Other Worlds Are Breathing 2004: A Report

The over riding memory is of dust. The dust kicked up by thousands of feet. Thousands feet traversing miles of the venue over and over each day. Frankly, till now I had only read and imagined anything like this. This was an experience, unforgettable, unavoidable, and in my face. Then the sounds. Languages, drums, slogans and speech vied together for attention. And yet the result was not cacophony but something else altogether. And then the people. Over 100,000 of us from all corners of the world. And then the colours. Every hue and shade was represented in the clothes, in the posters that lined each possible space, in the banners and the flags, in the installations, in the different stages (7 in all). And then the activities. Over 1200 seminars, 800 workshops, plenaries, continuous demonstrations, opening and closing events, installations, stalls for selling books, posters, food, exhibitions and plays. Nearly 3000 participating artists came. Art was visible, art was political and high art and street art mingled freely with unashamed enthusiasm to create a different kind of WSF experience. Many commented that the WSF in India had put culture on the agenda itself.

In a quiet corner, very near Gate 2, in a converted industrial shed – conjured into 2 auditoriums and a foyer by the architect: Pankaj Joshi – the WSF Film Festival 2004 took place. This was the first full-fledged international film festival dedicated to the World Social Forum. Called “Other Words Are Breathing” the festival presented 84 contemporary documentaries from 40 countries and 8 classic fictions on related themes. The 2 theatres had a combined seating capacity of 900 (550 + 350). But many times, over 1000 people were present simultaneously, and each day saw between 8000 – 10000 people who came to engage with the very important and critical films that were on the agenda.

The two halls lay perpendicular to each other in a L shape, the walls were created by ingenuously using metal pipes covered by jute matting, the floor was carpeted in deep blue with white plastic chairs and 16 feet x 9 feet screens mounted 20 feet above ground at each end of the two halls. The foyer completed the square of the original industrial shed. A long table with posters, brochures and details of a few individual films was manned by volunteers who patiently answered questions through out day. Very colourful banners identified the two halls: Ghatak and Eisenstien. And posters of films lined the foyer walls. Striped mats lined the walls of the foyer and colourful banners hung from the roof – creating a vibrant ceiling. The colours of the mats and the ceiling reflected the colours used in the brochure and the poster of Other Worlds Are Breathing. And a line of posters lined the foyer wall, poster of individual films and the film festival.

From January 15th onwards the volunteers worked to put up posters announcing Other Worlds Are Breathing all across the WSF venue. In a corner, just outside the festival venue a informal cafeteria functioned. It provided a space for unwinding and informal discussions and of course unending cups of cheap coffee.

And looming over all of this, in the entrance to the foyer (that led to the two halls) were huge Bollywood posters, painted by Bombay poster artists, that reflected the theme of Bombay (or Mumbai) in Bollywood. The largest was 21 feet wide and 17 feet high. 3 others were only marginally smaller. 5000 printed schedules were distributed and read and many people came to see specific films – this was apart from the main WSF brochure that also carried details of the Film Festival screenings.

Preparing for the WSF Film Festival

Prior to the film festival we had carried out two related activities. First, we had curated a travelling film festival package that aimed to tour the country and mobilise support for the WSF and its agenda. The films were curated thematically, based on the five main themes of the WSF: Imperialist globalisation, Militarism and peace, Communalism, Casteism and Racism and patriarchy. The details of these films, with synopsis, is attached.

As we did this work in less than a month we culled from the most easily accessible and available material. So we relied on films we knew and had seen. Most films were Indian or from South Asia. Only one film was from Australia, but its subject too was India. Called Diverted to Delhi the film portrayed the scenario of mushrooming call centres in India and searched for the international financial angle into that.
Due to paucity of time we decided to make several sets of the Travelling Film Festival Package so that they could travel simultaneously. All film makers participated quite enthusiastically and gave 5 copies of their film at very, very nominal price for this endeavour.

The Travelling Film Festival began travelling from mid-October and has been viewed in many parts of the country. The travel was co-ordinated by the WSF secretariat.

In September we sent out a call letter inviting film makers to participate in the festival. The films, we said, should reflect the main themes of the WSF and there will be a process of selection to decide which film will be screened at the WSF.

By mid-October we realised that the decision to set up a selection process was sound, as we already had far too many films than that could be screened. Eventually, we had to extend the original deadline of 31 October (to receive preview copies) to 30 November 2003.

In the process to send the call letter as widely as possible, and into the regions we normally don’t see films from, we began to ask friends and film makers to send out the call letter to their network. And in this process we met Todd Lester – in the cyber space – a communication student at New York who had extensive experience of working in Africa and of film festivals. Todd volunteered to help with the festival and we gratefully accepted. And he contributed to the festival in more ways than one.

From the 1st of December 2003 the selection committee sat in New Delhi to select the final entries for the WSF Film Festival. Even as the committee worked we continued to receive entries for the festival. On the 7th December when the committee wound up, it had viewed a total of 184 hours of material in 222 films. After this, we did not – and could not -accept any further entries although the requests still kept poring in. At the final count we had received an additional 100 odd films and forms which we couldn’t keep in the selection process.

In order to make the selection process transparent and accountable we constituted a selection committee for finalising the films that will be screened at the WSF. The committee comprised of the following people:
Prof. Habeeb Kidwai (chair person) is the former Director of the AJK Mass Communications Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia University. Manjira Datta is an award-winning filmmaker and photographer. Jai Sen is a human rights activist who has been involved with human rights and rights of the marginalised people for the past three decades. Reena Mohan is an award winning film maker and editor of repute. Aurelie de Lalande is a young professional who has been working on enhancing various NGOs’ communication skills in Europe, West Africa and India. Gargi Sen works with communication and issues of human rights.

The selection process was extremely rewarding. It was a pleasure to see the films and a wretch to leave many excellent ones out. And the main issue was of time. We had begun on the assumption that we will get 3 auditoriums and by the time the selection process was over, we knew that we had one, and maybe there could be a second one. So the selection committee made 3 separate lists of films that would be used as the final selection depending on the number of auditoriums were assigned to the film festival. We were told with certainty only by end-December that we had two auditoriums and the final list was prepared. However, as we needed to get the screening copies from film makers, by December 10 we had begun to use the first list to call for these. So in end-December we sent out another letter asking for screening copies from film makers. And we are extremely grateful that all such film makers obliged without a fuss.

The two weeks prior to leaving for Bombay (called Mumbai these days) were spent in finalising the festival brochure, poster and the schedules – of the festival and the panel discussions. And the help of Todd Lester and Bethany Cole was invaluable for these tasks. The final schedule had 84 films from 40 countries and 27 panelists arrived from 10 countries.

We also had our round of controversies. Some film makers and activists from India were unhappy with some of the exclusion. However, as no selection process, however transparent and accountable it may be, is not without controversies, it was probably inevitable and unavoidable. One such rejected film maker however felt enraged enough to hold a protest screening outside the film festival venue on the 20th of his film “Godhra Tak.” I suppose this incident, more than any other, demonstrated the openness of the WSF space – even protest against it was imminently possible.

Other Worlds Are Breathing: A festival of moving images

The festival began on January 17th morning and ended on the evening of the 20th. The films were further categorised in the following sections

1. The Global Market
2. A World at War
3. A World of Work and Survival
4. Life, Politics, Struggle
5. The World, Abused 1
6. The World, Abused 2
7. The Woman’s World
8. Identities
9. Culture / Resistance
10. Other Worlds are Breathing

Jai Sen, a member of the selection committee, named the sections as also the festival. The title is inspired by Arundhati Roy’s closing words in her speech to the last Forum, in Porto Alegre, in January 2003 – Other Worlds Are Breathing.

Hall Ghatak named after the legendary Bengali film maker Ritwik Ghatak showed films under the sections: The Global Market; A World of Work and Survival; Life, Politics and Survival; The World Abused I and Other Worlds are Breathing. Hall Eisenstein showed films under the sections: A World at War; The Women’s World; Identities; Culture/Resistance and The World Abused II.

Every evening, after 8 p.m. when the section on documentary and short closed, fiction films were screened. This section was curated by Meenakshi Shedde and she showed world classics.

On the 17th morning we ran into a technical snag and the screenings of the morning was disturbed. The problem was corrected soon. However 5 films, scheduled for the 17th morning, were shifted to the 21st morning.

It was not a film festival in the traditional sense of the word. It was much more. The combined seating capacity of the halls were not sufficient to always seat people, people lined walls and the aisles. Each day, on an average, 8-10,000 people formed the audience of the film festival. Many serious film enthusiasts stayed in through out – stepping out only for coffee or food. Many came for specific films, rushed, in between meetings and important presentations – and waited impatiently for their chosen film. And a section of the crowd was floating, stopping to see what was happening, as they did the rounds of the WSF, and moved on.

Nevertheless, that a serious audience remained was evident in the discussion times, in the impatience in the rare breaks when nothing happened and were meant to be a break merely (2 in the 4 days!) and by the queues that formed each morning, before the venue opened. While we cleaned and did tech-checks, people settled in around us. And very soon we gave up trying to have everything perfectly working before starting at 10 a.m. Sound and visual got checked, aisles were cleared and a quick check of the days film’s screenings copies happened with the audience watching and waiting. The only time we faced the ire of the audience was when the schedule was changed.

The 17th morning was unavoidable. And it made people angry. However, not angry enough to give up films. Only they made sure that they stayed with the new schedule by returning many times and checking it and asking the volunteers the same thing over and over again. In fact the audience returned for these films on the 21st morning, although the WSF march took place in the city at the same time. And on the 18th we ran half an hour behind schedule, much to the chagrin of that section of the audience that came for specific films. And by the 19th we were on line, and on time, and with the relaxation came the pangs of separation: only one more day to go!

On the 21st morning we screened the films that could not be shown on the 17th. Additionally, an important Indian documentary: The Final Solution was screened in the hall across. This film did not make it to the selection process and yet, as it was a very important documentary and was presented to us a few days before the festival was to open, we took this decision. It helped of course that the film maker was from Mumbai and could hand us the screening copy.

We had also done sufficient publicity of the special screenings on the 21st morning and we had a very good audience turn out.

Many participants to the WSF came with films that they wanted to show. It was impossible to include them in the main festival. However, on the 20th the culture committee made a special space available to us. This was in the video tunnel space and 18 films were screened, again to a packed house.

Panel Discussions at Other Worlds Are Breathing

With ten complex themes and many filmmakers in attendance, there were sixteen panel discussions including 26 primary speakers both filmmakers and activists alike during the WSF film festival. Additionally, there were 20 qualified specialists drawn directly from the audience to enrich these panel and roundtable discussions. Panelists arrived from Canada (2), US (4), India (11), South Africa (1), France (1), Thailand (1), UK (2), Pakistan (2), Germany (1) and Morocco (1). The format of the panel presentations and Q&A sessions was to show 3-5 films that had been curated along the aforementioned themes and then to have their representatives/filmmakers discuss cumulative issues brought out by the overall body of films in the thematic sub-section. This also allowed for filmmakers to field questions pertaining to individual films.

More on Panel Discussions

Late Night Classics of World Cinema

We thought of the feature film section for not only as a variation in genre, but also as an attempt to contextualise the contemporary struggles, issues and expressions in the backdrop of world history. While the documentary section concentrated mainly on films made in last five years, the feature film section showcased some of the classics of world cinema. We looked at issues that had enraged or engaged mankind over the last century of cinema, including war, dictatorship, poverty, unemployment, communal violence, refugees, patriarchy and the exploitation of the marginalised.

Since we could project only DVDs, it promptly ruled out a lot of great cinema. Our final choice was D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (US, 1916, b/w, silent) on intolerance & war and M. S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (India, 1973) on communalism & partition, shown, Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (Italy, 1947) on war and Majid Majidi’s Baran (Iran, 2001) on patriarchy & refugees shown, Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup (US, 1933) on satire on dictatorship by the Marx Brothers and Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 (India, 1955) on poverty, unemployment and real estate crime shown, Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Czech Republic, 1996) on satire on Czech occupation by Nazi Germany) and Walter Salles’ Central Station (Brazil, 1998) on exploitation of street children shown.

M. S. Sathyu, Director of the legendary film Garam Hawa not only personally presented his film also came back on the consecutive days to hold discussions with the audience. Starting at 8 pm this programme was popularly termed as late night feature films, making it truly an adult affair. One dire night, there were a some 500 audience who stayed till the end of Griffith’s masterpiece-running into 3 hours and 20 minutes-including foreigners, who realised they would be missing the last train home in an unknown city, but did not waver. Suddenly, all the doubts whether there was any justification of screening feature films in WSF were answered on its own.

Finally…

One repeated request we received was that for repeat screening. The film that many people wanted to see was The Corporation and a group of youngsters were willing to view it late, after the feature films ended, after midnight. We of course lacked the collective energy for this enterprise. Similar requests were made for The Peacekeepers and the Women , Swara- Bridging Troubled Waters, Search for Freedom: a Story about 4 Afghan Women, Tales of the Night Fairies, Words on Water, Say I Do, The Men in the Tree and Live Containers. Films that came from Eastern Europe had huge audiences and there were repeated requests to screen these again and again.

Unfortunately, we did not have the time for repeat screenings. We tried to set up a screening booth in the foyer but it became an impossible task given the rush of people each day. Also, that would have meant viewing them on VHS, with ear phones, and one person at a time. Probably, if we had planned It better, we could have made a number of such viewing stalls, which might have been of some use to the audience.

When we were asked to curate and coordinate the WSF Film Festival I had asked Madhusree Dutta, the coordinator of the Cultural Committee “Why a film festival? Nobody wants to see films at the WSF. ” And she said “Just for the experience of it. Just to have huge audiences for these films. Lets experience by participating….” and more such words of wisdom that I can’t completely remember. And the experience of doing this gigantic project was eventually worth it because of the astonishingly enthusiastic response from the people. The huge turnouts would gladden the hearts of any film maker. The panel discussion were deeply moving and proved to me, and most panelists, the need to continue to show films and discuss them.

And of course we made many friends. Todd and Bethany helped us to make the festival what it became. Karin Jurschick, Arlene Ami, David Kalpowitz, Tony Avirgan, Scott O’Brien and Saw Eh Do Wah, Jawad Metwani and Prerena Reddy, Munaizae Jehangir, Patrice Barat came from distanced lands. The festival did not pay for their travel, nor put them up, nor helped them in a city that we, ourselves, were strangers to. They came on their own. And many wrote to us regretting that funds barred them from being present. Many Indian film makers too came for the festival, under similar conditions, Sanjay Kak, Meghnath, Gautam Sonti, Rita Banerji, Aparna Sanyal came from cities far away from Bombay. And of course the Bombay film makers were present, even many whose films were not showing.

In all it has been a very rewarding experience to do this festival. We have seen some excellent films, made many friends (and probably a few enemies as well), participated in the WSF in a meaningful manner and had the pleasure of seeing different audiences for different films. We are now planning to send the films to travel in India (we’ll write for permissions etc.). There are also a few requests from outside India for the festival. And maybe, we will do the next WSF Film Festival in 2005 as well! So maybe we will all meet once again, either in person or virtually.

Report by Gargi Sen
With inputs from Meenakshi Shedde (Section on Late Night Classics), Todd Lester and Bethany Cole (Section on panel discussions)

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