The first film you ever see...

Date 30th Aug 2003

A year after completing Drowned Out, the Spanner Films crew return to Jalsindhi to screen the film for the stars themselves. by Lizzie Gillett in Madhya Pradesh, August 2003

  Two weeks of manic preparation did little to ready us for our madcap India mission. In the midst of packing for a shoot in a remote tribal village we were desperately trying to finish a Hindi version of the film (made possible by a grant from The Funding Network) to screen while we are here. The final sound mix fell off the bottom of our 'to do' list, but Neil Hipkiss at Master Tracks kindly saved the day after we'd left the country.

Getting anything done here is a real achievement. The glass half full part of me would describe it as 'an exercise in problem solving', but the half empty part would have to call it intensely frustrating. The technological equipment we have burned through in two weeks reads like a trailer for an admin horror movie: three mobile phones, six sim cards, two computers, two TV's, two video players and three internet accounts.

We blame 5 overnight trains in 7 days for the inappropriate levels of intimacy we have sunk to - Franny having to wear my stinky wet socks to ward off her blister agony as we trudged through rivers - and the fact we only speak to each other in pigeon English. Yesterday Raymond straightfacedly asked me 'you go train now?'.

Saturday night screening in the slums

Our first screening was probably the most poignant. It was held in a tiny house in the slums of Jabalpur. These are the people in the film who were given cash instead of land when their village was submerged by the first Narmada dam and now work as rickshaw drivers. Kids and adults from the neighbouring huts crammed in and others craned in from the doors, vying for the best positions to see the screen (=bed sheet). Witnessing the lives of those who have been most ravaged by the dams was simultaneously depressing and enlightening.

There were some emotional reactions to the film, understandably enough, as they were watching their old way of life and a depiction of how this had changed after the submergence of their villages. Bugiabhai, the grandmother, had to leave half way through as she found it so upsetting. Hopefully the screening provided some entertainment for them and we felt priveleged to be able to share the experience of viewing the film with them. (Was probably a mistake to pass sweets round half way through as such a scrum ensued that the film had to be stopped until the kids calmed down.)

**DVD out soon with updates from these slum people and even a happy ending story from some of the Bargi-dam displaced people**

The big one - Jalsindhi itself

Heading into the Narmada Valley with our mobile cinema/production company/pharmacy/survival kits on our backs always seemed like a daunting task. Apart from the logistics of carrying the gear into such a remote place, holding a screening with no electricity and endless transport issues, there was a larger question in our minds: would the villagers feel that we'd told their story properly?

Lugging our generator, cameras, projector, petrol, biscuits, cigarettes and balloons (to placate village children), we set off from our flat. First disaster: the 4 wheel drive jeep that we'd arranged to meet us didn't turn up. So after spending the night in our bug infested 2-wheel drive jeep - and the first of many biscuits with biscuits meals - we finally risked driving the treacherous dirt track cum river valley ourselves - and managed to get safely to the makeshift boat jetty. Our boat, predictably, was nowhere to be seen. However Jayesh 'no problem' Kothi (our handy Indian fixer) bribed some passing boatmen, siphoned petrol from our generator for their boat and we were off.

Seeing Franny reunited with Luhariya and the rest of the villagers - she'd spent about 8 weeks with them on and off during the 3 year process of making the film - was deeply touching. For myself, meeting Luhariya and Bulgi felt like mixing with movie stars. I constantly got the feeling we had stepped into a shot from Drowned Out and were about to be 'cut' away from. The Adivasi tribal villagers, many who had never seen a film before, were intrigued by the process of setting up our mobile cinema. Every move we made was scrutinised by eager, curious faces.

Our previous two screenings had trained us well and the small matter of the missing lead to connect the projector to the generator was solved by Raymond making a converter plug from some twigs (honest!). The two double bed sheets we had sewn together were erected on the side of the school, the speakers were hung and the whole village, led by the most enthusiastic, wide eyed kids I've ever seen, gathered to watch.

It was incredibly rewarding to watch the watchers. The children were completely captivated and in fits of hysterics whenever someone they knew came on screen. Although we didn't understand a word of what the kids were saying (the villagers speak their own tribal dialect - Bhilali) we got the distinct impression that Luhariya's kids will never live down those naked swimming shots!

Everyone we asked loved seeing the film and thought it told their story well. Luhariya said that it had all the elements of the Adivasi way of life and that seeing so much of himself on screen made him feel 'nice, but heavy'.

***Watch this space for news on our DVD which will include a commentary by Luhariya about what he made of the whole process of being in the film-including whether he thought Franny was completely mad with her strange requests such as getting him to wear the same thing on different days (continuity) and getting him to repeat specific movements (close ups and wides). We don't know the answers yet as we have still to get it translated!***

In terms of what is happening in Jalsindhi, the situation is severe and has worsened considerably since completion of the film. Luhariya's house was submerged during last year's monsoon and he now lives in a new one further up the hill. However this new one, which looks to be about 20 metres higher, will also be submerged even at the current height of the dam, depending on the strength of the monsoon. He has lost all of his land and crops and so most of his family's food is donated by other villagers. He has not been offered land, only cash now, and is adamant he will not leave Jalsindhi. There are also serious health problems increasing in the valley. The NBA reported recently that many people do not have proper drinking water, shelter or food. Meanwhile the government is pushing ahead with the newest dam, Indira Sargar, which will affect 129,000 people.

And if we thought our trip in was hardgoing, our two day journey back had all the elements needed for a great drama (maybe even a western) including;

  • Raymond having to run off with our tupperware box of master tapes (pretending it was his packed lunch) when the local police suddenly turned up
  • Two boat trips - each one twelve hours late. One of which was in the right direction.
  • The removal of a worm from Franny's finger by trained surgeon (Raymond) under heavy anaesthetic (two biscuits) with sterilised equipment (penknife wiped on shirt).
  • Carrying the generator and our complete cinema kit for 2 kilometres when the jeep again failed to turn up - followed by post-carrying gender battles about whether a skinny Indian man is more capable of carrying a heavy load than a strong English woman (answers on a postcard please)
  • A hair raising drive along a treacherous road - well actually a river - in the dark
  • Avoiding bandits who like to stop cars, beat up the occupants and steal all their possessions
  • Police stopping us certain that as we are white we must be carrying alcohol (Gujurat is a dry state). Little do they understand the hardcore world of the indie doc maker-no time for boozing that's for sure!

Intense. Rewarding. Depressing. Uplifting. That's how it was for us. We hope the villagers of Jalsindhi and the rest of our audiences agree.

Grand Finale


Our India tour culminates in two big public screenings next week in Mumbai. One of the venues holds 600 people and there's been a fair amount of press interest expressed so it should be a good finale. Let's hope we don't get kicked out of the country after the first night! If you know anyone in Mumbai who'd be interested in coming please forward the information below or direct them to our e-flyer @