Kings of the Wind & Electric Queens hurls you headfirst into the world it captures. Simply put, it is a documentary about the annual Sonepur Cattle Fair in India, but the film depicts the event so viscerally that it almost defies verbal description. Luckily, you can see it for yourself for free this Wednesday (7/29) at Socrates Sculpture Park.
Before the screening, we had a chance to speak to the film’s directors, Gaspard Kuentz and Cédric Dupire, about filming on location, the film’s poetic structure, and how the film got its name.
Rooftop Films: What sparked your interest in the Sonepur Fair as a potential documentary subject?
Gaspard Kuentz and Cédric Dupire: We decided from the start that we would not go to the Sonepur Fair to “document” anything. The basic idea was very simple, and we did not plan the shooting that much. It involved no research on location, as we were more in a “let’s just go there and shoot a film” mood. Our approach for this project was to use a “primitive” way of making films, I mean like in a Dziga Vertov way.
The Sonepur Fair is more a pretext than a real “documentary subject.” Eventually, what the film is about are more archaic and, in a way, universal matters: the thirst for movement and trance, the desire for ecstasy and death, the mechanics of domination between animals, men and machines…
Of course, it would never have been the film it is if it had been shot elsewhere, and the Sonepur Fair is a fascinating event, as fairy and shiny as it can be dark and dreary. Its atmosphere is an explosive cocktail of festive spirit, childish wonder, fascination for danger, sexual frustration and moral oppression. It certainly reveals a lot about Bihar and India as well, but our filmmaking approach does not qualify us to argue about these matters.
The camera’s perspective tends to align with that of an anonymous spectator, free to wander and observe but also able to blend into the crowd. As filmmakers carrying recording and sound equipment, what was it like to navigate the fair and try to capture that feeling?
We worked in a very light setup, Cedric holding the camera and myself recording sound. We were also supported by a translator in order to communicate with people, but she would usually go back to the hotel quite early, and nights would leave us without understanding much of what was going around.
I can hardly say we remained unnoticed. But still people come to the Fair to trade, work, pray or just have fun, and they basically have bigger fishes to fry. We would go to the same places in the Fair every day, the dancing hall, the bikers’ attraction, the horse trade stalls or the riverbanks. Going every day to the same places might have helped to blend in, but, as we depicted the events in the film as if they were happening in one day, it above all gave the film its cyclical rhythm, which was fundamental for us.
Since the event is so sprawling and the film is so concise, how did you decide which events and people to focus on?
We decided beforehand on which parts of the Fair we would focus on. We knew about the “Pit of Death” (bikers’ circus) and the dancing halls before arriving in Sonepur, so then it was just a matter of choosing which one we would film. About the other characters in the film, like the Exorcist or the Showman in the end, we just happened to stumble across their performance and filmed them. The horses’ stalls did not seem like a first choice as well, but the very special atmosphere of the place brought us to film there more than we would have thought.
Anyway, the characters in the film are more depicted as abstract figures than what you would usually call a “character.” They are more like masters of ceremony, anonymous strangers opening doors on a magical world. The only real character of the film is the Fair itself, with its wonders, energy and violence deploying all along the film.
Many reviews praise the film as a captivating “sensory overload.” What was it like to organize and edit such visceral sequences?
We indeed developed the film around a “sensory” approach, and it is true for the editing as well as the shooting. We are not really interested on making films that try to comment or analyze reality. For that film in particular, we wanted to focus on physical sensations, the dizziness you can feel in a fair. The very straightforward “one day in a fair” structure of the film comes from that purpose.
Many elements in the film are like patterns that gave it its poetic unity: the horses and the bikes, the old machinery of attractions and the organic details of animals, the strictly religious prayers and the individual rituals performers accomplish before going on stage… We used these patterns as landmarks in the kind of “plunge into hell” that constitutes the backbone of the film.
The editor Charlotte Tourrès, with whom we worked on our previous film as well, did a great job to extract the shape of the film out of the chaos of our material. We also worked with sound designer Jacob Stambach, who, as a musician, allowed the film soundtrack to find its own rhythm, despite the cacophonous nightmare an Indian fair can be.
Is there a scene or moment that particularly stands out to you when you look back on the film?
It’s difficult to answer objectively for every scene is linked in us with the particular moment it was shot. However, I would say that the first scene of the film stands out to me, the way it happened and how it finally gave the film its title, as well as the introduction it deserved.
One of these nights we were filming the sleeping horses, horse owners invited us to take food in their tent. Our translator was not there and we tried to communicate as much as we could without much success. And then one of them started to speak very passionately to the camera. He was more addressing the camera than us, and we felt immediately he wanted to make a point, and, in a way, dramatize the moment.
When we later translated what he said, we knew instantly this scene would have a great importance for the film. Later, we took the title from this man’s horses’ names, and his monologue introduces the film in a very dramatic way we could not have orchestrated by ourselves.
Such moments are very rare, but I think they are at the same time decisive for a film to exist.