Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact makes much impression on him, and another none.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Precisely 5:25 Wednesday evening I spied a cluster of flyers on the kiosk near the north corner of Stanford’s Tresidder Student Union announcing a special appearance by a filmmaker; the event was to start at 5:30 p.m. a stones throw away, at the Humanities Center. I had never heard of the director, A-something — as I write this I am still not completely sorted on her name or the name of her film. Her husband, who helped with casting, is Mahmoud (I’ll check the spelling later: oops, Mahmood, Mahmood Farooqui, also sometimes known as M.A. Farooqui, duly noted). His chum from University, Rajit, flew in from Chicago, where he teaches South Asian History at DePaul. Mahmood is a story-teller, a performing artist. Rajit said that Anish Kapoor attended the same university, as he and M. Obviously, I was drawn to the event and stayed long enough to gather this ancillary evidence. A woman taking pictures — another A-something — I have her card — a professional photographer who graduated from SF State — said I could contact about using one of her shots of the filmmaker to illustrate this post. I have to admit that I found A—— attractive — exotic maybe. And indeed any worldly and openminded person would agree that we live in interesting times and the roles of women our changing dramatically all over the world. The lecture/discussion/dinner/screening was sponsored by departments at Stanford studying gender and feminism. I left with a bumber sticker announcing myself as a feminist, along with the business card and flyers, and my mental notes.
The moderator and host, a Ms. Quill who I believe said she is an administrator and not faculty per se, had all 17 of us in the room introduce ourselves briefly. I explained that I was there serendipitously, live nearby, was on a walk, and was curious. Ms. Quill offered that she liked serendipity — I took that as a welcoming. The vast majority of the group were Stanford affiliates, were familiar with A——‘s film, and were involved in or studying related matters: a grad student writing a dissertation on trance music, her boyfriend a composer and re-mix dj (from Eclipse Nirvana records, distributed in Asia by Sony?) who had worked with the famous composer from “Slumdog Millionaire” soundtrack, an engineering student who’s roommate knew A—–‘s work but he secretly or not-so-secretly harbors a desire to make a film, a Theatre and Performing Arts major or fellow. During the question and answer period, beyond the prompts initiated by Ms. Quill, one got a more nuanced sense of the individuals there, or the group dynamic. (Ms. Quill, soon to be known as Dr. Quill, Phd (abd — which I think means “all but the dissertation”, Jazmin Quill, as I note below, in my “edit to add” is indeed a lecturer but is also, a Resident Fellow, she lives with a group of Students, although she also noted, not to jump around too much in time, and make a gallimaufry of order, once lived near Alma in Palo Alto per se).
I asked the filmmaker if she was aware that Palo Alto, the 60,000 population city that borders and partly surrounds Stanford, had had a couple years ago, maybe in 2010 or 2011, a “suicide cluster”, a group of maybe eight or ten young people, most of them from one specific of the two local public high schools, had killed themselves, many of whom by the same means, by putting themselves in front of the train, many of those at the same intersection, near Alma Street and East Meadow — was she aware of that, as a filmmaker who made a work of narrative film fiction but based on a true story, she had explained, about a situation in India wherein a number of farmers, maybe in 2004 or so, had committed suicide. I was wondering what Anusha and Mahmoud were working on next, what films they might make next, and it occurred, and I shared with the group, perhaps only hinted at, that maybe someone like her would have the qualifications to try to tell our story, here in Palo Alto, of the sadness and loss and confusion about the so-called suicide cluster. She seemed to have the humanity and skill set, having completed a somewhat — at least to my thinking — related film — dealing with suicide — yet she also might have a detachment and distance, being based faraway, having wandered into Stanford at least and probably Palo Alto somewhat unaware of the problem. I wasn’t offering her a commission or a job – it’s not my place, I cannot or would no dare, and have no budget — but I was thinking out loud and sort of suggesting, like a prayer.
I don’t believe that we need a film about what happened here, about a suicide cluster, and generally would worry or fear that Hollywood would grab at this and muck up the emotional waters even worse. I would doubt that the families directly affected would want to talk about this publicly or cooperate. Yet I felt so strongly the power and warmth of this filmmaker, maybe she could make sense of this, make art of this, in a poetic and healing or illuminating way (as distinct from what would be profitable, useful to the system, opportunistic).
Anusha seemed to be seize on — maybe that’s too strong a word — another part of my question, my explaining, when I let my mind and my ideas show their hand, to this small crowd — another related point: in contextualizing what happened here – I think she was prompting me — I mentioned that American service people were reportedly 20 times more likely to suicide after returning from the recent wars than to die in combat, that perhaps 100,000 suicides were occurring among veterans compared to 7,000 who died in either Afghanistan or Iraq. When I had a minute of her time at the buffet banquet after the talk that was the part of my comment that she recalled and picked up the thread with.*
But I was thinking — beyond, I have got to see this film — that at the very least it would be interesting for her, having made a film about Indian farmers’ suicide, to write about the Palo Alto suicide cluster. (If she was not seized by the notion of trying to make a film about it, a signficantly more ambitious and rarified response). Maybe short of that, but beyond this, when I watch her film I can re-read the local news reports of our recent local tragedy and see if I can explain what insight comparing the two experiences might offer.
Somewhere in the course of the evening I also invoked the memory of a film that I thought relevant, about a brilliant former Stanford student who died sadly and too young but was memorialized — literally, in a memoir — by Professor Felstiner and then a local filmmaker read that account and made a beautiful and poetic film based on her life, or his grasp of it, called “This Dust of Words”. I also mentioned to someone that Gus Van Sandt had made a film loosely based on the Columbine shootings called “Elephant” or “Elephant in the Room”. Earlier in the day, a librarian at Paly High had mentioned to me a bit of local lore that had also reminded me of “This Dust of Words” and it’s maker Bill Rose, something about a Beat poet who had attended Paly and had died quite young — perhaps of suicide — but was also, in turns out, however these things actually work, the step-father of a famous rock musician, who took in his stage name a part of his name.
I was actually wandering by the Humanities Center because I wanted to check on the building that is being constructed as a tribute to the painter Nathan Oliveira, the Windhover Center for Reflection, which is named for the recently deceased painter’s major work, a series of very large paintings partly inspired by the Windhover poem — they are painting of birds, or wings, abstracted. I had also seen in the Times the other day a page one story, bylined “Stanford” about the decline in the study of the humanities at our major universities; at Stanford there has been a huge increase in engineering and computer science majors, and a decline in humanities. Many of the 20 or so humanities departments or their classes are significantly under-subscribed.
I broke bread with this group, so to speak; what I actually ate were two or three creamy dishes, one with meat, and some rice. I forgot to try the nan. I ate sparingly, I was too busy gabbing; even Mahmood accused me of a type of culinary “tokenism”. (And indeed, later on, I did run into a friend downtown and grab a bite — literally, it was pizza, I used my hands). If I didn’t partake of the nutritional bounty I felt I was gulping down ideas and inspiration from this group and their stories, and warmth. The thought occurred to me: beyond the surprise happy ending or intermission to my fitness routine — my habitual one-hour walking stretching out to three-and-a-half of walking, sitting, talking, eating, then more walking — what is the possible longterm significance of stumbling onto this set of ideas, and energies? I had a similar thought a year ago when I caught a screening of “Jai Bhim Comrade” by Anand — about the civil rights and music of the daleet, those we used to call “Untouchables.” I caught that film, chatted up the director, went to a follow up event, a luncheon on campus, and gathered contact info from other people who wanted to network or work together to spread word about that film, those issues, that director and all. Beyond the briefest mention in my blog, I barely followed up, on that feeling, that inspiration. Actually, in the case of Anand, I wanted to put him in touch with Les Blank, the Berkeley based filmmaker renowned for his interest in varieties of music; I didn’t realize at the time that Blank was dying of cancer. my account of Anand’s work to him was a type of saying goodbye.
I made some comment that Anusha’s presentation would have certainly been of interest to more than 17 people at Stanford and the Stanford-community, and noted that by 5:30 today there will be about 50,000 people gathered here to watch football, here on The Farm.
I hope I follow up enough with all this to at least see this film.
I am inspired. It’s hard to predict where any of this leads. But I am grateful for at least the fleeting hope. I will update with at least some links.
edit to add, a few minutes later, after finally ordering, and sipping from, my Peet’s medium cappuccino for here with whole milk. Ok, I am not much of a dastango, story teller, like Mahmood Farooqui, or even a scholar, like he — and he is a Rhodes Scholar, he would have been much to modest to mention, even after fifty such standing around a buffet table with paper plates of samosa, nan, aloo ghobi, (creamed spinach), butter chicken (I ate, not sure how the room broke down between vegitarians and flesh-eaters — I presume I was in the minority here, if not somewhat subaltern in multiple ways) — or like Jazmine Quill, PhD, MS, one of Stanford’s top teachers since 2002, although originally a Berkeley b.a, and, according to her bio, albeit gratuitously tangential to this story, her mother is from Oregon; Anusha Rizvi is a journalist turned filmmaker, while her husband, beyond translating and writing on dashtangi, is a performer credited with bringing back this tradition after nearly a 100-year period when it was a lost art; the film is “Peepli Live” shot on location in Delhi or remote parts thereabouts, using mostly untrained actors, and the film had the backing of a noted Indian film star named Aamir Khan; Mahmood mentioned that it had screened at Sundance and that he attended the famous conference and festival. I saw an interesting interview with Mahmood at Business Standard, here. Although I don’t want to let his story eclipse hers — other than I stood back, with him, at the reception, while others were confronting her more directly. I started to mention, but I’m glad I refrained from, my monologues regarding Jim Harbaugh, and my Allen Ginsburg tribute — not sure how monologist in the Western quasi-commercial theatre differs from dastangi — somewhere else recently I was reading about or listening to someone speak about a master storyteller, mining the zeitgeist for material — as distinct from poring over texts or a cachet of documents from 1857.
*”Rajit” search-injuns indicate, could be Rajit Mazumder, of DePaul. Perhaps fatefully, he chimed in after my 100,000 veteran suicide assertion to claim it was “21 per day”, and when I spoke to him about that my quick math suggested that 7,000 per year could be the same figures, that we agreed. He said he was flying back directly, to the Windy City (where I said I was born).
Aamir Khan the movie star and Anusha Rizvi the first-time director and font of a healing life force and spirit that drew me in, fifty yards and three hours off my predetermined course, shared at least one more thing in common: midnight March 13-14 is both of their birthdays, as Pisces, although he is about 13 years ahead of her, in this lifetime. (I get along well with must Pisces, n.b.)
I was also wondering, aloud, interacting, about what it would be like for an American company to try to re-make “Peepli Live” here, as distinct from what Anusha Rizvi and or Mahmood Farooqui would do if engaged here. He said they were actually in residence at U.C. Berkeley and added on trips to Stanford and somewhere in L.A.
This is pretty tangential but Rajit and I also discussed the fact that the Dallas Cowboys new billion dollar football stadium includes a public art collection including a rather prominent Anish Kapoor work. We also discussed football team nicknames like Indians, Cardinal, Big Green, Fighting Illini and Blue Demons. I offered and received perhaps polite laughter for a comment I attributed to Zizek when he spoke here, something about Native Americans liking the fact that “white people are so stupid that they call us Indians.” I name-checked perhaps unnecessarily Astra Taylor, whose “Examined Life” features several notable philosophers.
I also used this line, which is true, twice: “I was once the publicist for another film about farmers in India, a documentary, actually about Ladakh (a Himmalyan kingdom, which was annexed to India in recent times). ‘Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh’ made by Helena Norberg-Hodge, of the Ladakh Project and the International Society for Ecology and Culture.” That was 1992, I was actually more like an intern, and my work was more about trying to research a potential socially-conscious corporate sponsor for a pending national broadcast of the film; I also repped ISEC and screened the film, on vhs, at one or two student conferences, working with Steve Gorelick. When I caught up to Anusha Rizvi again I name-checked Vandanna Shiva, a subject or source to Helena’s film, and she identified her by a more current project or NGO.
There was also a significant amount of discussion about the music for the film, an anecdote about tracking down the performer and composer who contributed much of the soundtrack — they heard him in Delhi at an event and then had a friend try to find him in Paris months or a year later — some of the music was composed spontaneously on the set, the remote set, and included sounds make by turning eating utensils into instruments — although they rehearsed it a bit for the actual usable part of the shooting. I asked M something, as a follow up, about the distinction between marketing the film per se and the music or soundtrack per se. The film is described as a satire or comedy.
“Hope this helps some” I recall a Shoshone elder saying to me by phone, circa 1992.
edit to add, again, hours later, after sundown and a few minutes before the big game, nearby:
The couple I mis-identify above might actually be Aks (individual better known in music circles by his label name, Eclipse Nirvana) and Lakshmi Chandrashekar, a Master’s candidate in Religious Studies or Islamic Studies, here on the Farm, but who also has a lovely voice, is evidence by this video collaboration, one of 18 such in Eclipse Nirvana account — and not completely by the way, although Aks said he was unfamiliar with DJ Cheb I Sabbah, an Algerian Berber who has recorded in Bay Area for Six Degrees Records and may have shared an attorney with me, or Don Cherry, I mentioned — and he did say that meanwhile he knows Jai Uttal and perhaps has or will re-mix for him — the photographer Ashima Yadava actually has a whole portfolio of photos of musicians and bands, including DJ Cheb I Sabbah — got it?):
And I hope this is not too far from the actual music of “Peepli Live” to confuse or confound or insult anyone — namaste