Forest of Bliss


U.S.A. / 1986 / English

Directed by Robert Gardner

Still from 'Forest of Bliss'Forest of Bliss, Robert Gardner’s unnarrated documentary portrait of the Indian holy city of Varanasi, begins with scenes shrouded in fog, as people emerge into the gray morning to start their prayers and their workdays, and long boats slowly cut through the opaque water of the Ganges. These images hint at the density of the place they conceal, a spiritual and physical throng that will solidify with the brightness of the sun, almost as a condensing of the water molecules latent in the air. More importantly the opening shots initiate a drifting motion that continues throughout the film, metaphorically. For lives and events cluster around the river, at this most auspicious dying ground and outlet from the cycle of rebirth. Everything here is caught up in the flow of the river, the “mother” as the many praying people refer to it.

Gardner follows an elderly man, made statue-like by rheumatism, as he stiffly moves down and up flights of stairs, making his way to a bathing ghat (steps leading to the Ganges). Here people perform daily ablutions. Even though the water is littered with particles of the dead and green-tinged by factory sludge, the bathers’ unwavering belief in its purity and purifying properties makes it, to them, like flowing manna. Overfed and cranky Brahmans berate people, cows walk purposefully through markets, dogs chew the flesh off of an unidentified carcass, and the old man pours river water over shiva linga at a shrine. (It is unclear how much, if any, of the rest of his day is devoted to secular matters). And all of this Gardner follows with patient absorption and an eye for the overwhelming beauty of it.

Varanasi is, pound for pound, the most sacred city for Hinduism, the center of it all. Everywhere else along the Ganges is either upriver (Haridwar, the Himalayas) or downriver (Patna, Kolkata, the sea). This is very much a forest, in the sense of being thick, with the smoke of charred bodies, with the grief of crying families, and with millions of other things going on around it all. To us the people become like the trees are: each radically and floridly different from one another, but with each having its own place in undifferentiated tandem. Given the overriding feeling of holy inevitability though, individuality comes to be only a surface feature, always subservient to the purpose of the greater mass, the steady strength of the Ganges water.

The film starts with a quotation from Yeats paraphrasing The Upanishads. It concerns everything being food for everything else, the seed for the fire. This text (the only English in the film besides the credits) adjoins a scene of three pariah dogs tearing apart a still-screaming fourth, and can be mistaken for trying to evoke the cruelty of the natural order with which the city hums, and of which spiritual transcendence and reincarnation are certainly considered a part. Things happen with a kind of certainty that both recalls and literally expresses nature all the time. But the more likely purpose of the quotation is to establish the place as a sort of living thing in itself, all of its component microorganisms being interrelated and yes, feeding off of one another.

We watch the enshrouding, garlanding, and eventual carrying away of a dead body, with men clanging on gongs and finger cymbals while singing bhajans around it. Four people pick up the bier and, chanting, carry it through the narrow streets of the city, past crowds of shopkeepers and religious mendicants, and towards the river. Further out on the shore, near the clusters of boats, a dead body floats contemplatively in the water. Gardner has an understanding of the acceptance and the acceptability of things here, the measured tolerance of his lens reflecting emotional immersion rather than psychological detachment. We can see this in the way that he follows people, assiduously but in stolid repose, confident that magic will spring forth from ordinary moments that collide with one another in colorful anarchy.

Still from 'Forest of Bliss'After a certain point Gardner begins gradually to move away from the centrifugal pull of the ghats. Like nearly everywhere else in India, Varanasi has a great many faces. We see glimpses of life in and around the city, people engaged in the day-to-day grind of their earthly duties. But even work, as we see it in the film, is in thrall to the mystique of spirituality. At the same time religious duties are performed as business, with regularity and a sense of mundanity. In Varanasi ritual is given all of the human energy and concentration that industrial production holds elsewhere. Outside of the temples we see people hard at work doing their jobs, and it becomes clear that all these tasks are in the service of reincarnation; a man constructs a ladder out of bamboo that will serve as a bier for a corpse, laborers pile heavy logs that will provide fuel for pyres, and sweepers sweep piles of human ashes while others shovel water on it to wash it away. People pick marigolds from a field to turn them into garlands, the flowers acting as the closest thing to currency in worshipers’ engagement with the divine, with enormous amounts of them being harvested. Here, production and prayer are linked, most activity seemingly connected to ritual in some way, whereas in the West, industry is considered the antithesis of spirituality.

Less intimate than The Nuer (1971) and less deliriously self-referential than Ika Hands (1988), Forest of Bliss is more defined by the potential for wonderment when things are experienced at a remove, when one is intentionally kept in partial or complete bafflement. Gardner has, from his earliest work onward, gravitated towards the elements of a total cinema possible in visual anthropology. Here we find him closer on the spectrum to the extraction of things that are absorbed through osmosis, through escaping from a myopic, studied viewing and into a bright and entrancing glare. The entire film presents an instance in which the less one knows, the more deeply felt is the encounter. Gardner himself seems to know a great deal about what he is seeing, this being accounted for in the locations and moments he chooses to include. But in spite of this he is making a conscious move away from communication and understanding, toward a completely sensual experience of the place. The filmmaker is caught up in conveying the mystery of the city, its atmospheres seemingly built up with the accretion of centuries to fend off comprehension and confound perception. He consciously dissociates the viewer, keeping us back to a distance that discourages analysis, being more conducive to a feeling of submersion on all sides.

Sound is an important part of this sensation of being encompassed. It is always used in ways that reflect the trenchancy of the visuals, as noises are amplified with a powerful directionality that gives them sibilant presence as well as hollow undertones. Auditory perception of close activity is swarmed around and given counterpoint by the surrounding chatter of life. The wild sound becomes like a fluid melody, replete with a sonorous drone and a crackling upper register, accompanied by repetitive noises like a boatman’s oar and the tongue of a temple bell providing rhythm. There are a couple of times when the audio recedes solely to those latter, sparer elements, surrounded by stillness. But almost throughout, it is a maze of voices, foreground din, and distant resonance in seething layers.

The sense of the passing of time set up by Gardner, in beginning things at dawn, belies both the feeling of defying chronology that pervades the film’s middle bulk, and the timelessness of the place itself. We see people encounter the eternal on a regular basis, as part of their diurnal activity, as an essential tenet of their individual and collective being. Time itself is circular, not linear like a river that offers no possibility of recapturing the moment, however tempting that metaphor may be. Yet in spite of this daily reverence for profound philosophy, the material acquaintance with the divine, Gardner brings us, at the end, to what looks like sunset (it is hard to tell through the haze), as though maintaining an assurance that time is still relevant here, at least within the span of a day. Once again things are covered by the fog, backlit by the red orb behind it, and once again they become veiled with breathable mystery.

One Response to “Forest of Bliss”

  1. Mary Ann said

    Sounds totally mystical.

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