The hawk moth community of the Eastern Himalayas comes into sharp focus in this contemplative doc


Source: Dogwoof


Dir: Anirban Dutta, Anupama Srinivasan. India, US. 2024. 83mins.

The subject of this documentary may ostensibly be hawk moths but it is less a dissection of the life and habits of the insect than a ruminative meditation upon their mysteries and their changing environment high in the thick forests of the Eastern Himalayas. Channelling a similar energy to the more contemplative parts of films including All That Breathes and Taming The Garden, Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan’s second feature documentary after last year’s Flickering Lights is so spare in places it risks running out of energy altogether. 

An experience to be welcomed even as some details remain frustratingly opaque

Nevertheless, their quiet approach is likely to beguile patient viewers to tune into its rhythms. Nocturnes features in the International Competition at Thessaloniki Documentary Festival after a Sundance bow, and will also screen at CPH:Dox. Its immersive visuals and richly rewarding soundscape could tempt arthouse distributors further along the line.

Our guide to the world of the moths is ecologist Mansi Bungee, who notes she becomes a nocturnal creature herself in the ten days around the new moon, when the insect activity is at its height and she heads to the mountains to conduct her studies. With the help of Gendan ’Bicki’ Marphew, from the local indigenous Bugun community, and a handful of others, she sets up a large gridded cloth sheet suspended across metal rods, which becomes a living canvas for flying insects under lights in the dead of night.

There is nothing dead about this part of the forest, however, which hums with sound even in the darkness. The noise of cicada-like insects is joined by the whirr of the wings of a breathtaking amount of moths of all shapes and sizes. Dutta and Srinivasan’s measured approach allows the viewer time to take this huge variety in, from insects that are shiny like new leaves to those which shimmer with iridescent markings and others boasting luxuriant fur that appears positively cat-like.

“They all look the same to me,” says Bicki, but through the course of the film both he and we spend enough time with these creatures to start to be able to distinguish the distinctive shape of certain hawk moths.  The noise of these wings – beating rapidly, we’re told, to help the insects keep warm – is only broken by the occasional click and beep of cameras as Mansi goes about the work of documenting the hawk moths she can see.

Gradually we learn that she is categorising these back at a briefly glimpsed lab in a bid to see whether the height a moth lives at affects its size and if, over time, they are moving upwards as the climate begins to warm. Her voice-over provides intermittent detail about the moths and her work, although the directors’ focus is firmly on showing rather than telling.

“Our time is spent mostly waiting,” Mansi notes, and Srinivasan and Dutta aren’t scared of making us do that too, sometimes simply hanging out with a camera as Mansi, Bicki and others exchange idle chit-chat or allowing the sounds of the mountains to take over as Satya Nagpaul’s camera drinks in the mist rolling gradually over the forest. While offering space to reflect is an effective element of the film, there is more than a hint of repetition here, and more detail about the substance of Mansi’s work – not least the way she collaborates with the local indigenous communities – would have been welcome. Mansi is a philosophical and engaging guide when she does speak directly about the moths so it’s a shame she isn’t given more time by the directors to educate us.

Although the sound is mostly ambient, Nainita Desai’s otherworldly score with its chimes and tremulous woodwind, occasionally rises to meet it. Dutta and Srinivasan extend the invitation to us to be drawn into this world as well; an experience to be welcomed even as some details remain frustratingly opaque.

Production companies: Metamorphosis Film Junction, Sandbox Films

International sales: Dogwoof

Producers: Anirban Dutta

Cinematography: Satya Rai Nagpaul

Editing: Yael Bitton

Music: Nainita Desai