Marching in the Dark review: Compelling doc sheds light on Indian farmer widows

Marching in the Dark review: Compelling doc sheds light on Indian farmer widows

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Kinshuk Surjan’s documentary Marching in the Dark, which premiered at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, begins with the farmers in rural Maharashtra realizing how the rates of soya beans have decreased to an all time low. There’s little deliberation with the owner but nothing can be done now. Yet, this is not the story that this wrenching documentary is concerned about. The title card appears next, and from the next scene the viewers are positioned right in the middle of the field, where a lone woman slowly cuts the rice crops. (Also read: Favoriten movie review: Excellent doc observes a primary classroom in Vienna for three years)

Marching in the Dark premiered at Cph: Docx.
Marching in the Dark premiered at Cph: Docx.

The premise

It is this strategic dispensing of images and references that inform the narrative framework of Marching with the Dust. For the course of the next 108 minutes, the camera will follow this young woman named Sanjivani, with her two kids. If the men in the first few minutes had the chance to decipher and argue for a better price, the woman, who is a widow of a farmer who committed suicide a few years ago, doesn’t even have that space. In a patriarchal society within the rural heartland of India, she is twice marginalized. Marching in the Dust intelligently mounts these facets of subtext about its subject, and does so with a steady, confident lens.

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We come to know that she is a widow with a son and a younger daughter, living in her in-laws place. Shy but not submissive, she grows confident about her desire to learn and grow in front of her eyes. Her unfolding sense of autonomy in a society that is bent on othering widows and looking down upon them as harbingers of bad luck is the subject of this film.

Marching with the Dark moves right beside Sanjivani, as she goes about her day. The new addition in her daily routine of farming and household duties is the small community of women like her where she goes to study. The details of this place are curiously kept aside, as the widows share the grief, and above that, the everlasting stigma that is attached to them. One of them asserts to the male teacher/facilitator in the classroom that no matter what he asks she is not going to cry. My tears have dried up, she says.

The women talk and laugh, and the sensitive camerawork by Leena Patoli, Carl Rottiers and Vishal Vittal watches them from a distance. A beautiful sequence where they play Holi together, and make sure to rub even the smallest remnant of colour from their faces before stepping out of the room is the heart of this profoundly compassionate documentary.

Final thoughts

The cinema vérité approach of Surjan is a smart and evocative decision here, quietly insisting upon the spaces without any burden of revelation. There is no need to confront the camera and address the apathy and isolation she faces, because it’s all there on screen. Sanjivani works doubly hard: helping with the cultivation, enrolling herself into a degree course, doing needlework at times, and looking after the kitchen. On alternative days she also helps at a local hospital. Yet is it ever enough? The bruised degree of anguish is somehow peddled back into the relentless cycle of work and commitments. Marching in the Dark is a moving testament to the unheard voices of so many women like her, and a tribute to their resilience and spirit. There’s a compelling strength at its heart.

Santanu Das is covering CPH: DOCX as part of the accredited press.

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