Afternoon Dust

Zarina Bhimji — Jangbar

Zarina Bhimji’s film Jangbar was shot on location in Kenya, at and around various train stations along the Kenya Railway line. In a series of long static shots and slow pans, a series of dilapidated and seemingly abandoned buildings is depicted: train station tickets offices and waiting rooms, signal boxes, houses, and a church. These are interspersed with numerous shots of the surrounding landscape. Bhimji chooses to focus in on details such as the paint peeling off a wooden bench, the broken keys of an old piano, and the bark of a tree. The soundtrack to the film was created separately to the images, and includes both sounds directly related to the image being presented (e.g. wind rustling through trees) and also a whole host of others that have no visible source: voices chattering and hollering, bangs, clatters, and rattles, strains of music, fragmented excerpts of recorded speeches, and so on.

The choice to focus an intense gaze on these abandoned ruins and empty landscapes (or, perhaps, working buildings and populated landscapes presented as if they were abandoned and empty), along with the disjointed, clamouring soundtrack, seem to suggest the trace of some terrible historical event. However, the film doesn’t directly name this event, nor offer much in the way of clues; the closest we get is in the snatches of recorded speech, among which the words “colonialism”, “master”, and “slave” are heard. Some gaps can be filled in through background research: the construction of the railway was ordered by the British Empire in the final years of the 19th Century, and was initially called the Uganda Railway after its final destination; the purpose of the line was to aid British domination and control over the Lake Victoria region and to facilitate the export of resources for trade. Around 2,500 workers are estimated to have died in its construction.

Due to a shortage of indigenous labour, the British encouraged migrants from their colonies in the Indian subcontinent to come and work on the railway, which is where the artist has a personal connection to the story: her own family migrated from India to Uganda a few years after the railway’s completion, and she herself was born in Mbarara, where she lived until Ugandan Asians were forced to flee the country by Idi Amin in the early 1970s. Yet these historical and biographical details don’t sufficiently account for the pathos with which the film is imbued; it seems as if the artist wished to avoid naming the source and motivation of the film’s brooding and affecting atmosphere, instead allowing image and sound to work together to instil a sense of foreboding and suppressed disturbance distinct from any understanding of historical context or narrative arcTJ Demos writes that Bhimji’s films “define a postdocumentary approach that relinquishes information and factual presentation in order to probe the poetic and aesthetic elements of colour, texture and rhythm.” Demos, TJ (2012). ‘Zarina Bhimji: Cinema of Affect’ in Zarina Bhimji. London: Ridinghouse..

Jangbar left me feeling confused and bewildered; I was dissatisfied with the way in which the quiet, desolate images often felt overburdened by the weights of meanings implied by the sound design, and it took me some time to realise that this was perhaps intentional. Rather than draw me in, the presentation of sounds and images that were so obviously dense with meanings that were nonetheless withheld, without hope of recovery, had a distancing, disengaging effect. Contrast that with a film like Alia Syed’s Eating Grass, in which a voiceover narrative connecting Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons in the 1970s with the artist’s experience of growing up in a British Pakistani community made the film’s rich colours and sounds seem all the more intense. Perhaps I just don’t like feeling things without understanding why; perhaps ‘understanding’ and ‘feeling’ are part of the same experience, rather than two separate operations. Those with different histories, and different experiences of colonialism and its legacies, might respond to Jangbar differently.