What is so feminist about the documentary film?

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Feminism and Documentary have almost always shared a commitment toward telling the ‘truth,’ presenting the ‘reality’ of their subjects’ lives and experiences and therefore, presumably leading ultimately to ‘empowerment.’ This is especially true in India where the documentary film genre remains inextricably tied to that which is explicitly political (the ‘hungry’ films, ‘Third Cinema’ so on and so forth). It is only in the past decade that one sees more abstract, ‘personal’ films seeing an entrance and challenging the norm. This shift from the explicitly political to the more intimate representations of sexuality, bodies and other such ‘personal’ issues remains, sadly, largely un-theorized. This, despite a number of documentaries made about those issues. Most scholarly excursions have focused exclusively on masculanist political films made by men and films that speak about women’s experiences are lumped under that most amorphous of modern categories – Third World – film. As part of my research, I am looking at how Indian feminist filmmakers have defined the discourses of gender & sexuality. Films like Shohini Ghosh’s Tales of the Night Fairies (2002) and Paromita Vohra’s Unlimited Girls (2002) are just two examples of such engagements. These films stand out for me because of their departure from certain tried and tested narrative strategies. For instance, Shohini Ghosh’s presence as filmmaker-subject in Tales complicates easy understandings of the lives of the other subjects (the Shonagachi sex workers from Kolkatta). She blurs the lines between the personal and political and that blurred lines is really indicative of a new aesthetic in the Indian documentary

Tales of the Night Fairies.

Tales… cameraperson Sabeena Gadihoke interviews Shikha.

What is really interesting for me is to see that experimentation that has gone on in the past, especially those radical fellows at the early 1950s Films Division – Pramod Pati, Vijay B Chandra, SNS Sastry and Biren Das – who experimented with found footage, animation, etc to make their short films. That mixing of styles was largely absent from the Indian documentary film after that period, giving the genre that sad, enduring tag of being boring. With greater access to technology and changing perceptions of the nature of the documentary, I can only hope that this bitch is the new black, yo.

Paromita Vohra’s latest short film Where’s Sandra? (watch the film here), although not terribly experimental, is one that I loved and examines how Christian/ Anglo Indian women have been sexualized on and off screen. The ‘Sandra from Bandra’ phenomenon is examined and I love that the filmmaker Vohra’s voice is present – troubling that pesky insistence upon ‘objectivity.’

sandra.jpg
Paromita Vohra’s Where’s Sandra

2 Responses to “What is so feminist about the documentary film?”

  1. ambu Says:

    Thumba chennagide nimma writing!

  2. swati Says:

    come and have some more tequila shots with me.

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