By Prantik Deka
Assamese filmmaker Joor Baruah’s documentary film Voice of Siang was recently screened to critical acclaim at the Mumbai International Film Festival. Organised by the Films Division, MIFF is the oldest and the largest festival for documentary films in South Asia, and the 16th edition of the biennial festival received submission of over 800 films from 24 countries.
This year, the festival’s special packages included a retrospective on Satyajit Ray and selected films from the North-East. The MIFF-2020 was inaugurated on January 28 at the Nehru Centre Auditorium, Worli, and concluded with an award ceremony on February 3. Voice of Siang was screened on February 2.
Baruah’s film provides an insight into the undiscovered North-East and the various tales surrounding the river Siang as it is known in the Arunachal Pradesh, and as the Brahmaputra in the lower reaches, that shapes much of the region’s geography, as well as its culture. The documentary primarily focuses on the indigenous Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh inhabiting the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas in the North-East India.
The Adis take a lot of pride in their history, and till recently, lived in great isolation, in an inhospitable terrain, marked by a distinct environment and way of life. The Himalayan hill tribe’s reputation as fierce warriors, anchored in hundreds of years of experience, have ensured the survival of the Adi culture for centuries. They have always asserted themselves to seek protection of their own culture, values and belief.
After their separation from Assam, they came to be known as Adis. The name ‘Adi’ means ‘hill man’. But modernity has crept into the lifestyles of the new generation Adis, even in the remotest of places, which might have worrisome implications for the future.
With memories of the 1962 Indo-China war still fresh, China continues to reassert its territorial claim of the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh, the land of the Adis. The elegant Siang that originates in Tibet and flows down through the Adi villages to join the mighty river Brahmaputra, has become the new battleground for power. A simmering tension and dispute has emerged in the shared transboundary river flowing through China, India and Bangladesh, as a result of the building of large mega-dams by China in a seismically active region just before the Brahmaputra enters Arunachal Pradesh. A series of dams are now being constructed in Arunachal Pradesh, too, to counter China’s territorial claim, as well as in response to the growing demand for energy.
Offering a rich narrative and visual document, complemented by a series of encounters with the Adis living near the old town of Pasighat, and interactions with eminent personalities of the State, Voice of Siang portrays the inspiring resilience and hope of the Adis.
This 57-minute feature-length documentary film was commissioned to Joor Baruah as part of a prestigious fellowship by Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), Prasar Bharati and Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India.
Joor Baruah, who shares his time between the United States and India, is interested in using music and films for social change. He has an MA in Documentary Filmmaking from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and has served as an Associate Filmmaker 2017 at the IRP (Investigative Reporting Program), School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley.
Besides directing, Joor Baruah has also handled the film’s cinematography, the editing has been executed by Samujjal Kashyap, Gautam Mazumdar and David Rosberg, and the background music is scored by Chandan Das.
Voice of Siang has also been screened at the Open Frame Film Festival 2019 at the India International Centre (IIC) in New Delhi and the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival 2019 in Guwahati. It has also been selected for screening at festivals like the Diorama International Film Festival 2020 and the New Delhi International Film Festival 2020.
Baruah’s 20-minute short film on the same subject – Adi | At The Confluence, was screened in over 40 film festivals worldwide in 4 languages, and received 18 nominations, winning 10 for Best Documentary. It has also been screened in Visible Evidence, US; SOAS and Cambridge, UK. The documentary was also one of the 7 projects for PBS POV Digital Lab 2017 in San Francisco, United States.
Baruah is inspired by the folk songs of his mother Kavita Baruah (Rose), the spirit of his father late Upendra Kumar Baruah, who was a part of the civil rights movement in Chicago, alongside Martin Luther King and his revolutionary uncle Dr Bhupen Hazarika.