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The attack was as shocking as it was brutal. News of the incident swept quickly across the world on a riptide of outrage: A 23-year-old Delhi physiotherapy student, out for an evening with a male friend, was lured onto a bus, where she was beaten and raped by six men over the course of many hours. Two weeks later, she died of her injuries.

Her attackers were written off as animals, devoid of humanity, an impression cemented when one of them said in a jailhouse interview that the woman was to blame, because “a decent girl won’t roam around” at night.

People asked how it could have happened, but the queries seemed more rhetorical – dismissive and judgmental – than genuinely inquisitive.

How, then, will people respond to Deepa Mehta’s new film when it has its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday evening? For Anatomy of Violence seeks to understand the men: to position them in the culture that produced them, to peel away their masks of infamy and give them a biographical back story, to extend them something like empathy.

“It was too convenient for them just to be ‘evil,’ because we don’t become who we are in isolation,” says Mehta earlier this week, sitting in Canteen, the ground-floor restaurant at the TIFF Lightbox. “I really believe in that, looking at where they come from, to find some root cause. Something. Maybe just get a glimpse of what it might be, because somehow I feel that we’re complicit in it.”

Film maker Deepa Mehta is photographed in downtown Toronto on Sept 7 2016. Mehta's film Anatomy of Violence, premiering at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, looks at the gang rape and murder of a 23 year old woman in 2012, aboard a bus in India. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Anatomy of Violence is an unusual film, and not just because it is an aesthetically ragged work, entirely in Hindi, with no music and no artificial lighting, shot on video with a skeletal crew that didn’t even include a hair or makeup person: wholly different than Mehta’s meticulously composed epics such as Midnight’s Children and her Elements trilogy (Fire / Earth / Water). It also defies labels: You could call it a docudrama, though Mehta says perhaps only 10 to 20 per cent of what she presents about the men is factually accurate. The film doesn’t even use the attackers’ real names.

It is, in essence, the physical artifact that emerged from two weeks of workshops last winter in Delhi with a small corps of actors (including Mehta veterans Vansh Bhardwaj, the abusive husband in Heaven on Earth, and Water’s Seema Biswas), who improvised moments from the lives of the six rapists based on the few biographical shards that had been reported. Stranger still, and strangely compelling: The actors frequently play the men in childhood, either suffering sexual or emotional abuse at the hands of relatives, or abusing others and having their parents turn a blind eye. It is an impressionistic portrait, offering glimpses of their lives that, while not excusing their later actions, provide devastating context.

Mehta, 66, had been approached by producers Trudie Styler and Celine Rattray to make a film about the rape, but she turned it down, in part because she is uncomfortable fusing the victim forever to the horrific act that ended her life. (In fact, while Anatomy of Violence imagines the moments before and after the rape, it does not depict the attack itself.)

Instead, she proposed a film about the men, and began the workshops as a way to generate a script. On Day 2, she threw that idea out the window, and asked her executive assistant to pick up a camera and shoot what was unfolding.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

“It became very apparent that I didn’t want to come back and cast kids. There was no way I could do it. It just would have been a travesty, and it would have been unnecessary. Seeing the adults playing kids, it was as if they were looking at their own lives, and that was so powerful,” she says. “When something smells of honesty – I’m talking about what was happening in front of me – why would I want to come back and recreate something?”

Mehta doesn’t say so, but her hesitation at the time to return to her usual mode of filmmaking may have been because she had just suffered one of the worst critical beatings of her career. Beeba Boys, an action flick which was also a social drama about the glamourized violence of Sikh gangs in Vancouver, premiered at TIFF last year and ran straight into a buzz-saw of bad reviews.

Globe critic Kate Taylor gave the film two out of four stars, but she also called Mehta’s direction “ham-fisted” and “hugely frustrating.”

That review “hurt so much. And that’s naive and silly of me. You know, she’s just doing her job,” says Mehta now. “I must say – I wasn’t expecting [the bad reviews], and that was really stupid.” It’s stupid, she says, because when she went back and watched the film again about six months after its release, “I learned about what I wasn’t very aware about – which is about tone. Tone of a film,” she says. “Beeba Boys really suffers from inconsistency of tone.”

“But I learned when I saw it again, and I said, ‘Oh, shit, I know what they’re talking about.’ And it made perfect sense. But that doesn’t mean it stops hurting. It’s a difficult lesson. But I’m glad I saw that [later]. It was so clear.”

Anatomy of Violence is headed for an entirely different life, though perhaps one that is just as unpredictable. Mehta and her producing partner David Hamilton made the film without any input from her usual backers. “There was nobody who was going to judge it. We didn’t have to show the footage to Telefilm Canada, OMDC [Ontario Media Development Corp.] – nothing.” While that bought rare creative freedom and it meant nobody knew about the project before TIFF announced last month it was coming to the festival, the film doesn’t yet have a theatrical distributor.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Mehta says she’s okay with that. “Is it for a traditional audience? Perhaps not. The reason I did it is perhaps somebody can take it and run with it.” Last week, Senator Ratna Omidvar hosted a private screening for a handful of women’s rights advocates who discussed how the film might be used as a teaching tool.

That could be a fraught discussion, especially if, in this era of Ghomeshi and Cosby and the Rio gang rape, people believe that Mehta, in seeking to understand the Delhi rapists, is excusing their actions. So she wants to be clear: “Whatever caused them to make that choice, ultimately they made an incorrect choice, and I think they should be punished for that. But there has to be an inquiry why they made a choice. I’m not saying, ‘Don’t punish them.’ I’m saying the idea to find some kind of empathy for them actually enables me to examine the choices they made and why they made them.

“It was a horrific thing they did. But why they did it is what fascinates me. And that, for me, is so scary, because when they’re hanged, it’s not going to stop the rape. We have to do something about a culture of patriarchy, a culture of grinding poverty.”

As the film heads out into the world, Mehta says she has none of the usual nervousness that comes with a film-festival premiere, in part because this film is such a different animal.

Then, out of the blue, she adds this: “Maybe it’s the last film I’m going to make.”

Is she serious? “I’m very serious. I mean, I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen, but I feel that,” she replies. “I feel satisfied. I feel very enriched by this in a very strange way. I feel actually really good. Does that make sense?”

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