Wildscreen, arguably the world’s most prestigious wildlife and environmental film festival, is coming to India, albeit in a highly abridged form. Award-winning films from last year’s festival will travel to Delhi, Kolkata, Pune and Chennai, where special screenings will be held. The programmes will also include workshops and presentations by some of the top wildlife filmmakers from the U.K., courtesy Wildscreen, the British Council and the British High Commission.
Wildscreen’s mission is to use the power of wildlife imagery to promote the appreciation and conservation of our living planet. During its 25 years of existence, the festival has become synonymous with excellence in wildlife filmmaking, and its Panda Awards are to wildlife filmmakers what the Oscars are to the makers of feature films. Held every two years at the Watershed Media Centre in Bristol, the festival is a fascinating mix of film screenings, debates, seminars, pitching sessions and master classes lasting an entire week. The delegates to Wildscreen, each paying about four hundred pounds to participate, represent every facet of this specialized industry – from powerful Commissioning Editors and seasoned pros, to wide-eyed wannabes hoping to strike that vital first deal.
Competition for the Panda awards is stiff, and it all begins with over 400 films from around the world being entered in over a dozen categories. The films vary in quality, from million dollar productions shot with the latest Hi-definition cameras, to small independent films made with no more than love and fresh air – and a Mini DV camera. A nomination jury, made up mostly of industry professionals, and a few specialists from other disciplines such as journalism and conservation, sift the meritorious from the mediocre. The final jury then views the short-listed films, usually four per category, and awards a Panda to the winner in each category. There is also a ‘Best of Festival’ prize in the form of the coveted Golden Panda award.
In the past, most entries to Wildscreen tended to be of the straight natural history variety, depicting ecosystems and animal behaviour. These highly expensive ‘blue chip’ films were the virtual monopoly of the U.K. and the U.S., two countries that boast a wide and dedicated television audience for wildlife films. In recent years, however, in keeping with changing tastes and concerns, a host of new categories have been introduced, including a Campaign Award and a News Award, in which content and conservation awareness take precedence over production values. This has provided an opportunity for filmmakers from other countries to compete, notably, from countries like India, where many filmmakers have talent but lack the resources to produce cutting edge natural history films. The success of a few Indian films at recent Wildscreens, mostly in the newly added categories, has made Indian filmmakers more aware of this festival. In the early 90’s there were usually just two or three Indian faces in the crowd. Today, over a dozen filmmakers from India regularly attend Wildscreen, either with a film in the competition, or just to establish contacts. In fact, among all the countries represented, India had the fourth largest number of delegates at Wildscreen 2004, the last one I attended.
This increase in numbers however, belies the sorry state of wildlife filmmaking in the country. Contrary to expectations, wildlife film production in India is not on an upward curve, but is actually a dying genre of filmmaking. Not only are there no incentives at all for wildlife filmmakers in the country, there are a vast number of obstacles that make survival virtually impossible.
Unlike IT or biotechnology, which generate thousands of jobs, bring in huge foreign investment and provide valuable services cheap to global markets, Indian wildlife filmmaking will do none of the above, and is therefore of little or no interest to the government. Indigenous television channels too seem to have no interest in wildlife, and are unlikely to venture into this specialized segment, given the cost and time involved in producing such programmes. With Discovery, National Geographic and Animal Planet having captured the niche audience for this type of programming, there is little incentive for homegrown channels to jump into the fray. But without local outlets that pay for and broadcast fledgling productions, aspiring wildlife filmmakers don’t have a chance to hone their skills. Lacking experience, they will not be able to compete with filmmakers from the West, who have a far greater degree of access to knowledge, techniques, equipment, opportunities and funding.
The other great obstacles faced by Indian wildlife filmmakers are the crippling costs of access to wildlife, and the non-viability of investment in new technology. All National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries in India are under the control of the respective state governments and special permits are required for filming in them. Apart from the red tape that is enough to quell most ambitions, there is no uniform policy or fee structure for filming. With the enlightened exception of one or two states, Indian wildlife filmmakers do not enjoy preferential rates for filming and have to pay the same exorbitant fees as foreign crews operating with budgets in pounds and dollars. Given that international budgets have dropped drastically during the last few decades, even foreign crews are finding India’s park fees hard to stomach. A good wildlife film can take over a year to shoot, but with the fees being what they are, Indian wildlife filmmakers cannot afford to spend the requisite amount of time gathering footage. Changing technology has also compounded the problem.
Until a few years ago, a really determined Indian filmmaker could just about scrape together enough money to buy a new or used 16mm or Digi-Beta camera and a few lenses, and either independently produce a film or get commissioned by a western broadcaster. That era has now passed into history, with the world firmly set on the path to Hi-Definition broadcasting. To protect their considerable investments in these programmes, most western broadcasters now only accept films shot with incredibly expensive Hi-Definition equipment. This is a huge challenge even for freelance camerapersons in the west. Most Indian filmmakers can only fantasize about owning this kind of equipment. Yet, without one’s own camera and specialized accessories, it is almost impossible to make wildlife films. Hiring the equipment from commercial rental houses is highly expensive and impractical, given the uncertain durations of shooting schedules and the hostile field conditions in which one has to operate in.
In the past, a few of us managed to ‘make it’ in the highly competitive world of international television through a combination of grit, native ingenuity, talent and, often, secondhand equipment. Could I do it again if I had to start from scratch today? I seriously doubt I have the financial muscle it would take.
While the Wildscreen Festival in India is extremely welcome, it’s potential impact on wildlife filmmaking in the country is debatable. That it will make more people aware of its existence is certain. It is also fairly certain that it will lure a few more hopeful aspirants to Bristol. But apart from Delhi, where a lot of aspiring filmmakers seem to live, the workshops scheduled for other parts of the country may not make much of a mark, given the general lack of interest in this genre of filmmaking. The most unfortunate thing is that even if the festival manages to inspire and enthuse a whole lot of young people, nothing will change until India relaxes its restrictive policies in wildlife reserves and adopts a reasonable fee structure for those producing documentaries.
WITH WILDSCREEN ARRIVING IN INDIA, SHEKAR DATTATRI LAYS OUT THE PITFALLS OF INDIAN ENVIRONMENT FILMMAKING.
THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN TEHELKA MAGAZINE.
WILDLIFE & CONSERVATION FILMMAKING