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Maisam Ali • Director of In Retreat

“I was trying to do something like a painting or a haiku"


- CANNES 2024: The Indian filmmaker talks about the multifaceted meanings of home, belonging and portraying the region of Ladakh in his debut film

Maisam Ali • Director of In Retreat
(© Lea Rener/ACID)

Iranian-born, Ladakhi filmmaker Maisam Ali makes waves with his debut film, In Retreat [+see also:
film review
interview: Maisam Ali
film profile
, as Cannes’ first-ever ACID selection from India.

Cineuropa: Your film follows a man wandering towards a place he no longer recognises, where he no longer belongs — or perhaps, as the title suggests, he is “in retreat”. How did you want to tackle this notion of place?
Maisam Ali: “Retreat” has this feeling of going on holiday or a place you go to rest, and I feel there's a kind of restlessness in the term. It was the fact that he’s going back, and yet at the same time going forward. There’s this kind of duality or ambiguity I like with this term. I’ve always had this ambiguous relationship with the idea of home. I used to feel that as a child, home is a place where you find comfort. But at the same time, home is also a place, just in terms of the material of a home, the structure of a home; it’s ultimately made up of walls. It also becomes a place where you start drawing boundaries: you start saying that this is my house, this is my property, and the one on the outside is the outsider. I had this feeling about this idea of home from very early on.

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The film is set in your home region. Do you also relate to the protagonist, or what did you draw on to create this character?
For those who come from smaller towns, when we move to places for study or work, there’s a kind of disconnect. I don't particularly feel like I strongly belong to a mainstream culture of any place. He's just trying to be there, but he knows that he can't be there. There was a kind of sadness and a vulnerability that attracted me to him. Maybe I thought that this is a distant version of myself in the future. In smaller communities, you have your folk stories, and you have your songs and your culture, but at the same time, that also becomes very regionalistic and not in a very good sense, like an extreme form of nationalism. There’s a caution in that. So it’s good to be rooted and to be part of something, but then my gaze is always somehow shifted towards that outsider who maybe I'm not treating well because he's not part of my home. It could be a migrant worker, or it could be anyone. It could be delinquent kids from a small community, or it could be a woman.

Can you talk about the inclusion of the intercuts to a young woman drawing a map, or sketch, on paper? Mapping can be a very political act, but also a very personal one.
She's trying to connect all of the spaces and create a narrative in that sketch, which she's doing over a period of one night. I didn't want to do something traditional in the sense that you see a character, and then you see his point of view. I was trying to do something like a painting or a haiku. In a haiku, it doesn't have to be connected to a single event. If it's happening at the same time, and if there is some kind of a connection, then it becomes something. And somehow, they're all getting connected into a larger map or an image, like a collage.

The combination of orchestral music and contemporary pop music was particularly memorable.
Most of the film has more realistic, more diegetic sound design. It's nice to work with really good sound design because in today's era, you will notice that apart from maybe at film festivals, the quality of sound is deteriorating. In OTTs and theatres, at least in India, it's about loud dialogue, loud sound effects and strong music. To work with sound in a textural way to bring things out is very interesting. And with respect to the music of the film, there is some music that has been used more in a diegetic way, like the sound of the song from Billie Eilish. It just rings on her phone, and I like that. We also know what time period the film is situated in [because of that]. Then there is the classical piece, which has been used in the film a couple of times, and which is more like a leitmotif kind of theme music.

Your portrayal of Ladakh struck me as, understandably, very personal. Did you feel like you were fighting against external images of what the region, or India, is represented as?
Ladakh is a touristic place, so the images there are of a certain kind, like beautiful postcard imagery. My grandfather was also a photographer, and he had a postcard shop. But I didn't want to have any kind of resemblance with those images or representations. In India, people are saying, “Oh, this is a very different frame for Ladakh.” It's a little unconventional, a little arthouse. I don't know if you have to put it in a bracket. In that sense, I wanted to avoid making "beautiful images". I wanted to do more personal imagery with more texture. I would go to places where I had some experiences in my childhood and try to shoot my sequences there. But ultimately, it's just about doing what you feel strongly about. And the rest? People will always have their interpretations.

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