Goodbye Documentary, Hello Non-fiction

When the Travelling Film South Asia festival of non-fiction films arrived in the central Nepal hill town of Pokhara in early November, the screening of 15 films—some light-hearted, but mostly activists’ fare—proved to be the documentary filmmakers’ dream come true. Could this really be happening? The venue, a commercial cinema hall with capacity of 600, was often showing documentaries to a packed hall of more than a thousand, tickets of twenty rupees were being sold in ‘black’ for up to Rs 200. Even an eighteen-minute film on the sexual identity of Bombay transvestites got a respectable audience of 250.

“Let us have a screening revolution!” has been a slogan of the organisers of the biennial Film South Asia festival in Kathmandu, and the Pokhara response to the travelling festival seemed to herald just such a revolution. It proved that documentaries, firstly, had an audience aplenty even beyond the serious connoisseurs in the capitals and main metros. Pokhara also proved that an audience that is not accustomed to seeing documentaries has nevertheless developed a taste for it, from word-of-mouth travelling all the way west from Kathmandu, from watching documentaries on television, and generally being capable of imbibing more information in audio-visual format than earlier generations.

The overwhelming response in Pokhara, which was much more than what the FSA organisers had seen anywhere in South Asia in eight years of organising documentary festivals, was also due to the fact that there were several Nepal-made documentaries in the line-up, including an archival film from the 1950s by a Swiss geologist, and several films on cultural themes made with deftness and depth by Nepali filmmakers who had themselves been groomed over years of watching documentaries from all over, in successive Film South Asia festivals.

What was missing in the Nepali films was the passion of the activist, which has defined much of independent filmmaking in South Asia before this, but that lack was more than made up for by films from the rest of the Subcontinent, from a scream of pain on behalf of elephants (P Balan, Kerala) to questions about what really happened in the burnt railway coach at Godhra (Subhradeep Chakravarty, Delhi), the sacrifice of girls to assuage male family pride in the Northwest Frontier Province (Samar Minallah, Peshawar) and the rhythms of life in a poor village in the delta region of Bangladesh. All these films were received enthusiastically by the Pokhara audience.

The documentary film has travelled a fairly long distance in the matter of just a few years in South Asia, taking advantage of the rapid advance in both production technology (the digital camera, editing on computer, etc) as well as screening equipment (most importantly, the video projector, video tapes and DVDs). Meanwhile, the tastes of the audience have been sharpened by the evolution in South Asian cinema (particularly the ‘A’ market Hindi film), and the plethora of television channels and programmes. What has been missing is diversity in the documentary genre of a kind that includes not only propaganda at one extreme and activism in the other, but lightness, cultural commentary and even humour in the delivery of the message if there is one. Even more importantly, there is as yet no screening network which really appreciates the value of the documentary and the appeal that it has in society. That the audience for documentary films does exist in sufficient volume to even sustain a moderate level of commercial success was proven by the Pokhara event, which has been repeated in the smaller cities of South Asia which have also hosted the Travelling Film South Asia. If a medium-sized hill town in Nepal with no history of documentary film festivals can provide an audience that turned up in early November, one can imagine the unfulfilled demand that exists in the far corners of South Asia which have been more socialised into non-fiction film than Pokhara has been.

If award winning documentaries at Film South Asia held in Kathmandu since 1997 are any indication, the ‘better’ films as adjudged by the juries (led variously over the years by Goutam Ghose, Shyam Benegal, Mark Tully) are ones that tell stories of societies via the medium of individual experience. The award winners have included Tsering Rhitar’s The Spirit Does Not Come Anymore which told the story of intergenerational conflict between a Tibetan faith healer and his son; Farjad Nabi’s take on the life of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as well as his No One Believes the Professor about the eccentric Lahori theatre actor; Thin Air, about magicians in Bombay and their hopes and insecurities;

Sabeena Gadihoke’s Three Women and a Camera about individual women photographers; My Migrant Soul, the very personal story of a Bangladeshi migrant labourer, his hopes and fears; and A Rough Cut on the Life and Times of Lachhuman Magar. The story of awards was no different in the Film South Asia ’03 just concluded in Kathmandu, when the jury awarded as ‘best’ film award to The 18th Elephant – 3 Monologues, which is a ‘personal’ story about three elephants.

When the Nepali film A Rough Cut on the Life and Times of Lachhuman Magar was declared the second best documentary at Film South Asia ’01, a filmmaker in the audience remarked, “That is not even a documentary, how could it win an award?” The 38-minute long Nepali film was a portrait of a retired soldier from the Indian Gorkha regiment, working as a sweeper in a tourist lodge. A raconteur with self-deprecating bent and an eye for women in the village paddy fields and Kathmandu streets alike, Lachhuman Magar was an unlikely subject for ‘traditional’ documentaries, given over as they are either to present governmental and developmental propaganda, or the deeply-held views and convictions of the documentary-maker-as-activists. Lachhuman Magar  thus marked a departure into another realm of filmmaking in Nepal too, delving into artistic expression, pleasant emotions and engaging description. The life and times of the former soldier, as captured by the hand-held camera of filmmaker Dinesh Deokota, does deal with deep issues such as poverty, exploitation, deprivation and politics, but none of it directly.

With the expansion in the repertoire of the non-fiction film, it was but natural that a parting of ways would come about between filmmakers of the earlier moulds and those who were branching out to explore new avenues of expression. This divergence was exemplified in the tension between filmmakers who are among the best in the line of activist documentary-making and the three-member jury of FSA ’03, because the latter decided to reward aesthetic appeal as a necessary element in presenting films to an audience. This was, in fact, the most radical departure from all FSA festivals in the past, where the commitment and political vision of the film was given maximum weight.

That there was such a difference of vision is itself a positive factor, for it indicates that the entire spectrum of possibilities in the making of documentary films is now in the process of being filled. Documentary filmmakers are also becoming more alert to the needs of the audience, and utilising more sophisticated cinematic techniques to reach them. There is also a visible trend towards a more nuanced rendering of subjects to an alert audience. The fact that the majority of films that are now being submitted to Film South Asia for exhibition are actually made in the ‘regional’ or national languages rather than English also indicates that the target audience of these films are no more the English-speaking film aficionados of the major metros. This relationship between a new type of filmmaker and a new type of audience has freed the documentary from some of its typecast roles and made for a greater realism and honesty that is universal in its appeal and accessibility despite the need to communicate dialogue through subtitles.

The early documentary
There have been two ways to understand the ‘documentary’. One is as the public was brought up until recently to believe – that it is essentially a medium for the public information output of government as packaged in the classical newsreel. More recently, it has come to be associated in the public perception as the vehicle for subtle propaganda by development agencies, whether domestic or foreign, of their aims, objectives and achievements. In contrast to this propagandist view, is the understanding of the ‘purist’, of the documentary as real life film which raises issues, provides a voice of dissent, documents the natural world or portrays a way of life that needs to be brought to the notice of a larger public, embellished with the voice of good narration. Lachhuman Magar was not, by these definitions, a documentary. Unless the definition of the ‘documentary’ can be expanded to include these types of films, therefore, it may be wiser to use the more generic and neutral category ‘non-fiction’ for such films.

Indeed, the South Asian documentary has come a long way since 1910 when the first moving-picture documentation was made on celluloid film. Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, or Dadasheb as the pioneer was known in the world of early Hindi cinema, recorded on film the growth of a pea plant over one and half months. The Growth of Pea Plant was a 200-foot film which ran two minutes, and it was a documentary made with no higher purpose than to convince would-be investors about making a feature film. Thus was the Hindustan Film Company formed in 1917. Phalke, who went on to lay the foundations of the Indian film industry, made several documentaries including one entitled How Films are Made. It was in 1938 that, what we now know as, documentaries were made for the first time in India when a two-reel film on the Indian National Congress session at Haripura was produced.

The film on the 1938 Congress conclave became the prototypical documentary for those who came later. Such was the propaganda value of films that the British set up three establishments within India—the Film Advisory Board (FAB), the Information Films of India and the India News Parade—with the aim of building support for their cause in the second world war. The establishment of the Films Division in 1948 by the Indian government post-independence simply continued the tradition, and the audience was captive as the output was to be compulsorily screened at cinemas before the commercial features. This tradition was continued in Pakistan by the Department of Film and Publication, and in Sri Lanka by the Government Film Unit. Not to be left behind, government newsreels were produced in Bangladesh by the Department of Film and Publications and in Nepal by the National Film Development Corporation, churning out a variety films on cultural landscapes, development efforts, national integration and ‘desh darshan’ travelogues.

While filmmakers-as-government-employees picked up the camera in support of the state, in the 1950s, a small ‘independent’ filmmaking movement was begun by Paul Zils, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany who had landed in the Subcontinent. A Short Film Guild was organised, later to evolve into the Indian Documentary Producer’s Association, and the new genre of films sought to widen the scope of the non-fiction celluloid. Zil’s former assistant, S Sukdev, introduced activism into filmmaking in India with his debut film The Saint and the Peasant (1958), about the land reform movement led by Vinoba Bhave. Sukdev believed that filmmakers, as artists, must be aware of their social role and responsibilities and use cinema as a weapon to expose the truth about society. The movement started by Sukdev continues powerfully to this today, particularly in India, with the activist exposing the dark underbelly of Subcontinental societies. Given the impulse for free expression that has survived in India, it is only natural that films that courageously question given mores have had a more fertile ground there than in the neighbouring countries, where only lately has the activist film begun to be regarded as a possibility.

In fact, the activist film seeking to challenge social prejudices seems only now to be extending roots in Pakistan. Bangladesh, which does produce fine documentaries, is still locked into learning from the catharsis of 1971, while Nepal is moving firmly along the path of producing engaging films on cultural matters but keeping well clear of uncomfortable social and political truths at a time when the national society confronts extended crisis. Inexplicably, Sri Lanka as the country which could have been expected to produce the best of South Asian documentaries because of its alert urban intelligentsia, the legacy of a media inherited from colonial times and a whole raft of societal issues to tackle, has been surprisingly the laggard when it comes to documentary-making.

Development docs

The advent of television meant a sudden jump in the reach and quantity of documentaries, but quality was a different matter. Government-owned television stations did no better than the films divisions, proffering films with a didactic tone and little creativity and imagination. As a result, the image of the documentary as propaganda material—or at the very least as pedestrian productions—churned out by government became even more imprinted in the popular imagination.

Though the initial promise of television as a medium of creativity was not fulfilled, the more or less simultaneous advent of the videotape did promote a democratisation of the discipline. Cumbersome 16mm and 35mm cameras and sound equipment and post-production facilities and expensive raw stock gave way to easy-to-carry and affordable cameras, post-production equipment and the much cheaper tapes to shoot the films on. With the drastic reduction in investment required, an individual or a small company could consider becoming a producer with equipment purchased or hired. But, to be fair to government television, it did help produce manpower, for in the absence of film schools, on-the-job training was the only way to learn the craft.

In India, the state of emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975 provided an impetus for dissident filmmaking, and productions like Anand Patwardhan’s Waves of Revolution and Prisoners of Conscience (1976) opened the sluice gates for activist films. Following the footsteps of Sukdev, his protégé Tapan Bose made An Indian Story (1981), on the blinding of prisoners by the police in Bhagalpur, Bihar. Suhashini Mulay produced Bhopal: A Genocide in the 1980s on the gas tragedy. As could be expected, these politically charged films have had their share of problems with the censors. These earlier films were expensive to make because they used celluloid stock, and the market was almost non-existent. For being political and anti-establishment, they did get some support in Western universities and elsewhere which made it possible for the filmmakers to live another day and plan another onslaught against ‘the establishment’.

Till the early 1990s, independent documentary films invariably focused on political marginalisation, social movements, or the portraiture of famous renegade personalities. There was, however, a gradual shift to a slightly wider arena, including a focus on social ills, and a particular proclivity towards films on not-so-famous traditional artistes like puppeteers, singers and dancers—perhaps attracted by the photogenic appeal of the subjects. This period also saw an increase in the developmental film. If earlier documentaries on celluloid were meant for the public at large, documentaries in the development genre tended to be made for more limited audiences. Mostly funded by in-country or overseas development agencies, these films were of two ‘types’—one which profiled the activities of the aid agency, and the other highlighting their concerns in areas such as gender, children’s rights, human rights, environmental degradation, decentralisation and social challenges such as casteism.

As the documentaries became a favourite of aid agencies as an effective audio-visual medium to publicise their work for fund-raising and other purposes, many documentary makers cashed in on the bonanza. The pay was good even if the subject and treatment did not correspond with their own creative impulses. In many cases, neither funder nor the funded filmmaker really understood the genre, so what you got were films  with the omniscient narrator, didactic productions projecting the developmental optimism of the funding organisation or how-to films supposedly meant for the grassroots ‘target’ community. Innovation and creativity were at a premium in the absence of a local audience for these films, since most of these, in the initial stages, tended to be in English and targeted at the overseas viewer or, at the very least, their ‘native’ counterparts in the South Asian metros.

With no market for independent documentaries, filmmakers in India thus submitted to the requirements of development agencies, corporations or government entities. In the process of pleasing the funders, the filmmakers ended up compromising their art. Fortunately, the tide has begun to turn, and those who had not entirely let go of their creativity are now looking to a documentary viewership that is slowly beginning to take shape. At the same time, innovative and often irreverent young filmmakers are coming out of film schools, or taking a side track from the world of advertising or feature films, and dabbling in non-fiction. They are picking up where Sukdev, for one, left off and coming up with films that are as committed, but are also responding to the larger market by putting more ‘craft’ into their productions.

In addition to the filmmakers of the big cities who have better exposure, access to funds and the modest overseas market, a lot of films are now being made all over India. In the south, especially Kerala, there has been a proliferation of films on cultural and social issues. The emerging activist film movement, led by Shriprakash among others, in Jharkhand also needs to mentioned. These films from the moffussil are in the vernacular and are made for local audiences rather than for the English-speaking elite, and often using the VHS home video camera, as Shriprakash (he uses only one name) does. Usually made on a shoestring, and hence often completed over a long period of time, these films tend to me more ´honest´ and come from the heart. P Balan´s The 18th Elephant – 3 Monologues (2003) and Meghnath and Biju Toppo´s Development Flows from the Barrel of the Gun (2003) are examples. They are in contrast to the activist films that come out from the cities, which tend to be broader in scope, more ambitious and more sweeping in their ´take´. Meanwhile Madhushree Dutta of the Majlis group in Bombay and Amar Kanwar of Delhi are engaged in incessant experimentation. Dutta´s Scribbles on Akka (2000) and Kanwar´s  A Night of Prophecy (2002) are artistic attempts to take the non-fiction film further along on its path of South Asian discovery.

Since 2000, a great many documentaries have been commissioned by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust of India and many of these get telecast on national television albeit outside primetime. In the evolving scenario, there is a shift away from what may be (some would say unfairly) called films with the “Delhi proclivity”. These films are symptomatic of how Delhi looks at the rest of India. ‘Elite’ filmmakers go, shoot and telecast with little empathy for the subject matter. Such films tend often to be insular and superficial. These are the equivalent of commissioned development films in other countries of the region. Delhi filmmakers are, in fact, the recipients of the lions-share of grants (national and international) as well—we are talking of 50-70 films in the past few years—which filmmakers elsewhere in the Subcontinent are often unaware of. The PSBT, for one, could help in national integration by commissioning films from those in the mofussil.

Elsewhere
Without the Sukdevs and Patwardhans to follow, and lacking the relatively freer environment for expression in India, non-fiction filmmakers bloomed late elsewhere in South Asia. While on the one hand government film units ruled the roost till recently, the arrival of the donors wanting to project themselves on the audio-visual medium meant that the few filmmakers who were around got picked up and converted into purveyors of development. Working within the parameters of donor interests, only exceptional filmmakers were therefore able to produce films that were political and activistic. So, while films began to be made in the 1980s, outside of the purview of government, and organisations like Worldview International Foundation were set up in Nepal and Sri Lanka specifically to train a new breed of filmmakers, the fact is that the power of the audio-visual medium was wrested from the government but then hijacked by the development agencies. Although the subject matter of these films made with donor funding was different from those made by government, the instructional tone remained. However, with this new donor-driven industry, the volume of films being produced went up sharply and some sort of innovation and experimentation was inevitable.

India, for historical and political reasons, is obviously ahead of every other South Asian country in documentary production of every type—governmental, developmental and independent. Bangladesh comes second, in terms of quality and volume of output, and the last decade has seen a surge in independent productions. The large donor presence in Dhaka naturally seems to have encouraged young professionals to pick up filmmaking as a career, with the Germans having held a series of documentary workshops in the late 1980s and 1990s. More important perhaps was the cine-club movement that had existed in Dhaka for decades, which led to a trend towards making low-cost short fictions and documentaries on socio-political subjects in the late 1980s. The result was the emergence of the Bangladesh Short Film Forum in 1986, and film festivals began to be organised in the country from 1988 onwards, which gave exposure to budding film professionals. Dhaka went on to become perhaps the first city in South Asia where a documentary film achieved commercial success in the cinema halls. This was Tareque and Catherine Masud’s Muktir Gaan on the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971 and the role of a cultural troupe in it.

The war of liberation has been the recurring leitmotif of Bangladeshi films, and till today filmmakers have stayed with this theme—while also making liberal use of different genres of Bangla melody, from the music of Rabindrasangeet to that of the Bauls. This musical bent appears to give Bangladeshi documentaries a natural upper hand with the viewers. Mukthir Gaan was of course the controversial cause celebre in the genre of 1971 films, but the trend continues. The latest in the lineup is Shei Rater Kotha Bolte Eshechi (Tale of the Darkest Night) by Kawsar Chaudhary (2001), on a Pakistani army attack on Dhaka University academics just before the 1971 war. Themes dear to development agencies, such as child labour and gender issues, have also been recurring subjects for Bangladeshi documentaries. But of late Dhaka documentarists have been diverging to wider arenas of public concern, with an example to be found in Manzare Hasaain’s Rokeya (1997), a film which unravels the life of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, one of the pioneers of women’s liberation and social progress in Bengal in the early 20th century. Fauzia Khan’s Perception – The Other Canvas (2001) profiles six women painters of Dhaka, while Tareque and Catherine Masud´s A Kind of Childhood, delves into child labour. The Ram Bahadur Trophy for best film in Film South Asia ’01 went to My Migrant Soul by Yasmine Kabir, a film tailored around the audio tapes sent home by a Bangladeshi migrant who was to die as an expatriate labourer in Malaysia.

After India and Bangladesh, it is Nepal which seems to be producing the largest number of independent documentaries in the region. Documentaries in Nepal, too, have their provenance in propaganda films made in the early years of the Panchayat regime, starting with heroic portrayals of King Mahendra as he toured the country in the early 1960s. The arrival of Nepal Television in the mid-1980s saw a surge in films seeking to promote national integration by extolling the cultural-physical bounty of the country. Then came the ‘donors’, and a string of documentaries followed to cover development themes, few of which are remembered today.

Significantly, many films on Nepal tended to be made by Westerners, as the central Himalaya became the stomping ground of the climber, the trekker, the anthropologist and the ‘development professional’. A genre of ‘Shangri La’ documentaries brought out touristic documentaries that tended to focus on the High Himalayan rather than midhill or plains’ societies of the country. Anthropologists shot ‘real-time’ footage of all manner of subjects, from shamanistic rituals among the Magar of the western hills to full-length films on animal sacrifice in Kathmandu Valley—films which keep alive the cultural specificities of the country. One significant production on Nepal was The Fragile Mountain (1982), by California-based filmmaker Sandra Nichols, which set the mindset for the coming decades on population pressures leading to land erosion in the hills (a hypothesis that has now been convincingly disproved). Nepali filmmakers themselves, in the meantime, were rapidly being converted into development-peddlers by the surfeit of aid agencies with deep pockets, so independent filmmaking took a back seat.

It was only in the late 1990s that some Nepali cinematographers woke up from the ‘bikasey’ (development) slumber, and cast about for other themes. The energy for this came from the growth of an audience that had been created by a string of documentary film festivals in Kathmandu, starting in 1994 with a Himalayan film festival which evolved into the biennial Film South Asia documentary film festival. The existence of  a growing and responsive audience inspired filmmakers to produce invigorating and cultural commentaries with a light touch, such as A Rough Cut on the Life and Times of Lachhuman Magar (Dinesh Deokota, 1997), Itihaas Jitneharuko Laagi (History for Winners) (Pranay Limbu, 2003) and Bhedako Oon Jasto … In Search of a Song (Kiran Krishna Shrestha, 2003). What is missing in these productions, however, is any reference whatsoever to the excruciating times the Nepali people are passing through in the context of the ongoing civil war. The Killing Terraces (Dhruba Basnet, 2001) and The Living of Jogimara (Mohan Mainali, 2002) have been the rare attempts at capturing the origins of the ‘people’s war’ as well as the state’s cruel response, but overall, filmmakers have preferred to pick cultural themes because of political difficulties in dealing with harsh realities, with fear of reprisals from the government as well as the Maoists.

A similar diffidence with regard to political powerbrokers seems to have stymied independent film production in Pakistan, which is all the more galling since the country is as much an inheritor of the legacy of documentary in the Subcontinent as is present-day India. Political factors have played a major part keeping the lid on independent filmmaking in Pakistan, where the focus has been on social ills rather than political infirmities. Filmmakers such as Sahiba Sumar, Mustaq Gazdar and Shirin Pasha have been the noted independent documentarists of Pakistan, but of late their production has trailed (and in the meantime Gazdar passed away in 2001). While Sumar’s and Gazdar’s films took up social issues, Pasha’s were on the culture and lifestyle of the country. The cultural dissidence exhibited by exponents of Hindustani classical dance (Kathak, Bharat Natyam) against ‘fundamentalist’ forces has been one theme picked up more than once by documentary filmmakers of Pakistan. Increasingly, however, there are films that challenge the conservative notions of the woman’s place in society, including the 2003 production by Samar Minallah, on the sacrifice of young girls to rival clans to save male honour in the NWFP. As with the trend in Nepal, constricted in the political sphere, Pakistani filmmakers are experimenting with cultural expression, as with the journalist-turned-filmmaker, Farjad Nabi, whose debut in 1997 was Nusrat Has Left the Building … But When, on the flowering and decay of the musical soul of the sufi-inspired Pakistani qawwal, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. His second film was on an iconoclastic thespian in Lahore.

The relative decline of Pakistani non-fiction filmmaking—or at the very least its inability to move along with the times and feed the audience that doubtless exists—could be attributed to restrictive censorship policies and the lack of exposure of young people to the excitement of a career in documentary. As elsewhere, independent filmmakers of potential have also been co-opted by ‘development’ to highlight important issues in a superficial manner. The absence of regular film festivals, which were not held in Pakistan till a couple of years ago (there is one now in Karachi), also kept people away from alternative and independent cinema, including documentaries.

In the case of Sri Lanka, the Government Film Unit (GFU) was established in 1948 to produce newsreels and documentaries to educate people on their newly won independence, though over the years GFU films emerged as tools for outright government propaganda. Even though Sri Lanka now boasts of several television channels, and it is also home to Young Asia Television which would be churning out young audio-visual talent, independent filmmaking in Sri Lanka is surprisingly the least energetic in all of South Asia. This is surprising, given that Colombo as a metropolis has all the ingredients for the advance of documentary—an alert intelligentsia, English exposure which opens up a world of possibilities in media, an agonisingly long ethnic crisis, and so on. Unfortunately, non-fiction filmmaking has remained more or less where it was when the GFU was established more than half a century ago.

What lies ahead
What lies at the core of the lack of independent and quality documentary filmmaking in South Asia obviously is not so much the absence of a market as the inability to reach it. Filmmakers will emerge if only they had venues to show their films. And an audience will congregate if only they had venues see these films. Television might have provided a ready market, especially with the spread of the terrestrial network in the 1980s and the boom in satellite television in the 1990s. However, the new commercial channels, too,  ended up telecasting off-the-shelf, film-based programmes on the cheap, and the idea of ´servicing´ the people has not entered the minds of producers and proprietors. Government television stations, if genuinely autonomous, would have evolved as public television over time, but at present they shy away from anything but the most descriptive and non-analytical documentaries on social and cultural challenges before the people. The very nature and high costs of the television medium—whether government or privately owned—seems to make them wary of documentaries. And so the challenge of getting an audience for documentaries must be sought elsewhere and not television, at least for the foreseeable future. This is where the experience over the last seven years of Film South Asia and its Travelling Film South Asia offshoot might prove useful, for it indicates that the audience does exist in the required numbers for documentaries, particularly those made in the local languages, and that what is required are innovations in distribution, sales, marketing and projection.

As far as marketing is concerned, there is a ready demand for South Asian documentary films in the West, which have been effectively filled by filmmakers such as Anand Patwardhan, whose documentaries are distributed worldwide and also broadcast on overseas channels. Other examples of high sales in the West in the know of the Film South Asia organisation are Dhurba Basnet’s The Killing Terraces (2002), which has sold hundreds of copies in VHS video format, and Yasmine Kabir’s My Migrant Soul (2001).

The sale of video prints, priced in the range of USD 150-200, provides unprecedented income for the non-fiction filmmaker, as well as exposure overseas. However, this does not really answer the need to make and show films for and to the local audiences of South Asia. Marketing and distribution remain a hurdle. Other than the fledgling Clearinghouse of South Asian Non-fiction Film launched by Film South Asia in 2001, there is no organisation that is dedicated to the marketing of South Asian films within the region or externally. An effective marketing effort would give filmmakers economic independence to make the kind of films they would want to and allow them to experiment and be innovative. Since filmmakers do not have the time or the wherewithal to market their films, there is a need for documentary film marketing agencies to foster the art in the region.

The development of a market, however, can only come when thousands of diverse organisations, communities and clubs across South Asia realise that there already are,  made by the dozens and even hundreds, films that can draw audiences. When, with the use of video projection systems, they begin to organise documentary showings or festivals, this will as a matter of course lead to a rise in demand from a public that is suddenly aroused to the possibilities of enjoyment, information and education via the non-fiction film. From then on, the market will feed demand which will feed supply. For various reasons, South Asia can prove that documentaries can work here the way it cannot in most other parts of the world—the freedom that exists here, as does not in large part of the third world in relative terms on the one hand, and the plethora of subjects and themes available here stand out in contrast to the situation in the more sanitised, democratic societies of the developed world. There are just so much more ‘stories’ in South Asia—per hectare or per thousand population—than there is in, say, Western Europe or North America. South Asia is, indeed, documentary heaven if only we (public, filmmaker, connossieur) knew it.

Defining documentaries
Even in the case of donor-funded films the future is not bleak, and this is important because development agencies will remain important sources of funding documentaries for some time to come. Filmmakers need to put their foot down when it comes to deciding how to convey the ´development message´. The fact is, most donor agency officials with the hand on the purse strings do not understand the moving image, and the interest is to provide subtle propaganda that will ultimately help the agency’s own work, including fund-raising. Filmmakers who have a sense of responsibility towards the societies they cover can try and buck the trend, and remain auteurs true to the subject rather than the funding agency. These filmmakers must convince the agencies that educating the larger public about issues they (the agencies) are interested in can only be achieved if they (the filmmakers) are given a free hand and their creativity not stunted by excessive interference.

Nepal-based director Alex Gabbay’s Kathmandu: Untold Stories (2002) and A Man Called Nomad (2002) both provide examples of how a filmmaker who stick to an independent point of view can end up making a film that is useful over the long term. The donor’s brief for the former was to make a film on HIV/AIDS and young people—a staid production to interview HIV/AIDS patients and ask them questions about how they got the virus, what they had to say to the young and to repeat the donor’s point of view in the narration. Instead, Gabbay talked to young homosexuals, drug users, vulnerable individuals, as well as other youngsters about their concerns, lifestyles and relationships with peers and parents. The product was a film with stories most Nepali, or for that matter South Asian, young people could identify with. The film, if it gets the exhibition it deserves, would have a lasting impact compared to the traditional donor-defined documentary. A series of four films on young masculinity in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan made in 2000, supported by the Save the Children UK, treats their subjects similarly, and is an example of a donor actually being ahead of the filmmaker in terms of understanding what ‘clicks’ with the target viewership.

What is clear to the observer is that the audience exists for the documentary in South Asia, for the documentary in all its diversity, from the light-hearted commentary to the polemical treatise on the ills of society. The more documentaries are made in the local languages rather than in English, the more impact they will have where it matters at the grassroots. Till now it is the inability to find the audience that created an obstacle for aspiring non-fiction filmmakers, and there is a continuing need for a ‘screening revolution’ so that films that are already made are presented before local audiences in thousands of venues—and not only film festivals. For this, distribution channels will have to come up, and the advances in production technology will have to be understood and utilised. The emergence of audiences in the far corners of South Asia will have the immediate impact of spawning new filmmakers who could well make make films on increasingly localised subjects. At that time, we will be coming close to a documentary revolution, where the human desire to hear a story well told in audio-visual format is finally transferred from the feature film genre to the non-fiction film. The experience of showing Travelling Film South Asia in the town of Pokhara in early November proves all that has been said above—that there is a ´mass´ audience for non-fiction film, that films already exist to show before such audiences using video projection systems, and that the more you show, the more you give birth to new filmmakers. The road to a revolution in non-fiction film is already charted, and only needs to be embarked upon, keeping the people in mind.

What has also become obvious over the years is that the definition of ‘documentary’ is being continuously expanded by filmmakers who are striving to fill the full spectrum of what a non-fiction production can achieve. From a time when the ‘documentary’ meant governmental newsreels and propaganda, we evolved to a point when the larger public understood that it also means films on development projects and issues. For a more select audience, the documentary signified films with an activist edge, that challenged given social and political mores and spoke—howsoever indirectly and rarified a fashion—for the ‘people’. These films were made to “expose the truth”, as Sukdev put it, and their intention was never to win awards but to promote social movements if possible. It just did not help that many of these films tended to be in English, but that is changing.

Today, documentary filmmakers have diverged and are making films that are much more ‘cultural’ and thereby touching a heartstring of the South Asian audience with more localised films on local issues in local languages. There have been delightful  commentaries, profiles of heretofore unknown personalities, travelogues, experimental films, ´documentaries´ with dramatisations, often relying on local music as accompaniment.
Given that the documentary film has been typed in the minds of the public as a) governmental, b) developmental, c) activistic, and with the scope that exists to expand the repertoire that is available, perhaps it is time to stop saying ‘documentary’ when we refer to non-fiction film. And, in fact, begin to say ‘non-fiction film’.

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  • Some photos from the #fsa2017 closing ceremony on Sunday. Photos by: Katha Haru

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