ONCE UPON A TIME  by Anuradha Chandra

5 mins | 2009

Once Upon a Time is a film that retells a story in the mode of the folk or fairy tale. The film is an experiment in expressive storytelling.

Anuradha Chandra has been making films since 1993. Her films have screened occasionally at a hand-full of festivals in India and abroad. She has been a recipient of the Charles Wallace Award and was artist-in-residence at IFFR in 2008 as part of the ‘Starting from Scratch’ program.  Chandra also teaches film and photography at the undergraduate and post-graduate level.

Interview of Anuradha Chandra with Charu Maithani

Charu Maithani [CM] // Can you share your process of making the film Once Upon a Time? How much time did it take you to conceptualise, film and edit and what techniques were you concentrating on?

Anuradha Chandra [AC] // A rather large question! To tell you briefly, I actively started work on this film in 2000 and by 2003 I had finished the film in its first avatar, which was about fourteen-minutes long. The current version, re-edited, perhaps more in keeping with the internet as a viewing platform, can be seen as being quite different, though in its kernel, is the same.

I was essentially working to manifest an image that I found appearing in my head repeatedly.  The film is an attempt to give form to the image, its experience and associated ideas. As a broad process, I am always seeking the serendipitous accident in my work.  And hence approach my filmmaking broadly with an attention on ‘listening’ to the material.

I am quite interested in the idea of ‘stories’ per se –  the archetypal idea of ‘story’ that it is so basic to human civilization, and continues to define us in so many ways.  This film, particularly in its original long form, somewhat playfully explored the relationship between story and myth.  One of the initial phases involved writing a ‘story’ gleaning from various folk stories across the world, and retellings of that story made up the film.


CM // This method – writing a story and then shooting for it – is this how you generally work? Or is that specific to this film?

AC // I tend to adopt a fairly organic process.  Occasionally there maybe a project which is based in a text-based story, sometimes it’s just an image or an idea which leads me to explore around it to further develop the film.


CM // As a filmmaker who works primarily with film, how do you view digital filmmaking? I don’t mean to draw a comparison but a just the difference in the medium.  What draws you to work in film, is it the materiality, or the technique which preserves the image in the film format?

AC // I think it’s both of those things. Film as a material has cumbersome issues, but I appreciate working with it, and believe it can be immensely rewarding.   I find the intangible nature of the digital image quite frustrating.  I feel it has changed the cintiuum between human lufe and technology, guess I’m pretty old school in that sense! But humans will change to rebuild a continuum…though the link with organic nature is increasingky ruptured. so, while the nature of endless transformability of digital filmmaking appears as an exciting frontier, I see films emerging that perhaps signpost the changing ethos of films and hence culture; and I for one tend to feel a little perturbed by it.


CM // Also, the fact that eventually the film is converted into digital for viewing and distribution purposes…

AC // I haven’t done that often. But, it appears that soon there will be little alternative but to do that.  Digital provides for possibilities of wider circulation via the internet etc, though the film then becomes, perhaps more than ever a text and hence information based, rather than an affective experience, especially in the traditional form of single-channel film in digital format.


CM // Does your work like 18 +2, exists only in the film format?

AC // I digitized 18+2 for a screening in New York, but otherwise I haven’t really shown it in the DVD format.  But at least for that film, I do believe much of the work lies in seeing it in the 16mm original form.


CM // The abstract images in this work, Once Upon a Time, and others like 18 (+2) Blinks of an Eye, stem from a different approach to the film narrative and engagement with the audience. The abstractness or a loose narrative allows an attentiveness and a closer analysis of the images and their relations. What are your thoughts on this?

AC // It is true that a level of ambiguity in the form of the film can encourage a greater engagement in the viewing, of course it can also have the opposite effect.  I feel the power of images which communicate in an almost inherent and direct manner can be quite special, though perhaps ultimately quite difficult to measure or quantify.  Personally, as a filmmaker I find myself interested in translating emotions, thoughts, feelings into ‘pure’ images, rather than have an actor who may communicate them through emoting and living out situations that embody the story and its ideas.


CM // But at the same time, the abstractness allows a personal experience for the audience because people interpret it differently…

AC // Yes, it’s true that it allows a more intimate engagement for the audience, perhaps also offers different interpretations.  I don’t mind that, though sometimes I have caught myself correcting a comment or reading provided by somebody else. At the end of the day it is about translation –  I attempt to translate my thoughts into the film. Once you think through an idea, you hold it in your body, grappling with its articulation.  But, I have no issue with different interpretations, in fact it makes it more interesting.


CM // But presenting the idea is connected to the materiality of film. In other words, it is connected to the media that you are using, it’s not separate from it. Would you be using the same images if you were working the digital format?

AC // I guess the film would be very different as every materiality has its own particular logic that effects the film. Materiality, or the lack of it, would create a different version, but maybe the lack of intimacy or hands-on connect when working with the digital format also presents issues. The shapes and forms can change very quickly in the digital, and the time you spend processing the material also differs. On one level, digital filmmaking is much more intimate because you can film spontaneously at the spur of a moment very easily. Of course, the other side of such filming is a situation of excess. So yes, I  do think the images one creates tend to be different if the same film done on celluloid had been done on digital instead.


CM // Do you feel more connected with the images while working in the digital format as compared to being concerned about the materiality while working in film. To put it in a different way, with the digital you are connected to what you want to say because you are not processing it like film, so physically you are not feeling anything.

AC // I believe that the time you spend with the film, including processing it, creates an intimacy and relationship to the material that is not available with digital.  I think it has to do with the idea of depth and surface, opposed to zeroes and ones.

While working with film, my relationship to the content and the way I work will be different because processing the film changes the making of the film. In my film Trace, I kept processing it to a point where my expression through the exploration of the image finally emerges.  Film is exciting, interesting and valuable because it has a materiality, an organic nature that is affected by any form of handling, a corporeal tangibility that is completely missing in the digital moving image. The film handled directly leaves marks and changes that become part of the image, hence the relationship with film and its materiality is obviously a more intense one.


CM // Can you elaborate on your use of sound in this film? The sound and music here generate emotions that one expects from words – they lead the viewer and provide emotions. What was your idea behind the sound in the film?

AC // Truthfully, my use of sound in the film wasn’t planned consciously or at least it wasn’t pre-designed, i.e in ‘pre-production’.  It emerges from a sense of what I want particular sections of the film to do or mean.  In that sense, the overall sound design emerged through a process, and not a template determined beforehand.  There is also a certain randomness in the manner in which I found the sounds and music that I ultimately used in the film, hence the serendipitous accident.   I haven’t changed the sound much since the first version of the film.


CM // What about your other films?

AC // I normally tend to work with building the sound design through recording different sounds at varied places, again instinctively, and then pulling them  together in the film.  I wanted to work the same way for the  film Pulse in 16mm, but I had a very short window to do it. I wasn’t getting anything close to what I wanted. I had decided to leave the film silent, but just at the last minute while I was fine-tuning the final edit, somebody was playing music in the same room; the sound and form of one piece seemed to fit almost perfectly. I ended up using it in the film.


CM // So you work very subconsciously with sound

AC // My overall approach has become that. I not only record sound in that way, but often much of the images, in the same way.  I find this approach quite rewarding, perhaps as a process of discovery.  I am also very interested in having precisely detailed images which you create in a studio, perhaps with actors, but that requires a certain kind of infrastructure and financial backing, and hence something that appears more rarely in my work.


August 2017