We need to be saved from our own intelligence: Filmmaker Sarvnik Kaur

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We need to be saved from our own intelligence: Filmmaker Sarvnik Kaur
New Delhi: Modern humans look at death as a finality because we suffer from a lack of imagination. In the story of modern humans, he is at the centre of everything whilst Kolis with their ancestral knowledge views it as a perpetual flux much like the movement of the tides, feels filmmaker Sarvnik Kaur.

Kaur’s internationally acclaimed documentary film ‘Against the Tide’, after winning a special Jury prize in Verite Filmmaking at Sundance Film Festival 2023, is making its South Asian premiere at Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2023 in the South Asia Competition Section.

“The Arabian Sea is dying and for the Kolis, it is as if the death of a parent. But they are also not at odds with nature, but one with it – we are because the sea is – this profound understanding of the cycle of life and death or an act of surrender to the idea that death is another name for regeneration,” she says.

The 97-minute film in Koli, Marathi, and Hindi languages which premiered in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance has won eight awards including the UN Perception Change Award. It revolves around two friends – Rakesh and Ganesh, both indigenous Koli Fishermen in Mumbai, who are driven to desperation by a dying sea, and their friendship begins to fracture as they take very different paths to provide for their struggling families. They both are inheritors of the great Koli knowledge system — a way to harvest the sea by following the moon and the tides. Rakesh has kept faith in the traditional fishing methods while Ganesh has moved away from them, embracing technology.

Talk to Kaur about how the film was conceived, and she shares the events that led to the genesis of the movie — a spiritual and moral crisis that led her on to this long pilgrimage that brought her home to herself and birthed this story in the process.

“I was deeply conflicted about the values that I was raised with and how at odds they were with the world I was living in. On one hand, I felt that my values of gratitude, love, and satisfaction are holding me back from being successful and fully participating in life as I should be. Rakesh led me to discover for myself that the experience of living life has very little to do with worldly riches, power and success. Ganesh understands that the Kolis are endangered. He wants Kolis to survive just as I wanted to survive in this harsh world.

“Rakesh made me understand that life is paradoxical; what we chase will always remain out of reach and to truly gain we have to be willing to lose. I am surprised that this inquiry has resulted in a film. Yes, I wanted to make a film about the displacement of the Kolis from their ancestral villages but Rakesh and Ganesh’s conversations started to show as this ongoing dialogue between the heart and the mind – their love made me understand that the world is in crisis because this dialogue has ceased to happen,” she recalls.

Even in the face of opposite winds, Kaur is optimistic that Koli fisherfolk will not go hungry as Rakesh always stresses that he just needs to step into the sea to find sustenance for himself and his family. This belief in his own ability and the support structure of the community are at the core of his ability to navigate life with all its hardships and uncertainties.

Kaur adds that Kolis are not endangered, but the modern man is. “We need to be saved from our own intelligence, our cleverness, our egos. We have forgotten that we are all deeply connected to everything and everyone. In our pursuit for happiness, we have reduced life into a two-dimensional quest of losing and gaining.”

The national award-winning filmmaker (Soz: A Ballad of Maladies’) has made this film after a long. “Doordarshan did not screen ‘A Ballad of Maladies’ and I suffered emotionally because I felt coopted by the award. However, that feeling sent me in search of my own value system and a new film was born. I am now grateful that I felt such despair because I would never have experienced the magic that unfolded in front of my eyes over the last six years of making this film.”

“As the conversation veers towards the poor state of film distribution scenario in the documentary genre, she feels it is symptomatic of the times we are living in considering the fact that the only titles that make money are considered to be of value and others are not. “We as filmmakers have to be driven by the belief that our work is of value whether it finds distribution or not because it is arrived at by following a process, finding joy in that process, turning up every day with the faith that it will make sense someday – even if not to everyone else ..,” she says.

While documentary filmmaking may be like living life itself with all its vagaries and complexities, she says it is also a process of relationship building as reflected in the story one sees on the screen. “And the camera does not lie, so if we are conceited in the process then it will show on screen as will love and honesty if that is the approach. The implication of the power dynamic between the filmmaker and the film’s characters is forever changing, accepting that reality and navigating it with honesty and respect is the only way to exercise the privilege of being a witness to someone’s life.”

For her non-fiction filmmaking is the path of least resistance and she is challenged to find any other profession that highlights the paradoxical nature of life.

“I have to forget the pursuit to follow the process, empty myself to let the story flow. Non-fiction storytelling gives me a chance to practice life as an art form. It astonishes me that an ‘Against the Tide’ emerged from my sense of curiosity about the world – that when I set out to find the story, I was led to it as if by the nose. My journey so far has helped me articulate to myself that ‘I don’t know enough’ but I am keen to learn and willing to undertake this conscious process of removing my inherent resistance to learning so I can arrive at a story that is like life itself,” concludes the filmmaker who is researching for next film.


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