‘If environmentalism is anti-development, then what is development?,’ Ritu Bhardwaj, filmmaker, Common ThreadFrancesca Ferrario
Ritu Bhardwaj is the Founder of Common Thread, a collective of independent filmmakers which focuses on environmental and social issues. Ritu’s foray into filmmaking has a historical beginning with her grandparents running from Pakistan to Delhi in 1947, where they lived in camps.
Her parents were raised with limited resources and their experience taught them the importance of education. So, when Ritu grew up she was given access to the best schools and to the privilege of deciding to study what she liked.
“I knew from a pretty young age that I wanted to study journalism” she says, and explains that nothing stopped her from pursuing her wish. She continues, “When I was young, videos had the potential to inspire me more than any other media. So I studied filmmaking and later got a job at Bloomberg TV, where I used to make short documentaries about small businesses, related to environmental issues, farming, social causes etc.” These first encounters were discoveries for Ritu, who was inspired to explore them further. “The flip side of working for a big TV channel is that things happen fast, news has to go out quickly and we didn’t have time to dig deep into the stories we were shooting about.” For this reason in 2010 she quit her job and started working independently.
“It was then that I started travelling. I stayed in villages with no electricity, limited access to water, and minimal facilities. I felt this was having a very good effect on me because I was learning to appreciate whatever resource was available. I feel really honoured for meeting people in villages who call normality what I consider a life of hardship” she shares. When she met a group of women farmers in rural West Bengal, she reflected that the implications of her documentaries could go beyond plain reportage: “The combination of humility and strength they used to deal with daily life showed me that the impact of what I was doing could be very profound. It was about their lives. This was the perspective and direction I needed.”
In 2010 Ritu started thinking about a collective of filmmakers and in 2013 she managed to start Common Threads with seven other friends and former colleagues. “Someone was expert in cinematography, someone else in script writing, someone in photography, and some other in shooting. But all of us were going through the same struggles and vulnerability as independent filmmakers , hence the name ‘Common Thread.’” In the second year of operations the collective has increased its turnover by five times and the following year it grew double the amount. Moreover, they won the All India Environmental Journalism Competition 2014.
Common Thread has shot several documentaries including topics like access to justice to marginalised communities in India; children book authors; the world of panchayats; urbanisation affecting food habits in Jaipur and Delhi; and seed preservation in Uttarakhand. They have also collaborated with a London base production house for a BBC documentary on Indian geography, and with Open University in London for a series on pedagogy. This latter is being awarded with the Bond Innovation Award 2015 in London.
“What I like most about my job” says Ritu, “is the sense of purpose it gives me in the form of continuous discoveries. It starts from when I reach out and connect to people; it continues when I am welcomed in their villages and when I am introduced to their daily life. It is a process of learning that grows in every experience I share with them, and regardless of the topic the documentary is about, everything is always very intense..like, I’ve gone through emotional breakdowns during my shootings because of the things i saw and the love I’ve received. This process never ends and it keeps me going because it is a process that never ends.”
“I think documentaries are more of an exploration for me. Initially I didn’t want to work on them. I just wanted to focus on films, but my experience at Bloomberg made me realise that they were the best thing I could do” she shares, “I realised that there are so many important topics to talk about and documentaries are very powerful means to find answers to different questions that I or people in my circle go through.”
Ritu doesn’t shoot documentaries to bring forth untold secrets, but to explore different ways to tell stories many already know. “I think that generally there’s a great sense of realisation that we need to work for the environment and there a lot of people coming forward to do something proactive about it. But I think there should be more clarity about what the effects of problems like climate change are. We need to spread the message far and wide by showing the sides few get to think about.”
More precisely, Ritu elaborates, “I personally believe there’s a sort of ‘propaganda’ that pro-environment is anti-development. But we’re missing out on what the definition of development is.
“We can break this narrative by writing a new one, spreading positive news, building a sense of hope, involving youth and reaching out to people telling them that things are possible. I’ll give you an example. Recently, a storm in some North Indian states has destroyed many crops; Uttarakhand was among them, but many of its farmers didn’t suffer losses as badly as in other places. One of the main reasons is that they use more organic methods of soil preservation by conserving ancient seeds. This happened, but 99 per cent of the news concerning the storm was about its devastating effects.”
Themes like this shed new light on the discourse around development. “And this in itself implies a lot of questions” says Ritu, “for example what it means to have a successful life and to be happy. How our own personal development fits with the global one.”
How often do we draw answers to these questions from mainstream perspectives without even thinking to challenge them? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a famous TedTalk said that nothing is about one single story, but about many different ones which, despite their diversity, coexist without contradicting each other. Common Thread attempts to disclose the stories that get swept under the carpet. Their documentaries seek to ask the question of whether we’re missing something in th rush towards so called ‘development’.
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