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More venues must be opened up to screen documentaries

Tomorrow, the three-day Sheharnama festival of documentary films begins in Juhu. This will be followed by the Mumbai International Film Festival of short and documentary films, from February 3, at the NCPA. Both town and western suburbs will benefit from these screenings of films that are not just meaningful but aesthetically excellent as well.

One might wonder how relevant documentaries — or, to put it better, non-fiction films — are in an age of relentless entertainment. But, as was borne out at a recent panel discussion on the genre, organised in the city by Women in Film and Television (India) with the US Consulate, it is a thriving field. With only one problem — a lack of venues for screening.

The older generation, which grew up with Films Division screenings ahead of feature films in cinemas, and no alternative-to-Doordarshan television, is no stranger to documentaries. But how will Generation X and Y access these films? We have to wait for film festivals to be held, and make the time during those specific days, to go to that venue and watch them. How many have the patience and dedication to do that? Little wonder that the audience at these festivals is largely film students and others connected to the field.

It is not that there is a dearth of space. What is lacking is the resolve to treat documentaries and non-fiction films as significant, important enough to be given a status beyond the token film festival representation, and afforded accessibility of their own. Such an initiative has to come from the government. Specifically, from the Films Division, which has a track record of stellar work in cinema development.

On the one hand, we have land and even structures in the heart of the city which, fallen into dereliction, are a haven for crime. Many of these abandoned areas are a stone’s throw from bustling ‘hip’ zones featuring shopping malls and multiplexes. And on the other hand, there is a field of creative work, which is crying out for exposure and eyeballs.

Surely it should be possible for the two ‘problems’ to find a mutual solution. There must be an abandoned mill that the government can turn into a screening venue for non-fiction, independent and arthouse films — also known as parallel cinema. This can be a hub for other creative expression as well. Central Mumbai can show that it can be more than just flashy brands and big names.

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