If the government won’t, we will. Shillong has gifted itself a unique film festival, says Janice Pariat
GOVERNMENT FUNDED film festivals in Shillong (often the only kind) come and go like the April showers — everyone’s sure they happen at some point but no one remembers ever getting wet. The scant publicity, resulting in three odd souls lost among the empty seats, makes one think that the organisers long gave up on the idea of convincing anyone to come and actually watch the films.
A local film club, Red Door, and an organisation dedicated to creative expression and activism called ‘altspace’, believed they could do better and so they did — with the “small town film festival”, organised with people’s sponsorship, to challenge the graveyard lull that descends on Shillong every winter.
“The idea behind this,” explains Tarun Bhartiya, co-founder of alt-space, “was to celebrate Shillong’s smallness and uniqueness and its similarities to (and differences from) small towns across the world.” Like how Namrata Gaikwad, a doctoral student from the University of Minnesota, saw parallels between Shillong’s hilly isolation and the sleepy middle-of-nowhere town in Navdeep Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under. Or local journalist Rohan Dhar’s feeling that the unemployment problems in Flint, Michigan (explored in Michael Moore’s Roger and Me), resonated across the world in Shillong. Or local school teacher Melanie War’s film-inspired nostalgia: “Cinema Paradiso reminded me of how we would all go watch movies in Kelvin Cinema (before it burnt down). We’d huddle into the hall and crane our necks to see the screen.”
The theme of the festival was neatly mirrored in the compact and intimately sized venue — a deliberate choice to encourage interaction and, according to Bhartiya, a throwback to the 50s when watching movies in Shillong was an important community activity. The jadoh stall selling local food outside with chulas-to-warm was further encouragement to linger and talk and feel a part of something.
The festival’s selection of films were chosen for exposure, not just to a wider, bigger world of cinema, but also to the local features and documentaries flavoured in the familiar and everyday. But exposure apart, the attempt was also to bring together filmmakers, film students and film lovers at a time when the state’s film industry is still extremely nascent; culminating in a panel discussion on the final day on “Problems and Prospects of Local Cinema” with Shillong-based filmmakers Raphael Warjri and Pradip Kurbah in attendance.
The highlight of the festival, however, was the screening of the first Khasi film ever made. Synjuk Ri ki Laiphew Syiem (roughly translating into ‘The Alliance of Thirty Kings’). Directed and produced by Hamlet Bareh Ngapkynti, it’s a historical account of the commercial and social practices of the Khasis. The audience only saw 60 percent of the film as the rest of the celluloid print is badly damaged. “We’d like to hold a signature campaign to demand that this movie be restored and preserved by the government,” says Wanphrong Diengdoh, Red Door’s co-founder. The first Khasi film in colour, the award-winning Manik Raitong could not be screened because the only print copy in the state cannot be found. They plan to screen it, if they can find it, at next year’s festival. Perhaps a good time to visit Shillong.