GIFF interviews Joor Baruah, director of the Guam International Film Festival Grand Jury Nominee, “Adi | At the Confluence”. (Screening Thursday, November 17, at 8:20PM. CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION)
GIFF: Thank you for taking the time for this GIFF interview and congratulations are in order. First off, your film, “Adi | At the Confluence” is a GIFF Grand Jury Nominee for Best Documentary Short and has just recently completed the PBS POV Digital Lab in San Francisco. Well done! With as many accolades the film has already received, how does this add to the purpose and value of the film?
JOOR: Hafa Adai. Namaskar. A sincere thanks to GIFF2016 and The Guam Museum for this wonderful opportunity. Being nominated by the Jury along side such inspiring filmmakers is truly an honor. Though I live in California now, I grew up in the state of Assam, in the Brahmaputra valley of northeast India. A region beautiful and diverse with over 200 ethnicities, yet with its unique series of problems. I have always felt for the tribes of this region. Through this documentary, I attempt to echo the voice of the Adi people living of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh on the Indo-China border and celebrate their resilience in a confluence of issues related to their land, water and identity.
I want their voice to be heard, by New Delhi and Beijing. Beyond as well. Their story is a microcosm of other ethnic tribes there and similar situations across the world.
I want more and more people to watch my film and other films about people in liminal spaces and be aware of their issues. With support, I will complete a more didactic and analytical feature length version of Adi as well as explore new media forms. Digital storytelling is an emerging channel with the millennia’s access to media and overall decreasing attention span of viewers with so much content around. This form helps personalize the experience and enables a co-created spectatorship with its own metrics. Hence, I am very happy that my project was selected for the 2016 PBS POV Digital Lab San Francisco workshop and a new channel is being considered for Adi, which will augment awareness of the subject.
GIFF: So regarding the POV Digital Lab, we noticed that it lists “Adi” as an ‘interactive documentary’. Please tell us about that. Describe the experience at the event, the people involved and how this provides the film a new dimension with both its subjects and its audience. (Click here for “Adi | At the Confluence” on PBS POV SF)
JOOR: Interactive documentary (idoc) is a new way of telling storytelling and engagement with the viewers, who are also participants in creation of meaning. This genre is going through a phase of discovery with some projects being more effective than others. Perhaps, it is the bridge between conventional documentary form and the world of VR/immersive 360 experiences. National Film Board of Canada, POV Digital Lab and New York Times OpDocs are examples of institutions investing resources and leading this movement. Being chosen for the POV Digital Lab in SF was a great experience. There were six project teams. Our six-member team comprising of Patricia G. Antelles, Devin Peek, Antonia Antonova, Bennett Buchanan, Alan W. Tu and myself was an interesting mix of filmmakers, content creators, virtual reality experts and inventive technologists. The goal of this incubator is to facilitate a “re-imagination of the documentary for web”. It was amazing to spend marathon hours in the swanky KQED headquarters in San Francisco under the mentorship of experts like Adnaan Wasey (POV), Suzana Greco (Skoll Foundation), Keir Winesmith (SFMOMA), and Pete Billington (Oculus Story Studio).
The idea of an interactive digital version of Adi | At The Confluence is to tell the same story (that will be presented in GIFF) through an interactive digital platform (web or touch sensitive interfaces/exhibits) using a combination of audio, video, photo, illustrations, maps, and real time integration with news/social media. The intent is to give the viewer the choice to create their own journey of discovering the Adis. In conventional linear story telling we have a beginning, middle (conflict) and end. The idoc form does not necessarily follow this structure, for example, the conflict can be a series of incremental epiphanies for the user. The end can be the beginning!
GIFF: How did you make the connection with “Adi’s” premise and Guam’s cultural identity?
JOOR: There are uncanny parallels between the cultural identity of Arunachal Pradesh (the state where the Adi people live) and Guam; or between the Adis and the Chamorros. Both are beautiful indigenous communities with populations of similar size. Both have shared history of colonization. The Chamorros by the Spanish (later Americans); the Adis by the British (their neighboring Tibetans by the Chinese). In WWII, the Japanese invaded both Northeast India and Guam. The relationship of the Adi state of Arunachal Pradesh with mainstream India is perhaps in many ways similar to the relationship between Guam and United States- alienated, yet with a complicated sense of nationality. There is always presence of guns – US armed forces in Guam and the Indian/Chinese army in the border of Arunachal Pradesh. Young people in both these places are moving away – from Pasighat to New Delhi and from Hagåtña to New York. Less and less people speak Austronesian Chamorros or Tibeto-Burman Adi. The Guamanian Carabao and the Adi Mithuns are also getting endangered. For both, music, food and philosophy are important. Overall, both cultural identities are under threat. This analogy can go on and can also be extended to many Indegenious communities across the world.
GIFF: Random question: What did you know about Guam before hearing about GIFF?
JOOR: It is strange but I so clearly remember a discussion about Guam. I lived in Tokyo from 2000 to 2002. During that time I spend a lot of time with a dear friend from Colombo. He had recently got married to a lady from Manila and we used to practice our Japanese together after work. One such winter evening, as we were drinking sake in Shinjuku and dreaming about vacations, my friend’s wife suggested we should plan a trip to Philippines and then escape to the blue waters of Guam. I had heard about the island of Guam, an U.S. territory, but it was only after that discussion that I read more about Guam, saw photographs and marked Hagåtña very high in my to visit wish list. Having grown up in a region alienated from mainstream India, I remember being able to spontaneously relate to the social, political and cultural sensitivities of Guam.
GIFF: As a filmmaker, what was the most challenging aspect of producing a documentary with such a widely opinionated topic caught between the crossroads of cultural preservation, human rights and social issues?
JOOR: One year of pre-production research with the help of subject matter experts in India and Documentary Filmmaking at the Film+Digital Media Department of University of California, Santa Cruz, helped me immensely. In the field, though there were occasional threats like floods, landslides, warnings and a dengue epidemic, I was able to travel to remote Adi villages for my exploration and filming. Thankfully, most of the Adis speak Assamese, the language of the valley, also my mother tongue. My interlocutors helped me with unprecedented access to the people, experts, villages, festivals, Kebangs (traditional courts) and Donyi-Polo (philosophy of Sun and the Moon) rituals and the Solung (planting festival) celebrations etc. Thereafter, finding my style/voice and compressing 120 hours of interviews and observational footage to 20 minutes was indeed a challenge.
GIFF: Describe the conscious decision of pursuing and balancing your viewpoints on the matter of the film to accurately portray the story of its subjects to your audiences.
JOOR: The issues faced by the Adis or the people of Arunachal Pradesh or of northeast India are complicated and layered. They are in crossroads; in confluence; and balancing points of views was another challenge. Throughout the production and post production process, I had to be conscious of various perspectives – young/old; men/women; urban/rural; educated/illiterate; people from hills/valleys; pro-dams/anti-dams; pro-local governance/pro-state judiciary; pro-bridge building/anti bridge-building; Adis around the old town of Pasighat/the cosmopolitan mix in the capital city of Itanagar; perspectives of Guwahati/New Delhi and Beijing.
I believe in 24 truths per second. There is always a point of view. I feel I had a unique perspective. I was situated both an insider (an Assamese from the valley who could speak to the Adi brothers and sisters in the hills) and an outsider with an international perspective/not necessarily one of India or China (being away for more than 15 years). So, that helped me focus on letting the Adis, their hills and their rivers tell the story with my narration working mostly as a tool to connect the threads. I do have my own POV regarding the subject. If that was visible, it was intentional, as my position, as someone from the valley downstream, was also made visible as well. Sticking to a ‘poetic’ treatment with a ‘series of encounters’ as the narrative agent, I wanted to stay diegetic (instead of didactic) and portray the depth of the conflict through a fragile hanging bridge instead of sensational show of guns in the border. The feature length version may be a different approach, perhaps more didactic and news like.
GIFF: What do you hope GIFF audiences will get from “Adi | At the Confluence”?
JOOR: I hope you get the feeling that though you are in this beautiful small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – you are not alone. You have shared situations in the Adis by the Siang or Assamese by the Brahmaputra, or for that matter with indigenous communities across the world.
GIFF: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JOOR: I am so excited that the GIFF screenings will take place in The (brand new) Guam museum. I have seen photographs and elegant architecture is impressive. In lot of ways, it is places like Guam, where such museums and archives of peoples and cultures are crucial.
GIFF: Thanks for taking the time, Joor and congratulations again! Is there anything you’re looking forward to most from GIFF 2016?
JOOR: It is unfortunate (for me) that I will not be able to attend the festival. I send my best wishes for a successful festival celebrating your truly diverse portfolio of work by inspiring filmmakers and artivist around the world. I hope I get to visit Guam some day soon!