The post-global economy has precipitated numerous networks to cater to a renewed notion of access. In this mind numbing speed of image circulation, the idea of virtual access is no longer correlated to an intangible culture of consumption. Rather, it breaks the tyranny of traditional archives and democratizes knowledge along with the access to the material object. But, while on the one hand conventional archives are giving way to various web portals, the absence of traditional mechanism of distribution, and the fact that documentaries in India continue to occupy a marginal place of non-theatrical release sites such as film festivals, vouches for a more arduous route for distribution of documentaries.
Established at the confluence between art and economics, and premised on our contention with the sole idea of circulation of the film object, Magic Lantern seeks to built a culture of knowledge around the practice that is integrated in its distribution system. We set up a distribution centre for independent films in 2005, to bridge the gap between films and audiences, to facilitate a culture of vibrant discourse, as well as to create the ease of access to an eclectic collection from a single source.
The Under Construction journey had begun during mid-2005 with a desire to disseminate independent films that would provide civil society with a range of voices and discourses and enable a re-look at the terrain of knowledge and culture both as a site and practice. We have carefully curated a truly eclectic range of films that demonstrate diverse issues and form. This work of curation is an integral part of the distribution activity and is critical for presenting a collective but plural picture in terms of politics, form and craft. Moreover, it is this body of work that creates a mechanism and tool for us to work with the politics of visibility.
We have a collection of almost 1200 films that we curated for distribution. However, this collection also creates an archive or repository of some of the finest films from India and the world that is available for public access. In the process of collecting we encountered and overcame many limitations. For instance, in the popular understanding the political film is one that represents political events. However, we found that definition to be limited, as it tended to leave out work that explored everyday lives and desires, or films that engaged with the folk cultures or memory; issues that are crucial to the rendition of the ‘political.’ Hence we stepped into the arena of the aesthetic.
The collection celebrates the diverse nature of films in India today. The aim is to present a range of subjects and forms and to interrogate the emerging aesthetics of filmmaking.
From the beginning we have tried to create a fair, transparent and accountable model of distribution. We realised that the traditional terms of distribution are largely one-sided in favour of the distributor and very little is offered to the creator, and this is true for all sectors of creative activities – be it craftspeople, inventors, writers, painters – and filmmakers as well. Keeping this in mind, we begin with the premise that the intellectual property of the films rests with the concerned filmmakers and we take only the rights to disseminate them in the territories they allot us. It is also a non-exclusive dissemination mechanism whereby the filmmaker is free to give his or her films to other distributors in the same territory. We remit 60% of every sale to the filmmaker as royalty. We use the remaining 40% for mastering, duplication, packaging, promotion and dissemination. We provide detailed sale reports bi-annually and royalties once a year. In order to create a transparent system of accountability we have created a database system by which inventory records of every film can be accessed and verified at any time.
The films we distribute cover a range of themes and ideas that is truly very wide. We have Biographies – from the story of the life of three sex-workers providing a nuanced view of prostitution, one in which violence and victimhood sit side by side with a relentless drive to survive; to Mariammal, the Dalit woman who spends her days cleaning shit from the streets of Madurai; or the extraordinary presence, even today, of the 12th century feminist poet, Mahadevi Akka. Many of our films deal with Exclusion, be it because of caste, identity, ethnicity or economic subjugation. A large number of films are on Ethnography – religious minorities, indigenous people and diaspora; Films on Gender tell stories of everyday lives, of desires, of conflict, on the ever neglected birth attendents who handle almost 50% of the births in India; the assertion of the queer people against the harsh realities of homophobia; hilarious and yet serious exploration of the engagements of contemporary women in urban India with feminism; or a search for public toilets in Bombay, watching who has to queue to pee.
Engagement with Public Cultures
The collective body of films that we distribute offer new ways to work with public cultures in India and the world. It opens up the concepts of an archive and thus truncates the false umbilical cord – often enforced by commercial cinema and its ‘run’ – between cinema and temporality. It makes works of art active and offers an opportunity to keep them alive beyond the dictates of temporal logic. It allows silenced and marginalised voices and stories to enter the public arena to articulate, to question, and challenge. The new and emerging aesthetics also help to challenge the popular misconception that documentaries are boring. Further, the collective body of work provides infinite opportunities to link individual films under different topics to illustrate diverse themes. Hence while individual films articulate plural concerns and aesthetics, each subject-collection allows for multiple rendition and articulation in different times, spaces and cultures.
Some thanks are in order here. Our journey began because of Vijaya Mulay, better known as Akka. When she received the life-time achievement award at the Mumbai International Film Festival 2002 she donated the prize money to us to start the work with. She said: you have talked about it long enough, now do it. Akka’s support was truly heroic and gave us the moral resource to step into this difficult and unknown arena.
In November 2012 we had to change our home, the not-for-profit Magic Lantern Foundation and create a new identity. This became necessary because of changes in law that govern the activities of not-for-profit. Magic Lantern Movies LLP came into being and expanded the initiative by bringing in another archive, that of the Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs. The PD, MEA has commissioned films since 1980 decades and have a gold mine of classic films. We are delighted to present the entire collection here.