Documentary

Louie Psihoyos: The Cove | 2009

The idyllic Pacific coastal whaling town of Taiji, in the Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, with its community of fisher-folk, long held a terrible secret, a secret that was uncovered and put to global critical scrutiny (and subsequent outrage) by a team of concerned animal and environmental activists led by National Geographic photographer and later film director, Louie Psihoyos. Psihoyos’s ‘The Cove‘ was largely triggered by the work of former dolphin trainer and now long term dolphin welfare activist Richard O’Barry, who, along with Psihoyos and friends, undertook the investigation and documentation that led to the uncovering of the brutal mass slaughter of bottle nosed dolphins in the Taiji cove. Given the real dangers of undertaking such a project (threat to life, suspicious Japanese government officials, non-cooperative and tailing policemen, angry and potentially violent fishermen,) Psihoyos, O’Barry and team had to roll out a covert military style operation, keeping a low profile, using camouflaged gear and cameras, night vision apparatus, and discreet diving. Read More…

Damon Gameau: That Sugar Film (2014)

What you eat and drink is what you are, and what you become. In the broader tradition of diet/food/health awareness documentaries like Morgan Spurlock’s ‘Super Size Me‘ (2004,) Australian actor-director Damon Gameau, in ‘That Sugar Film‘ (2014,) inflicts a food and drink experiment on himself – of consuming the Australian ‘average’ of about 40 teaspoons of sugar a day for two months. What unfolds is a quirky, and at times, humourous look at the far reaching damage caused by the hidden sugars in our everyday, supposedly ‘healthy’ store brought food and drink. Read More…

Andrew Levine: The Day My God Died (2003)

“The day that I was sold, was the day that my God died” said the child. I first encountered Andrew Levine‘s ‘The Day My God Died‘ in a film festival in Mumbai, India in 2003-04, and it continues to stay with me to this day. Four years in the making, and against all odds, this independent documentary film remains a vital and important work in talking about the tragedy of the child sex trade, of girls sold into sexual slavery – human trafficking that engages in the worst forms of human rights violations. A film graduate of the University of Utah, USA, Levine first visited India and Nepal as a tourist, but came back again, to tell a story of a multi-billion dollar industry with children as a commodity being brought and sold, recruiters who scout them, traffickers who deceive them, the pimps and the brothel keepers who buy them, and the police and custodians of the law with their hands outstretched and their eyes closed. Justice indeed is blind. At the same breath, the film profiles motivated and outstanding activists and abolitionists like Anuradha Koirala (founder director of Maiti Nepal) and her incredible work in the rescue and rehabilitation of the girls sold into sexual slavery. Finally, it is a film about the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable pain, betrayal, torture, imprisonment, disease, death and loss. Watch.  Read More…

Doug Menuez: Documenting Silicon Valley 1985-2000

A remarkable, yet ‘quiet’ revolution was unfolding in the mid 80s in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA – a singular era that would radically change communications, cultures and ways of being in the connected, wired (and wireless) world. By then, I was just beginning to enjoy my computer classes in school, cracking acronyms like RAM and ROM and keying away in the BASIC language. On the other side of the planet, over a period of fifteen years, American photographer Doug Menuez stepped into the ideas rooms, work-spaces, group meetings, pep-talks, lunch and launch huddles inhabited by late twentieth century technology tribesmen and tribeswomen, who cumulatively, in their own ways, wanted to change the world. And, they did. In training his lenses on the likes of Steve Jobs at NeXT, John Sculley at Apple, John Warnock at Adobe, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove at Intel, Bill Joy at Sun Microsystems, Bill Gates at Microsoft, and Marc Andreessen at Netscape (among many others), Munuez remained an observant, insightful and privileged witness to a very significant period in human technological, design and engineering innovation, and mapped the key architects and soldiers who laid the foundations of what will be later dubbed ‘Silicon Valley‘. In recognizing the archival importance of his project, Stanford University Library acquired his images ten years ago. Take a look.

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Anand Patwardhan: Jai Bhim Comrade. 2011

I first saw and heard Dalit poet and activist, the late Mr. Vilas Ghogre in Patwardhan‘s early ‘cityscape’ “Mumbai, Hamara Shahar / Bombay, Our City” (1985), many years back. The power of Vilas Ghogre’s words and melody stayed with me for a long time only to be rekindled by Patwardhan’s latest ‘Jai Bhim Comrade‘, an elaborate three hour ‘docu-treatise’ of the caste question in contemporary India, ‘narratively’ hinged around the singular brutal instance of state oppression as experienced via the mass slaying of Dalit residents of Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar colony by police forces in Mumbai, India, on the 11th of July, 1997. Crafted over a decade, ‘Jai Bhim Comrade’ is an important addition to Patwardhan’s complete oeuvre of conscientious cinema, where he traces the meandering, complex intermixes of opportunistic politics, resistance and activism, subaltern rationalism, identity and religiosity, movements for humanitarianism and justice in thwarting divisive, violent, repressive social tendencies. In mapping the narrative through Vilas Ghogre’s martyrdom; Bhai Sangare, the outspoken, fiery Dalit leader, succumbing to burns while burning copies of the Manu Smruti; and the new and emerging cultural activism of Dalit consciousness as exemplified by groups like the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), ‘Jai Bhim Comrade’ elaborates an India that never finds voice in the dominant, vaccuous pop-commercialism of the mainstream media. Watch.

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Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost: Catfish. 2010

I first came across Schulman and Joost’s ‘Catfish‘ a couple of years back, and on revisiting it, I was certainly in a position to appreciate it more. So, what does one have here? A title vaguely hinting at aquatic life of some sort, thrown in with a reluctant, cajoled into participation protagonist, and a Thomson and Thompson constantly urging the unrolling of events in a manner that is worthy of a documentary film. Not quite. Yaniv Schulman, a young Manhattan based photographer, becomes the subject of the cinéma vérité instincts of brother Ariel and friend Henry. What unfolds over the course of film time, and also real time of 8-9 months of the making of it, are concerns of common interest in debates around early 21st century usage of personal and social interactive media. Identity, deception, impersonation and orchestration in the ambit of social engineering on the one hand and loneliness, isolation, pain, love, longing, broken dreams, and friendship in the ambit of the human emotional spectrum, ‘Catfish’ indeed, resonates with a sincerity that is essential to the spirit of cinéma vérité. Like all of the better cinematic achievements of recent times, the film is much about the search for truth. The truth is out there? Maybe not. Watch.

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Sanjay Kak: माटी के लाल (Red Ant Dream). 2013

In interrogating the workings of Indian democracy, filmmaker Sanjay Kak‘s  माटी के लाल / Red Ant Dream (2013) traces and interweaves three distinct instances of a nation at war with itself: the Maoist movement in Bastar in Chhattisgarh, the Niyamgiri tribal resistance against industrial mining in Odisha, and the resurrection of the left movement in Punjab via the revolutionary spirit of the late Bhagat Singh. At two hours, it does call for your unwavering attention, for the stories that are told in this documentary film, will never find voice in the mainstream media vehicle. Ahistoric, and moving back and forth across the three instances mentioned earlier, Kak manages to wring out some striking voices and peoples who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, of laying down their lives, in resisting oppression that threaten their very lives and livelihoods. In unraveling these peoples and their spirit, (often dubbed by the Government of India as “internal security threats’), Kak incorporates raw ‘found footage’ as well, which puts the audience right into deadly zones of conflict. Some images and content are disturbing, so, mature audiences advised. Watch.

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Kiswah, Nabeela, Maharshi, Madhu: Collateral Damage

Collateral Damage‘ is a student documentary film, produced in 2012, by the Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad, India. The film revisits the Kafkaesque policing and bureaucracies in the aftermath of the tragic May 2007 Mecca Masjid bomb blasts in Hyderabad, India, and it contains interview material that will never be aired over regional and national television. The bizarre rounding up, and subsequent arrest, abuse and torture of about two dozen Musalman young men under the unmentionable ‘guilty until proven innocent’ ‘course of law’, challenges the most fundamental assumptions of a constitutionally guided, democratic republic. Indeed, there are a million mutinies in India, and India appears to be constantly at war with itself. What this film does is to lay bare the farcical investigative and interrogative apparatus of the state police (look out for the first hand accounts of these), as well as put a red/black flag to the Indian news media circus, which, in a complex interlacing with corporate, governmental and religio-political vested interests, creates the essential enemy, the ‘Other’ – anyone who has a Musalman name and visits a Masjid.

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Oinam Doren: Songs of Mashangva. 2010

Rewben Mashangva is a Tangkhul Naga tribal musician and researcher from Ukhrul, Manipur, India. His quest and journey remains the most important one in the sphere of preservation of traditional folk music of the Tangkhul Nagas which stretches back more than a thousand years. With the explosive infusion of western music, coupled with a social order transformed radically via Christianity, Rewben struggles relentlessly against the turning tides to embrace an oral musical tradition which is on the verge of extinction. Oinam, a former student of mine in Shillong, filmed Rewben’s quest and journey for more than a year to give us this important and culturally vital document – a document that is reflective, respectful and reverberant. Take a look.

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Faiza Ahmad Khan: Supermen of Malegaon. 2008

Probably one of the best tributes to ‘cinephilia’ emerging out of India this century. Set in the industrial power loom town of Malegaon in Maharashtra, India, Faiza Khan weaves an engaging narrative crafted around very special and spirited people, unified by their endearing zeal and love for cinema. An elaborate behind the scenes, as it were, fortunately does not descend into dull trivia. What remains is the love, spirit, passion, and the unforgettable loom worker turned superhero, the late Shaikh Shafique. And, if you generally want to know why film-making is no laughing matter, see this.

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