Dogs, men and a city called Kolkata coming to Nova

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When Jesse Alk first visited Kolkata in 2010, little did he realize he would form a relationship of sorts with this chaotic, colorful and cultural eastern Indian city. It was the reason that led him to making his documentary Pariah Dog based on the city’s many stray dogs. But the documentary has a human dimension as his story also focusses on the many feeders and street dog activists that inspired his creativity. Alk stayed three years in Kolkata to make the film. Pariah Dog has received good reviews and even won the prize for Best Feature at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, a well-known American documentary festival. It will be screened at the Cinema Nova on July 23 as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Alks talks to The Indian Weekly about the film, and more.

What was it in particular that drew you to making this documentary?
I’ve been visiting Kolkata since 2010, and since the first visit, I’ve been interested in the street dogs. I was drawn to the fact that they had their own little societies alongside the human city, with their own dramas and their own tragedies, which sometimes go unnoticed by humans. When I started to meet “feeders” and other street-dog activists, my focus changed to the human element of the story, but the dogs were the initial inspiration. Also, I’m one of those people who is hypnotized by Kolkata, and it was like that from the moment I first landed. I’m not sure why Kolkata stays with me, but I love the city, and when I’m not there, I think about going back constantly. I’ve been a bit put-off by many of the documentaries I’ve seen made by Westerners in Kolkata, which always seem to focus on poverty or social problems. I wanted to make a film that showed the city as I saw it, a difficult place, but a really special one as well, and a place for which I feel a lot of affection.

It is a documentary about dogs but has a parallel story of loners and their relationship with these stray dogs? What is the message of the documentary?
Pariah Dog is the story of four people who fill up the gaps in their lives with caring for the stray dogs, but the film really takes that as a starting point to look at other aspects of these people’s lives as well. I’m always interested in how individuals in large cities find their place in the world, especially when they don’t have a strong family structure to rely on, so we tried to really get intimate moments of reflection with each character, thinking about the challenges they’ve faced, and maybe some of the dreams they’ve had that have gone unfulfilled. It’s hard to distill the film down to a single message, but I would say it’s more an exploration along themes of how we create meaning in our lives, and how “outsiders,” whether human or canine fit into the giant machine that is a modern mega-city.

What were some of the challenges you faced shooting this documentary?
There were a lot of challenges on the shoot. We had two major characters change their mind about being in the film after six months of filming, which required us to start over almost from scratch. There were a lot of issues with filming in the streets in terms of drawing large crowds which could at times disrupt things we were trying to capture. And of course, there was a language barrier (I’m terrible at languages, and was only able to pick up a small amount of Bengali, even after all these years), and there were cultural things which I had to learn. I was lucky to work with an all-Bengali crew, and had a ton of support in Kolkata. I ended up staying there for three years to make the film, so I had friends to help guide me through misunderstandings, and to help me see some cultural nuances I might have missed. I think it’s a much stronger film for having stayed so long and struggled to get it all right, but it was the most difficult, and best, thing I’ve done in my life.

How did you approach the editing process? Did you do it yourself?
After the main shoot, I returned to the US in 2017 and extensively “logged” all the footage for six months. Then I returned to Kolkata to edit the film myself. I was very lucky to be able to do test screenings for my Bengali friends, and also took advice from my sound recordist/co-writer Koustav Sinha, my executive producer Aditi Sircar, and also sat for editing sessions with national award-winning filmmaker Subhadro Chowdury. He was very generous with his time, watching over four hours of cut scenes to get an idea of my raw material, and was instrumental in guiding my thinking about which were the most important, and the order in which they should appear in the film. At one point we actually sat and did a full “pass” of the film together. I majorly restructured the film a few times after our sessions together ended, but his input really helped set my thinking about a few things, and a lot of his very crucial suggestions for scene order and juxtapositions are still in the film.

Post the film, what are your impressions about Kolkata. Would you call it the ‘city of joy’?
I’m a huge fan of Kolkata, and I think I’ll be coming back for the rest of my life. I spent years living there with a Bengali family who in some ways “adopted” me, and we are still very close, so I think I’ll be connected with Kolkata whether I ever do another film there or not. It can be the “city of joy,” it can be the city of sadness, it’s a lot of different things all at once. I don’t romanticize Kolkata, it has a lot of problems, and life is very tough for a lot of people there. But there are so many different stories, there are so many different versions of Kolkata. I think I could make twenty films there and never scratch the surface.

What has been some of the feedbacks you have received on Pariah Dog?
So far, the feedback has been very positive. The film premiered at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, a well-known American documentary festival, and won the prize for Best Feature. It was included in the Documentary Competition at the Krakow Film Festival in Poland, played San Francisco and Mammoth Lakes, California, and in addition to its upcoming Australian Premiere at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, there are quite a few announcements of new festivals I’ll be revealing in the coming months. Most importantly, I’ve had great feedback from people in India so far. The film has been featured in the Hindu, the Quint, Scroll.in, and the Hindu BusinessLine, with some more very exciting Indian press on the way soon.

Any message to the people of Australia
I’d really love it if people could come to the screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film festival, July 23rd at Cinema Nova, at 20:45. The festival is very interested in connecting more deeply with the Indian community in Melbourne and Australia as a whole, and is really encouraging people who have never been to the festival to come check it out. Also, the PARIAH DOG festival run is ongoing, so follow us on Facebook or at www.pariahdogmovie.com for upcoming dates and information on our streaming release next year.
(As told to The Indian Weekly)