- The Indian films that premiered in the recent All Living Things Environmental Film Festival (ALT EFF) highlight complex environmental challenges and the lives and livelihoods affected by such issues.
- The films dealt with human-wildlife conflict, the lives of fisherfolk and the environmental complications that arise with road developments.
- Filmmakers who approach such complex issues are optimistic about the role of non-apocalyptic environmental films, that sensitively handle the trope to bring awareness and encourage action.
A concrete mixer mixing construction materials for laying roads and the cattle grazing what’s left of the grass in a greying land, become co-authors in the ethnographic documentary Not Just Roads, directed by Nitin Bathla and Klearjos Eduardo Papanicolaou. Following the development of the Dwarka Expressway in Delhi, that was first conceptualised in 2007 to decongest traffic and ensure better connectivity, the 67-minute film uses a combination of aesthetics and ethnography to communicate the stories of humans and non-humans whose lives are intertwined with the big road being built.
The Dwarka Expressway cuts through a land with many ecological commons originally inhabited by villagers, herders, and the working class. Now, real estate developments are sold to the middle class who invested in the high-rise buildings adjacent to the incomplete highway; those who invested in the projects hope that the road work gets completed soon.
The documentary film was part of the 2021 edition of the All Living Things Environmental Film Festival (ALT EFF) that ran online between October 9 and 17, featured 44 environmental films from 31 countries.
Among the vast curation that delved into different subjects like wildlife migration, poaching, conservation, toxic trash and more, were a variety of Indian films that premiered this year and brought to limelight the issues surrounding human-wildlife conflict, challenges in the lives of fisherfolk, and the nature of city expansions and its environmental and social implications.
Questioning development that contributes to environmental and social violence
Environmental films have become a mature visual genre in recent years. Their effectiveness as a means of stimulating discussion about complex environmental issues, results from the flexibility and attractiveness of the medium and the dynamic changes in the methods of storytelling.
Bathla, who spent almost a year on the field interacting with different people, says that the atmosphere in Dwarka evokes a sense of eeriness. This is reflected in the sound effects and the editing style of the film. Visuals of ghost towns with dilapidated houses, construction workers laying the roads and hard at work, pastoralists left with nowhere to take their cattle, farmers with shrinking agricultural fields, determined salesmen trying to sell properties, worried conservationists trying to protect the biodiversity, interspersed with the sound of machines at work, activists protesting to save the Aravalli Park and the rum music of a cricket, make the film an intriguing watch. Not Just Roads aims to build cross solidarities between all the parties and bring awareness about what happens when intensive capitalism inflicts violence on the environment.
Commenting on the changing style of environmental films, the directors respond, “We’re entering a new world of environmentalism, where there are new ideas. Some of them are not apocalyptic, but propositional. We’re going to see more environmental films of every shade. More films are trying to showcase the challenges of everyday life, which is something to be encouraged.”
Fisherfolk in troubled waters
Filmmaker Giridhar Nayak used to frequent the fishing communities in coastal Karnataka for his photo projects. He soon realised that there’s a complex issue skulking under the ocean waters, that could be brought to the limelight with his camera. He went to observe the lives of fisherfolk and got on the boats with them to record glimpses of their everyday lives. His short film Dhivarah (Way of Life), in the cinéma vérité style (sometimes called observational cinema), showcases the hardships faced by the fishing community. Climate change makes it harder to catch fish that migrate to cooler waters and a slowly decaying industry complicates the livelihood of the fishermen. They must go out into the sea facing a worrying unpredictability. Woven with bytes from fishermen who feel hopeless about their situation, elements of faith and culture, and statistics from news reports about declining catch, Dhivarah makes one reflect about the communities whose livelihoods are dependent on nature.
“We aren’t aware of the everyday helplessness of the fishermen. Their occupation is challenging. Through the visual medium, I wanted to make the audience feel empathetic about their lives and work on solutions that include every section of the society. The fisherfolk are one of the first people to get affected by human activities. We need to be conscious about our choices and way of life,” says Nayak.
Mitigating human-wildlife conflict
To mitigate the human-leopard conflict in the Himalayan mountain forests, one man from Shimla shoots the leopards with his camera, another man from Uttarakhand shoots them with his gun. Shoot That Leopard is a film that sensitively showcases these men at work. The filmmaker Sohail Jafri first came to know about Ashwani Kumar, the protagonist, who works for the government at Shimla, filming leopards in their habitats and screening them in the villages around Shimla to spread awareness. Kumar says he believes that people need to understand the leopard to not be scared. Jafri then meets Lakhpat Singh Rawat, an official hunter of the forest department in Uttarakhand, who is also a schoolteacher. Rawat has shot almost 50 leopards (perceived to be man-eaters) to protect the people. He considers his work a social service.
In the hotspots of conflict, due to habitat destruction and the leopards following the human trails into the villages, the residents live in constant fear and hesitate to let their children go out alone or leave their pets outside. The film also features the voices of wildlife experts and researchers who explain that the human-wildlife conflict is mainly a conflict between people. It’s more about human management than animal management, they say.
Jafri wanted to explore beyond the issues and present a solution in the film. He found that solution in Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, where the forest department officials created a concrete plan to reduce and eventually stop human-wildlife conflicts. Collaborating with the citizens living around the national park, journalists, scientists and wildlife researchers, the forest department has successfully created an environment where humans and leopards live together in harmony, which is highlighted in the film. “When we have a successful model, the forest department, wildlife scientists and other stakeholders should come together and share the best practices to make it work in conflict areas,” shares Jafri, adding that these attempts are already in progress.
About the role of environmental films in today’s world, Jafri notes, “These stories are waiting to be told. With the latest equipment and new storytelling styles, environment and wildlife cinema is attracting more people than ever before and it’s interesting to see the developments.”
A fishing community’s fight for their right to commons
Another film screened at the Alt Eff festival, Sagarputra: Offspring of the sea, directed by Pooja Das Sarkar, opens with a shot where the fishermen of Trombay Koliwada ready their boats and nets at night. “When the moon is high in the sky and the water stops rising, we know then that it is the correct time to cast our fishing nets. The moon guides our work,” says a fisherman from the Koli community, an indigenous community of Mumbai, which has been fishing in the Thane creek for 500 years.
The Trombay Koliwadas have been struggling to get the Maharashtra government to recognise their claim on their customary fishing commons. Their efforts have been stifled as Mumbai’s property values have risen and the pressure to commodify lands has escalated. Mumbai’s public bus company BEST has acquired 25,000 sq. m. of Trombay Koliwada’s fishing commons for a bus depot. The community continues to resist the enclosure of commons. Sagarputra has elucidated this crisis by showcasing how the land is being used by the community for both fishing and non-fishing purposes. “What I like about the community is that they still fight for their land, they don’t give up!” shares Sarkar.
The film is based on research by Lalitha Kamath and Gopal Dubey from the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Sarkar, who works on issue-based films, believes in the power of the audio-visual medium to bring awareness about research that is otherwise contained within academic circles. She says, “Cinema is a conduit between academics and the public. Translating such research into films, takes the issue to the masses who wouldn’t normally understand how infrastructural development might affect the livelihood of the fishing communities.”
The challenges of people living outside Protected Areas
Your Tiger Our Forest is a documentary directed by Ishan Sharma that transports the audience to Brahmapuri, Maharashtra, a hotspot for human-tiger conflicts. The film explores the anthropological side of the human-wildlife conflict by interacting with the residents who live outside the protected areas, wildlife scientists and forest officials. Agricultural lands are situated close to the forests and the villagers depend on the forest for resources. But due to tiger dispersal through the corridors beyond the protected areas and habitat fragmentation, the conflict has increased over the years.
“Relocate the tigers elsewhere and we can farm more comfortably!” shares a villager who has been practicing agriculture for 25 years. This echoes the voice of many residents of Brahmapuri who want the tiger removed from the forest. “Thus, the title,” remarks Sharma. But relocation has severe challenges and implications too, according to wildlife experts.
“Placing local communities on the same pedestal as the forest department and the wildlife scientists is essential for bringing solutions to human-wildlife conflict. Films can bring awareness and generate conversation, but ground-level action is what will bring a change. Right now, the people of Brahmapuri need a solution,” Sharma concludes.
Banner image: A still from dhīvaraḥ (Way of life).