David Blamey’s documentary is about the poetry of rice. The British visual artist has shot his 33-minute Rice at Laxmi Rice Flour Mills, situated in a village between South Goa and North Karnataka. No voiceover or Voice of God interrupts the aural and visual pleasure of watching labourers hard at work, packing rice in sacks and then drying rows of them on a sun-baked plot. The drying process generates a hypnotic rhythm, and the only sounds are the clanging of machines and birdsong.

Rice is being screened in the international competition section at the Mumbai International Film Festival (January 28-February 3). The film is Blamey’s first full-length Indian film, but it is hardly his first artistic engagement with the country. Blamey has previously shot photo series of repaired cars in 1995 (a slideshow was screened at Mumbai’s Regal cinema in 1995) and mosquito coils. Excerpts from an interview.

Why rice, and why this approach?
This is the fourth piece of work that I’ve made recently that has a rural subject. The previous three have been pure sound compositions made with field recordings in India and France.

The subject of this new film is ostensibly a commonplace inanimate material. I was interested in the rice grain’s state of being both fixed and fluid: in the way that it could be solid like sand when stacked in bags and liquid like water when thrown or stirred.

But also, I was fascinated by what the mill workers were doing on a formal level as they handed this material. Their methods reminded me of abstract art in the west by artists who think that art should have its own reality and not represent anything outside itself. In minimalism, for example, the idea that art can be reduced to the point at which it only presents its own medium as a subjective reality is of conceptual interest to me, but too detached from life. I am concerned, conversely, with finding seemingly abstract patterns of behaviour in the everyday world that reveal a deeper reality by connecting them back to life.

For while the loose rectangles, lines, cloudburst circles and systematic working process of the mill workers relate formally to the kind of minimal art I’m drawn to, this is not the primary reason for making the film. I wanted to understand how these geometric shapes related to the work of the people who made them, as well as the circumstances that allowed me to be in a privileged position to observe.

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How long did the shoot last?
I first discovered the location in 2014 and shot a single scene on my phone for reference. A year later, after gaining permission to film from the mill manager, I returned with two cameras to shoot for seven days. A year after this in 2016, I came back for two-three days to shoot additional material needed for transition scenes. I designed the sound from field recordings made on site during each previous visit, made colour corrections and completed the film at the end of 2017. As this was a personal project with no external funding I could only actually afford to take my time.

All the shooting was done in Indian winters. The mill doesn’t operate in the same way during the monsoon season.

What were your experiences during the shoot, in terms of interacting with the workers?
Language was a bit of an issue, because I don’t speak Konkani and nobody on location spoke English very well. We relied on trust, goodwill and the mill manager’s nephew – who was well educated and bilingual.

There was a special energy about the workplace that radiated from the internal dynamics of the close-knit community there, the deep connection of the setting with nature and the ritual practice of a working day. I have been a labourer myself in the past and spent time in ashrams: these experiences were echoed in various forms throughout the time I spent making the film. The way that we interacted was reminiscent of a silent retreat. Since I had no desire to direct anyone’s actions, there was nothing for me to say. The quieter you become, the more you can hear.

Although I was there to observe people working, the workers were able to watch me at work too. We did our jobs simultaneously, in and around each other. But it was only when my presence, equipment and working process lost their fascination to my hosts that I was able to become truly invisible.

Of course, I asked for approval of the final edit out of respect to my subject. I was delighted by the positive response. We plan to hold a screening of the film for the whole village in the near future.

Rice. Courtesy David Blamey.
Rice. Courtesy David Blamey.

You have visited India before, and your work has involved freezing mobile elements into photographs – the series on car, the burning of the mosquito coil.
I first came to India in 1986 and immediately felt at home. This isn’t always the case for first-time visitors, who often find the kaleidoscopic nature of everything too much to handle. I confess that I didn’t understand much of what was going on around me at first, but that realisation only intrigued me more. The cocktail of confusion, contradiction, familiarity (because of the traces of India’s colonial past), inspiration, aversion and wonderment has lost none of its potency for me in the intervening years.

About the photographic series that I made of repaired car bodies back in 1995 – at that time, I was desperate to make inroads into the Indian art scene, but found it impossible to do so. Rather than become disheartened, I decided to take matters into my own hands. By renting advertising space at the beginning and during the intermission of films showing at the Regal Cinema I calculated that a theatre screening films three times a day would give me access to a potential audience of 27,000 people over a month. A local cine advertising agency called Dimples duplicated my 35mm slides up to 2¼-inch transparencies and projected them in sequence, by hand, every day, for the next four weeks. I was finally able to present my work in India.

The Regal mostly showed American action movies at that time and finding myself in a unique position to question the extent to which the outrageous lifestyles and values presented in these films contrasted starkly with the alternative reality just outside. As I was so immersed in the chaos and culture of Bombay’s street life it became my humble objective to celebrate what I regarded as an example of the everyday sublime by unashamedly gatecrashing my local palace of dreams.

Knowing When to Stop. Courtesy David Blamey.
Knowing When to Stop. Courtesy David Blamey.