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Movie Lovers We Love: Chitra Neogy Teaches "Film as a Transformative Process"

By Erin Whitney | Indiewire May 20, 2013 at 10:33AM

Most students walk away from a typical film courses with a better knowledge of the medium’s history and an impressive vocabulary. However such a standard, superficial approach to cinema can leave the viewer unsatisfied, missing out on the rich, powerful qualities of the art form. Professor and filmmaker Chitra Neogy asks more of her students in her class "Film as a Transformative Process" at New York University. Challenging them with difficult foreign films such as Andrei Tarkovsky's "The Sacrifice" or Theodoros Angelopoulos's "Landscape in the Mist," Neogy creates an environment in the classroom that takes students into, what she calls, a deeper language of themselves.
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Chitra Neogy
Chitra Neogy

Most students walk away from a typical film courses with a better knowledge of the medium’s history and an impressive vocabulary. However such a standard, superficial approach to cinema can leave the viewer unsatisfied, missing out on the rich, powerful qualities of the art form. Professor and filmmaker Chitra Neogy asks more of her students in her class "Film as a Transformative Process" at New York University. Challenging them with difficult foreign films such as Andrei Tarkovsky's "The Sacrifice" or Theodoros Angelopoulos's "Landscape in the Mist," Neogy creates an environment in the classroom that takes students into, what she calls, a deeper language of themselves.

"It’s really transformative in the sense that the kinds of films I choose to show are reflective of another language," Neogy told Indiewire. "It’s very intimate, the atmosphere, and intimidating in the sense that the films act as mirrors upon the self."

With a syllabus inspired by the work and philosophies of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, "Film as a Transformative Procewss" exposes students to rare gems of foreign cinema that might not be seen in other Film courses. Ranging from Wim Wenders' 1987 "Wings of Desire," to Krzysztof Kieslowski's "The Double Life of Veronique" to works by Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, and of course Tarkovsky, Neogy's class takes students on a journey of self-discovery through cinema. She likens the experience of watching these films to the ancient Sanskrit word "rasa," which means to empty oneself to a work of art. "It’s like you’re an empty vessel in front of a beautiful piece of art and you receive and it just pours into you," Neogy said. "You just completely surrender to it and then the content and the essence flows into you. That’s really how I want them to watch cinema.”

However in Neogy's class a student is not just a watcher of cinema, but a part of it. Instead of assigning the typical academic essays or scene analyses found in most course syllabi, Neogy explained that she prefers students to respond in whatever way reflects their experience of each film. "It could be a collage, a poem, a performance piece," she said. "One student just spoke and talked about her life in a sense, and all of that was evoked by seeing one film; that's huge."

Some students have described "Film Transformative" -- as it is called amongst students -- as a sort of group therapy through film, where life stories are told and intimate journal entries are shared. Watching the films engenders a powerful response from the class, sometimes one that leaves the whole room silent. “Some students say they couldn’t move or they walk out of the room," Neogy said.

However, the class is not just a space where only students are free to express themselves and become cultivated; it does the same for Neogy as well. “I watch the films over and over again in the classroom, but each time something shifts in me and depending on the energy of the room I respond to the films each time in a different way.” Neogy described this transformative effect of the films as a circular stream flowing out from the screen, in through the students, and back to her again. In a sense Neogy is beyond the average professor, being not just one who teaches, but also one who grows with the students.

Yet the class also gives Neogy what she was hesitant to describe as a sense of validation of her artistic vision and mission. “Not that I am being complimented,”  Neogy said, but “somehow when I see these young minds and young souls responding and crying it’s beyond validation, almost like a triumph of the spirit.” She likened this to a scene from Tarkovsky’s  “Nostalghia” -- also screened in the class -- where the main character carries a lit candle from one end of an empty pool to the other, starting over each time the flame goes out. “It’s that kind of life that I feel I’ve led where I’ve held the candle of my own creativity and not compromising.”

The life Neogy refers to is one of an artist with unrelenting passion and honesty. From acting in her youth to assisting Werner Herzog on a documentary in India to writing and directing her own films, including 1998’s “Journey Within a Journey” and her next project “Sand Shades,” Neogy has always been creating from an open, uncompromising perspective--what she calls “the child’s gaze.” She describes her artistic vision as one that aims to “bring the invisible into the visible, the extraordinary into the ordinary, the dream language into reality."

Neogy’s class is not just a selection of some of her favorite films or those that have impacted her life, but of films that also carry this vision in them. For her they fall under the umbrella of what Tarkovsky once called poet filmmakers, those who create their own worlds. As a filmmaker Neogy said, “Maybe I could put myself into that category.” Although Neogy is a lover of cinema, a filmmaker, and a professor, she is most importantly the guide that helps students watch and understand films in a new way.

“It is a fertile soil that they walk into and I, like a gardener, make sure that the soil is always moist and of the correct temperature for their seeds to bloom.”

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Most memorable movie-going experience?

“Andrei Rublev.”  I lived downtown at the time and I had never seen “Andrei Rublev”  then. I had heard of Andrei Tarkovsky, but not in the way I know him now. I remember I had this Moroccan shawl, which was given to me in Nigeria. I remember I wore that shawl and ate bee pollen walking up from 9th and Broadway to 111th and Broadway to watch that film. It was like a pilgrimage.

What is the most influential or life changing film for you?

There wasn’t one, there were several. Definitely “Andrei Rublev,” “The Seventh Seal,” “Jules et Jim,” Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits,” “8 1/2,” most of Satyajit Ray’s films.

What film from your class had the strongest “transformative”  effect on the class?

Tarkovsky’s  “The Sacrifice.” Even though some are uncomfortable or some say they hate it at first until thinking about it, it maybe evokes something in everyone because it’s so difficult. It really catches them and that’s what I want, it is a very powerful experience. The whole idea of sacrifice, people may think ‘Do we all have to suffer to be an artist?” You have to kneel before you stand, and you have to be broken down before you can really see and feel what it is to live. That burning of the house [in the film] and how he gives up everything to bring back something and keeps his promise, to me is something that is very symbolic. Other films are “Landscape in the Midst,”  and “The Spirit of the Beehive.” Almost all the films.


This article is related to: Movie Lovers We Love, Andrei Tarkovsky