"A nationwide state-and-corporate economic-development push is forcing many Indian farmer-villagers off their land and depriving them of their livelihoods and age-old ways of life. Walls and the Tiger shows that ongoing process while focusing on the response of one community of South Indian farmer-villagers. The developers' indifference to their fate has angered them, so they have launched a protest movement that includes demonstrations, civil disobedience, and legal action. "
(From the website of the documentary film Walls and the Tiger
First-time director Sushma Kallam is descended from a long line of Indian farmers in villages close to the Krishna River in Andhra Pradesh.
During her childhood she lived for a year in the peaceful village dwelling of her grandparents, and has since returned there frequently. After earning an engineering degree in India she came to the US in 2001 to work. She became an independent IT consultant specialising in supply-chain management. In that world, she learned about the ways in which neoliberal economic development --"globalization" -- was disrupting traditional rural life in India.
Producer and associate director Liam O'Connor is a counsellor to youth in the state of Washington, a musician, and an artist.
How did the project come together?
Sushma Kallam: As a successful consultant in the US, I have been helping global corporations with setting up manufacturing facilities overseas to lower production costs. While attending a Trade Alliance meeting, I witnessed Indian Government officials inviting companies from the US to develop facilities in my home state, offering incentives including land at almost no cost through Special Economic Zones. I wondered how the government was able to acquire so much land from farmers, knowing the deep-rooted connection between the land and people in that region. I travelled back to India to find out more.
I found that this is not just their story -- we are all involved. I could not just sit back and watch it; I have been back each year since that first return visit. I quit my job and started making this film.
Liam, what's your background in filmmaking? I see that you have composed some of the music.
Liam O'Connor: I have absolutely no background in filmmaking! My initial input was to compose the score for the film, but when composing, performing, and recording that amount of music became a daunting task, we consulted with some very talented composer friends who contributed both Indian and Western music for the film. I did complete a few pieces that were used in the film, but not as many as I'd hoped for. Slowly my contribution increased with behind-the-scenes inputs such as revising translations, developing the storyline and selecting footage. I had a strong desire to portray the characters in the film in the most honest way possible, in addition to showing the connection between these Indian villagers and the consumption of goods in the West.
What challenges did you face in making a film primarily set in India now that you're based in Seattle?
Sushma Kallam: Making a documentary such as this with a global message required a lot of planning. I was told that even for an experienced director making this film would be a challenge. With a small team comprising both Indians and Americans it was a lot of hard work -- capturing the moments as they happened in real time, travelling to the areas most affected by this development, and forming a trusting relationship between a foreign crew and the villagers. Though the villagers were fascinated with Indians who have moved to the West, at first they were suspicious of my motives. Over time we were able to gain their trust by convincing them that the motive behind this documentary might help their community or others like them across the globe. Once the initial hurdles were crossed we ended up having a lot of fun with the villagers knowing they were a part of the crew telling this story.
Was there a particular event in Andhra Pradesh that inspired you to make Walls and the Tiger?
Sushma Kallam: In 2009 when I returned to India, I was surprised by the number of slums that have grown in Hyderabad. Narasimha Reddy, a senior journalist in Hyderabad explained to me the effects of economic development in the name of Special Economic Zones and the rate of displacement that is creating these slums. In 2010, he took me to three different locations where the lands are acquired to build foreign manufacturing companies in the name of SEZs. After hearing the stories of farmers who lost their land, I wanted to do something about it.
In the trailer, there's footage of riot police beating farmers. Tell me more about that incident.
Sushma Kallam: It is the infamous 2010 Sompeta incident in Andhra Pradesh. The government wanted to build a power plant in a wetland in the north east of the state. When the public opposed the construction of the power plant by NCC company, the government responded with police force. We cover this incident and the issues in our film.
Right now, there is no construction happening in the wetland as the court ordered not to build a power plant there.
What's the connection between Indian farmers and the bulk of manufactured goods which arrive in the Port of Seattle?
Sushma Kallam: There is no direct connection as such. But as we show in the film, Adidas shoes made in Andhra Pradesh are being shipped to the west. Similarly many products that are manufactured in various parts of the world are primarily shipped to the west to satisfy the demand for cheaper goods. Seattle is one of the biggest ports in the west coast of the USA where I live. So I decided to film there to represent the goods coming into Seattle port from the east.
How can the average citizen in India and the US help?
Sushma Kallam: Knowledge and awareness are the key factors that can help us make conscious choices about our future. India or the US or anywhere in the world, we have to put the effort to know the effect our choices have on others. With the global population rising, natural resources depleting, with the environment changing, we can no longer sit back and think that others will take care of these problems.
This is not a story of what is going on in a rural village in India, instead it is a story of what people can do when they are faced with larger-than-life obstacles; it is a story of how people can bring change against all odds; it is a story of people joining together to do something, to make true democracy work. We want to be part of a change that has already begun, and is based on growing awareness.
Here are some simple actions we can take in our own, everyday lives:
- We can buy locally grown food as much as possible or support community farming.
- Before spending just because we can, we can think twice about whether we really need the product, the new pair of shoes, the nth sweater.
- We should ask ourselves what goes into products and whether the company reduces its environmental impact.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
Sushma Kallam: Here is a message from the farmers to the viewers :
We welcome any development that takes the environment and local community into consideration. Since we come from farming and fishing villages, we would like aquaculture and agro-related industries to be established here. For example, setting up cold storage for farmers and fishermen, or fish hatcheries and mango processing factories for export, paper industry to use local fir trees, fishing and farming cooperatives, etc. Development that disregards the local environment and local community in favour of industrialisation cannot be sustained in the long run.
We request all of your support in helping us defend our land and our environment in order to provide fresh air and fresh water to our future generations. Without that, any amount of development is meaningless.
Walls and the Tiger is tentatively set for an autumn release in the US, with global release dates to follow.
Walls and the Tiger website: www.wallsandthetiger.com
All "Walls and the Tiger" images used by permission.
Port of Seattle photo is in the public domain.