A Brief History

In 1989, Magic Lantern Foundation (MLF) was working with a community engaged in a struggle over their rights to the forest. Our work in the area of the Shivalik foothills in UP had begun in 1986. We were a group of media professionals and social activists. We felt it was an appropriate environment to work with and assess what role does communication play in a process of social change. We worked with the local activists and villagers with different media like posters, photo-exhibitions, theatre, audio-visual educational tools and video. Those days, the use of video was limited to playbacks and discussions.

In 1986-87 when the struggle needed to expand further, we began to search for films on forest rights, so that we could screen them and raise a debate in the entire area. We did not find any. Additionally, as soon as the struggle began, the mainstream media began reporting it. Unfortunately, their representation of the struggle was biased and they mostly represented it as a ‘law and order’ problem. These paved the way for our first production, a documentary called Because of Our Rights.

We made the film without any financial assistance, with equipment on loan and through personal contributions. Once the film was completed, we needed to screen the film, in the area and outside to extend the debate on rights to forests. We also needed to recover costs to repay the studios. This was how Magic Lantern Foundation came into being. The small group of people who had initiated the communication project came together in 1989 to form the organisation that would disseminate and screen the film to extend the debate on forest rights. Additionally, the organisation would sell copies of the film to repay loans.

Starting in 1989 ‘Because of Our Rights’ was screened extensively, both within the area, and outside. Apart from raising local support for the struggle, the film helped to take the message of the struggle to many other regions, and abroad. Subsequently, in 1991 when the Government of India initiated a national consultation on formulating a policy on the environment and forests, the film played a small but significant role in that consultation. [We repaid the studios within six months.]

In 1993, MLF made Ballad of Builders, a film on the struggle of construction workers and campaigned with it all over the country. The role the film played in the struggle was again very significant as many workers and unions joined the struggle. These experiences made us realise the importance of and need for many such initiatives with media, that integrates media with struggles and local interventions.

For the next few years, we were engaged in screenings. Apart from ‘Because of Our Rights’ we acquired and screened a large number of films in the grassroots of India.

The close interactions with the grassroots formulated our vision and aim. We also realised the great potential the medium has for raising a debate, for initiating and strengthening a campaign. However, we needed to work on and develop mechanisms and methods for use that would take into account the vast diversity of the Indian grassroots. We needed to cross barriers of language, cultural diversity and sheer infra-structural nightmares like lack of electricity or roads.

Thus began another phase of MLF. Along with production of documentaries and campaigning with these, we were increasingly interacting with the grassroots with a view to use documentaries among activists and communities to assist in the process of social change. MLF formulated and conducted a series of training programmes, at two levels. One attempt focussed on imparting and improving skills of production. The other aimed at developing a critique of the dominant media amongst social activists as well as at locating methods and means to use the films effectively.

Simultaneously, we increasingly participated in networks and events in different fora – of filmmakers, film festivals, NGOs and institutions – nationally as well as internationally. We realised while working with the grassroots that there was a tremendous need to bridge the information gap that existed between media practitioners and the audience. To intervene at bridging this gap, we began to publish a quarterly magazine Media Mail (which later became Alternate Media Times). This magazine contained news and information about the developments in the realm of socially concerned press, theatre and documentaries. We also began to distribute and disseminate films, not only our own, but of other filmmakers too.

In 1998, we made a film Of Hosts and Hostages, on the disastrous impact of large-scale tourism on the hosts, which was used by the tourism action groups in Goa in a campaign. A shorter version of the film made in 1999, Goa Under Siege, drew national and international attention to the issue and contributed significantly to the local campaign. In 2000, we made a film Out of the Shadows on the UN committee that monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Shot in Canada, Argentina and Geneva the film addressed human rights groups as to how – and why – local groups can, or should, engage with such an international institution. Many national groups expressed the need for such a film in Indian languages. MLF has recently translated the film into Hindi.

For some time now, Magic Lantern has been working towards reaching independent films to its intended audience. In this area, MLF has been working closely with grassroots groups in India encouraging them to organise local film festivals and film screenings that can enable common people to watch social documentaries and participate in discussing the issues raised therein. In this regard, Magic Lantern has been helping a number of groups all over the country to get information on films, their sources and in the organisation of the festivals as well.

In January 2004, as a part of the Indian Cultural Committee, Magic Lantern Foundation organised Other Worlds Are Breathing, a global film festival for the World Social Forum 2004 held in Mumbai. 84 documentaries from 40 countries were screened to 2 packed auditoriums with a combined seating capacity of 800. Subsequently, in consultation with MLF, many national and international groups have culled from the WSF package to create locally relevant festivals and screenings. Once again, in 2005 we organised the Other Worlds Are Breathing 2005 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, followed by the 3 Screens Film Festival during the India Social Forum in 2006 and the Moving People Film Festival at the Nairobi WSF in 2007.

While continuing with most of the above activities, however, Magic Lantern Foundation is currently concentrating all its resources and energy on creating a non-broadcast, distribution centre for films for audiences in India and South Asia. The vision is to move towards an international distribution centre that will bridge the gap between independent Indian films and its audience, anywhere in the world. Based on this vision, in mid-2005 MLF began distribution under its initiative named Under Construction. From a modest beginning with a handful of films, Under Construction now has almost 250 films from all over the world, many of which have won multiple awards at renowned film festivals.

Along with disseminating films, MLF is working towards reaching films to the civil society more effectively. MLF regularly screens films at various audience fora, particularly amongst students, and encourages film screenings in smaller cities and towns by supporting local groups in organising film festivals. Simultaneously, MLF also curates larger film festivals and events that attempt to integrate films with other art forms. In 2008, 2009 and 2010, MLF organised three editions of the Persistence Resistance film festival, which showcased the films that are being distributed by Under Construction. Along with films, both editions of the festival attempted to bring together artists and art movements that spanned across diverse mediums and explored the symbiotic relationships between various art forms. The festivals also tried to compliment the diversity of the films with a similar diversity in viewing experiences by creating a multitude of viewing spaces.

Selected films from both the editions of Persistence Resistance traveled to various places. A selection from the 2008 edition traveled to London. Selections from the 2009 edition has already traveled to the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, where 52 films were shown in three days to students of FTII and citizens of Pune, Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai and National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. A selection from Under Construction was screened at the MIFF 2010. Persistence Resistance is likely to travel to many other cities in the coming months.