Speak up for the Documentary

From Himal Southasian, Volume 14, Number 10 (OCT 2001)

South Asia needs a documentary revolution, and it can happen if we promote a screening campaign.

As non-fiction productions, documentary films have the power to educate, entertain, energise and even enrage. More than any other medium, electronic or otherwise, they can shake up society, spread understanding of our increasingly complicated planet, and provide a potent medium for anyone willing to express beliefs and opinions or delve into deep issues. But as has happened with television, radio and celluloid features, the documentary medium too has been prevented from coming into its own and emerging as a harbinger of societal transformation in South Asia.

All you need to produce: a digicam and a computer.

Other than in Nepal, radio still remains under the control of government everywhere in South Asia. Indian satellite television managed to slip away from under the state, only to come under the control of the market which, thus far, has shown its abhorrence of public interest programming. Cinema, of course, has not gone beyond serving as the opiate for the masses and remains a tool of the bazaar. Under such circumstances, it is the neglected documentary genre—perhaps for the very reason of its neglect— that holds the near-term possibility of shaking itself up and coming to the rescue of society at large. It is because non-fiction film and video remain furthest away from the control of the state and market that they have this social role cut out for them. And with rapidly declining costs of both production and screening, it is no longer conscionable that the diverse masses of South Asia are denied the watching great documentaries.

To the extent that it has been controlled by anyone, of course, the documentary has conventionally been under the influence of governments. This meant propaganda newsreels and turgid development productions. In the last couple of decades, the documentary was also discovered by the nongovernmental sector, which again concentrated on preachy development films and videos. Despite the vicelike grip of the state and the ‘donor’, however, the documentary film’s possibilities remained intact. This was because, unlike the electronic media and the airwaves, there could be no control over the media of transmission

Blooming documentaries

Despite the possibilities inherent in the medium— its freedom from the state and distance from the market— the documentary failed to take off because of the costs involved in production and the unavailability of screening opportunities. But the one wholesome trend of the last five years has been the continuing collapse of production and screening costs, which will help both film making and film viewing, making it more massbased and ‘democratic’. The filmmakers are themselves already wise to the lowered expenditure of production, and it is therefore the responsibility of all others who believe in the power of non-fiction film to single-mindedly pursue an exponential multiplication of screening opportunities. Essentially, let a thousand documentaries bloom!

Viewing possibilities can be divided into two categories: first, television and, second, screening halls used by festivals, film clubs and the like. As far as television is 411Ib concerned, while some inroads have been made to present useful and interesting fare in the government- owned stations, the private channels shirk from the documentary as if it were infected with a fatal virus. Even within their political and programming strictures, the broadcast companies should have been able to make space for quite a large spectrum of non-fiction fare, but they do not. This is because it is so much easier to reach into the shelf and bring out more Hindi song-and-dance numbers at minimal cost.

Even if this is so, there is a need to develop a lobbying force across regions, countries and capitals to pressure the television stations to carry more public interest programming. At the same time, to talk of the unspeakable in a region that is so thoroughly globalising, there must also be pressure to establish one or more public television channels on a regional South Asian scale. The wait for private television channels to be sufficient in number for the competition to deliver good programmes, is likely to be a long one. Furthermore, it is hardly appropriate that a region of 1.4 billion people is serviced by less than two dozen television channels, and the northern Hindustani-speaking and related regions of South Asia are even more restricted. It should also be noted that the more variety and languages there are in television offerings, the more localised will be the programming, and the more space for non-fiction productions.

All you need to screen: a video player and a projector.

While we must force open the door for documentaries in television, the larger challenge is to promote the screening of non-fiction films in front of live audiences everywhere. Even convincing television executives is probably easier than this much harder and longer-term task of promoting live screenings everywhere, but this is the way to make documentaries a part of the lives of the people. The more documentaries are shown before the public, the more it energises the filmmakers, and the more engaged with local issues their productions become. If this process is promoted, ultimately South Asia will be well-populated with filmmakers who make documentaries in the local languages and dialects rather than in English, and they will find satisfaction in their individual locations without having to seek a pat on the back from festival organisers in New Delhi, Bangalore or Kathmandu.

Again, organising festivals and screenings of documentaries is now more feasible than ever before because of the advances in projection technology. Previously, and for decades on end, local organisers of a festival or a screening would have to receive the heavy celluloid rolls of film, assemble projection and sound systems, and contend with the noise and excessive hassles of running the overwhelmingly mechanical devices. Today, things are much, much easier. Simply put, all that is required for a quality film screening now is a VHS cassette (and., soon, all this will be in digital format, with entries arriving on DVD), a home videocassette player (or DVD player) and—the most important piece of equipment—a video projector. The cost of video projectors is coming down by the month, and though there is a lot of variety, as yet a machine that can be used to show to an audience of about one hundred costs about USD 2000. This is already within the reach of many organisations.

Shelved productions

Which brings us to the problem of quality in the documentary films themselves. Due to the misguided efforts of governments and donor-seeking ngo’s, the documentary film has typically trotted out governmental or developmental propaganda or, alternatively, dull descriptive films that fail to engage the audience’s imagination through the creative use of audio and video. In fact, many fine filmmakers have been diverted to making intellectually unchallenging and unrewarding productions commissioned by organisations with a fulsome budget. No matter that the reels or cassettes get shelved the moment they are made.

But, the primary reason that even capable South Asian videowallahs have shunned making documentaries that make statements, stimulate the mind, and excite audiences is that they lack venues to screen their productions and they lack audiences. Despite the potential of new, affordable technology and the existence of an audience starved of viewing opportunities (without knowing it), too few good documentaries are being made.

It becomes a chicken-or-egg situation. The majority of filmmakers—like good journalists—do not need their coffers filled, just their egos fed (and that is not such a bad thing). To be able to screen one’s creation in front of audiences and revel in the reaction is taken as just reward, and is enough to keep the committed filmmaker energised and producing. When there is no audience, therefore, such films will not be made. And when there are no good films produced, there will be no audience.

Fortunately, there is every indication that this tragic circularity is about to be broken. This heartening change can be charted in the nature, quality and variety of films made in cosmopolitan centres as well as in the far corners of South Asia over the last decade. The improving standard of films can also be judged frog, the films submitted to the three Film South Asia documentary festivals organised in Kathmandu since 1997. The difference is evident both in the quantity and quality of films produced in this six-year period, in the range of issues taken up, as well as in the fact that more and more documentaries are being made in local languages rather than in English. All this points to enhanced creativity and localisation, which will lead to a surge of audience recognition of the documentary as a superlative genre.

The documentary genre is still evolving in South Asia, and the vicious cycle is being broken by bold and brash new documentaries. Of the kind, for example, submitted to the Film South Asia ’01 festival this year. There is a move away from newsreels, development documentaries and beyond the deeply political activist films which was the one area where ‘statements’ were made by documentary. The variety is there in terms of approach to filming, thematic treatment, and camera and editing techniques. There is increased confidence in audience’s ability to grasp sophisticated cinematic grammar, which makes more room for creative energy. From one extreme comes the ultra-sophisticated and extra-evocative film on sexual abuse of children in Bombay high society, while an alternative angle explores, with a handheld camera, the life of Lachuman Magar, a former soldier with the Indian Army working now as a housekeeper at a tourist resort. Or, consider the no-holds-barred look at the innermost feelings of young Nepali women who have migrated to the United States, to the sexual self-questioning of a well-known New Delhi filmmaker, to the raw footage of male masseurs on the hard pavement of Lahore, or to the sober exploration by some Dhaka artists on why they paint what they paint. The variety and quality are firmly in place, and we must get these films viewed by an audience that does not know what it is missing.

Indeed, this trend of “good and better documentaries”, the slogan of Film Festival South Asia ’99, is set to continue on its own, but it needs focused support. The non-profit Film South Asia is committed to use the 15 films of the Travelling Film South Asia (selected from the 50 screened at FSA ’01) to make one more concerted push for festivals in cities and towns all over South Asia. But that will be a drop in the ocean. Others—all who see the potential for societal transformation through the audiovisual medium—should get into the campaign for more screening and projection. No longer should documentaries be limited to elite circles in the large metros, while rural and mainstream audiences are force-fed government newsreels and development films. We must “speak up for the documentary”, as the rallying cry of Film South Asia ’01 urges us to do.

Documentary films can help achieve a lot, if they can swim away from the arena of governmental control, market pressures and the developmental agenda. The fact that non-fiction film has not become a mass-based industry elsewhere in the world is all the more reason to make it happen here, in Punjab, Bengal, Nepal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, Sindh, Gujarat, Andhra, Sindh…

 (The writer is the chairman of Film South Asia.)

Travelling Film South Asia

When the first Film South Asia festival in 1997 turned out to be a resounding and fun-filled success, the organisers decided to take 15 select films on a trip of South Asia and the world so that people beyond the Kathmandu venue of FSA would be able to share in the thrill of watching well-made non-fiction films. It turned out to be a good idea, and the Travelling Film South Asia was off and running. FSA had given birth to TFSA.

South Asian films have by now travelled twice, once after FSA ’97 and the next after FSA ’99. TFSA has by now touched down in Bangalore and Berkeley, Lahore and London, Colombo and Pondicherry. Dhaka and Amsterdam — a total of more than 75 venues. Everywhere, TFSA has been appreciated for its ability to encapsulate South Asian issues and concerns in 15 pithy productions, sensitising the audiences at home and overseas. These travelling fests have also been significant for their ability at one and the same time to indicate both the unity of South Asia as well as its diversity.

A special focus of the upcoming TFSA will be to promote the screening of documentaries in cities large and small all over South Asia — a singleminded effort to raise people’s awareness of the possibilities inherent in non-fiction film to inform, educate and entertain. This goal is especially feasible this time around because of the extraordinary quality of films submitted to FSA ’01. The organisers believe 15 films selected from these have the ability to excite audiences like never before.

We seek the help of all who appreciate documentaries to help TFSA in this task by energising individuals and institutions to become hosts to the travelling fest in their city, town or community. The 15 TFSA films are provided free-of-charge to hosts in South Asia (this is subsidised by charging a modest fee from venues overseas). Prospective hosts must be able to organise screening halls and screening equipment, as well as publicity so as to be able to gather an adequate audience. Because of the introduction of hassle-free video projection systems, the organisation of film festivals has become very convenient, but this possibility has yet to be used optimally on behalf of the documentary.

Once the FSA Secretariat is convinced of a host organisation’s ability to effectively mount a TFSA fest, it sends the 15 films in VHS format via courier. In addition, we also send posters and catalogues. The hosts must commit to non-commercial screening of the films, as per commitments made by the FSA to the filmmakers. (Non-commercial screening means that, at best, entry fees may be charged to offset the cost of hall and equipment rental and nothing else. Also, the hosts must commit not to make copies of the films that they receive on good faith.)

We are always on the look-out for interested groups and organisations to host Travelling Film South Asia, and we ask you to help spread the word so that more people than ever before get to see good documentaries.

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