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Cities beyond their skylines

Friday, December 07, 2018

The Urban Lens Film Festival, which begins today, seeks to explore the symbiotic relationship between cinema and cities

If you see yourself as a creative person, the chances are, you will want to run away from the city as often as you can, disappear into a cave where your creativity can flourish. Cities are those evil things, where commerce and capital reign supreme, and crowds and chaos threaten to destroy every shred of individuality you possess. And yet, as all of us who survive the daily struggle of Mumbai know, there’s no escaping them. In fact, urban spaces are expanding at breath-taking pace; a McKinsey study says it took nearly 40 years, from 1971 to 2008, for India’s urban population to rise by nearly 230 million; it will take only half that time to add the next 250 million.

The good news is that for all the drawbacks, cities offer tremendous potential for creativity—and spaces in which to explore it. “While the connections between market forces and urbanisation, are, of course, real, cities cannot be reduced to conveyers of the agency of capital,” say Ilja Van Damme, Bert De Munck, Andrew Miles in their book, Cities and Creativity from the Renaissance to the Present. At a seminar in Mumbai this August, Smart Cities, Art Cities, speakers highlighted the potential of urban spaces in fostering the arts. Sanjoy Roy, Managing Director, Teamwork Arts, and Co-Chair FICCI Art and Culture Division pointed out that it was “important to explore the synergy between heritage, art, culture, within the context of our burgeoning cities and the needs of its citizens to live a balanced life and find the opportunity to explore and maximise their talent.”

Now, starting today, the Godrej India Culture Lab and Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) plan to explore the impact of cities on a key creative discipline—film-making. The Urban Lens Film Festival, which begins this evening and goes on till tomorrow, seeks to highlight “the politics and concerns around cities and generate a new meaning of the role cinema plays in shaping our understanding of urban issues”.  The travelling festival took place earlier in Bengaluru (September 20 – 23) and New Delhi (November 16 – 18).

Select films from over 2000 entries from 105 countries, along with invited films, will be screened; there will also be a poetry reading coordinated by Caferati, apart from four exhibitions. The first, ‘Mumbai - Above and Below’ is a two-part exhibit featuring Sudharak Olwe’s In Search of Dignity and Justice and Johnny Miller’s Unequal Scenes (courtesy Tarq), both of whose photo series look at inequality in Mumbai from below the surface and above it. The second exhibit is a virtual reality experience of Mumbai. ‘Bambaiyya VR’ is a heritage project that educates people about communities that built the city – the Kolis, the Parsis and the mill workers.

Works by students of the Photography Promotion Trust will also be on show, and a panel discussion, Mapping the City, will take the conversation further. The keynote by Aromar Revi, Director of IIHS, will focus on The City and the Creative Economy. The GPL Design Studio has created an interactive map for the audience to participate in and recollect their fondest memories in the exhibition ‘Memories of Mumbai’.

Menka Shivdasani

Zohrab Reys Gamat

Senior Associate - Media Lab, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, tells us more

This is the fifth edition of the Urban Lens Film Festival. What was the impetus for launching this festival and how has it grown over the years? To which cities has it travelled in earlier years?

The Urban Lens Film Festival started in 2013 with an aim to explore the relationship between cities and cinema and to delve deeper into how film practitioners view and interact with the city. The idea was and still is to look at the city through different lenses and engage with the real and imagined idea of the city over time, hence the name Urban Lens. The festival strives to bring films that are not easily accessible in movie theatres to a diverse audience from different walks of life. Post screening discussions has been a hallmark of the festival along with ‘On Practice’ sessions that allow the audience an insight into the minds of film practitioners as they unbundle their craft. The coming together of filmmakers, researchers, students and a larger section of the public to watch these films together at the Urban Lens Film Festival will hopefully create a space for reflection and spark critical discussions about cinema and the nature of urban experience.

From screening primarily non-fiction films in its formative years, the festival now showcases films of various genres including fiction, non-fiction, student, animation and experimental films. For the past two editions the festival has held an Open Call for Entries to allow for a greater diversity of films from wider geographical regions. The festival is now in its fifth edition since its launch in 2013 at the IIHS Bengaluru City Campus. Since 2016, the festival has also been held in New Delhi in association with the Goethe Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan. A travelling package of the best films of Urban Lens was screened at the Godrej India Culture lab in 2017.

What are the issues that you hope to bring to the fore through a festival of this nature? Are there any common strands between cities across the globe that have been identified through the films on show?

Across the world, urbanisation has influenced the way we conceptualise, create, disseminate and consume cinema. The Urban Lens Film Festival is an attempt to uncover aspects of this symbiotic relationship between cinema and urbanisation with a concentration on narratives from the Global South. The histories and complexities of countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa are reflected in their cinematic traditions. Compared to countries in the Global North, the story of urbanisation in these countries has had a very distinct trajectory. These narratives have allowed for different ways of seeing and telling stories about the urban landscape; about people and places whose stories might not immediately be apparent.

There are multiple commonalities and differences between cities across the globe and how they reflect on the complexities of the urban experience. Films lend themselves to different readings at different times, and each film addresses not just one, but several themes. The festival tries to bring together several films that argue and are in conversation with each other to let the audience explore these connections and commonalities. Whether this be the observation of the life of Maheshbhai, Tarunaben and Ganpatbhai who move from living in a 100-year-old house in the heart of Ahmedabad to a new apartment in Shreyas Dasharathe's film Bismaar Ghar to the journey of two families in Weaving by Yang Wang who struggle to adapt to outside change while trying to keep their families intact during the five-year demolition process of the last textile weaving factory from the communist era in North-West China. An insight into the world of Kausik Mukhopadhyay in the Mumbai premiere of Squeeze Lime in Your Eye by Avijit Mukul Kishore that showcases the distinct personality and quirks of his art objects all made from discarded household gadgets to the story of Jamuna and its inhabitants and their relation to its degraded presence as it continues to harbour the waste of the city in the film Jamnapaar by Abhinava Bhattacharyya. From the isolation and monotony of urban life portrayed in Look at Me by Hui Kai Su to the voyeuristic and problematic pattern of street photography in Still City by students of SMCS, TISS, Mumbai. From the faux documentary about the ongoing social, political and economic crisis in Brazil in Life in Grey by Leonardo Martinelli to exploring what the erasure of historic figures and buildings in Pune means for the Dalit Bahujan community in Bin Savlyanchya Gavat (In a Shadowless Town)' by Gouri Patwardhan, these films frame cities beyond their skylines by teasing out individual/collective stories and experiences of people from around the world.

What do you have to say about urbanisation in India? Does it work as a positive force on creativity, or does it tend to stifle it?

Urbanisation is taking place at an unprecedented scale especially in cities and towns across India. This has a substantial effect on the narrative of cities, spaces and the people that inhabit them. Cities bring with them issues of poverty, inequality and risk (amongst others) yet at the same time, cities are also sites of cultural transformation, growth and production. The effects of urbanisation on creativity cannot be put into boxes of positive or negative but has definitely impacted and aided multiple ways of exploring different facets of what the city produces – whether political, social, economic or cultural. We all experience transformation in different ways and cinema allows us space to take a step back, reflect and re-examine the cities we live in.

When Friday, December 7 and Saturday, December 8

Where Godrej India Culture Lab, Auditorium, Godrej ONE, Vikhroli (East), (Entry from Eastern Express Highway)

RSVP indiaculturelab@godrejinds.com www.indiaculturelab.org/events/special-events/urban-lens-2018/

Website www.iihs.co.in/urbanlens/

This event is free and open for all.

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