Reels of Reality
A festival of documentaries celebrates exciting new ways of telling stories
Aakshi Magazine Delhi
In the middle of a post-film discussion at the fifth Persistence Resistance Film Festival in Delhi, a man from the audience told a filmmaker that her film did not make sense, and it should have spelt out more clearly what it wanted to say. At this, a filmmaker from among the audience wondered aloud why we have an extra expectation from a documentary to have to resolve everything in an already set manner. Whether the man realized it or not, he had hit upon a pressing question for those involved in the documentary – innovation with form is as relevant a question here as it is for a fiction film. This was evident in many of the films that were screened at the festival this year.
The film being discussed was Gouri Patwardhan's Two Tales of Modikhana. During the film's screening, many in the auditorium had sat still, enraptured by it. It traces how two generations of Dalits respond differently to caste and the world around them. The first part of the film is still and quiet, tracing the work of a painter who had been part of the Ambedkar movement. The second part shifts the gaze to his daughter, also a painter, but one who is angrier and edgier.
"They live in two different worlds, even though they live together in a one-room house," Patwardhan explained. "Which is why you never see them together in one frame." This difference in their personalities, worldviews and also times is captured beautifully and quietly, without drawing attention to itself in this unusual film.
In Bitter Seeds, Manjusha, a young girl who aspires to be a journalist, is shown interviewing people in her village to understand the reason behind farmer suicides. It is only sometime into the film that we realize her father, too, had killed himself
Capturing a persona is also what Nitin K Pamnani's I am your poet (Main Tumhara Kavi Hoon) tries to do. Awarded the Golden Conch for 'best documentary' at the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) this year, it is about a poet, Ram Shankar 'Vidrohi', who has been living on the JNU campus in Delhi for years. When a powerful poem is recited in the film, one forgets to even look at the visuals. Whether it is the film's weakness or strength, one is not sure, but the film lacks the kind of expertise and effortless ease that marks Patwardhan's Modikhana.
In the post-screening discussion, Pamnani said, "When I used to hear Vidrohi, every time he would seem new to me. I wanted those who saw my film to feel the same." If people's responses and questions in the discussion are anything to go by, the film succeeded in doing this. What works in its favour is that it captures the poet's personality and his poetry without distraction. The larger context of the poet remains unexplored though.
The crisis in Indian agriculture acquired faces and stories in Micha X Peled's Bitter Seeds, which follows the life of Ram Krishna, a farmer in Vidarbha, as he decides to use the new GM (genetically modified) seeds that are on offer in the market. Parallel to this runs the story of Manjusha, a young girl who aspires to be a journalist. She is shown interviewing different people in her village to understand the reason behind farmer suicides. It is only sometime into the film that we realize her father, too, had killed himself, giving a new context to her quest.
Post the screening, Peled was available for a conversation via Skype. Someone in the audience asked him a pertinent question: "How much would you have intervened had Ram Krishna decided to take his life?" After all, the filmmaker knew all along that the GM seeds would do him no good, only lead him deeper into the debt trap. This powerlessness and inability of the filmmaker to intervene, though, only made even clearer the structural nature of the problem, which is not something that can be solved by charity.
One was reminded of this question again in a similar moment in another film on the agriculture crisis, Deepa Bhatia's Nero's Guests, which explores the issue by following journalist P Sainath, who reports from rural India. At one place Sainath says: "You are sitting in front of someone whose family member has committed suicide, and after having covered this for so long, you know that this person, too, is contemplating the same thing." Sainath is an effective speaker and this gives the film a strong and well-argued structure.
In Minnie Vaid’s film on Dr Binayak Sen, there is a moment that is particularly moving, where he says, ‘The meek shall inherit the earth,’ and then gets upset and breaks down
Minnie Vaid's film on Dr Binayak Sen, who had been charged with sedition when the film was made, was screened on the same day. In a long interview with Sen, there is a moment that is particularly moving, where he says, "The meek shall inherit the earth," and then gets upset and breaks down.
Nakul Sawhney's Izzatnagari ki Asabhya Betiyan looks at khap panchayats by charting the stories of those who are resisting these feudal institutions in different ways. The film does this well. The only jarring bit is that it caricatures members of the khap panchayats. In the discussion, the filmmaker said that the rise in the number of working women and the threat of modernity were leading to more diktats coming from khaps, and that more violence, therefore, was inevitable. This connection, however, never became clear in the film.
Similarly, something seemed to be missing from Mamta Murthy's Fried Fish, Chicken Soup and a Premiere Show, winner of International Jury Award at MIFF. The film had an interesting idea and theme: tracing the history of the Manipuri film industry and, within it, the making, censoring and premiere of a film. In response to a question about making a political film in an unusual manner, Murthy narrated an anecdote. During the making of the film, she had been asked if she would like to go and shoot Irom Sharmila's fast. Her reply was that if it is important to the narrative, it would somehow come into the film on its own. And sure enough, it did! There is a scene in the film where the television is on and Sharmila's fast is being referred to, but the connection with the film's context remains unclear.
The festival was about more than just the screening of documentaries. There was an evocative tribute to Homai Vyarawala by Sabeena Gadihoke through clips, videos and pictures. Tributes were also paid to Greek filmmaker Lucia Rikaki and Bangladeshi filmmaker Tariq Masood.
Organized by the Magic Lantern Foundation and curated by Gargi Sen, the festival this year expanded from its earlier India International Centre (IIC) venue, with screenings held at the British Council Library, Max Mueller and Delhi University. The space of the IIC was utilized for video parlours that played films from DEFA, the former East German film studios, and from the archives of films produced by the Public Diplomacy Division, Ministry of External Affairs, on a loop through the day.
With new ways of telling a story being explored, this seems to be an exciting time for the documentary.