This year, the Mumbai International Film Festival of Documentary, Short and Animation films seems to have decided to run the festival, right from the selection of films till the screening of films, from the central level in Delhi by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

Every alternate year the festival functions, selections of films entered for the festival have been first done at the regional levels such as in Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru and so on. These selected films are then screened by the central committee in Mumbai with its four or five members drawn from the regional centres. The selections are made mainly on the basis of quality, choice of subject, treatment and so on.

There is a debate if the decision on a given film is not unanimous which is quite natural. But as the members are drawn from among filmmakers, film critics, journalists and so on, there is complete neutrality and no political bias or pressure or interference has functioned till now. I know this for a fact because the last time, I chaired the regional selection committee and also the central selection committee and I have not experienced either pressure or bias of any sort while selecting the films.

This year, the regional selection panels were abandoned for “want of time and films were selected only at the central level. The officer in charge who preferred to remain anonymous informed me over the phone upon repeated enquiries that after he had sent the list chosen from earlier selectors, that they will scrap the list and send a new list they would prepare at their end. The result is there for everyone to see.

Since the then Bombay International Film Festival was organized by the initiative of filmmaker Mani Kaul in 1990 along with the efforts of the then Director of Films Division Vijay Chandra, there have been a few hitches such as the filmmakers’ demand for scrapping the need of a censor certificate.

In 1990 through the efforts of filmmakers like Mani Kaul and Director of Films Division, Shri Vijay Chandra, the Bombay International Film Festival was launched. One of its main talking points was that it did away with the requirement of censor certificates. BIFF which later became MIFF was seen as a celebration of the art of documentary filmmaking and art and censorship clearly did not mix.

The word "documentary" poses many challenges in providing definitions. “The use of the term ‘document’ in the word documentary is a contentious matter, though the other nomenclature, non-fiction, is even more problematic. The moral insinuation of both of these has been plaguing the genre since its very inception. The former implies proof of authenticity, while the latter asserts the privilege of being factual. These implications, in turn, lead us to a kind of linearity – a fixed text, a representation of 'the' truth, which comes from the tendency of treating 'fact' or 'authenticity' as truth,” writes activist-documentary filmmaker Madhusree Dutta.

This year at MIFF, the shortlist of films to be screened have cut out many wonderful filmmakers. Among them are Janani’s Ju– Anand Patwardhan (Reason), Janani’s Juliet (Pankaj Rishi Kumar), (Pradeep K.P. (Our Gauri), Sunil Kumar (Ammi), Deepa Dhanraj (We Have Not Come Here to Die), Dilli Yaadon Ki Mehfil (Yusuf Saeed), Ekta Mittal (Birha), Debolina Majumdar (Citizen Nagar), Priya Thuvassery (Coral Woman), Deepti Gupta (Shut Up Sona), If She Built a Country (Maheen Mirza), Prateek Shekhar (Chai Darbari), The Death of Us (Vani Subramaniam), and Rhea Mathews (Stains).

Having already watched some of the films in this list, I find no issue that can be any reason for the scrapping of the films from the final list. In fact, the press release presented by the concerned filmmakers headed by Anand Patwardhan and Pankaj Rishi Kumar, have outstanding records in their filmmaking track, list not only the names of the scrapped films and that of their directors but also list the name and number of the awards their films have bagged at the national and international levels and the synopses of these films.

The press release states: “Many Indian films critical of government policies and ideologies were not only selected in MIFF but even won awards. Among them were films like Anand Patwardhan’s In Memory of Friends critical of the government’s role during anti-Sikh riots and sectarian violence in Punjab and Ranjan Palit and Vasudha Joshi’s Voices of Baliapal highlighting protests against a missile base in Orissa.”

It goes on to add, “In 2003 a BJP government worried about films made on the Gujarat carnage of 2002, introduced a censor requirement for Indian films at MIFF for the very first time but filmmakers successfully mounted a popular protest festival called Vikalp. The censorship clause at MIFF was then withdrawn and stayed off the agenda. But by 2016 it became increasingly clear that films critical of the ruling ideology would just not get selected in MIFF.”

We also learn that two filmmakers, Pankaj Rishi Kumar whose Janani Juliet which won the top prize at the Kerala International Documentary Festival and Anand Patwardhan whose Reason/Vivek won the top prize at the world famous International Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) filed a petition in the Bombay High Court asking the government to show cause as to why their films were rejected from all categories at MIFF. Both these films had officially qualified for the Oscars of 2020.

Mohan Siroya, a senior journalist who has also been a member of the CBFC at one time and is attending the MIFF now, says, “The rejection was challenged in HC who had called for all screening and selection procedure record. HC was satisfied that the selection committee has a final say on selection or rejection. After this, the petitioners themselves withdrew the petition. But as a film enthusiast, like you, I am also perturbed of the decision of selection committee. It surely sends an impression that films like "Reason" and other films which were critical of Government are rejected.”

Another noted documentary filmmaker based on Kolkata who has two films this time screening at MIFF 2020, could not withdraw his films because the festival rules do not permit the withdrawal of any film once it has been selected finally. But he decided not to attend the festival as his mark of solidarity with the makers of the scrapped films. He says, “we are refugees within the larger periphery of Indian cinema. Our only outlet to show the people what is happening in the country is through these documentary and short film festivals. MIFF is reportedly the biggest such festival in the world. If they too decide who to cast out and who to keep as “internal refugees” what is left to be said?”