A festival of contemporary political films
Organised by Magic Lantern Foundation and India International Centre
28, 29 and 30 April 2008
“Poetry is for Israel and documentary is for Palestine.” – Jean Luc Godard
In the surprisingly harsh April heat of Delhi, a group of film lovers decided to stretch the usual confines of a film festival. So they did not want just auditorium screenings. Or intruding “Q and A” rounds, where the audience would ask the filmmaker the budget of his or her film. Instead they toiled with a vision to ignite minds and create spaces for a passionate viewing of the world through images. The festival had to be as much about the image-makers, the innovations that they have sought to carry out as about the image-lovers who would provoke ideas, discussions and debates on a range of issues that they confront today.
But what kind of films would actually trigger off this reaction, making audiences step out from their state of passivity? Over the past two years, Under Construction, Magic Lantern Foundation’s film distribution initiative has acquired a wide range of award-winning documentary films from all across the world. These films have become a part of our collection not only because they tell important stories. But they also address the fact that terrains can no longer be charted under a single rubric. Instead, there needs to be a scope for multiple readings and ambiguities, where a clearer meaning perhaps emerges from the gaps of the dominant codes formulated by the populist imaginations of media, society and culture.
Designing a multitude of spaces for a hundred films
However, there had never been an opportunity or space available to showcase this amazing repertoire of documentary films together under a single thematic concern. Also, given the wide net that these films cast, how would one even curate them in one festival? We kept looking for that one common feature that would in some way bind these films together both aesthetically as well as ideologically. And somehow, the highly contentious word “political” always kept cropping up. It was a word that extended beyond international policies, globalization and global warming (though these were certainly a part of what we considered political) but at the other extreme also included the notion of the self as an extremely active and political being.
And thus it was decided, that this festival would be dedicated to challenging and questioning the understanding of contemporary “political” films.
Many people questioned us on the reason behind naming the festival with the tongue twister mottos – Persistence Resistance.
But in many ways these words further clarified the vision with which the festival had been conceived. These words laid out a wide network of meanings and discourses on the politics of subversion and resistance, not only of art forms but of human movements as well. How does then one track “Persistence”, through the layers of “Resistance”? The gravity of these questions made the process of the festival even more exciting and pertinent for us.
Conceptualising the festival space
Once the mottos were decided, a major amount of thinking went in to conceptualizing the screening spaces. What was it that we personally wanted while watching films? Quite obviously, a space of leisurely viewing, where there would be no compulsions of buying or an interruption caused by the interval. Eventually two unique spaces were designed as part of the scheme of the festival- the video parlours and the video library. They came up after hours of meticulous designs that had to take in factors sometimes beyond our control like the heat and the external sounds. The video parlours ended up looking like mystical dark spaces, covered by a double layer of tent, and fitted by desert coolers and plasma screens. These screened a selected set of films in a continuous loop through out the day and provided a circular manner of viewing rather than a linear one. In all there were 8 video parlours that with seating for 10 – 12 persons. But most of the time the parlours were visited by individual viewers wanting to enjoy a viewing space uncluttered by many.
The video libraries gathered interest mainly because people missed watching some films in the auditorium. The three viewing booths used to be booked throughout the day with a long list of pending requests.
And the final space that we thought of and which added another dimension to the viewing experience was that of the external installations- where the films would interact with the architecture of the building or the natural environment. These came up after hours of consultation with the filmmakers and exact measurements were drawn up to project the films. And in all this planning and designing, we were keeping our fingers crossed that the projectors would remain in their place, the hard drives would not crash and the tapes would not be scratched!
We also set up a display counter for selling the films that are being distributed by Under Construction. Many members from the audience bought films after viewing them in the auditorium, the video parlours and in the library.
The festival schedule
Naming the video parlours, dividing the different thematic sections that the festival would comprise of as well as deciding upon the festival schedule, became an equally nerve wracking and a thought provoking task, because one had to do justice to all the films while categorizing them.
With more than a hundred films in the offing for being screened, needless to say the curation process became a hugely onerous task. There were some directors like R. V. Ramani, Sehjo Singh, Paromita Vohra, Madhushree Dutta and Rehad Desai whose works through the years have found a common thematic resonance while at same time encounter experiments with form and hence naturally qualified for the retrospective section.
Refractions, Lifeways and Celebrating the Margins – our three broad themes for the main auditorium in a way summed up the spirit of the festival.
Lifeways carried films that showcased a range of startling testimonies of some men and women who carry on extraordinary movements, both in the private and public sphere.
Refractions provided diverse ways of viewing, not only of a film but also the lived experiences of everyday life. The trajectory of films in a way attempted to construct emblems, by piecing together words, memories and dialogues with history.
Celebrating the Margins weaved tales of struggle of opposites. Sandwiched in the middle of not only a political but also an emotional turmoil, celebrating margins was an ode to the indomitable human spirit, raising questions about what it means to be free.
And the eight video parlours created in a distinct space called: Borders and Identities were further categorized into: Exclusive Terrains, Mapping Icons, Blurring the Edges, Of Bodies and Boundaries, Searching Tolerance, Turbulent Currents, Contested Commons and lastly New Maps completed the constellation of images and voices.
Wooing the audiences
In a city, swamped by the excess of the multiplex, would the regular cinema-going audience ever be interested in sharing our vision? Would we ever be able to convince them to watch a gamut of films that they had always labeled as “boring”. The distributive aim of Under Construction has always been directed towards educational institutions and media schools. However, as luck would have it all colleges in Delhi seemed to be buried under the examination fever. Members from the team of MLF went from one media school to another, conducting workshops and trying to convince students to attend the film festival. We even devised a competition for them, promising to give DVDs as prizes. It is a different matter that only three students gave in their competition forms, and most showed up only for receiving attendance, pulling a disappearing act after that.
But the audience for the festival turned up from the most unexpected quarters, comprising of many curious passers-by and people who had been informed about the event through via the net, through a press conference and coverage and by the word of mouth.
Paromita Vohra’s film Unlimited Girls followed by a discussion, Orijit Sen’s animation package and Sudhanwa Deshpande’s introspective talk on noted theater personality Habib Tanvir, all had the pleasing sign “HOUSEFUL” in front them!
Persistence Resistance 2008 and the India International Centre
We had thought about this gigantic and magnanimous scale for the festival. But where would such a grand space be available that would encompass all the events in totality. The India International Centre located in the cultural hub of Delhi with sprawling gardens, adorned with fountains provided the perfect setting for an event of this nature. The green open space of the Gandhi King Plaza became the spot for two external film installations (R. V. Ramani’s Heaven on Earth and Orijit Sen’s Bandparty) and the video library. Going on straight one could reach the two main auditoriums where Refractions, Lifeways and Celebrating the Margins along with the Retrospectives were being screened. Further on, the eight video parlours found an ideal spot, next to the fountain lawns. A space for interaction with filmmakers was also set up there. A couple of unforeseen hitches arose simply because the organizers and volunteers of the event had to negotiate such a huge space. And what ended up happening was that the auditorium screenings received a large amount of attention simply because it was centrally located and the filmmakers could be seen interacting with the audiences and the press there. Madhushree Dutta’s films drew much interest and excitement and the talks continued beyond the auditorium into the foyer.
Another reason why the foyer area became the focal point for all was due to the installation set up of Amar Kanwar’s short films on Burma. The five films that ran in a loop were screened across the festival spaces to portray different contexts- in the garden where the films interacted with the architecture of the building and in the foyer where the book named The torn first pages was left alongside the installation. The artist was trying to allude to an event that took place in Burma in December 1994. His small book mentioned the event as follows:
“In December 1994 the Burmese military dictatorship Intelligence Services and the Police accused Ko Than Htay, the owner of a popular bookshop in Mandalay in Burma of ‘tearing out the first page’ of the several of the books and journals he had sold….All these first pages had printed on them the slogan of the military regime and a denunciation of the democratic forces. By an order of the military government these slogans of the junta must be printed on the first page of all materials in Burma. Ko Than Htay did tear out these first pages as his own act of resistance against military dictatorship…”
Incidentally Amar Kanwar’s little book laid out the military slogan on the first page. Only a couple however, figured to tear out that first page as a simple act of resistance.
And so in all the excitement of the parallel events the peripheral areas, housing the libraries and the parlours, became slightly devoid of public presence.
The festival catalogue, banners and badges
Delhi-based graphic artist Orijit Sen had designed the festival catalogue and banners. The tri-colors of green, purple and blue with the shimmering lantern in between (which some said looked like a chess board piece) defined the look of our entire festival. Bad printing turned the purple in to a shade of red, which made us reprint the four fifteen feet banners that had been hung across the India International Centre. Between frantic SMSes to the designer and thousands of spell checks the catalogue finally took a shape.
The badges stood out because of the bright colors- blue went to the organizers, green to the film makers and the purple ones to the volunteers.
Persistence Resistance 2008 ran a round the clock schedule from 9 in the morning to 9 at night, the evenings usually ending with a cultural event that linked films to other arts forms, politics of censorship, theatre and animation. The films and the events were introduced everyday by two volunteers and the discussions on the films carried on informally outside the auditoriums in to the foyer area. Filmmakers from Delhi like Sherna Dastur, Kavita Joshi, Samina Mishra, Anupama Srinivasan and Uma helped us with the technicalities of projection and sound during the screening of films in the auditoriums. They took charge of the screening technicalities within the auditorium for an entire day ensuring that the schedule runs on time.
Sujata Chatterjee, Simran Singh, Shabani Hasanwala and Samreen Farooqui took on the job of introducing the films and the filmmakers. All volunteers as well as presenters had to undergo training sessions where they had to practice not only the scripts that they would read but also be prepared for any technical glitches that could arise in the course of the screening.
Encounters with filmmakers, artists and culture
Persistence Resistance 2008 was as much about films as about exploring linkages other art forms like theater, animation and comics. The way each art informs the other, gave the festival a unique characteristic. The first night had an illustrated talk delivered by Jan Natya Manch actor/ director Sudhanwa Deshpande on the life and works of Habib Tanvir. Having co-directed a film on Habib Tanvir himself, his talk laid out the deeply complex domain of political ethos that Habib Tanvir has charted out for himself and his company Naya Theater.
The talk drew a fascinating portrait of Habib Tanvir by drawing parallels with other theater directors, touching upon his journeys at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and was rounded off by seeing him and his co visionary, his wife interact with the troupe of Naya Theatre.
Refractions travelled an interesting path. Ending with Rajula Shah’s Word Within the Word, a cinematic attempt to bring together words, memories and the human landscape, the evening concluded with a thought provoking animation package curated by Delhi-based graphic designer Orijit Sen (which he had kept a secret till the very end!). His selection brought together some delightful short animations from across the world that showed the different stylized forms of animation. The longer animation film that he showed was the award winning Spirited Away made by the Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki. The film encapsulates all of Miyazaki’s primary preoccupations- a female protagonist, the greed of man and the effect on nature and the difficulties of maintaining a harmonious ecological balance.
Following the films in the section Celebrating the Margins, the notion of freedom was expanded to the contested terrains of free speech and what needed to be explored was the repercussions of a clampdown on this basic human right.
In a celebrated production of Best of Kolkata Campus, Hamletmachine – Heiner Muller’s slim text travelled across geographical spaces, vacillating between movements, activist aspiration and dangerous dreams. As the name suggests the narrative is structured as a play within a play, where Shakespeare’s Hamlet undertakes an excessively symbolic journey, in which the connections become difficult to forge. Hamlet searches for justice in passing through phases such as the post-cold war Hamlet, post-Nandigram Hamlet, post-Gundewar commission Hamlet and the post-Naroda Patiya Hamlet. At times acknowledging such vast complexities of contemporary existence became difficult to comprehend in a single canvas.
Though our attempt was to create linkages with other art forms through this festival, we realized that perhaps the grids of connection can not be drawn so easily. Thus, this exploration could not be carried through in greater detail since the films in themselves are such a potent form of cultural dialogue.
Our retrospective section also carried extensive discussions with the directors – Sehjo Singh, R. V. Ramani, Madhushree Dutta and Paromita Vohra. South African film director, Rehad Desai could not attend the festival.
The discussions were fascinating not only because the audience probed about the innovations in making documentary films but also because, members of the documentary film fraternity asked questions and responded with critical introspection to each other’s works.
Even though Madhushree Dutta has a vast repertoire of films which are well acclaimed and have won numerous awards, her two films Scribbles on Akka (a film on the life and of 12th century saint poet, Mahadevi Akka) and I Live in Beharampada ( a film tracing the history of a Muslim ghetto following the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992) became the points of discussion.
Incidentally R. V. Ramani, who has shot the film, Scribbles on Akka asked her a deeply introspective question regarding what connects her to these two films and where does she place herself vis a vis these works. Madhushree replied by saying that as a citizen she is involved and her attachment is more organic rather than cerebral. She went on to describe the circumstances under which she had made the film, I Live in Beharampada, more out of a compulsion rather than a voluntary choice where she engaged with the film historically and the event through the aid of a camera.
She narrated an incident where she went to shoot the oldest resident of the ghetto, hoping for a dramatic partition narrative, full of bloodshed, loss and despair and victims. Instead, we see none of that in the film, no meta-narrative of partition, but the film comes alive when different versions of history collide with each other- the one residing in populist imagination and the one that perhaps resides in the hearts of the people of Behrampada. She also went on to acknowledge the loss of language and public memory that the current generation faces today, in a world ruled by the excess of satellite television and images. As a concluding remark, she said that Scribbles on Akka can be seen as a sequel to I Live in Behrampada, where the common thread that binds the films together is the search for the identity of religion as a public culture.
Her cinematographer, R. V. Ramani was also questioned regarding the manner in which he responds to a director’s needs for the film. Ramani responded by saying that he contributes by giving a set of perspectives to the film, and had read Mahadevi Akka’s works before he began shooting.
The films directed by Paromita Vohra, such as Unlimited Girls and Q2P, on the other hand drew a lot more discussion regarding the urban India of today and how the director views the absence of the “rural” in her films as well as the ways of constructing a documentary film. Paromita’s works are largely shot in Mumbai, where the city forms a backdrop to the narratives and journeys of her characters. The narrative logic of the film Unlimited Girls is structured around a chat room, where a figure called Fearless Nadia searches for the explanations and roots of feminism. Questions were raised regarding who is the film meant for, and how would the film reach to a larger audience since it is in English. Paromita’s response was that people respond differently to films and that one makes sense of things in different ways. Audiences appreciated the film largely due to the narrative impulse that it carries, which makes it so compelling.
Despite certain pitfalls and numerous hitches on the way of making the film festival happen, this experience provided a huge learning ground for us. People responded with surprise and awe at the range of documentaries, as well as at the video library, the video parlours and the external installations. The overwhelming response that we received from the filmmakers, academicians, journalists and other curators has made our resolve stronger to make Persistence Resistance return each year, as well as travel across different parts of the country, adding newer films and viewing practices. We have now in fact received offers to make this festival a travelling arts program. The success of Persistence Resistance 2008 in New Delhi has reiterated our faith that no matter where people come from, they love to watch and are energized by good films.
A Report by Sukanya Sen