Globally Feted Indian Doc Makers Mull Ways of Expressing Dissent at Cannes Market

The cream of the current crop of young Indian documentary filmmakers were on fire during the annual Doc Day at the Cannes Film Market, discussing ways of expressing dissent within India’s current political dispensation.

Since 2014, India has been ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Shaunak Sen’s “All That Breathes” is showing as a special screening at the festival and previously won the documentary grand jury prize at Sundance. It follows Delhi-based Muslim brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, who, against the backdrop of the territory’s polluted atmosphere and escalating sectarian violence, devote their lives to saving the black kite bird species.

“I was absolutely certain that this film was not a snapshot of the current political moment; this film’s main interests were ecological and the human-bird relationship,” Sen said. “However, the last couple of years, especially in Delhi, have been chaotic, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re making a film that’s frontally looking at issues, per se. But if you really look at an object or person consecutively for three whole years, the world around them starts bleeding in.”

Sen also said that conversations around the topic are probably going to be “couched in the language of tact and stratagem.” Rahul Jain, whose climate change film “Invisible Demons” played at Cannes last year, said via Zoom, “I don’t understand why there needs to be tact with nonfiction, and how it’s presented. It’s like a snake that eats itself up. I don’t get it. But yeah, sure. You don’t want to get shot, canceled, butchered or whatever. Good for you, best of luck. Yeah, be nice. Have your words. And I’m grateful if people find the paradigms to express themselves.”

Sen responded that the tact and stratagem wasn’t just about the filmmakers but also about the subjects they film.

Shirley Abraham, who won a special mention at Cannes in 2016 for “The Cinema Travellers,” along with co-director Amit Madheshiya, said via Zoom, “I think that dissent essentially is the most patriotic duty of a citizen, and all of the work that we create, is not going to steer away from that. For me the most exciting or the most new in that sense, is the number of challenges that we are up against both in terms of what can and cannot be said, more towards what cannot be said. And then what is the filmic language that can contain all of those things.”

Abraham provided the example of Payal Kapadia’s “A Night of Knowing Nothing,” which won Cannes’ top documentary award the Golden Eye last year and the Doc Alliance Award for best feature at this year’s market, as a film “which managed to say what needs to be said and managed to create that visual emotional language.”

Rintu Thomas, who along with Sushmit Ghosh, won prizes at Sundance and scored an Oscar nomination for “Writing With Fire,” about a fearless woman journalist group, said that the filmmakers are all finding ways to tell their stories. “It’s fantastic, and it’s been tricky,” Thomas said via Zoom.

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