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[whitespace] 'Dam/Age'
The Needling and the 'Dam/Age' Done: Aradhana Seth's film takes up the cause of an Indian writer facing prison for criticizing the government.

Village of the Dam

Director Aradhana Seth shows a side of India you'll never see on TV in 'Dam/Age'

By Steve Palopoli

NO ONE SAID it would be easy to get a movie audience to give a damn about a dam. Hell, if most people can barely understand the water issues in Chinatown, what hope did director Aradhana Seth have of conveying the incredibly complex political drama that has swirled around the construction of massive dams in India within a single film?

But Seth's Dam/Age is a cleverly constructed documentary that wraps the story of the fight against the dams around the personal drama of Arundhati Roy, a writer known stateside for her bestselling novel The God of Small Things, whose involvement in the protests led her to be charged with contempt by the Supreme Court of India.

The film is rather amazing in the way it winds a range of related issues--India's nuclear standoff with Pakistan, the corruption of the World Bank and the Indian people's uprising against their displacement by the government's failed dam projects, to name a few--around the buildup of tension in the days before Roy's sentencing.

Meanwhile, Roy herself, who is featured in interview segments throughout the film, turns out to be a fascinating muse for India's culture of protest, able to drop insights like "The only thing worth globalizing is dissent" at any given moment.

Seth allows Roy to be the voice of the film, but it is her own careful overlapping of political issues and personal drama that makes the film work. She is scheduled to discuss it after it plays at the Pacific Rim Film Festival; she spoke to Metro Santa Cruz from Los Angeles, where she is currently working on a film.

Metro Santa Cruz: The first striking thing about 'Dam/Age' is that it opens with the credit 'A Film With Arundhati Roy' rather than the typical 'A Film by' director's credit. Why did you do that?

ARADHANA SETH: Well, it was a kind of polemic; it was a conversation with her. A lot of people had been wanting to make a film with her, but I think she wasn't going for it, because she didn't know what it would turn out like. One of the things we agreed was that it would be not only a conversation with her but the court event as it was unfolding. So it was like it was being filmed with her, with what was going on in her mind, what she was thinking about. And it is a lot about her writing and her words. Of course, it's edited and put together by me, but I think it is really a film with her, in every sense of the word.

It definitely shapes the film as more of a collaborative piece. The benefit of that seems to be that she's far more open than many documentary subjects. Did you have a close relationship during the filming?

We met and worked together in 1988. She wrote a screenplay for a film called In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, it was her first ever screenplay that got made into a feature film. And it was the first film that I ever worked on. And we became very close while we were working on the film. I had done some filming with her before The God of Small Things came out, but I never really made a film. I just went to where she lived and filmed with her there and filmed her mother, and that was just like an archive. Somebody at the BBC who I'd done some other work with knew that I had done that, so they called me and said, "Do you think you could make a film?" And I said, "I'm not sure, because I know her so well. I'd really like to think about it and talk about it with her."

Being that close to your subject can be a slippery issue with documentaries. Do you feel like it ultimately helped or hindered the film?

I think it really helped, actually. When we first started to film, we didn't know how it would turn out, especially because we didn't know whether she'd go to jail or whether they'd let her off. So from the 15th of January to the 6th of March, we were filming all the time, but nobody really knew what would happen when they pronounced the judgment. So that was sort of terrifying and interesting, and I think she may not have allowed somebody else in that private space at that time. It was a scary space to be in. It was like she says--you're a public figure, but it's personal and political.

Still, there's a sense throughout 'Dam/Age' that her drama is about much more than the punishment itself, which we learn early on could be as little as one day in jail.

It's the way they deal with writers. Basically, the one day or five days, you're right, doesn't really matter, it's a question of how much fear they set into your mind. Suppose you're a White House correspondent, and you want to write something about Bush, but you know you'll never get an interview with anyone else who matters in the White House again. The fear of it silences you. And what if you thought, "Maybe I'll go to jail, maybe I won't," or, "Maybe my house will be demolished in six months, maybe it won't." It's that uncertainty, the not knowing.

You seem to be pointing out in 'Dam/Age' that what's going on with the dams in India has implications and parallels all around the world.

It's about globalization. It's about displacement of people that don't matter. In all our countries, that's happening. They're unlikely to displace the head of Wal-Mart or Giuliani, you know, but they're likely to displace a guy who drives a cab. In a way, he doesn't matter. The government thinks they don't really matter.

It's kind of shocking when you show the advertising propaganda the government runs on TV about the dams. That commercial was so slick! If you didn't know the real numbers behind what was going on, how could you not be fooled? Our political advertising is like that in the United States, too, of course.

I think the commercial was really important ... that's what we see on national television. It makes total sense if you see the commercial--oh, we're just displacing this many people to give water and energy to that many. It seems totally plausible if you look at it like that. We tend to believe everything someone says on television or in the written word. So unless you actually work it out, it seems to make sense. It's like with Enron, it was like a bubble--there were people who knew a little bit of what was going on, but unless someone sits down and spends their whole life dissecting it, it's quite difficult.

The protest footage in the film is amazing. Here in America, we don't even know this kind of thing is going on in India--we certainly never see images of this kind of articulate, peaceful and well-organized protest. The nightly news here would have us think any protest outside of the United States or Europe is just people throwing rocks and bottles.

Exactly. That's totally right. It's always rocks and fire and police. Actually, what I love about the protest is like when she's coming out of jail, everybody's kind of celebrating. It's really a bit like "Screw you," like saying to them that we're not going to get completely depressed by this. These guys who were singing at night, they were people who taught at universities. There was somebody who ran a tire shop and somebody who ran a cafe, you know? It was just really nice, people brought instruments and food. It turned out to be like a celebration. I think there is something quite special about the fact that the protest has everybody from the village to college kids to professionals and business people.

It's pretty weird when the one lawyer refers to the protest as an 'orgy' and then he says that 'orgy means violent unrest.' Did you a feel there was a connection between the government's political agenda and the more repressive social aspects of Indian culture?

If you notice, the same guy said something about how judges should be "untouched," that they're "like Hindu widows." He's one of the five lawyers that filed the case against Arundhati. She was among the people in the protest against the raising of the height of the dam outside the Supreme Court last year. They said, "She pulled my beard," and that whole "orgy" thing. They filed a case, and the case was that she pulled his beard and hugged him from behind or whatever. Eventually they figured out that the case should never have been filed--these five lawyers were set up by the government to file this case. They let off everyone, but they charged Arundhati for contempt of court, because she wrote in a letter "that this never happened, they should never have filed a case against me." But they agreed that they should never have filed the case! It's really ridiculous, actually. But it's like this guy who says judges are as pious as Hindu widows, and judges should be untouched. They should be untouched from public criticism and from press. This is a really frightening male chauvinistic line. Traditionally, in the past, if someone was widowed, they would almost be separated from the mainstream of society and should be "untouched." All this sort of correlates with the idea of virginity and piety.

Late in the film, we see Roy holding a paper that the camera just flashes on for a couple of seconds, but it seems to be a list of names, including Woody Allen. What was that?

There was a fax that came in from Jonathan Demme's office. He must have put the word out for a few weeks once he knew what was going on. Anyway, that morning we went to get her from her house to take her to court, and then she's packing and she sees this fax of support from Toni Morrison, Demme, Woody Allen, Susan Sarandon, Robert Redford, Bernardo Bertolucci--all these names. I'm not sure how Jonathan did that. It says, "Dear Mr. President, we write to express our full support for the author Arundhati Roy and our concern in regards to the contempt petition against her. ... We fully support the right of free speech." 'Cause basically that's the main thing, the right of free speech and being able to say whatever you want to say.


Dam/Age plays at the Pacific Rim Film Festival Monday, Nov. 4, at 7pm. A discussion with director Aradhana Seth follows.

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From the October 30-November 6, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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