To get an independent documentary film screened in India is something of a challenge. The last surviving documentary slot on television, programmed by the nationwide Television Doordarshan, was abolished a year ago. Cinema owners are not interested in showing docs and shorts at all. It seems that documentary filmmakers are obliged to organize screenings themselves, which in fact they have already been doing for years. They show their work at smaller, free of charge screenings, travelling from one place to another, or they are invited to festivals, film societies, universities and NGOs. In practice, it means that the filmmaker’s work isn’t over after a film has been made, on the contrary. The biggest job doesn’t start till then: finding the means and ways to get in touch with an audience. Therefore film festivals in India are tremendously important. They offer directors the rare occasion to get together and present their work and are in fact the only opportunity for the media to comment on documentary films.
The first Tiruvananthapuram Video festival was organized in 1994, but the funding for organizing a second was not obtained until this year. Although the festival is international according to its bylaws, there were few foreign entries. Indian production is so huge and diverse, however – the themes and styles of docs from places like Assam are very different from the docs of Tamil Nadu or Bengal, for instance – that a Pan-Indian festival already feels like an international event.
The enormous significance of independent documentary production in India is best shown by the destiny of the main award winning video War and Peace by Anand Patwardhan. The film, which opposes the nuclear arms race against Pakistan, was banned from Indian public screenings for more than a year. Government censors demanded 21 cuts, which the director refused. He went to court and after a terrible judicial ordeal that took more then a year, his plea was finally accepted. Patwardhan got permission for public screenings in India only two days before the Second IV Festival started, although the film had already been screened on many occasions abroad.
The festival’s selection of South Asian documentaries are roughly divided into two groups of aesthetically and cinematically similar films:
strong, journalistic, investigative documentaries dealing with political and social issues
poetic, somewhat personal essays dealing with biographies, personal contemplation, feminism or sexual identity.
An eye-catcher in the first group, besides War and Peace, is Words on Water, by Sanjay Kak, New Delhi. The film tackles a familiar political issue in India already dealt with by many different films, namely the fifteen-year-old tragedy of the people living near the Narmada River, who are forced to abandon their villages for the sake of ‘progress’ and industrialization. The film treats the subject with much sense for good analysis and proper dramaturgy. The director showed not only his compassion for the Narmada people, but also his talents in making a vivid, captivating film.
Also dealing with a familiar social issue is the moving Bangladeshi documentary A Kind of Childhood by Catherine and Tareque Masud. The problem of street children in Dhaka has been already raised in many other films, but the Masuds took quite a unique approach: they followed the everyday struggle of the young boy Idris by showing a deep understanding of his life choices and living the struggle fully with him instead of remaining outside observers of his misfortune. As a result, they are capable of taking the audience along with them. The Masuds filmed the same boy six years ago, when he had a great drive to continue going to school, but now he is back on the streets driving a rickshaw.
Saga of a Poet by Soudhamini belongs to the second group of selected documentaries, marked by sophisticated cinematic expression and, almost as a rule, financed by the filmmaker and small foundations. The film is the biography of a man who is considered to be a pillar in Tamil cultural history. The woman director from Chennai has already made some remarkable documentaries on musicians and manages to match her film style to the spirit of the artist’s work. In spite of its slow rhythm, the film grabs the spectator with its poetry and harmony of cinematic style and content.
Lastly, two more films from the second category that deserve mention here are Unlimited Girls, also made by a woman director, Paromita Vohra, and Where Are You, by R.V. Ramani from Chennai. The first is set in a chat room and examines the pros and cons of feminism in India involving women from all walks of life. The second follows in a cinema vérité style the traces of the art of Indian shadow puppeteers, a craft threatened by extinction. For centuries certain castes have been devoted to this art of “moving images”, which was replaced by cinema. R.V. Ramani succeeded in spontaneously recording the stories of many families in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andra Pradesh and uncovering the hidden, painful sides of their profession.
IV Festival in Kerala screened 57 films in the competition and some 80 more in other programmes. Six cinema halls served as venues for shorts and docs during five hot Indian summer days. But where are South Asian documentary-makers to turn after the festival is over?