A story of courage

Print edition : June 04, 2004

In a unique effort, three years after an earthquake devastated Kutch a group of women from villages across the affected region don the role of amateur film-makers in order to highlight the valiant efforts of the people to rise above the tragedy.

WHO better to tell a story than the victims themselves? Three years after a devastating earthquake struck large parts of Kutch in Gujarat, the area continues to be underdeveloped and tragically neglected. Several villages destroyed by the earthquake remain buried under mounds of debris. Residents of the affected area still live in tents. There are no roads in some areas; water is scarce and the supply of electricity is minimal. Health care and education are practically non-existent.

From left, Hansaben Jadav, Hansaben Someswra, Jamunaben Someswra, Anuba Jadeja, Ilaben Kubavat and Gomiben Koli, six members of the team of eight film-makers, in Mumbai for the screening of Our Life Our Film.-ANUPAMA KATAKAM

Our Life Our Film.

A group of rural women from the affected areas decided they had had enough. It was time to tell the world about their plight.

So, when a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) came up with a plan to make a film, which would focus on the region three years after it was struck by the earthquake, Kunwarben Koli, Gomiben Koli, Jamunaben Someshwra, Anuba Jadeja, Kaajalben Chauhan, Ilaben Kubavat, Hansaben Someshwra and Hansaben Jadav from Kutch and Saurashtra decided that it would be a good opportunity for them to draw attention to the problems they had been facing. In the process, they would also be able to highlight the valiant efforts of people trying to rise out of the tragedy and work towards making life better.

Says Anuba from Dabhunda village in Kutch: "We did not want to look at the past so much. We wanted to concentrate on what happens after a disaster and the difficulties we cope with. We wanted to show how people have stood on their feet again." In September 2003, after a rigorous training programme in Mumbai organised by the Swayam Shikhshan Prayog (SSP), an NGO working to rehabilitate families affected by the earthquake, the eight women set out to make their film, which they titled Our Life Our Film.

What makes the film special is not just the issues it brought out but the determination of the women, who had no knowledge of film-making and yet had the courage to put together a project of this proportion. Moreover, only a few of them were literate; some had never ventured outside Kutch. Kunwarben, for instance, had never gone beyond Rapar town. None of them had ever handled the necessary equipment, let alone seen a film camera. Yet they effectively used the medium to describe the miserable condition in which thousands of people lived after that fateful morning of January 26, 2001. A film critic opined: "Making a film is an incredible feat for a lay person. For a village woman it is a tremendous achievement."

Our Life Our Film essentially takes a look at not only the destruction wrought by the earthquake in physical terms but also the more harmful psychological effects it has had on its victims. Researched, shot and directed entirely by the eight women, the 45-minute film is a remarkable effort at bringing out issues that have been either ignored or swept under the carpet. The film focusses mainly on the lives of women and children in the wake of the earthquake. Their stories try to expose the callous way the official apparatus responded to the calamity, the misery of the people, the failure of the rehabilitation schemes and the overall climate of corruption.

The film emphasises the rebuilding efforts initiated by the community. In one scene, a teacher helps children cope with fear. None of the children wants to go into the classrooms because the earthquake has made them fearful of remaining indoors, says the teacher. Children play the "fear game" in the schoolyard, and write their fears on a piece of paper. The teacher collects the sheets, puts them all into a bundle and sends it off by jeep.

There are other poignant scenes too. In one such, children enact a play on the importance of educating the girl child. In another scene, women of the Darbar community, who are not allowed to leave their homes, speak about the need to educate and give some freedom to the next generation of women. When speaking about the day of the earthquake, one witness says, "It was like searching in the sand for coins." The film-makers have travelled through some of the worst-affected regions of Kutch, which have to cope with the earthquake and a perennial drought. Through a series of interviews, they capture the anger and frustration of people in the region.

A family whose house was destroyed in the earthquake returns to start life anew.-A. ROY CHOWDHURY

Initially, the film was to be part of an experiment to be carried out by an international organisation in four disaster zones across the world. Deepa Bhatia, who scripted and edited Our Life Our Film, says that the idea was to get an insider's perspective on what actually happens when disaster strikes. SSP's help was sought and it floated the film idea in the villages and among the women's groups it works with. "No one was specially selected to make the film. Whoever was willing and able to participate would be part of the direction team," says Bhatia. Several women were keen to get involved but the idea of leaving their families and homes was daunting. The ones that came forward had progressive husbands and fathers-in-law. "Though they were not selected, we were to discover that the team of eight was a unique blend, an extraordinary balance of personalities, skills, ideas and strangely even caste and class," she said.

Bhatia who also led the training programme for the group, told Frontline: "No other country was able to pull it off." These women may be unexposed and illiterate but they have guts, says Bhatia. There were several times when the project looked like it was going to collapse but it was their sheer determination and drive to succeed that saw it through.

Kunwarben, who had never left Kutch, travelled to Mumbai. Gomiben fought with her family in order to be involved in the project. Anuba participated in the project despite belonging to the Rajput Darbar community, Ilaben worked through the film taking her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter with her. Similarly, Hansaben Jadav directed the film with her seven-month-old son Dev in her arms. The women were against all the odds, says Bhatia. To begin with they were literally plucked out of the village and shown how to make a film. Then there were problems created by men, especially those from the upper class.

"Initially we were quite scared - whether we would be able to learn to use the equipment, speak to people, travel," says Hansaben. "We kept telling each other this has to be done. We had to remind people about the disaster and how we coped with it. And how much effort has gone into rebuilding our lives," she told Frontline. "During the training we understood that the camera too has an eye," says Hansaben. "We should look at a situation through this eye - much the way our human eye looks at things. Then we learnt how to interview people. Once we understood the method it was a little easier for us to film."

According to the women, the one truth that stared at them when they travelled from village to village was that education and development are correlated. "We realised we had to bring that out in the film," says Hansaben.

Each of the eight women belongs to a women's group in her village. The groups, which originally began as savings groups, have now evolved into tiny local bodies ensuring that the village gets its share of basic civic amenities. And this is what strikes the viewer - the strength of these women not just in making a film but in contributing immeasurably towards rebuilding the area.

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