Pat Murphy’s documentary Tana Bana takes us to Varanasi, the ancient city on the Ganges where the uneasy peace between Hindu and Muslim hinges on the world-renowned silk-weaving. Because every single aspect of Varanasi life is fused with the production of handwoven silk, the existence of this ancient Hindu city depends upon Muslim weavers. Loosely structured as a day in the life of Varanasi, this unique, intimate documentary explores how the Muslim community of weavers respond to huge economic shifts in their lives and shows the difficulties they face in passing on traditional weaving skills to their children. The film also gives voice to the changing roles of women within this enclosed world.
Gemma Creagh caught up with Pat Murphy to find out more about her documentary.
First off, I have to say what a beautiful film you’ve made. I was drawn into this film. It was so visual and mesmerising. Tana Bana is a window into a world that we don’t usually see.
Thank you. Often people just have a view of India – or they go there and have a particular experience. They don’t really have access into how it works, how a world like that works. I loved making the documentary because my experience was like the viewer’s experience, getting that look through the window, as you said. What I wanted was for people looking at the film to experience what we did when we were there.
The local story of Varanasi is a universal theme. With the advent of technology, certain jobs and ways of life are becoming obsolete. We see in your film how this culture is slowly dying and how hard people are trying to survive in it. There’s a truth to it that really resonates in modern times.
One of the things that sometimes is problematic is when people often say: ‘Oh, it’s progress, you can’t intervene. It’s just relentless – that’s just the way is.’ If you are trying to talk against it, you come off sounding nostalgic, or that you are looking back into a previous time. But that’s not necessarily the case. I think that kind of view is a very depressed view of the world. It’s like we are not agents of anything. We are merely victims of the movement of time or the movement of capital and we cannot intervene and change it. I just don’t think that’s true. I think it is possible to intervene and change things. I guess one of the things I thought when I was in Varanasi was that if this weaving goes, this city will go. Some may think it’s quite medieval or something. But actually it’s not. It looks like it’s from the Middle Ages but at some levels it’s extremely modern in the way it is so integrated.
There’s a great a scene where the young school girls are asked about ‘love’ marriage and everyone unanimously agrees it will never work. This moment is fantastic in capturing those differences between our societies, and in the West, we think we know it all – but do we really?
One of the things some of the locals said to me when we were not filming was: ‘We know what you think of us; we have cable television! But we know that in the West sometimes women have to go on the internet to find husbands. Why is the way we do things more problematic than that?’ I was setback on my heels by that really. Basically, there’s an assumption that we, as Westerners, know about feminism and we know what oppression is.
One of the things I found really challenging when I was there – I found the ground pulled from under me – was the notions of: what is freedom? What is respect? How many kind of feminisms are there? Because all those young women would see themselves as a strong feminist women, although they want to be married and they want to live within their traditional society.
The school teachers are the same. When I was growing up; my idea was to get away. It was a notion of freedom of getting away from the situation I was in. Going to college in England or going to New York or going somewhere else. It’s very powerful when these women say how educated they are, and that they want to stay where they are and improve the situation for women within the world that they live in. It’s very strong when they say that.
That’s exactly what came across in Tana Bana. The school teachers were such strong leaders moving the community.
Also, the thing about the teachers, one of the things that I think is important and is a point that is made in a subtle way in the film, is that it’s a Muslim school set up for the children of weavers because their educational situation was so bad. It’s a modern school but half the teachers are Hindu. That doesn’t mean much to us here but that is a huge statement in India. In a culture where Hindu and Muslim are often pitted against each other, there are places like Varanasi where tolerance and understanding is happening. I found that very impressive.
You mentioned earlier about the integration of the people in Varanasi, which is evident here on a wide scale, but there’s also a strong sense of home and unity there.
At the very beginning, I thought what I was going to do was make a film documenting the weaving processes. But just being there changed that. Being around those people and seeing how indivisible what they do is from the way they live and their family – and the fact that this thing is a very organic family enterprise.
So, the nature of the documentary evolved over time?
Yes. The more time I spent there and the more I made my own contacts, the film and my ideas about the film, really changed. When I was going there at first, all I kept thinking was that these weavers were victims of globalisation and somehow the film has to present this problem and solve it. I think one of the things that filmmakers do – and they have to do it, in a way – is to find the spine of the story. What is the storyline that is carrying you through?
In general, that is what documentary filmmakers do. It’s a very Western thing to do. Often filmmakers look for one person or one family and tell their story. Those documentaries or television programmes are about someone in the developing world struggling against insufferable odds which they overcome. This is a human story that we all identify with.
But, for me, the reality of being in Varanasi upends all that. It just really challenges you. What I found when I was there was, that this was a whole city in which everyone was connected in some aspect to this weaving. Either they are weavers, or they are designers, or they are polishing the saris, or they are cutting the saris, or they are doing embroidery, or are mending the looms.
My point of view was to tell this story; it’s actually a city full of people where this extraordinary activity goes on. You do recognise people that we stay with but it’s not essentially their story, their individual story. It’s a whole huge, huge thing.
Tana Bana is currently screening at the IFI