Sange Dorjee’s Crossing Bridges, which recently screened at the Mumbai Film Festival, is the first film made in Shertukpen, the dialect spoken by a tribal community of the same name in Arunachal Pradesh. Shot in the hilly villages of Arunachal Pradesh using a Canon 5D, the film will also be showcased at the upcoming International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in December. Sange Dorjee, in conversation with DearCinema correspondent Anita Thomas:
Your film is a comment on several issues grappling the remote and small towns of the country. Negligence of these towns, displacement of the youth etc. Is it an autobiographical film?
Displacement would be a good word, but not so much physical displacement as cultural or emotional one. My generation has had to leave home to get better higher-education and employment outside as the north eastern region doesn’t have the required infrastructure. The huge cultural difference we faced outside was always a shock to many. Coming back home has always been a difficult proposition, as after years of adjusting to the life outside we suddenly feel like an outsider in our own culture. I have had to undergo similar issues and therefore decided to base my film on these experiences. So yes, it is autobiographical to a large extent.
Canon 5D is a good camera provided the crew respect it instead of looking at it as a compromise.
This is the first film made in the Shertukpen dialect.
I’ve always believed that one needs to make films on subjects that one is intimately familiar with, so that the work that comes out is an honest portrayal of the subject. I’ve always wanted to make films on stories and subjects related to the north-east of India as we have a lot of stories to tell and issues to discuss. I thought my Tribe was a good place to start.
Why did you decide to shoot the film with a Canon 5D?
I have been using the Canon 5D for a lot of shots of my village festivals to keep records and I knew that it was a good video camera for documentary work and for TV. But I hadn’t tested it for the big screen and whatever few films I saw-that were shot on it-didn’t impress me. But given the budget constraints that we had, we didn’t have any other choice but to use it. So my DOP Pooja Gupte and I did a lot of tests with the camera in different looks and styles. We even did a 35 mm print test and saw the projection. Then we finally decided to go ahead with it. I must say the camera has surprised both my DOP Pooja Gupte and I. People watching the film for the first time think we shot it on Alexa or RED. I think it’s a good camera for feature films provided the crew respect it and use it as a proper film camera instead of looking at it as a compromise.
One of the key things to remember is that this camera demands a very good focus puller, as focusing is quite difficult in video mode. It was especially hard for us as we had standard canon still lenses and we used a 28-300 zoom lens most of the time. I would like to mention our focus puller Sonu Singh who did an excellent job.
I would also like to point out that there is a whole sequence in the film where we used the sound from the camera body itself and not of the sound recorder and the audience can’t tell the difference even when projected on the big screen, thus proving that the in-camera sound is also very good if used properly. Ultimately I believe it’s the attitude of the people using the instrument and not the instrument itself that gives professional results.
Given that most of the film is shot in the exterior, how was your experience recording sync-sound for the film?
One of the biggest challenges when doing sync-sound is that we, in our everyday lives, are simply not aware of a lot of sounds around us or have learned to ignore them. Switching on a sound recorder suddenly makes us aware that places we assume to be very quiet are actually quite noisy. Moreover during sync sound recording, there’s no way to keep natural sound under control as it’s everywhere around us. This fact hit me when we switched on the recorder and I realized that my village which I thought to be very quiet actually had a lot of sound all around. While we were shooting, there were preparations going on in full swing for the republic day celebrations on the village grounds with music and bands playing all day long. Or there were always loud prayers going on in the nearby monastery and in the evening the village ‘Kachung’ (news giver) would shout out news and warnings. We had to compensate a lot by waiting for long periods for the noise to settle down or many a times by even changing our shots. Luckily we had a very capable sound recorder, Dhiman Karmakar, who did an excellent job on location.
You have worked with non-actors in the film. In fact, the lead actress Anshu Jamshenpa holds the record of being the only woman to climb the Everest thrice.
The actors in the film are all my friends. The lead actress has climbed Mt. Everest thrice, two of those were within a span of ten days only. This was the first time she stood before a camera and she surprised me with her abilities and dedication. It was an honor working with her. I would like to say the same for all my friends and my relatives who worked in the film as the level of professionalism and dedication they brought to the set each day was unbelievable. We would all sit by the fire after an exhausting day and regale each other with stories and incidents. This friendship and camaraderie was very important to energize ourselves for our work.
All of them felt proud being part of a film made in their own language for the first time and refused any sort of remuneration. They even carried the equipment to the set and helped out behind the camera as we were a small crew. In fact, for the last scene in the snow, we had almost given up as the roads had become inaccessible and very dangerous because of the snow. But the lead actor Phunchu encouraged us to go on. He got on the wheels of the jeep, packed ten members of the core crew inside and drove fifty miles through thick snow to reach the location, carried the equipment, gave the shot, and drove back in the dark through the mountains.
The film has been picked up by Insomnia World Sales. Did you expect this kind of response for your film?
No I didn’t, not at all. But then I don’t believe you make film to get recognition. You make films because there’s this deep-felt need to say something, not sell something. In my case it’s a desire to make the outside world see as much as possible the life and culture of the people of the north-east and I’m beginning to see that happen in a small way with my very first film. I am just so grateful for that. I think if you say something with honesty, people will see that and appreciate it. I believe this is valid for all works and not just cinema.
Will the film see a theatrical release in India?
I would love to see a theatrical release for Crossing Bridges, but realistically, films that do not fit into a certain ‘formula’ do not stand much of a chance. This is a huge obstacle for independent and small filmmakers to showcase their films. PVR Director’s Rare is a very encouraging and commendable step towards addressing this issue.
How did you fund the film?
This film was mostly funded by my father who believed that a work like this needed to be done for the people of my community.
Crossing Bridges was at NFDC Film Bazaar Work-in-Progress lab last year. How useful was it for you?
NFDC Film Bazaar was an immense help as that is from where the film actually took off and generated interest and Insomnia picked it up. Platforms like these are needed in India, especially for independent and unknown filmmakers who want to make good cinema and have no hopes of getting an audience.
Any new project you are working on?
I have a script ready on another issue on the north-east which I believe really needs to be told. I’m looking out for funds and hope to start shooting soon.