Sunday, January 1, 2012

Collaboration Beyond the Film

For the past six years my wife, Shashwati Talukdar, and I have been working on the documentary film "Please Don't Beat Me, Sir!." One of the reasons the film took so long to make was because of our commitment to a collaborative process, so we were thrilled when, this past November, we were awarded the 2011 Jean Rouch Award for Collaborative Filmmaking by the Society for Visual Anthropology. Collaboration was central to the project from the very beginning, and we employed a variety of methods (such as filming reactions to public screenings and having our subjects enact short skits) which were directly inspired by Jean Rouch, so the award means a lot to us. I'm currently revising a paper on the collaborative aspects of the film, especially focusing on how the colonial legacy of India's Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs) shaped the nature of our collaboration. Because this paper is still a work in progress I don't wish to discuss those issues here. Instead, I want to highlight one aspect of collaborative filmmaking which I think deserves more attention: ways in which to extend collaboration beyond the filmmaking process itself.

There are three areas in which we have tried to extend the collaborative process beyond the film: fundraising, distribution and advocacy. Fundraising is perhaps the hardest, and we couldn't have done it without the help of our producer Henry Schwarz who helped us file the paperwork to establish a 401( c)3 non-profit which can be used to fundraise for development and theater activities being done by the subjects of our film. This, in turn, wouldn't be of any use if we didn't have a partner organization in India: the Bhasha Research and Publication Center.  This organization, Vimukta, exists so that people in the US can make tax-deductible donations online to support the theater and community development efforts of Budhan Theatre, the subjects of our film. But because Budhan Theatre is not registered to receive money in this way, we have to work together with Bhasha to funnel them the money.

This is all very complicated and in order to ensure that everything was in place before the film was released we had to start setting things up years ago. Nor does it end there. Budhan Theatre does great work in their community and in other neighboring communities, only some of which is documented in our film, but they are not used to dealing with the competitive world of non-profit fundraising in the US. We have had to work with them on capacity building efforts to ensure that they can update their blog and send quarterly statements, etc. all the things our US donors will want to see. But in terms of the actual programs we support, everything is dependent on the work Budhan Theatre is doing and the programs they suggest to us as being suitable for international fundraising. For the past three years we've been supporting their community library and informal classroom, but now we are working with them on a program to institutionalize the children's theater program by providing a stipend to three young-adult actors who would share the responsibility of coaching the children. We had to start planning months ago in order to ensure that the start of this campaign would coincide with the launch of the film. [We will officially launch fundraising for this program in February, but you can donate now if you would like to help, or "like" our Facebook Page to be notified when the campaign officially starts.]

Please Don't Beat Me, Sir! Movie Poster by kerim, on Flickr

Distribution is the second area where collaboration is important. In the case of India's DNTs, it means thinking about ways to reach a community of over sixty million people who are largely illiterate, fragmented, and dispersed all over the country. We are currently trying to raise funding to have our film dubbed in various Indian languages, especially Southern languages, so that in communities where people don't understand Hindi and can't read subtitles, they can still appreciate the film. In doing so we are again seeking to work with our partner organization, Bhasha, which already does important work publishing and translating texts in a variety of Indian languages. We also would like to have members of Budhan Theatre travel with the film to these communities in order to not just show the film, but do theater performances and workshops with the communities in conjunction with the screening. Such screenings and workshops would have an important advocacy element as the DNT community in India still lacks a strong unified identity as DNTs.

Finally, we also see having the film shown on television as an essential part of our advocacy efforts. It is true that these days anyone can upload their film to YouTube for the world to see, but it isn't the case that everyone will watch every YouTube film - especially documentary films. To really reach a wide audience it is still essential to get on television (with different versions planned for Indian Television and abroad). Which meant raising funds to pay for top-notch post production work on the film. We ended up having our sound mixed at the top audio house in Taiwan, the same place that mixed sound for filmmakers like Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, and our master tape was made at the the top post production houses in Taiwan, since we wanted to work with the best colorist in the country.

While most academics are happy to have their films shown in film festivals and in the classroom, getting on TV requires attending film festivals, markets, and pitching sessions. It means thinking like an independent filmmaker--which is what Shashwati is. It helps to have a partner familiar with that world.  For Shashwati, attending these events is part of what she does professionally. We worked hard to make a film which we felt could appeal to both academic and popular audiences. We thought about story and narrative in a way that we might not have if we had simply been thinking of the academic market. In that sense, I think a commitment to "public anthropology" resulted in a better film.

P. Kerim Friedman

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