By Kathleen Maclay
Poster for “Father, Son, and Holy War” film, to be screened at UC Berkeley’s PFA on Friday, Oct. 22
BERKELEY – Despite nearly constant efforts to censor his work, Anand Patwardhan continues his nearly 30-year career of making hard-hitting and often controversial documentary films about the nuclear danger, religious violence and environmental threats. The award-winning filmmaker from India will visit the University of California, Berkeley’s Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (PFA) Oct. 21-24 as part of “Documentary Voices,” a project bringing international documentary-makers to the PFA as resident artists.
In the question-and-answer session below, Patwardhan shared with UC Berkeley Media Relations some of his thoughts about filmmaking and the current state of the world.
Q: Documentary films have generated increasing attention of late, at least in the United States. Is there a similar surge in other parts of the world, such as India? If so, to what do you attribute it?
A: Important documentaries were made in the U.S. even in the 60′s. Later films like “Hearts and Minds” and “Harlan County U.S.A” won Oscars and by the 80′s, several documentaries got theatrical release. But it was not until the phenomenon of Michael Moore that documentaries became box office super hits and actually began to shape mass opinion.In India, the early documentary scene was dominated by government propaganda made by the Films Division of India, which produced newsreels and documentaries that were compulsorily shown before every commercial film. People either arrived deliberately late or walked out for a smoke during these films, and the tag of “boring” became inescapably attached to the documentary. It has taken several decades of sustained independent work to break this tag.Today with the DV revolution making the means of production accessible, the documentary has come of age, and public interest is rising, stoked by several ham-handed attempts by the state (India) to curtail the documentary filmmaker’s right to freedom of expression.
Q: You’ve called yourself “a non-serious person forced by circumstance to make serious films.” What circumstances drove you into the documentary business, and what keeps you there?
A: As it turned out, all my films were driven by political events. I discovered early the joys of mixing my “art” with the desire to speak out about issues I was involved with. In the beginning, I saw filmmaking more in utilitarian terms, as a means towards an end, as a pamphlet that would be more exciting than the usual fare and would overcome the shackles of illiteracy. In time, I was seduced by the medium itself and began to take more interest and pay more attention to the craft of filmmaking and the ways of storytelling. But I don’t think my original motivation ever left me, nor has the yardstick by which I judge whether a film has been able to communicate with people widely or not.As a “non-serious” person, I would like to have made more playful films, but there is so little time left over from making and screening films about serious issues that I am usually too mentally exhausted. Sometimes, of course, the playful peeps through even in films of import.
Q: Do you think you make a difference in terms of the many issues relating to environmental and social justice, war and peace?
A: This may be wishful thinking, but the honest answer is yes, at least at the micro level. If I didn’t think this, it would have been hard to sustain my own levels of engagement.Where is the evidence? It comes in small ways, from individuals who speak out at screenings, from letters from viewers, from essays written by school and college kids, from a movie star who decided to become an activist, from a fundamentalist who questioned his own belief system, from an usher at a posh club where the film was screened who bicycled for miles to track me down and get a Hindi version of the film. The list, fortunately, is very long and has always saved me from sinking into doubt and despair, no matter how hard the circumstances. Even the fact that the state and the fundamentalists have tried to suppress my work proved to me that they found the work threatening, i.e., effective.
Q: Your film “War and Peace” explored issues surrounding the nuclear tests conducted in India and Pakistan in 1998. Has the situation gotten better or worse since then?
A: We went through a period for about a year — after the Indian Parliament was attacked by armed gunmen allegedly sent by Pakistan — when Indian and Pakistani troops were eyeball to eyeball on the “line of control.” Anything could have happened then, fingers were tightened on the nuclear trigger.Since that time, there has been a palpable thaw. Peace talks have taken place, as have cultural exchanges. Perhaps more importantly for the masses in both countries, cricket and hockey matches have been played in an atmosphere of great cordiality, something we never expected would happen so fast. It seems clear that people on both sides want peace, but in both countries, fundamentalists continue their campaign of hate, and the balance could easily be tilted with a few well chosen terror strikes, so one can never breathe easy.
Q: What do you make of Iran’s interest in nuclear weapons, and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities? Do you have ideas of how these situations might be resolved peacefully?
A: I see the militarism of the U.S. as the single biggest threat to world peace. North Korea and Iran pale in comparison. When was the last time they invaded a virtually disarmed country? Is there a single terrorist whom we fear today who does not have a long history of being trained, armed or supported in the past by the U.S.? We have to rethink the words we use, our core beliefs, if we are to come close to the reality of what is happening in the world.
Q: You wrote an essay, “How We Came to Love the Bomb.” Can you give a short summary?
A: I wrote that article in despair over the fact that my country had abandoned the non-violent legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and embraced the path to nuclear disaster shown to us by our super power Big Brother. I also made a film, “War and Peace,” documenting the mad euphoria that we saw in the streets as Indians and Pakistanis celebrated their newfound powers of mass destruction.A few years later, when my film “War and Peace” was shown in the U.S., A. Hamrah of the Boston Globe wrote a perceptive piece comparing the jingoism seen in “War and Peace” with the recorded jingoism that greeted the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and the development of nukes in the U.S. in the 50′s. A whole bomb culture had evolved then with pop songs, T-shirts, the works.
Q: You protested the Vietnam War while living in the U.S. in the ’60s. How do you feel about the Iraq war, and are there similarities between the two?
A: Both wars were illegitimate, immoral, but I think the reasons for the Iraq war are even more transparently venal. If there is less public protest this time than there was during Vietnam, I attribute it to the fact that there is no draft.A majority of the young Americans being killed in Iraq are from low income groups and minorities. Sadly, it is only when rich kids die that America seems to really wake up. Perhaps only when those who vote for war are forced to commit a loved one into battle will wars come to an end.
Q: During your career, you’ve dealt with attempts by the Indian government to censor your films, and with Hindu activists who pressured the American Museum for Natural History in 2002 to postpone screening some of your films. Who are your biggest allies in trying to fight censorship?
A: Where the enemy has been state censorship, my biggest ally has been a healthy Indian Constitution that guarantees “freedom of expression” and dedicated civil liberties lawyers like P.A. Sebastian and Nitya Ramakrishnan, who have successfully defended my films. To date, despite repeated bans and attempted deletions, not a single frame of any of my films has been sacrificed. Although the official release of many films was delayed, in the end we were always able to win in court and through public pressure generated by a sympathetic press.Where my opponents have been religious fundamentalists, my allies have been secular Indians of all faiths, all those who are marginalized by caste and creed, and the many Hindus who have always taken pride from the inclusivity and tolerance of their belief system.Of the many attempts made by fundamentalists to shut down our screenings, very few have succeeded. In Kerala (India) last year, “In the Name of God” was banned by a district officer who gave in to threats by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. But a month-long agitation that included street marches by secular Keralites forced the ban to be withdrawn. Even the Museum of Natural History in New York, facing an e-mail barrage by secular Indians, reversed its ban on the film. Unfortunately, it did not get up the guts to keep the screening on its own premises, but relocated it to New York University.
Q: You’ve been called the “Indian Michael Moore.” Your thoughts about that description, and about the work of the American filmmaker?
A: It is an honor to be compared with Michael Moore. But my own films have never gotten into the mainstream. So I’m thrilled as much by Moore’s work as the impact he has had. My heart went out to him on Oscar night. He stood up and was counted. With his films, I’ve loved much of what he has done, although I’m not sure how exactly his work is understood by those who do not already agree with him. There is a nagging doubt about whether middle-of-the-road Americans take kindly to him. I do not mean to be critical because I think those who like Moore see through the lies that the U.S. and the Bush administration have told the world, and their morale needs to be lifted. Moore does this brilliantly, but perhaps a less personal attack would have served better to bring out the systemic problems in the U.S.At times I have also been accused of mocking my “enemies” and I always defended myself by saying that one needed a sharp instrument to cut through the layers of deceit and disguise. I think Moore’s technique is legitimate, but sometimes he is guilty of striking too many blows even after his opponent is down for the count. That is what happened the second time he talked to Charlton Heston in “Bowling for Columbine.” And “Fahrenheit 9/11″ would have been better if it was less Bush-centric.But nothing I say takes away from the sheer chutzpah of Mike. He is the best thing that has happened to America since (linguist and activist Noam) Chomsky.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Doing screenings and fighting court cases. “Father, Son and Holy War” (1995) won two national awards in 1996 on the basis of which I approached state-controlled Doordarshan national TV to broadcast the film. When they, as usual, refused, l went to court and won. Then they went to Supreme Court, which is where the matter now stands.I do have some half-finished films on the back burner, but it’s too early to talk about them.
Q: What are your plans while at UC Berkeley?
A: Just doing the screenings, meeting with friends, recharging my batteries.