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Gianfranco Rosi's 'Boatman'

By katja esson

Gianfranco Rosi's 'Boatman'

I remember feeling outraged when I first saw Boatman (1993), a film about life and death on the river Ganges in India.

 I saw the film at a time when I was sure that I had finally found the key to documentary filmmaking. Feeling lucky to be starting out in the documentary world just as the genre was growing in force, I was sure that, just as in feature filmmaking, the key was to have a strong, clear story line. It was all about character development, foreshadowing and payback. I was so excited by my revelation that these elements became my only truth.

Then I saw Boatman, in which director/cinematographer Gianfranco Rosi simply plants his camera on a canoe piloted by the film's only main character, the boatman. A man with a keen sense of the absurd, he talks about the customs of Benares, where Hindus bring their dead to be cremated or cast into the holy water. Amidst funereal wailing, bodies being slid into the murky currents and the smoky flames of the bankside funeral pyres, the Western visitors provide the film's humorous moments. An Italian, wasted away by parasites, and now broke and homeless and stuck in India, explains his attempts to simulate a fine Italian pasta with local ingredients. An English doctor, who himself says he ought to know better, bathes and splashes in the germ-filled water.

The film has no identifiable structure, but through it all Rosi sits in the boat and rolls on the life of the river as it flows past. To the boatman's endless amusement, visitors always ask, "Why?" Why are the dead cast into the river while the Hindus eagerly drink the water and the children swim and splash in its currents? Why don't Indians use toilet paper? It is the Hindi way, he observes with a calm detachment.

I felt I was on a journey without any apparent destination; everything just seemed to be floating by. Even the short interviews are just done in passing, as if the director simply filmed anyone who came before his lens. I was confused. I remember thinking, Where is this going? How could a film, without a clear story, without a clear destination, without an obvious effort to say something, without even a score to tinker with my emotions—How could such a film draw me in so deeply? I remember watching it and trying to resist, but being lulled by its languid pace, as if by the soft waves of the Ganges lapping against the boat. I thought to myself, This film can't work, so why does it? But the film stuck with me, the mood stuck with me, and the simple truth of life and the lives portrayed in this film is very much awake in me today.

Films like this give us the confidence to believe in the power of every human being's story, simply by observing and trusting in the truth behind every action. What ultimately makes Boatman so compelling is that its form fits the winding stories it tells so perfectly, flowing over you and sucking you into the many currents of the holy Ganges—and making me throw all my convictions about how a documentary should be built overboard.


Katja Esson is a writer/director who was born in Germany and lives and works in New York City. Her 2003 short documentary Ferry Tales was nominated for an Academy Award.