Wagah, a 12-minute documentary film by Supriyo Sen, last month won the prestigious Berlin Today 2009 Award, now in its sixth consecutive year. It is the story of an extraordinary event that takes place at the only border crossing between India and Pakistan: Every evening, thousands of cheering spectators gather to witness a patriotic parade for the ritual closing of the border. Wim Wenders, reading from the jury's statement, concluded that the film is "a convincing manifesto against any wall that divides people."

A bit of background to the Berlin Today Award will shed light on the talent of Indian documentary filmmaker Supriyo Sen, famed for his strikingly original ideas about little-known realities of life that are waiting to be explored and archived through and on film. The Berlinale Talent Campus is an initiative of the Berlin International Film Festival, a business division of the Kulturveranstaltungen des Bundes in Berlin GmbH, funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media upon a decision of the German Bundestag, in co-operation with MEDIA-Training programme of the European Union, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Skillset and UK Film Council as well as Volkswagen.

350 Talents from 106 countries arrived for the event to converge at the Hebbel am Ufer to exchange to interact with international experts and network amongst themselves. The patron of the competition, Festival Director Dieter Kosslick together with jury members Wim Wenders, Andreas Dresen, Emily Atef and Kirsten Niehuus, CEO of Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, handed the Berlin Today Award 2009 to this year's winner.

A distinguished record

Wagah is still to hit Indian screens. But to people familiar with the works of this journalist-turned-documentary filmmaker, this award will be no surprise because Sen has been making his own journey through awards bestowed for excellence in choice of subject and aesthetics of creative expression. His debut film, Wait Until Death (1995), done on U-Matic, was an investigative documentary on the deaths of workers employed in a stone-crushing factory. It is the tragic saga of a young tribal, Shakuntala, who dies when the film ends. Hers was the 23rd death caused by silicosis in the tribal hamlet of Chinchurgheria, near Jhargram in Midnapore district of West Bengal.

"The film began as an inquiry into the tragedy of a little village, but ended with the growing awareness of an age-old legacy exploitation of one group of human beings by another, more powerful group" said Sen. The film was screened at film festivals in Nepal, Bangladesh and India. Within two years of working at a stone crushing unit in the area, villagers from five neighbouring villages fell victim to the deadly disease, imbibed through inhaling the stone dust in the unit. The film, following a linear narrative beginning with the dying Shakuntala and closing with her death, leaves the question of human rights hanging in the air. The film blends the genres of the environmental documentary, the human rights documentary and the investigative documentary to make it a powerful political statement on celluloid.

Sen thereafter made a 26-minute film called The Dream of Hanif. Shot on Beta for the video format, the film explores the dying art of scroll painting, a hereditary form of art in Bengal that combines painting with singing the songs of the stories painted on the scrolls. Bending under the changing demands of a changing cultural world, the traditional artists of scroll painting have changed the content of their scrolls to suit the market demands of the time, with one exception. His name is Dukhushyam Chitrakar, who refuses to leave the heritage he was trained to perpetuate. But he has only one scroll left to be sold. It is called 'The Dream of Hanif'.

Wagah is still to hit Indian screens. But to people familiar with the works of this journalist-turned-documentary filmmaker, this award will be no surprise.

 •  The price of catastrophe

Another of Sen's memorable films is The Nest, which won the National Award for the Best Film on Environment in 2001. In Jamboni village in Midnapore district, the sight of hundreds of white open-billed storks descending together each year around May-June is an unforgettable experience, but it is more than a grand migration. It is also, in the eyes of the local residents, a visit by the birds to farmer Jatin Mahato's house. It is amazing, almost unbelievable, but these lissome birds come at the onset of winter to nestle and breed in the trees next to Mahato's humble thatched hut.

No one in the village quite knows where the birds come from and where they go. But they have been the closest friends of the Mahatos for generations together. Mahato has been badly beaten up twice during midnight attacks for not permitting the poachers and hunters to have their way. But he is not intimidated. It is as if, he is divinely committed to save the birds in whatever way he possibly can. This 38-minute documentary is a straightforward documentation of his life, and his love for the open-billed storks that fly in droves to nest, mate and breed in and around his home.

Sen's next work was a two-part documentary, Way Back Home and Imaginary Homeland. A personal and intimate journey by the parents of the filmmaker to their homeland in Barisal, now in Bangladesh, slowly raises the larger question of communalism across and within the borders of India and Bangladesh, closing in on the tragic reality of human hate cutting across time and space. The film opens with the small family and the film crew embarking on the journey. The senior Sens are making the journey after fifty years – they had never been back since they crossed over to Calcutta - and the rest of the family plus the film crew are making it for the first time.

"Is this the small town I left as a young boy?" the senior Sen keeps asking himself. "Even the trees have changed, the waterways are no longer where they were, the skyline looks different," he goes on. Placed in perspective 50 years after the partition of India, displacement and uprootal have become a global reality. "The concept of the refugee is what I feel, made the prestigious Jan Vrijman Fund possible," confesses Sen who received the Jan Vrijman Fund on the basis of a worldwide competition of scripts from the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam.

"For me, the journey has been metaphorical and historical," says Supriyo Sen. The group had to cross dangerous hurdles while they shot clandestinely in Bangladesh on the eve of the elections there. The film does not reveal these cracks. Sumit Ghosh's seamless editing demonstrates editorial control as Ranjan Palit's camera offers panoramic shots of the cityscape, or takes us along those drives within Bangladesh roads, through avenues lined by trees that did not exist before, and the steamer rides from Dhaka to Barisal and back. The credit for the rich texture of the film lies squarely on the shoulders of the senior Sens – Supriyo's father and mother who come across as the best performers ever – spontaneous in their expression and their body language, not in the least conscious of the camera following them.

Hope Dies Last in War

Then came Hope Dies Last in War, which narrates the struggles of the families of some of the 54 Indian soldiers taken prisoners of war during the Indo-Pak war of 1971 who are yet to return home. Some parents died waiting in vain, some children lost the last ray of hope bending under the pressure of bureaucratic and administrative non-cooperation, some wives married again to open a fresh page in their lives, while some committed suicide. But this film is a tribute to the tremendous zeal and determination of the few that did not give up. Their lives have reduced to a perennial struggle between hope and despair. But they refuse to give up the fight that has evolved into a crusade for the restitution of basic human rights – the right to live and die in one's own country, the right to come back home, the right to a national identity.

The fight has been on for nearly four decades and none of them are about to give up. Hope Dies Last in War is a saga of their individual and collective struggle, spanning three generations, to get their men back. It records a tragic stalemate, sufferings of love and shining moments of humanity, courage and hope. "It is a singularly tragic story of human rights violations based on the testimonies of parents, wives, siblings, children and grandchildren. The film is about their pain, helplessness, dejection, reconciliation, hope and dreams in war-hungry Indian sub-continent," says Sen. The film was first screened in public in 2007. Cinematographer Ranjan Palit bagged the Indian documentary Producer's Association gold award for his brilliant work in this film.

The painstaking and long research that went into the making of this film – field research, documentary research, first-person interviews, travelling back and forth with some active members of the "Missing Defense Personnel Relatives Association" invests the film with that rare blend of research, emotion, commitment and honesty not easily witnessed even within the documentary format. It widens the canvas of the film from a simple wait-and-search saga to a tragedy of the last century that neither government has tried to mend even when it is equipped with the infrastructure and the power to do so.

While getting to grips with the emotional reactions of the family members, Sen defies the slotting of this film into any definite genre. It is an anti-war documentary. It is an investigative film. It is also a scathing attack on the inertia and callous attitude of the government of both countries towards the lives of 54 gallant soldiers who were prepared to sacrifice their lives but whose lives were allowed to hang in suspended animation of suspense. It is a personal saga of families still fighting what seems to be a losing battle in their search not only for their missing family members, but also to assert the right to restore to these soldiers, the dignity they deserve.