sbcltr spoke to Neelima Mathur, the woman behind the unique festival that celebrates the spirit of documentary film making

India has seldom shown patience for documentary filmmaking beyond the one-off screenings at college festivals or the lone two hour sessions at mainstream movie festivals. Yet the medium has been diligently pursued by those who are passionate about the medium. Take formedia for instance who has been organising a documentary film festival in association with and at The Lake Resort, Naukuchiatal, Dist: Nainital, Uttarakhand. Although there are other individual partners such as Alliance Francaise, French Institu, Polish Institute etc, the festival is largely supported by the Max Mueller/Goethe Institut, New Delhi. In its 5 years of existence, the festival has stayed true to what it started out to be, a three/four day non-commercial festival focused truly on the medium of documentary filmmaking. An immersive experience which encourages you simply enjoy the experience of viewing award winning stories from across the globe. “It is conducive to rumination and informal small-group discussions around the films. There are no parallel events, no commercial/ market elements like awards and pitching.”

As the festival gets ready for another year of showcasing world renowned documentaries, sbcltr speaks to Neelima Mathur, the woman behind the scenes of this unique showcase of talent.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I have worked as an executive producer-researcher-writer for documentaries and NGO films under our production house, Spotfilms, for over 30 years. During which, for about 15 years, most of our work was for ZDF, the premier television network of Germany. Since early 2000, I moved into the area of training of doc and NGO film-makers under our not-for-profit, Formedia. For nine years, I was teacher and mentor to eastern and western doc film-makers under a European Commission initiative, the European Social Documentary – ESoDoc. I was also the team leader in India for a major project that mainstreamed Indian documentaries in the international market (BBC, ARTE, PBS, SBS among others) through our initiative called STEPS India.

How did the idea of this documentary festival come up?
To tell you the truth – and to sound bizarre – I was inspired by Robert Redford after relocating to Naukuchiatal, which I consider a cosmic space. I recalled his saying how the Sundance Institute needed to be away from the pulls and pushes of a bustling city and be in a space that inspires creativity. I felt the same way about the sheer experience of viewing documentaries in these Himalayan surroundings amidst an oak forest, beside a lake. In India, we do not really have pure spaces for the documentary – particularly non-thematic and non-controversial. The documentary remains on the fringes in most mainstream festivals in India – or is a package of a few films as part of some event or workshop. We need dedicated exposure to latest narratives and storytelling techniques. By we, I mean both general public and film-makers – even established documentary film-makers.

I had once met Claas Danielsen, Festival Director of DOK Leipzig, and found him to be very dynamic. I approached him and we had long email discussions on the why of the festival. He was convinced it is a much-needed initiative and gave me several inputs. Thanks to him and Dr. Grit Lemke – including their hand-holding! – we were able to launch a high-level documentary film festival. None of this would have been possible without the committed support of Mahendera Verma of The Lake Resort, which has been an associate partner from start.

What has been your experience in organising this festival so far? Any memorable anecdotes?
It is hard to hold this festival. The USPs of a non-metropolitan setting, with no pitching fora and awards as takeaways and no emphasis on event attractions are the very challenges of the festival. It is tough to build the audience. Having said that, it is a pleasure to know that there are people who wish to view documentaries seriously! They also bring others with them for the next edition. Each edition is a memory etched in my mind – just to know that every time, the audience has gone away with a “vow, never seen such films”! With many, we have cracked the peculiar myth about documentaries as something boring or sensational. The uninitiated who come, begin to see the documentary as an art form and film-makers have said that they have re-visited documentary film-making and are inspired after the festival. Many have gone ahead to become avid viewers of documentaries.

With time, the boundaries between the personal and the public, between real and unreal are blurring. How is this affecting documentary film-making as a genre?
This is a very serious issue and each documentary film-maker in the world is grappling with it. How far do you intrude, what ethics define consent and how much can or should that be exploited, do you stick to a partisan view or depict the ‘other’ as well. All these and many more questions are raging in the community of doc film-makers worldwide.

At our festival, I recall two films that actually depict what has been asked in the question. Documentarian and Domino Effect. In Documentarian, the protagonist is a solitary rustic hilly-billy. Inta has no TV set but is aware of the rules of mass media and her rights vis-à-vis the ‘paparazzi’. This governs her relationship when the Latvian film-makers bring their camera into her life. It is an association of pulls and pushes, where once Inta screams: “You’re shitting into my soul, you fucking bastard, with your damned camera!” The struggle continues, she gives in, only to be left alone to fend for herself, once they leave and the film is done.  As film commentator, Tue Steen Mueller said: The Latvian, Documentarian by Inese Klava and Ivars Zviedris is of course a must for all who work with documentaries…”

With the Polish film Domino Effect by E. Niewiera / P. Rosolowski, it was amazing that a visiting American film-maker could not believe this was not an enacted film. The film went deep into the relationship of a couple in little-known Abkhazia that, in a unique way, symbolised the changing dynamics of and between countries of the erstwhile Soviet era – Russia, the big brother and these little nations struggling for an identity. In fact, I set up an email connect for the American film-maker with the director, so they could discuss this phenomenal candidness the film had.

How have you seen this festival evolve in the last five years? Any noticeable trends that you would like to mention?
The greatest thing has been how the festival has evolved to a point where we are now partnering with four major international film festivals. So, we started with DOK Leipzig (Germany), thanks to the then Director, Claas Danielsen and graciously continued under the new Director, Leena Pasanen. Now we are associated with Cinema du Reel, with the warm Director, Maria Bonsanti being keenly engaged. Krakow Film Festival (Poland) thanks to the dynamic Director, Katarzyna Wilk making special efforts like waiving screening fees. Film Festival Locarno / The Semaine, thanks to Carmen Werner, Head of Programming, who was a guest in one edition. These associations help us bring a diverse and priceless collection of films.

Additionally, after feedback from the first edition, we decided to create a window for Indian documentary film-makers, ‘Special Space’. This year, the response from across India was really good. We are pleased to see this space is gaining attention.  The funding basically comes from one source, Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan and some kind donations from patrons Chaudhry Bhupinder Singh and Sajid Dehlvi. Beyond that, with each edition, we increasingly get amazing indirect support from the Embassy of Switzerland, French Embassy / Institut, Polish Institute to cover international guests or screening fees (which can be quite steep!).

What do we expect from this year’s festival? Which are the films that you are most excited about?
I am always excited about all films! It would be unfair to mention one film and not the other. So, I would rather offer the platter of trailers for readers to enjoy a glimpse. We are very pleased that though our budgets restrain us, the two Indian film-makers (Pankaj Johar and Vandana Kohli) will be travelling and staying at their own cost to present their films. The Swiss Director of, Being There, Thomas Luenchinger, and his editor, Samuel Kellenberger, are also coming at their own expense. Thanks to the support of French Institut, Yann Coridian, co-Director of, A Young Girl in her Nineties, will also join us.

The informal bonfire evening Pow-Vows with all of them are sure to be a treat.


The dates for the festival are 14th to 17th April. You can check out the entire film schedule and register here

Leave a Reply