BENGALURU: While Sarah Thomas was contemplating making a film on the Halakki Vokkaliga tribe, it was her first glimpse of them that sealed the deal. “We saw some women from the tribe collecting leaves for burning at 5:30am during a trip to Goa. Some of them were chanting, and hip down, they were covered in their saris. But hip up onwards, their back was bare and the front was adorned with many layers of beads,” says the director of the documentary, The Unsung.
The visual stuck long enough for Thomas to research the tribe more, and lack of substantial information prompted her to make a film on this fading tribe from the coastal region of Karnataka. The documentary has now been selected under the ‘Focus’ category of the 12th International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, organised by the state government.
The filmmaking journey was full of many lessons for 20-something Thomas, who is the founder and executive producer of STOM Productions. The foremost takeaway was that there was a difference of perception among the community itself. Thomas recalls the time her colleague and she headed to Gokarna to find the community. Upon finding that they reside 80km from their hotel, Thomas asked the receptionist where she could find them, only to learn that the receptionist too is a Halakki Vokkaliga.
“She told us that many others in the area belonged to the tribe, but were unaware of their language, and avoided wearing the cultural attire. Some were embarrassed to be associated with the tribe,” Thomas recalled. This was contradictory to everything she had read about them, which sparked more interest for the team. “We wanted to tell a story with integrity about a tribe that most people are unaware of and their life in today’s world against the backdrop of globalisation, modernisation and their indigenous roots. The filming process and deeper research showed us that we were looking at just one such tribe, while there are hundreds of others going through the same problem,” Thomas added.
While filming and pre-production took just 10 days, gaining their trust took much longer. The people did not open up during the first phase of shooting a year ago. “The head of the tribe, fondly called Sukri Ajji, who has been representing them for 25 years, was sick and admitted to the hospital. So the whole process of mingling and striking a rapport took about a year,” Thomas said. But it was by virtue of the long process that Thomas overcame prejudiced thoughts about what tribes are like. The filmmaker calls the journey a learning process, which will continue. Thomas hopes to bring forward more unheard stories in the future. “We, as city dwellers, are completely oblivious to tribes living on the fringes of society, fading away. The dominant cultural narrative propagated by mainstream media does not shed light on this and it is important for us to raise awareness about it,” she said.