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Land, life and water
A region 0 DVD review of DROWNED OUT by Slarek
 

"We will drown, but we will not move."

 

When I reviewed Marc Singer's superb Dark Days a couple of years back (the review was re-posted to this site in December 2003), I challenged anyone to name ten documentaries they had seen at the cinema the previous year, knowing full well that few living outside of a major metropolitan area would be able to do so. In the time since that film did its limited rounds, the international runaway success of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine has prompted (or perhaps coincided) with a renewed public interest in the documentary feature, and in the past few months alone we have seen UK cinema releases, complete with sizeable press coverage, for Capturing the Friedmans, The Fog of War, Fahrenheit 9/11 and a good few others. All of which is good news – after years of marginalisation, documentary features are being widely discussed alongside their mainstream dramatic counterpart.

There is a sneaking suspicion, though, that this new-found enthusiasm by established distributors for releasing documentary material in cinemas and on special edition DVDs comes less from excitement about the content than the combination of Bowling's commercial muscle and the marketable badge of Oscar or Cannes wins and nominations. It's also worth noting that each of the above listed films is American in origin and deals with American issues. Take a wander outside the English speaking world and tackle a subject that's not in the news at the time of release and you'll still struggle to attract a major distributor or even production funding. As a result, getting your film seen by an audience of any significant size becomes something of a problem, and if your documentary was shot on DV on a budget too small to calculate and you're dealing with a political issue that isn't 'sexy', then God help you. Which, frankly, is bloody tragic, as there is some excellent and important work being done at this level that demands to be seen but has to be literally hunted out. In the past year we have seen, amongst others, Leila Sansour's compelling Jeremy Hardy vs. the Israeli Army and Chris Reeves' eye-opening look at the Iraq war from an angle few will have seen before, Human Shields in Iraq. And now we have, courtesy of the independent production company Spanner Films, the remarkable Drowned Out.

A little background. The Indian government has embarked on one of the most ambitious dam-building projects in recent memory, funded by a loan from the World Bank. To the people of the drought-ravaged Northern districts this could mean water and electricity, but to the indigenous inhabitants of Jalsindhi – people known as Avidasis, whose village is due to be submerged by the construction of the giant Narmada Dam – it represents an end to a way of life that has existed for generations. As protests against the dam-building become more widespread and the government's promises of relocation and water distribution are called into question, the villagers decide they would rather drown in their homes than move from their ancestral land.

Increasingly, of late, documentary features have been successfully competing with their dramatic counterparts by employing many of their cinematic techniques, whether it be the stylistics of Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time), the humour, pace and confrontational tactics of Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11) or the thriller pacing of Kevin McDonald (One Day in September, Touching the Void). Often this sees them beating the dramatic features from whom they have borrowed at their own game. But this latest work from Franny Armstrong – the young director of the fascinating McLibel: Two Worlds Collide (1997), which both the BBC and Channel 4 have shamefully bottled out of showing – is having none of it. This is a documentary of the old school, told at an unhurried pace and using interviews, a sober voice-over and illustrative graphics, and employing not a hint of cinematic trickery to seduce those with an MTV attention span. What the film does have, and what makes it such a compelling and persuasive work, is a subject very worthy of everyone's attention and response, and a deceptively straightforward but beautifully developed structure that mirrors World Bank investigator Dr. Hugh Brody's description of how his team discovered the full extent of the problems behind the Narmada dam project: "There wasn't a moment of revelation," he says "it was much more the peeling an onion." He may well have been describing Armstrong's film, which employs this very approach, as fact after fact is revealed to ultimately devastating effect.

Given the synopsis supplied with the film and our familiarity with the Take No Prisoners approach of Michael Moore, John Pilger and others (whose work I do greatly admire, I should point out), Armstrong's method is initially a little disarming in being so even-handed, leaving you unsure just where your sympathies should lie. The opening scenes quickly establish that the Jalsindhi villagers' self-sufficient way of life is to be turned upside-down by the construction of the dam and we are left in no doubt of the wrongness of this move. But having done this, Armstrong then introduces us to enthusiastic dam engineer Ashok Ghjjar and the initially reasonable-sounding Irrigation Minister minister Jay Narayan Vyas, and takes us to a village in the drought-ravaged northern region of Gujarat, whose groundwater level is dropping at the alarming rate of over a metre a year, a situation that the diverted water from the dam is intended to alleviate, and our sympathies can't help but shift. Though we still care for the plight of the Jalsindhi villagers, we can't help but wonder that if a few have to be resettled in order to benefit millions for whom water is a luxury, is this not a price worth paying?

Except, of course, it's not that simple. As the film progresses and more details emerge, it becomes clear that this reasonable-sounding reading of the situation is in fact the very one being promoted by the Indian government. And they are not telling the whole story, not by a long shot. As the questions start to pile up, the answers offered prove increasingly unsatisfactory. It turns out that we're not talking about a handful of villagers, but 25,000 people from 162 villages (a staggering 16 million people have been displaced over the entire course of the Big Dam project), and investigations by the World Bank – who only got involved again because of the repeated protestations of Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy, the tireless determination of protest group founder Medha Patkay, and a very public hunger strike – suggest that the project is technically flawed in a number of ways and that it is unlikely that any of the water can be effectively transported to those most in need. The simple fact of the matter is that it just won't travel that far. It will, however, make it to the 'Golden Corridor' industrial belt that sits handily en route, where companies are already erecting huge plants to make full use of this new water supply. It becomes clear that the Jalsindhi villagers are having their homes and livelihoods sacrificed not for others like them, a decision that would be morally questionable in itself, but for the needs and greed of big business and a government it appears to have in its pocket. Sound familiar? It should.

Having lived and successfully farmed their ancestral land for twelve generations (one village elder effortlessly recounts his family history back that far), the villagers know and want no other way of life. The government promises relocation, but when their spokesman, the affable and hugely likeable Luhariya, is taken to see two of the proposed resettlement sites, he encounters land that has either been already allocated to others or is impossible to effectively irrigate due to a salt-heavy or polluted water supply. The inhabitants of many other villages are not offered land at all, just a cash settlement that will last only a few weeks in whatever new location they may end up, usually an overcrowded city slum. And this is just the start. As we increasingly connect with Luhariya, his family and his fellow villagers, their determination to drown with their property rather than relocate becomes one we can genuinely empathise with – who in their right mind would want to exchange a simple but in many ways idyllic existence for a life of misery, disease and unemployment on the very bottom rung of an overpopulated industrial society? But to the Jalsindhi people it is more than that – they have been self-sufficient farmers for countless years and this is not about a lifestyle change, but simple survival. By the time you get to this DVD's extra features and hear Luhariya's wife Bulgi say "The government won't allow us to die – and yet they won't give us land to live," you have a clear understanding of just what she means.

One of Drowned Out's many and considerable strengths is that it packs an extraordinary wallop without ever becoming overly dogmatic. The matter-of-fact narration and the calm, thoughtful interviews most effectively build an unanswerable case that has rightly prompted widespread public outrage in India but has effectively gone unnoticed elsewhere. No-one is crudely demonised, and Minister Vyas continues to churn out reasonable-sounding argument, but the emerging facts give his words an increasingly hollow ring. When he talks of being happy to relocate if it were he that was asked to move – "gladly, willingly, smilingly" – at the same time giving us a guided tour of his opulent city establishment, you are left wondering if he is even living on the same planet as the villagers. Occasionally Armstrong uses familiar techniques to give weight to the film's argument – footage of a peaceful demonstration cuts to one that ended in violence that actually occurred some years earlier – but she is always up front about this, with information about what happened and when supplied through caption and voice-over, even if the emotional connection prompted by their close association remains. Music, too, is used to emotive effect, but is done so with subtlety and you never feel you are being clumsily manipulated.

Drowned Out is a gripping, persuasive documentary for all the right reasons, highlighting a terrible injustice that has ramifications for the whole of modern Indian society and, ultimately, governments everywhere and their relationship with big business. In one of the DVD's extra features, a member of one of the displaced families says to Armstrong, "People like you come and take photos and then go away. What good does that do us?" If the film in question – and that's this film – remains unseen then he makes a good point, which is precisely why you should hunt it out at all costs and urge others to do likewise. This is gripping, meaningful and moving cinema that is the result of dedication and commitment rather than the committee-meeting approach that makes so many modern TV documentaries and dramatic feature films so facile, and should be seen by everyone who cares even a hoot about their fellow human beings.

sound and vision

Shot on DV-CAM (on the low budget film-maker's favourite, the Sony PD-150) in a variety of lighting conditions, the video aesthetic is wholly appropriate to the film itself, and is generally well transferred to DVD. Occasional picture softness is slight and very likely the result of filming conditions at the time. On the whole the contrast and sharpness are very good, and artefacting is only really evident in darker scenes, but that's something you have to live with when shooting on DV with no lights.

Flashy 5.1 soundtracks rarely have a place in documentary works (a recent exception being Touching the Void), the Dolby 2.0 track here does what it says on the tin, so to speak, and does it well. Clearly mixed and crystal clear throughout, it, like the visuals, belies the no-budget production status. The diegetic sound and narration are essentially front and centre weighted, the music score is spread more widely across the front sound stage.

extra features

With many distributors seemingly in competition to see who can have the least number of extra features and still call their disk a Special Edition (for the record, Tartan's 'Collector's Edition' re-issue of The Eye gets my vote for simply having a DTS track instead of the original Dolby 2.0 one), this independently produced and distributed disk of a not widely seen documentary puts most of them to shame. Not only does it have a terrific selection of high quality extras, it also presents them with a wit and intelligence that the major distributors should damned well learn from.

Though unheard of in the early days of DVD, commentaries on documentaries are starting to become a little more common. Given the unpredictable nature of documentary production, where events are often unfolding as the film is being made, interviews rarely go as expected, access to locations and key people can be restricted in a variety of ways and the story itself will sometimes not even start to take shape until the film is in post-production, I always welcome any background information provided by the film-makers. The commentary here is hosted by director Franny Armstrong, and includes contributions from several of the technical staff, including the composer Chris Brierly, narrator Nina Wadia, sound engineer Neil Hipkiss, songwriter Frank Hutson, and Franny's sister Boo (really), who was instrumental in getting footage out of the country when Franny and the protesting villagers were arrested. The key contributor, though, has to be Jalsindhi village spokesman Luhariya, who speaks through an interpreter and comments on how he feels the film has portrayed their story and sometimes directly reacts to events and people on screen. On the whole this is a very informative and involving track that provides plenty of background information on the film's zero-budget production, balanced nicely by Luhariya's more personal thoughts on matters unfolding. Occasionally the commentary is slightly out of sync with what is being discussed on screen, but this is no doubt due to editing in order to most effectively use all of the contributions. It should be mentioned that, typical of this DVD, the technical aspects of the track are first rate, with no dead spots at all and very clear sound, despite, as Franny informs us, it being recorded at a friend's house (compare this to the technically shabby commentary on the Clerks DVD), and in a brilliant move that every DVD with a commentary track should immediately employ, the disk uses one of the available subtitle tracks to introduce on screen each contributor and their role in the film.

Next up is a follow-up featurette, What Happened Next (14 mins). I say next up but it should be first up as, in one of several really nice touches, you are automatically taken to the intro screen of this extra once the main feature has finished, the assumption (rightly in my case) being that this is the first thing you will want to check out when you have finished your initial viewing of the film. It is the first of five 'mini features' that can be accessed via a sub-menu in the extras section. Shot in the summer of 2003, two years after the main filming was complete, much of this footage was for a new ending for a 45 minute version of the film called The Damned that was was broadcast in the US last year. It is to Spanner Films' credit that they kept this as an extra rather than re-edit the feature to include it – I do like to see films as they were originally shown rather than how they have been 'revised' later on. Running 14 minutes and framed 4:3 (as are all of the extras), this adds a sobering postscript to the film and brings the story up to date, giving further details of the continued progress on the dam and its dramatic effect of what little remains of the Jalsindhi farmland.

Cinema Jalsindhi (13 mins) is a video diary following Franny Armstrong and small crew as they return to the village with generator and projection gear in order to show the finished film to those who appeared in it. Armstrong herself, with her everso English accent and cheery self-confidence, comes across initially as a very familiar figure to anyone working in the film industry, but soon emerges as way more down-to-earth and committed than most of the rather self-important ner-do-wells I seem to have encountered over the years, and her dedication to the project really comes across here (as if spending three years on a budgetless film for no pay didn't). Just getting to the screening proves a problem in itself, and the water levels they encounter on the way add a little personal experience to the story of the dam and its consequences. It's a fascinating extra with some very nice touches – the home-made electrical plug being a favourite – and its really good to see the crew interacting with the people they filmed, something those outside a production rarely get to witness.

Passing Us By (2 mins) is a brief but informative and affecting update from the Renital lake slums in Jabalpur. It is here that one interviewee makes the aforementioned comment regarding people who take pictures and leave. I'm glad that was left in, as any documentary film-maker must – or should – consider that very point every time they go off to make a film.

Small Solutions (7 mins) looks at the concept of check dams, a localised way of trapping water that can effectively make many villagers self sufficient. It plays like an appeal for funding – which to a degree it is – complete with promotional video music and a mixture of interview, graphics and positive cut-aways, but is nonetheless enlightening, and certainly puts its case convincingly. This links nicely to...

A Miracle Growth (3 mins) is a simple appeal for funds to help villagers to be self sufficient, showing how a small irrigation pump can make all the difference to their way of life. It is followed by a title page giving details of how you can help. Worked for me.

The next section, Photos and Myth, has three sub-menus. Karen's Photos contains 14 images shot in Jalsindhi by freelance photographer Karen Robinson in August 1999. The images themselves are good, but as so often with DVD-included photos are framed smaller than full screen size, so you'll have to use your zoom control or shuffle forward a bit to get a good look.

Production Photos is a 2 minute montage with music of production photos from the film, many of which can also be found on Spanner Films' website and again suffer from downsizing, though the quality is otherwise first rate.

Adivasi Creation Myth is a 2 minute 30 second video extra in which Luhariya explains, accompanied by images of the villagers at work and play, the Adivasis creation story.

The third section, Offcuts, leads to a sub-menu containing interview material with key contributors to the film that did not make it to the final cut, including one interview – author Patrick McCully – whose contribution to the film was dropped for structural reasons. The lengths range from 6 to 11 minutes and are all very useful and sometimes fascination inclusions, especially the animated McCully, whose contribution is referred to intriguingly in the commentary.

Also included here is a 2 minute 45 second Deleted Scene showing a demonstration led by Medha Patkar in London against Siemens, who were planning to invest in one of the Narmada dams. This appears to have a few digital motion glitches but is otherwise an interesting inclusion that shows the extraordinary Patkar in full flow, and contains a telling moment that could almost be representative of outside attitudes to these issues, when a security guard tells the demonstrators flatly: "I don't really care what's happening in the Third World. There are people campaigning about everything in this world." This simply but effectively illustrates the problems facing those trying to highlight these issues in the West, including, of course, the film-makers.

The next section is a Quiz, whose purpose is to highlight some of the negative effects of the dam construction on the Jalsindhi villagers. Done as a series of 20 multiple choice questions (you can make your selection using the remote control), the answers provide yet more information on the Jalsindhi inhabitants and their plight. If you paid attention to the film you should be able to score top marks on this, but you'll still learn something new, and there is a nice undercurrent of political sarcasm in places: One of the selectable answers for "According to the government, why are 250,000 people being forced to sacrifice their homes and livelihoods?" is "To show them who's boss." Indeed.

The final section, Spanner Films, has further sub-sections. Franny Armstrong is a rather casual – cosy even – 20 minute conversation with the director. It does provide a useful level of background information on Armstrong and the production, including the advantages she had going into the film production process – her father runs his own production company, for example, and a friend had become a multi-millionaire – but also her level of political commitment and lack of interest in the financial rewards of film-making, two rather ideal qualities for a fledgling documentary film-maker with a conscience. Includes extracts from McLibel and Drowned Out and some footage in Franny's home/office/editing suite, which is a lot tidier than mine.

The Making of Drowned Out is a textual reproduction of the article by Franny Armstrong that appeared in The Guardian in August 2002.

Filmography is just that, but includes a 3 minute trailer for McLibel.

Credits lists the credits for the film and the DVD. Selecting individual names gives more information, and in a feature I have not seen before and got rather hooked on, all of those involved are connected by a small caption under their photo. For example, under assistant producer Will Ross's picture you have "Ex-boyfriend of..." – select that and you are taken to Franny Armstrong's biography, and a further caption appears that links you to the next member of the crew. This does tend to emphasise the small-scale family feel of the production company, and is a very nice touch.

summary

Drowned Out is an unflashy but compellingly made documentary on a subject that demands attention. It works both as an investigation of a local issue and as an examination of the too often shady relationship between governments and big business in general. As so often, in this story it is the poor that are being made to suffer for the benefit of the industrial rich, a message that is delivered here without overstated polemic, but with intelligence, skill and humanity.

The DVD is, frankly, the most complete I have ever seen for a documentary feature, loaded with extras, all of which are of a high quality and all of which contribute to the story, the characters and the message of the film – there's not a superfluous special feature in the whole, succulent bunch.

Astonishingly, given that that this is one of the best documentaries I have seen in a long while and one of the most polished DVD releases of the year, you can't just nip down to Woolworth and buy a copy – a truly independent production, this (unless you live in London) can only be bought directly from Spanner Films via their web site at www.spannerfilms.co.uk, priced £20, plus postage. This compares well with major releases (if bought in shops rather than discounted on-line) and every copy sold helps go towards funding future Spanner Films projects.

At a time when politically committed documentaries are as rare as hens teeth on UK TV, it is heartening to come across such a beast on such a well specified DVD. Hunt it out, spread the word, and when, in a few years time, Franny Armstrong is being discussed as one of the key documentary film-makers of our generation, you can say you were in there at the start.

Downed Out

UK 2002
75 mins
director
Franny Armstrong

DVD details
region 1 .
video
4:3
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
Hindi
Gujarati
Bhilali
Kutchi
Gondhi
subtitles
English
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Commentary
What Happened Next featurette
Cinema Jalsindhi featurette
Extended interviews
Small Solutions featurette
Interview with director
Passing Us By featurette
Happy Ending featurette
Interactive quiz
Photo galleries
Deleted scene
Filmographies
Trailer for McLibel
Articles
Press quotes
distributor
Spanner Films
review posted
30 August 2004

related articles
McLibel DVD review
A Spanner in the Works – interview with director Franny Armstrong

See all of Slarek's reviews