Utpal Borpujari

April 15, 2009

‘Wrong perception that there is no audience for documentaries’

By Utpal Borpujari


Filmmaker Gargi Sen is the brain behind the Magic Lantern Foundation, an NGO working in the field of media and human rights. Since 1989, MLF has produced documentary films and done social campaigns using films on issues of social justice, culture and censorship, done critical assessment of media, run media training programmes, and worked to take independent films to people. Since 2004, it has been organising film festivals and encouraged student and civil society groups to do so in their local areas. Last year, it started “Persistent Resistance”, a festival of contemporary political films, in New Delhi. As MLF prepares for the second edition the festival to be held at the India International Centre in the capital, Sen talks to Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on why it is important to take documentary cinema to people:


What made you devise the “Persistence Resistance” festival?


The space for documentaries is very limited, so we are trying to bring a range of documentaries to people. Also, there are lot of misconceptions about documentaries, and the popular thinking is that documentaries are boring. Films in the festival will prove that it is not so. After all, cinema is cinema, and documentary is as much an art form as other forms of visual arts. Today, many stories, people and histories are becoming more and more invisible. What becomes visible tends to make many more invisible. The festival aims to address this growing invisibility of plural narratives, concerns, stories and people from the public domain by bringing ‘other’ pictures into limelight.


What are the highlights of the festival this time?


We are a very unique festival in that we do not invite entries or have competitions. We show only those films that we distribute, as the festival is part of our efforts to distribute independent documentaries as well as regional feature films. There are a wide range of films with political themes in the festival, tackling subjects like gender discrimination, sexuality, state waging war against its own citizens, human rights violation, bhakti poets, living cultures, and so on, most of them in various Indian languages, along with English and Hindi. There is a special focus on South Asia this time. We will screen over 200 films from across the world over three days.


What are your target audiences?


Primarily students and teachers. Last year, the response was so great that many people were unable to enter quite a few screenings. It is a wrong coneption that documentaries do not attract audiences. The need is to make such films available to people. But we are not competing with other films. We are outside the margins, but there is an audience for such films. If audiences had not been there, we would not have received such overwhelming responses everywhere we go.


How do you distribute documentaries?


We primarily do it through our website, as on-ground retail is a problem because of our differential pricing for individual and institutional buyers. We call the process ‘Under Construction’, in which we take the rights to distribute non-commercial, non-broadcast films in certain territories on contract. For every DVD we sell, 35 per cent is kept by us as fees and 65 per cent goes to the filmmaker as royalty. We have also taken features by top filmmakers like Girish Kasaravalli and Sri Lanka’s Prasanna Vithanage for distribution.


How has been the response?


In 2005, when we launched our distribution, we sold merely 60 DVDS, and in 2008 we sold 3,000. So, things are improving though it still is a long way to go. The main issue is not distribution, but dissemination. Even if a DVD is there, it is still difficult for an interested person sitting in places like Tura in Meghalaya or Rourkela in Orissa to access them. We are trying to be facilitators in taking such films to the grassroots.


What is the main problem area in dissemination?


I initially thought distribution is a problem of logistics, but now have found out that it is more political. There are only around 11,000 theatres to screen films for a country of one billion plus, and of these around 30 per cent have closed down in recent years. Also, we measure audiences by ticket sales. Reena Mohan’s Kamla Bai, for example, must have been seen by much more people in the last 11 years than any big Bollywood hit. We need to see audiences from viewpoints other than commercial.



How do you collaborate with other interested organisatons?


All though the years, MLF has encouraged other groups and organisations to curate film festivals on specific themes and helped such groups to organise local film festivals by curating thematic packages, as well as providing films. While continuing to make films, MLF also plans to lay more stress on increasing the visibility and reach of independent films in the public domain to enable richer debates in society.


(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 15-04-2009)



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