True cinema


A democracy is where there is space for every kind of voice to be heard. Take for instance, the experimental film festival organised in Kolkota, second year in a row. This festival gives space to all kinds of cinematic voices, says Shoma A. Chatterji, as she describes how this festival came to be, and why it’s imperative that it continues.

The feature film and documentary cinema industry is too structured and straitjacketed to allow for much pushing of borders to embrace new ideas of expression and experimentation. Besides, these industries – corporate films, feature films, documentary films, educational films and commercial ads are constricted and controlled to a large extent by production houses, distribution networks and exhibition networks in an ambience that is predominantly patriarchal. In the changing scenario, the entry and percolation of video and digital is allowing a range of economically viable experimentation through the audiovisual medium for any and every present and potential audience. “However, digital is yet to attain the qualitative excellence of celluloid so we have a new kind of image in terms of tones, texture, etc., that are producing a new aesthetics that is leading to the creation of a new kind of cinema,” says Madhuja Mukherjee who has created an international experimental film festival that is as amazing in its range as it is in its expressive potential.

The Common Task, a film screened at this unique festival

The Common Task, a film screened at this unique festival

Madhuja, who teaches Film Studies at the Jadavpur University and is also an experimental filmmaker and an installation artist who uses cinema in different and novel forms, says that the whole idea of the festival “was prompted by my experiences at the Rotterdam Festival in 2012 and my own inclination towards making experimental films. I needed a framework and the TENT (acronym for ‘Theatre for Experiments in New Technologies’) project is geared towards creating an interactive platform which will encourage, train and support inter-media artists and experimental filmmakers to expand the existing frameworks of arts packages.”

The festival also included two different and disparate installations that widened the canvas of the word ‘cinema’ to reach out to implicate larger issues of language, form, and more importantly, technique specially with the rapid strides technology has brought into cinema. One of these installations is called Chromozone by Taxi created jointly by Suman and Saurav. It is an interactive installation that produces a cinematic environment by using projection and light installations that gets an added dimension when viewers are encouraged to traverse the space and click “selfies”. Madhuja’s own installation which was on show at the festival is a very interesting curatorial art project (See box).

Films came in from the Berlinale Forum (Germany), from India Foundation for the Arts (Bangalore), and from Difference Screen (UK). ‘Memory of North East’, a section of films exploring different manifestations of love, another section called ‘Kolkata Shorts’, one called ‘City Videos’ and a few award-winning films from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, were among other individual explorations. For the purposes of screening also, the organisers are looking at informal, personal and individual spaces that would lend themselves better to this kind of cinema where technique is the agency, the strategy, the means of expression, the form of content creating a completely new language in cinema. This also precludes every kind of censorship and commercial compromise.

Challenging the “Friday release” formula
Her definition of experimental cinema is, “Anything that challenges the ‘Friday Release’ framework. It is any cinema that is produced independently, that deviates from classical narratives, that detracts from preconceived dimensions of footage and aesthetics.” In other words, an experimental film is that which is ideologically challenging that includes features, shorts, video art, playful documentaries and any form that forces us to see the world of cinema from a completely different perspective. For, this annual festival is run on almost zero budget, where everyone pitches in through volunteering both service and kind such as venue, screen, video or digital projector etc. Madhuja herself made an experimental film called Carnival that was part of the competitive section of the OSIAN Festival held in Delhi some years ago.The film went over the heads of the viewers because it was born ahead of its time.

What exactly does “experimental cinema” signify? Some answers to this question came across through many of the films chosen for screening at the 2nd Little Cinema International Festival for Experimental Films and Media Art that concluded in Kolkata recently. The scepticism and nervousness among the audience was soon dissipated by the way the films unfolded in terms of narrating an experience, a perspective, an ideology through technique, instead of through story or character or a linear structure.

Madhuja’s curatorial project
National Instruments Limited (NIL) was a public sector company located in Jadavpur, Kolkata. It was engaged in the design, development, and manufacture of fine opto-mechanical and opto-electronic instruments for a variety of end-users.
In 1992 however, NIL was registered as a sick industry. At its peak, the spacious premises, covering about ten acres of land, is said to have hummed with the activity of about two thousand workers. NIL “entered its twilight” in the late eighties, and manufactured a range of products like infra-red search lights, passive binoculars, theodolites, and night vision optical devices – for the army.

Madhuja Mukherjee, the curator of the festival

Madhuja Mukherjee, the curator of the festival

In 2003, all production stopped. In 2009, Jadavpur University acquired the land, and the Media Lab, Department of Film Studies, embarked on the documentation projects. A number of artists recorded sounds, videos, and captured stills, quite a few installations and films have emerged out of the massive work done so far. This project highlights primarily three resources – Nikhil Arolkar and Avik Mukhopadhyay’s stills, and Ankur Das’s film – to create a zone that persists on the thin line between history and amnesia.

It explores NIL’s sudden and unexplained closure. Therefore, when researchers from the University entered this space, NIL appeared to be sleeping, wrapped in layers of dust and enclosed in junk machines and objects which were both personal and intimate. The installation pushes the envelope in an attempt to remind that contemporary development is marked by many unspoken stories of under-development.

Madhuja and her friends and volunteers who worked on this project ceaselessly for months on zero budget decided to call it a ‘little’ festival because, according to Madhuja, “It draws from the concept of the ‘little’ magazine” which is outside the mainstream and brings together emerging artists. “In a manner of speaking, the little experimental film is an ideological alternative to mainstream publications, small budget and so on. Our focus in on experimental films and new media art,” she adds.

The small packed theatre with cine buffs sitting on the floor in the aisles for every screening from 3rd to 9th December is proof that this festival will soon transcend the confines of “little” to become a big annual event. This year marked the second tribute to the world of experimental cinema. The Festival was organised by TENT in collaboration with Goethe-Institute/Max Mueller Bhavan, Studio 21, India Foundation for the Arts, Unbound Studio and Difference Screen. The longer films, most of them ranging between 15 and 80 minutes were screened at the Max Mueller Bhavan, while the very short ones spanning one to six minutes of screening time, were screened at the heritage home of a historian in South Calcutta.

The word TENT is both an acronym as well as a metaphor. “Tent” is a very old concept that dates back to the time and place where earliest Indian films were screened in improvised and temporary screening platforms within a tent. Tent also has direct associations with circus performances that aim at mass entertainment. In this case of experimental cinema, this is cinema on the fringes of creating a new window to read and understand and interpret cinema through technology. Tent also stands for theatrical space for experiments in new technologies.

“We are currently making losses, but we have infrastructural support from edit labs and publicity companies. Besides, Studio 21 and Max Mueller Bhavan have supported us with their infrastructure and so has IFA, Difference Screen and Unbound Studio with their packages,” Madhuja elaborates.

Film Manas was one of the entries

Film Manas was one of the entries

This focus on technology is traced back to the new technology science and modern practices have brought in, which is “at the same time, a very democratic and flexible technology open to several interventions, mainstream and conventional cinema making techniques do not offer. Women’s interventions get a wider opening and so do the works of technicians and film practitioners who did not have either the funding or the technology earlier to venture into cinema as a form of creative self expression that may redefine the language and form of cinema in a new way,” Madhuja sums up.


Shoma A. Chatterji

The writer is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards. She is currently Senior Research Fellow, ICSSR, Delhi, researching the politics of presentation of working women in post-colonial Bengali cinema 1950 to 2003.