Interview Hindi

Festivals need to ensure they have good content: WIFF director Rao Narender Yadav

Joining for an exclusive chat, Rao Narendra Yadav, director of WIFF, discussed the inspiration behind the festival and the challenges faced by film festivals in contemporary times. 

Sukhpreet Kahlon

The 5th edition of Woodpecker International Film Festival (WIFF) kick starts in the capital today, 9 November, with an enviable line-up of 76 short films and documentaries from around the world. The festival, established in 2013, has focused on issue based cinema, questioning social inequalities and challenging age old practices and traditions.

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The films featured this year explore various subjects ranging from environment, forest and wildlife, to water, health, livelihoods, etc. taking up issues that affect everyone. According to the founder-director of the festival Rao Narender Yadav, this year WIFF explores “the power of storytelling through films to create a better world.”

Joining for an exclusive chat, the director discussed the inspiration behind the festival and some of the challenges faced by film festivals in contemporary times. 

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This year marks the 5th edition of the Woodpecker International Film Festival. What was the inspiration behind starting the festival?

We started the festival in 2013 when lots of programmes and events were being organized to celebrate 100 years of cinema, but we saw that all these programmes were focusing on Bollywood (Hindi film industry), but that’s not only what Indian cinema is about. So, we wanted to focus on different aspects of cinema that were not being touched upon in these celebrations.

I have a background in journalism and have also worked in the development sector, so I knew that while there were lots of films being made on various subjects, no one was showcasing those films and the audience was not being informed about these critical development issues.

So, with bringing in the documentaries, shorts, we thought that we’ll bring in these key topics and we made an issue based festival. This is how we started.

Then we thought of screening films from out of India as well, as there were several films being made on issues abroad that we didn’t have exposure to. 

Also, many issues are global like climate change, poverty, children's rights, etc. and so we thought that we’d bring in these films as well. In the third edition of the festival, we thought of including international films.

When you talk about issues and issue based cinema, which issues do you think are the most pertinent, in India as well as internationally?

In the festival, we have an entire range of issues, but the most pertinent at the moment is environment and wildlife. Environmental challenges are there for everyone right now — climate change, global warming, pollution, contaminated water, there are so many that affect people around the world.

We thought that we’d focus on a range of issues in the festival that are universal, so along with environment and wildlife there’s gender, livelihood, sustainability, public health, etc., the latter being a crucial one that nobody is talking about. 

But the issues could also be contemporary. For example, around the second edition of the festival, there were several reports on sexual harassment in workplaces that had been circulating in the news, so we thought of taking it up.

We showcased films around that issue and organized a seminar as we wanted to start a discussion around these issues through films.

Film is one medium of communicating the issues, but we also want the audiences to be aware of them and discuss them.

There’s a lot of jostling for space when it comes to film festivals, as smaller festivals compete with the established ones, which have strict guidelines and rules. Smaller festivals are more flexible. We have just seen a reaction to the IFFK wherein some filmmakers feel that their films have been unjustly treated. What are your thoughts on this?

In India, it is very difficult to organize a film festival. Most big festivals here are supported by the government or have some dedicated sponsor. Apart from that, festivals cannot survive independently, so that is a challenge.

As big festivals are rigid and don’t allow for much flexibility, they cannot satisfy filmmakers who have their own ideas and creativity, by blindly following guidelines.

This is the time when the bigger festivals have to open up. IFFI has made a start in that direction, as they announced last year that a censor certificate is not compulsory for screenings at the festival and one could get an exemption letter later.

So, other festivals need to do the same. 

I also don’t believe in the hierarchy amongst festivals, as equal respect must be given to all films. All filmmakers should get their due respect.

In our festival, we slot the young filmmakers along with the established ones, marking no difference between them. We just ensure that we give good slots to films whose the director would be present, because of the effort that they are making, but all films are important.

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Our objective is to get as much good quality content as is getting made and to bring it to India.

We give a two-year timeline for the films and apart from that we don’t have any fixed criteria, as long as the issue is strongly communicated. It is for this reason that we haven’t kept any technical award categories either, as we are not really looking at the technical aspects of the films but their subject.

This is something that I noticed as well, that in your schedule, there is no distinction between shorts and features as they are all featured together. 

It’s the issue that is important. If an issue has been communicated powerfully in a few minutes, it doesn’t need a two-hour feature for that. In fact, I have seen 5-10 mins long films that are so powerful.

Our judges also face this problem as they have to judge the shorts with the features but we look at the communication of the issue. This is why we keep our process very simple, and the issue is the main aspect while judging the film. 

Several filmmakers do not have the money for expensive equipment so they may lack some technical finesse. In India, there aren’t many funds for such films, but abroad they do get good funding so technically, their films may be better.

For example, Arsenic, a film from Germany, which is about the contamination of water has been shot in Bangladesh and the camera work is of very good quality. The environment and wildlife films, however, get large budgets internationally.

If you see Joe Loncraine's film (David Attenborough’s Light On Earth), it’s a wonder how technology has been used; they have used cutting edge technology to capture those images. 

Still from David Attenborough’s Light On Earth

Given the rapid changes in technology, on the one hand film making has become more democratic, since anyone with an iPhone can make a film. But on the other hand, technology is also a threat to film festivals as people opt to watch content online rather than make the effort and come out to screening venues. How do you view these changes?

I won’t use the word ‘threatening’, but would rather go with the word ‘challenging’. The challenge is to package the festival in a way that one can get the audience to come and watch films, and also discuss issues with a larger perspective, which we can’t do while watching films on cellphones. That’s one of the goals of the festival.

For example, last year we screened a film on surrogacy. We were the first festival to screen the film on this issue and several people did not even know about the matter being discussed. This kind of exposure won’t happen on cellphones.

People won’t always find such films online and they won’t be able to understand the issue in totality and engage with it. 

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The challenge being faced by all festivals is how to engage people and create a community of cinema lovers who would be regular audiences of the festival. What are some of the steps that you feel need to be taken to achieve this?

What we have realized in Delhi in the last four years, is that people come if you have good quality content. If you show them something that’s not of their interest, they won’t come. So, first and foremost, festivals need to ensure that they have good content.

Secondly, have a targeted audience. Since the beginning, our efforts have been to engage the younger audience, who don’t really come for such festivals. And our efforts are paying off, as we have been able to engage this demographic over the years. 

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Thirdly, I believe that film festivals are making their own audience now. We have reached the level where there is a dedicated audience, because they know what to expect from us.

Every festival has its USP, so if people want to watch issue based cinema, they have to come to our festival. And the dedicated audience is very loyal, so filmmakers also have to realize that they need to improve their material if they want their films to be chosen.

We got 300 films this year and we are screening 76 of them, the competition is very tough and they have to upgrade themselves to engage the audiences.

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Woodpecker International Film Festival