While anxieties related to climate change, pollution, man-wildlife conflict, and other biodiversity and environment-related issues are growing each day, unlike the socio-political concerns these hardly find a reflection in popular culture, especially in Hindi cinema, the medium people seem to respond to and get influenced by the most in this country. India is yet to make movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), Snowpiercer (2014), or Mother! (2017).
But, it seems things are changing albeit slowly. Actor-director Rishab Shetty’s latest release has taken the nation by storm, Kantara talks about forest land encroachment among other things. Last year we saw a nuanced take on forestry and man-wildlife conflict in Amit Masurkar’s brilliantly-made Vidya Balan-starrer, Sherni. And then Sherdil: The Pilibhit Saga. Srijit Mukherji’s film starring Pankaj Tripathi had its heart at the right place: it questioned the tilted ecological balance and spoke about the impacts of urbanization and man-animal conflict. It seems that after the small-town Hindi belt stories, forests and mountains are emerging as the next interesting backdrop that filmmakers are looking at, especially for thrillers. Away from the concrete jungle, cinema is taking baby steps towards the comfort of nature. All Living Things Environmental Film Festival (ALT EFF), which is holding its 2022 edition in a hybrid format, is a film festival that focuses exclusively on such films.
The Indian documentary space has been seeing some very interesting works over the years. In fact, the top prize for the best documentary at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival was bagged by Indian filmmaker Shaunak Sen for All That Breathes, a story set against the backdrop of the increasing Delhi pollution.
“India has been making wildlife and nature documentaries for quite a while now and there has been a thriving ecosystem of filmmakers and audiences for the same,” says Kunal Khanna, who helms the ALT EFF – All Living Things Environmental Film Festival, an international film festival that is on its third chapter with a whopping 55-film line-up.
“There is a substantial increase in the breadth of topics being covered within the environmental theme. Alongside this, we have also seen the creativity in storytelling and a growing level of finesse within the environmental film-making industry in the country, which is extremely exciting to see. Over the last few years, the climate catastrophe continues to become more and more present and it’s only natural that the storytellers and filmmakers of our time weave these messages in their craft or better yet make it the centerpiece. Because awareness is the first step for action,” elaborates Kunal.
From a film set against the backdrop of the increasing Delhi pollution (All That Breathes) to focusing on the biodiversity around Gurugram (Neighbird), from the story of Gandhian eco-activist working on a food justice movement (The Seeds of Vandana Shiva) to the story of tribal women who stood up against timber mafia (Thengapalli), there is no dearth of variety in the themes and concerns these movies are focusing on. And the inspirations are as varied.
“For anyone who has lived in Delhi in recent years will know that the air itself has become palpable, heavy, visceral, opaque, concrete kinds of entity. The spread and use of air purifiers have become a part of us. And I was very interested in making something that communicated this texture of greyness that all of us are familiar with now,” says Shaunak, of his documentary that has won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and the Golden Eye award for the best documentary at 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
Manon Verchot and Sanshey Biswas, the journalist couple who made Neighbird based on their experiences during the lockdown. “We never noticed the incredible bird biodiversity in our neighborhood in Gurugram, India. Then the pandemic hit, and all we could do was stare out of the window. And we started to notice that there were more than 40 species of birds just beside our apartment building. We began recording. Over the course of a few months, we had enough to start making a documentary about how birds are adapting as green spaces shrink in the National Capital Region,” says Manon. Their award-winning documentary, which was released in December end last year, has been screened in multiple festivals.
From urban wildlife to urban migration: “This film is based in my father’s village in the foothills of the Himalayas. A few years back when I saw that my village was almost being abandoned I felt the need to tell the story of people who were affected by rural-to-urban migration,” says Srishti Lakhera, whose debut documentary, Ek Tha Gaon is about the handful of people left in a ghost village in the Himalayan foothills, while the rest of the population have migrated to the cities for better opportunities. She did extensive field research and academic research in the history and anthropology of the region to make this Garhwali and Hindi (with English subtitles) documentary.
It seems documentaries are the format of choice for filmmakers working with stories related to the environment, biodiversity, and climate change. “Documentaries do an incredible job of providing perspective into an issue, person, or subject matter. Good documentaries can be very creative, capturing the true essence of the situation, and balancing it with keeping the audience glued and entertained. Climate change, its repercussions and our evolution and response to it is all unraveling in real time, things are changing quickly. And documentaries are a superb medium to communicate this, and hence is often the format of choice,” explains Kunal.
But Srishti thinks that the time is ripe for such topics to go mainstream. “This is my first film where I followed my instinct to make something personal but for the next film, I do think about the commercial aspect and how to modify one’s project for reaching more audience. I do think now one can bring little heard subjects to the mainstream movies platform given that the audience is hungry for newer content. ”
Even Shounak is very much open to the idea of working with fiction in this space. “This film required a shape that allowed it to be more abstract, and poetical and I thought it was better contained in the format of non-fiction. Maybe I will do something on ecology, climate change in a fiction format in the future, it’s not like I have closed the door on it,” says Shounak. However, he adds, “I don’t actually think mainstream films necessarily have a wider constituency. A lot of the conversation that is happening in our film is because it won at the Sundance and at Cannes. Whereas, there are dime a dozen mainstream films that get made and don’t open up such conversations.”
But is it extra difficult for filmmakers to work with environment-related issues? “I don’t think it’s particularly difficult making films on the environment in India. Given the situation in Delhi, this awareness is not something we can look away from. Having said that, there’s a certain kind of environmental film I don’t feel very strongly about, I feel films, which have a lot of gloom-and-doom kind of bleak mentality, do a disservice than it does good. I wanted to make something creative and emotionally moving. The main challenge was to find a format that was unconventional and surprising, and able to use a toolkit of cinema where people who are uninterested in the subject of the environment should also get hooked in,” says Shounak.
According to Srishti, the genre has picked up in recent years and has also found newer platforms in the OTTs. “I don’t think it’s easy to create art anywhere in the world, it’s only your conviction that makes the art happen otherwise it can very well not exist. In recent times environment documentaries in India are picking up momentum, more and more people now understand the importance of talking about climate and OTT has also provided a platform for filmmakers,” says Srishti.
Social media has also opened up multiple opportunities to reach a wider audience. “We chose to publish our documentary on YouTube so that it wouldn’t be behind a paywall. It was important to us as journalists that anyone curious about urban nature could view our story, and perhaps even start viewing their own neighborhood in new ways. To us, YouTube is as mainstream as it gets. There is a wide diversity of creators and content on YouTube. But there’s also a lot of noise. That’s where film festivals are crucial for helping highlight stories that might resonate with a wider audience. Even if the algorithm doesn’t think so,” says Manon.
Vandana Menon, whose 8 min 20 sec-short, Thengapalli, co-directed by Vandana Menon, Vivek Sangwan, and Debashish Nandi, focuses on community-based forest management systems, points out that to become conversation starters, it is important that these films reach a wider audience. And film festivals also help with that. “We firmly believe that films such as these are important and can help start a discussion only if they’re also given back to the community. The narrative can change only if there are two approaches- one is through film festivals that take it to a wider audience to raise awareness not just among policymakers but also among regular people. Secondly, this can be done through screenings at the grassroots level.”
Shounak thinks that festivals go a long way for small indie films in general. “It makes it a part of the conversation, people see it, and you have reviews and press. It makes it enter rooms that it might not have hopes of entering otherwise. More than anything, festivals like Sundance, etc initiate a conversation with OTT platforms. Unless you’re with a legacy studio or a platform itself, these are all stepping stones which are very important,” he points out.
He dismisses the popular myth that films that get critical acclaim at festivals can’t have mainstream glory. “As a filmmaker, the hope is to start a conversation, festivals are also helpful in that. But these are not exclusive binaries, just because a film is a festival film it doesn’t stop becoming a widely seen film in the OTT space,” points out Shounak who hopes that when his film drops on HBO early next year, it will get a large number of the audience not only in India but also abroad. “It’s not like I have opted for a red pill of festival obscurity as opposed to a mainstream constituency, as opposed to the blue pill that only has the audience and not festival prestige. These are not opposing thoughts and it’s possible to have both,” he chortles.
All Living Things Environmental Film Festival (ALT EFF), a film festival focused on sustainability and the environment that has become a conversation starter, has just begun its 2022 edition. Held in a hybrid format, with virtual as well as physical screenings, this year’s lineup has 55 films. People can register (it is ‘’pay-as-you-feel’ registration) for the virtual festival till the 26th and even those who register on the last day will get a unique link and they can continue watching films for 10 days from the day of registration. One can also participate in the physical events and talks being held in various parts of the country.
This Saturday (26th November) there’s a screening of AYA by Simon Coulibaly Gillard at Alliance Francaise, Theosophy Hall, Churchgate at 4:45 pm. This film from Belgium focuses on the effects of climate change on indigenous lands. It is a poignant tale of a girl, Aya, who refuses to leave her home on the island of Lahou despite rising water levels.
Registration link: https://watch.eventive.org/alteff22