Franny Armstrong wanted to watch a solar eclipse with her friends in Cornwall, En-gland in 1999. She ended up watching it all right, but in India, squashed in a lorry with 60-80 villagers singing and praying as they headed to jail. “For many of them it was their first time out of their village,” recalls Armstrong. “The waters rising in the Narmada, the solar eclipse—I am sure they thought it was the end of the world.” That trip was the beginning of a project that spanned several years documenting one Jalsindhi tribal family’s battle with the Narmada Dam. Drowned Out screened recently at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Armstrong is no dyed-in-the-wool dam buster. She admits she knew little about the story before she went to India. And as she says with a smile “Dams can be kind of dry.” But she stumbled on the story of the Narmada Dam by chance. Commuting on the train in England, she was glancing over the shoulder of another rider who was reading The Guardian newspaper. “The headline completely hooked me,” she says. It was about villagers who had decided to die by drowning rather than move from their lands threatened by damming the Narmada river.”I didn’t even know which dam it was. But I knew this was it. I was completely obsessed.”
But while the strategy was similar, India was a different cup of tea altogether. Armstrong did not speak Hindi. The villagers profiled in the film spoke different tribal languages. “We often used double interpreters. One person from the local language to Hindi. Then another person from Hindi to English. By the time the whole round was over, the poor interviewee would be completely bored,” says Armstrong. If language was one problem, the other was just keeping the equipment going. There was no electricity, no email, no VCR, no Microsoft Word. She operated her equipment on solar energy and that worked fine till the local kids took the charger apart to see how it worked. The laptop got wet. And then to just make matters more challenging Armstrong was hauled off to jail.
The jail was not unexpected. Activists knew that when Medha Patkar and the villagers would stand their ground as the waters rose around them, police would haul them off to jail. Armstrong managed to get her film out with her sister on a boat, but got arrested herself. Unfortunately for her, she was on a tourist visa as opposed to an accredited journalist visa. “They said ‘Don’t come back or you will be in trouble.’ So of course now I was totally obsessed,” laughs Armstrong.
She headed back to England to raise money and wait for the next monsoon season. She was able to finagle her way back to India by meeting with a minister from Gujarat who was attending a conference on water in Europe. When she interviewed him, he asked her to come and visit the wonder that was Sardar Sarovar Dam for herself. She said “I’d love to. Why don’t you invite me?” Armed with a letter from the ministry, she got back to India in 2000 to finish the film. But as soon as she returned, the Indian Supreme Court ruled on the Narmada case allowing the dam to proceed and Armstrong had to rush back to update her story.
The footage from her first trip was splashed across Star TV and made international news but still television stations wouldn’t bite. By that time Booker winner Arundhati Roy had waded into the controversy. “TV stations said if you can get an exclusive deal with Arundhati we can go for it. But I said she’s not the story,” says Armstrong. Though both Roy and Medha Patkar feature prominently in the film, the documentary really follows the village healer Luhariya Sonkariya.
“As soon as I met him I knew he was the one. He is a fantastic character—funny and wise and also his house was the lowest on the river bank,” says Armstrong. Though many advocates for and against the dam paint the villagers as either illiterate backward obstructionists or simple noble savages, Armstrong realized Luhariya, though he could not read, was as savvy as anyone else. “He realized my whole purpose of being there depended on him. So one day he might say he didn’t want to go wherever we had planned to go. And then mention that he needed new sandals,” says Armstrong. She remembers how when she went with him to visit one of the proposed resettlement sites she found him in animated conversation with the villagers. “Then the translator told me he’s giving them tips on how to act before the camera. Like don’t adjust your lungis if the radio mikes are strapped to them.”
Even as she got more and more invested in the stark choices facing Sonkariya and his wife Bulgi, Armstrong realized that the ending of the film would be a problem. “If the main character drowned that would be a ‘great’ ending cinematically but that’s the last thing I would want. On the other hand I was afraid that my being there and filming might actually add pressure on them to really do what they had threatened to do—drown.”
In the end the film does not really have a watery climax. A light monsoon saves Luhariya’s home the first time around highlighting their plight—slow rains means the home survives, but the crops fail. A regular monsoon would give them their crops but no home.
But to Armstrong, the “story will never have an ending.” Whether Luhariya stays or his village with its huts and trees and gods disappears into the bottom of the rising Narmada, the story goes on in the struggle to prevent other dams from being built, in the efforts to find other ways to solve problems of water and electricity.
The making of the film changed the mind of her interpreter Jayesh who went from an avid dam supporter to one who questioned the motives behind it, the rehabilitation deals and whether such big dams were necessary. “Lay out a well-reasoned argument in front of a thinking person and you might change their mind. Change enough people’s minds and you might change the world,” says Armstrong. As the next step towards that she is trying to raise funds so she can get a Hindi version made and take it back to India. “Then I need to rent a screen, a projector, a generator and finally get to show it to Luhariya” says Armstrong.
For more information on Drowned Out check their website at www.spannerfilms.net