For three weeks in May 2018, six UCF undergraduate and two graduate film students joined Texts and Technology faculty member, Film Professor, and Fulbright Scholar Phil Peters in Kolkata on an innovative research project conducted by The India Documentary Lab. The goal of the project was to collaborate with iLEAD Institute and the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in the making of three student documentaries.
Historically the Bengali film industry has been ranked among the most influential and important movements in global cinema. Based in Kolkata since the 1920s, the cinema of West Bengal took on the name of “Tollywood” and became the first regional film industry in India to adopt a Hollywood style. As the first major center of film production in India, Tollywood helped to introduce Indian culture and lifestyles to western audiences for the first time, while important cinematic movements such as the Parallel Cinema Movement that emerged in the 1950s produced a generation of widely influential filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwhik Ghatak, among others.
Kolkata’s rich cinema history inspired Professor Peters’ creation of UCF India Documentary Lab. The lab’s initial research project investigated how students from two universities, from two very different countries and cultures, can come together to make a documentary under the extreme pressures of limited time and resources. The project examines how the students bring together new ideas and production methods to create films collaboratively. Texts and Technology Student, David Morton says of his experience, “I was able to immerse myself deeply into a very specific region in India and to see firsthand how my universal theory of cinema can be put into practice.”
Filmmaking is a team-based creative art and collaboration is essential in the creation of the finished work of art. It is often compared to a great grandfather clock with many gears working together in order to tell time. The research project put two UCF Film students and two Indian iLEAD Institute students together as collaborators to form three documentary film crews. The students hit the ground running and did not stop until we got on the plane to return to Orlando. Each team of four students had one week of pre-production in which they choose their production roles on the crew and to research and conceive a culturally relevant documentary topic focused on Kolkata. The second week was used to film interviews, shooting b-roll footage and capturing the natural sounds and ambiance of Kolkata and its surrounding. The third week the teams focused on editing, refining the final details and preparing for the exhibition of their completed 5-10 minutes documentaries. This is a considerably ambitious project for a film crew that had already made several films together, let alone putting a group of four strangers who have never even spoken on the phone or met one another before the first production meeting in Kolkata.
The project tested many things, the ability to cope with the culture shock of a developing country while working on a film, the ability to work under the pressure of an extremely tight deadline, and the ability to work with crew members of varying skill levels that may or may not be different from their own. This collaboration not only tested the student’s technical skills, but it also tested their cross-cultural communication skills with the Indian crew members.
The India Documentary Lab approach to production required rigorous preparatory work by the students from UCF. Ramsey Khawaja, UCF undergraduate Honors Film Major explains, “Sometimes it felt like a trial by fire, but it also made all of us work harder than ever before. I learned things I think would take years to theoretically learn, but because it was so involved, we learned way more.” The communal aspect required by the research methodology is something not to be disregarded and played an equal part in the research process. The students lived and worked together in close quarters. I believe the type of production process being explored in The India Documentary Lab will uncover new ways in which micro-or low-budget film productions can interact with communities, and offer in turn engaging and socially relevant documentary topics. UCF Honors student Sam Schiffer says of his experience, “India tested me. It tested my tolerance of stress, anxiety, and my ability to make quick decisions. It will challenge you to become the best version of yourself. For me, it unlocked skills that had been unused prior to the trip.”
In addition to research, the teams cultivated both personal and professional relationships with the premier film training institutions of Kolkata, they worked closely with the faculty of the world reknown Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute and iLEAD Institute. Both of these institutions expressed a desire to continue the collaboration with UCF on future joint film projects. This cross-cultural collaboration has tremendous learning and artistic potential for both the UCF and Indian students.
When not filming, the students explored the numerous cities and villages surrounding Kolkata making connections with the local arts communities. All of these organizations expressed great value in meeting and interacting with the UCF students.