Truth and the Indian documentary

Posted on February 13, 2008. Filed under: Article after shoot, English | Tags: |

Truth and the Indian documentary

By allowing common people to speak for themselves, documentary
filmmakers in the Subcontinent have added a whole new weapon to their
political arsenal.

By : Madhusree Dutta

sunil shanbag

Speaking for himself: filming a farmer on an organic farm in Orissa

The presence of the term document in the word documentary is a
contentious matter, though the other nomenclature, non-fiction, is
even more problematic. Indeed, the moral insinuation of both of these
has been plaguing the genre since its very inception. The former
implies proof of authenticity, while the latter asserts the privilege
of being factual. These implications, in turn, lead us to a kind of
linearity � a fixed text, a representation of ‘the’ truth, which comes
from the tendency of treating ‘fact’ or ‘authenticity’ as truth.

In 1895, the Lumiere brothers showed the first cinematic shot in
history, of a train entering a station. This was a ‘reality shot’:
while there were plenty of theatre, ballet and street performances
going on in Paris, the Lumiere brothers chose to film streets, factory
gates and the like. George Melies, one of the greatest filmmakers of
the silent era, attended a Lumiere brothers’ show, and noticed that
the audience became more engaged by the moving foliage, the crushing
waves, the flying dust, than by the moving people being shown. The
audience had already seen human beings and their actions in theatres,
after all, but the animated scenery immediately caught their
attention. Since then, proving the authenticity of ‘actuality’ has
become a major preoccupation for non-fiction films.

In 1898, two cameramen from the Vitagraph Company of America went to
Cuba to shoot the Spanish-American War. When they came back, they
realised that they had not filmed the most important part of the war,
the Battle of Santiago Bay. Americans were frothing to see the
footage, and admitting to having missed this crucial battle would have
meant a huge loss of revenue. So, the two hatched a plan. With street
vendors selling stills of the Battle of Santiago Bay, the cameramen
were able to buy pictures of the battleships. These they then floated
in tubs of water, sprinkled a bit of gunpowder on them, attached some
strings and tried to make smoke from a cigar. Unfortunately, the
person smoking the cigar, the wife of one of the men, was not a
smoker, and could not provide a continuous flow of smoke, which made
the ‘battlefield’ look less dense than it should have. Undaunted, the
men composed the battle scene, shot it, and ran the result in public
screenings for months. While this was probably the first instance of
special effects in cinema, it was also the first instance of
documentary’ s uneasy relationship with ‘reality’.

The word ‘documentary’ was used for the first time in 1914, in
reference to In the Land of Head Hunters, a film about American
Indians. But beyond the realistic was the magical. That same year, a
22-year-old film student from the US named Jessica Brothwick spent a
year in the Balkans. “During the cholera rage in Adrianpole,
everything connected with that terrible disease was painted black,”
she wrote later. She continued:

While the scourge was at its height, I went down into the gypsy
quarter to take a film. The people in this part of the city had never
seen a camera before, and when they saw me pointing my black box at
various objects they thought I was operating some wonderful new
instrument for combating the disease which was destroying them.
Quickly surrounding me, they came and knelt upon the ground, kissing
my feet and clothing, and begging with dreadful pathos that I should
cure them.

In 1939, the Second World War began, followed by an era of ideological
upheaval: radical nationalism, capitalist imperialism, totalitarian
states of socialism, ultra-xenophobia, independence for European
colonies in Asia, and, of course, fascism. Documentary filmmaking
never had it better. Generous state patronage came flowing in, new
technology was developed, and young professionals were encouraged �
all to propagate the cause of war through hair-raising footage.

Adolf Hitler‘s publicity office discovered the filmmaker Leni
, which led to the development of a new type of camera to
her requirements. In 1936, 60 cinematographers were also made
available to her to shoot the Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl
subsequently shot some of the most effective military footage ever
shown; in so doing, she became the mother of the political
documentary. To counter her work, ideology and footage, Russian and
East European filmmakers made related attempts, but the grammar book
on how to make political documentaries had already been written.

Projecting magnified close-ups of the mundane (the Lumieres’ dust
flying); constructing a ‘reality’ according to the audience’s
imagination (Vitograph’s bathtub war); discovering and capturing the
other (Brothwick in the Balkans); and manufacturing a nationalist
brand through spectacles (Riefenstahl’ s Reich) � even today, these
remain the formal mainstay of documentary filmmaking.

The other India
In the Subcontinent, this phase in the rise of the documentary as a
film genre occured during the 1950s. In 1943, the British Raj set up
two establishments, the Information Films of India and the India News
Parade, with the sole objective of hyping the war. At the end of the
conflict, in April 1946, the Central Legislative Council was
constituted as a precursor towards eventually handing over power to
the Indian government. The Council subsequently demanded the closure
of the two production houses, saying that they were tools of British

Soon after Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru realised that the newly
formed country needed a mechanism with which to reach out to India’s
vast population, which was seen as multi-lingual and multi-cultural,
but also mostly illiterate and unaware of the notions of the nation
and state. The gaze of the plains of central India thereafter
travelled to the remotest corners of the country, recording the
‘other’ people that made up the Indian state. The results were a mix
of war and anthropological films, in both style and aesthetic: the
vast, top-angle shots of the land made so popular by war films,
coupled with the close-up shots detailing alien customs and peoples.
To this day, the government of India gives out a national award for
best anthropologic/ ethnographic film of the year.

This trend was countered during the late 1970s, when the notion of the
nation state was significantly challenged by the Naxalite movement and
other organised left formations. This led to the birth, in India, of
independent political documentaries, covering famine, homelessness,
state atrocities, migration, gender, land ownership and more. Gautam
Ghosh, Utpalendu Chakravarty, Anand Patwardhan, Meera Nayar, Suhasini
, Tapan Bose and others became the prominent names of that era,
all coming from a very particular political background. They knew
their subjects, and wanted to make films that would disseminate what
they saw as the truth. They also had enough confidence in their
arguments in order to hold shots of their interviewees for long
minutes � a powerful effect, but one that would soon come to distance
their works from the audience.

The myth of the benevolent state was duly shattered. For the first
time, instead of ‘exotic’ peoples, the protagonists were hungry and
tortured Indians; instead of ritualistic song and dance, the minority
peoples of the land were voicing anger, fear and frustration; instead
of the plastic gloss of national pride, the basic formation of the
modern state was being questioned. Many feature films of the time were
also inspired by these documentaries, and some of the documentary
filmmakers later shifted to feature filmmaking, albeit of a political

These new films affected the aesthetics of documentaries, as well as
the way that people viewed them: they revisited the issue of
authenticity. As against the classical anthropology of earlier times,
a genre of political anthropology was begun. However, the format and
aesthetic remained broadly the same. Indeed, in some sense, this genre
depended heavily on the aesthetics of the very ideology that it had
set out to oppose, and in fact gave rise to a new genre of
anthropological subjects: away from the alien people of the exotic
land, the victim of the nation state soon came under the lens.
However, the distance between the subject, the filmmaker and the
audience remained the same, and the primary agenda of opinion-making
with the help of facts had not changed.

There was another problem. The opportunities for private screenings
were rare. Furthermore, after the state mandated that a documentary be
screened before every feature film, audiences quickly became allergic
to the word ‘documentary’ . Hence, only an elite, politicised audience
viewed the documentaries of the 1970s and 1980s. Even while some
filmmakers resolutely continued to travel the country with cameras on
their shoulders, most were eventually lost in oblivion. By the 1980s,
the film-society movement was becoming increasingly popular in India,
but even its members strongly resisted documentary films, considering
them overly didactic and poor in aesthetics.

The documentary genre soon found itself in deep trouble, with the most
crucial problem being a dependence on fact with an eye to attaining a
very particular truth. Embedded US journalists in Iraq, for instance,
have been able to record the ‘facts’ from the closest of ranges, but
look what happened to that ‘truth’ in the process: American propaganda
in support of the Iraq invasion. Yet another problem was an audience
inured to stimulus. In Gujarat during the 2002 carnage, television
reporters shot the same footage that the independent filmmakers did.
But by the time the independent filmmakers finished their films � with
whatever deeper understanding of the issue they were able to offer �
the audience was in a state of visual fatigue.

For many, the crux of the problem with documentaries was a lack of
engagement with the aesthetics of an issue, an inability to look at
how to make an argument richer with something more than mere dialogue.
The best of this type of engagement is to be able to encourage the
audience to participate in the reality of the issue beyond merely
absorbing the rhetoric and polemic of the interviewees. The agenda
subsequently shifts from opinion-making through facts to experiencing
reality by participating in the extraction of meaning. This is more
than a mere formal issue: it is a political engagement and a cerebral

Personal politicisation
Since the late 1980s, two very interesting phenomena have developed
within documentary filmmaking in India: a spectacular rise in
biographical films, and an approach that integrates the filmmaker’s
personal relationship with the protagonist as part of the text.

This latter has been dealt with most basically through the
first-person narrative. At a more complex level, however, it has also
led to some exciting innovations: novel camera positioning, new
editing styles, the use of footage that has little to do with the
proclaimed agenda, and more.

There are now distinct attempts to place the ‘ordinariness’ of an
ordinary individual directly into the reading of the nation state. The
debate and polemic around citizenship are still ongoing, but there is
also an attempt to aestheticise these in opposition to the ‘discovery’
and ‘proof’ of earlier anthropological attempts: to make a rounded
portrait, and not merely an argument. Many of these are ordinary
people, with no tall claims to official history, but these new films
strive to make these
figures integral architects of the citizenship discourse, rather than
merely reducing them to case studies. Sameera Jain’s series Portraits
of Belonging (which introduces us to Bhai Miyan, the kite-maker, and
Sageera Begum, the artisan) is a fine example of this genre. In
post-1992 Delhi, Bhai talks about the special kite set of 150 Indian
national flags that he created to celebrate 50 years of Independence.
Bhai and Sageera both talk lucidly about memory as part of proactive
action in nation-building, quickly obliterating the stereotype of the
narrative of the ‘victim’.

Another prominent trend in this genre has been to ‘read’ an artist and
his or her memory. There is a candid recognition in documentary films
that what the audience is watching is also a kind of performance on
the part of the protagonist: the text is not what the protagonist is,
but how she wants us to conceive her. The validity of a protagonist
and the authenticity of a film do not come from the actuality, but
from the essence of these people’s memories and desires. In some
sense, this process displaces fact for the sake of the ‘truth’ that
emerges through a person’s performance of his or her ‘self’ in front
of the camera. Allowing the protagonist to do so, and allowing the
audience to see through that attempt, is part of the formal

These performances make the biographic film an integral part of the
current debate on citizenship. As such, there is a distinct shift from
the ‘victim’ narrative to a proactive role in constituting the
‘citizen’ � the citizen who is constantly being made in the
interaction between the memory of the past and the desire for the
future. Since the process of recording this development is part of the
film’s text, the filmmaker and the audience become a crucial part of
the exercise of constituting the ‘citizen’.

During the first two decades in cinema, until editing was discovered,
the documentary had been more popular than had its fictional
counterparts. In the current media explosion, that glory is being
revisited. The many ‘infotainment’ shows have made ‘facts’ a coveted
commodity. Several European television channels are commissioning
works from Asia and Africa that focus largely on just single
characters. We have now come interestingly full circle, where the
personalised narratives of the commissioned documentaries create a
disproportionately voluminous body of inward-looking,
de-contextualised and indulgent biographies. The time may have come to
place the individual back on the map, and create yet another genre of
political documentary.

‘You can only understand your life backwards. But you have to live it forwards’

Thanks to Madhushree Dutta, Subasri and Sinjini


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