By Mridula Nath Chakraborty
Imagine this: a documentary titled Australia’s Children is broadcast on free-to-air television channels in seven countries around the world on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Australia protests against such high-handed parachute solidarity by the well-meaning international community and bans the doco in this antipodean nation. The popularity of the doco rises hundred-fold with millions of people watching it anyway on YouTube. Is there anything wrong in this picture?
This did not happen of course. What did happen was concerted protest against the broadcast of Struggle Street, a three-part documentary commissioned by Screen Australia in 2014, depicting the lives of nine families doing it tough in the Western Sydney suburb of Mt Druitt, which went to air on 6th May 2015. The producers of the doco, KEO Films Australia, in partnership with KEO Films (UK), have a strong ethical brand reputation and solid relationships with public broadcasters.
Their fly-on-the-wall observational approach this time round, however, was not going to work. Tuesday night before the scheduled broadcast, an emergency meeting with SBS management at Blacktown Council Chambers discussed the concerns of the residents of Mt Druitt about what the Mayor of Blacktown, Stephen Bali, termed “publicly-funded poverty-porn.” Seeking to stop the airing, he went on to state, “How dare they pick out a few people and treat them with contempt and actually have unethical practices, engineer scenes that are completely untrue, that are completely false. And try to pass off as documentary.”
Shock-jocks went into a tizzy and a blockade of garbage trucks circled SBS headquarters at Artarmon in a reversal of old cowboy techniques to protect their territory, and prevent the screening of the doco.
The aftermath of the furore of course proves the age-old adage, no publicity is bad publicity, and that in fact, bad publicity sells. Once the show aired, SBS ratings went through the roof; 925,000 metro viewers and 216,000 capital city viewers in time-shifted viewing; with discussions already in the pipeline about a second season. Amidst the chest-beatings and foaming-at-the-mouth bourgeois horror at 3-months-pregnant mothers on the bong, there was an acknowledgment that something significant was at work in the doco.
Far from being disrespectful, Struggle Street was a deeply insightful, sympathetic, delicate and dignified look at the lives of people who had been completely abandoned by society, due to structural and systemic failures of the state machinery. In a perceptive piece in newmatilda.com, Stuart Rees argued that the “SBS portrayal was not a stereotyping of all the residents of Mt Druitt, but a reminder of the consequences of policies crafted to continue social and economic inequality irrespective of Australia’s egalitarianism or Joe Hockey’s ‘have a go’ and ‘spend, spend, spend.’”
Shift to another day, another context. On the 6th of April 2015, ABC’s Four Corners aired India’s Daughter, produced by BBC4 and Assassin Films. Directed by Leslie Udwin, the controversial doco’s broadcast in seven countries around the world was brought forward to mark International Women’s Day (8th April).
The week before, the Indian government had banned its screening in India, with NDTV, one of the more respected television channels, protesting against the ban in a unique manner. For an entire-hour, NDTV displayed the title of the film in red and white against a black backdrop, illuminated only by a traditional oil wicker lamp. The running-text strapline below carried responses by well-known Indians to the film, expressing profound disquiet at the government ban.
NDTV’s protest was but one homage to the thousands of candle-lit vigils and impassioned, sustained civil-society protests that had followed the brutal rape and murder of a 23-year old woman on 16th December 2013 in a moving private vehicle on the roads of the capital city of Delhi. That young woman’s courage became immortalised in the honorific Nirbhaya (fearless) and provided the fuel and flashpoint for Indian women’s collective anger against patriarchal shackles that strive to bind and contain them.
However, the anonymity guaranteed to rape victims the world over was flagrantly flouted two years later by the documentary makers of India’s Daughter who outed the victim’s given name, even as the legal case against the perpetrators remained sub-judice. This, in spite of the fact that all over India, Nirbhaya was how she was referred to, in a gesture of feminist solidarity and collective symbolism, to emphasise that all women in India need to feel fearless.
Given India’s appalling statistics on rape crimes, the ‘how’ and ‘why’ this one particular incident became a litmus-case illustration of violence against women and mobilised the nation and its judiciary to review its stand on mitigation and redress is still under discussion. What has become more pronounced in the international arena is the way the BBC4 documentary attempts to deliver a particular verdict on India’s patriarchal society and its endemic structures of violence against women.
Adopting a familiar missionary position, where white women are constantly engaged in saving brown women from brown men, Leslie Udwin’s doco falls into the all-too predictable category of assuming the expert voice and telling ‘India’ what to do. It is as if the century-long Indian women’s movement that has been active on the street, in the home and in the corridors of institutions, and that has offered multiple perspectives and complex analyses of the condition of women in India, do not exist at all.
A cursory search of feminist organisations yields names like Bharat Stree Mahamandal, All India Democratic Women’s Association, All India Women’s Conference, Jagori, CREA, The 50 Million Missing Campaign, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Manushi, and social movements like Telangana, Chipko, ecofeminism etc. in which women have been at the forefront effecting radical change. The only ‘feminist’ voice that emerges in India’s Daughter is that of an academic from Oxford University, who presumably holds all the solutions to what besets India.
The insistence of such hegemonic feminism to hail the ‘singular’ case and make it stand-in for everything that is wrong with ‘other’ men is but another instance of a misplaced global sisterhood that was challenged fifty years ago by postcolonial and women-of-colour feminists. As Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, who emerged as one of the most influential activists during the massive anti-rape protests following the Nirbhaya case puts it, “Solidarity is what we want, not a civilising mission”.
The doco’s unthinking rehearsal of the very terms under which women in India have been oppressed is but a travesty of what has defined the contemporary response in India to patriarchal injustices.
Two docos, two audiences, the desire to expose injustice, and yet the tropes of reference that frame these narratives are poles apart. What is at stake here is not whether these documentaries should be made or not, or whether it is right or wrong to ban them.
No one disputes the real and pressing issues underlying the narratives, the quest for justice that fuels them, the utter sense of outrage at the continuing injustices in our contemporary humanity. But one would hope that nuance in representation and proper contextualisation of the issues can only strengthen the cause.
All documentaries are guilty of skewing the story in their desired direction, and probing into one’s own backyard is a challenging task for any society. Nevertheless we owe it to the dignity of the individuals represented in such works, to be scrupulously ethical and politically cognisant of the collective histories of resistance that shape them.
Image source: http://wamc.org/post/indian-rape-case-ignites-national-debate-abuse-women