Jury out on the jury

Film South Asia 2003 began with sobriety and ended with heartburn. This was the fourth edition of the Kathmandu-based biennial festival of South Asian documentary films, a routine and robust fixture on the festival calendar since its inception in 1997. Sobriety is a virtue that the documentary medium has steadfastly clung on to, when all the other media have succumbed to flippancy in their haste to capture the market. The mood of the opening was therefore entirely in keeping with the spirit of the medium.

Documentary filmmakers from cities from all over the Subcontinent like Bombay, Karachi, Dhaka, Colombo and from smaller corners like Peshawar, Jharkhand and the Maldives were present in strength, reflecting the festival's reach. Another sign of the extent to which the fixture has evolved as an institution is the transformation it has wrought in Kathmandu. For a city whose cinematic tradition is incipient at best, the documentaries on show attracted an extraordinary degree of interest. Despite all that is sometimes said about the documentary's lack of dramatic appeal, the ticket booths at the Russian Cultural Centre at Kamalpokhari in Kathmandu, where FSA '03 was screened from September 25 to 28, almost always had a 'SOLD OUT' sign at the box office.

"The increasing popularity of documentaries not only with audiences but also with the filmmakers can be measured from the fact that in 1997 when the first festival was held we had 135 film entries and in 2003 the entries climbed to 203", said Manesh Shreshta, the Director of Film South Asia (FSA). An experiment started by a group of print journalists associated with the magazine Himal in 1997 to create this special space for South Asian documentary filmmakers had worked!

Though the festival began with a dash of Bollywood, which normally evokes scorn in the documentary world, this time it was Bollywood making all the appropriate noises. A director known for his outspoken views and unconventional images, Mahesh Bhatt, opened the festival with his key-note address and said what documentary filmmakers like to hear: "I am hopeful for the documentary because essentially those that work with me in the dream machine feed from the same reality that the documentary portrays". He recounted his own encounter with the true power of the documentary while working with OXFAM after the cyclone in Orissa in 1999. He realised at that point how dramatic and powerful the imagery of real life situations could be. "There needs to be dynamism in story telling and presentation and a major investment in creating a viable market for it", Bhatt pointed out.

Although the masala Hindi film is the genre that continues to dominate the popular imagination of the entire Subcontinent, small budget, small star, experimental films, more in tune with the urban realities, are beginning to find popularity in the growing multiplexes across India. Even the documentary, the poor and neglected cousin of mainstream cinema, has finally begun to catch the attention of big-time filmmakers. Despite the fact that documentaries have become a little more visible in the public sphere than they were, regular venues for the routine screening of documentaries are few and far between. Filmmakers therefore still have to depend primarily on festivals and special screenings to reach an audience.

This is even more so for those who make what are, with a hint of condescension, called 'serious' films. It is not surprising that FSA '03 attracted so many of these serious films. Though the slogan for the festival this time around was "Documentaries can be fun!", the background note from the organisers aptly described the real mood of most of the films: "The films being exhibited in FSA describe the tumultuous times we live in. Everywhere fundamentalism is on the rise. The gun is increasingly the option of choice. Communal conflagrations provide a foretaste of more catastrophic times ahead. Societies and cultures are buckling under the pressure of a rapacious market that is unchecked by government, academia, media or civil society. And yet the people cope, make do, survive and nurture the hope for better days. The films selected for screening at FSA reflect the concerns of the times and mood of the people of South Asia. In the hands of masters of non-fiction, the films help us look at ourselves".

What unravelled on celluloid over the next four days were the fault lines in the Subcontinent. The documentaries held up a disturbing fare of reality images from a region with a population of over one and half billion—mired in poverty, illiteracy, hunger, gender discrimination, exploitation of children, caste conflicts, growing fundamentalism and ethnic strife, nuclear mongering and the politics of hate. Video had set free a rush of images that gave the marginalised a voice and unleashed a torrent of critique of governments that are sometimes ranged against their own people.

"The best way for different parts of a diverse South Asia to know of each other´s concerns is through the documentary film. Fortunately, documentary films are now being made more and more with the audience in mind, so they are more riveting and hence are able to carry the message across", says Kanak Mani Dixit, chairman of FSA. For a Subcontinent mired in conflict and mutual distrust among neighbours this, as always, seemed like the ideal South Asian melting pot. The endorsement came from the filmmakers themselves.

"Where else would I see films from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal? This festival creates for us a very special South Asian space. We share the same sensibilities here and break out of Western stereotype", says Indian filmmaker Gargi Sen, whose film The Story Tellers was one of the entries at the festival.

From Pakistan, the sensibility was the same even if the emphasis was slightly different. "It was a long journey to get here but worth every bit of the trouble. It is an eye opener for me to see the sense of freedom that Indian filmmakers have and great to watch the films they have made. In Pakistan, although the print media has been an independent force, documentary filmmaking has still not reached any critical stage. Our middle class base is so small that we are not effectively combating the issues that are facing us …people are scared…nobody has seen my film in Pakistan although it has been screened all over in the US", says Sharmeen Obaid, director of Terror's Children.

Samar Minallah, a woman filmmaker from Peshawar, in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, spoke of a predicament that many other documentary filmmakers from the Subcontinent routinely face. "I did not enter my film in any Western festival because I know they will use my critique of the custom of swara to beat Islam with. I made the film for my country and my people and I entered it at the Film South Asia because here I will find an empathetic audience not an exploitative one". Minallah's film, Swara: A bridge over troubled waters is a hard-hitting comment on the Pakhtun practice of giving minor girls in marriage to an "enemy family" in reparation for serious crimes like murder committed by male members of the little girl's family. The issue is now before the country's Supreme Court and Minallah is hoping that legislation will be introduced soon to ban the practice.

Implicit in what Minallah says is the idea that the films being made and screened today have evolved in form and content to emerge as powerful critiques. This is a view that is forcefully and explicitly articulated by others. "The kind of documentary films that are being made these days …rongte khade karne wale hote hain (they make your hair stand on end!)", said Meghnath, director of Development Flows from the Barrel of the Gun.

'Locating' the festival
A compact documentary festival in a country without its own entrenched tradition of independent film-making has many advantages. For one, it has the potential to accord filmmakers from different countries equal standing in the absence of what could be perceived as a home advantage. For another, it can promote the culture of documentary films in the countries whose filmmaking tradition is weak and create an environment of visual literacy in the medium both for making films and viewing them. Further, because the festival is regional in scope and its venue is geo-politically 'neutral', it can facilitate the emergence of networks of survival among embattled filmmakers from the Subcontinent. FSA certainly afforded this opportunity and, between screenings, documentary filmmakers took time off to plot new marketing strategies for distributing their works.

But it is not at all certain that all the potential inherent in a festival of this kind was actually realised. In particular, it is a matter of some doubt whether the manner in which the jury exercised its judgement will contribute very much to the cause of serious filmmaking in the adverse circumstances that prevail in South Asia. And it most certainly is the case that the jury squandered the advantage of Kathmandu's reputation as a neutral venue in order to make some distinctly simplistic decisions. Or is it the case that such conspicuous simplicity is what makes for a 'neutral' repute?

Whatever the reasons for the jury's verdict, there were a great many protesting voices among both filmmakers and film viewers as the curtain came down on FSA '03. The jury had evidently satisfied itself but it had done very little to satisfy the rest. That the jury's choice of award winning films had not gone down well became clear not only from the murmurings of protest from the discerning audiences which had flocked to see these films and given mental marks to their favourite "bold" documentaries. The jury was told in so many words by some of the filmmakers themselves.

The jury's choice was critiqued primarily because it appeared to have steered clear of controversial political films that had taken on governments. There was clearly an expectation that the jury would be as bold in its judgement as many of the films they were called upon to judge. Without doubt, the jury failed to live up to that expectation and chose instead to play it safe by conferring awards on themes and subjects that would not offend or ruffle any establishment. The charge against a jury that had come to judge a documentary festival was as severe as it could get. They had gone to some lengths to remain studiously apolitical and in doing that simply ignored the merits of some of the entries, which had been made under extremely difficult circumstances.

Whatever individual members of the jury may say in defence of the criteria they applied in arriving at their decisions, it is evident that they did not take into account the context in which such films are made. It is of course important to judge any creative output on its internal merits, but where complex issues are concerned that cannot be the sole ground for judgement. It is equally important, in the case of an endangered activity like documentary filmmaking, to give due weight to the themes on which they are made and the conditions under which they are made. This is all the more true when the mass media has increasingly silenced itself on sensitive matters in the effort to stay on the right side of the political establishment. To that extent, the timing of the judgement hurt filmmakers who, in the pursuit of their craft, are prepared to step beyond the permissible limits established by polite consensus. At a time when documentary filmmakers are struggling against the censorship regime imposed by their governments, the jury's choice of award winning films seemed to be unmindful of these grim realities. The organisers sensed the discomfort and seemed to get equally uncomfortable. At the closing dinner in Patan Museum, so painstakingly hosted by the organisers, the atmosphere was glacial.

It is not as if documentary filmmakers make films solely to win awards. Far from it. They make films because, first of all, they have consciously opted to work in this genre and they have a commitment to document the struggle of people in the non-fictional mode. But at another level, shunned by the establishment and cinema theatres as they are because they choose to portray controversial subjects, documentary festivals are their only life-line of recognition and encouragement. An award is always a bonus in a documentary filmmaking career that is pursued in an overall climate in which neither the genre nor the filmmaker gets due recognition. Awards help bring hitherto neglected works and their themes into focus.

It is in this context that the decision of the FSA '03 jury to completely ignore sharp and well made socio-political documentaries which showed the chilling consequences of possible conflicts in South Asia: like Anand Patwardhan's Jung aur Aman (War and Peace) which takes the lens close to nuclear nationalism; Sanjay Kak's 85-minute long powerful documentary on the Narmada andolan, Words on Water, which deftly pits the grassroots movement of the Narmada Bachao Andolan against the powers that be in the World Bank in yet another riveting documentary on the Narmada struggle; Greg Stitt's Diverted to Delhi, a film on the cultural disasters of globalisation through the example of call centres; Gopal Menon's Resilient Rhythms, on the continuing oppression of Dalits in India; and Samar Minallah's Swara: A bridge over troubled water, a hard-hitting comment on a reprehensible Pakhtun practice.

A powerful and recurrent theme at the festival was the growing fundamentalism in India. The Gujarat carnage appears to have become a focal point for several documentaries. Shubradeep Chakravorty's Godhra Tak : The Terror Trail is  60 minute-long clinical investigation of who possibly set fire to the train in Godhra (and who certainly did not) and Lalit Vachani's 98-minute film The Men in the Tree, on the rise and influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in India were perhaps the best explorations of this theme. Likewise, ace directors KP Jayashankar and Anjali Monteiro provide a moving personalised tale of communal harmony in Mumbai's biggest slum, Dharavi, in their film Nata (The Bond). The list is long.

But none of these passionate, well crafted and well argued documentaries found favour with the FSA jury. None of them featured in the list of awards and special mentions announced by the trio led by former BBC journalist, Delhi-based Mark Tully and his co-jurors, Lubna Marium from Dhaka and Lalsawmliani Tochhawng from Mizoram. It is as if the jury had somehow missed the pulse of the festival and its very essence—political documentaries that challenge global world order and the pursuits of narrow nationalism. They seemed to be entirely oblivious to the mechanics of the production of these films—to the struggle and anxieties of documentary filmmakers who make these films against heavy odds and sometimes with little or no money, and only their convictions to sustain them. It is as if the jury had carefully plucked these out and put it in their reject bin almost as a conscious choice and selected those which were made under much less difficult circumstances. More importantly they seemed to have picked films that did not upset the apple cart. In effect, they had completely disregarded the socio-political impulses that are driving the documentary community in the Subcontinent.

After all what is it that makes a Michael Moore lift the Oscar with his documentary Bowling for Columbine? Or an Alanis Obomsawin, with her powerful documentary from Canada, Kanebsatake: 270 years of Resistance pick up over 18 international awards? Or journalist, writer, and documentary filmmaker, John Pilger, stand out with his innumerable political documentaries? Is it not the fact that they dare to take on the politics of their governments and expose the lies?

Defiant grammar
Defiance is the grammar of cinema verite as established by some of the world's finest documentary filmmakers over the ages. At a time when mainstream media is driven by the urgings of the market place, this is the only form of cinema that is continuing to fight on rights issues whether it be of indigenous or poor people in the world, the forces of neo-colonialism, or the dangerous fallout of the global arms trade. After all, the documentary genre itself was a reaction against the pleasure machine of mainstream cinema and an attempt to take celluloid back to a socially driven mode of filmmaking. As Jean-Luc Godard pithily summarised it, "The problem is not to make political films, but to make films politically".

The tenuous existence of films that expressly articulate views and perspectives that militate against the confirmed orthodoxies and cannons of the nationalist faith is what makes jury awards more than just symbolically significant. The award is also more than just a ritual gesture of empathy. It is a statement endorsing the legitimacy of both the subject of the film and the dissident sensibility that informs its treatment. For that reason the award is a statement of its own politics. In this sense, the award privileges certain kinds of world views over others, and in a world that has increasingly circumscribed the public space for dissidence, a documentary audience expects the jury to at least honour the tradition of democratic dissent by recognising such films. And in an otherwise arid landscape, it provides filmmakers with the reassurance that their efforts have been worth the trouble. "We come to these festivals not only to show our own films but also to see the works of other filmmakers. The awards are crucial in a sense because that gives us newcomers into the field an idea of what kind of films should be our role models…which should set the benchmark…the selection by this jury has left us baffled", said Samar Minallah, filmmaker from Peshawar, whose film on the male-dominated North West Frontier province was made under extremely trying circumstances. She was not alone in her criticism as many others echoed her sentiments.

It is ironic, though not necessarily surprising, that the jury chose so pointedly to distance itself from the political documentary in the immediate aftermath of an unprecedented and aggressive display of hostility against documentary filmmakers by government of India. Just prior to FSA '03, they had run headlong into a major crisis when the government suddenly made it mandatory for documentary filmmakers to get censor certificates for their films as a precondition for submitting them for the bi-annual Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF). The festival is billed as one of the biggest and best documentary festivals in India and no such rule had been applicable prior to this peculiar stipulation. The censorship clause provoked a huge protest in the documentary film community. As many as a 170 Indian documentary filmmakers threatened to boycott the festival. Some foreign filmmakers too joined them in support. An embarrassed government finally backtracked and is now pleading with filmmakers to send in their entries.

The censorship certificate
In circumstances when filmmakers have to go through extraordinary trouble to not only make their films but also to have it screened, political filmmakers need to be given due encouragement if the genre of documentaries is not to go the way of the other media, by eschewing its real investigating and critical functions in favour of fun films that will meet with the jury approval. This is all the more so because the general context that permits such serious anti-status quoist documentaries has not fully emerged in South Asia. In India, documentaries are made in reasonable numbers but the state tries to screen them from the public. According to Lalit Vachani, director of The Men on the Tree, "The state clearly perceives a threat from documentary filmmakers who are critical of its functioning…there is a growing paranoia in the establishment about the visual medium …and under these circumstances it is getting more and more difficult to screen films which are seen as controversial in public spaces…my film has found it very hard to get venues in India…a screening set up at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad was cancelled at the last minute…".

There are indications that this trend is looking increasingly attractive to other countries of the region, like Bangladesh and Nepal. In Nepal, FSA '03 was almost up in the air this time with the government demanding that films should have censor certificates before they could be screened at the venue. Last minute backroom cinema-diplomacy with Nepal's Information Ministry and the fear that the cancellation of the festival could cause acute embarrassment, allowed the festival to happen. FSA '03 was held as usual without anyone knowing the hurdles that had almost short-circuited it! But from another, more country-specific angle, overt censorship is not even required since the conditions simply do not exist to encourage the emergence of a culture of political documentaries. How else is one to explain the scarcity of political documentary makers in Nepal, a country that has been going through acute political turmoil for close to a decade.

The situation is no different in Sri Lanka where the censorship regime has made it very difficult for documentary filmmakers to operate and make films critiquing the establishment. And this accounts for the fact that there was no Sri Lankan film at FSA 2001 and only one entry at this year's FSA. And even this lone entry was not made in Sri Lanka, having been made by Yasin Khan, who lives in Canada and works for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Besides overt censorship and subtle pressure tactics, states also resort to cruder methods of intimidation. Says Anand Patwardhan, one of India's most consistent and tireless documentary filmmakers, "I have had policemen barge into auditoriums and try to stop the screening of my films…till I produce my censor certificate and then they are forced to leave…that's the one reason that I make it a point to get a censor certificate".

Patwardhan goes on to add, "The state has always been jittery about documentary films, whether it be the Congress government or the BJP". He recalls that Satyajit Ray, had to intervene on behalf of his film Prisoners of Conscience, which was made just after the emergency in 1978 and the government had tried to censor it.  Since then this filmmaker has fought innumerable cases in court to ensure that his films are not blocked. "They wanted 21 cuts in all in my film War and Peace this time. I finally won the court case in April this year and got a censorship certificate without a single cut…luckily our democratic system still functions from time to time !", says Patwardhan.

Clearly then, the dissident film, the film as a critique of holy cows, is an endangered craft, given the difficulties encountered before, during and after the making of the film. Odds of this magnitude are enough to daunt young filmmakers from using their medium to attempt what the other media have for the most part abandoned. It is entirely understandable, though not excusable, why states in South Asia have a preference for soft films over tough films. What is less understandable is the FSA '03 jury's disinterest in the very form that the more politically informed expected them to uphold. While the organisers merely believed that documentaries can be fun, the jury emphasised that documentaries should be fun. Some documentary films can no doubt be fun, but what happens in the meanwhile to all the cinematic chronicles of people who are dead, dying or living like the dead, across the South Asian landmass. In Sanjay Kak's film, Words on Water, an epitaph on the gravestone of a Narmada tribal read: "This is the true war against terror".

The parallel with documentary films is obvious. They are the true, and sometimes the only, challenge to terror in our societies.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian