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Separation Anxiety: The Schisms and Schemas of Media Advocacy
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Home > Contents > Article: Paromita Vohra
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Separation Anxiety: The Schisms And Schemas Of Media Advocacy
Or
Where Are You Tonight, Langston Hughes?

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Paromita Vohra
'THEME FOR ENGLISH B'

The instructor said

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you --
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it's that simple? ...

It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me -- we two -- you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York too.) Me -- who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records -- Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn't make me NOT like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
..

Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!

-- Langston Hughes


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When did they start to call political art media advocacy? I'm not sure, but possibly around the same time the feminist movement began to be called the women's movement.
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At some point we ceased to see art and media projects as expressions of our political ideas and came to regard them as receptacles - some sort of fast, cheap and convenient carriers of "content", a disseminating tool.
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Paromita VohraMedia for social change is a decades old institution in India, tied to the conception of nationhood - either to build or critique its practices - right from the paternal governmental vision of Doordarshan and All India Radio, through to the left and liberal filmmakers of the 70's and 80's, the media collectives of the '90s until today where there is a growing diversity of alternative media initiatives. Media advocacy follows roughly three routes - the making of alternative media, say, documentary films; the critique of mainstream media; and the handing of media tools to Paromita Vohra             untrained groups in order to demystify the process and hand them the power of telling their own stories.
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With respect to the feminist movement in India, media advocacy has been of particular relevance. In part, this is because media seemed like a very good way to combat the cultural attitudes that underpin patriarchy and prevent the success of organizational or developmental projects. In part, because video records of women's initiatives and experience overlapped so easily with the idea of oral history as well as the making public, of the personal and hence rendering it political.
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There have been important moments in this engagement - like the oft-noted Video Sewa experiment or the formation of 'Mediastorm', a women's documentary film collective out of Delhi. But, over the years, barring a few exceptions, much of this media work has remained at a sort of early stage. While in more recent times, the Indian documentary film movement has seen a proliferation of styles in feminist films, it has seen fewer new feminist approaches or narratives - there is a stronger tendency to clarify a position than to speak from it. In a sense there is an industrial strength replication of pre-established narratives with only the tiniest of modifications, a preference for sticking close to familiar modes. From being a philosophical political narrative, informed by the ideas of feminist thought and activism, a lot of women's media advocacy (and lot of other social issue advocacy as well) is example-oriented, a reiteration of known ideas, not a deepening or widening of the feminist discourse. Having established the importance of a women's room, it is as if it stays there safely rather than challenging and disturbing the calm surface of political correctness.
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How did it all get to be so thoroughly domesticated?
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There's something to be learnt from this trajectory of women's media advocacy and it is very crucially tied to the growth of feminism as a dynamic, meaningful philosophy. Much of advocacy work has tended to circle around the idea of "women's issues" rather than feminist approaches to the world. This is in large part because there is in fact an industry around this - of funding and promotion - which considers women being on film sufficient, women picking up a camera empowering, women making movies an amazing achievement and asks not much else of it. Funding for media advocacy often proceeds along these concretized lines. It is relatively easily available for a list of appropriate issues - say, women and housing or adolescence, or violence. These have a programmatic nature and are illustrative rather than exploratory projects. The issue is seen as being quite clear and it asks that the project have a result that's quite visible and unambiguous - something we can touch and see in our lifetimes as it were. In government terms it's what we call implementation. As the industry expands, the work grows further away from the central idea that it once radiated from, becomes a decontextualised, routine, carrying-out and eventually, a dead metaphor. Those who become absorbed into it, do so by professional routes, carrying out the job rather than seeking to subvert these processes.
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In effect this approach also stems from a fixed, rather than evolving, delineation of what is political, what are the problems of being an Indian woman. The tendency is then to speak of women only in terms of their problems - either the experience of or triumph over them - and primarily as examples of their socio-economic location. It remains at some primitivist level as though women do not negotiate complex compromises, produce theory or heaven forbid, art. It is a pseudo-socialist aesthetic where determined sameness is a metaphor for equality and the world of the imagination is an exiled counter-revolutionary.
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This is further pedestrianised by the new rhetoric of accessible technology - as if technology were a replacement for thought and really, the only thing that separated the privileged from the marginalized were material access and not the intensely ideological weight of cultural life. To suggest that there may be need to understand a medium artistically, to explore the implications of form, is at best to be told "well, this is not an arty film, it's an issue based video" or its variation, "we are not artists, we are activists"; at worst, it is to be accused of being brahminical and anti people's media. It's a matter of unending wonder that the very people who underline the inequities that arise in this country by virtue of what language and education we receive, dismiss the language of media and art, deny that it has its own nuances and political weight - and effectively separate entire communities of artists and audiences from the alternative discussion of political life.
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In a deep sense then, media advocacy has abandoned the very rich theoretical and political underpinnings of feminist thought and domesticated itself into an industry. It has fallen into a cautious, conformist mode, using the most hackneyed conventions as if to justify itself - seeking not the poetry of felt observation, the creation of an alternative culture - but a mechanistic approach, and essentially, a conservative approach.
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It is certainly true that this concept of media advocacy has paralleled the rise of the NGO sector. But, these same floating mechanics can be found outside the purview of the NGO film just as well. For instance, another form popular with women has been the personal film. Born from the feminist idea that the personal is political it is now a shadow of that idea - a diary form, akin to the slip dress, where it's more a case of what's inside is outside, where it is enough just to speak of one's personal life or centralize the narratives of inspiring female relatives and imagine that it will translate into political meaning. But we're a long way from letting it all hang out and calling it a revolution. The magic of the phrase "the personal is political" was that it made sense backwards too - "the political is personal" - and it is a suggestion that we render the personal political through something we do in expressing it.
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This malaise is just as deeply tied to a similar crisis within party politics or union politics. Within political movements, the prescriptive approach to media, or let's face it, propaganda, has existed for very long. In terms of form and intent, it is not that different than the state's own didactic mechanisms - and as often chooses to moral lessons over ethical issues. What leads from this, more disturbingly, is the inherent, implicit but overwhelming hierarchy of issues. In this roster, feminist issues just aren't considered that important no matter what lip service is paid. Obviously there has been a long journey from early denouncements of feminism as an elite conspiracy to divide the people's movement and the refusal that patriarchy was a category by which power could be understood. But it would seem at surface glance that in a pervasively patriarchal understanding of the world, many - though by no means all - activists have roughly this order of important issues: communal conflict, defense policy and peace movements, land rights, indigenous people's movements, labor or allied economic issues, women's issues - preferably to be discussed around March 8 - and then, child rights. If there were a catalogue it would read - Category: communalism, subcategory: women. In this automated perception, the issue connotes urgency, rather than the moment the issue finds itself in.
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It becomes complicated when surrounded by this continuous but unsaid context to assert a more complex voice with confidence. For many women it translates into a highly ambivalent relationship with being called a woman or feminist artist or media practitioner, because it is seen as an apologist stream, a limited identity. And it exists equally in both domains which have now become so separate from each other - activism and art, evinced by the romanticized figure of the radical male artist, whose work after all pertains to all, as opposed to the grim or kooky stereotypes of women artists whose work after all concerns only themselves and their fluids.
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This is a mindset of schisms and schemas. Faced with this separation of feminism from the world, by its being recast as women's issues, media advocacy done by women flutters anxiously between addressing women's issues and experiences and making tense, circuitous disclaimers about how their work is not just, well, women's work.
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It is all the more confusing because the doublespeak of caring about the "women's question" is the very thing that facilitates and gives space to so much of the work. But its boundaries are firmly drawn with invisible ink. Why is it so difficult to see, that to counter this intuitively felt prejudice, one needs more intuitive forms?
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The schisms are binary. The separation is not only between women and the rest of the world or feminism and women's issues but just as strongly and more frankly between what is perceived as cultural/artistic, what is seen as theoretical and what is considered political. This approach sees art and culture in a fragmented way - as mere adjuncts to the real work of a society, as an illustration of social and historical moments. All media can be clearly identified via a schema, in which, art or media work is commercial if it entertains, personal if it is expressive and political if it is didactic and unambiguous. Everything that seems betwixt and between is problematic.
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This suspicion of art is the same as the suspicion of feminism. Both are approaches that undermine a strongly objectivist tendency, and are subversive in the most inexorable ways. And the anxiety of keeping them separate from the mainstream of the alternative is a stubborn one, operating in inflexible ways.
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Several years ago I was involved in a project called A Woman's Place which was a cross cultural exploration of how women strategically redefine power, around the world. It was collaboration between filmmakers from India, South Africa and the USA meant for broadcast, an attempt to work in a mainstream format but in a redefined way. Predictably, funding for this was not proving easy and I was getting quite used to wearing Indian dress as proof of authenticity to meetings with funders. Along the way we met with an established women's media network - to be told by the president that the only people entitled to tell the stories of women of a specific context were those women themselves, as indeed the organization had facilitated in some places. For us to aspire to do so was to usurp their voices.
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Almost a decade later I made a film, UnLimited Girls, about feminism and varied people's responses to it, in English, and quite rooted in content and form within various urban contexts. At several screenings I was occasionally lectured about how I ought to be making films about rural and underprivileged women and by speaking of my own and allied contexts, I was effectively silencing the women of rural India. (I've met a few of these rural women and I can't remember speaking much in that encounter but that's another story for another time). One person even sent me a 4 page academic article about how mine was an elitist film, and my persona clearly elite - and therefore, by implication, it couldn't really be a valuable political document because after all the real India is in the villages and the rest is, I guess, maya.
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Identity politics - again having their root in a very important tenet of equal but different, not same; a resistance to the power structures of caste, class and gender within progressive politics - often seems to become a peculiar form of wielding power. As if, now that we've agreed to recognize your box, you dare not leave it. What matters has been codified and ordained and we must forever work along those lines instead of blurring them. An effective medium of conservative caution - we focus only on what should be said, who should speak for whom. It has a militaristic aesthetic, and it effectively disallows the most fundamental questions of form, essential both to feminism and art - now that we know what we want to speak of, how shall we speak of it? How do we join what is individual and human in us with the universal, the socio-economic common identity we each embody?
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As importantly, if I do not speak of others stories, by implication it means I need never listen to them. Or that I tell them with a comfortable disclaimer, acquitting myself of responsibility. Optionally, if speaking of my own experiences is a political indulgence and so to be eschewed, then what am I? Someone set apart from the need for change and accountability? These questions and uncertainties are a natural corollary of change. But, it seems to be enough to plug these anxieties rather than use them as a means of developing a deeper conversation. A form is created which you can tick off a list of representation rather than plunge into messy questions - how do we speak of heterosexuality without canceling out same sex relationships? How do we speak of Hindu identity without ignoring Muslim women's issues? When does anxiety about not speaking for others translate into not speaking of them? How do we find a way for the many identities within us to form a fluid whole - that there is a little of me in you and you in me, loved, hated, othered, that we imbue each other? How, in other words do we find a new complex language rich with ideas and questions, as opposed to clarifying a prescribed understanding? If this is the room that media advocacy lives in, then we have to wonder - what exactly is it advocating? Like some great continental drift, as art separates from politics, theory from activism, intellect from emotion, how do we find a way to integrate these vital aspects of understanding, communication, ideas and ways of knowing and doing?
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Perhaps we return to some early lessons of feminism. Which say that the thing we know intuitively has meaning. That by articulating the intuitive, what we thought was a random personal niggle, begins to form a map of larger political meaning. That it's not enough to articulate the intuitive but to join it with the experience of others to find other ways of being.
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When I was making UnLimited Girls, film on feminism, for Sakshi, a Delhi based NGO, I went through all the fears and anxieties I've outlined above. I was scared of not representing everyone, not covering all the bases. Underneath it were all the things that had bothered me for years - that, while the ideas of feminism had been very powerful for my life, the encounters with many feminists whose work I admired left me with suppressed questions - where was I to go to find a feminist history if I wasn't already in the know? Why in the discourse of empowerment did no one tell me that some of my choices would be so hard and render me so alone and confused? And now that I found myself in that state how did I speak of it and find a new meaning for it? How could I purify my choices?
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But my task was to make a film that would invite young women to rejoin the politics of feminism. If I were to speak of these things would it not put these women off and therefore was it not more strategic to tell a tale of achievements and advertise all the advantages? Perhaps it may have been but we'll never know because in the end I made a film untidy with doubt and certitude, moody with questions and answers in no particular progression. I had a great desire to speak to my audience but to do so I had to let go of the anxiety about what they would go away with. I would have to open myself up to the uncertainties of a conversation over the comfortable elevation of media advocacy. Conversation presumes knowledge and it takes certain things for granted. It is an exploratory, clarifying exercise in which we take the time to listen to each other. It has wit and hopefully, honesty, rather than posturing but it also has elements of performance to charm the listener, to persuasively state one's views - in other words a deep concern with form. At its heart is the desire to be understood and to understand and from there, to mutually seek some answers.
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In this, I believe I was true to what I think is the place of art. It is not the work of the artist to place strategy above ideas, truisms above honesty. Most of all, art is a place of honesty - where the nature of art, which is affective as much as explicit or intellectual, something that allows us to feel or sense as much as see or understand - allows for a certain placement of contradictions and dilemmas. And perhaps a slow resolving or acceptance of these contradictions. The creative endeavor is a constant reexamination and redefining of politics, a spontaneous form of politics but also a vulnerable because of its openness. We cannot claim with art - don't shoot me, I am only the messenger, an unassailability that the term media advocacy with its procedures and methodologies and or politically indignant films, purport to provide. Nor does art ensure recognizable and unmistakable responses in a range of registers- outrage, opposition, sympathy, empathy, gratitude at being informed, the desire to do something. These are time honored emotions and have their importance in the world, but. perhaps there are other ways? To take on more conversational or form-al and creative approaches may mean accepting less definite responses, it may mean that we have to abandon our anxiety that our message is not crystal clear, that our stand is perceived as unequivocal.
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I found few of these cast iron responses to UnLimited Girls. Yet, to date I feel this has been one of my most useful films leading to few certain statements, but perhaps many moments of trying to frame questions. I have had the odd reassuring definite response - "I always thought I am not a feminist although I believe in equal rights, but after seeing the film I am proud to call myself one etc." But more often there are the long exploratory discussions about self, the world, feminism, feminists, men, women, parents, love, anger, violence, change - interesting and involved but inconclusive. For audiences too, this is unfamiliar, not the know territory of a Q&A. Yet, every time I see an audience moving on from the straitjacket of that Q&A to the liberated wanderings of saying what's in their heads, to a conversation, I think perhaps that honesty and openness is what films and art and the media in that form can spawn, that they can build a culture of exchange and the desire to understand. Does that change people? Who can say for sure, but it does change the tone, shift the paradigm.
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This is the place of art - to provide that moment of pause, the moment when our audience does not say what we want to hear (although once in a while is nice) but tries to listen to what it is trying to tell itself - what the travel writer Robyn Davidson describes as "ambivalence - the space in which we can make up our own minds". That moment of interiority is the potential moment of transformation and one we must learn to trust, without anxiously searching for proof that the message has indeed reached the other end.
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As any parent will tell us, it's all very well figuring things out for yourself but its different when you have to make decisions for your children. So, as predictable as a parent, when I began working with a group of teen girls I found myself often falling back on traditional workshops - about gender, media analysis, personal diary and so on. But as my colleague and I discovered in our work with the Girls Media Group - political correctness is a mainstream media all its own and girls are as canny at reproducing model versions of themselves as they are replicating the cool images from MTV within a few days of learning to use a video camera. And despite our best efforts, the truth is that at the end of the first year, they did a little bit of just that.
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With due respect to the people who pioneered the placing of technology in the hands of the underprivileged, we have to move on. It is still surprisingly au courant to hand cameras to women, children and other underprivileged groups as if they were a tabula rasa, noble savages whose truth will automatically emerge.
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Langston HughesBut as Langston Hughes asked in the poem I quoted up top - is it really that simple? Are people's truths so simple that a digital machine in their hands is enough to unravel them? There is no denying the first surge of power that comes from being able to write, draw, take a picture, record a voice - but can we declare the beginning to be the end and the means to be the ends and say we've killed two birds with one stone? Can our process of change really be forever suspended in that poster moment? There seems to be a strange smell of charity to that act. Clearly the point of media advocacy is not to turn people into media practitioners. I would imagine it is about using a mutually finding a new language for us to express the complexities within - that mutuality which is called Langston Hughes           conversation.
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In the second year of working with the girls media group, we abandoned much of our anxiety - about how pedagogical we were being, whether we were addressing all the right feminist points, albeit in an innovative way. We replaced most of the workshops with creative ones - open ended, conversational, expressive. At the end of the year it was quite clear that the work which emerged had a tremendous honesty in it, but more importantly a certain integrity and intelligence. Yet, I cannot imagine going to a funder and describing the project as it played out in the second year and coming away with anything resembling a cheque.
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One of the advantages of writing this essay in the 21st century is that hindsight liberates us and we can be simultaneously loyal to a political idea or movement as well as sharply critical of some of it. The feminist movement both theoretically and politically opened up a rich space of subjective knowledge and ambiguous experience - declaring all these to be equally important ways of knowing. In a sense it provided a means to seriously incorporate the creative as a fundamental part of the process of political examination and growth. Along the way it has allowed itself to be swept up by the anxieties that this is not enough and scrambled to shore itself up with more conventional methods of academic proof or empirical administrative targets.
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So perhaps from within it and without, it is time to start advocacy for media as an affirmation of this way of being political and to put our energies behind the idea that art, like the intuitive, experiential document of history is not an inferior, less political, record of life and thought.
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When we produce media in an industrial fashion, along respectable, predictable formulaic lines, we function as an establishment and we remove these artifacts from context, anxious to create a value free, problem free cultural product. But it is not the place of the alternative to become the mainstream, just as it is not feminism for women to become just like men or the other way round. We need to abandon the safety of justifying mechanistic, commercial, value for money approaches, as mass media or media advocacy and push for the unverifiable veracities of creativity. Art becomes a meaningful political space only if it is emotionally viable to people - and it is so only if it is a place where they can make a meaning on their own instead of merely consuming one. Moreover, it is a place where we allow nascent ideas to exist and slowly grow, a place of constant renewal and change, which should not be harnessed in an instrumental power, working against its very grain. As feminists, as political people and activists we have to accept the responsibilities of art along with its delicacies and its particular way of understanding reality and allow it to fill us with a sense of possibility, the easier to imagine a different world and fantasise the details of how it will be.
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Notes/ Sources
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Langston Hughes, 1951, in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Knopf and Vintage, 1994 Estate of Langston Hughes
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Robyn Davidson, Against Travel Writing, in Granta 72 (Overreachers), 2000
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Video-Sewa - SEWA, a cooperative of women workers in the unorganised sector, began to use video as a tool of women's empowerment from the mid-80s onwards. VIDEO SEWA, has produced video footage on many issues including on livelihoods of poor women. The women who run the cooperative and make the films had never even seen a video camera till they underwent training with SEWA. The video now is an integral part of SEWA's activities.
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Mediastorm - a 6 member volunteer women's video collective based in Delhi founded in 1986 concerned with building an alternative media of socio-political significance. They produced documentaries on several current political issues such as the Deorala Sati, the Muslim Women's Bill/ Shahbano matter and the rise of Hindu fundamentalist movements around the Babri mosque issue.
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Maya - Hindu philosophical concept which says the world is illusory. Used colloquially to connote that something is an illusion, not real.
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Girls Media Group - A media education project carried out by the writer with Maria Nicolo, a New York based colleague of A Woman's Place Project. The initiative, which lasted from 2001-2004 emphasized a creative and curious approach to making sense of the world. It was carried out with high school/ junior college girls in New York and Bombay, to develop a critical relationship with media - its content and its form and to produce creative media projects, using writing, video and radio, in order to express and articulate themselves better. While the project aimed at greater political awareness and analytical ability, it emphasized creative approaches over didactic ones.
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Paromita Vohra is a filmmaker and writer who works and lives in India. She works independently and with organizations and several of her films have specifically focused on gender and feminism. She is also part of A Woman's Place Project an international collective of women using media for social change and @Culture a collective centralizing the discussion on cultural practice and political art in the space of the World Social Forum.
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Courtesy: sawnet
Courtesy: renaissanceguy

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