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Vikalp: Films For Peace: Rationale

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[[Category:Censorship India ]]

Vikalp- Films for Freedom is an initiative of the Campaign Against Censorship (CAC), an action platform of around 275 filmmakers and others committed to free speech and the independent documentary movement. The CAC was formed in August 2003 to fight against the censorship clause that had been introduced for Indian films at the Mumbai International Film Festival for Shorts, Documentaries and Animation Films (MIFF), 2004.

As a result of the firm stand taken by the Campaign, and the massive support it was able to mobilise, from filmmakers both in India and abroad, the organisers of MIFF were compelled to change the rules and withdraw the censorship clause. The campaign signatories were nevertheless apprehensive that there would be an attempt to introduce censorship of films through the backdoor, i.e. by eliminating uncomfortable films from the festival.

By late December 2003, as reports began coming in from filmmakers to the CAC, it became clear that these fears of covert censorship were not unfounded. The National Section of MIFF2004 had rejected a large number of the best Indian films made on a range of themes -- primarily political.

These films have been invited to major international festivals and have won awards. Many of them were by filmmakers who were part of the agitation in August 2003. Most of these films have political themes, like the Gujarat riots, Narmada agitation, RSS indoctrination of youth, resistance movements, Dalit rights, corruption in the government and so on. Films dealing with alternate sexuality, sex workers' lives and similar anti-establishment themes were also rejected.

The selection procedure itself was altered, and there was strong evidence to suggest that Films' Division officials interfered with the final list to keep out certain films. MIFF 2004 not only rejected well-made and important films, it also did away with the Information Section, which traditionally provided space for films not selected in competition.

While there has been criticism about the functioning of MIFF from its inception, many acts of omission and commission were tolerated by the filmmaking community because it tended to look upon the festival as an important space for the Indian documentary.

However, this time the blatant attempt to stifle critical voices made it extremely difficult for filmmakers to continue to identify with this festival. We saw this attempt itself as part of a larger process of ongoing censorship, being systematically employed by the present right-wing state apparatus to silence dissent, using censorship laws, abetting mob vandalism and violence, and so on.

The CAC felt it important to raise a voice of collective protest and initiated several strategies for resisting censorship. These evolved through email interactions and meetings among members of the Campaign. The strategies included withdrawal from MIFF by filmmakers whose work had been selected, advocacy with various stakeholders, including the jury, the Ministry and the organisers of MIFF for an independent inquiry, an advocacy and information campaign aimed at international filmmakers and film festivals, and so on. As an excerpt from a press release demonstrates, the demands of the CAC were multi-pronged:

CAC seeks a probe into MIFF 2004 by an independent review committee comprising eminent film-makers and experienced filmfest curators in order to ensure greater transparency during future editions of MIFF. CAC has suggested a postponement of MIFF 2004 pending review by such a committee. The Campaign has been demanding accountability in a public forum like MIFF, which is run by the State with public money, and in the public interest. The Campaign hopes urgent measures will be initiated by the festival to address the questions raised by Indian and international film-making community. These include re-constitution of selection committees for MIFF 2004 and for all future editions, the appointment of an independent Festival Director and a festival programming team and a policy guideline exempting all Indian film festivals from any censorship.

The idea of a 'Protest Show' was first mooted at a meeting of about 35 filmmakers from all over the country, held on Jan 18 at the World Social Forum in Mumbai. The filmmakers present unanimously felt that such an act, of screening films that had been 'censored out' of MIFF, would be a positive mode of protest, that would bring visibility to our campaign, its issues and the films. Immediately, a Mumbai Organising Committee, consisting of a dozen members was formed and responsibilities for the various tasks were divided.

Given the very short time at our disposal- merely two weeks- the task of organising a festival from scratch was a daunting one. We had no financial sponsorship, no resources except for a tremendous amount of goodwill and commitment of CAC members and supporters to make the festival happen. On the very next day, a call for entries went out to all filmmakers. We decided to restrict entry to those films, which had either been withdrawn from or rejected by MIFF. We had no selection procedure, but were committed to showing all the films, which were entered. Initially, the idea was to have a three day festival, but as entries continued to pour in, we had to consider extending the dates. We eventually screened 58 films, including with a total viewing time of around 50 hours.

There were several hurdles to be crossed. The first was finding a venue close to MIFF, so that we would be visible and accessible to delegates at MIFF.Two venues were considered and we finally chose Bhupesh Gupta Bhavan, for various reasons, including the commitment of Lok Vangmay Griha to the cause we represented and their whole-hearted response and involvement in getting the festival going in such a short span of time. We were also received support from Agarkar Vichar Vyaspeet and Keshav Gore Smarak Trust, towards covering printing costs.

The second challenge was raising resources for the event at short notice. Given the enthusiasm and good will of campaign members all over the country, we were able to raise around a Rs 1 lakh in a short span of time, This included the amount raised through an entry fee of Rs 1000 per film.

There were numerous tasks to be completed before the event- designing a logo and various publicity materials; printing invitations, badges, catalogues and banners; creating an animation signature for Vikalp; getting the venue, equipment and festival office in place; putting up posters all across the city; press publicity- the list seemed endless. It was only the dedication and involvement of a range of committee members and volunteers (ranging from media professionals to students) that made it possible to complete all these tasks with a minimum of resources in record time.

Due to the involvement of so many volunteers, from the outset there was a feeling that Vikalp is 'our festival', it belongs to all of us, supporters of independent documentary film, who resist censorship in all its forms. This spirit of inclusiveness was one of the unique features of Vikalp and was what made it different from the more 'professionally managed', but lacklustre event taking place across the street!

The festival kicked off on February 4, with an interesting and apt inaugural theatrical performance based on Saadat Hasan Manto’s, ‘Safed Jhoot’, performed by Jameel Khan, and directed by Ratna Pathak-Shah and Naseeruddin Shah for Motley Productions.

Immediately after this, a packed auditorium watched the opening screening of the festival, the film Aamakaar (The Turtle People) directed by Surabhi Sharma, and withdrawn from MIFF in protest.

The films were screened to a large and enthusiastic audience and by 3 pm on the first day, a `house full’ board had to be put up outside the auditorium. We were amazed by the enthusiastic participation of the audiences. Over 3000 delegates registered and several of the films were full house (the screening venue could seat 300 plus viewers).

The Vikalp venue became a space for animated discussions, a space where filmmakers and their audiences could interact in a completely informal setting, that more than made up in spirit what it might have lacked in style and comfort! The seating in the auditorium, which was on mattresses, the fact that there were discussions after the films, the chaiand batatawada hangout, with a small balcony for smokers, all this made for a lively and energising ambience. There was only one unanticipated problem- a few people lost their footwear, and some of us had to pacify irate viewers, who came out to find their expensive footwear missing!

In addition to the screenings, which went on from 10 am to 10 pm or later, we also had a panel discussion entitled: RESISTING CENSORSHIP. The participants were Arundhati Roy, writer, Nikhil Wagle, editor of Mahanagar (the Marathi daily), and Anand Patwardhan, filmmaker. This was well attended and focused attention on the larger context of the fight against censorship in all its forms, which formed the rationale for organising Vikalp.

On the last day, February 9, a meeting was convened to discuss the future programme of the Campaign and to discuss ways of taking Vikalp forward. It was a useful meeting, where there was open discussion and debate on issues such as the organisational forms of the Campaign, future strategies, modes of communicating and so on.

Post-Vikalp, screenings have been planned in several places, such as Kerala, Rajasthan, Bangalore, Chennai and Pune, and are under discussion at several other places. More than a festival, Vikalp has demonstrated that it is possible for citizens to get together to find creative and positive ways of resisting censorship. The challenge before us today is to transform Vikalp into a movement, a sustained channel for dissemination and discussion of alternative documentary film, that poses a vigorous threat to the forces that seek to silence dissent and marginal voices.

-- Anjali Monteiro and K P Jayasankar

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