TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN’ – FOR DOCUMENTARY FILMSby Vinta Nanda July 12 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 5 mins, 37 secs
Vinta Nanda talks to documentary filmmakers, film festival directors, curators about the documentary films garnering more audience share today than ever before.
In an exploration about what the genre means to an average Indian cine-goers, I speak to documentary filmmakers, festival organisers and lovers of documentary films, and ask them to share their thoughts with me.
Krishnapriya Podili studies cinema at RV University, and is the student festival director of the Teen Indie Film Awards. She tells me that documentaries are an eye-opener to awkward truths of life, to the wonders that can happen in and around the world that we live in. But she wonders, too, if documentaries get enough of the appreciation that they deserve. Especially in India?
On probing further, she said, “They say, accepting realities of life and learning facts make us look at the world from a different perspective. And, watching a lot of documentaries is a way of knowing what the facts are. The documentary world of India mainly focuses on political, cultural and other social issues. We all love watching masala films featuring our favourite actors. Do we also like watching films with real-life people who have experienced or faced certain issues in life? Even if we do, what is the genre that we prefer - Fiction or nonfiction? Are superheroes over real-life heroes, actors?”
Then I talk to the respected Santanu Ganguly, a Delhi based Film Festival Curator and Film Critic. He started his career with Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) in 2003, where he worked under the guidance of veteran film historian, scholar Aruna Vasudev for the Cinefan Film Festival and also with renowned filmmaker Mani Kaul for the Osians-Cinefan Film Festival. He has curated the Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF, 2015), International Film Festival of India (IFFI, 2010), Kolkata International Children Film Festival (KICFF), Social Communication Cinema Conference by Roopkala Kendro, West Bengal Government, and also various Indian film festivals at Ahmedabad (AIFF), Gandhinagar (GIFF), Surat (NIFF), Guwahati, Thrissur (TIFF and IFFT), Dehradun (DIFF), The Inner Path Buddhist Festival, Sambodh Buddhist Film Festival at Ladakh and Tripura among others. How much do we know about all these film festivals in India? Well, let’s leave that question to be answered at another time when we deep dive into the film festival expanse in India.
What Santanu tells me is that as a film festival curator, if he’s not curating for a theme based festival, e.g. Buddhism, spirituality, environmental or LGBTQ+, then he’s open to any kind of content. He says, “For me the content is more important than the technicalities. Only the well-versed people appreciate technicalities but good content attracts more common audiences, and the goal is invariably to reach more and more audiences - for filmmakers as well as the festival organisers”.
Caesar Das, a Kolkata-based filmmaker, working for the last two decades, who’s presently making a documentary film for Films Division-NFDC says, “For the mainstream Indian viewer, the documentary remains an alien in the wider domain of entertainment. Regular audiences are so overfed with easily accessible popular content that they hardly have the appetite to diligently unveil something unsung”.
The COVID lockdown, according to Das, led to the rise of OTT, and in turn it led to some people testing out documentaries as a genre. He adds, “Recently, a few international successes have made the documentary film look better, and it has also sparked people's interest.” However, he says that the documentary film has always been an odd choice for a niche audience, which is loyal and also respectful towards the genre.
Aanchal Kapur, Founder of Kriti Film Club, is more optimistic. She says, “As a curator, programmer and organiser of documentary film screenings, once or more than once a month, for 23 years, and small issue based film festivals in addition, I have seen audience grow towards documentary viewing due to the consistency with which we have screened issue based cinema followed by conversations that matter to audience and filmmakers”. She explains to me that the motto of the club she represents, is to screen thought provoking cinema that triggers changes in audience attitudes and behaviours towards the realities of the marginalised, problems and solutions around key social and environmental issues.
Manoj Srivastava, Festival director of the Diorama International Film Festival says, “Though there are many genres for documentary film from poetic, reflexive, participative, observational etc., the audience doesn't differentiate between films on these lines. The audience generally goes by the subject matter and the audio-visual treatment of it’.
Anchal Kapur adds to that as she speaks, “Audience engage with documentary cinema when we discuss the films and connect them with the several ways in which they can also participate to make change happen”. She informs me that by showing problems, the difficult lives and issues people face, and also engaging with viewers in discussions has made their audience grow as well as return to experience more of the same!
When I ask Krishnapriya Podili what documentary films mean to her, personally, she says, “For me, personally, documentaries have made me explore different cultures and traditions. And there are other types of documentaries that I prefer that encourage me and push me to take action. My personal favourite is “India’s Daughter”, which talked about the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape case. Whereas there are other categories that focus on nature, travel, arts, science, AI, Sports, wildlife etc. Leaning to one category of documentaries is a matter of personal choice. Audiences connect with documentaries that resonate with them or move them in profound ways. Watching documentaries and appreciating them can be as exciting as just watching films for entertainment. They help us to have meaningful conversations, think critically and most importantly, they motivate us to take a step forward, not just in the outside world, but within ourselves!”
Christopher Dalton, a Film critic, editor-publisher, and organizer of the Mumbai International Student Film Festival tells me that in its purest, unaltered and ideal form, the documentary is an authentic recording of a slice of reality. He adds, “Irrespective of the direction in which a filmmaker intends to focus the spectator's gaze by employing the cinematic to force a narrative, his or her film still serves as an undisputable historical record of a version of the truth. Reflecting the times, currently, the screens of social media are fast replacing those of TV, commercial cinema halls, and film festivals as the primary exhibition walls of this genre. And, stories told effectively in a matter of seconds or minutes has quite clearly become a fad”.