Saturday, August 27, 2011

Vamps, victims and videotapes

By: Paromita Vohra
MidDay Mumbai

Last week a YouTube video called VAMP Protests 'Prostitutes of God' went viral. Produced by Vaishya Anyaya Mukti Parishad (VAMP), a sex worker rights organisation in Sangli, it features some very pi**ed off folk calmly addressing a British filmmaker, Sarah Harris, director of a documentary Prostitutes of God, featuring them and
playing on the VBS network's website.

The film is about sex work around the cult of Goddess Yellamma--linked to the Devdasi tradition.
VAMP's video is nothing fancy but it is power-packed. One after another, the interviewees ask the filmmaker why she betrayed their trust by insulting their gods, misinterpreting their culture and portraying them as craven victims.

It's not the first time people have felt this way about a documentary made by a first world filmmaker/network about an 'Indian problem'. The producers usually have two responses: we are people who care, and some things have to be 'simplified' so that our audiences can understand the unfamiliar.

The VAMP video, as a direct testimony of the people the film is about, is hard to ignore as carping. In the flabby verbiage about the power of digital media, this stands out as a politically creative moment. It also throws a light on how documentaries work, and so, how not to make them.

Watching the film, you see that Harris, like others before her, is not a bad person. But niceness does not prevent mediocre analysis or filmmaking. The hard work of questioning your assumptions might. There's little space for that in this format of filmmaking.Beginning with the never-before 'insight' that 'India is a land of extremes, ancient tradition and modern capitalism', the filmmaker 'bonds' with sex workers--giggly chapati-making and sari shopping--overlain with a commentary about how 'these people' have terrible lives, exist in a superstitious society, suffering the iniquities of tradition.

While there's truth in this, is this the only way to understand the truth?
Documentaries can explain something simply and clearly. Or they can provide a textured experience of the unknown, and by making you see people as complex individuals, not examples or types, provide a compassionate understanding and awareness about the issues, subjects and our prejudices.

Neither happens in this style of filmmaking. Despite many bonding gestures on camera--we never understand the humour, sensuality or choice of subjects as individuals--evidence of the filmmaker's connection to the people. Nor do we understand sex work differently from the common perception as a terrible fate to be rescued from, or the difference between an empowered sex worker and one who isn't.

There's a declared incomprehension about the Yellamma myth--as some bizarre story featuring 'fat gods in gold bikinis'. If the Indian informants were inarticulate (as the film makes clear by using translators who can't speak English well, and using that for feeble humour), there's Wikipedia.

Reading the entry, I found it comprehensible as a myth that's a way of legitimising courtesans/prostitutes to ensure respect and livelihood unlike the moralising which renders sex workers illegal, unorganised, improverished and vulnerable.

Responses on the film's website indicate what this kind of storytelling achieves: most comments are in the unthinkingly racist "what's wrong with these barbaric people" category. The simplification excuse-- turning people's lives into baby food to feed babies--doesn't hold, and a different filmmaking style is needed.

Noble intentions (sometimes called 'human interest stories') can be dangerous, for they absolve us of interrogating ourselves.

We must cast others as fallen victims so we can be seen as their noble saviours. Sometimes being the devil, or his advocate, may give us something to chew on and help us grow up.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. She runs Devi Pictures production company.

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