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Kangaroos and tribals in the spotlight

The interests of the Tokyo Environmental Film Festival were varied and the films were technically superb, but most failed to focus on people

By Nalaka Gunawardene
Published: Thursday 31 March 1994

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)WHAT do kangaroos, nuclear power plants and organic farmers have in common? They were among the multifarious subjects of environment films screened at a recent Japanese festival.

The second Tokyo Environmental Film Festival, organised by the Earth Vision Organisation of Japan in December last year, featured 53 films from 16 countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Dubbed Earth Vision '93, the festival lived up to its promise only partially: though it included many productions on natural history and educational themes that were of high technical quality, most did not address the social, political and economic aspects of environment. Instead, they talked about birds and bees or forests and seas. People, the central factor of today's environment debate, were missing from many films and when they did figure, it was more as actors in a drama.
Indian entries This was one reason why I was drawn to two Indian entries that addressed head-on some of today's central socioeconomic and political issues in environment. The Good Earth, directed by Krishnendhu Bose of New Delhi, focussed on sustainable agriculture in theory and practice (Down To Earth, August 15,1993).

Although the jurors did not specifically look for "political correctness", it was an element that attracted them to No More Tigers in the Yard, a low-budget Indian film that won the festival's grand prize of 1 million yen. Made by Mora Tanna, the film bore testimony to the struggle of tribals in Gujarat wanting to return to their forest in the face of development.

The message of No More Tigers, Tanna's debut film, was clear: tribals have lived with the forest and its creatures for centuries. Assorted bureaucrats and technocrats have sought to protect forests with their "guns and guards" approach. In most cases, these attempts have failed. It is only recently that the authorities and forestry experts have conceded that the support and involvement of local people in protecting the forests and wildlife is not only necessary - it is crucial.

Other winners included A Twentieth Century Legacy, a documentary produced by NHK (Japanese national television) on chemical weapons, which received the best environmental journalism award. The best social film was Rumours from the Noto Sea, which looked at life in the Japanese fishing city of Suzu, where the building of a nuclear power plant has unsettled the community for 18 years.
Life among kangaroos A brilliant Australian film, Kangaroo: Face in the Mob, portrayed life within a group of kangaroos. The production team spent one year with the group, chronicling their complex behaviour and social dynamics. The film picked up the award in the natural history category. There were a couple of film productions that were rather poor in conceptualisation, if not in technical detail. Strikingly repugnant was a Bangladeshi-US documentary, liggasha: A Community Network Approach to Family Planning. It created the impression, which unsuspecting Japanese and Western audiences might accept as authentic, that "the child-bearing machines" of poor countries had to be told that they must control their family size. The film showed how to get that message across in a networking approach and how it has been achieved in some parts of Bangladesh.

Some of the statements of "beneficiaries" lacked credibility and the whole programme looked like a propaganda piece for birth control pills produced and peddled by Western companies. The film demonstrated that a great deal of money and effort, if misdirected, could produce films that end up insulting the very people and issues they claim to serve or promote.

The weaknesses in individual entries were not as significant as some overall imbalances: countries like India and China were grossly under-represented and many burning issues confronting Asia were not addressed by the entries.

Nalaka Gunawardene, a Sri Lankan science and environmental writer, was one of the five jurors at the second Tokyo Environmental Film Festival.

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