The story that is not on camera determines the story that is on camera, says acclaimed filmmaker Sarvnik Kaur as she talks about the challenges of documentary filmmaking. Her latest documentary, ‘Against the Tide’, that won the special jury award at Sundance Film Festival, is a moving portrait of Koli fishermen.
The story of displacement of her two main characters is her own story as well. Though Sarvnik only heard stories of Partition, and was just a year old when her grandparents’ house was burnt during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi, the film became a means to deal with her own ‘passed-on trauma’.
The idea occurred to her when she read a newspaper report of a road being constructed in Mumbai which would displace the Kolis from their village. She was working at that point of time on her film, ‘Soz: A Ballad of Maladies’, a story about the music of resistance in Kashmir and the pain of living in militarised zones.
Aghast at the fishermen’s displacement ‘in the name of development’, she decided to pitch for the cause of Kolis. As she saw the world of fishermen through their eyes, the film became a series of conversations between two fishermen, her lead character Ganesh and his friend Rakesh, whose perspectives were as different as chalk and cheese. Yet, the idea of sustainability came through with throbbing force.
“Small and medium farmers and fishermen are feeding 70 per cent of the world, yet, instead of being incentivised for sustainable practices, they are being penalised,” she rues.
About the popularity of this genre, she does not agree that India is not a documentary viewing country. In fact, she has had full-house, enthused screenings of her documentaries. Still, she agrees, “Distribution is an issue and makers are often left to themselves to devise ways to engage with the audience.” She recalls how her National Award-winning film ‘Soz’ was not broadcast on Doordarshan.
Awards do matter and international recognition brings in more attention, but personally she finds the idea of competition corrosive. As a jury member at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, she wished to award all documentary makers, as she knows it is a herculean task to make one. Physical hurdles, like shooting in the rough seas, are the least of her problems. What is truly challenging is “building trust with your subject as is not easy, for, they are real people, and you can’t rush it through”. ‘Against the Tide’ was six years in the making.
In a world where we are constantly being sold the idea of killing ambition, she would not care to fall in the trap of up-scaling. “Rather,” she believes, “being ordinary is such a gift.” She would like to tell the stories of ordinary people, but in an extraordinary way, bringing out the complexities hidden beneath.
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