Transcending testimony: an interview with filmmaker Deepa Dhanraj

A screening of Invoking Justice at Mahim Beach, Mumbai, India, 2013. BMW Guggenheim Lab/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
Deepa Dhanraj. MIFF

Deepa Dhanraj is a filmmaker and feminist whose extensive filmography spans issues of gender, labour, education and women’s position in Indian society. In 1980, she founded the Bangalore-based filmmaking collective Yugantar, an organisation that produced films about women’s labour and domestic conditions in Southern India. With searing imagery, Dhanraj’s highly influential 1991 film, Something Like a War, presented the gender and class violence of the population-control policy of the Indian government.

Dhanraj is a guest at the Melbourne International Film Festival this year. She presented her recent film Invoking Justice (ITVS, 2011) as part of the India in Flux: Living Resistance strand of contemporary documentary cinema and was a panellist on the Talking Pictures panel, Currents of Dissent: Documentary Resistance in India, with Anand Patwardhan and Meenakshi Shedde in conversation with me.

In this interview, I talk with Dhanraj about the historic relationship between activism and documentary film and the ways in which she addresses contemporary industrial as well as aesthetic shifts in this cinema.

Deepa, you were closely associated with the Indian women’s movement during the 1970s and the 1980s. How did your involvement with this movement lead you towards documentary cinema?
I became a documentary filmmaker because of my association with the women’s movement.

When we started our collective Yugantar in 1980, the intention was to make films on various struggles, agitations and issues that were being raised by the women’s movement at that time, particularly the shifts in consciousness, politics and the kind of contributions that both the activists and the academy were making in public discourse.

A lot of theory was being generated and one of the things we asked as a collective was: how do you communicate this back to the audiences and particularly women audiences so that there is a continuous loop? How do you tell these stories and talk about this politics at all levels from the grassroots to the academy?

Personally, the intention of the collective was to document the struggles and then return these stories to the constituency, which could be women’s groups of all classes and as many institutions as we could tap into – trade unions, universities, high schools and film clubs.

Screening of Invoking Justice, January 2013, Mahim Beach, Mumbai, India. BMW Guggenheim Lab/Flickr, CC BY

Coming to the documentary medium from activism, how did you conceptualise the documentary form? What could the documentary film accomplish in the social collective?
We did not come to a ready-made understanding of documentary practice; we were creating a process as we worked. When we started this collective, our intention was to be collaborative and to stand with the women, not only to transmit their story.

With Something Like a War, we spoke about issues that were important to many women’s groups. I am often surprised at how much of my work is used for teaching in universities – but, at that time, it wasn’t our intention. With Something Like a War, we wanted to stop the government of India’s coercive targeting of poor women to achieve state sterilisation targets.

Trailer for Something Like a War.

But we also wanted to address the structural consensual belief that the poor were responsible for their poverty because of excessive breeding. So in the film we also talked about why poor women made the reproductive choices that they did – they were not foolish, but various social factors influenced their decisions.

So we not only had to address the state agenda but also this political consensus that made it acceptable to have a eugenics notion about the poor. The films produced with this political understanding acted as a medium between the activists and the academy and brought these issues into a space for discussion. So I see documentary films as building a bridge between these two worlds.

Documentary cinema appears to have moved into many directions and filmmakers approach the form from several positions; as artists, storytellers or poets. How does activism or political interrogation reconcile with these shifts?
During the 1980s and 1990s there was a stated political objective with which people approached documentary, which has now gradually shifted into the domain of the individual.

Of course, being India, a lot of social context inherently emerges in any story, but the question is: what do you do with this context? How are you recasting it in a way that there are insights not just at the level of testimony but how do we create a framework to understand social formations?

I think if you are making a film about the social collective you are also making a public intervention, politically you are making an intervention and you choose cinema to do it. When you are doing that, why is there a diffidence or hesitation to articulate a political position? To me it raises questions about aesthetics and politics; does the style of filmmaking determine your politics? Or does the way of looking determine your politics and style, which, of course, could be poetic.

Screening of Invoking Justice, January 2013, Mahim Beach, Mumbai, India. BMW Guggenheim Lab/Flickr, CC BY

Some of the issues that face documentary filmmakers in India have historically related to distribution and audiences, but contemporary India is an image-and-media-saturated environment. Is this also a challenge?
The issue of resources always remains. It is very impressive that so many people are still working given the desperate lack of resources. But the good news is that there are more exhibition forums and mini-festivals where people watch films.

The challenge for a filmmaker like myself is how to deal with a very complex reality. It is not only at the stage of formal or creative planning but requires creating processes where people are comfortable with being filmed and feel that it is worth their participation. Cable television and 24-hour news and current affairs have created a situation where people are very media aware and understand how they might be represented or misrepresented.

They are also filming themselves – so the relationship to image has changed and the potential film participants have a different level of visual literacy and consciousness of representation. In this setting, the challenge is to create a process that takes this into account and remains accountable to the people one is filming.


The Melbourne International Film Festival 2014 runs until Sunday August 17. See all MIFF 2014 coverage on The Conversation here.