Aneek Chaudhuri’s experimental documentary “Comic Fingers” opens with a quote by Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieślowski, best known for his 3 Colors film trilogy. Fitting since the doc, focused on the art and dangers of political cartoonists in India, has a recurring motif of superimposed colors of the Indian flag. These types of artistic flourishes let the viewer know from the beginning that they are not watching a traditional documentary.
After the Charlie Hedbo shooting in January 2015, in which 11 people, including a number of employees of the sardonic Parisian newspaper where killed in response to publishing a series of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, national attention was drawn to the threat to free speech and the risks being taken by political satirists. It would seem obvious that this should be explored in the way only a strong documentary is capable of doing. Unfortunately, “Comic Fingers”, while a complex and interesting effort, is not the film for the uninitiated looking for an entry point into this subject.
Ostensibly, the primary focus of the documentary is Indian political cartoonist and author K.V. Gautam. His interviews break down into high contrast interviews and excerpts from a TED talk. Buffering these interviews is a schizophrenic lot of archival film footage, cutaways to Tarkofsky and Pasolini posters, shots of wax dripping from a candle, and extreme close-ups of film running through a projector. There is even an extended animation that runs alongside Mark Anthony’s speech from Act II Scene III of Julius Caesar. Chaudhuri is not shy about flaunting his love for all things cinematic and seems bent on proving that this documentary is not a mere document but also a work that could sit beside other important films.
Chaudhuri is so interested in tying all different art forms together that it never answers many of the questions raised by the viewer. Such as what compels these artists to risk their lives in a field some consider trivial. It doesn’t touch on the historical importance of comedy to fight fascism and injustice. And it doesn’t delve into the stress their families go through knowing they could be killed over something the Western World takes for granted. Furthermore, some of the artistic choices are more often alienating than engaging. The use of cheap video filters would be better suited for a Dire Straits music video than a politically charged documentary. The lo-fi approach is admirable, but not when it distracts with poor audio throughout which is exacerbated due to heavy accents and only intermittent subtitles. These shortcomings get in the way of feeling a personal connection to many of the subjects. The audience for this documentary is huge, but the film is a difficult watch.