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Survey Number Zero: Three women toil in the desert for a pinch of salt

Ramna Walia

The film won the Best Film (Livelihoods) award at the 5th Woodpecker International Film Festival.

Beyond the glamour, promises of development, and tourist imagination, one associates with the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat on the west coast of India. Director Priya Thuvassery takes us through the rugged terrain as a means of livelihood for salt workers of the Agariyas community in her powerful documentary, Survey Number Zero. The film was screened at the Woodpecker International Film Festival (WIFF) on 12 November.

For generations, Agariyas have worked in the Little Rann to make a living in a land that has no official land data or survey number to identify the place. The region, on the one hand, has raised ecological concerns, on the other hand, it has the salt workers’ who have not drawn any productive results.

This 32-minute ethnographic film draws attention to our most basic, everyday item of consumption — salt, and captures the stories of three farmers; Hansaben, Bhawanaben and Pashiben, as they toil for eight months in the region working on the three stages of salt farming in the Little Rann of Kutch.

Survey Number Zero captures the barren landscape of the region, at once rugged and dull filled with brown mudflats and glittering white salt deposits under seething sunlight, the terrain creates a visually sharp and mesmerizing atmosphere.

The film maps this wilderness through the camera that tracks detail in objects and people with equal ease. The sound design weaves in traditional songs of the community, that ties in all the key themes of the film — salt, tradition, livelihood, and women.

Thuvassery, a senior producer with NDTV.com, was commissioned by Films Division to make a film. She set out to make a different film, a film about salt farmers. She admits how the film changed as these three women occupied the center of the narrative.

In her post-screening discussion with the audience at WIFF, Thuvassery admitted to her 'bias' in telling the story from the perspective of women. “It was a conscious decision. If you notice, except two names in the closing credits, this was an all-women team. I wanted to tell stories of these women and give space to women farmers in my film”.

The key motif of Survey Number Zero doesn’t seem to focus on the narration of the history of Agariya community, or the explaination of the process of salt farming, but it saturates the screen with haunting images of toil, personal desires, and work that is intrinsically tied to tradition in an exploitative market environment.

The film won the Best Film (Livelihoods) award at the 5th Woodpecker International Film Festival.

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Woodpecker International Film Festival