For the people of Varanasi – the holiest of India’s seven sacred cities – death is a blessing. Stretching along the banks of the river Ganges, Varanasi is a place where devout Hindus go to die in the hope of achieving moksha: freedom from the endless cycle of death and rebirth (samsara). ‘Death hotels’ provide a home for those in wait: from the elderly or dying to some who are in good health when they check in and spend half a lifetime waiting for their salvation. For such healthy devotees, the promise of going ‘directly to God’ and a peaceful death make living in a death hotel an essential aspect of their being, even if it means leaving family and friends behind.
In By the River, the Norwegian Brazilian director Dan Braga Ulvestad brings us inside the spiritual gates of Varanasi, immersing us in a city where funeral pyres burn in plain sight and decomposed bodies float downstream. Interviewing the faithful residing in two hotels, Mumukshu Bhawan and Mukti Bhawan, Ulvestad examines how deeply embedded death is in the culture, conversation and conscience of those living in Varanasi – children and adults alike. One resident explains that many locals cremate bodies for their livelihoods, a cultural tradition that has been passed down through generations – and one that is not reserved for adults alone. In a surprising turn, a group of children candidly discuss how they, too, partake in the ritual: ‘we burn the body and our work is done’.
The film’s final sequence at the Ganga Aarta ceremony offers us a sense of how intimately connected the living are with those who came before them. This spiritual ritual is an explosion of music, prayer and fire, bringing thousands together on the banks of the River Ganges to honour the dead. Ulvestad and the Australian director of photography Caleb Ware capture expressions of grief and solemn reflection as the bodies of the recently deceased are enveloped by crackling fire. While orange embers fly through the night sky, tears streak the cheeks of those moved by the ceremony. Prayers are whispered over the beat of drums and sound of horns; flowers are scattered; and the sky becomes shrouded in smoke.
By the River grapples with profound and enduring questions: what does it mean to have a good death? Can the true meaning of life be understood only in dying? What does it mean to be forever in search of salvation – and what can that pursuit cost? Underlying the film’s artful visuals are ideas about the mechanics of suffering and of contentment. The result is an engrossing portrayal of a cultural tradition, as well as a powerful contemplation of the human condition.
Written by Olivia Hains