Delhi pollution film spooks Cannes: ‘Is it my job to give hope if I don’t feel it?’

·7-min read

The catastrophic environmental consequences of growth at breakneck speed are viscerally exposed in Rahul Jain’s “Invisible Demons”, which screened in the Cannes Film Festival’s special climate segment this week. FRANCE 24 spoke to the New Delhi-born director about the climate emergency and the role of film in spreading the word.

A hot Saharan wind whipped up a little foam over the French Riviera’s crystal-clear waters on Tuesday, but it was no preparation for the floating bergs of chemical froth that clogged New Delhi’s Yamuna River, moments later, during the screening of “Invisible Demons”.

The climate apocalypse is well underway in Rahul Jain’s haunting documentary, a visually stunning exposure of the enormous environmental cost of India's breakneck ”development”. Like Jain’s earlier work “Machines” (2016), which explored Dickensian conditions in a Gujarati textile factory, “Invisible Demons” is told through the eyes and words of the have-nots, for whom the climate emergency is not a prospect but a terrifying reality.

“For the longest time, the Yamuna River was the lifeline of Delhi,” says the director and narrator early on in the film, which screened in the festival’s special climate sidebar. But Jain never saw a clean river while growing up as an “air-conditioned child” in the Indian capital’s leafier districts. In his mind, rivers “are either black or white”.

Jain was born in New Delhi in 1991, the year India opened up its economy and let in the transformational forces of unbridled capitalism. Thirty years on, his work explores the way those forces have precipitated cataclysmic changes in the lives of ordinary people, poisoning the air they breathe and the water they use to drink, cook, earn a livelihood and perform cleansing rituals. Even the monsoon, once a time of celebration, has morphed into a deadly scourge – arriving too late and then striking too strong.

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Clips from news bulletins, coupled with Jain’s occasional voiceovers, provide context and some frightening figures (on the annual number of heat waves, for instance, which has increased more than twenty-fold in less than a decade). But this is no data compendium. “Invisible Demons” is about the tangible experience of climate change: the unbearable heat, the lack of water, the mountains of trash, the mosquitoes “exterminated with chemicals toxic to all life”, and the smog so thick that cars and rickshaws keep their signal lights on at all times, hoping other drivers will spot them (inevitably, monster traffic jams account for a sizeable chunk of the experience).

Jain, who studied aesthetics and politics in California, has spoken of his interest in the visual representation of the Anthropocene, the current geological age marked by humanity’s impact on the planet. He sat down for an interview with FRANCE 24 ahead of his Cannes premiere, along with the film’s editor and co-writer Yael Bitton.

FRANCE 24: Can “Invisible Demons” be described as the second chapter in your exploration of human exploitation and self-destruction?

Rahul Jain: I would hate to have to accept that I am repeating myself, but maybe I am moved by some similar undercurrents. One of the most important professors in my life, Martín Plot, when I told him about my idea, he said: ‘Oh Rahul, I see a clear trajectory of your critique of the capitalocene.’ I had to look up the word, it was basically the Earth in the time of Capital. So there must be some parallel to it.

F24: California’s light has been described as the source of Hollywood’s energy and optimism. Is the New Delhi smog, in some ways, the flipside of our capitalist system?

R. J.: I would be afraid to draw any parallels there. Both the lights are beautiful but they’re different. The light and the smell of Delhi has such an immense subconscious charm for me, having grown there. In the monsoon, after a massive shower, there’s a beautiful pink sky and you breathe in the dust from the Thar Desert. That composed my childhood, it has a certain romance about it, a dense tropical romance. You’re transported into the sensuousness of a rainy moist landscape, and that’s what Delhi is like.

F24: The sensorial experience is at the heart of your film. Was it important for you to focus on the human experience rather than pollution per se?

R. J.: If I could interview animals, I would. But we are limited in our communication to the human genome. One of the biggest determinants for me to make this film was one day observing a bee in a heatwave crawl to a puddle of water. It was dragging its two hind legs, inching millimetre by millimetre, and by the time it reached the puddle it died. And this was terrifying. And I know that if it’s happening to a bee right now we are not that far behind.

F24: “Invisible Demons” is part of a special segment on climate here in Cannes. Some of the films strive to look at the bright side of things and instil hope, but yours comes across as somewhat bleaker.

R. J.: We had a big talk about this. I asked myself, is it my job as an artist to give hope in my work if I don’t feel it? Something deep inside me says, no, it’s not your fucking job to create hope if you don’t feel it.

Yael Bitton: We discussed an even deeper question, about whether mankind really needs to survive. Of course, it’s a very nihilistic question. We have created a narrative where we need to survive as a species. But if you transcend this narrative then maybe you can begin to tell the story slightly differently. And then your job is not necessarily to give optimism about mankind.

R. J.: Socially we’re still stuck in a pre-Copernican paradigm, where just like the Earth was the centre of the Universe, right now our species is the centre of the whole biogenome, and it’s certainly not true, but it’s something we keep telling ourselves.

F24: At the start of the film, one character questions whether science and the experts can do anything about climate change. You’ve clearly chosen the voices of ordinary people over the experts and figures.

R. J.: You don’t need an expert to corroborate why eight million people are dying every year. We don’t need an expert; we need the feelings of the loss that these deaths left behind.

Y. B.: No offence to the economists, but we live in a world of figures where the figures are in a way abstracting the relational aspect [of climate change]. The whole idea of the film, and Rahul’s first film too, was to convey a sensory and cognitive experience of very complex realities that have to do with Capital and the industrialisation of our world.

F24: There is little formal politics in the film, though at one point a man says governments have failed in their duty to serve and protect. Is that your view too?

R. J.: I was taught that the meaning of politics is not to decide who is your friend but who or what is your enemy. When something or someone is responsible for the deaths of millions of people, it is absolutely clear in broad daylight who or what is the enemy. And if a sovereign power cannot decide that, then God knows who else will.

F24: How important is it that Cannes set up a special climate segment, and that other festivals take up these issues?

R. J.: I’m glad that they chose to create a new section [...]. It is high time that we put an essential spotlight on something that is going to be, and already has become, the pre-determining question of everything we do. For all the stories, all the wars and all the peace treaties, and all the romance and all the sport sagas, we need a planet. So I’m very glad that this is finally happening. Everybody and anybody in the position of power and cultural proliferation should take heed.”

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