A Night of Knowing Nothing
(India/France, 97 min.)
Dir. Payal Kapadia
Why are romance and rebellion such a compelling marriage? Payal Kapadia’s extraordinary debut feature A Night of Knowing Nothing is a hypnotic essay about the loss of innocence and the spark that inspires one to fight. The film, which won the l’Œil d’Or at Cannes this year, is an invigorating epistolary fever dream that culminates with some of the most damning images of police brutality one will see this year. (Outside of Stanley Nelson’s potent Attica, of course.) A Night of Knowing Nothing imagines the relationship of L and K as Kapadia draws upon a series of letters allegedly found in a cupboard. Sweet nothings and poetic ramblings yield to urgent reflections about women’s rights, sexual violence, and the war for democracy itself. A Night of Knowing Nothing is a bold and energizing portrait of personal and political awakening.
Kapadia constructs L and K’s story through a tapestry of fleeting images that capture the optimism of youth in the film’s first act. These are striking and relatable sights that could easily be pulled from the Instagram feed of any contemporary student with a fondness for the Inkwell filter and the vignette setting. Put another way, the Academy ratio frames—Instragrammy in their squareness, but still appropriately cinematic—are both specific and universal. Their specificity resides in the context that L and K provide, but their universality exists in the early actions and emotions. These fleeting snapshots are portraits of the hope, optimism, and carefree fun that one relishes during one’s university days. Nights of drinking and dancing leave students like L and K feeling as if they can conquer the world (after a few Aspirins, of course). A Night of Knowing Nothing pulses with the blissful ignorance that lets the students thrive in their idyllic bubble.
L, the young woman, often initiates the conversations. K, the man, returns her letters happily. It becomes increasingly apparent, however, that L has more to say, whereas K doesn’t offer much substance. He’s really trying to woo her, whereas she attempts to summon the rabble.
The film is called A Night of Knowing Nothing, however, and the nights of fun and romance yield to the dawning of the students’ reality. At some point, K ceases correspondence with L. His last letters reveal a lack of interest in joining her fight. As his distance echoes the deeply ingrained caste system within Indian culture, L’s attention turns to the story of Rohith Vemula, a PhD student whose 2016 suicide sparked attention towards the discrimination of Dalits (formerly known as “the untouchables”), the lowest caste in India’s hierarchy of haves and have nots.
Kapadia’s images remain as striking and impressionistic in the film’s later acts as they are in the doc’s romantic opening. However, these new sights bear a striking sobriety. Our young students now bear witness to protest. They see their streets overrun with violence and fear amid a rising tide of Hindu nationalism. Women are even less safe in this uber-patriarchal climate. A montage recounts gang rapes and innumerable violations of women and young girls.
Through the fleeting collage of images, which become equally poetic and haunting, Kapadia invites viewers to make sense of the nightmare unfolding before their eyes. This is active and engaged filmmaking. A Night of Knowing Nothing is an involved experience, Kapadia’s vivid imagery and poetically conveyed context make L’s journey into consciousness clear. As the young woman’s love letter evolves into a monologue, a manifesto, her story tells how there is no going back to a life of blissful ignorance when one sees inequality throwing the streets into chaos.
As student riots wage and the police respond with fury, Kapadia’s striking compositions give pause as the film presents its most haunting image yet. A piece of found footage shows an encounter between police and students as the protesters are trapped in a classroom and at the point of accepting defeat. They plead for their safe exit from the building in surrender. The police, however, respond with wrathful force. It’s a melee of violence hidden from the world’s view, but the camera bears witness. It’s impossible to look away.
A Night of Knowing Nothing screens at TIFF 2021.
Update (8/2/2022): A Night of Knowing Nothing screens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox beginning August 11.