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Nobody made the film that got the applause

The Telegraph on one anonymously made documentary and a clutch of other films
MAKERS’ COLLECTIVE: A still from The Journey of a Bird
MAKERS’ COLLECTIVE: A still from The Journey of a Bird
Sourced by the correspondent

Paromita Kar   |   Published 05.03.23, 03:14 AM

The Journey of a Bird is a documentary film from Myanmar that was screened at the Kolkata People’s Film Festival. What sets it apart is that it has no credits. And that’s because it chronicles a difficult period of Myanmar’s recent political unfolding — the military coup of February 2021 and the subsequent crackdown on protests.

The 28-minute film has been shot by a bunch of teenagers who turned from being a reasonably well-off laidback set to participants in the socio-political upheaval; they jumped into the resistance movement against the military, smartphones, recording equipment and all. “It’s better than doing nothing,” says one of the boys to his father in one scene. So they shot what they saw and put the story out — revealing their names would have put them in harm’s way.


What is remarkable here is the starkness of the footage gathered. Some scenes show military personnel firing on the streets and killing protestors, then there are moments when the filmmakers are cooped up in a dark room, hiding. One sequence has the camera lens speeding through the forest in a haphazard manner — this was when the camera holder was actually being chased. The narrative also reveals one of the boys joining the Arakan army. The recording is as real as real can be — it is the lens of a participant observer.

“That’s the true spirit of a documentary, these boys never let go of their camera and sound equipment,” says Kasturi Basu, one of the organisers of the festival. She continues, “The boys’ own lives completely change over the course of the film... It is stuff that we see in fiction. Of course, this is more dramatic than fiction.”

So how then did the film reach the festival? In the first few years of the festival, participant films were sought, curated and programmed, Basu explains. But over the last six years, the format has changed, they turned it into an open-entry event; the only requirement being it has to be a South Asian story and a recent one. “Somehow the word got out and we received this entry from Myanmar,” she says.

For each such documentary filmmaker, it is a journey of discovery, both political and personal. Farha Khatun’s Ripples Under the Skin, also screened at the festival, documents the trials and tribulations of Nazim Kaka, a Muslim migrant worker scouring the narrow alleys of Calcutta as a bhisti, supplying water to homes and shops away from the reach of piped potable water.

“We were shooting in less privileged Muslim areas and people were afraid. It was the time when the CAA-NRC talks and protests were happening. Many a time, I had to tell them that my name is Farha Khatun, and I will not bring any harm to my own community,” says the 34-year-old, who was until recently employed with the Films Division, which has now come under the National Films Development Corporation, a move that has divided industry people.

Kamil Saif is more undisguised about his experience and learning. His short film Night of Separation depicts a somewhat fictionalised account of JNU student Najeeb Ahmed’s family in the aftermath of his disappearance in October 2016. Post-screening, Saif tells the audience, “Whenever an incident like that happens, I shut off the television. But then it triggers me — what if it happens to me? I could be the person who is lynched or thrown off a moving train...”

If the narrative on the screen does anything to move, startle or enlighten, that’s because it has been wrought in such sentiment all through its making. And the film grows, with layers being added even after it has been put out.

Sometimes a story is birthed and bred sans any planning or preparation. That’s how Raktim Mondal’s directorial debut, Bhat Kaporer Swapno or Dream of Livelihood, came into being. Mandal studied motion picture photography at SRFTI, Calcutta, and has worked as a cinematographer with well-known directors such as Ketan Mehta, Shoojit Sircar and Buddhadeb Dasgupta. When the catastrophic Amphan struck coastal Bengal in May 2020, the Sunderbans area was among the worst affected. “Some of us rushed there the very next day and stayed on for nearly two months carrying out relief work. In the middle of it all, I started recording with my iPhone all the little big stories, especially of Babu Mistry, a fisherman whose home and livelihood had been ravaged, as well as the chirpings of his little daughter and her friend.”

Within this tragic ambience and constant metaphors of nature’s destructive self, the film manages to reveal Mistry’s dreams, still feebly alive. Mandal financed the work himself, and it took a long time for him to put it all together. Recording the nuances, however, wasn’t a challenge as he was living amongst them, primarily as an aid worker.

Few incidents of state brutality on campus can compare to what occurred at Aligarh Muslim University on the night of December 15, 2019. Ehraz A. Zaman, a BCom student at the time, put together In A Dissent Manner, an over-an-hour-long documentary with many first-person accounts. “Even after two years, there was so much fear amongst students regarding talking about the CAA-NRC that many of them outrightly refused to be part of the film. They’d meet us and talk in detail about what happened but refuse to appear in front of the camera,” the 21-year-old Zaman, currently pursuing master’s in mass communication at Jamia Millia, tells The Telegraph via email.

The details are demoralising. “There is a student whose hand had to be amputated because of a tear gas shell. We wanted his testimony but he feared the university administration would come down heavily on him if he spoke before the camera. It was the same with another student who was brutally thrashed at the police station after being detained that night. There’s another victim who, despite being a good friend of ours, refused to appear unless we hid his identity... We wanted everyone to see the kind of brutality this government can inflict on the bodies of Muslims.”

Basu recalls an incident in connection with her last documentary film, A Bid for Bengal (2021). The film, which she co-directed with Dwaipayan Banerjee, is about the rise of Hindu nationalist politics in Bengal. A prominent centre for visual arts in Dhaka had invited them for a screening. She says, “We had got our visas and were supposed to leave. But at the last moment, they cancelled the event. The organisers were scared thinking what if the state authorities got to know about it? And they never even got back to us...”

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