A Festival of Contemporary Political Films
Magic Lantern Foundation & India International Centre
April 17, 18 & 19, 2009, New Delhi
A Report …
While a second edition presents endless opportunities to expand, grow and build on the foundation of one’s experience, it also brings with it the fear of not matching up. It was with this combined sense of trepidation and adventure that we began working towards the second edition of Persistence Resistance in 2009.
Our goal was to make visible the complexities and nuances of independent films; their diverse, plural voices and their common engagement with the ‘political’. Our focus was to locate and develop the new, engaged audience, keen to view different kinds of films, demanding newer experiences and ways to look at films. Emboldened by the encouragement we received in 2008, in our second edition, we took forward the quest to create multiple viewing spaces and experiences, as diverse as the films themselves.
Persistence Resistance 2009 presented nearly 150 independent films that are being distributed by Under Construction over three days. It brought together filmmakers, film scholars, critics and the audience in their engagement with cinema and their desire to hear alternative voices, often left out of the mainstream discourse.
Persistence in the making
The festival mania that had been growing on us since the beginning of the year, took over every aspect of daily life at Magic Lantern in the month preceding the festival. From designing the catalogue and signage to planning press conferences, interactions with volunteers, correspondence with filmmakers, coordinating meetings and endless trips to the India International Centre for last minute changes in the spaces and venues, the festival team themselves realized the many meanings of persistence! Lessons in resourcefulness followed as we searched the nooks and crannies of the city to source banners, printers, signage, carpenters and tent houses.
Despite strong intentions and efforts, we were unable to shift the festival dates to earlier in the year. From our experience of last year, we expected hot, dusty weather despite the technicality of April being springtime. The inconvenient truth of global warming dawned upon us as we saw mercury levels soaring in the days preceding the festival. April is also exam time in most universities and colleges of Delhi and that was another reason to shift the festival forward in the year. However as that was not to be, we tried to do our best to make the festival as widely accessible and inclusive as possible.
Through workshops, interactions and visits to various private and public colleges and institutes, the festival team managed to interest a large number of students in the doctoral level and hence exempted from the exam-fever, or from professional courses. In some cases the colleges could tweak their dates to make attendance possible. At the end, many students turned up not just to watch but also to volunteer to help in the organizing.
Sifting through the piles of tapes and DVDs, jumbled cables and endless email lists, the festival became the sole focus of all our work and energies. Indeed, everything seemed to be steadily progressing towards the three days of Persistance Resistance 2009 where our vision for independent political filmmaking, dissemination and ensuring visibility converge.
Creation and Curation: Developing the concept
The growing number of films in the Under Construction distribution catalogue made the curation particularly exciting, though definitely not simple. Scheduling nearly 203 films over just three days was a thrilling challenge that took doing and redoing over various days. What finally emerged was a carefully prepared programme that explored the myriad themes of resistance in art, cinema and people, through the films that tied them all together. The other challenge was to compliment the diversity of the films with a similar diversity in viewing experiences by creating a multitude of spaces.
Building on the foundation of the previous year, we expanded our vistas by bringing in specially curated sections that added a new richness and range to the schedule.
Persistance Resistance 2009 presented a special Focus South Asia, its films, filmmakers and the resonance and dissonance of the cultures of the sub-continent. It promised an eclectic collection of films that dealt with the politics of identity and belonging in South Asia. This specially curated package demanded extra attention and the creation of a special space that would give it the prominence that was due. With this in mind, we scheduled these screenings at night, in the outdoors making this section distinct and unique. The fountain lawns of the India International Centre with their wide, open area seemed an ideal venue for setting up a large screen for this section.
We also curated a special section on films from the Film Division as we felt the need to see and engage with some of the outstanding films made under the aegis of this institution. Old friend and filmmaker Paromita Vohra was excited by the idea and agreed to present the section and lead a discussion. She named the section: Hidden History of the Documentary.
Three auditoria were to hold parallel screenings under the themes Locating Resistance, Circumscribed and Inscribed. Complimenting, confronting and interacting with each other in multiple ways, these sections attempted to locate resistance in all its manifold manifestations.
Films as Installations were designed to provide a different viewing experience by involving the viewers physically in the viewing. We created Video Parlours to break the overarching structure of the large hall and explore small personal ways of engaging with films in these intimate spaces. For those who miss a specific screening or simply want to watch at their own leisure, the Video Library would provide the opportunity to view films from Under Construction without any constraints of fixed schedule or time.
Our second edition carried forward our exploration of the linkages between cinema and the other arts. Evening presentations were planned to provide us a space to bring together artists and art movements that spanned across diverse mediums and explored the symbiotic relationships between various art forms.
Taking a step forward from our previous edition, we also created a space for theoretical engagement with the critical discourse around cinema. Three half-day Seminars were to provide an opportunity for dialogue and discussion around some of the key challenges of the documentary aesthetics, production and distribution.
With some technical glitches and the searing heat, the festival got off to a slow start. As the inauguration ceremony progressed, however, the auditorium steadily filled up and the excitement and activity of the festival took over. The many hours of emailing, phone calls and facebook seemed to bear fruit as audiences kept growing during the day.
Better known to her peers and admirers as ‘Akka’, Dr. Vijaya Mulay agreed to inaugurate the festival. The ceremony began with the screening of her film Ek Anek Aur Ekta bringing back childhood memories as everyone present hummed along with the popular song. Mr. Kuldeep Sinha, Director of Films Division, who came from Mumbai especially for the festival, felicitated Akka with a package of Under Construction films as a token of appreciation. She graciously accepted the gift saying that it was a most apt present for a film lover like her who could spend joyous hours watching those films at leisure.
Addressing the gathering, she stressed on the need for creating spaces for exhibition and dissemination of independent films to create a wider interest and audience. We remain grateful to Akka who not only inaugurated but was also present during the festival and devotedly watched films. Her enthusiasm gives great inspiration and encouragement to our efforts.
Focus South Asia
This section was inaugurated by Dr. Aruna Vasudev on the 17th evening. Her immense work and contribution to give Asian Cinema a global reach and visibility made her the obvious choice to turn for the opening of this section.
Film scholar and Dr. Vasudev’s long time colleague and friend Dr. Rashmi Doraiswamy, introduced Dr. Vasudev to the gathering and spoke at length about her engagement with South Asian Cinema.
Dr. Vasudev spoke about her experiences of creating Cinemaya at a time when Asian cinema Asian Cinema emerged as an important cultural window that opened out on alternative paradigms of emerging from colonialism, resisting authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, of representing the many nations within a nation. Speaking from her experience of creating Cinefan, she said that audiences across the world are eager to access films from Asia and festivals are an important way of bridging this gap.
Filmmakers Kesang Tseten, Yasmine Kabir, Meena Nanji and Prasanna Vithanage felicitated her and gifted her a package of films from Under Construction. The screening of Meena Nanji’s View From a Grain of Sand, the first film to be presented in Focus south Asia, followed the ceremony.
The charged atmosphere of the daytime carried on with night screenings, which, despite late timings were well attended with audience sitting and watching till the end. The timings of the screenings had to be delayed till 8 P.M. for it to get sufficiently dark for the outdoor settings.
The large screen and outdoor space added to the viewing experience. The fountain lawns provided a mystical and relaxed atmosphere in the breezy evenings of April. This section also drew specific interest from the press who were keen to view the films and interact with the filmmakers from the subcontinent, who graciously agreed to be part of the festival and be present for the screenings. .
Farjad Nabi’s Nusrat Has Left the Building, But When? (Pakistan), Yasmine Kabir’s My Migrant Soul (Bangladesh), Kesang Tseten’s Machchendranath: On the Road With the Red God (Nepal) and Prasanna Vithanage’s Akasa Kusum (Sri Lanka) were some of the other films screened in this section.
Hidden History of the Documentary
Bringing together works of three of Films Division’s leading filmmakers – Pramod Pati, Sukhdev and S.N.S Shastri – the package was received with a mixed response of hesitation and curiosity. The attempt was for filmmakers and audiences alike to look to our cinematic past to understand better the journeys of our future. Until the early ‘70s the government was practically the only producer of documentary in India and an image of Films Division as a producer of ‘badly made propaganda’ has dominated the history of this filmmaking and influenced the narrative around documentary filmmaking in India. Yet, some remarkable – and rarely seen films – have come to us from the Films Division. The discussion that the package was framed in endeavoured to re-look at this work in terms of:
a) a new history of Indian documentary as being peopled with practitioners both within and outside the government system;
b) a semiotics of nationhood that was being built up; and
c) an examination of the continuities in the practice of filmmakers working in Films Division and then later in the independent space through the 70s and 80s.
The aim was also to reanimate the discussion around what constitutes political intervention through film and to redirect it from the stock conventions of the activist film by pointing out these continuities.
All the three filmmakers whose works were shown in this section were exceptionally gifted and their films reveal the engagement with the nation state and liberal/progressive politics emerging in the 1960s. Two of the filmmakers made films to commemorate the 20th year of independence and all of them grappled with several issues of censorship.
The sessions were moderately attended but ended in extremely lively discussions with audiences taking the ideas further to look at continuities in image making between progressive Films Division films (whose production plummeted post Emergency) and the work of filmmakers in the parallel movement who were largely funded by NFDC.
Being that this was the first time we curated a section of this sort we were apprehensive about its reception and consequently we kept the screenings to the morning. But the experience showed us that there is a need to screen and view these films and hence, in the future we need to work on their scheduling too. We are also encouraged by the fact that Bina Paul Venugopal has taken the same curated section for the Kerala film festival.
The auditorium screenings were spread over three auditoriums at the India International Centre – the IIC main auditorium, the Conference Room I and the Pergola.
In Locating Resistance we tried to bring together diverse tales of search, by the filmmaker or by the subjects in the film for moving beyond boundaries. Drawing in a very wide range of films and subjects, it traversed a trajectory from the Bhakti movements to collective resistance and ended in performances, almost as though Resistance is necessarily performed. Circumscribed located those elements, circumstances and compulsions that insist on and lay down boundaries and borders, creating margins. The films in this section presented situations of conflict, violence and denials traversing a vast spectrum of human experiences. Sandwiched in between Circumscribed and Locating Resistance, was a section called Inscribed meant to showcase multiple practices and celebrated plurality in our collective lives.
The different sections provided multiple viewing options which was commended by the audience who could be seen going from one auditorium to another to catch specific films. The heat took its toll on the numbers during the day, but the careful selection ensured at times small but dedicated groups in the three auditoria. The presence of filmmakers allowed question and answer sessions after the films which invariably carried on to the foyer areas.
Locating Resistance presented a vast array of films including Rajula Shah’s Word Within the Word, Madhusree Dutta’s Scribbles on Akka, Amitabh Chakraborty’s Bishar Blues, Pankaj Butalia’s Manipur Song and Paromita Vohra’s Cosmopolis. The films spanned a wide universe catering to diverse interests and audiences. The section was well received with some people making their way to the parlours to watch some films again!
Circumscribed presented Pankaj Butalia’s Moksha, Vani Subramanian’s New Improved Delhi, Sonia Jabbar’s Autumn’s Final Country, and Sameera Jain’s Born at Home among many others. The films in this section brought out the ‘political’ in myriad ways by looking at binaries and the struggle of opposites.
Sherna Dastur’s Manjuben Truckdriver, Roz Mortimer’s Gender Trouble, Harjant Gill’s Milind Soman Made Me Gay and Shyamal Karmakar’s I Am the Very Beautiful were some of the films presented in the section Inscribed. A selection of films on desire and exclusion on the 19th of April was particularly well attended with filmmakers Harjant Gill and Sridhar Rangayan present for discussions and questions. The films were followed by a discussion on Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises homosexuality. Steered by filmmaker Sridhar Rangayan, the discussion focussed on the case against Article 377, currently awaiting decision in the High Court and the role of the media in facilitating debate. It also brought up issues of funding giving the debate around sexuality a mandatory ‘health’ angle and how organisations working in the area negotiate a space for open discussion on issues of sexuality and sexual freedom within that realm. Rangayan also screened portions from a film project he is currently working on dealing with the same issues.
Installations, Video Parlours and Video Library
We brought tales of marginalisation and visual play to the formal, manicured gardens of the India International Centre. Our goal was to present a spectacle to grab the attention of the passers by, inviting them to engage with the curiosities and journeys of the protagonists. The curious presence of large installations along the walking paths made many visitors to the IIC stop and look at the films out of curiosity.
Starting in the evenings, the installations were projected on large screens in the passageways, presenting journeys and movement across physical, social and mental landscapes. Two of the screens had the films Brahma Vishnu Shiva and Saa, both by R. V. Ramani, and the third screen had Shyamal Karmakar’s Setu (The Bridge) playing in a loop. Many people used the installation space as relaxing lounge where they could sit or lie in the grass and comfortably watch the open-air screenings.
The small Video Parlours for 10-12 people were an ode to the mobility of cinema and the vision of easy access to diverse narratives. The filmmakers’ parlours presented the works of filmmakers Madhusree Dutta, Paromita Vohra, R. V. Ramani, Sanjay Kak (India), Tanvir Mokammel (Bangladesh), and Kesang Tseten (Nepal). The parlours also presented small separately curated sections to bridge the binary and overlap between Circumscribed and Locating Resistance.
The tents of last year had been replaced with portable air-conditioned cabins to combat the hot windy conditions. However, even the cabins could not withstand the onslaught of the weather as the wind tore into the sides, creating gaps in the panels. Despite the damage however, the parlours remained popular for the personalised experience they provided. They also became recourse for people who missed out specific films or wanted to see the works of the featured filmmakers. Looking at people watching films in the parlours through the gaps made by the wind blown panels was strangely reassuring and deeply satisfying.
The Video Library was a crucial part of our desire to free the films from restrictive formalised ritual and allow the audience to chose how they wish to engage with the medium. However, this popular feature from the previous year, had few takers this time perhaps owing to the heat. Some also felt that the different auditoria and venues needed to be integrated into a closer space for easy access – an idea we will seriously consider for the future.
Activity around the foyer always seemed to increase with dusk. The evening presentations drew in large and diverse crowds and we saw a number of eminent literary and academic personalities in the audience. The presentations brought out the interaction between cinema and film images with a range of other art forms and practices resonating with the deeply complex, political engagement of art and artists.
While exploring resistance, it was impossible not to speak of Palestine with its long history of conflict and violence. We turned to long time friends at the Jana Natya Manch who were eager and ready with Ujle Safed Kabootar: Poetry on Palestine. Part of Locating Resistance, the presentation charted the history of conflict and resistance in Palestine through a combination of poetry, performance and cinematic image making. It allowed us to engage with conflict and resistance in multiple ways while reasserting the basic human values of love, understanding, dignity and self-respect.
Ujle Safed Kabootar started with the recitation of a song on Palestine by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and a poem by the Somalian poet Safi Abdi. The centerpiece of the reading was the poem Under Siege by Palestine’s best-known poet, Mahmoud Darwish, who died last year. Bringing together poetry, performance and music, it presented reflections on the fate of a nation that nurtured three great religions, now ravaged by perpetual war and violence. The performance concluded with excerpts from Nizar Qabbani, Syria’s greatest poet. A visual essay by filmmaker and designer Sherna Dastur accompanied the reading by Sudhanwa Deshpande.
Our search also took us to our friends at Khoj, who brought their own explorations into ways of representing peace and conflict to our festival space. Locating Resistance became an energizing space for the Imagine Peace Workshop organised by KHOJ International Artists Association in collaboration with Design2context (Zurich). The goal of the workshop was to search for local representations (imageries, signs, cultural elements, drawings) of peace, question or analyze these representations and create new visualizations according to the local and individual perspectives. In its concerns, it took forward our own search for new aesthetics to address notions of conflict, peace and resistance.
In the Imagine Peace workshop, artists from Baroda, Srinagar, Colombo, Delhi and Guwahati showed and discussed work that engages with the theme of conflict/ peace, as it manifests in terms of civil/ military strife; conflict in the form of caste, class and gender and issues that arise out of contemporary phenomena like migration etc. Films specially curated for the workshop further contributed to the interaction and sharing by the artists.
Generating widespread interest and a large audience, Majlis brought Cinema City to our festival. The presentation was a curtain raiser of an interdisciplinary project to archive the timelines of cities in cinema and cinemas in the city. Exploring cinema and city as twins of the 20th century, it looked at the complex relationship between a city and its cinema seen in dialogue with each other. Cinema City focused on Bombay/Mumbai through its city narratives and cinematic representations, and brought together film, performance, cartography and work in progress to look at the development of a distinct cinematic identity. It allowed us to look at cinema itself and re-imagine its interaction with its context and environment. In confluence with the screenings, the presentations brought fresh plural perspectives to Locating Resistance, Circumscribed and Inscribed.
The themes of the seminars were carefully chosen to compliment the screening schedule. Some films were selected for screening specifically for the seminars to start off the discussion. For the first day’s discussion, the question Is South Asia a Cinematic Reality seemed to be an apt precursor to the Focus South Asia section that was to be inaugurated later that day. With the festival’s heavy focus on documentary films, we also wished to understand and expand the notion of ‘representing the real’, which informs the popular perception of documentary films. Watching the Real: Voyeurism, Polemic and Documentary, thus, became the topic for the second seminar. Our concerns regarding the narrowing spaces for production, dissemination and exhibition of independent films became the theme of the third seminar that asked When are films Independent? Rethinking Ownership/ Authorship/ Viewership. Our attempt here was to bring together, filmmakers, film scholars, critics and the audience to share perspectives on the practices of cinema.
Moderated by Kanak Mani Dixit from Himal Southasian, the first seminar looked at visions of South Asia from South Asia as against a framing of the region through western discourses and cinema. The seminar began with a screening of a section from Kesang Tseten’s film We Home Chaps that highlighted the diversity of identities and experiences, presenting Graham’s Homes, a school in Kalimpong as a microcosm of the region.
Filmmaker Sanjay Kak opened the discussion by highlighting that in an era marked by violence and turmoil across South Asia, earlier notions of a unified and united identity are rapidly coming apart. What are the new ways in which identity and specifically a South Asian identity can be charted was the question that the discussion veered around.
The speakers looked at the varied ways of constructing and adhering to any identity through cinema practices and the proliferation of production, dissemination and screening efforts, not just by filmmakers but also other groups. The discussion concluded with perspectives on censorship and the shrinking space for the expression of plurality. In that context, the chaotic and violent situations prevailing in South Asia could perhaps provide a site for the creation of a “South Asian sensibility” that can be expressed through independent documentary film practice from the region.
Moderated by filmmaker Madhusree Dutta, the second seminar focused on the burden of the real that the documentary form carries and how new practices in the area negotiate this expectation of “representing reality.” It began with a screening of Farjad Nabi’s Nusrat Has Left the Building.. But when?
Madhusree started off the debate by talking about the history of the “actuality shot” and different ways of constructing a reality within the documentary form. The seminar progressed to a discussion around how concerns regarding the audience, the subject, etc., inform a filmmaker’s choice of narrative form. Filmmakers Meena Nanji, Yasmine Kabir and Prasanna Vithanage spoke from their own experiences of engaging with experimental cinema, fiction film as well as what is known as the ‘standard’ documentary. Filmmaker Paromita Vohra raised the issue of audience cultures, asking whether the filmmaker is more burdened with the idea of capturing the ‘actuality’ where the audience is at some level comfortable with different kinds of representations.
Ravina Aggarwal of the Ford Foundation brought an ethnographic perspective to the debate talking about the post modern narrative emerging out of the limitations of looking at reality as linear. She went on to talk about the opening up of broadcast space to multiple ‘real’ voices through reality TV and the possibility of the use of this same space and mass appeal to bring the documentary film into the broadcast space. The discussion went on to address the different ways in which the real may be constructed without being burdened by the expectations of the audience, broadcast channels, funding and distribution.
The seminar concluded with the screening of a clip from Shooting for the Real, a film by Trinh T. Minh-ha, a Vietnamese American filmmaker talking to a Chinese filmmaker on censorship that brought together the various notions of constructing and representing the ‘real’ addressed in the seminar.
The third seminar began with a clip from the film Good Copy Bad Copy directed by Andreas Johnson, Ralf Christensen and Henrik Moltke that looked at the sharing of culture in the context of restrictive copyright laws. The seminar brought together a diverse panel to look at issues of authorship, ownership and viewership in the realm of independent documentary films.
Film scholar Giulia Bataglia, spoke at length about the growth and development of the Indian documentary and how practitioners negotiated an independent space for their work during the different periods of its history. Gunjan Jain from NDTV added to this by talking about the new space created for independent documentary films by NDTV and her experience of negotiating with the broadcasters and filmmakers for the same. Manak Matiyani of Magic Lantern Foundation spoke about the impact of copyright laws on the production, dissemination and exhibition of cultural expression. The presentation looked at the impact of a linear legal framework on the dialogic process of cultural and artistic creation. Filmmaker and artist Hansa Thaplyal spoke about her work with the Public Access Digital Media Archive (Pad.ma) and the experience of working with “found footage and images” to create new interpretations and meanings. This prompted a discussion between filmmakers Madhusree Dutta and R. V. Ramani on different ways of approaching images and the implications of altering the context and meaning of an image by adding a new perspective. The discussion focused on the idea of ownership and the filmmakers’ relationship with his/her work and the anxiety of seeing it altered or re-contextualized.
A combination of practical engagement as well as theoretical insights lent the discussing an added richness and depth of understanding. We thank the filmmakers, critics and scholars for their time and presence that made the seminars a stimulating learning experience.
A second edition allowed us to implement learnings from the past and further experiment with ways of engaging with cinema. It also gave us a chance to exhibit the growing range of issues and forms with which independent films continues to engage. As we continue to expand our collection, we also seek newer and more diverse ways of engaging with cinema and its audience.
Unlike last year, this year over 25 filmmakers from outside Delhi travelled to the festival and added to its value by their presence. And like last year, many filmmakers from Delhi chipped in to help and volunteer for the more complex and technical tasks. Filmmakers Sameena Mishra, Uma, Kavita Joshi and Sherna Dastur oversaw the technical detailing of the screenings. The presence of a large number of filmmakers was an added benefit providing us opportunities for extended discussions and interactions. Volunteers efficiently managed the different spaces, introducing films, filmmakers and ensuring that the schedule kept to time. We are especially grateful to Sujata Chatterjee, who tirelessly presided over the screenings in the main auditorium and introduced filmmakers to the audience. We are also grateful to the students of SAIMC who completely took over the screenings in the Conference Room I and Pergola. Last, but not the least, we thank our friends from Sama – Beenu, Susheela, Deepa, Priti, Aanchal and Anjali – who, despite their busy schedules, took turns to look after the registration desk and watch films whenever they could.
The plethora of activities and a residential venue created an invigorating atmosphere, allowing relaxed, thoughtful engagement as well as friendly camaraderie. The general atmosphere of activity and amity was appreciated by many of the guest filmmakers. The three-day festival concluded with a dinner hosted by the India International Centre. The amiable environment was perfect for a laid back evening with old friends
and acquaintances and provided a perfect end to the three days of hustle bustle and activity.
The presence of a large number of practitioners, critics and enthusiasts widened our own horizons and provided vital feedback for which we remain thankful. The growing interest shown by the audience fuels our desire to return with renewed enthusiasm and also make Persistence Resistance a growing movement that brings art, artists and audiences closer together.