flickr / popturfdotcom
flickr / popturfdotcom

More than ‘earnest’ and ‘real’

Documentary filmmaking is under-resourced, but film festivals in India and other parts of Southasia provide a boost for the genre.

In a recently concluded documentary film screening in New Delhi, a section of the audience, mostly college students, wanted to know what the message of the film was. I have more than once been told by film students, with complete sincerity, that documentaries are made, and watched, for their content, while fiction for the form. In class when I ask new students to describe what they understand the documentary to be, the collective exercise tends to etch out something that falls in-between the educational and current affairs, one that presents 'reality' but is certainly boring. A regular response from people who watch creative documentary is 'we didn't know documentaries could be like this'.

So, what is 'this'? 

At the June 2013 edition of the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, the four films that won the documentary awards are complex, multi-layered, deeply personal and fundamentally political. While there can be differences in opinion about their style, approach and focus, what is undoubtedly accepted is that none are boring. They demand, and get, deep engagement from viewers.

This or That Particular Person by Subasri Krishnan (Best Short Documentary) is an essay on citizenship in which the filmmaker juxtaposes the attempts by the state to provide a unique identification number with the growing marginalisation of the same populace. Intercepted with musings on identity, using multiple cinematic devices, the film is deeply disturbing and leaves one with more questions than answers. Have you Seen the Arana? by Sunanda Bhatt (Special Mention) on the other hand is an observational documentary set in the Wayanad district of Kerala, and uses a local myth to delve into an indigenous tradition caught in the relentless cross-currents of modernity. Following its principal characters over a long span of time, the film presents the myriad complexities of this shift in a visually stunning and extremely well-crafted film. Spandan Banerjee's To-Let (Best Long Documentary) is a journey within a journey: moving people in a metropolis, moving in appositional directions, impacting each other, invisibly. The physical movements of the protagonists, mostly artists, need to shift homes every few years because of rising costs and the gentrification and commercialisation of the city. The filmmaker projects an intimate lens, allowing the film to unfold tales of loss, nostalgia and beauty. Sourav Sarangi's CHAR… The No Man's Island (Navroze Contractor Award for the Best Cinematographer) on the other hand is an observational film shot over a decade and presents lives of people caught up in the vagaries of a river as it enters the sea. The river shifts silt from side to side and in the process takes away and brings back land with impunity. People lose land and homes and relocate themselves when new islands appear, temporarily, across national borders. These are just four exciting examples that come to mind from the festival in Kerala. 

'Earnest and Real' is the imagined byline for the documentary genre around the world, but the existence of exciting documentaries, such as those screened in Kerala, beg the question of why this image perpetuates, particularly in the minds of youth. The jury seems to be out on this – documentaries present 'reality', mostly with good intentions to 'educate' and provide a 'message' and, therefore, must be boring. But the boredom should be borne with fortitude as the intention of the documentary is to spread awareness and deliver a socially relevant message. The mismatch between the reality (that documentaries can be engaging and aesthetically sophisticated and appealing) and the public opinion (that they are boring) continues. 

Of course, it can be argued that taste is subjective and what is engaging to one is not to another. Nevertheless given the significant numbers of independent documentaries made in India in the last thirty-odd years; that documentaries present multiple styles, aesthetics, language and formal explorations; that many Indian documentaries have won awards locally and internationally; and that the viewership is continually growing (because screening spaces are growing too), it can be argued that the independent documentary today is visible, engaging and demands critical attention. 

Documentary's development

The documentary carries within it a large number of (often contradictory) types, from current affairs programmes on television, to very high-budget National Geographic and Discovery Channel films, to self-funded explorations with a camera. Scholars agree to disagree on what exactly the documentary is. And by and large, the world over, the documentary is defined by the purpose it serves. Hence, the idea that documentaries are no more than socially useful films persists.

In the 1930s, John Grierson used the term 'documentary' for the first time and proposed a definition: "documentary is a creative treatment of reality." This definition emerges from Grierson's experience working within, and is therefore largely confined to, Britain and Canada. Both of these locations have had vibrant public television cultures for some time. The development of the documentary the world over has gone hand-in-hand with the development and spread of television. Naturally, over time, the public nature of its purpose has been overtaken by commercial logic.

Internationally, documentaries have been used for propagandistic purposes at various points in history. British India, and later Independent India, officially used documentaries for propaganda, which is one reason for the continued insistence on 'message' and social relevance. The documentary in India has never had the support of television in any significant manner. The state supported the production of documentary through the Films Division, an institution that has presented unique moments of creativity but remained, by and large, entrenched within bureaucracy and national agendas. Before television, documentaries continued to be exhibited the British way – movie theatres screened them before the main feature (this may be another reason for the soubriquet 'boring', as the interests of propaganda and commerce make for uncomfortable partnerships). Distribution of documentaries, outside of the Films Division networks, didn't happen.

In India the independent documentary movement came into itself in the 1970s, when a few filmmakers, separated geographically but connected politically, used the camera to record violations of human rights and issues of concern to citizens whose voices were marginalised from the mainstream. Independent of the state and the market, filmmakers screened their work domestically and internationally, to strengthen the discourse on democracy and citizenship. Anand Patwardhan, Deepa Dhanraj, Gautam Ghose, and Tapan Bose are considered the pioneers of this movement. In the '80s and '90s practitioners in this movement grew, as did the formal exploration of the medium and aesthetics, and by the turn of the century, the independent documentary movement came of age. 

With a wide spectrum of styles and aesthetics the documentary filmmaker in India, and Southasia more broadly, has had to play multiple roles: director, producer, distributor and exhibitor. But television doesn't screen or acquire documentaries (with a few exceptions) and therefore the mass spread of documentary has been limited. Theatres don't exhibit documentaries (again, with a few exceptions). And there are no public-funded colleges dedicated to documentary production or studies. 

Funding for documentaries is very difficult to access. The only regular support in India has been the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, in their 15th year now, who produce around 45 documentaries every year. But they provide limited funding and they in turn struggle to survive. For funding, filmmakers look to NGOs, international donor agencies, international film festivals, international broadcasters (prospects here are decreasing rapidly) and individual contributions. Consequently, filmmakers have to financially contribute to the production of the film, either by suppressed or non-existent wages, or by funding the project development completely on their own. 

Distribution for documentaries is a constant problem as distributors and sales agents don’t exist in India, television doesn’t acquire or broadcast, and theatres don’t screen. Therefore, returns are not assured. International distributors and sales agents do take a few documentaries but both the numbers and reach are limited. 

So, the question that comes up again and again is, given the circumstances, why do people continue to make documentaries? There is no money, fame is uncertain, and the process doesn’t end with the film’s completion but continues for years afterwards, requiring further energy and often expenses. Varied answers have come from my informal conversations with filmmakers in India. Some say that the documentary provides a creative freedom that is impossible in fiction. Others talk of the emerging form and language. All talk of their interests in contemporary politics and concerns. And there seems to be a broad consensus on the role of the documentary in the public domain.

The fact that today there is a dedicated and expanding set of filmmakers is quite evident. It is also evident that they work with a range of themes and concerns, use multiple styles and languages, and the spirit of formal innovations appears to be the norm.

Seeing films

Exhibition, without any monetary returns, is a phenomenon that is unique to India, and perhaps Southasia. While the screenings have to be arranged by the filmmakers themselves, a few factors have helped the spread and reach of the documentary in India: different social justice movements (feminism, environmentalism, the Dalit movement, and many others) screen films and have collaborated with filmmakers. Academics and a few departments within universities have been important sites for screening and discussing documentaries. A number of independent and local film festivals, as well as screening spaces within cultural centres, have come up in the last two decades. 

Festivals are also spaces where filmmakers get a chance to critically view the work of others and open themselves up to scrutiny. Filmmakers are scattered geographically and tend to work in isolation and without organised exhibition, making viewing and commenting on each other’s work difficult. Therefore, film festivals serve a dual purpose of connecting filmmakers to the work of their peers as well as bringing films and audiences closer. One of the most important spaces has been the Film Southasia biennale, organised by the Southasia Trust and held in Kathmandu, Nepal, since 1997. 

FSA has been crucial for a number of reasons. First, given the hostilities between some of the nations of Southasia, it has been a critical space to meet filmmakers from countries difficult to visit otherwise. I remember in 2003 a Pakistani filmmaker telling me how she had had to fly from Karachi to Kathmandu via Thailand! Naturally, then, FSA is a space for filmmakers to converge and share films and concerns across difficult border situations that escalate and simmer down periodically. FSA was also one of the first spaces that challenged the existing understanding of the documentary and declared: ‘Documentary can be Fun’ (its official byline). FSA later challenged filmmakers with ‘Dare to Documentary’. FSA was one of the first, if the not the first, film festival that ticketed documentary screenings. I remember watching with a sense of hope and bewilderment a long queue waiting to buy a ticket. For a documentary! Furthermore, Travelling FSA, in which a selection of films is taken across the globe, serves an important purpose. The TFSA has familiarised a section of the world with documentaries from Southasia, its content, form, language and style.

In the last decade a large number of platforms have emerged across India screening and deliberating over the documentary. Visible across the country, led by film lovers and filmmakers, most take place away from the public and media gaze. But in recent times this phenomenon has been increasing, while simultaneously receiving a grudging nod from the mainstream media. While it is impossible to provide a complete picture, some of the initiatives appear to have come of age. The Madurai International Documentary and Short Film Festival, now in its 15th year, has grown phenomenally. The annual festival in Madurai travels to villages in the district and now has also spilled over to Chennai. The Gorakhpur Film Festival has continued to screen films of resistance. Samadrusti in Bhubaneswar has been in the forefront of the anti-mining struggle by the local adivasis and has developed into a multiple zone of cinematic practices. Different colleges and departments screen documentaries and film festivals like VIBGYOR and SiGNS. Filmmakers in Mumbai started regular monthly screenings, Vikalp @ Alliance. Pedestrian Pictures has screened films in a campaign-like manner, and continue to do so in their second decade of existence. New Delhi presents five annual documentary festivals, organised by different NGOs. 

Since 2012 the Films Division, under the new Director General, has opened up its screening facilities to independent documentary. Called the FD Zone, each weekly screening presents a combination of contemporary and old films. The FD Zone also puts together mini festivals, mostly conceptualised and presented by filmmakers themselves. In recent times the mini festival ‘Kashmir Before Our Eyes’ brought together remarkable films and an enthusiastic audience. This festival is going to travel to other cities, and there are plans of launching FD Zone around India. This is probably one of the few instances where a collaborative effort between the state and filmmakers has acknowledged independent documentaries.

Documentaries are edging their way into theatres in India. Anand Patwardhan and Madhusree Dutta had theatrical releases of their documentaries, followed by Supriyo Sen. While there were many challenges, the documentaries did see a limited release. In recent times, the PVR chain has released a few documentaries in mutiplexes. Although exhibited without a publicity and advertising budget, (the cinema hall doesn’t provide one, nor can the filmmaker afford one) publicity is dependent on the director’s social network. Nevertheless, whether this initiative succeeds or fails, what is important is that the gesture acknowledges the growing visibility and importance of the documentary. 

Another interesting factor is the appearance of many more young people in the audience, a trend that appears to be growing. The young are not replacing the traditional documentary audience of artists, academics and activists, but adding to that crowd. The discourse, therefore, is also shifting, as is the reach of the documentary. 

It appears that the documentary has come of age in India. With more films, filmmakers, innovative language and different kinds of formal explorations, with newer spaces for screenings and discussions opening up, with a growing number of youth in the audience, the independent documentary is becoming visible in the public domain. However, mechanisms of distribution and revenue generation are still in their nascent stage. Finding a collective solution to the problems of distribution, dissemination, and revenue generation, while demanding the expansion of screening spaces and support in terms of funding for production, research and travel, are the possible next steps.

~ This article is one of the articles from Under the Shadow of the Bollywood Tree: web-exclusive package.

~Gargi Sen is a filmmaker and festival curator, also working in documentary distribution (, film production, exhibition (, and training (

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