Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

Filming the ‘war without witness’

As planned, Film Southasia organisers went ahead with screenings of three Sri Lankan films in spite of pressure from the Sri Lankan government. Hundreds of people packed the hall at Yala Mala Kendra near Patan Dhoka, a turnout that demonstrated how the censorship attempt completely backfired and actually drummed up audience interest.

Simply watching the introduction to No Fire Zone makes it clear why the Sri Lankan government doesn’t want people seeing it. The film presents a case against the Sri Lankan army’s onslaught in the 2008-2009, the period that brought a violent end to the civil war and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. This is a visual documentation of the war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government as they eviscerated the LTTE and the Tamil population along with it.

The film provides some historical context for how the conflict developed, with the systematic marginalisation of the Tamil population after independence, pogroms against Tamils at specific stages, and the emergence of violent resistance (after non-violent protests) most notably by the LTTE.  However, the main focus is to document the atrocities committed by the army against the Tamil population, especially in attacks on civilian infrastructure and the so-called ‘Safe Zones’ identified by the government. Repeatedly, the army shelled makeshift hospitals just after international medical organisations provided coordinates of the location with the hope of avoiding such targeting.

No Fire Zone is very difficult to watch due to the extent of atrocities that are shown almost unfiltered. At different points, when you think the situation depicted on screen can’t get any worse, the film presents even more egregious abuses including sexual violence, forced disappearances, the execution of surrendered militants (and the son of LTTE leader Prabhakaran), and the internment of Tamils in concentration camps when the war ended.

The audience reaction was very somber and emotional, and the short discussion that followed dealt with the question of ‘what can we do now?’ Some of the things mentioned include putting economic pressure on the Rajapaksa regime by targeting Western aid, and preventing the regime from seeking legitimacy by hosting regional and international diplomatic engagements.

Blog By Rajeev Ravisankar

Interfacing humans and ecology on screen

Three began with short films on both screens, including two that focus on ecological issues and how humans relate to them. Gaur in My Garden provided a glimpse of increasing interactions between humans and animals, specifically bison, in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve in Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu. The opening scenes introduce the audience to one particular bison, named ‘Boltu’, that regularly appears right outside a family’s house.

Disappearing habitats and other environmental pressures due to the human footprint left on the forest are pushing the animals into new areas that are more residential. The film highlights efforts to protect animals and people through tracking systems that produce warnings when, for example, wild elephants are near a tea plantation. While some are content with spectating and giving the animals space, unfortunately others are not. There is footage of people provoking and violently attacking bison, bears, elephants and even leopards.

In the film that followed, Give Us This Our Daily Bread, Director Satchith Paulose relies heavily on juxtaposition to show the separation between nature and industrial practices, the reshaping of landscapes through human intervention through resource extraction has reshaped landscapes, and divide between production and consumption processes in the food system. In one scene, agricultural labourers are shown doing backbreaking work in the fields to cultivate food we consume, and the next shot is in an airplane lounge or hotel that offers high-end cuisine.

The film is not narrated, which allows viewers to think about how the scenes relate to one another and the work as a whole. In the post-film discussion, Paulose said that by holding “the frame long enough, the image goes beyond the boundaries of the frame”.

Putting the two films in dialogue, one issue is how violence against animals by groups of people produces very strong reactions, but images of social and economic systems operating (and the oppression of humans, animals, and the environment that is inherent in these systems) don’t necessarily produce the same reactions.

Blog by Rajeev Ravisankar

FSA panel discussion challenges censorship

Photo: Shikhar Bhattarai

Film Southasia 2013 delivered a swift rebuke to the Sri Lankan government’s attempted censorship by organizing a panel on how freedom of expression is restricted in Southasia. The discussion, which could be informally titled ‘Censorship without borders’, featured Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times; Shahidul Alam, eminent photographer, writer and activist from Bangladesh; Narayan Wagle, renowned Nepali journalist, editor and novelist; and Burmese filmmaker Thet Oo Maung.

The discussion took place in the time slot originally reserved for the documentary No Fire Zone by filmmaker Callum Macrae, which the Nepali government, on request from the Government of Sri Lanka, has banned from the festival along with two other Sri Lankan selections. No Fire Zone, which has been suppressed by the Sri Lankan and other governments at numerous venues across the world, shows the atrocities committed against civilians in the final days of the war against the LTTE (Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam). Kunda Dixit described the film as very powerful, saying that “in a war crimes tribunal, this would suffice” as evidence. He went on to say that the situation in Sri Lanka is deteriorating, with journalists being attacked, the emergence of Sinhalese ethnic triumphalism, and increasing authoritarian tendencies of the state and in society.

Panelists spoke about their experiences with censorship in their respective contexts. Shahidul Alam recounted incidents of censorship and related threats he has faced. “There will always be people who will try to censor, and people accept it,” he said. Alam cautioned against the practice of self-censorship, which is common in such repressive climates, and suggested that “Collectively we need to find creative ways of challenging these positions.” In this regard, Kunda Dixit gave an example of how government restrictions that allowed only music and not news on FM radio during emergency rule in Nepal were subverted by singing the news on air.

Narayan Wagle provided a perspective on the Nepali context, saying that “self-censorship is the rule of the game now.” Declaring that political propaganda and populism are hindering media operations in Nepal, he asked, “Are we really free to criticize anything?” and described the situation as an “atmosphere of compromise”.

In Burma, the space for media is expanding but there is still a lot of censorship, according to Thet Oo Maung. He said that especially in rural areas, people are still afraid of the police and army, and that media outlets are not willing to cover sensitive topics like ethnic and religious violence.

In the Q&A session that followed, noted cultural critic and journalist Sadanand Menon from Chennai pointed to street censorship, where right-wing mobs have enforced restrictions on speech. He also described how the Indian state relies on British colonial laws like the sedition ordinance to curb dissent and expression. Menon mentioned the thousands of sedition cases against people protesting the Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, and also the recent attacks by a Hindutva group on the Kashmir film festival in Hyderabad.

The speakers highlighted alternatives and responses to the specter of censorship, including the online Nepali portal, which features hard-hitting news content on political issues. Shahidul Alam gave an overview of the Rural Visual Journalism Network run by DRIK, which plans to have mobile reporting units operating throughout Bangladesh. Already, the initiative has produced over 600 news reports.

In closing, Kunda Dixit ‘thanked’ officials for trying to stop the screening because it resulted in “a lot more people knowing about the film”.

Posted by Rajeev Ravisankar


Hall 1, Day 3

Day 3 of FSA ’13, on a rainy Kathmandu Saturday ideal for curling up with a movie, presented more superb documentary amid the buzz surrounding No Fire Zone, a powerful documentary on the atrocities committed against non-combatants in the final days of Sri Lanka’s war against the Tamil Tigers that has been banned along with two other Sri Lankan selections from the festival by the Nepali government on a request from the Sri Lankan government. FSA is glad to report that such censorship has only succeeded in the film receiving a great deal of attention from the local media, and that we’ve been getting questions and calls all day. The films will remain in competition and will be screened in open protest at a non-commercial venue, Yalamaya Kendra at Patan Dhoka, at 6.30pm this evening, where we expect a full house.

In Hall 1, the day began with Hombre Maquina (Machine Man), a bold short film from Bangladesh that celebrates the incredible efforts of manual labourers in Bangladesh, using beautiful composition, closeups and repetition to show men and women who work like machines to do work that, in many cases, could not be done through automation. This includes brickmakers moulding 18,000 bricks a day in their team of 4, and shipbreakers pulling collosal vessels to shore. This was followed by another short film, The Old Photographer, one of several short submissions from the Yangon Film School, a heartening sign that Burma’s democratic opening will allow others in our region to begin understanding a society so long cut off from its neighbours. Director Thet Oo Maung took questions after the screening, and described the slow but encouraging gains made recently by Burmese filmmakers. His film focuses on an old Indian photographer in Yangon who has lived through much of the turbulent history of Burma’s Indians and is a legend among Burmese photographers. Thet Oo Maung presents a touching portrait of his subject, capturing his memories just weeks before they were lost to amnesia following a stroke.

Two of the day’s films looked at migration, a vital concern for all Southasian societies today. Playing with Naan follows a Nepali migrant working as cook in a restaurant in Japan, and takes a holistic view of his life by showing us his story alongside those of his family struggling as farmers in his native village and his young wife and child in Kathmandu. It exposes many of the problems that those leaving Nepal to look for better futures are confronted with – lack of education and jobs at home, exploitation by recruiters and employers in foreign lands, exorbitant interest paid to loan sharks, the consequences for families missing fathers and sons, and how governments have done little to help those going abroad and protect them from exploitation. It’s all very relevant now as the plight of Nepali migrant workers in Qatar makes international headlines.

Expecting, which follows an undocumented Afghan immigrant in the Netherlands and his pregnant Kosovar refugee wife as they try to survive while navigating a convoluted asylum system that has them trapped, unable to return home to their own torn societies but unable to work or access basic services in their new home as they wait for necessary documents that never comes. In a powerful half-hour, the film exposes a system that is clearly not responding to the needs of refugees. Here again, given the recent tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa that claimed the lives of almost 200 African migrants desperate to get to Europe, the issue of migration and our global responsibility to deal with it is especially relevant.

In place of the banned No Fire Zone, FSA organised a panel to discuss media censorship across the region. Kunda Dixit (editor of the Nepali Times), Narayan Wagle (noted Nepali journalist, novelist and editor), Shahidul Alam (Bangladeshi photographer, activist and FSA ’13 jury member) and Thet Oo Maung (director of The Old Photographer) spoke of government restrictions and self-censorship in their respective countries, and also provided heartening examples of how brave journalists and activists have used creativity to defy their governments.

The last film of the day in Hall 1 was Celluloid Man, an epic tribute to P K Nair, the Indian archivist who has almost singlehandedly created the National Film Archive that chronicles the history of Bollywwod, especially in its earliest days. With stunning archival footage and revealing interviews with prominent Indian film personalities, the film reminds us how cinema has changed lives and minds in our region, and also given us a precious addition to our regional culture. More than anything else, the film is a reminder of how terribly we neglect the preservation of our own history (the vast majority of early Hollywood films have been lost forever), and how we must make a greater effort to save important material since “without an archive, there can be no history”. A sobering lesson, since even as we celebrate the centenary of Southasian cinema we are realising that we have already lost vast chunks of that legacy.

On that note, we head off to Yalamaya Kendra to screen our Sri Lankan films. At least at FSA, history will not be silenced.

Blog by Roman Gautam

Invitation: Impromptu panel discussion on CENSORSHIP

Film Southasia 2013 invites you to a panel discussion on CENSORSHIP with editor of Nepali Times Kunda Dixit, journalist Naryan Wagle, photographer and activist from Bangladesh Shahidul Alam and film maker from Burma Thet Oo Maung. Saturday, 5 October, 1PM at QFX Kumari, Hall 1.

This panel discussion has been arranged impromptu, in response to the restrictions placed on the screening of ‘No Fire Zone’ (Callum Macrae), ‘Broken’ and ‘The Story of One (Kannan Arunasalam). These were the three films from Sri Lanka selected for showing at FSA 2013. (The screening of the documentaries has being rescheduled, and will be shown outside the official festival venue at 6:30 pm on Saturday, 5th Oct, at YalaMaya Kendra, Patan Dhoka.)

The discussion will centre on censorship as a challenge to cultural expression, in print and electronic media. What is the situation of censorship around Southasia, and in Nepal? Why should film festivals not be subject to censorship. What are the issues of self-censorship as they apply to power and populism? What can film festivals, filmmakers and journalists do (or what are the ways to work around officially and unofficially) to fight the breach of freedom of expression, as has happened at Film Southasia 2013.

Friday Afternoon

You can’t always be expected to know what you don’t know, and one of the most important things about documentary films is to let you into worlds that you didn’t know existed. “The Human Factor” tells the story of the father and two sons of the Lord family, behind-the-scenes Hindi film musicians who are estimated to have been involved in one in three Hindi films of the 1970s-80s. Almost everyone involved in the making of a film—from actors and directors to hairdressers, caterers and assistants—is credited by name, but not the musicians who create the music that becomes such an integral part of the finished product of the film. “The Human Factor” looks behind the scenes of these under-recognised artists by focusing in on Bombay Parsi family the Lords. Patriarch Cawas Lord, in his nineties when he filmed for this documentary, admitted that he didn’t really enjoy the music he played. Well, he granted, he enjoyed it while he was playing it, but not after. For the Lords, making film music was bread and butter (and jam!), but a job like any other. When synthesisers and other technology pushed them out at the end of the twentieth century, they retired in a dignified manner, but have been credited in recent years with various awards recognising their enormous, and often thankless, contributions towards Indian film.

A change of subject matter, but not entirely of tone, was in evidence at a talk by Gargi Sen, director of Magic Lantern Movies, a documentary film distributor. Gargi discussed the difficulty of getting documentaries disseminated to the public, emphasising the important work that Magic Lantern Movies does. The audience appeared to be full of young documentary makers, which was certainly encouraging, and a vibrant q&a session followed.

Blog by Elen Turner

How do we perceive, accept and project the idea of Southasia?

This panel discussion, organised by Himal Southasian magazine and FSA, featured Kanak Mani Dixit, journalist Sadanand Menon, Mallika Shakya from South Asian University, and Shahidul Alam, pondering the question of representations of Southasia.

This session was also the official launch of the latest issue of Himal Southasian magazine, fittingly titled “Under the Shadow of the Bollywood Tree”. Issues are available for purchase at the venue, at a discounted FSA price.

Kanak Mani Dixit, chairing the discussion, opened by commenting that recently, the concept of Southasia has begun to gain texture and traction. Himal Southaisan has promoted the idea of Southasianism for over twenty-five years, and has been activist as well as journalistic in spreading this concept. He pointed out that a blurring of the boundaries of Southasia is even visible this year in the FSA programme, in which it is not always easy to discern exactly which nation-state the films have come from. The films are regional, not nation-specific.

In yesterday’s FSA opening, Mani Shanker Aiyar’s stated that Southasia is understood by peoples’ differences from each other. Panelist Sadanand Menon responded to this by claiming that what unites Southasia is the undying love of censorship. Governments not only try to impose it in their own states, but are also able to persuade their neighbours to engage their own censorships. India, of course has what Sadanand called the “new beast” called street censorship, of mobs imposing their will. Kanak suggested that north Southasia is the “problem-child” of the region, perhaps North Southasia and South Southasia may be an appropriate way to divide the region conceptually, but Sadanand Menon pointed out that although South Southasia has tended to be freer of the extreme violence of North Southasia, these divisions are still too broad.

Kanak suggested that the overarching concept of Southasia works on a macro-, intellectual level, but that he has found that the closer one gets to the grassroots, the more important the regional becomes. Shahid Ululam agreed. He commented that if India and Pakistan play cricket, Bangladeshis are evenly split in who they support. India is not well-loved in Bangladesh, something that surprises many Indians he has spoken to. Local issues are far more important to most citizens than national-level ones. Further complicating what the regional and the national means, Shahid Ululam stated that has found ‘Bengal’ a more useful concept than ‘Bangladesh’ in promoting his Dhaka-based photography centre to outsiders. Bengal is widely recognised, it has historical and cultural currency, whereas Bangladesh connotes the image of Kissinger’s “basket-case.”

Mallika Shakya spoke about the teaching that goes on in the name of Southasia. Ethnicity, religion, linguistic nationalism all have quite different understandings and academic engagements in each nation, so teaching the concept of Southasianism can be a challenge, but one that is more suited to be taught at the South Asian University in Delhi than other more ‘national’ universities, because of its outwards-looking focus.

Kanak ended with the important statement that the discussion of Southasia is, at present, in a bubble, going on in airport lounges, in English, between around eight thousand people. If we don’t have a proper forum for discussion of the concept of Southasia, then the discussion will remain an elite one. The discourse of Southasia needs to be vernacularised.

Blog by Elen Turner

Why Poverty?

The final session of day one presented a series of short films curated as “Why Poverty”—some very short at under a minute, and others around five minutes long. All were produced with the assistance of South African based NGO Steps International, and looked at different manifestations of poverty. The session got off to a great start with some very funny satire by a Tamil actor; other shorts were much more serious, and looked at dung collectors at the Pushkar camel fair, micro-loans from the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, lack of toilet facilities in India (through a very ‘graphic’ graphic feature!), and schooling for girls in Afghanistan.

The variety of films presented on the first day of FSA 2013 suggests there will be many more exciting offerings in the coming days.

Blog by Elen Turner

Challenging the sighted what it means to see

Friends from Rotary Club, Rotary E-Club and Nepal Association for Blind Welfare attending the screening of Algorithms.

Day two kicked off with “Algorithms”, a ninety-minute documentary on the world of blind chess. Chess is a game of the mind, one of the proponents of blind chess featured in the film comments. Therefore, it is the only game where, potentially, blind players are on an equal footing to sighted players. There is no good reason why a blind player shouldn’t become the Grand Master, and this is the goal of all who play.

“Algorithms” featured three teenaged Indian players, all with differing levels of blindness and vision impairment–one totally blind from birth, another went blind as a young child, and the other is slowly losing his sight. Touches of humour appeared in the film–these players are, after all, young boys, and are upset when they lose.

Many blind and vision-impaired people were part of the audience, so it was a shame that, as a representative of the film stated before it began, no captions had been made for the vision-impaired yet: “Algorithms” was a very visual film. It very importantly demonstrated to the sighted members of the audience a community that most of us too easily overlook, but not making this film accessible to the people it featured was a drawback.

Afghan Eyes: Films from Afghanistan


FSA has two special curated packages this year. The first, from Ahmedabad-based under-30 film festival Alpavirama was shown at a special preview session at Yala Maya Kendra at Patan Dhoka on Monday 1st October. Alpavirama has only held one festival, in 2011, but has another in the works for 2014, and the films shown in Kathmandu on Monday represented a wide and interesting sample from Ahmedabad and Pakistan-based young filmmakers.

The second package, which there is still plenty of time to see, is from Afghanistan, curated by Mumbai-based journalist Taran Khan. “Little Afghanistan” by Basir Seerat, and “Half Value Life” by Alka Sadat were screened on Thursday afternoon. “Little Afghanistan” featured a strongly masculine cast of Kabuli horse-drawn carriage drivers. “Half Value Life” was female-centred, and followed the life and work of a Herat-based woman lawyer, dealing with horrific cases of child marriage and domestic abuse.

It was great to have a Q&A session with curator Taran Khan afterwards. She was asked how about difficult it was to tread that line between representing Afghanistan as a hopeless case—the image that dominates most international coverage of the country—and ‘feel-good’ stories that might trivialise serious problems. The answer, if there can be one, is to allow Afghans to represent themselves as much as possible, to expose a diversity of life experiences.

More Afghan films curated by Taran Khan can be seen on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.