IT IS HARD TO MISS the brochure lying on documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak’s table. It explains, in Hindi, the schedule of the Fourth Gorakhpur Film Festival, organised this February by the Jan Sanskriti Manch. First staged in 2005, it has since become an annual event in the eastern Uttar Pradesh town. It is perhaps one of several indicators that documentary cinema, traditionally considered to be the preserve of a niche metropolitan audience, is moving away from the metro-festival circuit and finding new channels of circulation.
Kak is no stranger to the process. He recalls that when he began screening Jashn-e-Azadi, his last film on the meaning of azadi (or freedom) in Kashmir, he realised that people all over India were already familiar with his earlier film on Narmada Bachao Andolan, Words on Water.
With film festivals screenings in small cities such as Gorakhpur, Patna, Allahabad, Surat, Bhilai and Yamunanagar over the last three years, the independent documentary seems to have grown into a viable cinematic medium. It is a form that contains both fluidity and experimentation, complexity and a certain transparency. There is a political vision and a critical edge, but also scope for asking questions about social memory, alternative and often forgotten histories, and cultures of protest and transgression. There are films being made on and around gender, sexuality, urban life, identity, art and subaltern cultural practices.