The art of documentary film making.
If short films are the first step towards film making then Documentary film making is the ultimate form of it. I have personally started my carrier as a documentary filmmaker and have worked as an assistant to the documentary filmmaker from the USA, Jim Goldblum, and Adam Weber, before making my own documentary films. As a fresh Film school graduate, I was desperate to take any job which came my way and luckily, I got a chance to work as a translator and AD to these two Emmy Award filmmakers from the US who were in Delhi to make a documentary film on the Slum colony also called as ‘Kathputli colony’, where all the magicians, jugglers and Kathputli players of the city lived. It was a magical community at the center of the capital, which was proposed for demolition by the government to make an ultra modern residential complex. The film was called ‘Tomorrow we Disappear’ and it also went on to win numerous awards at international film festivals.
I was called for an interview by Jim and Adam at Parathe Wali Galli, in Chandni Chowk, Delhi. It was an odd place to be called for an interview as the lane is the busiest eat street of the city. I went there and reached before time to find them both shooting already there. I was asked to follow them and was handed a Go-Pro camera in my hand to take stock videos for the B rolls. I followed them everywhere for the next 2 hours before they decide to talk to me, sitting below a banyan tree on the floor, waiting for the time lapse video recording to complete. Jim shook his hand with me and just asked one thing, “Do you want to still work with us?” and smirked. Adam also joined him in his humor and that was the moment my journey started with them for the next 1 month.
Watch the full documentary ‘Tomorrow We Disappear’ here.
I was very happy that night that I got my first internship with international documentary filmmakers from the US and was excited to work with them from the next day. I thought I will be able to shoot with them right from the next day and it will be an adventurous work. But it turned out to be a completely different experience. For the next seven days, we were just visiting the slum and talking to people and trying to communicate as much as we can. I was the translator too and I had great fun with two foreigners working in a slum. We were having lunch or sometimes dinner at the slums with the people there. Or we would just roam around the slum talking to the people about their lives and problems there. There was just talking and roaming around. But there was no shooting. They were not shooting anything in the slum. So out of curiosity, I asked them why aren’t we shooting anything? To which, Adam told me that they were ‘Researching’ and ‘Mixing’ at the moment.
And that is where I learnt my first lesson of Documentary film making. ‘Researching’ and ‘Mixing’. Those seven days we were just mixing with people. Trying to make comfort with them. Trying to be like them, so that they feel comfortable with us when we start shooting and they can talk freely with us. And it did happen. Once we became their friends, they allowed us to enter their lives like we were their family members, without any hesitation and inhibitions which had not been possible if we started the shoot straight away. As a documentary filmmaker, it is very important that you first try to know your subject without the camera in your hand. Mixing is the first step towards a great documentary because it is all about shooting reality and we won’t show our reality to someone who we don’t know or are not comfortable with.
‘Researching’ is another very important aspect of documentary film making. Before making any film it is very important to research thoroughly about that topic. Now there are two types of research. Online and Offline. Online research is researching your topic on the internet. Try to take out as much information as possible about the subject. Like in ‘Tomorrow we disappear’, before coming here in India, Jim and Adam researched the Kathputli colony while sitting in the US. They came to know that the government was trying to demolish the slum which would affect the community severely. So they decided to keep that an underlying story of their film. Once they came to India, they went to the location and started talking to the people there and started their ‘Offline research’. Offline research is all about talking to people who are expert from that field or are directly or indirectly involved with your subject. The first week we were just trying to extract as much information as we could so that we have a direction in our mind when we really start shooting. So once you have all the pointers it is easy to decide from where to start and where to end. The end is always unknown in documentaries but knowing the way towards it is always helpful.
So finally after researching and mixing was over we started our shoot. There were four of us. Jim the director, Adam the editor, one cameraman and me, doing everything.
Jim decided that they would follow the four characters in the film. A street magician, a girl who was an acrobat player, an old age man who was the oldest Kathputli player in the colony and another kathputli player who had also won the national award. They all lived in the same slum colony but their lives were completely unique. Each one of them brought their own aspect to the film and made it more interesting. The team started the shoot with the street magician. They took his interviews and followed his life with the camera. Wherever he would go, whatever he would do for the next 3-4 days was documented in the camera. They followed the same procedure with all other characters of the films and shot straight for 20 days. It was hard work. We had to manage our speed with them. Sometimes their speed was way more than us and sometimes we had to slow ourselves down.
One incident taught me a great lesson. Once our first character, the street magician was performing on the streets of Old Delhi and we were shooting him. Suddenly out of nowhere, the fight started between one of the audience member and the magician. I was about to interfere in the fight and stop it when my team stopped me so that they could shoot that whole incident. The man from the public was thrashing the street magician and we were doing nothing but capturing all that in our cameras. The fight got resolved meantime and I got furious that why none of us went and saved him to which I was told one thing which I still remember while making a documentary film. Jim Said, “As a documentary filmmaker you have to be the third person while shooting your film. Imagine that you are invisible while shooting and you just need to document whatever is happening. You can’t help anyone nor can you hurt anyone. Only when you shoot your film with utmost neutrality then only you will be able to shoot the reality. Let the audience decide who was at fault in the fight. We just document it for them to decide and ask questions about things.” I was not convinced that time but as time passed and as I matured as a filmmaker, I later understood what he meant. And that is why most of the documentary filmmakers are one of the coldest people emotionally around us. Because they understand reality like none of us do and that is why they see the world differently as a third person for whom there is nothing right and nothing wrong but just reality.
I applied this lesson many years later when I made another documentary called ‘Connecting the Dots’ where I was documenting a team of Indie filmmakers who participated in a 50 hours film making competition, IFP. They made two short films in 50 hours right from Script to shoot to edit and won the gold medal for both their films. I was with the team for straight 50 hours of the film production and when they visited Mumbai for the award ceremony. During the shoot, I was totally detached from the team in the sense that I was not helping them in any of their work. Everyone in the team was doing some work expect me. I was only shooting everyone. If anyone asked me for any help I just said no. I traveled by my own car, aet my own food and just shot. There were many instances when I felt I need to correct them of what they were doing but then I restrained myself from doing it. I detached myself from them. I was that third person who was just capturing whatever was happening. Watch the documentary below.
Back in 2013, after gaining experience in Delhi, I moved to my hometown Nagpur for a while. One day in summer while reading the newspaper I read this news about the man called Jadhav Payeng, who had single handed planted the jungle on a 1200 acres of deserted island. It was really inspiring for me so I cut the article from the newspaper and kept it with me. I started researching about him on the internet and found very little about him even though he was doing such great work. There I saw an opportunity to make a documentary film on him, on something that was never shown to the people. So in December, I along with my cameraman went to Assam, India to make a documentary film on him. We stayed with Jadhav in between the Brahmaputra river. We lived his life for the next 20 days. We ate fresh fish from the river and slept on tree tops. We charged out camera batteries with Solar panels and didn’t bathe for 10 days straight. We encountered Royal Bengal tiger, rhinos and elephants during our shoot and also came face to face with death too. I felt loneliness to it rudest form in the jungle and missed my family desperately for the first time there. But against all odds we completed the shoot.
We started our shoot by interviewing Jadhav and people associated with him or his life. We followed him with camera all the time wherever he would go and whatever he did. We spent enough time with him before starting the shoot and developed a trust between us. We played with his children and became their friends too. The documentary was called ‘Man who planted the jungle’ and was screened all over the world. The film was also shown at the prestigious President Award which was also given to Jadhav Payeng. After our documentary people came to know about Jadhav and he eventually won the Padma Shri Award in 2015. We don’t say it was our film that got him the awards but we take great pride in discovering this great man and introducing it to the wider audience through our documentary film. It made us realize how a film can impact the world and inspire people to do good work.
You can watch the full documentary ‘Man who planted the jungle’ here.
In the next Article we will talk about the Structure of a documentary film.