The Messengers of Bad News
When I was invited to make
this keynote presentation the most daunting but also the most tempting
circumstance was the nature
of the audience I would be addressing. It isn’t every day that
someone like me gets to speak to decision makers and gate keepers from
the North and the South, as well as filmmakers and film users from
across the world.
I won’t dwell on things like High Definition,
as I’m convinced that people from the developing world take no
time to catch up with new technologies once these become affordable,
as we witnessed with the DV revolution.
The real issues of the information gathering
and disseminating systems have more to do with what kinds of programs
are made, who makes and airs them and what impact they have.
The role of the developed world as consumer
and the role of the developing world as the consumed may now be complicated
as the latter yields its own voracious elite, but the former continues
to determine taste.
In all this, those who originally set out
to highlight and try to undo the injustices of the world find themselves
marginalized and out of date unless they have the chutz pah and the
marketing genius of a Michael Moore.
In many parts of the world,
including I am afraid in America, these woes are further compounded
both overt and covert, and its more insidious sibling –self-censorship.
And yet the voices of resistance have not
altogether disappeared. My keynote will discuss the need to bring them
out of the margins.
Let me be frank. For many
years now whatever I’ve experienced on the ground and all the reading and research
I’ve come across leads me to the belief that I stand right now
in the camp of the enemy.
Of course the fact that
I am here at all must mean that within the enemy camp there are obviously
some friends. In
any case I am an unworthy but ardent admirer of Gandhi. And so cannot
see individuals as the enemy, but only institutions. And believe that
enemies need not be forever. And that dialogue is the way forward.
So here is the attempt at dialogue, illustrated by a few film clips
and photographs. The material isn’t representative or comprehensive
as my time slot prevents a more detailed approach and my access is
limited by the same global forces that prevent all of us from seeing
more such images in the normal course of our lives.
The first clip is from a film we began in
1983. At that time India was just opening its doors to foreign capital.
The city of Bombay was on a beautification drive and the first victims
were the homeless.
excerpt from "Bombay
Our City" (1985)
the clip an angry slumdweller whose home has just been demolished
accuses the filmmakers of exploiting images of poverty and injustice
without being able to alter conditions in any way)
I chose this clip in part
to reassure those who may have been upset at being addressed as the
enemy that I was
referring also to the enemy within. As a member of the Indian intelligentsia
I know that all my good intentions don’t by themselves ensure
that my work rises above voyeurism and becomes useful to the people
I filmed. Bombay Our City made
its share of noise in India and even won a national award for Best
Documentary but the huts of the homeless continued to be demolished.
We joined a movement for the Right to Shelter. After one of the slums
we had filmed in was razed, some slum-dwellers and myself went on an
indefinite hunger strike to demand resettlement. The following day
a famous Bollywood star Shabana Azmi, who had seen Bombay
Our City joined our hunger strike. We became front page news
overnight. Within 5 days the government gave in and the evicted were
granted an alternate site. But for the majority of slum-dwellers inhuman
conditions persisted and our film made no perceptible difference.
Later we took Doordarshan, our national TV,
to court for refusing to telecast Bombay
Our City. After 4 years the Bombay High Court upheld my right
to freedom of speech and the public's right to information and ordered
the national channel to screen the film. We won four more court cases
over the years to get my films screened on national TV. They were shown
unannounced and grudgingly but it was symbolically important and aroused
hope at the time.
Today this hope feels like
a mirage. The logic of globalization - the empowerment of the elite
and the pauperization
of the poor has ensured that today’s India is even less hospitable
to the working poor than before.
By the mid 80’s our focus on the rights
of workers shifted to the task of combating fundamentalism. The end
of the Cold War should have ushered an era of peace and prosperity.
Instead we saw the USA increase its militarist posture and we also
saw a global increase in religious fundamentalism. If you stop to think
about it, the two things are not unconnected but that’s another
Meanwhile in Ayodhya in Northern India, Hindu
fundamentalists tore down a 16th century Muslim mosque, claiming it
as the birthplace of the Hindu God Ram. It led to nation wide carnage
and the tremors from this act still reverberate.
excerpt from “In
the Name of God”(1992)
(In the clip a Hindu
militant en route to demolish the Babri Mosque states that the murder
of Mahatma Gandhi was perfectly justified as Gandhi had betrayed the
cause of the Hindu majority)
Our film was made before the demolition of
the Babri mosque and should have alerted the nation to the hatred and
carnage that would inevitably follow. But films like these remain grossly
under-utilized in a nation divided by the politics of hate.
The 80’s and 90's
not only brought us religious violence. They also brought the dream
of development. It
was a dream that would carefully hide from everyone except its immediate
victims, the price of this development. It was a dream that came wrapped
in the flamboyant and seductive rhetoric of a world economy that was
neither actually free nor actually democratic.
excerpt from "A
Narmada Diary" (1995)
the clip members of the “Narmada Bachao Andolan - Save Narmada
River Movement”confront officials of the World Bank and ask
them to stop funding the project)
To be fair, the World Bank, having kick-started
the Sardar Sarovar Dam, did attempt to rectify its mistake. The independent
Morse Commission paid heed to the voices of the displaced and finally
the Bank pulled out. But the damage had been done. Today in the face
of mounting evidence that this dinosaur is completely unsustainable,
the Indian government continues to finance its folly. The only lesson
our politicians and project builders have learnt is that large projects
mean large kickbacks. So now the great new game in India is a multi-billion
dollar, thoroughly improbable project to inter-link our rivers.
How could all this happen? My view is that
it has to do with the near absolute ideological control that is exercised
over the global media. The images the world needs to see, the facts
it needs to hear, are often doctored or suppressed. Let us look at
This image of an unknown Chinese student stopping
tanks during the pro-democracy movement at Tianamen Square in 1989
was flashed all over the world and rightly became one of the most famous
symbols of heroic non-violent resistance.
image shows Rachel Corrie an American peace activist, trying to stop
an Israeli bull-dozer
from demolishing Palestinian homes. Unlike the tanks of Tiananmen,
the bulldozer did not stop. It crushed Rachel Corrie to death. Unlike
the images of resistance of the Chinese student, images of Rachel Corrie’s
heroism and sacrifice were never highlighted long enough to register
on the conscience of the world.
Let us move from an act of omission to an
act of commission.
Saddam Statue close up
These close up and mid
shots of jubilation in Baghdad during the famous toppling of Saddam’s
statue were globally broadcast giving the world the visual impression
was hated by the general population of Iraq and American troops were
widely welcomed as saviours.
statue long shot
much less publicized long shot of the same sequence gives the real
story. The square is almost deserted. The statue is being pulled
down not by ordinary Iraqi citizens but by ropes attached to an American
armoured car. The handful of people at the square are mostly directly
connected to the Occupation forces.
is another great lie embedded in the incident of the Saddam statue.
The US flag that
was draped over the face of Saddam’s statue was the flag that
purportedly fell from the World Trade Center. Thus although no proof
of any connection between Saddam and Al Quaeda or any of the suspected
perpetrators of 9/11 has ever been furnished, a non-verbal connection
was established by the US army and the media. Such subliminal messages
go a long way to explain why 80% Americans still believe that Saddam
was directly or indirectly responsible for 9/11.
When I spoke of the enemy it was not because
of race or culture although racism and civilizational arrogance remain
alive and well in the corridors of power and in the media.
A few obvious examples. Hollywood in the name
of historic authenticity recreated every lash and gash suffered by
Jesus Christ but neglected to nail the lie that Jesus was a white man.
It remains hard to switch on my TV screen
without spotting Anglo Saxons traipsing through Africa or Asia explaining
to me its dark secrets. In contrast, despite the fact that there is
no shortage of cinematic and intellectual competence in the developing
world, parachute reporters from the North still dominate the spaces
where our stories are told.
The truth is that not only is the North not
letting us tell our own stories, it is not letting anybody tell
the stories that matter. Like the story of why Rachel Corrie died.
Or why Mr.Kelly, the British government’s arms expert died. What
happened to the weapons of mass destruction? Where are the stories
about War and Oil and the 20,000 tons of Depleted Uranium that have
been dropped on Iraq?
During the Cold War it was said that an iron
curtain prevented information from getting in or out of the Communist
Bloc. Today a velvet curtain of mindless infotainment envelops the
globe enforcing a strict censorship of the vital stories of our times.
In the face of this disconnect
many people and institutions genuinely believe they are bringing
the world - in the same way perhaps that the USA believes it is bringing
democracy to Iraq. Both these sets of beliefs are possible because
of the circuitous nature of the information paradigm. You hear what
you want to hear. Your filters are clogged with the residue of the
horrors they have filtered out. Once in a while the flash of an American
soldier gloating over the mutilated corpse of a prisoner shocks the
nation and the world into questioning its core beliefs but soon the
spin doctors are back in action. Soon we are told that what we thought
of as torture was only “prisoner abuse”done after all for “enduring
Whom does this filtering process hurt the
most? Who will pay the price of killing the messenger of bad news?
Who will remain bewildered by the fact that increasing numbers of people
in the world no longer believe in the good guys?
If international bodies like the World Bank
and the United Nations remain so eternally grateful that their head
offices are located on the soil of America that they find it impossible
to hold the USA responsible for any wrongdoing, how can they retain
credibility in the eyes of the world?
I was lucky to have studied in America in
1970. The anti-Viet Nam war movement was at its peak. I saw a people
full of hope and passion for peace and justice and was infected. I
see young Americans today who still retain these values. There are
many but I will single out someone I have never met - William Rivers
Pitt. He started a website called Truthout.org that tells you Everything
you Wanted to Know about the War on Iraq but were Afraid to Ask.
He said this in a recent article:
“Our corruption is
the absolute triumph of image over reality, of flash over substance,
of the pervasive need
within most Americans to believe in a happy-face version of the nation
they call home, and to spurn the reality of our estate as unpatriotic.”
His statement does not apply only to Americans.
Surely all of us have to put our heads down to the task of respecting
the first principles of democracy. A Free Press. Respect for the whistle
blowers of the world. Finding institutional and legal ways to keep
corporate and militarist interests at bay. Giving space to the voices
of the powerless and the marginalized, the hungry and the dispossessed,
the vilified and those earmarked for massacre. Not for their sake,
as much as for our own.
I will end with an old song and some new images.
Music Video: “Images you didn't see” (4.30
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16 June 2004