Speculative fiction tends to valorize the unreality of utopianism more than the concreteness of dystopian realism, and perhaps intuitively so: in the act of speculating, realism has fewer grounds on which to tread, its sounds and images often resembling uncanny yet unconvincing parodies of the world we live in. That said, the best works of apocalyptic fiction have frequently surrendered to a frisson of violent imagination, foregrounding elements of contemporary malaise (ecology, capitalism, fundamentalism, etc.) with literary visions of transformation and freedom. Blade Runner, addressing the existential conundrum of artificial sentience, nevertheless took pains to envision a cosmopolis of air traffic and labyrinthine potential; Happiness, the four-minute “story of a rodent’s unrelenting quest for happiness and fulfillment,” distills the pessimistic crux of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism into a poignant if unmistakably populist series of animated vignettes, substituting mice for men. Both examples are to some degree cultural cornerstones: accomplished works which have also been condensed into shorthands for Orwell and Huxley.
If speculative dystopia used to have a monopoly on simplicity, it no longer quite does with the electric and ambitiously unclassifiable first feature from Indian filmmaker Ishan Shukla. Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust studies, true to its title, the proliferation and reception of false ideologies amid times of crisis; it also concludes that all ideologies are bound to be false, one way or another. The search for truth, then, isn’t a mere matter of human will or contingency, but a Sisyphean endeavor necessarily futile. But it is also proof of what a lapsed cynic might term the “indomitable human spirit,” the will-to-life even as life as we know it has shown all routes to bring forth death. Schirkoa, the moniker of homogeneous, empty capitalism, is witness to such a conflict, between the universal global village and the particulars of its denizens. In Shukla’s alternate reality, citizens do not show their faces, wearing paper bags over their heads even in private life. They don’t have names, only numbers; our protagonist — designated 197A — is a bureaucratic middle-manager inexplicably called to attend and represent the ruling party’s showdown against a mythical opposition. And they all worship and deify a “Lord O,” Himself bagged and buried under a veneer of numerical divinity: the “O” as gaping, deferred identity, but also as the “One” from whose form all creation stems.
Schirkoa’s worldbuilding, for the most part, offers spellbinding vitality, in spite of or because of the technical limits imposed on it. Developed from Shukla’s 2016 short, the film adopts both traditional 2D animation techniques and the mimetic phenomenology of 3D motion capture, lending its overall design an eerily sluggish quality. The rendering of its gameplay mechanics, reminiscent of Japanese acid steampunk (see for instance Enter the Void) but just as redolent of unbounded visual potentiality (a motif underscored in the hyperlinked cinema of The Human Surge), pushes the viewer into ever-stranger, ever-amorphous territory. Schirkoa’s obsessively totalitarian environs is quickly destabilized by popular political action culminating in riots and witch hunts: the bogeyman of conformity is cited in a young female rebel with whom 197A first contemplates suicide techniques before tearing down the establishment. The noocracy of Schirkoa, headed by four “Intellectual” types who speak garbled nonsense and appear ambivalently satirical of both technocracy and sophistry, does not therefore comport with any specific regime; its emphasis on the conservative pulses of “safety, sanity, sanctity” speaks rather to the present’s contempt for freedom. Freedom from, instead of freedom to, has become the paramount ethos of a world fundamentally divested of it.
Shukla’s odyssey, however, traces not just the trappings of popular totalitarianism. Beyond Schirkoa, two other communities come into focus: the Bacchanalian inverse of Konthaqa, a space for uninhibited, counter-cultural expression, and the exiled monastery of Heghov, where an introspective, almost arcane wisdom presides. In both of these worlds, the possibility of utopia is raised and repealed, quashed by specters of revolutionary zeal. A telling constant within Shukla’s universe is the belief, or signifying power, in Lord O: interpreted by Schirkoans as a political icon while revered by Konthaqans as anomalous and radical (while subsumed under a more traditional religiosity by the ascetics), this constant illuminates the parallels between their varying ideological projects and those of our own. As 197A defects to Konthaqa, having unfettered his chains from a world of indifference, he encounters and leads the movement in support of reactionary diversity and inclusion. Ditching the paper bag’s blank stare — an effective if perhaps unintended recall of the killers in Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers — for devil horns and a sex change, the reformed politician cavorts with Lies, the Konthaqans’ mermaid leader, whilst fending off propaganda attacks and assassination attempts from his embittered Schirkoan past.
The messy, irresistible passions of Schirkoa are themselves incisively delineated as the film interrogates a dialectic of consciousness merely hinted at in such triumphant interpretations of world history as V for Vendetta. In the Apollonian fantasy of order we see the Reichian thesis of mass sexual repression, while at the Dionysian orgy of post-humanism, we are privy to the impotence of narcissism, so convincingly argued by Christopher Lasch to be the state of post-60s America. A shapeshifting production of enormous ambit and heft, Shukla’s debut features an eclectic voice cast (Golshifteh Farahani, Lav Diaz, Gaspar Noé, Asia Argento, Shekhar Kapur among others), an effervescent medium of speculative creation, and an enervating if tacitly empowering message for the politically conscious today. It argues, in line with what Raymond Geuss has said about the search for meaning in a world “without why,” that purpose and purposiveness are features of the landscape; they cannot be isolated from material, lived imagination. As one of our protagonist’s fellow sojourners remarks, en route to a land of pure difference, “a beautiful night of errors awaits”; in truth we serve, in lies we trust.
Published as part of IFFR 2024 — Dispatch 3.