By sheer coincidence, Mumbai has recently witnessed a plethora of documentary films, most of which broadly look at some theme concerning human rights, collectively or individually, in some part of the world.
In January, there was the Tricontinental Film Festival, which shows such films from mostly developing countries, documentaries which one never sees on the US-owned satellite TV channels, like National Geographic, Discovery and - worst of all - History. Indeed, a cursory glance at the last channel reveals that "history" for these producers consists primarily of various battles in different arenas of the world.
This was followed by an excellent screening by Vikalp - which, as the name suggests, is an alternative distributor of meaningful films - of Palestine is Still the Issue presented by the renowned independent Australian journalist, John Pilger. He made a film in 1977 exposing how nearly a million Palestinians were displaced in 1948 and again in 1967. A few years ago, he returned to the West Bank of the Jordan and Gaza, and to Israel, to find that the situation, if anything, was even worse and revisited some of the same sites.
"The fate and struggle of the Palestinians," says Pilger, "are not just critical to the overdue recognition of their basic human rights, but are also central to whether the region, and the wider world, are plunged into war. Israel is now one of the biggest military powers in the world. While nothing changes, the dangers become greater. This is a film about a nation of people, traumatised, humiliated and yet resilient. In trying to liberate less than a quarter of historic Palestine, they have had no army, no air force, and no powerful friends - and have fought back with slingshots and now with the terrorism of the suicide bombers."
Enough of 'official' filmdom
Vikalp was set up by Anand Patwardhan, Simantini Dhuru, Rakesh Sharma and other film-makers who objected during the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) in 2003 to the government's requiring film-makers to obtain a censorship certificate, which no film festival worth the name anywhere insists upon. The directors withdrew their films in protest. The following year, they set up their own screenings. This has now grown into a full-fledged movement, with screenings three times a month at separate venues. The organisers pass the hat around at screenings to raise funds for the screenings.
The tenth MIFF has just closed. It's a festival of documentaries, short fiction films and animation features. Obviously, the protesting film-makers have got their message across; the films aren't censored any more. Not that the Mumbai police have given up trying. Last July, they stopped Vikalp from screening Sanjay Kak's Jashn-e-Azadi, about the implications of the struggle in the valley, although it had already been shown in Bangalore and Delhi. A top policeman told the media that he had heard that it was provocative and inflammatory and that they wanted to vet it before it was screened.
MIFF has certainly come into its own, judging by the week-long exhibition of films mainly from India, but also a cross-section of film-makers who are grappling with human rights themes as much as human interest. Perhaps surprisingly, the north-east was represented with an entire section of its own. One only wonders where these films are screened: there is no shortage of talent and enthusiasm for making documentaries, despite the virtually comatose state of the Films Division (FD, once the biggest documentary-making institution in the world, but also one of the worst). Since it is no longer compulsory to screen FD documentaries before feature films throughout the country, the official 'market' for these films has dwindled.
The only other avenue, so far as mass screening is concerned, is through satellite TV channels. NDTV's 24x7 has done well recently to start showing a 23-minute documentary twice every week. At this MIFF, an NDTV representative cited that it would in time be extended to an hour, which would accommodate longer in-depth documentaries. At the Open Forum sessions which film-makers and others held every lunch recess during MIFF, Rakesh Sharma (who made The Final Solution, which dealt with the Gujarat riots) suggested that on DVD, which now seems the most accessible means of viewing documentaries, every film-maker could cite related films, thereby publicizing others' work. At a local college screening of similar documentaries last year, one film-maker sold his DVD on SEZs near Mumbai for as little as Rs.50 and invited the audience to copy it freely!
The 'war on terror'
There were many films which excoriated the United States for waging war on other countries without recourse to international law. Typical of these condemnations was War Made Easy by Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp, which cited statement after statement by successive American Presidents, from Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam to George Bush on Iraq, to demonstrate how they had been not just been economical with the truth but had told outright lies about the provocation for invading countries. The commentary was read by the well-known actor, Sean Penn. The 73-minute film exhumes archival footage of television coverage of these wars, amounting to a withering critique of the unquestioning media - even such stalwarts as news presenter Walter Cronkite of CBS - in the process.
It adds up to a not-so-subtle propaganda war, a battle for the hearts and minds of the American people who, had they been told the truth, would never have countenanced the widespread attacks on civilians in country after country. Not a single TV channel in the US ever shows any prolonged footage of how civilians have been killed in Iraq. The proportion of civilian deaths has risen from just 10 per cent in the first World War to 90 per cent in Iraq. All dissent is simply dismissed. There is a clip of former Vice President, Spiro Agnew, referring, memorably, to the media as "the nattering nabobs of negativism".
Personal life histories
There were several personal films, where the lives (and deaths) of ordinary people were examined with compassion. A Swiss film captured the lives of several men and women who grapple with their physical handicaps, against all odds. Adela Peeva, from Bulgaria, depicted in Divorce, Albanian Style how Enver Hoxha, the diehard Stalinist dictator, ruled that foreign spouses were spies and had to be tried for the simple offence of marrying an Albanian national.
One Russian woman, who was exiled for this reason, speaks without rancour of her sorrow at having discovered that her husband had remarried, while she was in jail. Even her son, as a medical student, publicly denounced his mother, for fear that he would be politically ostracized. Tragically, the mother talks occasionally to her son on the phone but declares, again without rancour, that there is no relationship between them. [To put the film in its historical and political perspective, in 1961, Albania, under Hoxha - who ruled till 1985, the longest of any such totalitarian rulers in the Soviet Union - broke away from the Soviets because he felt that Khrushchev was diluting the pure ideals of his mentor, Stalin.
Perhaps the most compelling of all these 'life histories' was Fiona Cochrane's Rachel : A Perfect Life, which examines in a literally blow-by-blow account the travails of a young Australian single mother who undergoes brain surgery to cure her epilepsy.
One recalls how some of this country's most famous film-makers were inspired to embark on their careers by attending film festivals. By that yardstick, and the 1200 or so persons who registered for MIFF, it was a big achievement. The films were, unlike in many other such festivals, shown on the dot and the organizers stuck to the schedule. This made commuting from four venues in the sprawling National Centre for Performing Arts complex relatively easy. All film buffs can recall dashing madly to far-flung venues at festivals in Delhi and elsewhere. A small point of critcism - the organisers should have selected the announcers more carefully, and done without the plastic smiles, the mis-pronunciations and banal introductions to each film.