Reflections From An Unimportant Volunteer

Sometimes I find myself in very new environments. Last week I was a volunteer at a behind the scenes event where documentary filmmakers pitched their projects in front of an audience of professionals to find funding. I was in the front of the room and my job was to replace the water bottles.

As I glanced across the room, it hit me that I was in a place where future documentaries were being shaped. These films would eventually make their way into film festivals then into our living rooms. Also, the people who were shaping them all looked the same and came from the same background. Out of maybe 80 people, about 4 were of color. The gender ratio was a bit nicer and it seemed that it was split 50/50. The director of the forum and most of the people running the show were female.

It was interesting to see how they reacted to each project. There were clear preferences as to what themes and approaches they preferred. When it came to political documentaries, they overall didn’t seem very interested. Art projects were seen favorably, especially ones that were about amusing topics.

One after another, directors pitched their ideas. It was going well, from my point of view, until a British-Indian producer went to give her pitch. I won’t go into details about her movie because it isn’t a film yet and it’s not my project to share with the world. What I will say is that it was about young Indians from an impoverished neighborhood and their love of a type of dance/culture. They were passionate about it and they organized their own collective. It showed what life in the slums was like, but also showed that this group had a passion. It was uplifting and it offered viewers a way to really connect to these kids, especially if you are into the same sub-culture.

Once the pitch was over, I looked forward to hear the feedback from the panelists. However, it was not what I was expecting. Overall the reception was lukewarm. Two of the panelists mentioned that they already worked on films that take place in India. I can understand that a market may be saturated on a specific topic, but India is a large country, close to the size of the EU, so there are a lot of topics to explore. Also, India is diverse in regards to ethnicity, religious views, political views, and many more attributes. Still, I could understand their apprehension to seem like they were repeating themselves with their projects.

What I couldn’t understand were the comments of one of the panelists. She mentioned in her feedback that people must be careful with these “happy go lucky” films about India. She commented that there are bigger issues there like poverty or corruption. This angered me for two reasons. Firstly, yes, although these topics are true, is it impossible for Indians to have hobbies, passions, or aspirations? Do they not also have interests that they pursue? Of course they do, but her Eurocentric one-track mind must think that only Western people have hobbies. While Western people have art museums and vacation homes, people in the global south have poverty, hunger, and corruption. This is the imagined dichotomy that she lives in. Secondly, why must a movie about India address only these topics? India is a huge country, so why must it be pigeonholed into a small narrative. Is this the only story worth hearing from India? With so many voices and stories to tell, I would hope financers would be looking for projects like this one.

The lady who pitched this movie didn’t have much of a reply. She just took in the feedback and tried to give more background to the story and what her overall vision was. Again I glanced throughout the room and wondered what everyone else was thinking. What were their thoughts and reactions to watching impoverished Indians pursuing their hobbies? Did they see a little bit of themselves reflected in the protagonists’ journey to create a community? Or did this portrayal of Indians deviate uncomfortably far from their stereotypes of Indian life?

I return to what I said in the beginning but will update it, I thought I found myself in a very new environment, but really I found myself in the same old place.

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