ALTERNATIVE ENTERTAINMENT: BETWEEN REALITY AND REPRESENTATIONby Vinta Nanda February 13 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 7 mins, 14 secs
SHUDDHI is an emotional journey, a call to action, and a symbol of hope all in one. It aims to generate renewed discussion on Leprosy. A rare film, writes Vinta Nanda.
Director James Higginson (Emmy Award, 1988) combines his 30+ years working as a fine artist and Hollywood professional to drive his creative auteur cinematic works. He confronts and provokes the viewer with arresting images that reveal the unspoken of today's world—the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the material. Higginson is interested in what lies beneath the surface. He seeks out the cultural subtext and exposes it in a seamless play between reality and representation, between perceptions of facts and opinions. He feels the subtext, the unsaid, can best be divined through indirect metaphor and asks us to pause, meditate, and question.
Higginson’s interest is to serve the community and utilize the Arts as a tool to elevate public awareness of pressing social problems. His artistic mission is to tell the stories that define us and to scrutinize contemporary life and illuminate our inherent human fragility.
His latest film SHUDDHI follows the award winning and recognized films Wilful Blindness (2012) and Devout (2017).
It’s a documentary film produced, directed, written and cinematographed by James Higginson and has already received several notices and awards including Best Director Short Documentary and Best Cinematography at Cine Paris Film Festival 2023, Award of Excellence Special Mention Short Doc and Excellence Cinematography at the Indie Fest Film Awards 2023, Official Selection at its World Premiere and Best International Short Film Award at the Rajasthan International Film Festival 2024 and Official Selection and Special Jury Mention Award at the Jaipur International Film Festival 2024.
On asking the creator his thoughts on why SHUDDHI is an important film and reasons for choosing the story to tell, he said, “By delving into the emotional dimensions of Leprosy, the film can generate renewed discussion and has the power to motivate individuals to take a stand. SHUDDHI is an emotional journey, a call to action, and a symbol of hope all in one. I choose to tell stories that touch my heart, and then, hopefully touch the hearts of the audience”.
I talk to James Higginson about him and his latest film in more detail. Over to him then…
What is Shuddhi about and why have you given this name to your film?
The film, SHUDDHI, reveals the reality of Hansen's Disease (Leprosy) and its enduring stigma, through an artistic, poetic lens, creating a meditative portrait of familial tenderness and cultural respect against the backdrop of India's rivers, landscapes, and a remaining hospital for the disease. SHUDDHI is a doc-hybrid that interweaves themes of humanness, fear, love, judgement, and the never-ending cycle of water.
The official logline is: Baba, a former resident of a Leprosy Ashram, shares his life insights with his grandson on the banks of the Ganges. Meanwhile, Dhan Ji prepares for a ritual cleansing ceremony that Baba wishes for himself.
The film’s title came about after talking with the main subject, Dhan Ji. He came to the ashram as a teenager with his mother who had Leprosy. He was her main caretaker and consequently after a few years developed Leprosy himself. He has remained at the ashram for over 50 years and yet has no remorse, anger, or resentment.
Dhan Ji is Hindu and wanted to pray at an ancient temple he remembered from his youth. He wondered if he could have a Shuddhi ceremony beforehand. We sought out the priest and arranged for the Yagna and Shuddhi to be performed and documented both ceremonies as they happened. The word shuddhi means “a cleansed or purified state of being.” To me, Dhan Ji embodies this state of being merely in his continued clean and pure way of living life, in spite of the fateful twist. He embodies standing for the good of all people, standing for the love and respect of all things. I admire this and admire him.
What is it that compelled you to make this film? What are your plans?
I have combined my 30+ years working as a fine artist and Hollywood professional to drive my creative auteur cinematic works. My intention is to confront and provoke the viewer with arresting images that reveal the unspoken of today's world—the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the material. I am interested in what lies beneath the surface. I seek out the cultural subtext and work to expose it in a seamless play between reality and representation, between perceptions of facts and opinions. For me the subtext, the unsaid, can best be divined through indirect metaphor and I ask my audience to pause, meditate, and question.
Tell us about your interests as a filmmaker?
My interest as an artist and filmmaker is to serve the community and utilize the Arts as a tool to elevate public awareness of pressing social problems. My artistic mission is to tell the stories that define us and, in doing so, to scrutinize contemporary life and illuminate our inherent human fragility.
What draws you to India?
I travel the world as an artist following my intuition and remain alert for stories, images, compositions, and subjects. I was initially drawn to India after seeing the lengthy theatre performance of the Mahabharata. This piqued my curiosity to see the country first hand, feel the energy of the streets, and witness the vibrant life, food, and culture.
My first introduction to the patients was when I visited the Nimba Nimbadi Hospital for Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) outside of Jodhpur, as a photographer. This was over 12 years ago. I was immediately emotionally affected. At that time not all of the patients had undergone the available government medical drug treatment program to wipe the disease from their bodies. I am a filmmaker, not a professional in the medical field. What I can do is shine light on stories that need to be heard in the hope to invoke empathy, insight, and awareness that enforces change and development.
I thought there must be something more that can be done to diffuse the gripping social stigma that hampered the free testing and treatment programs. The SHUDDHI project was conceived to do just this, created from the assimilation and interpretation of the patient’s shared stories and our conversations.
It is important to hear the voices of the disabled through their stories, their history. These patients represent those that may possibly be the last generation to suffer the severe physical and emotional effects of Leprosy and their experience needs to receive proper focus before they are gone. While talking with the patients, I gave them unlimited time to tell me about their lives. We had conversations about fate and I admired the amount of acceptance they expressed to their life situation. I was profoundly touched by their wish that no one suffer in the future as they have in the past.
I hope, SHUDDHI can be used as a tool that inspires continuing change to end the stigma and may promise to change attitudes surrounding Leprosy. The film offers a fresh perspective, distinct from existing works that cover Leprosy’s history and clinical aspects. Early detection tests, medication, and preventive measures for at-risk family members are all available through government-funded programs. With continued expansion and success of the MDT programs and the aid of NGOs such as NLR India Foundation, it can become a disease of no consequence and the question remains, Can we eradicate this disease in our lifetime?
Where are you from, your growing up years, the impressions that make you who you are and the films that you want to make?
I was raised in the rural eastern US, spent much of my life in Los Angeles, and now am based in Berlin, Germany. The contrast of my life to that of the patients in this film could not be greater. Though we have had different backgrounds and life paths, our individual journeys crossed at this time, in this place.
In SHUDDHI, the narrator, Baba, asks his grandson to look at the dogs running along the river's edge. “One runs a bit slower and with a little limp. Though there may be differences on the outside,” Baba says, “We are all the same on the inside. Each as drops in the river, flowing together into our beyond."
I truly believe this hopeful metaphor of SHUDDHI can be embraced, increase sensitivity, and serve to improve public understanding of disabilities.
Check out the website of SHUDDHI to know more: https://www.shuddhi.de/#home-section