Any film about filmmaking runs the risk of counterproductive nostalgia – from the earliest days of cinema, singing the chosen artform’s praises has not always resulted in the most effective, critical, or meaningful pieces. Payal Kapadia’s latest documentary, however, uses film students’ anger and (not always steadfast) belief in their craft to capture unrest and forment social change, largely avoiding this pitfall. 

Despite the historic air of Ranabir Das’ arresting black and white cinematography, the events chronicled in A Night of Knowing Nothing are recent, based around the Film and Television Institute of India’s 2015 student strike. This protest expressed dissent against the right-wing nationalism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was elected in 2014 and remains in the position today. This photographic choice lends the weight and respect of the past to the unrest of the present; the effect can be somewhat distancing until 2010s benchmarks are brought to the fore, but equally the students’ activism is heightened by historic comparison. There is no room for wry mockery of youthful idealism.

As impassioned and outspoken as the film students are in arguments on the privileges and responsibilities of their heavily subsidised education, A Night of Knowing Nothing is told through fictional personal tragedy. Letters from “L” to an estranged boyfriend catalogue not only their studies and political upheaval but a burgeoning relationship which ends prematurely when he leaves her due to her caste. The threads of this are somewhat lost amidst the more chaotic documentary scenes, but the understated touch is effective. 

A Night of Knowing Nothing is a beautifully quilted but nonetheless staid documentary despite the restlessness of protagonists and politics. The intimacy of L’s letters do not fully cohere with the wider political exploration, but the human touch is what lingers in the mind once the credits roll.  



CAST: Bhumisuta Das (narration)

DIRECTOR: Payal Kapadia

WRITERS: Payal Kapadia, Himanshu Prajapati

SYNOPSIS: A documentary told through (fictional) letters, A Night of Knowing Nothing chronicles student unrest in India against political extremism, caste differences, and artistic expression. 

The rest of the ADRIFT season can be found here