Short-shrift to environment

A recent festival of short films bombed -- by and large

By Pradip Saha
Published: Thursday 15 September 1994

THE Short Filmfest (July 29-August 7) at Delhi's Shakuntalam Theatre truly disappointed viewers who expect social reality to be reflected in documentary and short films made by independent filmmakers. The despondency deepens as one sees the absence of environmental elements in any social documentation.

The only film that comes through with a clear and comprehensive view on environment and society is Manjira Dutta's 5-year-old Seeds of Plenty, Seeds of Sorrow, which explores the Green Revolution intelligently. The film has 2 parallel storylines: in the national context, it shows the success of the Green Revolution in its limited terms, comparing the agricultural realities of Punjab and Bihar (the comparison is more than a voiceover); and the Green Revolution in Mexico and India.

Every year, hundreds of landless Bihari agricultural labourers migrate to Punjab. The film explores the reasons behind the crashing of agriculture in Bihar, and its "thriving" in Punjab. The revered "father of the Green Revolution", Norman Borlaug, articulately ties himself in knots explaining the Western obsession with Third World "food production".

The hammer blows demystifying the Green Revolution come through the smart editing of interviews and "relevant" camerawork. And weary rural wisdom trashes all that Borlaug has to say: "The land has become an opium addict; it wants more and more."

Sehjo Singh's film, The Women Betrayed, which deals with witch-hunting in the Chhotanagpur region of Bihar, could have detailed localised environmental destruction: the erosion of most social institutions in Chhotanagpur stems from the rampant exploitation of the natural habitat. This fact finds passing mention -- "...they have taken away our forest..." Then the film loses itself in a maze of arguments.

Sibani Ghose's Sadak Chhaap (The Stamp of the Street), was a superficial collation of images of streetkids. It is often held that films on these subjects tend to be gloomy. People and organisations working with streetkids must have seen the brighter side: aspirations, positive thinking, grit, the meaning of life, and so on. Inescapably, a sadak chhaap also experiences love and happiness.

But this rational outsider's optimism cannot be a reason for making a video virtually glorifying the lives of streetkids. The video starts with intercuts of images of urchins and proceeds to inform viewers with text -- in reverse -- about the many misconceptions we have about them. In no way are these children lacking in intellect: they are functionally literate, can count money, understand film posters and identify shop signs.

The film says that streetkids have less worktime and more time to romp; the visual shows them playing cards like hardened adults. It makes the life of a sadak chhaap look enviable.

The video ends with the yearly fair that has come into being in Bombay. The fair prods the creativity of the children: they clearly have fun. Somehow, this sequence left an unshakeable impression that the video was made to highlight this fair. It shows how a camera in search of nice frames and glib, sugarcoated editing can alter realities.

At the end of it all, as we head for a future where foreign policy and international trade are led by environmental conditionalities, the organisers of these festivals should grow up and rethink their thematic priorities.

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