For many of us the concept of a death hotel conjurers up thoughts of Switzerland’s contentious assisted suicide clinics, however in breathtaking debut documentary By the River Dan Braga Ulvestad explores what they mean in the city of Varanasi, the holiest of India’s seven sacred cities. Found in Northern India, the spiritual capital of the country draws in a multitude of Hindu pilgrims all year round to bathe in the hallowed Ganges and perform their funeral rites. The practices and beliefs around death which are embodied in this place of pilgrimage might not sit well with those habituated to customary western traditions. However, these are places held extremely dear by the guests who travel there, some staying for as long as 40 years. By the River explores the traditions observed in the city while giving us an insight into its people – from devout pilgrims to the children whose caste has predestined them to make their livings cremating bodies. DN asked Ulvestad to take us through the hurdles of shooting captivating footage of the funeral rites while remaining respectful as outsiders to this public, yet deeply intimate practice.
Had you always wanted to make a documentary and how did Varanasi come up?
I was working in commercial post-production with Charu Menon, my producer when we found our common passion for cinema while babysitting late-night renders one evening. She presented a few topics for documentaries that she had gathered over the years – one of which was the death hotels of Varanasi. Being someone who tends to gravitate towards existential questions, it immediately jumped at me. I had so many questions. The following day I began writing my treatment, trying to find the angle that I felt could help us understand such a different way of life, and answer the questions I, as a westerner myself, had at first glance. It took me a few days to write the first draft with my instinctual thoughts around how I wanted to approach it. I also wrote what I call a story map, which is basically a segmented outline that maps out how I see the film playing out on a timeline. Being a documentary, I knew I couldn’t get too attached to that, but I like going in with a foundation that I feel will work, then I can always tweak and change things from there.
I didn’t create a shot list as I felt that was too restricting for a documentary.
We had a recce crew that went to Varanasi a month before the principal shoot with a list of personas to pre-interview, places to document and figure out any nuances I thought might be interesting to explore. I then sat down and absorbed all this data, which allowed me to select the most meaningful subjects, as well as giving me a sense of the atmosphere of the city so that I could better understand the ethereal feeling I wanted to portray. I didn’t create a shot list, as I felt that was too restricting for a documentary, but I did create a list of segments that I wanted to shoot.
Regarding the list of segments chosen from the recce, did those choices come from your aforementioned story map? How exactly did you manage to wheedle down such a vast subject matter?
Originally, we planned on just exploring the death hotels and their guests, but I found that it would leave so many questions about the surroundings of such a foreign tradition. Varanasi sometimes feels like what I imagine travelling back to ancient times would be like, and I felt that we needed to go wider in order to convey that feeling and understanding, so it slowly grew into encompassing the city as well. This was definitely a challenge on a meagre five-day shoot, with the danger of stretching things too thin.
As I mentioned the recce crew went to Varanasi a month before the principal shoot with a list of places to document and demographics to pre-interview with questions that would give me an idea of the person and their outlooks. I then sat down and absorbed all this data in order to select the most meaningful subjects and get a sense of the atmosphere of the city so that I could begin figuring out how to best portray it. When sifting through interview subjects, I firstly look for what they have to say but also their camera presence and their honesty. Some people put on a persona as soon as the camera is pointed at them, so I try to look for the people who talk to you and not the camera.
When sifting through interview subjects, I firstly look for what they have to say but also their camera presence and their honesty.
The first thing I did was to boil down my research to what I found fascinating, then look for indirect connections. It went something like this; the death hotels and its guests, the people who will eventually cremate the guests, the kids who are growing up around this, and a holy man who can narrate a bigger picture – sprinkled with some purely visual segments that also help us understand the city. I then put that in order of what I thought was a natural flow of emotion and information.
I’m a pretty emotional guy who also happens to be very analytical, and I think that plays a big role in how I approach filmmaking. While I’m always striving for genuine emotion, it needs to rest on a thought-out structure, so I tend to heavily visualise what the final film looks and feels like, sometimes down to specific cuts and transitions (which can be a swing and a miss).
How did you decide on the pace of the documentary which seems to weave around?
When working with my DP, Caleb Ware, we talked a lot about the emotion and energy we wanted to portray for the different segments, basically creating rules for how the camera is operated. In the segments relating to the ethereal, I wanted it to feel like we’re an observer drifting through a holy capsule, so there we would utilize slow pans and static shots on sticks, or slow tracking shots on the gimbal. In the cricket game, it was all about being in that state of play with the kids where we forget about their surroundings for a minute, and so it made sense to go handheld and dynamic. Similarly, the busy city sequence was all about whippy handheld shots, not only to create that high energy cut, but that was literally what it felt like being in those streets. This culminates in the crescendo of the cremation towards the end where we bridge the two ‘rules’ by using handheld slow motion. We also used anamorphic lenses in order to emphasize that almost otherworldly feeling of the city.
Alongside the aforementioned lenses what camera did you use and what drove that choice?
We shot on the Arri Alexa Mini. Without getting too technical, I just love the image it produces. I’m a sucker for 16mm and 35mm film, so when shooting digital, I’d always go for the Mini as it doesn’t produce that sharp, digital edge that many digital cameras have.
How did the locals react to a film crew and did you come upon any particular obstacles filming in Varanasi?
Cameras are a sensitive thing along the river banks and they generally have a strict no-camera policy. While we had gotten the green light to shoot from higher-ups, we did run into people who weren’t too happy with us, but we had a guy, an influential local I suppose, who would always come with us to the public locations to manage those situations.
It was a confronting shoot in extreme heat, surrounded by death.
Production had its hiccups. To our horror, Caleb (DP) couldn’t get out of bed on the third day of shooting, probably due to extreme dehydration from working his butt off in the 46-degree weather. Luckily our 1st AC, Esteban, is also a DP, so he stepped up to man the rig. However, it quickly dawned on us how essential he was on the focus. One of our assistants tried manning the focus, but it didn’t really work out. I tried, and that didn’t go much better. So after wasting some crucial hours, we figured that the best solution was for me to operate the camera while Esteban went back to pulling focus. This led to one of the most intense shooting experiences I’ll probably ever have when we later that evening shot the Ganga Aarti ceremony. Surrounded by hundreds of people, Charu, Esteban, and I charged around the area to get nice shots before the 30-minute ceremony was over. With my sweat literally showering the camera, I kept shouting “ROLL, ESTY” through the deafening sound of the drums and bells to his remote focus station as soon as a shot was lined up. It was a rush.
It was a confronting shoot in extreme heat, surrounded by death. When shooting the cremation ceremony, Caleb went right in there to capture the intimate footage of a family about to set fire to their loved one. As I was standing some meters away on the stairs with my monitor, while he was in the midst of smoke and ashes, I had to move because another body was being brought down the steps to the pyres. Not your usual shoot, I suppose. That said, I personally found that there is something beautiful about how life and death coexist so peacefully. A stark contrast to how we in the western world completely shy away from death and almost make it a taboo. I approached the subjects with the utmost empathy for their choices and beliefs, and the city left me fascinated by its spirituality and reverence, while at the same time leaving a bitter taste after talking to the cricket-playing kids. In many ways, the film takes you on the journey I had, and it’s up to you to decide how you feel about it.
When it came to the edit were you able to stay true to your initial story map or did the fluidity of the shoot mean drastic changes were needed?
We didn’t have too many surprises in the cutting room due to all the visualizing in pre-production, and as soon as a change was made during production, I mostly knew where it would fit and sort of mentally updated the story map. We did the edit at Heckler with their lead editor, Andrew Holmes. Seeing that I had a very clear story arc in my mind already, a big part of it was laying that foundation and playing with the rhythm and pacing of the footage within that framework. I went through the hours of raw interview material to structure coherent subjects, while Andrew played with the more energetic segments. Then, we joined forces and melded this together over the month we had in the edit suite.
I believe in giving your collaborators the room to unfold their creativity in order to achieve the best results.
The biggest surprise on set was when talking to the kids. Judging by the sample interview from the pre-recce, they seemed very carefree about their surroundings, so we had just scheduled for a quick interview segment following the cricket game to show how different these kids perceive death. But when we rolled the actual interview it took a very dark turn, which added a whole new layer to them, and I immediately knew that it expanded their place in the film. So I decided to scrap the interview with the last hotel manager on the following day in order to go back and shoot b-roll of the kids. It ended up giving the cricket game a very different subtext and became one of my favorite segments.
How did you settle upon a music score for the film?
Dustin Lau, who I worked with on a previous short film, scored By the River. He has a style that speaks to me, and I knew that he had an amazing way of understanding my, sometimes abstract, direction. I believe in giving your collaborators the room to unfold their creativity in order to achieve the best results, and I feel that giving emotional direction rather than specific direction with lots of references leaves room for that. It’s worth its weight in gold when you find collaborators who speak the same language and can decipher those abstract words.
What can our audience look forward to from you next?
I’ve just finished writing a short script that I’m hoping to get done in the first half of this year. An emotional thought-provoker with some existential elements (you know, my jam and all), so I’m super keen to get that going. I’m dropping a film I did for Yamaha Music next week, so I’m hoping that’ll kick open some doors in the commercial realm, and I want to connect with more musicians to create some killer music videos. And lastly, I and Charu have been talking about gathering the team for another documentary for a while, so as soon as the world is back to some kind of normalcy, we’ll make that a reality.