IN CONJUNCTION WITH
HARVARD UNIVERSITY’S FILM
DISTRIBUTED BY FIRST RUN
153 WAVERLY PLACE
NEW YORK, NY 10014
1994. VHS VIDEO. 55 MINUTES
Reviewed by RICHARD CHALFEN
Hello Photo contains results of Nina Davenport’s one year of travel through India with a 16mm camera. Several times we actually see her using her camera in mirror-image. The tone and perspective are framed by Davenport’s use of a Lord Krishna quote at the very beginning of her film: “Open your eyes and see my thousands of forms, diverse, divine, of many colors and shapes. Of course with the ordinary eye, you cannot see me.” The mood is one of walking around and seeing what there is to be seen. All that I have to say in the following review comes from this premise.
The film is, for the most part, an exercise in seeing the filmic results of physical interactions of people, places and things with a person (female) using a motion picture camera. We see the results of lookingwith-a-camera and, in places, being-looked-at-with-a-camera in both acknowledged and unacknowledged interactions, some welcome, others not so.
For example, in some scenes, people, usually children, are competing to get their faces in front of the camera; in others we see people standing back, taking more of a passive and tolerant pose and attitude. We are regularly reminded, in a reflexive stance, that we are always getting what a person-with-a-camera has seen— sounds of both operating film and still cameras are heard at regular intervals. And as part of a voiceover commentary, we learn about the paradox of wanting to be seen accompanied by the dislike of being looked at.
The film is largely about questions of mediated representation starting with references to Bombay’s prolific film industry—these scenes seem to bookend and punctuate the total film. Davenport offers viewers a rich array—but little understanding— of images, of a broad variety of locations, people, activities and topics, some for public access, others more in private contexts.
In addition to images of film production, Davenport includes scenes of oxen blocking traffic, a polo match, workers in a jute factory, a traveling circus, preparations for a wedding, erotic sculpture (we hear: “Please help yourself to take a photograph”), men and women in chains, elephants blessing people, beggars as well as a school for the blind including men and boys reading Braille texts (an ironic twist on the predominant ocularcentric perspective) among several others. These juxtapositions are indeed intriguing and appealing for certain kinds of questions, especially complex and cross-culturally variable relationships of humans, animals and machines.
Viewers will be reminded of Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov and other of his montage films, or more specific to India, Photo Wallas by David and Judith MacDougall (1992). Though the latter has a much more direct attention to itinerant still photographers, it retains in places a similar enigmatic quality.
The value of the film is that it makes viewers conscious of camera-people interactions, calling into question what one really has when one has pictorial representation of virtually any kind. This is a film about relationships that everyone knows exist but, for various reasons, do not want to attend to in any sustained manner. It also can be valued as a film about the politics of camerause—who has the right to look, to film, or to avoid the camera gaze. Several times we hear off-camera voices: “Tell me what are you doing?,” “Are you looking for anything?,” and, for the title, “Hello, hello.”
For college-level film studies and aesthetic objectives, the film might stand on its own—it is a particularly rich text for communication and media studies. But for social science instruction, the film must be accompanied by some form of ethnographic information on Indian society and culture—in short, more contextual information is needed. Specific learning contexts and specific interests of an instructor will determine the value of this work.