When a documentary is overshadowed by bad practices – El Sol de México

Months after the Indian film The Elephant Whisperers he will win Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film at the Academy Awards Last March, the mahout (elephant rider or caretaker) couple, Bomman and Bellie, protagonists of the film, filed a legal notice, in which they demanded 20 million rupees (about 330 thousand dollars) from the filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves and the production company of the film, Sikhya Entertainment, directed by Guneet Monga.

The couple complained of being subjected to difficult situations during filming and the expenses incurred to help execute scenes at the filmmaker’s convenience.

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In defense, the creators issued a statement in which, although they do not respond directly to the accusations, they say that the film raised awareness about the mahout community and generated socioeconomic benefits for them.

They mentioned donations from MK Stalin, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, to help 91 elephant keepers in the two elephant camps of the state.

Curiously, the controversy centered on the issue of financial compensation following the film’s success, thereby overshadowing the structural conditions of the film. Documentary film contemporary that probably affected this complication in the first place.

The lost history

Set in the Theppakadu elephant campinside of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, The Elephant Whisperers dramatizes the emotional bond between the couple and an orphaned elephant, Raghu, whom they have raised since he was found as a baby dying of injuries.

During the film’s 41-minute runtime, viewers witness idyllic moments of human-animal relationships that reach their peak when the forest authorities finally separate Raghu from the couple.

As the filmmaker points out, The short film aims to highlight “the beauty of the wild spaces of South India and the people and animals that share this space.” However, in this approach, he fails to generate a critical understanding of the systemic problems that hinder elephant conservation practices.

These include the underpaid contracts of mahouts with temples and the tourism industry, or, as they have documented activists in Keralathe excessive and abusive work of captive mammals, leading to a high mortality rate of elephants in that province.

Despite Bomman and Bellie come from the Kattunayakan tribethe documentary ignores the deceptive resettlement of Kattunayakan, Paniyan and other Adivasi communities by the forest department of their ancestral villages in the buffer zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. He also doesn’t dwell on the filmmakers’ navigation of the indigenous environment and their framing of the story as outsiders.

The couple complained of being subjected to difficult situations during filming and of the expenses incurred to help execute scenes, at the convenience of filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves.

Preference for the individual over the social

In his article “How does it end? History and the form of property”, the filmmaker and writer Brett Story criticizes the conventional three-act narrative structure that prevails in contemporary nonfiction narratives.

These narratives usually include a main character with a heroic journey, a climax and a resolution. According to her, This narrative structure is considered universally valid and timeless.

But the most important thing is that This structure corresponds to the “form of property” under capitalism. There is a bias towards the individualism of the “hero” who owns history, as if it were property. As a result, documentary film markets tend to prioritize a “preference for the individual over the social, ‘character’ over condition, experience over consciousness.”

Unpaid work

Simultaneous with this preference for individual heroes is the unrecognized work of the documentary’s protagonist. The media specialist Silke Panse Maintains that “the work of the protagonist of the documentary cannot be seen separately from the aesthetics of the work”. She describes the emotional and material labor involved when performing for the documentary gaze. This work co-creates the quality, form and nature of the images. Therefore, in documentary realism, the “protagonists are the image.”

When the history it becomes a marketable product, the conditions of production, processes and relationships behind the narrative are further obscured. It devalues ​​the passage of negotiations and emotional investments that contribute to the filmmakers’ relationship with the documentary subjects. Postdoctoral scholar Emily Coleman argues that, in this context, the construction of relationships between creator and subject should be understood as “a creative work practice.”

The independent filmmakers They often begin with self-funded documentary projects, motivated by underlying feelings of responsibility toward the issues at hand. As for wildlife documentaries, film scholar Alexa Weik von Mossner highlights the “altruistic motivation” behind the emotional animal stories that end up helping filmmakers connect their projects to specific conservation projects.

But personal altruism fuels power dynamics between those who care about representing and those who need representation.

Market threat

Supporting the development of creative nonfiction projects It is obtained mainly through presentation sessions in documentary film forums such as Hot Docs, Sheffield DocFest or the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival.

These spaces facilitate a financial market for producers, commissioning editors, broadcasters, film festival scouts and related commercial agents. According to Francesco Ragazzi, associate professor of international relations at Leiden University, this financing circuit is based exclusively on attracting profits and a large audience. Filmmakers Pushed Toward Character-Driven Narrative Documentaries that can be sold to a broader demographic.

Ragazzi notes that typical launch forum questions, such as “Can your character last 52 minutes?” either “What is the story arc of the movie?” shape the values and the esthetic of the Documentary film contemporary.

With The Elephant Whisperersafter what Gonsalves to begin independent production round in 2017, Netflix accepted their promotional proposal in 2020. The producer Monga also joined the project after its preliminary development.

Reassessment of the conditions of participation

It is not surprising that complaints arise controversial sobre the extensive work hidden behind documentary stories compact and character-based once the films have achieved substantial success or cultural capital.

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Although the production and distribution companies must compensate documentary subjectsit is equally necessary to reevaluate the terms and conditions of people’s participation in creative nonfiction projects.

The reasons for market-driven documentary storytelling reduces people to attention-grabbing characters and their lives serve dramaturgy. This extractive approach is characterized by transactional terms. Filmmakers and producers must recognize subjects as co-creative partners in the production and distribution processes. To do this, it is first necessary to change the documentary narrative.

*PhD student, Media Studies, Western University.

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