Conflict happens when everyone speaks the truth, but only his/her truth - ignoring the other facets of a situation. But however falteringly we do so, we need to seek the truth, seek solutions. The wonderful thing about Delhi-based independent filmmaker Kavita Joshi's documentary, 'Tales From the Margins', is that it lacks pretence. The film is just as truth should be - unvarnished, irrefutable, able to stand up for itself - inescapable in the end.
The film travels to Manipur, a little-known, strife-torn corner of India; driven for decades by insurgency. Draconian laws like the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958) - a law enforced by the British in 1942 to suppress the Quit India Movement - are still enforced; in Manipur, it has been used from the 1950s to the present. The Act gives the Armed Forces the authority to arrest, search or destroy property without a warrant; to shoot - and even kill - on suspicion alone. What's more, it gives them near-total immunity against any judicial action.
In this soul-stirring film, which is like a visual diary of events, Joshi draws us into the lives of Manipur's women and their anguish and chronicles the outstanding courage with which they have protested against the grim situation in the state.
The human rights violations in the state, many of them neither known or recorded anywhere, read like a gristly horror movie - only, this is for real and most of us know nothing about it. The incidents leading up to the events astound you:
* March 14, 1984: CRPF personnel attacked by militants during a volleyball match. The crowd runs helter-skelter, the CRPF fires into the crowd - 14 dead.
* July 10, 1987: Armoury from the Assam Rifles (AR) post at Oinam village is looted by militants; nine personnel die. A three-month-long reign of terror by the AR in 30 villages follows. Fourteen civilians are shot dead. In one of the most infamous incidents of all, a woman is forced to deliver her child out in the open, in public view.
* November 2, 2000: An army convoy is attacked near Malom town. In retaliation, the AR guns down 10 civilians at a bus stop, including a frail old woman. Brutal combing operations follow. In protest, human rights activist Irom Sharmila decides to go on a fast-unto-death demanding that the ASFSP be revoked. The authorities arrest and jail Sharmila claiming she tried to commit an offence - suicide. She is force-fed through the nose.
It has been seven years since, and she is still on her fast and still being force- fed. She is doing this to secure the rights of the people of Manipur. But no one seems to be listening.
'Tales From the Margins' contains a rare interview with Irom Sharmila, one of the few with the courage to say 'no' to government apathy. No matter what the cost. Her words, her frail voice that rings with unyielding conviction is deeply disturbing. So is the simple poem that accompanies the film's narrative.
In one of the incidents that the film highlights, on July 11, 2004, Thangjam Manorama Devi, 32, was picked up from her home in the dead of night by an all- male AR team. Her bullet-ridden corpse was found near a hillock a few hours later. Her clothes were torn, her body bruised and marked with gashes, her private parts shot through. Manorama Devi's family alleged she had been raped.
Four days later (on July 15), 12 Manipuri women disrobed in public outside the gates of the AR headquarters, protesting the custodial killing and also the blatant human rights violations in Manipur. The screams of mothers and daughters - RAPE US, KILL US, FACE US - resonate in the mind and conscience. Rage snowballed - there was a spate of protest marches and the agitations against AFSPA-backed excesses was followed by savage brutality by the 'security' forces, ironically fighting for their own lives as well, equally enraged by government apathy. Helpless, valiant soldiers sent to 'defend' the nation but forced to murder their own countrymen. Their idealism crushed, their hearts ripped apart by disillusionment.
Manipur burned for months, while the government increased its might to torture. But the trivia-obsessed media only highlighted the nudity and not the issue. Men sniggered over the naked protest. No one cared to know the truth or see beyond the nakedness. In despair and anger, some Manipuri activists began circulating CDs with footage of the incidents in the Capital.
When Joshi, who has earlier made a film on Manipuri theatre stalwart Ratan Thiyam, got to see one of the disturbing CDs in 2004, she decided to take the innocent voices of the people of Manipur to the world, doing what she does best - make a film.
Over the next two years, she scraped funds together and made this film - which is 23 minutes long and in Manipuri language, with English subtitles - so that the world would stand up and listen. "And I'm glad to say, it did. 'Tales from the Margins' is now being shown across India, Europe and North America. It has received the Special Jury Prize at the 23rd International Medias Nord Sud Geneva 2007 as well as a Silver Remi at the WorldFest Houston," says the filmmaker. (Recently, the film was showcased at the 50th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film, Germany, as part of the international programme section.)
It just goes to prove that every single one of us can make a difference. If we try.
(For more information on the screening schedule, visithttp://kavitajoshi.blogspot.coms.)