Basenji (2021)

Basenji screens at Cine-Excess 2021

The Basenji is a breed of dog from Central Africa whose name derives from the word for ‘savage’, whose ‘bark’ is more like a high-pitched yodel, and whose attitude towards strangers is reserved. Although a regular barking dog does briefly feature, there is no actual Basenji to be found in Ian Scott Clement’s eponymous film. Rather the title seems to refer obliquely to the film’s protagonist Prabesh (Asim Niroula) who, like a Basenji, comes from a rural village (albeit far from the Congo, in the Nepalese municipality of Manahari), speaks in a nasal falsetto, and is nervous around others. 

Newly arrived in Kathmandu to study for an arts degree, Prabesh shares a hostel room with Akash (Supreme Rai) who, despite his greater worldliness, offers an endless stream of paranoid conspiracy theories about greater powers who watch and control everything. This is probably not the best environment for sensitive, damaged Prabesh, who discovers in class that he shares his father’s talent for writing, but who may well have inherited – and brought with him to the city – other problems from home.

Two kinds of shot come entirely to dominate Basenji. The first shows Prabesh’s point of view, complete with regular ‘blinks’ (a trick borrowed from Gaspar Noé‘s Enter The Void, 2009), and encompassing not just what Prabesh sees ‘live’, but also what he remembers having seen (in flashback), and what he dreams or hallucinates. The second kind of shot tracks Prabesh tightly, typically over his shoulder, but with the camera also occasionally circling Prabesh so that we see his face. The effect of these shots is to align the viewer, intensely and immediately, with Prabesh’s perspective and situation, while obscuring any explanatory reality beyond his distorted frame of perception and ideation. “Everyone’s become a puppet,” says Akash on one of his rants – and cinematographer Rajiv Manandhar’s restrictive camerawork ensures that the film pulls our strings too. 

For this is filmmaking at its most subjectified and internalised, placing us in a character’s head (or at his back), and challenging us to unravel both his and the world’s mysteries from the inside. Much as creative writing teacher Nisha Thapa (Mithila Sharma) gives her class an assignment to go somewhere “outside of your comfort zone”, Clement’s film (co-written with Gourav Basnet, Surak Mainali and Pralhad Rijal) takes us all to a locus of the unnerving and the uncanny. Prabesh may be on a path of drinking and drugs, of arrest and suspension, of shamanic encounter and nightmarish vision, but what the viewer pieces together from these strange misadventures is a young man caught in his own grief, trauma and mental illness. 

“Inside a character’s lost heart,” says Akash, as he dictates a story to Prabesh (who alone owns a laptop, courtesy of his uncle), “there lies a strange moving picture. A mind covered with a black cloud of ignorance.” Here Prabesh is the character with the lost heart, and that moving picture is Basenji itself, a collection of off-kilter experiences and imaginings all focalised through the bewildered Prabesh. This makes for an alienating watch, set in, but insulated from, the everyday – but that is the point, as Clement’s film captures Prabesh’s unhinged descent, under the dogged grip of delusion, into his family legacy.

strap: Ian Scott Clement’s tightly focalised psychodrama tracks a young Nepalese man caught in his own grief, trauma and mental illness

© Anton Bitel