Documenting / Provoking
We were in a remote village outside Araria, Bihar, just steps away from the Nepal border, gathered in an empty school room. In this room, 4 years ago, dozens of women were sterilized under gruesome, unhygienic conditions. Ten of those same women were sitting there with us to tell us about the lingering health conditions they still face because of the botched surgeries.
We were interested in their stories primarily because this camp spurred an investigation headed by activist Devika Biswas, who took their case to the Supreme Court of India. In September 2016, the Court ruled that sterilization camps were to be phased out over the next three years.
What we did not know, heading to Bihar in order to meet these women, is that they had no idea their narratives had inspired a Supreme Court case at all. They had no idea their experiences had affected national policy. When Devika read the ruling to them in their regional Thethi language on camera, this was the first they were hearing about any of this.
As we were filming them listening to details of the decision, the women became increasingly angry that they hadn’t received any compensation from the government after their sterilizations. Many have incurred significant medical bills for lingering health issues. They asked Devika what they could do to demand the compensation they believe they deserve. Hearing about their continued pain, Devika herself had become agitated to do something further for these women. She suggested taking their testimonies to the Bihar state government. The question became how to do so, when these women can’t write? She pointed at the camera. Video testimony, of course. Suddenly, we were players in this unfolding action. After filming the women’s testimonies, Devika took our video to the Bihar minister of family planning, and we filmed that meeting as well. It’s a film inside a film in the most self-reflexive way, as we capture the minister watching our footage. We were simultaneously participating in the narrative, leaving traces within the narrative, and capturing the narrative on camera.
If we hadn’t come to film, would these women have ever known about the court decision? Would Devika be reaching back out to the government to demand compensation on behalf of the women? Probably not. But what does that mean for the film?
As a documentary filmmaker, I feel my job is to document, and observe. That is not to say that documentary film is in any way objective - it is not. The moment you point a camera at one thing and not another, you are making a choice, and your voice is indirectly embedded into the film. However, the idea of affecting events somehow seems to be something different, somehow a breach of the implicit contract I make with my subjects as a documentary filmmaker. We quickly went from observers to instigators, the mere presence of the camera as a tool for inquiry a direct cause of the events we then continued to film.
I am concerned, perhaps, with the ontological implications of documentary filmmakers becoming intertwined the events that they then film. Am I stepping outside of some category of “documentarian” when I cease to just document, but to provoke? But this distinction between documenting and provoking: it quickly reveals itself as weak, and ultimately unimportant.
The mere presence of the camera, in any situation, alters the reality you are “observing”. The camera will cause events to happen, because subjects are unavoidably aware of themselves as subjects, as actors. Our situation was an extreme example of the camera affecting reality, but that causal relationship always exists.
This question drew me back to Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, a quiet documentary that explores what it means to place a camera in front of a subject. Johnson, historically a documentary cinematographer, weaved a film out of outtakes from other pieces she had worked on. These vignettes allow the viewer to question the complex relationship between subject and observer, and the subtle yet consistent way in which the camera shapes the reality it presents. Her comments off screen, her careful selection of a frame, her direction of subjects remind us that there is a person behind every camera, and there can be no objective lens. This relationship is precisely what makes documentary film what it is.
The illusion of objectivity, of “truth” that the contract of documentary presents is misleading and unexciting. Documentary is, at its essence, the portrayal of a reality that exists only because a camera has been placed in front of it. The most moving documentaries explore and embrace that essence.