One Billion Eyes, a film festival organised in Chennai by the Prakriti Foundation screened 12 films this year. Reflecting on the craft of documentary film-making as a jury member has a lot to reveal…

This year I had the onerous task of being on the jury to select the award-winning film at “One Billion Eyes,” the annual documentary film festival organised by the Prakriti Foundation, Chennai which was held in August this year. In all, 12 films were screened. My role combined the functions of three types of viewers – of film lover, critic and jury member, who has to carefully evaluate all the films, and then assess them. The many complexities of documentary film-making, and the criteria involved in judging them, began to emerge.

Perceptions on documentary films have changed over the years. Everyone knows they are different from feature films in that they do not have the structure of a story-telling narrative. The function of truthfully documenting events, facts or ideas takes precedence and therefore the element of fiction (which is unreal) as opposed to representing reality, is low. However, many elements that are a part of the feature film also play an important part in the documentary film. The narrative, or text, while leaning towards truthfulness takes on dramatic suspension; character development and emotional expression take shape through many elements such as the quality and framing of visuals, clever editing, music, which reflects moods, external sounds and the play of shadow and light. All these give new dimensions to the presentation of documentary elements. So, the dividing line between the documentary and feature films is increasingly perceived as a blur. The style of judging a documentary film should, therefore, change accordingly.

Challenges

The films screened at “One Billion Eyes” were at different levels of competence. There were experienced well-trained film makers as well as rank amateurs entering the fray. Apart from this, watching 12 films for around nine hours, not in the seclusion of a special viewing room, but along with the viewing public (and that too a very noisy, undisciplined and uncaring public) turned it into a more demanding and tedious job. My fellow jury members – A. Tyabji and Jayachandran – made the task a little less difficult because of their serious, dedicated and intelligent approach to films.

I realised that the most important parameter in judging a film is its form. The underlying aesthetics, structure and composition take precedence over all other factors, whatever genre the film may belong to. By merely choosing an interesting or arresting theme, the filmmaker does not fulfil his/her function. The manner of presentation using the potential of the medium itself needs to be worked at consistently. In judging a film, the dividing line between the documentary and feature film becomes hazy; we cannot have rigid, old fashioned norms in evaluating films. There is an interchange of functions – the documentary can have a story line, the feature may take on the quality of documentation. So, we had to give up our set ideas on what a documentary film should be and be more open minded about the quality of films.

Sadly most of the films in this festival had underestimated the potential of film as a craft. Very little was evident, in some films, of the filmmaker's craft, point of view and understanding of the medium itself. If mere documentation, bereft of any signs of craft or skills, was all that was needed to make a good documentary film, it can only serve the purpose of reference work to researchers (like reference books What I felt was that many of the filmmakers lacked the basic understanding of film and its potential as a medium. They had a limited view of what documentary filmmaking is all about. They did not take into account that the act of filming has to be different from mere recording or photographing of events and ideas. It is a complete art form which uses technology in a special way to bring out a special kind of aesthetics.

The intentions of the organisers in holding such a festival are laudable. It is a chance to showcase documentary films that do not have a regular platform. It also develops audience awareness to the importance of documentary films as a genre. But the organisation has to be substantially improved if it is to have greater overall impact.

Need for planning

Better preparatory material, better management of audience reactions, more time for discussions, special second viewings of films by jury members, better discipline in the selection of films (such as not accepting more than one film from a filmmaker and not mixing video documentaries of events along with proper documentary films) would have taken this festival to a different level, and given it a special place in the growing arena of film festivals.

The positive factors were the two good films chosen as the winners: “The holy duels of Hola Mohalla” by Vani Subramaniam and “Almoriana” by Vasudha Joshi, which won the award of Rs.25,000. They aroused our curiosity and held us spell-bound through the intelligent and efficient use of craft and instinct.

Incidentally, both are financed by the PSBT section of the Doordarshan and that gives hope for public sector or government venture supports for documentary films. The presence and cooperation of intelligent and sensitive jury members also made it a memorable occasion.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012