The thick and striking red, black and white shawl with geometric motifs that is a staple at handloom exhibitions from the North Eastern states?

Like so many other Indian weaves, the garment has a history that predates its decorative and utilitarian status. The absorbing documentary Every Time You Tell A Story, by Amit Mahanti and Ruchika Negi, traces the evolution of the Tsungkotepsu shawl that typically adorned the shoulders of men from the Ao-Naga tribe of Nagaland. The shawl dates to ancient days of battle and its spoils. “Traditionally, it was meant to signify the achievements of warriors who had won enemy heads in war,” the filmmakers write in their statement about the documentary “Even though head hunting days are long gone, the Tsungkotepsu shawl is still central to the Ao-Naga imagination.”

Every Time You Tell A Story looks at the shawl as a “larger metaphor of what happened to the Ao-Naga people”, Negi said. The 52-minute film regards the shawl as artefact, locus of memory, symbol of pride, and a marker of identity. In a sequence reminiscent of Sameera Jain’s museum-themed documentary If You Pause, Mahanti and Negi also begin their film in a museum, where the shawl and other representations of Naga culture exist as objects of curiosity and appraisal. The inanimate objects give way to more displays of local traditions for the outside world: members of the martial tribe re-enact their ritual dances at a cultural show.

Further sequences feature the shawl as an object for sale in a curio shop. One of the many themes in this multi-layered art documentary, which Mahanti has shot, is the idea of how the Ao-Naga are presented to the outside world as well as how they represent themselves. “The camera is trying to draw out ideas of the gaze and representation,” Negi said.

The film opens out to explore the ways of the Ao-Naga, their relationship with the state and Christianity, and their changing relationship with the shawl itself. The film provides an indirect account of these intersecting forces. We are in art documentary mode, marked by a formal consciousness, an elliptical narrative, poetic voiceovers, and images that demand careful watching and do not use the crutch of exposition.

The documentary originated as a collaboration between the filmmakers and artist M Jimmy Chishi. “The whole conversation that began between the three of us was that it seemed like a distinct art tradition in Nagaland – a form that was painted and figurative and the whole idea began with him, he said let’s look at the shawl and what does it mean,” Negi said.

Part of the film’s experimental approach has to do with the lack of information on the shawl, especially since “the Ao never wrote their stories” and chose to document their history through signs as symbols such as songs and totems, the documentary informs us. “Resources around the shawl were very scanty, and there is very little written about it,” Mahanti said. The shawl thus became an “oral knowledge form”, whose symbolic meaning has been simultaneously communicated and preserved over the decades by its weavers. “The form was a response to the imagination of the shawl itself – this imagination is fluid and is so embedded in the psyche that it required a form that captured the fluidity somewhere,” Mahanti said.

Negi added, “The figurative motifs have more or less remained the same, and the integral idiom has not changed.” When the shawl is worn, "people don’t need to be told anything”, says a weaver who is interviewed by the filmmakers. “From the design of the shawl, you can tell the status of or achievement of the wearer.”

Excerpts - Every Time You Tell A Story from Frame Works on Vimeo.