Miffed by miff

Backed by the government, the Mumbai International Film Festival, true to its negative history, yet again alienated many documentary filmmakers

Ajinkya Shenava andn Arindam Banerjee Mumbai

The curious onlooker at the recently held Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) could easily lose himself amidst the spectacle of the closing ceremony at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA).  Strolling through the heady ambience of "award winning filmmakers" engaging in the masquerade of discussion for a TRP-driven visual media, it was transparent how ironically the eternal debate between realism and the hyper-real crystallised itself outside the MIFF podium.

While this edition of MIFF managed to lurch through the festival period without any superficial hiccups, many uncanny questions remain unanswered. An air of discontentment lingers among a large number of critically acclaimed and independent documentary filmmakers in India.

Saba Dewan, director of The Other Song, was so disillusioned by the selection procedure that she decided to withdraw her film in protest after being selected for the non competitive category. "MIFF has been mired in controversy since 2004. I find it surprising that the authorities blatantly disregard any attempts at reform. The selection has been getting shoddier and shoddier and I was shocked to see the films that were omitted from the festival this year," she said.

Ananya C Chakraborty, director of Understanding Trafficking, which was rejected by the festival, speaks of the ludicrousness of certain decisions taken by the MIFF committee: "...the most ridiculous part of the whole selection process was that from this year MIFF has withdrawn it's national competition section and turned it into completely international... but out of three of the four sections of the festival, they could select only one international film each..."

The irony is inherent. The president of the Indian Documentary Producers Association (IDPA), Jahnu Baruah, stressed on the importance of documentary films in India, "particularly, documentary filmmakers of this country - they need encouragement. MIFF has been the main encouraging platform. So that is what MIFF actually means to us".

Films like Wagah (Supriyo Sen) and Bilal (Sourav Sarangi), which have been acclaimed internationally in film festivals, were rejected by MIFF. While many quality films that have won prestigious awards were rejected, many were pushed to the non competitive section without adequate explanation. The Superman of Malegaon (Faza Ahmed Khan) and The Other Song (Saba Dewan), which have several international awards to their credit, were treated rather shoddily.

Says Supriyo Sen, "The genre of documentary films has seen radical transformations since the conventional age of descriptive biopics and the overwhelming 'voice of god' commentaries. The selection committee members themselves have no exposure to the emerging trends in short films. This reflects in the films that have been omitted in this festival."

So great was the unrest among filmmakers that a PIL was filed challenging the selection process. The Mumbai High court, however, rejected the demands of the PIL and gave a negative verdict. The PIL mentions the anguish of the filmmakers regarding bureaucratic high-handedness and the alleged corruption which affected the quality of the films.

The history of controversy, scandal and protests stalking this festival is legendary. Hours before the opening ceremony in 2002, Bankim Kapadia, the then chief producer of Films Division and erstwhile director of the festival, was arrested by the CBI. Accused of alleged corruption charges, followed by a sex scandal, and hinting at underworld connections, he was immediately suspended and Jatin Sarkar was given the ad hoc responsibility. Consequently, the films selected in MIFF 2002 were sharply criticised for being poor in standard.

In 2004, events came to a head when MIFF decided to censor several films which were of 'a politically sensitive nature' - for instance, portraying the genocide of Gujarat, or the protracted non-violent struggle of Naramada Bachao Andolan, turned into an extraordinary film by Sanjay Kak, among other similar films. Rakesh Sharma's Final Solutions (on the Gujarat genocide and the character of the Sangh Parivar) and Kak's Words on Water were barred. Filmmakers, film buffs, actors and artists' reacted with rage. MIFF was boycotted.

This cumulative anger gave rise to 'Vikalp: Films for Freedom', an alternative national platform of independent filmmakers whose films were being trapped in the barbed wires of mindless censorship. As a part of the Campaign against Censorship, this platform became a parallel endeavor. Vikalp was a huge hit considering it ran parallel with MIFF, though it took off with very limited resources and publicity.

Several filmmakers who had withdrawn in protest from MIFF 2004 showed their films in the Films for Freedom festival. These included Gautam Sonti (Anjavva is Me, I am Anjavva), Gopal Menon, (Naga Story: The Other Side of Silence), Kabir Khan, (The Taliban years and beyond) Reena Mohan, (On An Express Highway); Batul Mukhtiar, (150 seconds ago); Meghnath and Biju Toppo, (Development Flows From The Barrel Of A Gun), P Baburaj and C Saratchandran, (The Bitter Drink) and Surabhi Sharma, (Aamakaar: The Turtle People.

Indeed, eminent playwright and filmmaker Girish Karnad resigned from the MIFF jury on the issue of censorship in 2004. The chairman of the jury, Australian filmmaker Tom Zubrycki, had then expressed strong reservations about the mediocre films being chosen at the festival. He had apparently mentioned in the jury report that many documentaries included in the international competition appeared to be sponsored and promotional programmes, while several other films slavishly followed 'television conventions'.

Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, whose work was shown in the retrospective section in MIFF (an era many MIFF frequenters talk of with a nostalgic air), was instrumental in the formation of the Vikalp movement. He criticises the selection panel members and questions their credibility which resulted in the disastrous fall in standards of the festival. Stressing on the necessity for more awards and a national as well as international category, he calls for a festival director who needs to be chosen in accordance with the documentary filmmaker fraternity and whose focus resides not in his job at the Films Division but for the cause of independent cinema and MIFF at large.
     
Filmmaker Anjali Monteiro, whose film Naata was one of the films rejected in MIFF 2004, but screened at Vikalp, talks of how MIFF has become a mockery. She calls it a "perpetuation of mediocrity". She points out at the 'retrospective section' which showcased a lot of films by the jury members themselves, from the films division archives.

Having received sponsorship from the ministry of information and broadcasting, MIFF boasts of one of the biggest budgets in the film festival circuit in India. Thus, it is only fair that the authorities be made accountable for what the public as well as the artists see as follies and misappropriation of funds, argue filmmakers.

Amidst this big picture of simmering controversy, it seems ironic that most films which were conferred awards had expressed voices of dissent', conflict and people's struggles. But the bolt from the blue came when jury chairperson Trinh T Minh-Ha, in her closing speech, said: "We felt sorry that we had to skip some of the awards because, unfortunately, the films in some of the categories did not rise up to the level required in international film festivals."

No film was awarded the Golden Conch for the Best Documentary (below 30 minutes) and the jury's award in animation films. This is representative of the allegations by angry filmmakers regarding the dubious pattern in selection of films. However, Satarupa Sanyal, selection committee member, said that people mostly tend to show dissatisfaction when their films are not chosen. Besides, it is not the responsibility of the selectors to make everyone happy.

While it is often heartening to hear of students' films and debutant directors winning awards, the top bosses in the festival must learn to envision an open-ended and pulsating platform which embraces rather than excludes. As Ananya and Supriyo point out, if Indian documentary cinema has to find an imaginative realm of brilliance in craft and content, filmmakers must reclaim MIFF as their own creative space and continue to question its intentions so that newer generations of experimental cinema can find their way.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2010