DOCUMENTARY IN TIMES OF DISTRESS
The Film Southasia Festival of Documentaries started 20 years ago, and we have been through 10 cycles of the ‘mother festival’ here in Kathmandu Valley and the traveling FSA (TFSA) in different parts of the Subcontinent and overseas. Since the beginning, this was a festival backed and organised by print journalists of the Himal Southasian magazine. This time, Himal Southasian has moved to Colombo, while FSA remains under the umbrella of the The Southasia Trust. Our team is in Kathmandu, and our director in Delhi, while we have supporters from around the Subcontinent.
Having been privileged to be part of FSA over the years, albeit, as a non-filmmaker, I will try to summarise what I have learnt.
When society is overall at a higher level of distress, because of violence, intolerance or polarisation, films are made with more intensity and craft. The fact that the films of FSA ’17 are so gripping is thus a barometer for the point where nearly all societies of Southasia find themselves – things are not going well.
I reiterate what was stated perhaps a decade ago, that the documentary filmmaker is the ‘climax species’ of audiovisual media. The best of them have a mix of scholarship, resilience, artistic sensibility, empathy and commitment to social justice that is rare to find in that package in most other disciplines. Documentary film makers enter this difficult vocation through self-selection. It is such hard work, but must be fulfilling, if not we would not have the kind of documentaries being presented here at FSA ’17.
The makers of non-fiction film in Southasia need the opportunity to screen, within Southasia and around the world. They need to earn enough to survive from the films they make rather than have to have to endlessly focus on fundraising. This should not be the job of the documentary filmmaker.
The goal of FSA as an organisation has been to provide screening and exposure for the films that are made, but we feel that the audience must expand many-fold – not only the films and filmmakers, but the audience themselves deserve this. In most parts, they truly do not know what they are missing, and there is no one to bring the festivals to them.
The best-case scenario is a world where documentaries are so much in demand that there is no need for festivals, that the market and non-market entities pick up the job of screening. For a long time, we harboured hopes of television, thinking its corporate structuring would somehow allow a toe-hold for non-fiction beyond nature television. But that did not happen, and now other possibilities come to the fore. We need to mount a concerted effort to get documentaries available on the Net, and also find a system where viewership leads to income for the producers. FSA wants to work with whoever is interested with doing this in Southasia.
As intolerance peaks, as people feel beleaguered amidst socio-political polarisations, rife radical populism and authoritarians at the helm, there is no question of losing hope. We must use the new tools at hand – including the great new technologies of filming, editing, screening and marketing – to pushback against the forces of ‘darkness’.
I will conclude with the one lesson I have learnt from the FSA’s of the past, that the most gripping non-fiction films are those that are made for an audience which is the subject, rather than for faraway societies. Such films are also the most long-lasting.
Enjoy FSA ’17, and help us organise TFSA ’18 all over, everywhere!
– Kanak Mani Dixit, Chair Film Southasia