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Telling stories of fire & grit

Manipuri documentary filmmakers talk about their films, inspirations & Indie8 at St Anthony’s College

Both their movies have fire in the belly. Both have earned accolades at the international level. While one tells the story of a conservationist’s journey, the other documents a sportsperson’s grit. James Khangenbam and Borun Thokchom, the documentary filmmakers from Manipur, were recently in Shillong to screen their films Meiram: The Fireline and I Rise, respectively, at Indie8 Documentary Film Festival at St Anthony’s College. Last year, both the films were featured at the Mumbai International Film Festival for documentary, short fiction and animation films.

Meiram, the 33-minute documentary, is about a conservationist, Loiya Moirangthem, and his team who grew a forest on a barren hilltop in the Punsilok area of Langoi Hills. Khangenbam — the director, producer and cinematographer of the film — was working as a journalist when he met the conservationist. He wanted to tell his story through words, and in the process, decided to take up the camera to document the works of Moirangthem.


Thokchom, who was a journalist too and won the national award for his film The Silent Poet about Irom Sharmila Chanu, wanted to tell the story of the struggle and grit of boxer Laishram Sarita Devi, in his film I Rise. It was adjudged the Best Documentary at the 9th Mumbai Short International Film Festival in 2020.

Meghalaya Monitor met the two directors at the venue of the festival to know more about their journey as documentary filmmakers. Excerpts:

MM: Both of you were journalists. What brought you into documentary filmmaking?

James Khangenbam: Documentary filmmaking has its origin in journalism. Though the storytelling narrative is different, the core objective is the same. We have come across so many stories over the years and the social stories at home have been embedded in our minds. I was a video journalist and that also gave an opportunity for documentary filmmaking.

Borun Thokchom: Documentary and news are inter-related. I always wanted to make films and after finishing my studies at St Anthony’s College, I went back to Manipur and wanted to start making films. However, the law and order back then was not good. So, I became a journalist and this gave me the opportunity to cover the entire state with my camera.

MM: What inspired the film Meiram: The Fireline?

JK: I was actually writing a story about Mr Loiya for Manipur Times, a news portal. It was in 2014. I wanted to interview Mr Loiya and his friends and they wanted me to come to the forest. So, I climbed to the forest equipped with a recorder. I published the story. But I was really intrigued by what Loiya and his team were doing. I started visiting the place every Sunday and joined them in their work. That time, they were making the fireline to protect the forest. It drew me closer to their lives. Over a period of time, I became familiar with the forest. Mr Loiya had a camera. One day, I took his camera and started capturing the moments. That’s how I started making the film. The inspiration was subjective and the film is an honest story-telling.

MM: I Rise is a very personal story. How difficult was it for you (Borun Thokchom) to build the trust with your subject?

BT: I was really shocked when she (Sarita Devi) refused to accept the medal (The lighweight boxer from Manipur stirred a controversy in 2014 when she refused to accept the bronze medal at the Asian Games, saying she deserved to be in the final and that she was wronged). She was a classic example of a woman fighting for her rights. I decided to make a film on her. Manipur has a conservative society and documentary making is such that we invade into privacy. So, it was very difficult initially. Sometimes I would think, ‘What am I doing here?’ The movie took five years to be completed.

MM: How were your films, the stories of which are rooted to the North East, accepted on the international platform?

BT: Sarita’s was a woman’s story. She is a mother, a daughter and a teacher (the pugilist has a training school for young talents coming from poor families). Also, people were going to see something from her perspective. So, it was quite appreciated, especially by the women in the audience.

JK: I used natural sound of the forest. So, the audience appreciated that. People were curious to know about the sound, the forest, the insects… In Kerala, a fellow filmmaker from Jharkhand told me that he missed his home, which has vast forest covers. He was staying in Mumbai for a long time. In the director’s note, I always write that ‘when you watch the film, you will feel like you are in the forest’, and I have that confidence. At St Anthony’s also, students are sensitive and responded to the film. One student pointed out a scene where there is a scene of a stream flowing. It comes immediately after the forest fire images… I liked that he has the sensibility to appreciate this.

MM: What are the problems for documentary filmmakers?

BT: Documentary filmmaking is not a profitable business. There are a few government agencies and it is tough to enter. In India, we are in a nascent stage.

MM: What do you have to tell about Indie8 as a platform for documentary filmmakers?

JK: In a big festival, we get lost. But here we are getting the chance to bond with each other. Yesterday (March 9), we went to Police Bazar together looking for a restaurant. Then, we talked about our respective states, what is happening there and we shared ideas.

I want to tell through your medium that while I was making the film, I did a lot of research about forests. I came to know that trees release anti-biotics to protect themselves from bacteria and other harmful organisms. When humans are exposed to these anti-bacterial releases for 72 hours, our body is protected for about one month. For this reason probably doctors in western countries are prescribing natural healing. My mother has planted many trees. Sometimes I would sit around the trees to absorb nature’s goodness. This one wisdom I think I received and I can share with all.

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