June 05, 2020
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Behind The Camera

This collection of essays on the stepchild of Indian film, the documentary, unspools like a full-length feature

Behind The Camera
Double Take
By The Raqs Media Collective
FUR/PBST Rs 250; Pages: 99
The documentary is a unique avenue for knowledge, as also a way of knowing - imparting both information and understanding. Inspired by 'India's Quest', a recent experiment fusing documentary making and screening, one would expect Double Take: Looking at the Documentary to provide systematic reflection as well as to chalk out future possibilities. It opts for the first, a decision shaped perhaps by the paucity of concerted writings on the documentary in India. At the same time, the decision illustrates this experiment's efforts at redefining the institutional framework behind the documentary.

Reflecting on the documentary renders an opportunity to link the sociology of knowledge with the field of communication. In doing so, three dimensions could be explored: influences on the production of documentaries (the ways of producing such knowledge), issues of language and style of expression (forms of informing), and the interpretive aspects of narrative structures (forms of understanding).

The bulk of the essays in Double Take are occupied with the first dimension. They shift from the fragmented but insightful experiences of a sound recordist, to a director's interaction with funders and buyers where contrasting values are playfully foregrounded, to a cinematographer's affirmation for distinct documentary approach (this last carelessly diluted by arbitrarily chosen film stills instead of ones illustrating the author's convictions). The richness of these personal narratives apart, the anthology's mosaic character might have been enhanced by the odd musing on how one such 'specialist' views the work of another.

The latter two dimensions are addressed in passing, most eminently in a contribution that explores the truth-reality dualism, not only across the documentary-fiction divide but also in relation to the possibilities yielded by different typologies of the documentary. Among those incorporating all three dimensions, the second essay reiterates the early '70s notion that documentaries should portray, besides an expose, an argument for the reasons underlying reality. Two essays later, this sensibility is echoed while enumerating the process of excavating the fragments that constitute the raw material of a film. The notion of "looking again" (like "double take" itself) is put forward to convey the essence of documentary making and viewing, in equal measure. It would have benefited if the conception of "looking again" recognised our sweeping encounters with media-culture today.

Part thinkbook, part textbook, the collection is dotted with contrasting expectations of the documentary form - the search for "clean" sound clashing with the "need for a certain rough edge" in visuals. It impels one to question the very rationale of the documentary form being moulded by a pre-determined aesthetic. The arrangement of the essays mimics the filmmaking process - beginning with an overview by the experiment's commissioning editor and ending with fragmentary thoughts on viewership.

Interestingly, while marketing diktats have ruptured this process in Bollywood, its linearity is also dislocated in the 'activist' documentary. The latter, embracing many of the documentaries currently being made, are significant for their engagement with local contexts and, often immediate, concerns. Ignoring these in this anthology has resulted in the domain of 'the documentary' being explored to be narrow, occasionally even "monologic", to borrow a contributor's description of metropolitan intellectual culture.

The issue is not whether the preoccupations of "activist" documentary makers are similar to those of "professional" filmmakers. But Double Take wastes an opportunity to critically involve a film practice that is constrained by circumstances similar to those implicitly challenged in these essays, circumstances that impinge on the larger quest for a documentary space in India.

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