The camera in filmmakers Vikramjit Barua and Indranee Kalita’s 1st November shifts between the families of the five men who were killed in an open fire by suspected ULFA(I)-militants-affiliated men in 2018 in Assam’s Tinsukia. The viewer’s gaze stays fixed at a scrawny man seated on a chair and his wife squatting on the floor by his side. The man goes in to bring out photographs of his dead sons, Ananta (aged 18) and Abhinash (25) Biswas, who were the sole earning members of the house. Tears well up in the eyes of the distraught mother, whose photograph by PTI did the rounds in newspapers, as she recounts the horror. She had lost her brother too in the firing. Next, we see a teenager – her eyes wet, voice quivering – as she speaks of how visions of her dead farmer-father, Subal Das (60), haunts her in sleep. He comes asking for food – she was serving him what would’ve been his last meal when he was taken away, never to return. In his absence, she had to give up school and take charge of her mother and sisters. 1st November is one of the 16 films being shown by as part of the online festival ChangeChitra.
While 70 per cent of India lives in its villages, barely two per cent of rural India’s issues are discussed in mainstream media. ChangeChitra, a short-documentaries festival, by the international media and human rights NGO Video Volunteers (VV), tries to plug that gap. After touring Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata in February-March, when it arrived in Delhi in late-March, it was stymied by the lockdown. Supported by the US Embassy, the festival has migrated to VV’s YouTube channel, where till September 3, “documentaries for social activism” are being released. These under-15-minute films will be available for viewing later too. The aim is to bring “authentic, unmediated voices from a diverse community, who are rarely given a platform,” says VV founder Jessica Mayberry.
For nearly two decades, VV has been equipping young people from diverse communities with skills and tools to capture compelling video stories, which explore India’s myriad challenges and successes. The ChangeChitra festival is a logical end to a project that trained 60 novice filmmakers, aged 18-35, in filmmaking and editing, mentored by professionals, including filmmaker-poet Leena Manimekalai, docu makers Aarti Sachdeva and Samarth Mahajan. “Documentary films are an incredible tool to promote social change,” says Emmy-nominated director-producer Marc Ostrick, the lead American trainer brought in by California-based My Hero media project.
Neha Nahata and Dibyajyoti Nath bring in a timely reminder of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) with Between Sky and Earth. It’s been exactly a year since 19 lakh-plus people were left out of the final list, and their fate is still in limbo. The film speaks of the tribulations of Muslims in Assam through three men: Mohd Rehat Ali, now 71, who was sent to detention camp from 2015-18, retired Army Officer Mohd Azmal Hoque, whose army documents of 30-year service was not considered and his name not cleared in the final list, and musician Loknath Goswami. “There are many mistakes in the NRC. People who’ve not committed crimes are treated as criminals, as murderers,” says Hoque, who feels he’s in a no-man’s land. While Goswami recounts accompanying singer Bhupen Hazarika to Nellie following the 1983 massacre. “Yes, we are Muslim, but we are Assamese, too,” he says, in the film.
Echoing similar sentiments of displacement is a girl from the Koli community, whose land is being acquired under “slum rehabilitation scheme” but sold to real-estate developers. In Kinaarpatti (Seashore), she says, “We (the city’s original residents) have been living in Mumbai for the past 75 years (in fact, for centuries), and yet, we’re asked to prove we live here.”
Open Defecation Failure weaves in snippets from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s August 14, 2014, speech which promised toilets across India, with the reality: a schoolgirl is forced to relieve herself in paddy fields because the school toilet is dysfunctional, a woman shows the snakebite marks on her legs, another frequents the “toilet office” hoping to get the promised Rs 12,000 to build a toilet at home, and yet another hopes “this film will reach the government and they’ll feel love for me and give me the toilet.”
The centrepiece of the festival are stories of women and their spunk. In They Call Me Bideshini, Bideshini Patel narrates how begging and domestic violence forced her out of her home to go work with NGOs. One such project took her to the hilly forested villages of the Paudi Bhuyan tribespeople in Odisha’s Sundargarh, who were being evicted from their lands by a corporate firm. A fear was instilled in Patel about Maoist operations in the area, but when she reached, she found, it was a strategy to not let public-welfare programmes reach the villagers. They had no access to water, roads, electricity, schools, Indira Awas houses or land documents.
VarshaRanga speaks of Varsha’s transformation from walking out of marriage and ills of patriarchy to head the self-defence training programme and teach judo to girls in Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district. The well-edited Made in Madras zooms into Sangeetha’s life on Wall Tax Road, near Chennai’s Central Railway Station, of her playing football and representing India in Moscow at the 2018 Street Child World Cup. In Never Too Old, meet the toothless Karthyayani amma in Kerala’s Cheppad village, a 94-year-old Class IV student, who scores 98 out of 100 and wishes to study till Class X.
VV’s video stories have touched nearly 5.5 million lives till date, with 1,689 instances of impact, where one in five videos have solved a problem. To that end, the films in ChangeChitra capture well, what Ostrick calls, “the emotional power of a well-crafted short documentary.”