Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
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.