You’ve been in journalism for 14 years, covered Messi, Maradona, lived with insurgent groups in the forests and feel disillusioned with the mainstream media. What do you do?
HackPack member Ratna Chakraborty decided to leave her home in India, move to Oman and reassert herself as an independent journalist. Now, four years later, she has gone from one of the first female sports journalists in eastern India to a documentary film producer.
Her first documentary, called Her Darkroom, tells the story of an American photographer, who only uses film. It was first screened in June at Reality Check, London and got selected for the Sydney World Film Festival.
She is inspired to do more and making plans for a new documentary on Maoist rebels in India and the refugee crisis.
We spoke with Ratna to learn how to pivot your career, what it is like working with insurgency groups and how you too can become a documentary film producer.
What brought you to Oman?
After so long in journalism, I got pretty disillusioned with the mainstream media. I wanted to make a change and become an independent journalist. At the same time, my husband who is also a journalist, received a great offer from the Muscat Daily Newspaper. Four years ago, once my husband got settled, I made the jump to become an independent journalist.
What do you mean disillusioned?
When you are associated with a specific publication, you are following their editorial policies and implementing them. So if Russia is bombing in Syria, the coverage by RT and the coverage by AFP are different. One says Russia is bombing in Syria to ouster ISIS, the other says Russia is bombing civilians. They don’t focus solely on the truth. Now I can sit at the center of the action and explore a lot of things. I can travel and convey the message that I want to tell.
How did you make the move? Did you already have a job?
A local TV startup invited me to work for them, but after six months, they closed up. I began looking for other options and started working on documentaries and short films. It started with the Beach Handball World Championship in 2012. The Ministry of Sports Affairs selected me to produce the official documentary of the event. This was definitely a good start. Since then, I’ve made quite a number of corporate & promotional films for some of the top corporate houses in Oman. I joined Zoomin.TV last year.
What have you really enjoyed about documentaries?
With news you just go there, find some pieces and paste them together. Take this one time I visited a Maoist insurgency movement. We were in a hurry and needed to produce something in a very short span of time. I got a number of bites, visuals and short interviews. But with documentaries you have time to go deep into a subject, research and see the truth more properly because you aren’t rushing. I’m just loving it.
What is most difficult in producing documentaries?
Financing the project is really difficult because it is often out of your hands.
How much does it cost?
It depends. On my most recent documentary, I spent about $150 — $200. I operated my own camera, did the editing, set up my own lighting. My husband helps me in conceptualizing things, setting up equipment, writing screenplays or narration, designing etc. You don’t always need financing.
But if you want to make a documentary that involves travel, then it can be very costly.
You have to go to various locations, several times, spend time with the people, do research and then return. This way you understand the situation, know the people, can speak with them at length and ensure that they will freely speak in front of a camera.
But no one wants to finance you, because documentaries are not very commercially viable. Usually people finance from their own pockets because it’s a passion — an expensive passion.
What equipment do you use?
After coming to Oman, I set up my own unit, my own edit set up and cameras. This is the global trend in television news these days. For Zoom.tv, I do my own camera, while editing is done by the Amsterdam office. Currently I use a Canon 7D Mark II camera, I edit on Final Cut Pro in Mac. I have my own tripod, lights, slider, dolly and a few other tools as well.
What future projects are in the works?
I am currently working on a documentary about a Portuguese cyclist who is on a world tour with a very strange mission. It’s still in process, and I’m trying to work out the finances. Also, I am working out plans to do documentaries on the refugee crisis and a project in Greece.
What did you used to cover?
This movement is actually considered to be one of the greatest security threats in India. At Star-ABP Media Group, I covered the government forces’ crackdown operations extensively, as they are widespread in central, western and eastern India. I love sports, but that truly fascinated me. I want to continue working with them and am trying to find ways to make a documentary about the insurgency groups.
How did you get the opportunity to cover them?
At the time, one of the top Maoist leaders, Kishenji, was hiding with the forces, and the government initiated a crackdown. A lot of reporters were working there, and my office decided to send me. I also travelled with a united force, called the Joint Forces, made up of a central Indian police force and the state police to tackle the rebellious Maoist movement. By the time I had left, though, they found Kishenji and shot him dead. Much later, after leaving journalism in India, I returned to the forests to observe the changes that had taken place and understand the situation.
How did you get access to the rebel groups?
I’m not sure I should disclose much, but reporters have contacts with the insurgency groups. The groups would sometimes call journalists to do interviews. They want the press to be on their side because they need media. Insurgency movements need the press there to write and provide proof of what is happening.
Connect with Ratna today through HackPack and expand your opportunities!
Ratna Chakraborty is an Oman-based video journalist who works freelance for Zoomin.tv, covering the Middle East and India. She has been a journalist, senior program producer and anchor for Star-ABP Group, covering the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup.
Her most recent documentary, called Her Darkroom, was screened in London and got official selection in Sydney International Film Festival. Her first short film, Freeze, about atrocities to women in India was nominated for two awards, the Wendy’s Short and Broken Knuckle Film Festival. It has also been screened at three festivals in New York, Switzerland and the US.