Soldiers of Cinema

An excerpt from Reel India: Cinema Off the Beaten Track, a nonfiction book by Namrata Joshi.

8 min read

One of the important turn-of-the-century developments has been the democratization of cinema. The steady spread of cine literacy, the strong influence of moving images, combined with easier access to technology and emerging online exhibition platforms, has meant that anyone who dreams of making a film now has the potential to turn it into a reality and find an audience for it, even at the grass-roots level. Filmmaking can become a mode of self-expression, a way of telling a story or highlighting an issue one feels strongly about. In a nutshell, an empowering tool, the voice of the voiceless.

Hyperlocal cinema that strives to preserve and promote local languages, traditions and cultures is being taken to the next level by indigenous communities, for whom it is a means of asserting their identity, protecting their interests and ensuring their survival. Indeed, it is a weapon they can wield to ensure due recognition of their legitimate rights and respect for their concerns by an establishment often infamous for its indifference to the social, economic and political challenges they are facing.

Take the residents of the small coastal fishing village of Nolia Sahi, near Konark in Odisha, who view filmmakers with deep suspicion. There is a reason for their distrust. It seems that not so long ago, one Subash Das had spent time with them, lived in their midst and apparently empathized with them over their troubles and concerns. He then went on to do something that would amount to a shocking betrayal of the trust they had placed in him: make a film that presented them in an unflattering light and was clearly weighted in favour of their corporate adversary, the South Korean steel multinational Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO). No wonder the fisherfolk now deride him as a POSCO agent.

‘He said that we have crab mentality; don’t want to let go, don’t like the idea of moving ahead and progressing,’ they tell the anonymous, sympathetic filmmaker (present as a voiceover) in a video diary called Nolia Sahi, the duration of which is a little over nine minutes. The short log, made in 2009, is a comment on their resistance to POSCO’s efforts at building a port in the village for shipping steel. It also attempts to debunk the fallacy of advancement propagated by corporates, the state and the central government. Nolia Sahi that has, for long, been dismissed as a wasteland is actually pollution-free and houses 152 well-to-do families, says one resident who foresees the ‘modern’ future they are being promised as a bleak one that will bring about displacement, replace fishery and farming with manual labour in the steel plants, and force people to move out of their modest natural habitats into small, suffocating, box-like units. The development gurus might proclaim POSCO to be essential for Nolia Sahi, but more important than everything else, declare the villagers, are the rivers, paddy fields, vegetable gardens and betel vines. The microcosm of Nolia Sahi represents a larger struggle in the state for preserving the environment, the indigenous lifestyle and local culture. The resultant turmoil keeps boiling over. The basic story remains much the same; while a tribe or a village may be replaced by another, their predicament is a shared one.

Films have begun to play a unique role in this struggle by helping indigenous people showcase their cause and raise their voice against the injustices regularly meted out to them. It also compels the privileged to break out of their insulated cocoon and take a hard look at the world which is far removed from their own – a world the disempowered inhabit.

The Human Zoo, for example, zooms in on the Adivasi Mela organized by the state government in Bhubaneswar on Republic Day. The urban population that throngs the fair regards the Dongria Kondh tribals of Niyamgiri in their colourful clothes, ornaments and accessories as though they were some unique species of animals in a zoo. By staring unabashedly at them and clicking their pictures incessantly, they show a complete lack of respect for them as fellow humans. What such outsiders fail to grasp is the important truth that these tribal people demonstrate with their simple lifestyle and culture, they live in harmony with nature and are great sustainers and protectors of the environment.

The 8,000-strong community has its homes spread across more than a hundred villages in south-west Odisha’s Niyamgiri hill range. Its members are the champions of trees in the densely forested hills and of rivers, streams and wildlife in the jungles. The highest mountain in the area, the 1,300 metre-high Niyam Donger, is regarded as a sacred grove, and Niyam Raja, the lord of natural resources, as its presiding deity.

Every year, the Adivasis celebrate Niyam Raja during a festival held on the summit of the mountain. They believe in adapting themselves to their surroundings, rather than in exploiting the environment for their own use and convenience. Consequently, they sustain themselves on the resources offered by the Niyamgiri forests – the grains, pulses, plants and medicinal herbs – and practise horticulture and shifting agriculture.

This natural way of life is now under threat. The Dongria Kondhs have been strenuously resisting efforts by the exploitative Vedanta Resources-led bauxite mining lobby to undermine their pristine environment and eco-friendly ways. And it is through their battle against the global mining giant that these tribals have succeeded in drawing the world’s attention to Niyamgiri’s ecology and biodiversity, and the serious threat the area faces from the consequences of bauxite mining.

There are many more such films that throw light on local Adivasi movements and conflict points in Odisha. There’s one that looks at fly-ash pollution in the ‘industrial paradise’ of Kalinganagar, and holds corporates and the State Pollution Control Board responsible for the disappearing groundwater, the dust and smoke befouling the air and the effluents contaminating the water. The local Idital style of Saora Adivasi art is used for the illustrations in the animated short Shot Dead for Development (2007). The music is drawn from that of the Koya and Bonda Adivasi groups. The film trains the spotlight on those tribals who lost their lives to police gunfire since 2001 during Kalinganagar and Kashipur’s anti-mining protests. Niyamgiri: The Mountain of Law (2008) draws up a list of all those individuals who have been abducted, jailed, tortured and murdered for espousing their environment-related cause.

All the aforementioned films are works by Surya Shankar Dash, an activist–filmmaker, who has been documenting various people’s movements against industrialization and mining in Odisha since he left a much-coveted job in advertising in 2004. Not satisfied with that alone, Dash has also been helping tribes make their own films by teaching them the basics of using the camera.

‘There is constantly an outsider’s gaze on them; the community needs to tell its own stories,’ he asserts. From their own standpoint as insiders, his words imply. There are hundreds of such shorts, in addition to six of them which are of more than half an hour in length. All feature the tribals and villagers themselves as stakeholders.

Most of the people Dash has worked with hadn’t been exposed to a film-viewing experience before; teaching them to make a film might, therefore, have seemed a daunting task. But they took to it quite naturally, learning and relating to the language with apparent ease. ‘It broke the literacy barrier. But we didn’t impose any specific film grammar on them,’ Dash remembers, attributing their affinity for the medium to the natural bond the tribals have with audio-visual culture. ‘Their songs, dances, rituals and culture are so cinematic,’ the filmmaker goes on, adding that the new generation seems even more drawn to the idea of using films to further their cause.

However, it’s not about aesthetics; cinema at the grass roots in Odisha is a mode of activism and resistance. The camera is wielded as a weapon to help the disempowered fight for justice. The immediacy of context makes it a more real and felt experience, and is effective in creating and increasing awareness. This has resulted in an intensive, acutely focussed documentation of issues.

‘These are not generalized films,’ Dash is careful to point out.

When they first started on it sometime in 2009, the film experimentation panned out in different ways in various places. The well-to-do farmers of Kalinganagar were quick to invest in used or new mini handycams. There were, however, places devoid of electricity and roads, where even projecting films on a solar-powered 10-inch screen was an uphill task. Dash and his group donated handycams (six of them over five years) and also built a pool of cameras that the tribals could dip into when required. Only editing had to be carried out with professional help and support from outside the tribal community. Now with the availability of cheap, handy smartphones, almost everyone is equipped with a camera. Filming is no longer a big deal.

Technology has been a mode of subversion in other ways too. Earlier, it was difficult to send out raw footage for editing or even to bring back the finished film for screening, because there was always the chance of its contents being misconstrued as subversive and, therefore, anti-establishment, thereby risking punitive action. These had to be smuggled out and brought back clandestinely. Now, all it takes is a WhatsApp message to do the needful.

Having taken the first step towards creativity with a cause and conscience, Dash’s group now aims to help build a strong coalition, with indigenous filmmakers engaged in similar work, not just in India, but in South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Earlier, in January 2018, Dash attended the first-ever Indigenous International Film Festival (IIFF) in Ubud, Bali, along with Dalit filmmaker Soumya Ranjan Mallik and Dinja Jakasika, a woman sarpanch from Niyamgiri.

‘She has been the first from her community to get a passport and travel abroad,’ Dash tells me.

Viewing films made by indigenous communities from across the world was inspiring and overwhelming for them.

‘The experience made them realize that they are not the only ones fighting against the dominant discourse, and reassured them of [the strength and legitimacy of] their own resistance against the models of development constantly pitched at them,’ says Dash.

Organized by Ranu Welum (Living Water Foundation), Borneo’s dynamic collective of filmmakers from 25 indigenous communities, in partnership with Handcrafted Films, If Not Us Then Who and Indonesia Nature Film Society (INFIS), the festival inspired Dash to hold a similar event in Odisha.

India’s first international indigenous film festival took place in February 2019 in Odisha. An initiative of Video Republic, Dash’s activist film collective that has been campaigning for local tribal movements in the state and against dispossession of indigenous people, the three-stop event kicked off in Bhubaneshwar on 19–20 February, moving on to Puri between 21–23 February, before travelling to various indigenous communities of coastal Odisha and south Odisha from 24 to 25 February. It showcased films, short films, music videos and documentaries made by people native to the region or by nonindigenous filmmakers in collaboration with local tribal communities. The idea has been to shine a light on and celebrate the diverse native tribes and cultures, bringing into focus their concerns and the challenges they are struggling to overcome. The annual festival aims to serve as a platform for indigenous communities from around the world to engage in dialogue, share their views, collaborate on projects and use cinema as a mode of united resistance against exploitative forces. No wonder it was not sponsored or supported by any corporate, government or non-government organization.

‘Odisha is known for its large indigenous population, diverse indigenous culture and widespread indigenous resistance against mining companies and other [entities engaged in] destructive practices,’ says Dash in an interview I conduct for The Hindu (published on 30 November 2018 as ‘India’s first indigenous film festival soon’), months before the festival takes place. ‘It is in [against] this backdrop that we aim to build an event of international indigenous congregation to learn and share from indigenous people from across the globe.’

According to him, indigenous communities across the world are teetering on the edge of survival. ‘They will either survive or get wiped out,’ Dash observes. ‘The issues and struggles are not just parallel, but the same everywhere, highlighting the need for solidarity, to get [be] united… The future of mankind rests solely on the wisdom and knowledge of the indigenous people.’

The international participants this year included filmmaker Emmanuela Shinta from Indonesia’s Dayak community. Last I spoke to him, Dash was planning to invite tribes from across India – Santhal, Ho, Munda from the east and North East, and tribes from central India, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand – and also from Bali, Sarawak and Borneo. They have a shared sense of history and language, of geography and topography, of ecology and environment, and also of issues like bauxite mining.

‘The strong connection of the indigenous communities was broken during the colonial period,’ Dash tells me.

Now cinema can help restore the link.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission. Reel India: Cinema Off the Beaten Track was published by Hachette India.

Cover image by Namrata Joshi; taken at the Lata Mangeshkar Gramophone Museum (in the village of Pidgambar, Indore, Madhya Pradesh)

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