A Festival Under Fire
The new cinephilia radiates outward, powered by a spirit of inquiry and a will to social and planetary change. It is no coincidence that so many filmmakers valued by the new cinephilia—women, queer, indigenous, people of color—have an interest in activism, and view cinema itself as part of a larger cultural-activist project.
Girish Shambu (2020).
The New Cinephilia
At the Berlinale in 2020 I was on a panel entitled “At the End of the Red Carpet—Festivals under fire, festivals as sites of criticality.” The panel was essentially a reflection on the role of the film festival in the current global landscape. My view at the time was rather cynical, and came from a place of deep sadness about the political situation in India and across the world. Responding to the title of the panel I said that maybe it was time to burn all film festivals to the ground and to start afresh, because if this is the world that we have participated in constructing then we need to stop, re-evaluate, and work towards re-ordering things.
Ironically, at that same edition of the Berlinale in 2020, I found myself doing a deep dive into political films from across the world through the incredibly curated programs of films in the Forum 50 Anniversary program. I was profoundly impacted by this immersive experience. As histories of political and cultural movements came alive on screen through a diversity of stories of activism and resistance, many peoples’ struggles that have shaped our times across continents were re-presented in all their cinematic glory. These films generated fresh questions and offered new answers. It became evident to me that in the current moment of historical amnesia in India, accessible film archives and distribution networks for archival films can play an important role in shaping our society.
What can the contemporary learn from the archive? How does political cinema survive, grow and express solidarity in the face of oppression? These were some of the questions that arose through my experience with archival cinema at the Berlinale in 2020. And in the subsequent years of the pandemic, as global inequalities and injustices intensified and became more visible, it was these questions that continued to echo through my mind. While vaccine inequity placed a clear value on whose lives matter, between the ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries, India struggled through the dark days of COVID with a fascist leader at the helm.
In March 2020, the Indian government called an immediate lockdown, giving citizens 4 hours to pack up their lives and find their way home. As people began to scramble for food, shelter, medicines, and money, millions of migrant workers lost their jobs overnight and began their long journeys back home. With no interstate transport available, women and men, boys and girls, the young and old, walked miles and miles across the country, over days and weeks to reach their homes. They carried backpacks, babies, children, and even each other. They lined the highways across the length and breadth of this country. While on their journey they were criminalized as spreaders of the virus and subjected to violence and humiliation. Many fell sick and some sadly died. Amidst this, the ongoing anti CAA/NRC protest movement led by women and students that had gained significant momentum across the country was forced to shut down. The vibrant protest site of Shaheen Bagh in the capital city of Delhi was evacuated, leaving little to no trace of the radical people, voices, and spirited energy that filled the area. Meanwhile, the Indian government congratulated itself on its response to the pandemic, turned a blind eye to the suffering of millions of migrant workers, and rushed to push through a bill in parliament that disempowered farmers, sacrificing them to private industry. This kicked off one of the biggest farmers’ protests the country has ever seen. These were just some of the images and stories that characterized the early COVID years in India (see Abi-Habib and Yasir 2020).
It was during this complex and difficult period that I realized it was imperative to revive Experimenta (www.experimenta.in), the biennial film festival that I founded in 2003 and that had had its 10th edition in 2017. We needed to commune and to heal. The political and cultural need of the hour was for us to devise a new language and create versatile forms of resistance before it became too late. And so, after a 5-year hiatus, Experimenta was poised to return, albeit in a new avatar. Moving away from the conventional festival format, the plan was to curate a program of political cinema that challenged the state and reflected upon the current era of uncertainty in India. But how was this going to be possible in a country where any critique of the government gets journalists, activists, and artists thrown into jail, where films are randomly banned and censored, where mainstream media is controlled, and where all cultural expression in opposition to right-wing ideology is termed ‘anti-national’? The answer lay in my experience with the archival films in the Forum 50 program.
The strategy for Experimenta 2023 was to construct a subversive curatorial framework by excavating the history of political cinema and digging deep into the archives. The program was designed to draw parallels between the current political landscape of India and peoples’ struggles from other cultural contexts. How relevant is the history of global social movements today? How does cinema as an art form persist across time to offer critical representations of the aspirations, mistakes, and contradictions of nation states? These were the questions that framed the program. Respondents from across India, including artists, filmmakers, writers, activists, journalists, and scholars were invited to contextualize these historical films and connect them to the situation that we were facing on the ground today. The realities of conflicts made visible through revolutionary cinema, seemingly only relevant elsewhere and belonging to a different time, worked as activators to create a discursive environment. And so, for five days with a packed hall at the Goethe-Institut in Bangalore, Experimenta became an inclusive and safe platform for many voices of dissent.
As an aside, I would like to point out that to protect the respondents from being identified by the dark side, we chose to credit them only in the acknowledgements of the festival brochure and not under the program that they were discussing. We were advised that if anything became controversial, the brochure would operate as physical proof against these particular individuals. Sometimes, paranoia is not a bad thing.
Experimenta 2023 opened with Rule by Consent (1967) by Vijay B. Chandra and Pramod Pati, a propagandist film produced by the Films Division of India that celebrated the Indian democratic system and the fourth general elections of India. The irony of watching this utopian vision of a secular, socialist newly independent India on screen while considering where history has led us today was an extremely complex and emotional experience for many of us in the audience. This film led us into examining issues of migration, labor, oppression, censorship, and colonialism through Ibrahim Shaddad’s Camel (1981) and Hunting Party (1964), Chris Marker’s On vous parle de Paris: Maspero, les mots ont un sens (1970), and Med Hondo’s Mes Voisins (1971). With Howard Alk’s The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971) and Yolande du Luart’s Angela—Portrait of a Revolutionary (1971), we addressed the Black American struggle against racism and inequitable capitalist power structures in 1960s and 70s America. Today, these films serve as relevant documents of how state-sanctioned violence is used against minorities, activists, and intellectuals. We reaffirmed the power of community organization and resistance movements through the feminist protest films of the Yugantar Collective Molkarin (1985) and Sudesha (1983) alongside Phelandaba (End of the Dialogue) (1970) by members of the Pan Africanist Congress, a clandestinely shot first-ever film on the horrors of Apartheid in South Africa. As we immersed ourselves into these worlds, we were able to discuss issues of caste, campus politics, student activism, police brutality, the tragedy of the state of Kashmir, incarceration of activists and journalists, and political assassinations that are an everyday occurrence in today’s India.
Experimenta 2023 was a festival of protest. A protest generated through shared history, cultural memory and social consciousness as embodied in cinema. As a community in solidarity, we immersed ourselves in art as resistance and considered new strategies for subverting and challenging power structures. Through political cinema from the archives we were able to embrace social movements, celebrate the power of collectives, and reflect upon the myriad forms of protest that cinema inspires. The future of our societies is rooted in mapping a continuum with political activism of the past. And the future of the film archive is embedded in how we practice our politics as artists and curators today.
Abi-Habib, Maria, and Sameer Yasir. 2020. “India’s Coronavirus Lockdown Leaves Vast Numbers Stranded and Hungry.” New York Times, March 29. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/29/world/asia/coronavirus-india-migrants.html.
Shambu, Girish. 2020. The New Cinephilia. Montréal: Caboose.
 These protests occurred after the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was enacted by the Government of India, which was essentially designed to profile minority communities, especially Muslims, and question their citizenship, ultimately towards building a Hindu India.