Lone ranger

Seasoned documentary filmmaker Sanjay Barnela, the 2014 Prithvi Ratna Awardee, tells the author about his journey in environmental filmmaking

January 29, 2014 08:35 pm | Updated May 13, 2016 01:08 pm IST - New Delhi

Sanjay Barnela

Sanjay Barnela

Since 2003, the CMS Vatavaran Prithvi Award has been given to filmmakers whose work has brought about changes in perception, practice and policy with regard to environment. This year, at the seventh CMS Vatavaran Environment and Wildlife Film Festival and Forum, the award will be conferred on filmmaker Sanjay Barnela. A founder member of Moving Images, a Delhi-based media production team comprising filmmakers and academic researchers, Barnela has, over two decades, made documentaries on a range of environmental issues, at the core of all of which is “the politics of the environment – the politics that determine outcomes where competing interests lay claim to scarce natural resources.”

While “River Taming Mantras”, “highlights the misery and loss induced by breaches in embankments”, creating in its wake an army of migrants, “Following the Rhythms” focuses attention on Rajaji National Park “where the government has unsuccessfully tried to resettle a nomadic pastoral community, the Van Gujjars in permanent settlements.” “Village of Dust, City of Water”, which won ‘Best Environment feature’ (Antelope award) at Wildlife Asia film festival, 2007, held in Singapore, looks at social exploitation over access to water.

The filmmaker joined Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology last year, and set up Srishti Films, a production house at the school, where the idea is to “expose and train the next generation of filmmakers in issues related to the environment. To encourage critical thinking and train them on how to get under the skin of the subject rather than looking at it in superficial ways.”

Excerpts from an interview:

How did you arrive at documentary filmmaking?

Well I was always interested in still-photography, perhaps because I had an uncle who was a professional photographer in Jaipur. Post-college, I started working on audio-visuals – basically, we'd put together slide shows, using transparencies, and add in a voice over. More advanced versions involved multiple projectors! I was working with Amit Jayaram, someone from the advertisement world, who introduced me to CENDIT, Centre for Development of Instructional Technology, an NGO that worked on community media. I guess that was the start of my making documentary films. CENDIT was a buzzing, radical place that combined training programmes for students and community activists, producing theme-based documentary films. I made my first environmental films while at CENDIT. But I have also been a keen trekker and climber, and over time I sought to combine my interest in mountains, conservation and documentary film-making. A lot of my work is located in the mountains, including films on climbing, pastoralism, wildlife-human conflicts, forest conservation, and the links between culture and conservation. I teamed up with my friend and climbing partner, VasantSaberwal who was then doing research in the alpine meadows of Kangra and Chamba valleys for his doctoral thesis on the Gaddi herders of Himachal Pradesh. We produced our first independent documentary titled, “Pastoral Politics” in 1995.

In the last two decades that you have been active as a filmmaker, how has your documentary practice changed in the context of the environment?

The documentary practice has changed significantly in many aspects. When we first started, much of the discussion revolved around questions of community involvement in wildlife or forest conservation. If you look at conservation debates of the time, much of the focus was on things like Joint Forest Management or on the wildlife debate that pitted communities against tigers. Discussions have shifted from JFM to the Forest Rights Act, and the need for communities to have control over forest resources, not just being part of a co-management of these resources. But at the same time, there seems to be a growing presence of corporate India seeking to extract minerals from those parts of the country that are also, in general, heavily forested. In some ways, the stakes over these resources seem to have grown exponentially, with growing evidence of communities attempting to assert their rights.

This has brought them in conflict with corporates seeking to retain control over mineral-rich areas. Perhaps this confrontation is a larger reflection of the divergent growth rates in India and in Bharat? And with this growing sense of corporate control over natural resources, there is a growing sense of secrecy around these issues, and it is increasingly difficult to get access to locations and to authorities who might be willing to come on camera. As filmmakers, we try and ensure that we get the voices of as many stakeholders as possible in the interest of making a balanced film, as most conservation issues are heavily contested anyway. But the game has changed with the arrival of industry. It comes in with money power and seems faceless.

What are you working on next?

I have started work on a series of films on the outcomes of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) – an Act that seeks to correct historical injustices whereby forest dependent communities have been denied individual and community forest rights, displaced by conservation and development projects. The FRA is intended to give rights of control, management and use of forests and resources to meet economic and cultural needs. But the act has been poorly implemented – with only a few communities having been given the control they have sought. This new work will explore the rationale for the FRA, and the role it plays and could play in empowering communities to conserve and manage their own forests.

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