My Videos, My Voice, My People

In Cotigaon, Goa Videoactivist Devidas G. screen his videos for his community

Today, IndiaUnheard publishes a special video that chronicles our Community Correspondent Devidas’ attempt to organize a community screening in his village in Cotigaon, South Goa.  “When people watch my videos on the internet, most viewers are those who have an interest in the issue. They watch it, register it and then let it be. Then there are some who are interested in it for research reasons. For some others, it is just a news bulletin. But more or less, there is not going to be any change and impact for my people on whom the videos are made. The only people who can make the change possible are my people themselves and for my people to watch the videos in their own communities, I had to organize a community screening,” says Devidas. The following is an in-depth account of the screening, of how four 3 minute videos created an atmosphere of joy, hope, redemption and change in a tiny village situated deep in the forests of Goa……

The Community Correspondent

Wednesday, 28th of September 2011. Devidas Gaonkar, tribal activist and IndiaUnheard Community Correspondent from South Goa, was up early, preparing for his day of reckoning. For last the one and a half years he had acquitted himself as a ‘correspondent’ producing videos on controversial issues like illegal mining and the toll it was taking on the land and its people, the illegal cutting of trees in the jungles, land grabs and forced evictions, politically motivated murders of tribal leaders and vivid snapshots of tribal life and customs. But today was the day he would embrace the ‘community’ aspect in full measure.

The people whose lives and concerns he had captured in his videos would finally be seeing his work. The people of his village, predominantly tribal and altogether marginalized from the mainstream, would be seeing themselves and their lives portrayed by one of their own. The videos had been seen by thousands on the internet, all across the world but today it was being screened in a remote tribal community, deep in lush, deep jungles of South Goa cut away from civilization where even the most wide-spread mobile phone networks fail to register even a single bar. It was a blip on the dark side of the digital divide but this was home. This was Devidas’ Community.

“Some people in the village couldn’t make sense of what I was upto with my camera going around the village, recording footage and interviewing people. They were suspicious at first and later, they just dismissed me as a madman,” says Devidas. “Today they will get their first insights into my work as an IndiaUnheard Community Correspondent. I am tense but tremendously excited.”

The Community

Cotigaon in Southern Goa is an idyllic collective of 12 tribal settlements of which Devidas’ was one. Closer to the neighbouring state of Karnataka that any Goan city or town, enclosed by the fencing which declares the jungle a protected sanctuary, at first glance it seems to be a village tucked away and untouched by the ways of the rest of the world and the tides of globalisation and development. But, as always, the closer one looks, there is more than meets the eye.

The world has been moving in or rather encroaching and increasingly, in the last few years. Mining companies and their heavy equipment have already laid to ruin some of the surrounding forest area. The declaration of the protected Jungle land around the village has sequestered them and caused them to drastically change their traditional hunter-gatherer way of life. Old lands, freedoms, livelihoods and traditions are being lost. They are caught in a nexus between a corrupt government, the mining barons, the mafia and the mainstream media. And as the pressure builds up, there is no one, no press, no media, no platform for them to speak out from. Failing to make sense of the situation they are in and the wider world outside, the people and especially the youth are growing increasingly disillusioned

“I was initially employed in a mainstream newspaper. I used to write stories about the problems of my community but the newspaper never carried those articles. That’s when I lost faith in the mainstream media,” says Devidas. “Mainstream news is not interested in change. It is interested in selling and keeping the higher ups and the money safe, secure and circulating.”

The Day of the Screening

Devidas and veteran Community Video Unit producer from Gujarat, Girsh Jadhav had their work cut out for them. That day selected for the screening was also a festive occasion for the tribals of the village. It was the auspicious day of ‘Usthan’, a harvest festival. The people allow the trees to flower and fruit undisturbed all through the monsoons until this day when the local deities are first appeased. Only after various rituals do the people begin to pick fruit from the trees.

The rituals were scheduled to end by four in the evening after which the screening would begin. Devidas and Girish went door to door inviting the people of the screenings. They hung around the temple and the village crossroads talking to the passer-bys and asking them to spread the word to assemble in the evening at the Bus Depot, selected location for the screening and also the centre of the village.

“Most people were just surprised at what we were telling them but they were some who insisted I was clinically insane. I thought it best not to bother with that. In a few hours, they would know exactly what they were missing out on.”

The Great White Bus

Meanwhile a bus of Video Volunteers staff and IndiaUnheard Community Correspondents who had assembled in Goa for the 3rd Training Camp were snaking their way through the mud road towards Cotigaon. They had been wandering lost with no mobile signal to call and confirm direction. Half a dozen cell phones were reaching out of the windows hoping to catch an elusive bar. They had been on the road for three hours plus, moving from interior to interior from tar road to loose mud, through small towns and fields into jungles. This old white bus did not know yet that it was to play that it was to play a central part in the screening.

When the bus arrived, the Usthan rituals were over but there was an hour yet for the screenings. As usual, it was the children of the village who assembled first. “The excitement always begins with the children,” says Girish. “In such situations, you can count on them more than any adult.”

While the sound and other equipment were being set-up, the youths of the village turned up to lend a helping hand. Wires were connected and cross-connected. The sound came first. It began booming throughout the village; one of Oscar winning music director A.R. Rehman’s finest tunes began to play electric. It announced that the festivities for the day were not over as yet. Assemble everyone, there is more to go. It’s not over till the projector keeps on shining.

And now the big question- what would it shine on? Where do we hang the white sheet?

Many suitable locations were experimented with but it was always one shadow askew until the team hit upon the idea- Why not use the bus? The youth clambered over the heavy vehicle and a great white sheet was hung from the great white bus.

And Then it Began

The entire village – women, men and children, a crowd of over 250 had assembled in front of the tiny bus depot. Devidas Gaonkar, Community Correspondent stepped in front the mike. He welcomes his people, and thanks them for assembling.

“There are four videos I have for you today,” says Devidas. “The voices you will hear are your voices. The pictures you will see are pictures of you and this community. It will be your sisters, mothers, brothers, sons and neighbours speaking about us. These videos are made by me who was born and brought up in this very community. You have never seen anything like this in your TVs and news channels. This white sheet behind me is our channel and for the next hour, I welcome you to watch and talk about the news from this community.”

Four videos were screened. The first screened was a colourful video that captures the sounds and sights of the local festival ‘Dhillo’. It was celebrated by women who take time off from their daily grind to dance, play and make merry. Recognising themselves and their locales in the video, the crowd went ecstatic. “They couldn’t believe that they were on the big screen. It all seemed so immediate,” says Devidas. A local woman who appeared in the video took over the mike and appealed to the youth to participate and keep the joy and colour of the festival alive. “Traditions are part of our identity, of our tribal-ness, of our way of communicating with the world around us.”

With the first video getting a tremendous response, the second one was screened which spoke out against the brutal murder of two tribal activists. The crowd was lulled to a silence and one could feel the tension creeping up. The mainstream media had covered the issue but it all seemed so far away, so second hand. In the community screening, the effect was immediate, almost disorienting. As the issue was sensitive, the screening was allowed to pass with no comment but there was denying that the crowd had just witnessed something powerful.

The third video struck a raw nerve with the youth of the village. In the video, Devidas spoke about the problems tribal students faced when they are forced to shift from Marathi as the language of instruction in school to English in college. This sudden shift causes many tribal students to drop out of education every year. “More than that.” says Devidas. “When I was young, it made me feel ashamed to be a tribal.” Many of young people of the village came forward and shared their stories on the mike. They were hesitant at first but once they found their articulation, it was powerful. Their voices had the impression of the coming out of a strong emotion that they had long suppressed. Now, they were finding the right words and the right place to speak out.

After the fever of third video was contained, the fourth was screened which appealed to all the villagers to stop the cutting of trees in the forest for firewood and asked them to switch to biogas for fuel. A prominent villager who had installed solar panels in his house was invited to speak to people on the many advantages of sustainable energy. Devidas explained to the villagers about how they could contact the local Agricultural office if they were interested in biogas and offered to help them through the process. With a long discussion on various energy alternative and how the village could avail of it, the screening came to an end.

So, How was the Screening?

“We’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s fantastic. We never knew it was so powerful. I can’t believe I saw myself on TV,” came the replies.

“And do you think Devidas is still a madman?”

The people laughed but it had been long day for Devidas Gaonkar and he had come out sane.

There were a few walkouts. There were still more than few non-believers. But the fact remains that after the screening, the villagers have started negotiating with the agricultural department for biogas plants in every house. Devidas thinks it should come through successfully by the end of December or early January.  Meanwhile, he was recently invited by the Forest Department to talk about sustainable energy to school children. He also produced a new video on the rivers of South Goa which are being polluted by mining waste and another one, on the subsidised computers that the Government of Goa distributed to the public which last no more than a month.

Is he not afraid of taking on the opponents that even the mainstream media shies away from?

“Mainstream news is not interested in change. It is interested in selling, in keeping the status quo of the higher ups, the middle class, the poor and the marginalized. It is a good structure that keeps the money coming through. They have clearly defined boundaries. Poor people and the underprivileged are always the victims. Because sympathy sells and it sells easy. People watch it and once they’ve had their fill, they change the channel or turn off the TV.”

“Community media is not about victims, it is about people who want to bring change. It is not far away, it is immediate. There is an implicit responsibility towards people, issues, communities, lives, change and the truth. It is this responsibility that inspires me and keeps me going. I’m standing up against the big guys, because I am standing up for my community.”

The Journey Back and The Journey Forward

After the white sheet was off, dinner was had and the great white bus got on the road for the three hour journey back to civilization. Inside the bus were over 30 Community Correspondents from across the nation. Most had experienced their first community screening.  They had seen faces lit up in the dark, the community embracing the videos, how the people were inspired and spoke out for change, how a faint facsimile of a revolution seemed to break out as the videos were being discussed.

In a week they would all be back to their homes, each in remote corner of India. Now, they knew exactly what they had to do.

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