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

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 2:41AM   |  5 comments
A resident distributing water,  still from Water and the City

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.


Thank you so much for this post, Patty! It is so encouraging to read of places where "cinema cultures" are dynamic, urgent, and not hermetically sealed within academics-only or profit-only discourses. Your post on the Bangalore Film Society reminds me of your post on the Morelia Film Festival.

I hope that these debates eventually become more prominent in places like the US, where economic collapse and shrinking endowments seems to have fueled a conservative backlash. It's like returning to the 1980s era of "high theory" with eurocentric marxisms and monolithic feminisms. The only difference seems to be a new depoliticized gesture towards "diversity" is to include selected "art films" from places like Mˇxico, India, and Iran, alongside slick commercial productions from Japan and South Korea.

Like Dale, I very much enjoyed your post. Given the dominant media rhetoric in India, these films are very important political interventions. And, it's good to known that they are being well-attended!

must admit that i do not know much about political activism through cinema, but there's certainly no better medium that can open people's eyes to the world.

n excellent information provided thanks for all the information i must say great efforts made by you.

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