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Interview English

Auroville allows for everybody to find their place, says filmmaker Christoph Pohl

Ever Slow Green tells the remarkable and inspirational story of the man-made woodland in the experimental township.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

When most people think of the township of Auroville, they probably think of Sri Aurobindo; Matrimandir, the famous tourist attraction; and the fabulous Auroville bakery. What most people do not know is that a unique afforestation project began in Auroville in 1968 and today, as a result of that, the forest area there is a distinctive example of eco-restoration.

Christoph Pohl’s documentary Ever Slow Green tells the story of Auroville’s 50-year-young forest through some of the people who have nurtured the land and dedicated their lives to developing it. The film premiered at the Auroville Film Festival 2020, and won the Best Director — Documentary Award at the Rishikesh International Film Festival 2020, going on to win several other awards.

The producer, director and editor of the film, Pohl, is a resident of Auroville and first came to the township in 2004. He travelled in South India and the place continued to beckon him long after he went back to his home in Germany. Two years later he returned and finally in 2008, decided to make Auroville his home and found himself deeply fascinated by the man-made forest. He said, “The forest in Auroville is one of the first things that impressed me when I learnt that these forests are all man-made and there was nothing in the beginning. I couldn’t really believe it. Up till then, when I had been in a forest I felt that it had always been here and it will always be here, so I wasn’t aware that in the relatively short span of 40 years, it was possible to create a forest as such. That was very impressive.”

A co-steward of one of Auroville’s forests, Pohl became immersed in the work and the idea of making a film on this topic eventually began to take shape. “A few years after I arrived in Auroville, I was lucky to find a place to settle in one of the small forest communities here and through that, I also got involved in forest work. With my professional background in media…I had a dream that I wanted to do a feature film. Over time, these two things came together and the idea came to make a feature film on the unique history of these forests and the trigger to actually do it was the 50th anniversary of Auroville, where some funds were available and they were asking for project proposals and that, for me, was the starting point to really get up and start making this film,” he said.

Although reforestation is integral to the township, it does not get as much publicity as it ideally should. “I had the feeling that the aspect of reforestation is underrepresented. There are lots of films and media reports about Auroville, which is a very complex place and project. Sometimes when I show this film, people think that this is all there is in Auroville and I have to explain that there is so much more but this is what I have decided to focus on,” he said.

For the documentary, Pohl had to dig deep into the Auroville archives to reconstruct the history of the place, and sought accounts of early residents and their personal collections of photographs, some of which are featured in the film, making the film in many ways, a crucial historical document. As a resident, Pohl knows many of the people featured in the film and having access to people and places was a huge advantage.

Interestingly, the documentary also confronts the popular belief that the township was a hangout for hippies, “When you see the old pictures, you have the idea that it was just a bunch of hippies who started this but when you start talking to people, you realise that they were actually refugees from the hippiedom, they did not find fulfilment in the hippie movement itself and came to a place like Auroville which aims to much more. It has this spiritual background, with ideas of building a new kind of society and that’s really much more.”

People from different communities and countries coming together with the goal to preserve mother nature is a truly novel concept and today, the township stands like a haven in southern India with a flourishing tropical dry evergreen forest. However, there are several challenges and the film highlights a proposed highway project and other development activities that pose a threat to this gentle ecosystem. 

Ever Slow Green has been screened at several film festivals across the world and the response has been quite encouraging, “The feedback has been very positive. It was my wish that the film inspires people and gives a positive example about what can be done. Just as I was surprised that all of this has been done by hand and human creators in such a short time, I hope it inspires other people to either start similar work or be inspired to get engaged in environmental work because one easily gets overwhelmed by frightening news about the environmental state of our planet, so showing a positive example gives some hope.”

However, Pohl warns that there is also a danger that people could think that since it is possible to create a forest in this much time, it could become a justification for doing more harm. “What we are doing here in Auroville is on a very small scale and to have a large effect, we need such projects multiplied and on a bigger scale…what has made this effort so successful is the fact that we as a community have managed to protect this forest,” he said.

With a population of more than 3,000 residents now, the township that began as an experiment continues to draw people in and inspire them, “This whole idea of building a city and society that is run by the people themselves, to really attempt to have fled hierarchies and creating a space physically and mentally to constantly grow and experiment. It offers a lot of possibilities in personal and community growth and I find this quite unique. It allows for everybody to find their place.” 

Ever Slow Green is available on Cinemapreneur.