Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Persistence Resistance film fest: notes, mini-reviews

Just a pointer to a festival of documentaries and short films taking place at the India International Centre, New Delhi between April 28-30. “Persistence, Resistance” is organised by the Magic Lantern Foundation and nearly a hundred films, Indian and international, will be screened; these will include retrospectives of the work of Madhushree Dutta, R V Ramani, Sehjo Singh and Paromita Vohra, all of whom will take part in conferences at the venue.

The screenings will be in the IIC’s auditoria, but a notable initiative is the setting up of eight video parlours on the Fountain Lawn. (“We’re exploring new ways of seeing films,” says Gargi Sen, director, Magic Lantern Foundation.) Each of these parlours will screen four-hour loops – made up of selected films, played one after the other – thrice a day, allowing visitors to sample what’s on offer, pick the films they want to watch and the order in which they want to see them. For viewers unaccustomed to non-mainstream cinema, this should be a relaxed, informal way of discovering the variety of films being shown.

Since I was doing a festival preview for a magazine recently, I got to see a few of the films. Among the ones I liked was Rehad Desai’s Bushman’s Secret (65 minutes), which is a moving, expertly shot account of the marginalisation of a dignified people – the Kalahari bushmen. The Johannesburg-based Desai meets a traditional healer and examines the controversy that has risen around a cactus plant called the Hoodia, used for its medicinal properties by the bushmen for centuries but now being patented by a pharmaceutical company. Intellectual property being a “ridiculous notion” to the bushmen, they are ripe for exploitation by the faceless corporation. I thought the supplanting of a traditional, nature-based way of living by cold modernity is poignantly summed up in a scene where an old woman is shown the sterile-looking white tablet manufactured by the company. “I don’t recognise this Hoodia,” she says disapprovingly, “I like it when it’s green and raw and has the little thorns.”

Another engrossing film is Bishakha Datta’s Taaza Khabar (31 minutes), about a fortnightly newspaper called Khabar Lahariya, run by a group of barely literate women in a small Chitrakoot village. Even as we shake our heads at mainstream media’s celebrity obsession and the general fading of journalistic integrity, these self-taught patrakaars have been doing everything they can to cover the news that affects the life of the common man. The film shows us their impromptu “edit meetings”, their nervousness about going for interviews alone, the way they exchange feedback on illustrations (“is this a sweeper cleaning a drain? Looks like he’s playing badminton”), deal with power cuts on production day and chronicle unsavoury social realities, such as a husband being garlanded when his wife has won an election. It’s an eye-opener about the painfully difficult process of news reportage (and dissemination) in the hinterland.

I also liked Planeta Alemania (40 minutes), which is about people living and working in Germany without legal papers. “The word ‘illegal’ is like a plague that covers my body,” says the protagonist, a woman who notes, ironically, that she isn’t permitted to appear on public television, and that therefore the documentary will have to find creative ways to film her. (One of the solutions is to show extreme close-ups of her lips while she speaks monologues.) She talks about poor work conditions, discrimination, lack of medical aid, having to learn German only so she can defend herself against the authorities, the strong inner conflict she feels when in a public place (“it’s like being in a cage without being in a cage”). She envies birds. “They can go to another place without showing a visa. We humans are complicated.”

Some of the films I saw deal with gender constructs in one way or the other. These include Harjant Gill’s Milind Soman Made Me Gay (27 minutes), in which four gay men – all of south Asian origin, now living in the West – tell us about the personal journeys they made in coming to terms with their sexual preference and seeking acceptance from others. In the process, larger questions about identity are raised. Recalling his family’s experiences during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, one of the men ponders the labeling of people, and “our relationship with the world around us”. Another, a Pakistani, recalls being concerned that his sexual leanings might amount to a betrayal of his culture and religion.

The theme of how the performing arts can unloose the shackles of gender constraints is explored in Madhushree Dutta’s Sundari: An Actor Prepares (30 minutes), the story of a renowned female impersonator in the Gujarati theatre of the early 20th century. Then there’s Roz Mortimer’s Gender Trouble (24 minutes),
which features first-person accounts by four “inter-sex” women. They speak about their experiences: the shame and self-doubt, the often-unbearable pain of treatment (one of the women holds up dilators, of progressively bigger sizes, that she has to use to enlarge her vagina), the complications created by societal and cultural attitudes – a UK-based Indian woman, Saraswati, is told by her family doctor that the need for surgery can only be ascertained after she gets married, an assumption that she won’t be having sexual relations before then. A running theme is how people who lead relatively “normal” lives are discomfited by variation. “I find ‘hermaphrodite’ to be quite a poetic word actually,” Saraswati says at one point, “but it has a freakish connotation. It would be nice if society could think more flexibly about us.” That’s the least one should expect, given that one in every 2,000 people is born with an inter-sex condition.

There are dozens of other films, of course, and I’ll write about some of them later. I don’t think the festival schedule is online yet, but anyone who wants it can email me.


  1. Sry for the digression

    Been reading your Hitchcock posts and your reviews of some of the less celebrated classic films. They make a wonderful read :)

    Could you review films from the studio era more often? Also, it would be great if you could recommend good reviewers of classic films on IMDB.

  2. Shrikanth: thanks. I have a soft corner for 1930s and 1940s Hollywood, and that probably comes across when I write about those films. Enjoy writing about them too. But unfortunately I do that sort of writing entirely on my own time (apart from a sporadic column I write for a paper), so it depends on how busy things are. Will try though.

    Not so sure about which reviewers IMDB links to, but if you check the Great Movies section on Roger Ebert's site you'll find some excellent pieces.

  3. India is slowly and steadily opening up to quality films and docs. the existence of such and more fests like Jeevika are proof

  4. I miss that festival rush. I covered five or six festivals in my time as full-time journalist. But it was always depressing to see the halls half or even quarter-full when idiocies like Jodha-Akbar ran to packed houses. (Classic elitism on display here, but really I have nothing against mainstream Hindi cinema, although I don't personally have a taste for much of it. But I draw the line at J-A and any other film that stars the plastic queen.)
    Even the other journalists who covered these things weren't very bothered about the whole thing. I remember being called a loony more than once when I explained that I had to watch every movie in a festi val even if i was only filing one 600 word piece on the entire event.

  5. Hi Jai,

    An informative piece there. Couldn't get through mailing u so leaving a comment here. I would like to have the schedule as the films you mentioned are quite interesting. DO let me know. Leaving my email id here: