CIRCLE, a film by Jayisha Patel that premiered last weekend at the Berlin Film Festival, tells the story of a young girl in rural Uttar Pradesh, India, and the physical manifestations of intergenerational trauma. The film follows the story of Khushbu, a survivor of sexual assault, as she recounts her gang-rape at the hands of men in her community – an assault orchestrated by her emotionally abusive grandmother who suffered abuse herself – and her child marriage to a man she does not know. Patel explores the way circles of abusive are carried in and throughout this family.
Patel, an advocate for sexual assault survivors and a survivor herself, made this film while living in India, when the subject of gender violence in India was being explored extensively in international media. Finding that media coverage lacked nuance and care around the stories of the victims of sexual assault and was not reflective of the emotional complexities that came with being a survivor, Patel decided to make this film that would provide a victim of assault and abuse with a voice.
The film follows the actual lives of its subjects, filmed in documentary-style with some fictional narrative elements included. Patel, who felt that documentaries could sometimes offer very black-and-white perspectives, used narrative and fiction to invite the audience into Khushbu’s world. She panned longer on the actions of Khushbu and her grandmother at various moments doing mundane activities: Khushbu smiling now and again at her wedding, sitting next to the stove mixing in vegetables, while her grandmother sit idly next to her. Many of the film scenes also concentrate on the location, where visions of lush Uttar Pradesh mountains and smoke rising from distant fires in the evenings give the illusion of calmness and routine. For Patel, this was purposeful.
“The more I spent time in the community, the more I realized the normalized way in which such abuse occurred,” Patel said. “I think it was this banality of evil which I found…confronting.”
The movie is filmed so that, in the pauses and the silences, Khushbu’s quietness reveals more about her grief than what we can gather from her speaking. Patel similarly films Khushbu’s grandmother, the elderly woman who abuses Khushbu herself, orchestrated an assault on her granddaughter – but also a woman who faced abuse and violence in her own life.
Patel purposefully filmed the grandmother in silence, wanting the audience to try and uncover for themselves her motivations without justification, which could provide some kind of comfort or resolution for the audience.Patel wants the audience to sit, unsettled, with the grandmother.
“The grandmother had become hardened in order to survive the patriarchal structures that clearly were not in her favor, by siding with the oppressor…[this] enabled her to have whatever little power she could,” Patel said. “She had also been abused as a young women and therefore felt it was normal for other young women to be abused.”
Khushbu’s assault was not some extreme case of gender violence, but an act that was a manifestation of years of normalized violence. Patel, through her movie, wants us to reckon with our own disturbing relationships with misogyny that are not always resolved, but are internalized and replicated.
For more information about Patel’s film, visit her website.