distracted. To give an example, having a French style ‘joie de vivre’ soundtrack when KV Guatam is making some serious points in discussion takes away any sense of gravity to the dialogue rendering it inconsequential. Whilst I appreciate that a wry observational humour is a central element of the satirical cartoonist’s comment I don’t think that has translated itself to this documentary in this respect. And given the already mentioned poignant candle voice over scenarios (which actually augmented the film) it formed an unhappy juxtaposition. I don’t see how a dart going through a pear in slow motion managed to give the film any further meaning!
Ultimately it comes down to one thing, the subject matter doesn’t sit happy with the style the film has been shot in and I felt it tried to wear too many hats at once. The actual production values of Aneek Chaudhuri’s cinematography and editing methods used were excellent and I certainly give plaudits for being willing to tell a story in an innovative and experimental manner, but it’s just that some kind of central cohesion is missing. I’m not of course saying that a documentary about something serious can’t be observed from a different angle or to deal creatively with the treatment of actuality (just look at Joshua Oppenheimer’s excellent 2012 film The Act of Killing) but just that it has to have the ability to engage its viewer in its chosen subject matter and thus make further comment – isn’t this the nexus of the documentary form, it’s where it gets its legs! With Comic Fingers I felt the message became lost, not enough questions were asked and decent observations went awry, which is a shame because in the world we currently live in these are important themes for film to engage with.
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