‘Netflix can be both your enemy and your ally as a documentary filmmaker’: Rafeeq Ellias

The versatile filmmaker discusses his journey of making documentaries and how the cinema genre has evolved in India.

Published : Jul 13, 2023 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

Rafeeq Ellias is an accomplished advertising professional, photographer, and filmmaker.

Rafeeq Ellias is an accomplished advertising professional, photographer, and filmmaker. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Rafeeq Ellias is an accomplished advertising professional, photographer, and filmmaker. While he jokingly refers to his “evil other” thriving in advertising, Ellias is deeply interested in human issues, politics, and the wider world. His exploration of these subjects began with travel writing and photography, followed by ventures into photojournalism, which progressed into filmmaking.

Ellias has travelled extensively, capturing the essence of Japan, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Central Asia, and the former Soviet Union. He has also documented ballet and opera performances for an international dance and music festival for over a decade.

As a filmmaker, Ellias has to his credit numerous award-winning documentaries, including his notable work on the Kumbh Mela for Britain’s Channel Four in 1986. One of his most significant contributions is The Legend of Fat Mama (2005), which shed light on the unjust detention of the Chinese community in a Rajasthan detention centre following the India-China war in 1962. Ellias won two National Awards, a MIFF Award, and an Asian Broadcasting Film Award for the film.

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His subsequent films, What Man, Joe (2018) and the recently released If Memory Serves Me Right (2021), have also been highly acclaimed. Ellias has also produced documentaries for The Asiatic Society in Mumbai, PSBT, Microsoft, and the Economic and Political Weekly.

In an interview with Frontline, he shares his insights on the philosophy and future of documentary filmmaking in the age of social media and OTT platforms.

How has your unique approach to documentary filmmaking, which combines human-centric themes and political matters, been shaped? What are the influences that have guided your creative journey?

I have always had a deep interest in human interest stories and politics, as I believe they are interconnected. In one of my early films The Legend of Fat Mama which focussed on the Chinese community in India, I discovered a definite connection between human interest and politics. It was a story that revealed the tragic injustice done to a small community, their migration, and their enduring love for their adopted motherland. In a sequel Beyond Barbed Wires I explored the parallels of that experience with the incarceration of Japanese Americans on the US West Coast after Pearl Harbor.

As a photographer, I naturally gravitated towards photojournalism, which I consider one of the highest forms of the medium. The challenge of capturing multiple elements and telling a story or fragment of a story in a single frame is unparalleled. It requires adrenaline and quick thinking, aiming to capture what Henri Cartier-Bresson famously called “the decisive moment”.

I try to incorporate this approach into my documentary filmmaking, with varying degrees of success. Even during interviews or portraits, I strive to include the surrounding elements that offer clues to the personality I am depicting. For example, the entire film What Man, Joe about a trumpeter and funeral musician named Joe Vessoaker, was shot with a single, fixed wide-angle lens. This draws the viewer’s focus to the central character within his environment, mirroring the way the human eye and mind perceive it. This seamless connection between photography and documentary filmmaking feels natural to me and fosters a sense of camaraderie between the two visual forms.

A still from Rafeeq Ellias’ documentary ‘If Memory Serves Me Right’.

A still from Rafeeq Ellias’ documentary ‘If Memory Serves Me Right’. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

What is the philosophy that guides your creative approach as a filmmaker? Could you explain the concept of capillaries and interstices that you have mentioned and how it is embodied in your works?

As a devoted traveller, I allow myself to wander off the beaten path. I find value in getting lost and aimlessly exploring the streets. I believe that the universe exists in the capillaries, in the interstices, and in the small neighbourhoods everywhere. It’s the intricate sidewalk ballet, as urbanist-activist Jane Jacobs describes it. These microcosms intrigue me greatly. I can spend hours or even days in these spaces, simply being present and immersing myself as much as possible. Eventually, I become accepted, almost invisible, and can begin shooting or filming. I maintain a sense of wonder as I navigate through each space, ready to capture serendipitous revelations that I can share with others someday.

While not always immediately evident in my films, I possess a strong interest in and understanding of the politics at play wherever I travel. I grasp concepts such as caste, class, gender, coexistence, and interdependence. I acknowledge both the divisions and the unifying factors within any space I inhabit. My aspiration is to tell these stories and share that sense of wonder in a way that resonates with people across different cities and ethnicities, whether it is Bombay, Kolkata, Kerala, or New York.

How has India’s documentary culture evolved from the pre-Independence days to the present?

The early years of Independence were marked by significant changes in India. The Films Division had the mandate to visually and aurally document this transformative era, capturing the essence of new dams, industries, and hopes. It became a vital repository of India’s history since Independence.

Recording and celebrating were key aspects of documentary cinema, which remains relevant today. However, documentaries can go beyond mere facts, challenging and provoking viewers to question the accepted norms. These films delve into issues such as communal divides, violent pogroms, environmental concerns, and gender and LGBTQ+ rights, often seen as disruptive to the existing order.

There are also experimental and aesthetically-driven documentaries or non-fiction short films that embark on self-exploration, pushing the boundaries of the medium. These visually austere creations, accompanied by evocative sound design, invite viewers to connect the dots. Filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Nalini Malani, Payal Kapadia, and Amar Kanwar exemplify this approach. For instance, Nalini Malani’s video installations and Payal Kapadia’s award-winning films possess strong political undertones. Amar Kanwar’s deeply-sensitive video installation, The Sovereign Forest, showcased at the Kochi Biennale, stands as a remarkable example of this genre.

A still from Rafeeq Ellias’ documentary ‘If Memory Serves Me Right’.

A still from Rafeeq Ellias’ documentary ‘If Memory Serves Me Right’. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Feature films and documentaries are perceived as distinct entities. However, in reality, while feature filmmakers utilise fiction to tell stories, documentary filmmakers employ non-fiction. Are there more similarities between documentaries and feature films?

There would certainly be a common thread between them, a similar drive. The worst kind of documentary or fictional film would be one that is a completely linear documentary, where you almost know what is going to happen next. Such films are often highly rhetorical or propaganda-driven. But if you want a film to reach larger audiences, it needs the narrative skills that fiction employs.

Even my films, which are often like moving forms of photojournalism, employ the same grammar. I have an absolutely wonderful editor, Abhro Bannerjee, and he ensures that each of my films has its own twists and turns, the feint and the jab. That sleight of hand or ‘legerdemain’ keeps the viewer engaged.

Documentaries have the power to move people, convey important truths, and engage audiences. Isn’t it time we had dedicated theatres to screen them?

We must definitely embrace experimentation and risk-taking if we are going to enrich ourselves culturally and here the role of the government is paramount. Governments that support that in Europe, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union, nearer home in Taiwan and Korea, have enabled quality cinema and discerning, cinema-literate audiences.

We do need windows to showcase documentaries beyond festivals, a cinema hall in each city or reserved time slots, where watching these can be shared experiences in a theatre. Of course, these may not be commercially viable; but then not all feature films are successful either. Recent award-winning documentaries can be right up there on the big screen to start with. Let the films find the audiences.

Has the Films Division done enough to promote documentaries?

I have the highest regard for the Films Division, but there is a lot more it could have done… but now the Films Division itself is in turmoil. The sheer treasure trove of film records it holds is truly stupendous, and despite the daily grind of recording and documenting, it has produced some landmark films as well. It has had some great administrators and men of vision at the helm, exceptionally talented camera persons and directors too. However, as a country, we often tend to undermine our own institutions rather than invigorate them, and then declare them ineffective or defunct in order to privatise and monetise them.

What are your thoughts on the impact of digital technology on filmmaking, particularly in relation to the rise of short documentaries and brief content on social media? Is this trend affecting authentic storytelling and potentially desensitising people to such content?

How do I say I answer this concisely? The reality is that social media is ubiquitous and here to stay. It will continue to evolve in ways we can’t even anticipate yet. Consider how it has changed the way events are documented. Almost nothing goes unrecorded today, whether it is good, bad, or even horrific, including murders or violence on the streets. The Rodney King incident in Los Angeles in 1991, where a black man at a traffic intersection was brutally attacked by cops, was one of the first instances where an onlooker from his balcony fortuitously captured the event on an early camcorder. In the decades since, advancements in technology have allowed thousands to record similar instances on cellphones.

And then there is the age of the selfies at a meal, a function, or even a tragic moment. They shape and determine our self-image, aided and abetted by easy-to-use filters on phones that virtually re-draw us. Often, it is then our self-image talking to other people’s self-image, parallel universes, replacing genuine human interaction.

Also Read | New documentary shines light on Rajasthan’s heritage liquor tradition

Will the abundance of documentaries on OTT platforms and social media contribute positively to the documentary genre?

One thing that is clear from the recent deluge of documentaries in the ‘supermarkets’ of Netflix, Amazon, and other OTT platforms, is that there is space for documentaries.

Netflix documentaries in general don’t perform as well as web series or fictional films, but they are there, and there is a subset of the larger audience that is watching them, and Netflix, etc. knows that it is good for their business. What is concerning is that decision-making is increasingly based on data analytics, which are brick walls of maths and algorithms.

They know everything about wide swathes of viewers, their viewing habits, whether they watch to the end or not, and exactly when they switch off; all this is just the tip of the data iceberg. Conversation, interaction, and argument have no place when the OTTs bring this to the table. A filmmaker has no comparable skills to confront or posit against this. Most times, we are not even dealing with people, there’s no human contact, merely data-driven emails.

It’s not a level playing field at all. Your ability to make something personal, unique, and gratifying for both you and a larger audience diminishes. OTT then becomes the new ‘censor’ and over time, you begin filtering ideas, working backwards based on what you pre-emptively expect from the platform.

I therefore say, Netflix can be both your enemy and your ally as a documentary filmmaker. It is a great way to reach viewers, but it’s like a Hobson’s choice. We are seen not as filmmakers but as “content providers”, a glorified cloud kitchen!

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