One of the most anticipated films of the 2005 Toronto Film Festival, John & Jane recounts the hopes and dreams of six call centre agents in India who offer long-distance goods and services to Americans. They are encouraged to adopt American names, accents and values individualism, success, progress, the pursuit of happiness to veil their Indian-ness. The film is a work of non-fiction that speaks to the painful ironies of globalization and inequity using the lush cinematic vocabulary of a polished feature. When I ask director and editor Ashim Ahluwalia about the remarkable look of his documentary, he replies: "Certain things are seen as documentary and certain things are seen as fiction based more on the medium that you are using and the style of the shooting than the actual content. For example, you shoot something hand-held and it becomes documentary; you shoot it static and it becomes fiction. So I was interested in just what happens if you shoot something on 35mm film and static and it's the same material that you would otherwise shoot on DV and hand-held. "It was a challenge to see if we could do something on 35mm that could be intimate and at the same time still fall in this strange liminal space between fiction and non-fiction I honestly have a problem with the whole cinemavérité thing the idea that you can be present in a room and nobody knows. You might as well feel like it's fiction and be conscious of the artifice. These guys are also faking who they are; they are fictionalizing themselves, they have fake names, fake identities within this fiction/ non-fiction space." Rather than intercutting the stories of Glen, Sydney, Osmond, Nikki, Nicholas and Naomi, Ahluwalia primarily presents them to us one after the other in a series of portraits: "The film was structured as a transformation process from someone who really hates his job to someone who really loves it; there's an underlying journey that's happening from an Indian boy and girl to a final sort of "John" and "Jane," virtual American characters In a strange way I think of all six of them as the journey of one person." From Osmond filling the void of a parent's death by devoting himself to Amway to Naomi feeling the need to repeat three times that she is naturally blonde, each scene is as piercing as the voice of Glen's mother waking him from peaceful slumber. The subjects' glorified, mythic image of the United States is one cobbled together from platitudes, Hollywood movies and Sears catalogues; Americans are described as "casual" and "nice" while treating the call centre agents as irritants ("we're some f**king human beings here," Glen poignantly pleads). But the charged relationship between a land of plenty and one of deprivation cuts both ways: one agent curtly dispatches a woman who dialed the wrong number to report domestic abuse while another coercively pressures an elderly man to purchase a long distance calling plan. Despite the tragicomic political truths of their American obsession, Ahluwalia never judges his subjects, treading a fine line between critique and affection. "You have a certain kind of baggage that you enter a space with, but I think that eventually you have to let it go and become much more empathetic because things are not as clear-cut. A lot of people think that it's just a straight-up political film but it's much more grey than that When you're within it and spending a lot of time with people, you begin to understand the logic of why they would actually do what they do so that it becomes very difficult to be judgmental. You have to be much more open and just let the grey area pop out a bit and let it be let it just be open-ended like that."
JON DAVIS, September 14th, 2005
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