Films with a purpose

We spoke to Aanchal Kapur, the founder of Kriti Film Club.

9 min read

Kriti Film Club is a neighbourhood film club that wants to make a difference. It has been screening documentaries since 2000, first at its workplace in Tara Apartments, and then at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi since 2009. Thought-provoking cinema and spirited discussions come together here—a forum where students, activists, academicians, development professionals, media professionals, and friends interact through meaningful cinema. Aanchal Kapur is the founder of the film club. She graciously shared details of its origin and herstory.

How did the idea for a documentary film club come about?

When I started working full-time in the early nineties, as a social activist and gender trainer, I began using films for learning and capacity-building of the development workers, and the people I was engaging with. This need emerged as I personally found it repetitive, (occasionally) boring and challenging (due to differences in literacy levels of various communities) to continually use role plays, reading materials, and discussions, to enable changes in the mindset and behaviour of people when out on field work. An amazing archive that I was able to access at the time (put together through the efforts of some individual filmmakers) was CENDIT, a one-of-its kind space where documentary films could be found (but only if you knew).

In 1999, I founded a non-profit organization, to facilitate creative thought and action in the Indian social sector. We called ourselves ‘Kriti, a development praxis and communication team’. We aimed at offering capacity-building, design and communication support and knowledge resources to small and big non-profit organizations with a gender, development and human rights perspective. We wanted to create a space for documentary film viewership and discussion on issues affecting the very people and organisations that the Kriti team was working with.

Kriti Film Club has been screening documentaries at least once a month since 2000. The first screening was held in August 2000 at Alaknanda (New Delhi), on a second hand, 24-inch television set. The post-screening discussion went on for longer than the film’s duration! In 2009, we moved the monthly screenings to India Habitat Centre (New Delhi), and the support of the program team at this cultural hub has been wonderful! The films cover a range of issues connected with development, human rights, social attitudes and trends. The Kriti Film Club started out as an accessible, informal film club, where films by amateur and professional filmmakers from India, South Asia, and other parts of the world found a home. It provided a space for discussions and conversations among the audience, inviting viewpoints from those involved in people’s movements, civil society organizations, thinkers, activists, and the filmmakers themselves.

How big is your team? Is your team mostly volunteer-based?

Our team may be small, but it is large-hearted! Currently, we have 2 full-time team members, and a core group of 5-6 volunteers—I would say they are full-time in many ways as they are always available and take independent initiatives to run the film club).

Kriti Film Club team with filmmaker Surbhi Dewan, Arundhati Roy, and a member of the audience at the screening of A Thin Wall
Kriti Film Club team with filmmaker Surbhi Dewan, Arundhati Roy, and a member of the audience at the screening of Daughter of Nepal

As a non-profit entity that doesn’t take grants or corporate money, how has your journey been these past 20 years? Does the process of keeping the idea alive get easier with time? Have you had to compromise on your initial idea?

The journey has been exciting and challenging. We couldn’t do all that we could have done because we did not have the financial resources; we remained non-funded and independent. Yes, the process of keeping the idea alive gets easier with time because one is committed to it, and because of the responses of filmmakers and audiences. We believe that we have actually contributed to documentary viewership in India, especially outside of conventional film festival spaces. We are absolutely committed to our ideas and processes! The need to create a documentary culture that is open for all, irrespective of gender, age, class, caste, religion, ability or occupation has motivated us to keep going, despite our limited financial and human resources.

We believe in and see the power of using documentary films to bring about social change. Perhaps it is because we have not compromised with our original idea that we did not set out to look for funding. But now, we see so many people and organisations putting up screening festivals for documentaries… We think we should reach out for good funding too, without compromising our values.

What would you say are your biggest challenges apart from funding?

I think we would have liked to screen documentary films in many more places within and outside Delhi. Though we did manage to do it quite a bit over the years, we felt we were limited as we did not have the personnel to pull it off.

Who is your target audience? How would you describe the demographic that consumes your content?

Our audience is any citizen who has the inclination to sit and watch a documentary film, reflect on it, and discuss it. Our audience consists of both educated and non-literate populations, young and old, across intersectionalities of class, caste, gender, age, religion, sexuality, ability, region. It is the way that films are discussed that changes the way they impact. We always strive to invite the filmmaker for the screening, so that the interaction is meaningful for everyone present. We believe that the filmmakers’ engagement with the audience is key to the impact that the film creates, and we hope that this process also influences the directors’ journey in documentary filmmaking.

While it may appear that the India Habitat Centre is not always open to ordinary citizens, by its very location and upper class aesthetic, we have consciously tried to make our screenings inclusive to audiences across caste, class, community… Some of the most lively screenings we have had are those when the audience included children!

A Children’s Day special screening at Kriti Film Club
A Children’s Day special screening

What do you do when subtitles are not available for the movie you wish to screen?

We try to curate films keeping in mind the audience we are reaching out to. Language can be a concern for some, yes. But some films need to be shown irrespective of the language; so we have volunteers sitting amidst the viewers and explaining. Usually, we find that moving images have a language that’s beyond the written word. Much of the film reaches the audience as intended!

We understand you are based in Delhi. In the pre-COVID time, have you been able to travel to smaller cities, towns, and villages with your documentaries? Is this something you’ve considered?

We have sent films all over the country, including smaller towns, villages, and urban slums during our training programmes and events. We want to be able to do this on an ongoing basis. But this sort of an undertaking requires funding, as it needs a dedicated team out in the field. We have not been able to fulfill so many of the requests we receive! However, we are also based in Mumbai now. We have a community programme in Dehradun as well, we want to start screening there regularly once we have some resources in hand. We have pending requests to start the Kriti Film Club in Ajmer, Indore, Pune, and even Hyderabad—which we have not yet been able to fulfill.

Over the years, Kriti Film Club has been approached by several people who are starting their own film festivals. They come to us for collaborations, recommendations, publicity including, like the Jeevika Asia Livelihood Documentary Festival, the Dharamshala Film Festival, Vibgyor International Short and Documentary Film Festival, and the Auroville Film Festival, among others. These partnerships have led me to be a member of the jury at some festivals. Sometimes, the Kriti Film Club nominates documentaries for the festivals. We even organize previews and post-festival screenings. We have always been open to recommending documentaries for film festivals (if asked!) due to our large database and camaraderie with filmmakers. The wait for documentaries to finish the festival circuit does get frustrating for me though! This happens when I can see that the content of the film is topical, and contextual to a time and space.

With lockdown rules, screenings have moved online, which might make them inaccessible to many people. How has your audience changed after the coronavirus pandemic?

We started screening films online on March 21, 2020. And we screened everyday for 102 days! We then started organising the Weekend Watch series, where the films would be available for viewing from Friday to Monday. We tried to invite the filmmaker for virtual discussions online too. We are struggling a bit with all the technology needs. We have been able to reach many new audience members after moving online, especially those who were always interested but couldn’t come for physical screenings. I think we have to capitalize on social media reach, without having to monetize everything.

Can you share with us some memorable feedback you’ve received over the years?

Saba Dewan’s film on Tawaifs, The Other Song generated a lot of discussion. Someone said the film made them think about gender in Indian culture. Someone else said the film helped them recognize why they were feeling suffocated at all times, and how it might feel to not be called upon, to not be too visible, to not feel self conscious in public. Activist and author Kamla Bhasin watched Abu and called the film “a gift.” Dreaming Taj Mahal seems to have touched a chord with people too. It made many think of the manufactured hostility between India and Pakistan, and how this feeling seeps into our daily lives. There is so much audience and filmmaker feedback that I think we need a person employed full-time to put it all together—from the 20 years of Kriti Film Club screenings and its monthly diary which has feedback from earlier audience members written by hand!

A lot of people talk about documentaries that changed their lives. It could be something that helped them take an ideological stance, made them change their diet, or informed them about environmental crises. Do tell us about a few such documentaries that left a mark on you.

This question needs its own interview! There are many such films, but I would say it is the black and white reels that would play before Hindi films that I watched as a child. As a young student studying political science and engaging with the women’s movement, the films made by the Mediastorm women impacted me quite a bit. Around the time I started working, Jharna and Anurag’s Kaise Jeebo, Re! [How do I survive, my friend?], a documentary film by Jharna and Anurag on the issue of Sardar Sarovar Dam being built on the Narmada river brought me closer to people’s movements. Meghnath and Biju Topo’s Vikas Bandook Ki Nal Se [Development Flows from the Barrel of the Guns] was influential too. Anand Patwardhan’s Ram ke Naam [In the Name of God] is one of the most powerful films to have laid bare communalism in India. The Kabir Project films by Shabnam Virmani have been insightful in so many ways. Sanjay Kak’s In the Forest Hangs a Bridge (set in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh) and Amar Kanwar’s Lightning Testimonies (chronicling experiences of women, specifically victims of sexual violence in South Asia) are among my most shown films… I can go on and on! Among women filmmakers, the works of Samina Mishra, Saba Dewan, Deepa Dhanraj and many more have managed to stay with me…

What are your plans for Kriti Film Club?

Kriti Film Club now offers documentary filmmaking workshops to community-based nonprofits and corporate social responsibility actors, in order to enable people to document and showcase local and grassroots issues and actions independently. The availability of smartphones and social media make it possible for anyone to use new technologies for social change. We at Kriti Film Club consider it crucial to build skills in this area. Documentaries can be used to educate, organize, advocate,and resist, not just as viewers but also as filmmakers.

Young girls trained in filmmaking at a Women’s Day special screening of films made by them (New Delhi, March 2018)
Young girls trained in filmmaking at a Women’s Day special screening of films made by them (New Delhi, March 2018)

In an effort to retain and provide access to documentary films we started to build our library and archive of all our resources early on. We distribute these films for wider use by academic and social sector organizations and social movements. We want to make them available and more accessible, both as physical film copies and online. Our documentaries cover a wide range of topics like Caste, Communalism, Development, Displacement, Environment, Globalization, Health, Human Rights, Media, Theatre, Women…

Docushop is our distribution platform. We house independently-made documentaries as well as books, posters, bookmarks, postcards, music, and so on. We hope our materials continue to tell stories of struggle, of people and places unknown, of protest, of creativity.

Twenty years after we started, Kriti Film Club is at a happy crossroad I would think. We are considering rethinking our strategy, from being a free screening platform to a donation-based screening platform, where filmmakers, producers, and audiences are requested to contribute for the continuity of this initiative. We also want to respond to requests for training in documentary filmmaking, production, and other related professions, which we have done sporadically over the years. Some of this will need to be tailored to the current online way of life and work, but we won’t stop dreaming! We will make it happen. The gullaq (ceramic piggy bank) which invited contributions from patrons during monthly screenings at the Kriti team workplace now looks to be transformed into the Gullaq Audience and Filmmakers Fund. We hope there are many of you out there who will contribute to realising this plan.

Check out Kriti Film Club on Instagram!

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