A Rifle and A Bag is an unusual film made in unusual conditions. The documentary explores the lives of two surrendered Naxalites who are navigating a world that they had sworn to transform. Somi and her husband Sukhram have given up arms to live in a village in central India and raise their two sons. But the non-revolutionary path sometimes makes them wonder if they made the right decision.

The film has been directed by three women, one of whom is Indian. Arya Rothe, Cristina Hanes and Isabella Rinaldi are products of the Doc Nomads Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree in Documentary Filmmaking programme, which is conducted in universities in Portugal, Hungary and Belgium. Rothe is from India, Hanes is Romanian and Rinaldi is Italian.

The women formed the NoCut Film Collective in 2016 “to work together and produce independent author-driven documentaries even if we would be geographically separated”, they told Scroll.in in a joint email.

A Rifle and a Bag provides an impressionistic and sensitive portrait of Somi and Sukhram’s attempts to earn a living, secure their elder son’s education and procure the right caste/tribal certificate that will ease their children’s futures. The 89-minute documentary is being premiered in India in the online edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (October 29-November 4).

In this interview, Hanes, Rinaldi and Rothe told Scroll.in about the challenges of three people making a documentary together and in trying conditions.

What inspired the film, and how did you pick Somi and Sukhram to be its central characters?
During our research in 2016 and 2017, we went to rural areas deep in the jungles of central India. We were not in a red zone of the Naxalite “corridor” but at the border of it. We learnt about the existence of the surrendered Naxalite settlements while we were in this region. We were able to gain access because of the first tribal doctor of the region, who also appears in the film, Doctor Kanna Madavi.

He helped us navigate the safety concerns. Because he is highly regarded in this community of displaced indigenous people, his introduction made it easier for us to be seen as trustworthy and be given a chance.

We met and spoke to several surrendered Naxalites from that particular settlement, but it was only after we met Somi that we felt there was a story to tell. It was not only her background that struck us, but also Somi’s strength and straightforwardness. Somi and Sukhram met and fell in love inside the commando unit from which they surrendered together. Their story as a couple and their solid relationship were also very gripping for us.

Once we returned, we understood she was struggling to enroll her son Dadu in a school and she was facing many obstacles because of her past and her social status. This was to us the starting point in telling her and her family’s story.

A Rifle and a Bag (2020). Courtesy NoCut Film Collective.

What was the filming process like, especially since there wasn’t any way of knowing how the narrative would shape up?
The first time we met Somi, we didn’t film her. We were leaving the next day and we knew we had to come back and meet her again. After eight months, once we gathered the first funds, we went to meet her again and very honestly asked her if she wanted to make a film with us. We explained to her briefly our initial idea and we were upfront regarding the fact that we also didn’t know what the outcome would be. We told her we wanted to try it nevertheless and asked her if she wanted to try it with us. She accepted.

Isabella and Cristina spent seven months in India over a period of three years and we shot for 50 “official” days between 2017 and 2019. But we spent around five months with our characters in order to get to know each other and build the mutual trust that allowed for this film to exist.

How did the documentary come together between the three of you?
The three of us were involved in all the aspects of filmmaking, from research to post-production. We were also the core team on location, physically involved in the entire process. Considering the total dedication and creative contributions to the project from each of us, it was natural to sign the film as co-directors and co-producers.

This collaborative framework worked for us in this specific project. Other situations might require another setup. We believe we should be as fluid as possible towards the requirements of each project rather than sticking to existing hierarchical configurations.

(L-R): Arya Rothe, Cristina Hanes and Isabella Rinaldi. Courtesy NoCut Film Collective.

The documentary has many long and unhurried takes. Several sequences have a frontal shooting style, with the characters in front of the camera.
We used a small camera, which was placed most of the time in front of the characters on a tripod. It’s very possible that our approach of not moving the camera too much in the middle of a situation or a scene also contributed to making the characters feel easily comfortable with our and the camera’s presence in their daily life. The camera didn’t seem to hinder Somi and Sukhram, as they grasped our intentions from the beginning. So they were at ease with being filmed from the very early days.

Several intimate conversations are captured on camera. Did the characters need prompting to talk about certain issues, such as how they joined the Naxalite movement? Or did you roll and pick the scenes that fitted the narrative later?
Some of the scenes were indeed made in collaboration with the characters. The scenes that were triggered by us were always drawn from things we were told or we witnessed, that we would later on discuss with Somi and Sukhram in order to decide together the right moment to film them. Other scenes were shot completely spontaneous and “observational”, so in the film you can find a mix of these two approaches.

You have also dispensed with an explanatory voiceover or intertitles, which is common in documentaries made on a specific subject but aimed as a global viewership.
We started our collective also because we want to direct independent films. Very often, these stylistic or narrative choices are imposed by producers, commissioning editors, broadcasters or fund givers. When they are not imposed, they might stem from underestimating the audience.

We trusted the strength of our footage to speak for itself and allowed the audience to fill in some gaps – to be actively involved in constructing the backstory of the characters. We don’t think films should spoon-feed the audience using these explanatory storytelling devices, but rather create an active exchange that can grant them the space for thought and emotional interpretation.

How did an Italian and a Romanian adjust to shooting in villages and small towns? Did you face any challenges from the police and military?
It was certainly a unique experience. It was a challenging and rewarding process of understanding a new culture, translating it, and interacting with it. We were facilitated by the professional collaboration and friendship with Arya [Rothe] first and Somi after. It was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We were very carefully evaluating when and where we could film. We have also been guided in this by Dr Kanna Madavi, to be sure that our action wouldn’t endanger us and most importantly our characters. So our general experience in this sense was positive and we actually found most of the police and governmental officers to be receptive and open.

A Rifle and a Bag (2020).

Also read:

Movies, docs, talks: A guide to the Dharamshala International Film Festival’s online edition

Powerful and harrowing documentary ‘76 Days’ pays tribute to the ‘Covid warriors’ of Wuhan