For filmmakers, by cinephiles: filmocracy democratizes cinema

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In 2012, Babu Gangadharan, an advertising professional based in Bengaluru, came to Kerala with the dream of directing his first feature film. While the pre-production phase went well, he began to lose control of the project as soon as the first shooting schedule began.

With minimal crew and budget, Filmocracy embraced smart and disruptive technology for filmmaking.

While he wanted something that belonged in the world of independent cinema, the production controller took the project down the road to commercial cinema. “Film shoots in India are usually human-intensive,” says Gangadharan. “Artists and technicians brought (their own) sets of assistants. I was considering a small film, but still, the set had at least 85 people. A crowd that hated independent films hijacked my project.

After eight days of shooting, Gangadharan shut down the film; his producer (a close friend of his) lost nearly Rs30 lakh and had no money left. Grief forced Gangadharan to think of young filmmakers like himself. And here’s his solution: create a fully-equipped filming unit and make it available to up-and-coming talent for free.

Gangadharan, who is active in the film society movement, also co-founded Collective Chaos, which promotes alternative cinema. So he shared his idea with friends within the film society movement. “The idea was to democratize cinema; thus, we formed our non-profit collective – Filmocracy – in 2016.”

In the 1980s, famed avant-garde filmmaker John Abraham launched a grassroots film movement to support independent cinema through his Odessa Collective. Working-class people, who brought their spare change, were the producers of his films. This crowdfunding model was one of Gangadharan’s inspirations.

Another source of inspiration was the minimum crew model used by European filmmakers like Nuri Bilge Ceylan. “One striking thing that I observed was that his films are made with an agile team that could fit in a car,” says Gangadharan.

Several filmmakers, activists and critics soon joined Filmocracy, inspired by the novelty and scope of Gangadharan’s vision. Thinker Maithreyan, blogger Rajmohan and award-winning filmmaker Sanju Surendran were among the earliest members of the collective.

In 2008, American company Zacuto’s Great Camera Shoot-Out shattered the myth that only expensive cameras could produce the best cinematic result. Subsequently, companies like Blackmagic released high quality digital cameras at affordable prices.

With a minimal crew and budget, Filmocracy adopted smart and disruptive technology for filmmaking as its core philosophy, when it was formalized in 2016. The collective’s initial filmmaking unit was created with donations worth from Rs10 lakh. A six-member jury selects the beneficiaries.

Don Palathara, who has won awards at several international film festivals, including the Moscow International Film Festival and the Rotterdam International Film Festival, was one of the first recipients. His second film, Vith (2017), was made with Filmocracy’s filming unit. “Besides providing filming equipment, Filmocracy also helped me with crowdfunding, [for completing the post-production works]“says Palathara. Vith was shot down with a crew of 12. It also had a minimalist aesthetic, in keeping with the philosophy of filmocracy.

Over the past five years, Filmocracy has supported over 20 projects, including many feature films. This is remarkable, considering that earlier collectives like YUKT, Chitralekha or Odessa couldn’t go beyond producing or supporting a few films.

Projects supported by Filmocracy have also won several awards. In 2020, Vasanthi of Rahman Brothers won the Kerala State Award for Best Film. Frayed Lines, by Kannada filmmaker Priya Belliappa, won Best Short Film at the Bangalore International Short Film Festival and the Cincinnati Indian Film Festival. Belliappa was also voted Best Director at the Spain Moving Images Festival. A former student of the Pune Institute of Film and Television, Belliappa says the collective did not interfere with the production or its vision.

“Indie filmmakers have always had a close relationship with producers,” says Unni Vijayan, a national award-winning filmmaker who was part of Filmocracy’s 2019 script selection panel. “Usually the producer shows great enthusiasm for the script, but develops cold feet when it comes to shelling out cash. Then, the needs of the market begin to be felt. Either the filmmaker ends up making a film that is no longer his, or he remains perplexed. He says Filmocracy frees the filmmaker to execute his vision.

Vijayan says a new script selection committee is formed every year to ensure democracy and transparency. He adds that besides the merit of the script, the main criterion is whether or not the candidate considers his film to be a work of art.

A screenplay mentorship program is Filmocracy’s latest initiative. It helps filmmakers perfect their screenplays with the help of seasoned screenwriters and filmmakers. It is in no way intrusive in the vision of the filmmaker, specifies the collective, but allows “to structure the content and to give a context to the form”. Filmocracy plans to support independent film projects at pan-Indian level. And, he hopes to make movies a possibility for many young dreamers.

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