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Italy, 1993 (MIFF 1994, Documentaries)

Director: Gianfranco Rosi

The boatman is Gopal. He rows the waters of the Ganges, the Sacred River of India, guiding his vessel through Benares, the city of Shiva, the city of the Dead. Creating the illusion of a moving point of view, Boatman takes on the shape of a journey without destination, in which Gopal is both charismatic protagonist and wryly humorous narrator. Characters and images emerge and sink from the screen, yet he remains at the centre of the whirlpool of contradictions that is life on the riverbank.

During the course of a hypothetical day, director Gianfranco Rosi travels with the boatman, training his camera on the bathers and the tourists, Indians and foreigners, both residents and those who have run aground on the hallowed shores in search of divine inspiration. Using Benares as a microcosm of Hinduism, this fascinating, often confronting, documentary fashions a portrait of the solemn rhythms and inexhaustible variety of life. It is a tale of small encounters in the search of the deep and startling religiosity of a culture. The anomalies are astounding, the rituals and ceremonies spectacular, the caste system rigidly defined even in death - Cadavers weighed down with stones and thrown from funeral boats or simply dumped (for the poor), cadavers burned on pyres (for the well-provided). The Ganges absorbs all. All human life returns to the river.

Shot over a period of 3 years, Boatman elicits the essential from the unexpected and the inexplicable, making cinematic poetry of the cycles of life and death.

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