Thursday, July 19, 2007

Signs of Crisis: Religious Conflict, Human Rights, and the new Documentary Film in Southern Asia

The NYU Law School and the Department for Anthropology together hosted Signs of Crises, a conference on religious conflict, human rights & documentary films in Southern Asia. Eight documentary filmmakers from India and Indonesia were invited to screen their films, and each session was enriched by the participation of academic scholars, human rights lawyers and activists and the filmmakers.

Tilottama Karlekar, PhD candidate in the Dept. of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, provides this insightful report on the films, and their role in times of crises.


In Central Java, Indonesia, relatives grieve as a mass grave reveals the remains of loved ones lost in decades past. In Kashmir, a woman looks straight into the camera as she recounts, matter-of-fact, her rape by Kashmiri militants and Indian officials. And in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a Dalit poet sings of centuries of caste oppression and alienation. These were just some of the compelling, often searing images from the human rights documentaries screened at the “Signs of Crisis” conference held at New York University’s School of Law this past May. Centered on the work of eight documentary filmmakers from India and Indonesia, the conference brought together human rights activists, scholars and filmmakers for an intensive three days of film screenings, panels, and discussions.

For people who have suffered extreme violence and injustice, legal redress can seem distant, even impossible. In an age of digital technology, however, cameras are easily available and can be everywhere. But what role can documentary films play in times of conflict and crisis? “We have to watch more films,” said Human Rights Watch Asia director Joseph Saunders as he talked of the unique ability of films to grab and hold people’s attention. But how can films best be used in an international struggle for human rights? And how do forms of media representation relate to legal representation in a court of law? As powerful images of human suffering—and strength and resilience—saturated the screen, viewers, scholars, and filmmakers attempted to come to grips with these questions.

Advocate and Witness

When faced with incomprehensible acts of violence, should the filmmaker be, asked Benedict Kingsbury, “an advocate like a lawyer, or a judge where there are no judges…for the responsibilities in each case are different.” Most filmmakers at the conference seemed to see themselves more often as witnesses, witnesses to history. Said acclaimed Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho, “Sometimes I feel like a small child waving a white flag because these trains are about to crash—but I’m too small and no-one can see me.” Indian documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan admitted to much the same feeling. Outraged by what he sees, the filmmaker tries to communicate this outrage to a larger public, hoping to show them “what really happened.” But most often, the crisis happens anyway.

Patwardhan’s now classic 1992 documentary, In the Name Of Ram, is a case in point. Shot in the months preceding the demolition of the Babri mosque in the city of Ayodhya, the film follows the buildup to this climactic event. As they march towards Ayodhya, Hindu militants contend that the mosque was built on the site where Lord Ram was born, and therefore has no right to be there. In the Name of Ram, which screened at the conference, follows the campaign to demolish a sixteenth century mosque at Ayodhya. Hindu militants contended that the mosque was built on the birthplace of Lord Ram, and so had no right to be there. Patwardhan encounters a range of people—from militant right-wing cadres to “ordinary” people who are trying to make sense of the events, to the Ayodhya temple priest, whose inclusive, tolerant Hinduism provides a sharp point of contrast with the fundamentalism of the cadres. He asks a group of Hindu activists, “When was Lord Ram born?” “Hundreds of thousands ago…no one can really tell,” a priest answers. But the irony of building a movement on the certitude of knowing where Ram was born, when nobody knows when he lives, seems to escape everyone Patwardhan talks to.

Years after the film was made, the eventual demolition of the mosque and the carnage that followed in its wake may seem inevitable. But at the time, Hindu fundamentalists were just transitioning from a radical fringe to a mainstream political force. The demolition seemed by no means a foregone conclusion. Patwardhan knew how perilously close a crisis was—he was there, but he could not get the film out to a larger public. The film was finally shown on television four years later, after Patwardhan won a court case against the government. To this day, Patwardhan remains convinced that the film could have made a difference.

Considered a pioneering figure in Indian documentary, Patwardhan has been often locked in battle with the state over censorship of his films. War and Peace (2002), which also screened at the conference, faced a similar story of censorship. Made in the wake of the Indian Government’s nuclear tests in Pokhran in 1998, and the militaristic fervor that followed it, War and Peace is an expansive, ambitious examination on what this turn to militarism means in the context of Gandhi’s legacy. It is also global in scope, examining the international causes and consequences of war and nuclearization, venturing into the “enemy” territory of Pakistan to talk to a range of people there. Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution (2004), about the 2002 massacre of Muslims in the western-Indian state of Gujarat, also faced an extended battle with the censors before it could finally be shown in India.

Embodied Memory

Being a witness is also about remembering. And what seemed to be striking in many of the films at the conference was the acutely embodied, physical nature of memory and the importance of place, in the stories people were able to tell. Garin Nugroho’s The Poet (Unconcealed Poetry) (2001), is shot entirely inside two prison cells, capturing the reality of prisoners trapped in a narrow, claustrophobic space. Nugroho’s film was the first Indonesian film to deal with the events of 1965-66, in which millions of members of the Indonesian Communist party were massacred in Acey by the Suharto regime. After decades of silence, the end of the Suharto regime opened up the possibility of coming to terms with a long-suppressed trauma. In the film, the “poet” of the title is Abraham Kadir, who plays himself. Kadir was an eye witness to the massacre, responsible for blindfolding prisoners before they were executed.

Now, decades later, he reconstructs those events with the help of other, local untrained actors. Kadir uses the medium of poetry, the traditional Acehnese “didong” poetic form, which blends music, dance, and song. While the confined space of the film recaptures the terror and sheer physical terror of those times, the use of didong seems to offer hope, pointing to the resilience of the Acehnese people, and the healing power that poetry, film, and other cultural forms can have. The film reflects Nugroho’s belief that film “must reveal the beauty and sensitivity of humanity—this is the basic idea of human rights.”

Lexy Junior Rambadeta’s Mass Grave (2001) is another attempt to come to terms with the violent legacy of the Suharto regime. In November 2000, human rights groups and the families of those killed in 1965-66 exhumed a mass grave in Wosonobo, Central Java. As family members finally found the remains of their loved ones, there was an outpouring of grief. The bodies seemed to provide direct evidence that the killings happened, because the actual extent of the massacre still remains disputed, half-hidden. The recovery of the physical remains also seems to enable the beginning of a process of mourning. Healing cannot happen unless there is acknowledgement—and it is now, with these films, that there has been some degree of acknowledgment.

In other films, victims of torture and abuse painfully visit, physically or mentally, the actual place and scene where they suffered. In Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution, a mother visits the field in which she had to hide behind bushes and watch her young daughters being raped and mutilated. In Aryo Danusiri’s A Village Goat Takes a Beating, (2000), a film that documents the torture of Acehnese villagers by the military, victims go back to the place where they had been tortured, physically reenacting the details of their torture. These moments seem to point to the power that film can have as evidence, as an advocacy tool for human rights work—watching people reenact the trauma they have been through has a visceral impact that is hard to turn away from.

In Sonia Jabbar’s Autumn’s Final Country (2003), four women from the conflict-ridden region of Kashmir tell stories of displacement and loss. In form, the film is structured as a series of fairly straight-forward interviews: the women talk directly to the camera about their lives and experiences. Indu, a middle-class Kashmiri Pandit was forced to flee her home in Srinagar along with many other Pandits, but can never forget her “homeland.” Zarina, a day laborer, has been trafficked all the way from Bangladesh to Kashmir. Shahnaz has been raped and used for their ends by Kashmiri militants and by the Indian army and police force. And Anju’s father has been left to die in a village that is supposed to be under the protection of the Indian army. While the women represent varied social, economic, and religious backgrounds, the stories they tell all attain a quality of astonishing intensity, gaining force because the trauma they have been threw requires such great courage in retelling. As a deliberate strategy, the filmmaker excluded images of violence from the film. Instead, she intersperses the interviews with scenes of Kashmir’s natural beauty. After all, before it became better known as a war zone, Kashmir was fabled for its physical beauty and serenity. The immediacy of the human body, the specific textures, sounds, and moods of places is a large part of what makes these films so powerful and so evocative of what has been lost.

Form and Narrative

Autumn’s Final Country was produced as evidence to be used in a court of law: the South Asia Court of Women in Dhaka. The fact that it was ultimately never shown in court because of complicated political reasons is another story. Aryo Danusiri’s Village Goat, which was commissioned by an NGO, may soon be used in court as evidence. And, Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution as well as Anand Patwardhan’s In the Name of Ram have been viewed by court commissions. Films, then, can certainly be used as a direct form of evidence in a court of law.

At the same time, the evocative power and complex richness of the filmed narrative continually exceeds the limits and boundaries that official and legal discourses may need to place on it. Filmmakers like Amar Kanwar, who often eschews more conventional form to experiment with different modes of story-telling, display a distinct sense of discomfort with any strictly instrumental understanding of film as evidence or testimony. Memory is always fragmented, narratives change. Assuming that film can have any direct access to “truth” can be na├»ve to say the least. Sometimes, telling the truth about a situation is about finding new ways of telling it, pushing the boundaries of what is accepted as testimony in a court of law. “Is there one way of rendering and presenting testimony, for instance, that is more accepted than others?” Kanwar asked. “If so, we have to contest that, we have to find newer forms of rendering testimony…and push for these forms to be accepted.”

Kanwar’s own films represented distinct engagements with suffering and testimony. To Remember, (2003) is an eight-minute meditation on the meaning of Gandhi’s legacy in the aftermath of the Gujarat carnage. Made without sound (because “too much had been said and argued at that time, and there were no words left), it focuses on images of people visiting Birla House, Gandhi’s memorial, and ends with a sudden, pointed curse at those who would unleash such violence. A Night of Prophecy (2003) traverses the margins, literal and metaphorical, of the modern Indian nation, from Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland, and Kashmir. In each region, the film focuses on music and poetry as expressions of the sorrow and anger of people who have long been marginalized and excluded from the Indian mainstream. The result is a rich evocation of time and history through medium and poetry, as well as an exploration of the role of cultural forms in sustaining protest, resistance, and a sense of community. The film itself exemplifies the cultural work that films can do, along with Garin Nugroho’s epic Opera Jawa, which screened later at the Asia Society.


The question of an audience (or lack of it) for documentary films was an important theme at the conference. Documentary filmmakers experience various forms of censorship: direct censorship by the state or other political forces, censorship by a market that deems documentaries as “unpopular,” and perhaps, to an extent, self-censorship. Filmmaker Sonia Jabbar said at one point, “I feel depressed when the films we make seem to have no impact—crises keep happening and no one gets punished. Nothing changes. It’s almost like we’re preaching to the converted.” And Anand Patwardhan warned, “I’m a little worried… (that) we get comfortable sometimes with the niche that we’re reduced to. But if we’re talking about the connection between documentary and human rights work, we don’t have the luxury of being comfortable in the niche. We can be quite satisfied with our own work and that is genuine and legitimate…but we have to push so that our films are actually able to change the political landscape.”

Yet, filmmakers also talked about pushing for new audiences: through the circulation of pirated copies, or by making creative use of new modes of online distribution. As Faye Ginsburg pointed out, the documentary has always had unpredictable and uncertain circulations; even if they circulate among niche audiences, the impact of these films is hard to circumscribe or determine. And in the end, there is no denying the power these films hold for the communities they belong to: as archive, as memory, as alternative history. While documentary filmmakers and human rights activists should certainly push for better means of distribution and circulation, the films will stand as powerful and compelling human documents.

And while documentary filmmakers and human rights activists certainly need to push for a better strategy and more means of distribution and circulation, the films themselves will stand as powerful and compelling human documents.