Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, April 19, 2010
Ayisha said to tell the driver that Jaaga was across from the hockey stadium.
We snaked through the dense, unending, hive-like traffic of Bangalore. Car horns beep constantly, a persistent avant garde percussive opera of noise and rhythm. I was worried whether Vreni, our driver, would find Jaaga, and if we would get there on time for me to set up my powerpoint on a computer.
I had rolled up a black dress and a purple and pink striped silk scarf in my blue and yellow checkered Envirosax bag so I could switch out of my loose fitting, crumbled, sweaty and dusty pink linen capri pants and baggy top once we arrived. With traffic as dense as bricks, it was impossible to return to The Green Path, our eco-activist hotel, to freshen up and change into a more formal lecture outfit.
An experimental filmmaker, writer, archivist, arts activist, Ayisha Abraham is an old friend who lives in Bangalore. She had invited me to give a talk at Jaaga.
After reading about this arts, technology and social change workspace, with Ayisha’s guidance, I decided to do “The Open Space Project: Towards a Theory of Open Space Documentary “ a research, writing, multimedia and public speaking/activist project I’ve been working on with American filmmaker and arts activist Helen de Michiel for the last year. It’s also the theme of FLEFF 2010. Ayisha and I met at the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar about 16 years ago and immediately bonded over our passion for preserving amateur film. She’s helped to connect FLEFF to activist documentary and experimental film in India.
In Bangalore, she and her husband, Jittu, a molecular biologist, invited my family (Stewart, my partner, and Sean, our 16 year old son) over for a dinner of home-made chapattis, chicken curry and mango chutney the night before. I had gotten a bit sick from the pollution and some food I had consumed earlier, and could not eat. They knew the remedy: ayurvedic medicine—isabgol powder in water and organic mint pills. The combination was miraculous: it worked immediately. I could speak the next night.
Founded by technologist Freeman Murray and visual artist Archana Prasad, Jaaga is an “urban community arts technology experiment,” according to their website. It contains a workspace, a café, and modular, adaptable public space. Built on land donated by Bangalore-based architect Naresh Narasimhan, Jaaga mobilizes open design, collaboration, modular, low cost building materials, and social entrepreneurs to build sustainable, eco-friendly, high density buildings. Built from pallet racks, plywood and metal, Jaaga looks like some morph between a movie set, a jungle jim, and a high tech tree house. Translated from Kannada, the language in Karnataka, Jaaga means space.
But these mission statements only tell half of the Jaaga story.
When we arrived, we were not sure where to go. The main floor was gravel. Women in saris, women in jeans, men in workboots, guys in dress shirts, and backpackers from Europe and the US in baggy cotton clothes to beat the heat milled around on virtually every floor, talking and working.
We climbed to the second floor. People were moving pallets and pipes. My son Sean was immediately drafted to help move a bunch of 50 foot long pipes with a crew. Stewart found a spot on the second floor pallet to dump our backpacks.
We explored the structure. I think Sean was initially somewhat resigned to hearing another talk in Bangalore. But once he started climbing around the mobile structure, exploring from floor to floor between work tools, sleeping bags, laptop computers, and tents, he casually mentioned to me that he could have a great time at Jaaga with his Ithaca friends, hanging out and building structures.
A New Way to Do Media, Arts, Activism
I realized that changing into my black dress was…uh…unnecessary. Jaaga felt like a construction site, but it also felt like an edgy new media think tank. A long black tank dress and heels was about the worst outfit imaginable for this space, which pulsed with people, computers, tools, conversation and construction.
The exhilarating range of activities at Jaaga map how much international public media and activism has changed in the last five years: a Facebook developers group, a photo exhibition, a brinjal (eggplant) four way cooking contest, an experimental film festival, a dance event, an entertainment industry meet up, activist circle sessions on Indian microfinance.
A new category of public media practitioner has emerged: technologist, a person who helps people and organizations mobilize digital media for blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and online advocacy. Separations between technologies, art forms, politics, experimental work and industry, new and old media, are remnants of an older, more staid, disintegrating media landscape.
Stewart pointed out that this place epitomized open space and was probably the best venue imaginable for my talk. But I started to worry that I was at the wrong place, because I could not figure out where the lecture would be, and if there was a screen, a projector and a computer. All I could see was gravel floors, stacks of plastic chairs, and tarps hanging from the pipes to fashion make-shift, movable walls. The sound of cars horns blaring from the busy street overwhelmed everything.
Suddenly, the entire space changed.
Ayisha arrived. She started to move chairs into the space. Kirin D, a former builder who had worked in Texas but moved back to Bangalore who I had met at some Bangalore Film Society screenings the day before, carried in a plastic table and a projector. A group of people rearranged the red plastic chairs. The computer didn’t work. Someone went to get a PC laptop.
Another woman got a microphone and positioned it at the table with the computer so I could sit and chat easily, looking at the computer and the audience. A sound system amplified my voice to drown out the traffic noise. A young women inserted my thumb drive into the computer and there it was on the screen: my first slide, The Open Space Project. Kirin had me check that the wireless was working so I could show websites in my talk live.
The room was suddenly packed with people, spilling out of the structure on all sides. Sean and Stewart grabbed bean bags and perched themselves on the second floor, peering down. Before I could fully absorb the transformation of the pallets and pipes into a lecture space, Ayisha was introducing me and the crowd was gathered around me in this space, now transformed from a workspace into a new media meet-up.
My talk argued for a new collaborative, horizontal model of documentary that is modular and continually changing in fluid ways across multiple technologies, that rewires social media and new media to open up space rather than to push out ideas. As Helen and I like to explain, open space is where technology meets place meets people. About ten minutes in to my explanations of open space concepts, I looked out at the people assembled and had an intuition that I should speak shorter rather than longer, focusing on the “people” part of open space.
Technologists, NGOs, Arguments, and Car Horns
The dialogue that ensued post-talk featured the kind of vigorous debate that forms the core of arts, activism and civil society in Bangalore. A former producer who now works with a NGO dealing with HIV intervened that new media was perhaps out of reach and not effective in the kind of work she did, where radio was accessible and could reach rural communities. Another documentary producer shared how difficult it is to collaborate: many arguments erupt, stalling the process and often damaging the utopian goals.
A man in the back raised a point about the central issue of social media for activist purposes is the tension between curation and aggregation. A technologist in the front who works with NGOs dealing with housing and sustainability shared the challenges of moving from social media campaigns to social media spaces.
People argued with each other, debating low end technologies versus digital media, different forms of making work, different ways of thinking about embodied performance and disembodied social media, new technologies and civil society. Someone wondered if social media was simply first world privilege, where people talk to like minded people but never encounter difference. Another camp contended that social media needed to be apprehended and hacked. Everyone seemed to agree that understanding new technologies--their glories and their contradictions--was a necessity.
After the talk, the space emptied out.The blare of beeping horns crescendoed. Jaaga means space. Making space, rearranging space, building, shifting space, opening space.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Post Screening Discussions and Development, Bangalore Style
In Bangalore, the post screening discussion is as important as the film itself.
In fact, if the Bangalore Film Society is any indication, it often lasts longer than the film itself. The discussions open up with debates, denouncements, deconstructions—and urgency. It’s an exhilarating experience—especially in contradistinction to the current state of cinema in the United States, where audiences are often passive, ironic and detached, cinema intellectuals camouflage ideas and politics with obtuse theory, and social media siphons off people from embodied interaction. It’s hard to fill a theater. Most people leave before the credits.
In Bangalore, the screenings I participated in were just about as opposite an experience as could be imagined. If German critical theorist Jurgen Habermas’s imagined public sphere exists, it most certainly is being conjured up in Bangalore as a public place to debate how development, cars, information technology(IT), genetically modified plants, pollution, poverty, drought, water, the IT economy, gender, and food are resolutely and absolutely interconnected. In Bangalore, I learned that cinema is only as good as the people and debates it convenes. Cinema is critical to civil society in Bangalore: it’s where it happens.
At the post-event vegetarian dinner at The Green Path, I asked journalist S. Vishwanath and BFS’s Georgekutty why the screenings were so successful. They explained that there was almost a total blackout on development issues in India—commercial newspapers, radio and television didn’t cover it, unless it was a positive story embracing IT and economic growth. Independent documentary produced in different regions has developed to address this gap—and provide a voice of criticality and a space for debate lacking in the more dominant media.
A New India
In fact, a few years ago in 2004, the prestigious Mumbai International Film Festival refused to screen films with an anti-development argument arguing they needed a certificate from the censor. This action galvanized the formation of Films for Freedom. BFS, according to Georgekutty, puts as much energy into their mass mobilizations to get diverse audiences to screenings as they do to their programming. As a result, they not only find films but they create spaces for open political discussion across difference.
The Economist hails Bangalore and Hyderabad as the new miracles of the shiny new Indian IT economy that is contributing to India’s astronomical growth. Cinema scholars from across the globe dive headfirst into Bollywood, the largest film industry in the world. And environmentalists fight the introduction of genetically modified plants. These different strands of India are usually presented as separate issues, separate politics, separate worlds--except at these Bangalore Film Society screenings. Here, the films operate as springboards for discussions and debates that commingle these myriad issues in a political masala that makes connections, literally and philosophically.
Water and The City: A Documentary about Water and Bangalore
The two screenings I attended, both celebrating World Water Week, were jammed. They were both free—a measure of all the hard fundraising done by BFS. It was exciting—and intimidating, since I was speaking at both events. The first night, a new film premiered, Water and the City (Sawati Dandekar, India, 2010) a lovely, powerful, muckraking documentary that follows the Kaveri River as it leaves the Western Ghats and travels to Bangalore. Sawati, a filmmaker who has made many films about environmental issues in South India, was there to introduce the film and discuss the film afterwards.
The screenings were held in a modest hall with no air conditioning, movable chairs, a pull-down screen , and a projector dangling from the ceiling at a Catholic monastery—about as opposite as you can imagine from the stadium seating, surround sound of the gargantuan multiplexes of Singapore. The staff at the Bangalore Film Society hauled in their own Mac and PC laptops as well as a DVD player, not sure if the films would run properly and wanting backup. The screening facility was more of a meeting room than a theater. The set-up took a while: the screening started late. The Bangalore Film Society invited the audience to a pre-screening tea replete with rich dark Indian black tea, organic coffee, samosas, and mint chutney. We were asked to wash our own dishes.
But the capacity crowd didn’t seem to mind—they were talking to each other. Scanning the audience, I noticed a surprisingly heterogeneous mix of people: older retirees, younger students, people who came directly from work, NGO activists, cinephiles, exchange students from the US and Europe, activists on water issues, journalists, young hip couples out on what looked like dates.
Compelling as an argument and visually well crafted with long takes, Water and the City shows how the privatization of water has left poor people without any access, carrying water in vessels for long distances. It features a haunting bhangra soundtrack with anti-development lyrics. The film interviews poor people searching for water in Bangalore, the public taps removed in their neighborhoods.
Water and the City interviews water experts who describe the devastation of the ground water in Bangalore by development—all of Bangalore seems to be under construction with bulldozers chewing up the landscape and spewing dust everywhere. It interviews a middle class couple who argue water should be taxed. According to the film, 7 million people now live in Bangalore, 35% of them in slums. Lakes, tanks, and groundwater is disappearing. Sewage is dumped into the lakes that have not yet dried out.
One amazing scene features a woman who has dug a well and paid for it herself. Each day, she sits with a hose and gives out free water to women carrying yellow, red, blue and green water vessels. She is a heroine in the film. The women haul the water back on their heads and hips.
Cinema, Social Change, Engagement, Public Space
It’s an intellectual commonplace in film culture to ask if cinema can motor social change. Some say no, it just preaches to the converted and those who bother to show up. Others say, yes, it gives voice to the voiceless, visibility to the invisible. Others probe how style generates political meaning by intervening into more industrial tropes that standardize and limit expression.
Cinema studies and its subset, documentary studies, often reveals a fetishistic obsession with the films themselves, analyzing formal elements, structure, theoretical implications—important textual work, of course, but work that seals films within the protective, safe coating glaze of theory. This move isolates films from how they move through culture as historical agents of change and how they spur everyday people to engage with issues of significance.
The screenings in Bangalore taught me that these debates are perhaps mired in sort of “global north privilege” where artistic practices have the luxury to be cut off from people because development has not destroyed our livelihoods and our lives. I learned a valuable lesson from the Bangalore Film Society: a film is not the same thing as film culture. A film ends when the credits finish. Film culture—at least the political kind of film culture that changes how we see and interact with and think about the world—does not end. Ideally, film culture provokes debates and invites people to create a public space together.
After the Film
Post screening, I met a French environmental activist working on organic farming in South India, an American college student from Reed College on an exchange program, an architect who had been laid off from one of the high tech companies who was now creating radical vernacular movable architectural spaces for arts events, a radical muckraking journalist committed to water rights but making his living covering new media, a couple of guys who worked as IT executives, and some university students. In short, a diverse crowd ranging from students to cinema lovers to activists to corporate executives to retirees. People hung around and wanted to continue talking about water issues and documentary cinema.
Although water may be in short supply in Bangalore, an urgent political cinema that fertilizes civil society is gushing forth, a waterfall of powerful documentary debate, community, and political passion.
Monday, April 5, 2010
Once you fully understand the political economy of dust, you can see why the Bangalore Film Society has endured for over 30 years with such focus, passion, and purpose.
The Bangalore Film Society (BFS) launched in 1977. It’s been screening films –documentaries, features, experimental films--in Bangalore non-stop since then, creating an open space for a civil society generated out of vigorous political debate and provocative convenings. Screenings are packed: the discussions last as long as the films. They are filled with an urgency absent in most screenings in the US. And it all revolves around the dust.
Living in Singapore means I was only a four hour plane ride from Bangalore. I wanted to finally meet the people at the Voices from the Waters International Film Festival, a project of BFS; FLEFF has been in a collaborative partnership with them for four years. We met through what my Singapore colleagues might call auspicious circumstances: a French hydrologist who worked on the politics of water in India was visiting a colleague at Cornell. That weekend, she went to Cinemapolis to see some FLEFF films. The post-screening discussion reminded her of screenings in Bangalore.
In the middle of the night, she wrote to us and suggested that we hook up with the Voices from the Waters Film Festival in Bangalore. She said they needed a contact in North America—they were having problems securing films on water from Canada, the US and Latin America.
Although I never met that hydrologist, her email prompted what became a four year collaboration between FLEFF and Voices from the Waters. FLEFF has shown films from Voices each year: without Voices, we would not have access to the activist and political films from the subcontinent.
Georgekutty, activist, programmer, visionary
Outside the airport, dust filled my nostrils. It coated my arms with a light film. It left circles of red around the tops of my white tennis socks. The dust of Bangalore infiltrated every pore as soon as we stepped out of the airport at midnight and looked for a taxi to take us to The Green Path, an environmentally oriented guest house with signs poked into tropical plant pots that said "We Don't Need GM for Brinjal" and "Nature is the best creator, not GM." It was my first time at a hotel decorated with political signage. Brinjal is eggplant. Activists across India had been protesting the month before against genetically modified seeds. India has over 2,400 varieties of eggplant. They extracted a small victory: the government ministry of agriculture decided to stall introduction of GM seeds until further study.
The next morning, I finally met Georgekutty Luckose , the passionate, inspiring, and visionary director of the Bangalore Film Society. Kutty, as he is called, observed that over 1,000 cars a day are added to the roads. It is almost impossible to move in the city—even with a skilled driver, you stall constantly in traffic jams. Trips from one part of the city to another, that used to take 15 minutes, now take 90. The repetitive sound of beeping car horns is a persistent drone: there are very few traffic lights. It’s difficult to walk across the street. Cars swerve, lorries stall, motorbikes snake, cows wander, and vendors hawk cell phone chargers and headphones in between the cars. The chargers dangle from their arms like snakes.
Dust and Development and IT
Dale Hudson had warned us about the dust and the pollution in Bangalore. When he was there, he wrapped his head and face in a scarf. At the frenetic taxi stand where hustlers crowded around us offering deals for a ride into the city at midnight, I squirted my inhaler into my lungs to stave off an asthma attack.
The politics of dust connects to the culturally obscene, viral, multiplying burst of information technology development in Bangalore. As you leave the airport, a large, stand alone sign of letters occupies the center of the roundabout: it spells out YAHOO.
Bangalore is renowned for its call centers, outsourced nodal points of the global information economy where English speaking Indians who adopt American names like Melanie and Mark help you with your Visa payments or aid you in unraveling computer problems. As one young environmental activist told me, “everyone knows someone who works in a call center here.” I asked about Infosys Technologies, the Indian IT outsourcing firm that is a legendary global powerhouse and a role model for India's new IT economy, according to The Economist. I learned that the InfoSys campus is an armed fortress, requiring identity cards that only allow access to certain floors. Everyone we met knew someone who worked there. One activist commented that InfoSys equaled evil.
IT and dust are cause and effect in Bangalore. The rapid development of the IT sector in the last two decades has turned Bangalore, once known as a walkable, low key city of gardens, into a city of dust, traffic jams, and pollution. Upended tree roots as big as a Volvo cluttered the sides of virtually every street, like meteors that had fallen from outer space. Slums with makeshift tents fashioned out of blue plastic tarps sprawl in front of gated condominiums with guards. The city has doubled in size in the last five years. It’s now 7 million people--that's larger than Singapore, with only 5 million people.
Bangalore Film Society
The Bangalore Film Society is part of a long standing and influential non-governmental organization, the Center for Informal Education and Development (CIEDS), a collective committed to non-hierarchical decision-making and administrative structures that grew out of the political ferment of Indian student movements in the 1970s.
Kutty had been involved in very intense Marxist and political study groups during this period, analyzing social, political, and economic issues in India as they intersected with international flows. He was one of the original founders of CIEDS, which grew out of these study groups and political organizations. His staff at CIEDS adores him: they view him as an inspiring mentor gently nudging them to read theory and history, discuss and debate with each other, and work as a team to engage in constant outreach and audience development in many sectors, what Kutty calls mass mobilization. In the mid 1970s, CIEDS worked with Dalit and women issues. In 1977, BFS organized the first international film festival focused on women in India, growing out of their political work.
The Bangalore Film Society programs on themes that connect directly to problems in Bangalore: migration, displacement, and the pressing, all-encompassing social and political issues of development. As Kutty explains, BFS programming is socially conscious, exploring political problems in a grounded, open way: “We are interested in exploring a notion of human well-being as expressed in cinema,” he says. Every month, BFS screens at least three feature films, always focused on a theme.
Voices from the Waters International Film Festival
By 2004, dust and development converged to make water a major issue in south India. Multinationals were privatizing water and manipulating international trade agreements. Demonstrations against Coca Cola and Pepsi, major water users, erupted in Bangalore, but, according some organizers, were not successful.
In 1990, Coke was for all intents and purposes thrown out of India, but returned a decade later to start a water business and bottling plant. Within two to three years, the water level in Bangalore went down, wells became unusable, and clean water was not accessible for poor people. In the state of Kerala, huge protests fought multinational water companies.
As Kutty pointed out, a World Bank study determined that by 2015, there would be no underground water in India. The privatization of drinking water triggered a series of catastrophic events: environmental degradation, drought, erosion, and a migration of rural people to the cities.
Voices from the Waters Film Festival was BFS and CIED’s response to the water crisis, development and dust. It started in 2005 with 50 films just from India. Last year, in 2009, it screened nearly 130 films from around the globe. Over 30,000 people attended the festival. When I asked Kutty about how BFS attracted such large audiences, his answer was simple: “ we do a massive mobilization effort—we reach out to colleges, schools, political groups, activists, business, communities, everyone who uses water. Everyone wants to talk and debate about water here.”
The festival takes place in various locations around Bangalore, a necessity in a city where it is so hard to move around some young people in their 20s simply sleep at friends homes when they go out for special events since traffic jams are so intense at virtually all hours of the day and night.
If there is an antidote to dust and development and uprooted old trees and traffic jams, it must certainly be the Voices from the Waters Internationaql Film Festival in Bangalore.