ALL IN ALL, Another Brick In The Wall

A festival of short films resurrects a new counterculture of realism and hope
Amit Sengupta Delhi

You can smell the short film. You can touch the brick walls, across most authorised and unauthorised architectural ghettos in the suburbs, outside the sensex, stock market, superpower growth index, multi-million beautification drives, sanitised shopping malls and elite multiplexes of this 'world class' city of power capital Delhi. These ghettos don't belong to those who define the great future of urban time and space. It's a zigzag inner lane through a pyramid of raw bricks and mud, without a scaffolding, where dreams are being woven and crushed, life is in vicious circular motion from one pessimism to another, stoicism and resilience tell multiple, singular stories of daily, infinite grit, and democracy is like a black hole in the wall. 

Across the bus stop of Sunder Nagari in Northeast Delhi, India lives outside its own thresholds of wanting and longing, inhaling and gulping the tragedies of life's relentless injustices and stunning lack of beauty. It is a designed destiny, the aesthetics of denial and bitterness. 

Rahul Roy's The City Beautiful moves with Roy's camera, caressing the brick walls of the ghetto, becoming the ghetto itself. "I try to enter the intersections of conversations," says Roy. With sensitive editing by Reena Mohan, and sound by Asheesh Pandya, in this patient, meticulous documentation of the slow, discarded margins of big metros, the conversation often meanders into a stoic silence. This, too, becomes a dead end of tragic fatedness, without the melodrama of this daily tragedy. 

Handloom workers losing jobs, daily wagers under-employed and cheated, children on the streets, families falling asunder, slow hunger stalking the little, trapped residences on earth, alcohol and religion as a moment of relief in this abject helplessness and claustrophobia - and these are hardworking, honest people, wanting a hardworking, honest life. But the new era of neoliberal fat cats of the affluent society, cares two hoots. They are hence condemned and exiled in this city beautiful. All in all, another brick in the wall.

Curator Gargi Sen's Magic Lantern, for the fourth year, brought the documentary festival Persistence Resistance: Edge of the Visual Narrative to Delhi's discerning, loyalist film audience, who have still not lost their will to celebrate the short film, despite amazing difficulties in carving and defining this independent genre outside crass commerce or crass mediocrity. As Gargi Sen writes, "Ranging from interviews, descriptions, observations, presentation-representation, to the use of found footage, home videos, the aesthetics of popular culture images, the documentary as a medium of cinema is difficult to contain within a singular definition... Formally, these films also present a challenge to the conventional documentary style... Central to all of this is a distinct political voice and space that this wide variety of films share."

Arun Khopkar's Narayan Gangaram Surve, for instance, is at once the theatre of folk and oral narratives, in synthesis with the crumbling communist politics of the great working-class movement in what was Bombay's resistance textile terrain. The story of Surve, the orphan poet without a caste, religion or class, discovered by a shift worker outside the factory gate, is also the epic dialogue of poetry with the prose of working-class and communist politics of liberation. How the posters stuck on the wall through dark nights, or the solitude of a child worker in a restaurant, or the painstaking sense of empowerment through education, becomes landmarks of the universal struggle for human emancipation from poverty and exploitation. 

As the factories shut down, their dark interiors of empty machines and empty stomachs become a cultural discourse which the Left leadership tragically missed, in this protracted tryst with reshaping the working-class destiny, and with it, the human destiny. Khopkar's deeply stirring film just about ends in a dark lane, without the artificial construct of a 'socialist realism' of hope. You are left grappling with the emptiness and brutality of the new era of the corrupt fascists who have now emerged from the next dark lane of absurdity after the Left chose to leave such a striking vacuum.

Kim Longinotto's and Florence Ayisi's 104-minute film, Sisters in Law, located in the little town of Kumba in Cameroon, resurrects the women's movement's changing character into amazing resilience. For instance, after no convictions in 'spousal abuse' or violence on women becomes a continuing state of helplessness for 17 years, the women taste victory. This cathartic film documents the work of State Prosecutor Vera Ngassa and Court President Beatrice Ntuba as they help women fight difficult and protracted cases of relentless violence, oppression and abuse, including child abuse and rape. The guts of the women who fight entrenched systems of patriarchy are a revelation as much as a moment of hope and joy. An entire female community discovers change and rejects the archaic male paradigm.

In this documentary, female compassion and the quest for justice becomes assertive feminist statement, as much as affirmation of self-identity, professional competence, gender equality and independence. 

Saba Dewan's highly acclaimed film, The Other Song, travels through the lanes of Muzzafarpur in Bihar and Varanasi and Lucknow in UP to rediscover a forgotten melody - a song hung in a timeless twilight zone, in this case, the pre-Independence Hindi heartland of 1935. This was when Varanasi's enigmatic legend Rasoolan Bai, courtesan, baiji, tawaif, the 'other' woman, the rebel, recorded for the gramophone a thumri that she would never sing again: "My breasts are wounded, don't throw flowers at me..." 

The original lyrics and voice got lost in the ravages of time, but the film dares to enter this maze of suppressed and expressed female sexuality and social censorship in early 20th century and the era preceding it. The song becomes a cinematic metaphor of an intimate female journey through the cracked mirrors of the past and present.

It's cricket, no? - directed by Gregory Frenche and Sudhir Aggarwal - was obviously a hit with a packed audience. It also reflected a certain new-found flexibility in the docu festival.|
 
Produced by the ministry of external affairs, the film is a labour of love and an ode to joy crafted around the invisible lives of blind Indian cricketers, who defy every rulebook of the game to become shining stars of hope. The camera follows the Indian National Blind Cricket Team, unrecognised by the big money-obsessed BCCI, across the difficult terrain of absolute impossibilities to the wonderful zones of possibilities, and fulfilment. You can't see, but you can touch, hear, feel, experience, think, strategise, innovate, experiment, turn an idea into a daily essence of realism. That's what this bunch of young blind boys, from across the class spectrum, prove to the world. As one of their blind patrons says, "They would play in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening. They would play after dark. Then the coach would say, 'No light, pack up.' And they would say, No light! How does it matter?'"

Among the different genres of films shown in this remarkable kaleidoscope, there were many fabulous, honest, original works, all of which can't be documented here. Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, by Anders Ostergaard of Denmark, documents the Burmese struggle behind the iron curtain of a ruthless junta backed by both India and China. With small handycams, undercover video journalists redefine the meaning of 'mainstream news' and censorship in risky terrain. 

Nicolas Wadimoff's Still Alive in Gaza reports from the Gaza Strip in February 2009, one month after the Israeli genocide. The camera follows the devastation all around, in which scores of children were butchered by rocket attacks. Gaza, bombed out, like a ghost town, amidst mass tragedy and ruins, moves from despair to slow optimism, with locals refusing to accept defeat. Palestine's eternal epic.

In that sense, Persistence Resistance is a tribute to the resistance both in Burma and Palestine, as much as to all those discovered and undiscovered zones of realism, mythology, conflict and liberation, yet to be captured in sound and images. That is when the documentary will yet again defy its own thresholds and become a celebration of counterculture, as well as the aesthetic moment of liberation.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2011