Documenting Truth?

Documentary filmmakers Ali Kazimi and Anand Patwardan speak about the power of dissent
By Hussain Amershi

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###Documenting Truth?### ###Hussain Amershi probes the politics of documentary filmmaking with Ali Kazimi and Anand Patwardhan### ---Anand Patwardan & Ali Kazimi. Photo: Albert Peres---

Now that the world seems to be losing its head to the fundamentalists—owners of religious, economic, and technological truths—the need for voices of dissent, moderation and reason becomes more urgent. Anand Patwardhan, a pioneer of political documentary film making in India, has finished his third film on the anatomy of religious and political fundamentalism in India. Father, Son and the Holy War is a scathing critique of the madness of machismo and Hindu nationalism. Ali Kazimi makes his feature debut with a passionate, moving and empowering film on the consequences of economic fundamentalism; propagated by the likes of the World Bank and the IMF.

NARMADA: a valley rises documents the lives and struggles of the people of the Narmada Valley, the site for one of the world's largest dams that promises to displace 160,000 people, and their attempt to stop this development.

We meet Anand and Ali in the plush lobby of the Sutton Place Hotel, with a backdrop of deal makers, wheeler-dealers and movie moguls who take over Toronto every September during the Toronto International Film Festival, and settle down to discuss some old-fashioned subjects of truth, objectivity, audiences and funding for independent political documentary.

Hussain: What is the role of political documentary in an age of fragmented politics, post-modern disjunctures and an overall nihilistic world order?

Anand: [laughs] I can't say what is the general aim of political documentary but I can talk about my own films. Basically, my films are very specific about actual events. They are a contribution to the things that the subjects of the film—the films deal with actual struggles—are involved in. Hopefully, these films are tools in the hands of those people when they are needed. Beyond that, I also hope the films work outside their immediate context, that it's not only the people who are actually involved in the struggle who can relate to the films but people in other parts of India and around the world can also relate to the issues raised in the film.

Ali: For someone coming from India, but having lived a third of my life here, I see myself as someone who can act as a bridge between the two worlds that I have lived in. In my film on Narmada, I wanted to deal with a universal issue but one set in a specific situation which, because of its specificity, could transcend those barriers and become more universal. There are several reasons for making films like provoke discussion so that if someone asks at a screening what can we do, how can we change this, it makes me believe that I have achieved one of my objectives.

Anand: I wouldn't like to look at it so mechanically, it's not like after seeing a film people should organise a demonstration with red flags and make a revolution. In the sixties, we liked to believe that films were revolutionary and, when shown, had the capacity to create a mass upsurge. I no longer have those illusions about the films I make. I think there have been times when films can have a direct impact on people and lead to direct action and this has happened with every one of my films. But I think that changes take place more subtly and not so visibly. For instance, when you read a book, what impact does that have on you? It takes years before it sinks in and changes the course of what you do. But it becomes a definitive part of your consciousness that you cannot escape from. I think that these kinds of documentaries have much more of a chance to leave a lasting impact on you than the kind of fiction films that are about political issues. Very often the mechanisms of fictionalization create this huge distance where people can compartmentalise what they see as some kind of entertainment and not deal with it.

Hussain: Let me rephrase the original question. How do you respond to the 'slaves of objectivity' who object to the political bias/agenda in your films?

Anand: Yeah, in fact I saw a horrific review of Ali's film in NOW magazine, that said it was all one sided...

Ali: For me everything has an agenda. I want to do two things in my films; I have an agenda and I want to be open about it so at least people know where I'm coming from.This way, whether they agree with me or disagree with me, it makes it easier for us to have a debate or for them not to be confused. I still remember five years ago, when we went to Salute to the Documentary (Montreal, 1991) and the famous Cuban film director, Santiago Alvarez, was there. He said that whenever you are dealing with a film, or interviewing people that you are opposed to, never lose sight of the fact that you must respect them. I try to do that in my film as much as possible...keeping that sense that these are people who have a different point of view...Increasingly there is a recognition in Canada that documentaries differ from news because they are driven by an independence in thought and passion and that point of view is important.

Hussain: Both of you have universalist aspirations of your audiences. Tell me, from your experience how does your work translate for, say a landless labourer in Bihar in contrast with an urban middle class audience in London...How does it work for different audiences?

Anand: The films that I make, make sense to me and I'm a product of my class and conditioning, of having been abroad as well as India—just as Ali has for instance. The sensibility being created is one that is created out of all this travel, this multicultural background. At the same time, whenever I've travelled with my films all over India—and I've done this widely—showing them and having discussions with audiences, working class audiences, peasant audiences, with slum dwellers and with the urban elite the films work differently. People respond to different things in the same films, some will laugh at certain portions and another audience will keep absolutely silent at scenes that I thought were very funny.

Hussain: How in your view has your work progressed over the years?

Ali: I don't actually know. I don't know whatthe word 'progress' means in this context. I don't think that the films I make now are better than the films I made ten years ago, or anything like that. I don't think there's a 'growth' in the sense of better, there might be some things better. I have a better camera than I had before, the image might be a bit sharper or things like that. My camera work might be a bit better now than it was before. Obviously, you learn on the job after so many years. But I don't think very serious change has taken place in my ideological approach to the films that I make. I'm not very theoretical. I'm the classic anti-intellectual, with all its bad things and positive things. The positive being that I can approach everything very innocently, and I can look at the situation and judge it for how it moves me and deal with it formally in that manner, rather than have any preconceived notion or even some kind of argument that I'm having with somebody else. I really don't let that kind of critique bother me, beyond a point. I might participate in a discussion with an audience, or with somebody who says, this is all one sided, or don't you think your films haven't grown over the years formally, in a sense you're still doing narrative? Yes, I am, I want to tell a story as I see it happening. I want people to understand what I'm saying. I don't want to confuse anybody beyond the point where I'm confused. Where I'm confused, I want to be honest about my confusion. I don't believe in the displacement theory, where you displace because in a sense you widen the scope of what the film is saying by being obscure and people can guess various different things and out of that maybe there's many more meanings than you intended. I'd rather have a much more simple direct relationship.

Hussain: But aesthetically, your work has changed...

Anand: With this film even, with almost all the films, there were moments, in fact, where I concretely sacrificed even my own sense of aesthetics in order to be more clear in what I was saying, more clear to the audiences that I really wanted to reach. There have been times when I've made films that, when shown to working class audiences, confused them. There were things that I thought were very clear but people absolutely didn't get the point. They got it after discussion, rather than immediately...

Hussain: For instance, Ram Ke Naam?

Anand: I'll tell you what happens in Ram Ke Naam. The sound track, as you know, is very crucial to the film. The projectors that we use in India are awful. So, sometimes, in large screenings, the audience sitting in the back or in the middle just can't get all the dialogue clearly. And we are not talking about subtitles on the screen so you can read the subtitles as well as hear the sound and can really get the point. We're talking about the Hindi version. I've had times when people saw all these fundamentalists with their orange robes and this and that flag and they really got scared, they really thought that the film was supporting what these fundamentalists were saying and the intercutting of it didn't clearly state that this film is actually critiquing their position. So I had to be really careful and use a heavy handed commentary in order to be sure that my point of view in the film gets reinforced. Now when I show the same film—because I'm not making two different versions for the world—it might be that for an audience here, some of it becomes simplistic. In my films, the interviews and the way they're cut tell you the whole story and you don't need the commentary to add something to that. The commentary is there because I don't want to take any risks about what has just happened.

Hussain: I see a lot of new political documentary film makers emerging in India, what is your sense of their work?

Anand: What I see happening is part positive and part problematic. There is more funding from groups like Channel Four and other institutions in Europe. Indian documentary film makers are getting budgets which were not accessible when I was starting to make films. This has resulted in so many more documentaries being made in India, but a majority of those documentaries, if you really look at them, are not being made for Indian audiences. They are really made for audiences outside India. This is probably contentious, but this is what I feel, that if you put these films together, string them up and see them, you will notice that a majority of them have been made only in English. I've fought with these film makers and I have said many times, "You've made so much money making these films can't you spend a little more money and make a Hindi version and take these films to the people who it is about and show them there so that they become a part of the Indian documentary tradition?" I don't considerthese films a part of the Indian documentary tradition if they're not used in India.

Hussain: Ali, I realize that you went through a number of problems getting funding for this film because it was not Canadian enough or not related to Canadian issues. It must be gratifying to have had such a warm reception at the screening of your film in Perspective Canada. Any words for your funders?

Ali: I invited a lot of my funders, but only one of them came forthe screening, which I found very interesting, disappointing actually, because I would have liked to have them there, because the audience was predominantly non-Indian. For me that was a validation, because the excuse about it not being of interest to Canadians was essentially just another barrier that was being used, conveniently at times, to deprive people of colour of funding. It's very subtle, somebody might take it at face value and say, "You're Indian, and why should Canada put money in this?" I am now Canadian, so what's the difference between me going back to India to make a film, and a white film maker who wants to go to Haiti to make a film on voodoo, or a white film maker who wants to go to India to make a film on going back to the earth or some sort of mystical journey. Somebody spoke to me very candidly and said, "Now Ali, don't take this personally, but you have to realize that India just doesn't fit within the geo-political reality of the funders." So that is another barrier. All I can say to them is, "Come and see the film with a Canadian audience, and just see if it's a Canadian film." [Interviewer's note: NARMADA: a valley rises was not selected by the Vancouver Film Festival.]

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Anand Patwardhan
Anand Patwardhan contributed to Rungh Volume 1, Number 3, and Volume 3, Number 2.
Ali Kazimi
Professor Ali Kazimi is a filmmaker, writer, and visual artist whose work deals with race, social justice, migration, history, memory and archive.
Hussain Amarshi
Hussain Amarshi is a film/video curator and critic. He is the founder of Mongrel Media, a film and video distribution company in Toronto.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre