Reel Review: Prose Amidst Poetry - Aanchal Kapur

A review of The Lightning Testimonies
Roshan Bayan Amar Kanwar /India
113 minutes / 2007

Can words express what images accomplish?
Can images help comprehend what actually happened?
Can silence be heard,

You have to see The Lightning Testimonies to know that the answers are in the affirmative. Ever since I have seen this documentary in 2008, I have wanted to see and show it again and again.

Created and directed by Delhi-based filmmaker, Amar Kanwar, The Lightning Testimonies is not only superb in technique and cinematic style, but also in the interplay of its text and sub-text. A film that I would put at par with or perhaps even above another favourite film, Khamosh Pani… this is a must watch!

From the strokes on the canvas to the bareness of the body, from beneath the surface and above it, from the shadows of silence to the screams behind the walls…this is about the testimonies of violence that is ‘herstory’. A 2007 production, the film will take you on a journey of sexual violence that’s experienced by women over different time lines, different locations, converging on the crossroads again and again

This film is prose amidst poetry. A juxtaposition of the individual voice with that of the attacker; of the onlooker with that of the protector…a myriad colours that paint the body, in life and death. A continuum of images and sounds that analyses sexual violence across the constructs of nation, region, religion, caste, tribe, power, community, and law and justice. A film that pushes the viewer in me to make the connections that often, are not made, so that the responses can be sharper, yet subtle, in the face of such violence.

For the 113 minutes watching this documentary, I, the viewer, am forced to ask certain important questions through the lived experiences of several known and unknown women and girls across the Indian sub-continent: How do we define a woman’s body? What is hidden, what should be hidden? What is safe?

Traversing borders, external and internal, the film speaks of war and conflict, of patriarchy and power, of caste and land, of religion and boundaries…frames within frames that partition women’s bodies. The filmmaker tells us that there is no chronology to violence and yet there is, in the history that presents itself before us…

How does one remember?
What remains
and what gets submerged?

...these words appear in the film time and again, to build the analysis that the filmmaker unfolds in verse, voice and visual.

1947. The voice of a woman who lived the experience partition is heard…

“I used to love life
I wanted to live
But I saw death staring at my face…”

Several thousands of women were abducted and disappeared, to be ‘rescued’ on both sides of the border. The rescue and restoration operations were undertaken a very large scale. As the camera searches for the ‘rescued woman’ in the remains of a camp, it’s the same place, the same time, as if standstill, lying dead with the memories 61 years ago.

I (the viewer) ask, does she want to be found, does she want to go back? I learn that there was no room for ‘consent’ the rescue process, there was no ‘space’ for independent decisions, the respective countries decided where she would live. I close my eyes and open them to see…

Moving trains,
women and men fleeing
amidst darkness and dawn,
silence and ‘lightning’,
rape, killing, abduction, disappearance
for family honour and religion.
Is (was) this Nationhood?
Is (was) this Freedom?

Another voice relives the memory of another partition…

“My head still reels when I speak of this
They set fire to the house
The scene left behind is indescribable
Not a soul stirred anywhere…”

Several thousands of women were raped by soldiers from the other side, the attackers and victims belonging to the same religion. These are testimonies that make you remember the past and mark the present so that in the future liberation will not be traded for violence as it was in Bangladesh, 37 years ago.

I read the postcard in the film, from a father who asks whether his abducted daughter, who came back a day after independence, could be rehabilitated by the government as a Veerangana, the brave woman.

I ask myself. . . Do the reflections on the streets, stains in the courtyards, clothes on the terrace, photos in the museum, speak of ‘hung lives’…Will they ever understand what it means to perpetrate such violence?

1989. Several names appear to disappear on the screen, women and girls...counting...recounting…unending numbers, in one of the most militarised parts of the world, Kashmir.

Two decades of violence, countless dead, more than a million displaced, several thousand missing, and never ending sexual attacks on women and girls. Through the anonymous data of the statistics the film maker asks:

Does the truth need a memorial image?

Who is The Attacker I wonder? The man who holds the gun? Does it matter that he is an army man or a militant? I see how sexual violence is an easy weapon of war and conflict. From the doors and windows that open into a valley, it seems that there are no exits.

2002. They came in large numbers, armed mobs who attacked and killed a people of one faith across cities, towns and villages of Gujarat, women and girls were raped. They came in full view of everyone, perpetuating hatred and genocide…to avenge the death of members of a ‘majority faith’. I witness the carnage.

The differences between the filmmaker, the women and me begin to blur, I become part of the story as I hear this testimony…She was pregnant, she was the witness, she told the police, she was not heard, she went to court. It took her five long years, to prove that she was raped. The adivasis (tribals) who lived near the place where she hid that night cannot forget her, they have built a shrine on that hill...the film passes across that site and life continues.

I think again to myself…

Is this the ‘prophecy of silence’?

2006. The filmmaker reveals to me, multiple identities, of caste, tribe, age, occupation, community and position.

A scheduled caste woman, a dalit woman, a young adivasi woman, a woman from the barber community, a woman panch (elected official), from across rural Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh…all paraded naked before their families and communities.

Sexually violated for resisting injustice and hierarchy
for questioning territory and ownership
for challenging patriarchy
for accessing what’s rightfully theirs
their land
their resources
their equal place in society

1947, 1957, 1971, 1986, 1998, 2004.

They stare at me, from Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur,. They urge me to tell their story to the world…

let it be told on behalf of all who have not yet spoken.

She was paraded naked towards the church, in 1957... she was fighting for a Naga nation. The military came and set up camp…the orange tree lived to share the testimony of 1971, of women and girls paraded naked at the church. In 1986, a soldier came to take another ‘body’, she did not agree, he beat, shot and killed her, in Manipur.

Through the film, I am introduced to her mother who filed a case in court…it took four years to get justice. She hasn’t forgotten, she still grieves. Her friend has woven the story into a sarong in motifs that symbolise protest, the journey of people going from one court to another. Everyone wears it commonly now, to remember her.

As the film reflects on the state and its paraphernalia, the state’s various laws and security procedures, I wonder who they really protect, in the North East or in Kashmir. Who is the enemy where ‘land’ is the context and where social and religious practices ‘govern’? I ask myself who is the enemy? Who determines justice?

The film begins to go deeper into the body and I can see some ‘lightning’ testimonies once more. The images are now transforming. A woman disrobes as ‘Draupadi’ in a play and everyone reacts against her, questions her chastity, her womanhood, her self-respect. A creative expression in theatre I think or really a breach in dignity?

And then, I am made witness to the protests in which 12 imas (mothers) disrobed at Kangla Fort. I now become the woman in the story…merging voices in the film speak in the same tone.

Weaving the testimonies of pain and resistance together, I can see the same images in different locations or is it the same location and different images? The film ends, but my journey with it continues…I try and seek answers to the film verse that has gone alongside, especially as it now presents itself in these words…

How does one tell which image represents the ever changing words of a testimony?

How does one remember?

What remains and what gets submerged?

The words of the filmmaker again help me out…

Does the rain remind you of the camps on both sides of the border?

I hope it does, so that you don’t forget what does not remain and what emerges…Perhaps because of its hues, its subtleties, its canvas of expressions, the light amidst darkness, the darkness within The Lightning Testimonies, it’s not easy to forget what you don’t see in this film

Aanchal Kapur has been working in the field of development and human rights for the past 18 years. She is a facilitator and trainer on organizational development, gender analysis and programming, social analysis and activism, as well as documentation and development communication. Aanchal is the Founder and Team leader of a not-for-profit organization, KRITI: a development research, praxis and communication team. She may be contacted at