Shot on the Ganges River at Varanasi (formerly Benares) in northern India, a center of Hinduism, Sanskrit learning and Buddhist pilgrimage, the (correctly) black-and-white Boatman, in Hindi and English, follows boatman Gopal Maji and takes in a plethora of sights both tranquil and troubling. Directed and photographed by Eritrean-born Gianfranco Rosi, this superlative film from Italy took the prize for best documentary at Hawaii. Of current and enduring interest, along the way Hindi-Muslim tension is addressed.
But the film’s two intertwined main themes lie elsewhere. One has to do with the contradictory nature of the Ganges: a polluted sacred river. The source of much of the pollution accounts for the other theme: the accumulation of the cremated and uncremated remains of the dead, which are routinely and ritualistically consigned to the river. All this occasions another consideration: who are permitted to employ the river for this purpose; who are even able to afford to do this. Sometimes the financially destitute cannot mark a burial with the traditional funeral pyre.
Rosi, offscreen, asks questions of Maji and others, and all the responses become part of the fabric of the river that we are watching. Rosi establishes the river’s potent symbolism from the start—on land, by the river. He invests the camera with continuous motion through crowds of people, thereby conjuring the sense of a flowing river even before we are in Maji’s rowboat on the river. In this way, the river is associated with people’s bustling lives. Once we leave land for the river, another association accumulates: the river as embodiment of the continuity of life and death. Indeed, few films more openly address death as a part of life.
Rosi’s film is full of fine images—for instance, the parallel rows of huge shadow-casting drumlike thingamajigs between which Maji rows and halts his boat. It turns out that these are anchors, and the image provides a powerful presentiment of death.
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