Voice of the earth

Print edition : December 01, 2006

The poster of "Theke Pe Kya Karte Ho?". In this film, the film-maker speaks to children who work in a liquor shop in Delhi. -

A film festival in Delhi shows that environmental film-makers' focus has shifted from wildlife to dilemmas about resources, power and politics.

IF the earth could speak, one suspects, it would have a lot of uncomplimentary things to say about the creature that has usurped most of its resources and run roughshod over the rest of the living world. Humankind's report card is lined with thick red lines of failure on the environment front and, what is worse, development often seems to lead to worse failures, endangering the livelihoods of vulnerable human beings. The lone beam of hope is the fact that people are beginning to worry, beginning to look for clues to understand the damage already done, and researching ways to turn the tide of destruction.

Environmental film festivals are part of this wave, and Delhi has a few forums now where film-makers, activists, students and concerned citizens are exposed to developments round the world on the earth, natural resources, people's livelihoods, health, safety and the manner in which various governments have chosen to deal with these concerns.

`Quotes from the Earth' was one such documentary film festival in the capital recently, organised by Toxics Link, a non-governmental organisation, along with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, India.

At the inauguration of the festival, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit commented on one of the signs that the city is under stress: she said that she did not see sparrows any longer. Taking off from that note, the festival showed 23 documentaries, ranging from those that were one minute long to those that lasted over an hour.

The films were divided into loose categories - `Earth', `Survival' and `Water' - and the categorisation served to point out an important fact that is all too easy to ignore - nothing on earth is disconnected from everything else. Films about `earth', such as Point Calimere, are also about water and the uses to which it is put. Films such as The Lake of Despair are as much about the Dal lake in Srinagar as about militancy and how it affects those whose lives depend on water in more ways than one.

Films made as early as 1992, such as Call of the Bhagirathi, seemed to be ever more relevant, in view of the Tehri dam's displacement dilemmas. Only an Axe Away, which deals with the never-ending struggle to save the Silent Valley in Kerala, is as much about the war for water as it is about preserving other species.

The directors P. Babauraj and C. Saratchandran also showed their new film 1000 Days and a Dream, which describes the thousand-day struggle at Plachimada in Kerala against the Coca-Cola plant. The residents who took up the struggle were ordinary people - panchayat functionaries, repairmen, farmers - some of whom had to suffer tremendous hardships in the fight for clean water. Full of tender moments and optimism, the film traces the lives of Plachimada's heroes, those who did not give up despite being pitted against one of the world's most powerful and richest corporations.

This theme of pitched battles - people versus moneyed muscle, farmers against corporations - was repeated in several of the films screened. For instance, Orange Alert describes the impact of chemical pesticides on Thailand's farming community, especially orange farmers. Some of the farmers get together and manage to form an organic produce cooperative that caters mostly to the local population rather than trying to produce ever-increasing quantities for international markets. Many of the activists live under threat to their lives, according to the film-maker, Teen Gill, who was present at the screening.

Another film, 3-year Fraud, made by poor farming women from Andhra Pradesh, was on controversies involving seed companies such as Monsanto-Mahyco, who sold Bt cotton seeds in Warangal district. All promises were broken and each assertion was disproved, but there was neither any legal action against the seed companies nor any compensation for losses, which led to dejection, and even suicide. Some farmers resorted to violence; they broke down the local seed distribution outlet. While one of the farmers said, "Thieves rob you at night, but these corporations rob you in broad daylight, right under your noses!", another farmer wondered aloud why nobody associated with Bt seed companies had ever committed suicide.

One of the short films, Suparna Gangal's Life Goes On, focussed on the hazards faced by an ageing ragpicker couple in Pune, who handle medical waste on a daily basis with no protection. This includes broken syringes, blood and even bits of flesh. The good news is that once the film was shot the hospital concerned claims to have mended its ways.

Another short film, Theke Pe Kya Karte Ho? (What do you do at the liquor shop?), captured the enigmatic joy and camaraderie of children who work outside a liquor shop in Delhi, opening beer bottles for customers late into the night.

A one-minute film was the only animated feature on show, and it effectively and simply spoke of the benefits of social inclusion, through ramps for the disabled.

From "Point Calimere", which is about water and the uses to which it is put.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

One of the most telling films screened was Sanjay Barnela and Vasant Saberwal's Water Business is Good Business. Narrated with a gentle sense of humour, and dealing with subjects ranging from Chennai's success with water harvesting to Indore's insatiable thirst, the film tackles the business of bringing water to cities through mega projects such as the Narmada and Tehri as well as the uncomfortable questions of "for whom?" and "at what cost?".

The foreign films were revelations in their own right. Mountains in the Mist, for instance, opened up the incredible world of cloud forests, of which very few remain. The film-maker Alec Wohlgroth also offered a solution to the eternal conflict between man and nature. Costa Rica has apparently made a concerted decision to keep its cloud forests alive and strikes a balanced note by aggressively promoting eco-tourism, thus giving local populations a stake in conservation.

On the other hand, Life Running Out of Control paints a bleak picture as humanity seems determined to overreach itself, to move from living life to engineering it and causing potentially irreversible damage to the world of living creatures. As Vandana Shiva points out in the film, genetic modification seeks to project "life as an invention of man". Research in the United States seeking to combine pigs and cows, and mice and men, has few obvious benefits, barring the potential for huge profits for companies selling any given species in any form. Most research is kept secret, and most scientists are on corporate payrolls, directly or indirectly. There is a pointed question raised by one of the professors in the film about the fact that barely 5 per cent (if not less) of all life-sciences research can be called independent.

The festival also sought to engage viewers in panel discussions, which led to a few debates and much soul-searching, on whether environmental films are only preaching to the converted. Film-maker Sanjay Kak pointed out, "We are in a fragile minority and we must reinforce it. The `converted' are only those who are open-minded." However, he also added that there was a serious attempt to create a schism, to polarise the issues of environment and people, as if the two had nothing to do with each other. As a result, "although none of us can claim ignorance, we don't always understand the complex links between all the issues. Our job is to investigate and show these links."

There was a consensus about the need to redefine the `environment' in this context along with what constituted environmental films. The focus has already shifted from wildlife videos to dilemmas about resources, power and politics. The next step is for film-makers to stop treating their subjects as "safe" films that do not rock any political boats.

Throughout the festival, the mainstream media came in for a lot of browbeating, private television channels in particular. Environmentalists believe that even today it is easier to get a "dangerous film" aired on Doordarshan than it is to get a short slot on private channels. One of the panellists pointed out, "On DD, we can fight. We can say that it is a state channel and runs on taxpayers' money, and we have a right to demand that something be shown. With private channels, you can't do a thing. They would not jeopardise their profits."

The environmental movement in India has, activists regret, deliberately stayed away from "dirty politics" and ended up being hijacked by donors, which has led to self-defeating conflicts between activist groups. Besides, funding agencies tend not to respect risks. Kak said: "It is a sort of bureaucratisation of the imagination. We are given a box and have to work within set dimensions. There is no protection for the film-maker, nor any mechanism for prodding excellence."

In recent times, many a documentary has been blocked and many a film-maker targeted by state institutions, which itself is evidence that documentaries are vibrant sources of information, especially in the hands of people themselves, and, therefore, potentially hazardous to those in power. With water, waste and crops being such politically sensitive issues that they affect even municipal-level elections, it is time to take a serious look at documentaries as a powerful tool of mobilisation and as one of the tools that the people can use to build themselves a more democratic democracy.

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