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Article: Caravan Magazine: ‘Turning around the camera’

April 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Source: The Caravan Magazine

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Turning Around the Camera
Published : 1 April 2010

Jashn-e-Azadi (2007) directed by Sanjay Kak, draws upon a wide range of archival material, verite footage, and poetry to explore the meaning of azadi in Kashmir. As documentaries move out of their urban niches new relationships with the Personal and the Real evolve

By SONAM JOSHI

I T IS HARD TO MISS the brochure lying on documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak’s table. It explains, in Hindi, the schedule of the Fourth Gorakhpur Film Festival, organised this February by the Jan Sanskriti Manch. First staged in 2005, it has since become an annual event in the eastern Uttar Pradesh town. It is perhaps one of several indicators that documentary cinema,traditionally considered to be the preserve of a niche metropolitan audience, is moving away from the metro-festival circuit and finding new channels of circulation.

Kak is no stranger to the process. He recalls that when he began screening Jashn-e-Azadi, his last film on the meaning of azadi (or freedom) in Kashmir, he realised that people all over India were already familiar with his earlier film on Narmada Bachao Andolan, Words on Water.
With film festivals screenings in small cities such as Gorakhpur, Patna, Allahabad, Surat, Bhilai and Yamunanagar over the last three years, the independent documentary seems to have grown into a viable cinematic medium. It is a form that contains both fluidity and experimentation, complexity and a certain transparency. There is a political vision and a critical edge, but also scope for asking questions about social memory, alternative and often forgotten histories, and cultures of protest and transgression. There are films being made on and around gender, sexuality, urban life, identity, art and subaltern cultural practices.

With a profusion in the numbers of documentary films being made, their scope seems chaotic yet creative, diffused and limited at the same time. What are the parameters of their non-commercial distribution? Where can the lines be drawn between documentary and fiction, when the former so freely uses devices of the latter?

MANY OF THE QUESTIONS associated with today’s documentary cinema come from its early history. The British government used documentaries as propaganda tools during WWII, with compulsory screenings of such films in cinema halls. Later, in newly independent India, documentary cinema came to be perceived as an artform that could be deployed for building and integrating the nation. As a result, there was little disagreement between the government and the filmmakers as far as the voice of the Films Division-funded documentaries were concerned. These films emphasised the collective rather than the personal, the didactic rather than the dialogic.

By the 1970s, however, in the period following the Emergency, a number of political documentary filmmakers such as Gautam Ghosh, Anand Patwardhan, Utpalendu Chakravarty, Tapan Bose and Suhasini Mulay began to challenge the benevolent perception of the state through a series of films critical of it. Yet even as there was an attempt to question the state, the aesthetics and the language were often similar to the earlier films.

“In these films, instead of a benevolent state, there was the rogue state. Instead of trying to define the citizen, there were citizens as victims,” points out Gargi Sen, documentary filmmaker and co-founder of the Delhi-based documentary distributor, Magic Lantern Foundation. Yet many of today’s filmmakers had their first experience of seeing documentaries at this time, even though they would go on to raise questions about them later. Kak saw his first documentary in the 1980s in a darkened classroom in his Delhi college—Anand Patwardhan screening his film, Prisoners of Conscience, on political prisoners in the time of the Emergency.

Anand was one of the first persons to go crisscrossing the country to show his film with such energy,” says Kak. “After the screening, I realised that it was possible to do this. Yet, apart from a few films, the scope for seeing documentaries was limited, and we often made our films long before seeing many others…”

B Y THE 1980S, THE documentary scenario looked less bleak. More people started to work with the medium and the source of funding expanded. Feminist filmmakers such as Manjira Datta, Reena Mohan, Nilita Vachani, Deepa Dhanraj, Madhushree Dutta, and the Jamia- based Mediastorm group made their first documentaries around this time. Many of them came from a context of engagement with the women’s movement and its politics. Remarkably, at a time when female filmmakers were a rarity in mainstream cinema, a number of them began to use documentaries to consciously identify themselves as feminists. For many subsequent filmmakers, this opened up several possibilities of how documentaries could become a political way of storytelling.

Manjira Datta’s The Sacrifice of Babulal Bhuiyan (1988) was based on the death of a coal washery worker. Towards the end of the decade, there were several parallel streams of documentary cinema. The Films Division continued to produce them, but there were some exceptions that ran contrary to the institution’s expository approach. These included Mani Kaul’s Dhrupad and Siddheshwari and Satyajit Ray’s The Inner Eye. Simultaneously, a large number of films began to be commissioned by NGOs as well. In their early career, Delhi-based filmmakers Saba Dewan and Rahul Roy worked on several such films. Often these films would be driven by their own agendas, which circumscribed their scope and creativity. “These commissioned films co-opted the language of protest that was associated with earlier non-commissioned independent films, but their concerns were restricted and within the state’s limits,” Dewan recalls.

And then there were the independent, non-commissioned political documentaries that often portrayed moments and issues of political injustice. Even as some films were being made with a more nuanced vision by a number of feminist filmmakers, the limitations of the earlier language of expression were making themselves visible. Questions were raised about finding a new form to articulate political concerns. Dewan describes her earlier films, Dharmayuddha and Nasoor, as protest films, made in the midst of the late 1980s and early 90s identity politics.

In accordance with the language and objectives of the documentary genre of that time, “they sought to expose hidden faces of reality.” Dewan adds, “While I believed in the issues of the earlier protest films, their form was predictable and did not excite me as a filmmaker. Along with making political documentaries came the need to work with images and form and to think of documentary as an aesthetic medium. If I do a film, then it has to satisfy the political person as well as the filmmaker in me.”

A S THERE EMERGED A need to engage with the political in newer ways, there was also a reworking of the means of expressing it, so the political was not reduced to the didactic. On one level, this critique was directed against the cinema that tended to make the people and lives it filmed instruments of politics.

“Politics is often thrust on the shoulders of people who one works with as a filmmaker, which either projects them as heroic figures who stand up for resistance or by demonising them,” says Rahul Roy. “By placing them under a singular lens, there is a refusal to look at the complexity of how people lead their lives and a limiting of the potential of documentary to humanise those it represents.”

After the 1990s, the Internet and a wider exposure to international cinema led to a considerable shift in the way documentary filmmakers approached their craft. Yet, the still-expensive nature of filmmaking, its government funding and the long-held expectations that documentaries should contribute to nation building meant the filmmaker’s gaze was often turned towards the Other, the less privileged. This often left little scope for the filmmaker to be experimental and even mildly self-indulgent. However, documentaries soon began to seek ways to subvert state in- fluence. In several of them, the presence of the filmmaker in the narrative became a significant way of questioning this authority. This could also challenge the perceived truism of documentary being an objective way of representing reality. In recent years, filmmakers have done so by turning the camera on their lives and relationships. The film often becomes an engagement between filmmaker and subject, blurring the boundaries between the two.

From Shyamal Karmakar’s irreverent—bordering on the indulgent—narrative of a singer in Mumbai in I’m The Very Beautiful, to Avijit Mukul Kishore’s sensitive portrayal of his relationship with his mother in Snapshots From A Family Album, to Supriyo Sen’s film Way Back Home, detailing his parents’ first journey to their homeland in Bangladesh since Partition. What these films share is that the personal often draws from the political, but the political also becomes the personal.

Extending the argument, Saba Dewan says this aspect is common to several South Asian documentaries, where the personal is linked with bigger political realities and contextualised with wider concerns, unlike ‘Western’ documentaries with much more individualistic concerns. Sita’s Family (2002), based on three generations of women in Dewan’s family, was semi-autobiographical and narrated in the first person. Her films, especially the most recent trilogy on female performers, seek newer ways of depicting the process of negotiation and interaction between filmmakers and their subjects. In Naach (2008), dancers performing at rural cattle fairs in Bihar ask her questions about her own life in a particular scene, inverting the hierarchy of power. The first film in the trilogy, Delhi Mumbai Delhi (2006), follows the life of Riya, a working-class girl from Delhi, as a beer bar dancer in Mumbai. Here, too, as Riya develops a sense of comfort with being filmed, she takes control of the camera and the interview towards the end.

Dewan explains the ways in which the Personal enters her films. “In Sita’s Family, I wanted to tell the story of my family in the first-person. Yet in other films, like Naach and Delhi Mumbai Delhi, which are in a verité style, the presence of the camera and the filmmaker acting as catalysts to people’s reactions and events is acknowledged, and becomes a way in which comment takes place across gender, caste and class.”

Her latest film, The Other Song (2009), is a kind of search for the figure of the tawaif (courtesan) as a performer of Hindustani classical music, negotiating the past and the present as part of the journey. The need to represent alternative and transgressive histories and memories posed newer questions of form and narrative.

“How do you create a past without falling into the trap of nostalgia or dramatic recreation?” she says of her film that took around eight years to make. “The archival material, both visual and oral, was visually located in the images of the present, to represent the resonance of the past in the present. It was also important to find the filmic representation of their song, like through the use of images of the Ganga along with Raga Bhairavi to create a certain mood.”

Most documentaries are about finding and giving space to narratives, which may not always be the filmmakers’ own. In the process, the documentary also increasingly draws upon the emotional language of fictional idioms to create a new hybrid language for telling stories. In their own way, these sought to release documentaries from a kind of trap that came with the compulsion to represent the Real. These range from Mumbai-based Paromita Vohra’s zany, stylish editing that moves from one medium to another, to RV Ramani’s poetic images which seamlessly flow into each other and find their own vernacular for looking at reality.

Vohra’s films give the Personal a unique twist by using the persona of the filmmaker as a trope, to raise questions and spark off conversations, instead of her explicit presence in it. For instance, her Unlimited Girls uses the narrator’s conversations in a feminist chatroom to explore the meaning of feminism through conversations with other women.

“In the film, the almost unreliable narrator leads the audience through her questions,” says Vohra. “As she is unsure of her own stand, the audience cannot rely on her and instead relies on its own understanding of the film.”

At the same time, the younger generation of filmmakers like her recognise what documentaries can do. “For me, films operate in the realm of culture and ideas, not planning,” she says, giving the example of Q2P, where she takes a critical look at urban planning through a witty investigation into the near absence of public toilets for women.

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The Power of the short film: Aruna Vasudev

November 3, 2009 Leave a comment

The Power of the Short Film

By Aruna Vasudev

Suddenly, documentary and short films are the order of the day. And Delhi is witnessing a wave of festivals dedicated to the works of short filmmakers of all hues and impressive ability. With the new technology making it affordable to express your imagination without the heavy hand of producers and distributors concerned primarily with returns on investment, it is exhilarating to see how much talent there is in the country. The quite surprising aspect is that there are increasingly large audiences for these films, countering the dismissive assumption that “nobody wants to see documentaries”. People do. Perhaps they have had their fill of a make-believe world of unadulterated “entertainment”.

And the “documentary” is no longer confined to its earlier definition. It is feature, it is installation, it is whatever you wish it to be, and comes with a direct engagement with the audience.

The wave has been coming for some time with small festivals of short and documentary films being held quietly, with patience and persistence, by some dedicated people and organisations. The Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) in Delhi was perhaps the first in 2001, holding public screenings of the documentaries it had been making for Doordarshan, along with some international films.

From the very beginning, this Festival became a hub for young people with dreams of making films, films that have content and meaning. Last year, PSBT added to that increasingly significant event a thematic one on Gender and Sexuality Through Film and now, just recently, one on Making Migrant Dialogue through Film. A film like A Forgotten People: The Sakhalin Koreans about the tragic saga of Koreans taken by the Japanese to Sakhalin island as forced labour, then abandoned to the Soviet Union in 1945 and forgotten by their own country which then became divided into North and South Korea. It is the same story told in the brilliant Korean feature film Myung-ja, Akiko, Sonia. In the troubled world of today, one needs to be reminded of the fate of people controlled by circumstances in which they have no voice. This was one of the 12 films on the same theme of displacement.

The Magic Lantern organisation, under the inspired direction of Gargi Sen, herself a filmmaker, has been promoting short and documentary films for many years; last year it launched into what is going to be an annual festival where it is not just films being shown on a screen but as installations outdoors with lively interactive sessions between the audience and the directors. Their focus is principally on India and Indian directors — although international films are also shown. They now have plans to expand this festival to include directors from South Asia in their forthcoming edition. Jai Chandiram, head of the India wing of the International Association of Women in Radio & Television, has been presenting a festival of shorts — by Asian women directors only — for a few years now. And the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts & Communication is perhaps the only teaching institute that holds an annual short film festival with two separate competitive sections by students and by professionals. This time around the consensus was that the student films were better than the ones by the professionals. An indication that when the imagination is allowed to roam free the result is greater creativity? It would certainly appear to be so.

Winter in Delhi is when all this usually happens. This year there has been, for the fifth successive year, the Tri-Continental Film Festival presented by the India chapter of the international human rights organisation Breakthrough. The Festival began in Latin America in 2002, in Africa in 2003 and in Asia in 2004. It has, as they say, “become the primary platform for human rights cinema for the three continents that form part of the global South”. It began in India in 2004 and this year it is travelling from Delhi on to Mumbai, Goa, Bangalore and Kolkata. During the course of the year these films will also be screened at universities and citizens groups, engaging the audiences in dialogues on human rights. This is very much a part of the pattern that Magic Lantern has also been following, working at grassroots levels, going across the country, bringing issues alive through the films they show, getting people involved in them with the hope of shaking them out of their placidity into taking on a more active role.

The films in the Tri Continental Festival were illuminating, disturbing, thought-provoking. You come away from each film marked by the experience. Nothing left you cold or indifferent. They are films of deep humanism — even those that talk of the inhumanity of man towards mankind. Some lift your heart as they show what people can do and have done to change a mindset, a situation of violence, of cruelty. Oddly enough the two films that won the award equally (judged by an international jury), have the same theme, the same subject: what women have done to change men; to turn them away from the path of violence, onto the path of peace. In Pray the Devil Back to Hell, it is a group of Liberian women who took the initiative and brought an end to the bloody civil war, reconciling the Muslims and the Christians and voting in the first woman in Africa as the President. In The Sari Soldiers, it is the extraordinary efforts of six courageous Nepalese women — led by a mother who witnessed her 15-year-old daughter being tortured and murdered by the army — to reshape Nepal’s future in the midst of the civil war between the Army and the Maoists.

That these two award-winning films show how women have succeeded holds out the hope that perhaps if women took charge everywhere, this could happen the world over.

Dare one hope? There Was a Queen is set in Kashmir where in 17 years of conflict, women have been the worst sufferers. Now they, too, are joining initiatives to end the tyranny and the terror. On That Day shows human rights abuses at its worst through the Haditha incident in Iraq with American soldiers trying to cover up their actions; Total Denial is the victory of 15 Burmese victims of the terrible abuses ordinary people suffered as pipelines were laid by a foreign company through their villages.

The US court gave them justice despite resistance from the Bush administration.

The situation was not entirely one of despair as Flying Inside My Body focuses on the gay community in the world of the arts in India.

Films of all sizes and shapes, subjects and themes, films that stir you and jolt you and force you to think. Films also that make you dream, believe, hope.

Films of fire and intensity by people who believe the world can be changed if only we, the audience, shake off the apathy into which “entertainment” lulls us and start questioning, if not actually doing. For it is questioning, and listening, and seeing, even that which is far removed from our comfortable, unthinking existence that can make us aware of the world around us and hopefully, change it.

Aruna Vasudev is an eminent film critic and has served on the jury of several top international film festivals

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Sourced from an article in ‘The Asian Age’

PERSISTENCE RESISTANCE 2009

October 5, 2009 1 comment

PERSISTENCE RESISTANCE aims to celebrate a cinema space that engages with the diverse nature of films today. There is the effort to bring all the movements of the audiences and matters of films a little closer together, in a collective space to experience the diversity of time.

The term Persistence comes from the phenomenon of ‘PERSISTENCE OF VISION’ explained as a visual phenomenon where an image is retained in the retina of the eye for about 1/16th of a fraction of a second, creating an illusion of continuous motion in film and video. Also, persistence of the idea, the story, the thought that once absorbed is retained in our memory.

Wherein resistance is described as one’s resistance to a concept or thought, that one undergoes, since every person has a different perspective, and one’s idea may be opposed or argued into to come to a logical conclusion.

Documentary cinema is a new way of telling stories and tends to have constructed text put together aesthetically.

Broadly, the aim is to make films that are socially and politically relevant, but art is not supposed to bring about change, that is misuse of art.
Documentary filmmakers are usually asked about changes that they have been able to bring about, but that is not their intention. A confusion exists as to what a documentary is – whether it is news or enacted cinema.. . One would like to state this form of art as a visual representation of one’s thoughts, which in itself tends to involve a lot of research,a lot of vigour, a pre-condition almost prevalent in all, that one has to get into the depth of his subject.

These artists,they work for passion. Documentaries allow one to be a complete filmmaker , instead of being able to cover only one aspect – script or direction, which is difficult in other forms of cinema. It entails the portrayal of reality that is subjective to one’s perception.
The new generation of filmmakers have access to newer technologies.. their understanding of the form is different.

by

Auditi Dey