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Sense, sensibility and the environment

Within the first five minutes into a telephonic conversation with documentary filmmaker Akanksha Joshi, two things are very clear — she’s not the sort who’ll throw jargon to explain climate change; and gives a damn about those who frown upon ‘romanticising’ the subject. “Don’t we ‘romanticise’ our iPads and go on and on about social networks? Come on, nature is way more interesting than those and deserves all the romance,” she laughs.


Filmmaker Akanksha Joshi shooting her documentary on climate change. Pic Courtesy/Akanksha Joshi 

This year, Joshi’s recent documentary on climate change, Earth Witness: Reflections on the Times and the Timeless, won the Best Film (Climate Change and Sustainable Technologies) Award and the Best Cinematography Award at the 6th CMS Vatavaran, the environment and wildlife film festival and forum. It will be screened at the festival travelling to Dehradun, Jaipur, Kolkata and Goa next month onwards. It will also be screened at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala on June 8. 

Earth Witness traces the stories of four people from different ecosystems — the forests of Chhatisgarh, the mountain ecosystem of Nagaland, the coastal ecosystem of the Sunderbans and the dryland of Kachchh. For Joshi’s protagonists, climate change is part of daily life and rhythm, not the stuff of international conferences and sterile discussions. “It is important to understand climate change at an intellectual level, but what’s the point if you cannot see, feel and taste the issue?” says Joshi. Joshi made her first documentary on communal violence — Passengers: A Video Journey in Gujarat — in 2003 and received the Karmaveer Puruskaar, National People’s Award for Citizen Social Justice and Action for her film, Chilika Bank (2008), which highlighted ecological issues around Asia’s largest brackish water lake.

In spite of her association with society and environmental issues, Joshi herself admits that, two years ago, before she began filming Earth Witness, she felt a tad desensitised toward climate change. “That was until I met the Baiga tribe in Chhatisgarh,” she admits. A local took Joshi and her assistant to see a 1,000 year-old waterfall in the region. But when the trio reached the destination, all they met were rocks, rotting ancient trees, dried leaves and an eerie silence. That’s when Joshi peered at the rocks. “The water level had left marks on the rocks. The waterfall had dried up entirely. That’s global warming for the Baiga tribe,” she recalls.

However, no matter how poignant people’s stories may be, Joshi says she never zooms in on the ‘victims’. “I refuse to caricature people and they don’t pity themselves either. They are not the ‘Hai tauba’ sort who run about beating their chest. They are the sort who, when they see a threat, sit down and come up with solutions — and see them through,” says Joshi.

One of the four people in Joshi’s documentary is Sukhdev Mondol, a local in the Sunderbans, who lives near a lake and has an uncanny, rare sense of wisdom. Mondol knows he has around 10 years before his lake washes his home away. “He can accumulate money and flee, but he isn’t doing that. Instead, he uses a biogas plant and has stopped using pesticides — lest the fish get poisoned and the people eating the fish consume the pesticide, too. Can you believe that? He even cares about the people he is never going to meet,” says Joshi. When Joshi asks him what, according to him, is the river trying to tell him, Mondol, in his characteristic, calm voice, says, “It is demanding the land we’ve snatched. A hungry person can steal, beg and kill for food, can he not? So can this river.”

“We can forget about beating climate if all we do is send our best negotiators to international. The language will have to change,” says Joshi. Inherent wisdom and sincerity — something like the people in Joshi’s documentary have in generous doses — is a better bet. “Sensationalism erodes sense because we aren’t rooted enough — in our own culture, in ourselves as societies. If we were, we would respond, not just react to these issues,” says Joshi. 

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