Rebana Liz John’s 79-minute observational documentary Ladies Only (2021) begins with the rumbling roar of a train entering a Mumbai station. As the rattling carriage comes to a halt, hundreds of female commuters struggle to get themselves inside the ladies coach. The opening few minutes of the film prepare viewers to traverse with women whose voices remain buried under the pressure of an Indian patriarchal society. The filmmaker seamlessly blends facts with perceptive interviews that bring out the life of the women travelers from various economic rungs. Ladies Only had its world premiere at the 2021 Busan International Film Festival and won the Compass-Perspektive-Award at Berlinale 2022. I recently spoke to John about her cinematic choices and journey while making the documentary.
Dipankar Sarkar: You are an alumnus of Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology in Bangalore, India and have been making documentaries for more than a decade. What attracted you to the non-fiction medium to express your thought process?
Rebana Liz John: Yes, I studied at the Srishti School of Art Design & Technology in Bangalore for four and half years. I specialized in filmmaking there with a small batch of students. We learned filmmaking by doing all the major roles involved in the process of filmmaking. So, I was a sound recordist, a camera person, a caterer for someone and someone else did the same for me etc. We made a few films like this. Each film was a learning experience. Where you stand in terms of the knowledge of films at the beginning of making a film is far from where you are at the end, when the film is finished.
Non-fiction films are this all-encapsulating notion for me. There is a lot of freedom in terms of the form, the aesthetics, the subjects and the execution. There is something about coming in contact with reality through your camera lens and interpreting its truth and that gets my engine revving. What we call reality is complex and multi-layered. So how one chooses to frame it in itself is an act which requires a fair bit of reflection and hesitation. Perhaps these qualities had chosen me early in my life, which is why I found myself gravitating towards non-fiction narratives.
DS: Ladies Only is your final-year project at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany. Tell me about the genesis of the project.
RLJ: We live in the era of digital archives, especially of the self. We can go back to a particular date in the past to find memories and plot our lives. It was one such deep dive into my e-mails that led me to an old photo I had taken in one of the local trains of Mumbai. When I was 15 or so, I would travel in the ladies compartment to get around the city. Despite the crowd, the discomfort and the noise, it was a space I cherished as my own. Around the time I found this photograph, the #MeToo movement was on the rise and there were voices being raised, and somehow they had an impact or there were consequences.
The patriarchal order has been very disturbing to say the least — identifying and recognizing it as a structure being one of the first challenges to overcoming it. The patriarchy in India could be branded as a benevolent patriarchy. The benevolence allows women to have freedoms [and] asks the perpetrator to treat every woman as he would treat his mother, sister, wife, daughter. There are special restrictions on women, whether it is about clothing, standards of beauty, excellence or intelligence. Their roles are well defined — often that of unpaid emotional labor.
Feminism is rightly the shelter in all of this. The film about the ladies compartment of the Mumbai local train was faintly traceable in that archived image. But the film wasn’t about train culture, the train simply provided the frame to look through at a certain kind of reality of women in a city like Mumbai. This reduced the canvas area and in fact provided even a joyous constraint. Staying within this compartment offered both a metaphor and a mundane reality. The camera’s eye would observe and select from the chaos to tease out varied truths. The women’s second class compartment would be the site for building questions and conversations revolving around the freedoms and ambitions of its temporary inhabitants, so as to hear a voice that often goes unheard if not ignored.
DS: Experimentation in the documentary, art in public space and animation/writing are the domains that you have been exploring for a long time. Is there any specific style, genre or form that you are particularly interested in?
RLJ: My education, ever since I entered the arts, has been fairly multi-disciplinary. At Srishti and at the KHM in Germany, the focus was on self-motivated learning. My objective with film is also to learn, not just about filmmaking but about life itself. So, whatever style, genre or form lends itself to that is the one I lean towards. I like telling multi-faceted stories in a form that is accessible but not devoid of the richness that abstraction can bring. Within documentary films, there are many genres. The subject defines the genre, and in a world where change is a constant, my mutating position in society defines my subject. For example, with Ladies Only, I strengthened a feminist lens. That lens was created by my position as a filmmaker in the world I live in, which is a patriarchal world. So, in that sense, the genre falls into a personal filmmaking space without it being specifically about me.
DS: What was the creative reason behind shooting Ladies Only in black and white?
RLJ: I was curious to see the result of imagery shorn of its colored brilliance and communicating a mood rather than a rendition of identity. At least in the case of this space inside the train in Mumbai, the aesthetic impulse delineated the material away from the cacophony of imagery. It distilled the constant shifts in light, the chaos and the people, into an essence.
Also, there is a certain gaze on India, which is deeply entrenched in the colonial history of Europe. Including a critical ethnographic stance in the making of this film, this cinematic experience was a matter of becoming aware of my specific positionally. The decision to use black and white imagery came from this irritation towards the exotics of what is termed as the global south. Color in this film would have played a precarious role. Maybe draining the color facilitated a viewing that is less burdened by cognitive biases of a certain kind.
Read More at VV — Interview with ‘Bhoothakaalam’ Director Rahul Sadasivan
DS: Ladies Only reveals various facets of womanhood in Indian society. The characters give us a glimpse — from compromising in married life to their right to remain single, from being a caring mother to the fear of motherhood amongst others. So, during the process of assembling the footage, what were your key decisions to keep Ladies Only engaging?
RLJ: We shot this film in the pre-pandemic summer of 2019. We battled through 40 degree heat and winds to capture about 75 hours of material. There was a lot to sift through for me, as the director. To shift into the role of the editor, I first transcribed all the material, including the images without dialogue, as a way of digesting the material. This took a long time, and I now have a nearly 250 page document about the raw material of the film. So, when I read this document, sitting away from the editing station, I was able to see some sentences more clearly than others. This was my way of feeling through the material and understanding what has the potential to become a film. Because there were, of course, a lot of mundane, everyday images that were created as part of the observational stance of the directorial concept.
DS: Shooting a documentary within the confinement of a moving train is not an easy task because of the limitations of control space. So, what were the hurdles you and your camera person encountered during the shooting of Ladies Only and how did you overcome these obstacles?
RLJ: It is a relief to know that one can and (perhaps should) go through a range of feelings while on a film shoot. Collaboration requires feedback and communication. Not just in terms of information about what has been done or needs to be done, but expressing enthusiasm and surprise at what unfolds as well. When filming, the filmmaker/cameraperson does not know what they are filming, especially in documentary films. On the shoot, in the chaos of the train compartment, this statement rang truer and louder than all of the massive noises offered to us by the train. The samosa sellers voice cutting through the air, the 40 degree heat, the wind rushing through the open doors and windows, the rackety sounds of the moving train and other passing trains, the commuters and their interest or disinterest in being filmed, their inquisitive questions, the constantly changing light and make up of the compartment contributed to making this a challenging shoot.
To be in sync with one another while also being spontaneous and present was difficult. For Milann Tress John, holding the camera on the gimbal for long interviews, sometimes without a seat, in crowded moments, were sheer feats of strength on her part. With the sound recordists, Navya and Ankita, it was about figuring out how to tune out the unwanted noises (which were many) and sometimes physically blocking the window to cut the sound of the wind out etc. All this in a train that’s constantly moving, stopping, with people constantly jostling you etc. It took us a few days of shoot[ing] to get our physical placements right for an interview. The person to be interviewed must face the director, the camera and sound must be close to the person speaking, without odd angles, while seats on the trains are often not easy to catch.
DS: In one of the scenes in Ladies Only, you and your subject halt the conversation due to the sound of a passing passenger train. What were the steps taken by the sound recordist to overcome the challenges of recording the conversations in such a clamorous environment?
RLJ: To overcome the challenges of recording the conversations in such an environment, we really had to learn by doing. The more we shot, the more we understood where to sit — facing which direction, how far away from the doors and where in relation to the subjects and so on — in order to get the best sound. Sometimes, like in this shot you mentioned, there was nothing to do but wait, which also meant stopping the interviewee mid-interview. I am sure there’s more to this answer, but maybe Ankita or Navya can answer it better.
DS: The ambient sound from the rumbling noise of the train and the conversation with several women link together intrinsically to create the aural space of Ladies Only. At the same time, there are certain portions in the documentary where a background score was used. So, how did you design the soundscape?
RLJ: I had not used any music in the film I had made before this one. It was clear to me from the treatment stage of this film that I wanted a certain kind of flute to accompany the images. I first thought of this fusion track from Ravi Shankar and a jazz quartet called Fire Night that helped me visualize the treatment — it had this galloping quality to it with high energy. I knew the music from a Cologne-based band called Jin Jim. They had the sound that I knew could work for the film and so I used some of their already existing tracks. I also sent them some edited sequences, for which they composed the music. Then there was an experimental flute track that I found on YouTube while looking for placeholder music during the editing phase. This was by Lucas Pizzini. At some point, it became clear that this wasn’t just a placeholder for me anymore because it worked so well with what I was looking for in the scene. So, I somehow contacted him and he was happy to let me use the track. The music really does elevate the film. I wanted it to accentuate or rather underline some sequences and key moments in the film. But I wanted it to blend into the aural landscape of the film as well. This was executed fantastically by our sound designer and mixer, Tim Elzer.
Read More at VV — Interview with ‘Aranyak’ Screenwriter Charudutt Acharya
DS: Ladies Only has been screened at two important film festivals, Berlin and Busan, so far. What were the audience reactions?
RLJ: The Berlinale audience at the premiere were simply lovely. They were alive and full of reactions. The hall was vibrant with laughter and cheers at many moments in the film. You could feel that the audience was really, truly feeling with the interviewees in the film. The Busan audience was also very attentive and there were many interesting questions from them in the Q&As that continued even later when I met them on the street. The female audiences especially respond to this film with a lot of brightness and gratitude. I think it’s a narrative that touches a section of people in the world who have struggled with not being heard.
DS: As a practicing filmmaker, how do you perceive the current scenario of documentary filmmaking in our nation?
RLJ: It is complex. We have a documentary film scene that is thriving and getting a lot of attention globally, but there are also very few avenues for funding or distribution. They exist but not nearly as much as needed. Independent filmmaking thrives because there are enough people still willing to make films, and there is a sizable population of people who want to appreciate them as well. Film festivals are these avenues where diverse narratives and cinematic languages can be showcased. But in the current atmosphere, even those avenues are becoming policed spaces. It reflects a larger problem.
DS: What are your current plans with Ladies Only? Are you working on another project?
RLJ: The film is yet to complete its film festival journey. I can see that it has grown wings and will fly many places. I am hoping it finds different kinds of audiences and leaves them meaningfully touched. And if it can find the right kind of distributors, then it will get to live a bit longer in the public eye. I am contemplating a short tribute to Kamla Bhasin who passed away last year. Her poems are read by many women whom we recorded, many of which didn’t land up in the film. So, there is enough material for that. For my next projects, I have a few ideas that I am thinking about. I will get into the delicious work of solidifying them in the next months.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.