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Directed by Payal Kapadia

Best Documentary, 2021 Cannes Film Festival

India’s violent history of casteism and religious discrimination faces personal, poetic resistance in Payal Kapadia’s debut feature A NIGHT OF KNOWING NOTHING.

Stitching together grainy black and white film images of campus life in New Delhi with an invented, epistolary account of a doomed Romeo and Juliet-esque inter-caste romance, Kapadia blends the tools of fiction and non-fiction to address the country’s rising tide of Hindu nationalism, drawing parallels to American Trumpism and invoking histories of ideological struggle.

Banal scenes of partying and dorm life alternate with chaotic snapshots of protest and aggression. A dialectic emerges, revealing the impossibility of an “apolitical” existence for marginalized and conscientious young Indians. The letters, read in softly pained voiceover by an anonymous woman, articulate the psychic toll of injustice.

Inherent in the critique of India’s past and present violences is a belief in the promise of its public education system. Despite flaws, writes Kapadia, “public universities still potentially provide spaces for true freedom both physical and intellectual where nothing is sacrosanct and everything needs to be questioned.” This principled optimism characterizes the film’s gentle, somnambulant tone, illuminating a pathway beyond the weeds of global despotry.

—Inney Prakash

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