June 22, 2001 -- "Boatman," a documentary about life and death on the river Ganges, is an interesting look at a part of the world most westerners are unfamiliar with. This 1993 film won the best documentary prize at the 1994 Hawaii International Film Festival.
Director, cinematographer, producer Gianfranco Rosi sets his camera up on Copal Maji's boat and lets it run. Maji, like most of the people we see on the river and in the city of Benares, India, waxes eloquent at times. He laughs at the westerners who are always asking "why, why, why, why." Why do people throw dead bodies into the river and then bathe in it and drink from the same water? Because it is holy water and it is the Hindi way.
Karampal Sing, a tour guide, sums it up nicely when he says Benares "has the capacity to absorb the most beauteous and bear the most harsh things." The camera grinds away, showing us the poor, the rich, the lower castes and the upper castes, children playing, full of life, and the dead, floating in the holy river. We see rich tourists and a fat Italian following the way of Buddha. We see holy men and men who make a living by picking through the ashes of the dead for gold teeth and jewelry.
The film is jaggedly edited by Jacopo Quadri and there is no soundtrack. This isn't a slick film, but the black and white photography is striking in its impact. A doctor from New Zealand is shown bathing in the Ganges. He says sure, there are plenty of germs in the river, people bathe in it, there are dead bodies in it, but there are plenty of germs everywhere. He seems no more concerned than the locals. Some of the most disturbing sights in the film are the bodies of the dead being trussed up and tied to weights before being tossed in the river. Westerners aren't used to seeing dead bodies like this. The camera does not shy away from it. In another scene, people are shown burning a corpse, using sticks to move the legs around in the fire.
Maji discusses the benefits of using a wood fire for a funeral pyre, versus the municipal "electric" furnace. He said the wood fire is more expensive, but it takes a lot longer to burn the corpse, three to four hours. That gives family and friends more time to pay their respects. If they are a little late for the funeral, they haven't missed the whole thing. The man who runs the funeral pyre operation is the only one in the movie who doesn't want his picture taken. Maji explains how he makes extra money from the jewelry he and his workers find in the ashes.
In other scenes, we hear from a woman who talks about sexual inequality in India, and from a man who talks about the changing status of India's ancient caste system. The tension between Muslims and Hindis is also discussed. Maji rows along like Charon, watching the pageant of life and death with a calm detachment. He talks of the Boatman caste status with a certain kind of pride. Despite the fatalism and the caste system, the humanity of these people makes them very familiar. It is the dead who seem strange. In the West, death is hidden away, shrouded in ritual. A thing seldom spoken of. Here, it is out in the open, as much a part of life as any other aspect of living. It seems like a better way of dealing with it. This film rates a C.