Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

Film Southasia’15

Nitesh Pradhan
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 It was quite serendipitously that I came across a poster of Film South Asia 2015 (hereafter referred to as FSA15). But that is a story for another time. Right now we’re going to talk about the Festival.
Firstly, I have to admit; FSA15 was my first exclusively Documentary screening film festival. Barring FSA09 I think, when I watched just one film, which doesn’t really count. This time though, I’m rather proud of myself for making it all the way through (not that it was a burden at all, but because I can be quite unpredictable sometimes).
While the other festivals I’ve attended, have been a major influence in shaping my perspective of films and the film industry in general, one thing I’ve learnt, is to leave all prejudices and illusions of knowledge behind. Which is also the reason why I flat out refused to buy one of the festival booklets, even after the convincing sales pitch at the ticket counter. To a festival such as this, you go with mind wide open to receive, especially after what Hitchcock once said about how the director is God in narrative films, but in documentary films, God is the director.
The first day, which exclusively screened student films (and should’ve been clearly stated in their schedule) was I’d say, lukewarm, in terms of the films and the attendance. A couple of films really stood out though, ‘Tyres’ a Burmese production which won best student film, gave us a peek into the life of tyre recyclers in Myanmar and ‘Sagar Manav’ from India, which dealt with loneliness issues and the psychological challenges of a lighthouse attendant who stays all alone on an island. I hope these directors continue to contribute to the world of cinema and films.
The second day onwards, I was hooked. While I cannot say I found all the films great, most of the films were a delight to watch. Some were works of great technical excellence, and then there were a few that transcended into pure cinema and blew me away with aforementioned transcendence. The ones that really impressed me were ‘My name is Salt’, ‘Drawing the Tiger’, ‘Tomorrow we disappear’, ‘The Walnut Tree’ , ‘Castaway Man’ and ‘Feet upon the Ground’.
While watching ‘My name is Salt’, an Indian production; my eyes actually welled up, not because it was sad or emotional, but because of how beautiful the film was. The cinematography was exquisite, and with the absence of a voice over, I felt like a silent observer watching as the salt people went on with business as usual, of course without the inconvenience of having to stand under the sun all day. The last time I remember feeling this way was at the end of Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’, where he tells a really funny joke about love, but it had me in tears because it was the perfect ending to a phenomenal film.
‘Tomorrow we disappear’, was very intriguing to say the least. Another Indian production, it peered into the lives of a colony of travelling performers whose homes are under threat from real-estate developers in Delhi. Although the people had good reason to be dejected and in despair, their ability to still enjoy life and go on living in good spirits, was a breath of fresh air.
‘Drawing the Tiger’ which won the UNICEF award, was an emotional roller coaster of a film. Shot over 7 years with a family in rural Nepal, it dealt with their struggle to mitigate poverty, and the ever surmounting challenges they face in trying to do so. Despite the bleak subject matter of the film, I was left with a sense of hope at the end.
‘The Walnut Tree’, which won the Ram Bahadur Trophy for Best Film, was a thought-provoking and heart-tugging document of a family of internally displaced refugees in Pakistan. These are the kind of films that bring us out of our comfortable shells and make us re-evaluate our sense of justice, freedom and humanity, in the same vein as a lot of Iranian films like ‘Turtles can Fly’.
I don’t think a subject driven film like ‘Castaway Man’ could’ve possibly been boring. The record attendance speaks for itself. The film was about the disappearance of Dor Bahadur Bista, one of the foremost intellectuals of Nepal. I was completely engrossed during the full length of the film.
Technicalities like cinematography, editing, etc, all faded into the background, it didn’t matter. I journeyed with the characters on screen as the multi-layered story unfolded itself.
Then there was the 175 minuter, ‘Feet Upon the Ground’, that delved into the life and work of South Indian Filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who was also the chief guest of the Festival. This was a must watch for film professionals, students and enthusiasts alike. It was basically a lifetime worth of knowledge condensed into a 3 hr long time-capsule. I have no idea how these three hours passed as I was glued to the screen from the rather trippy first shot to the very end.
Other films like ‘Behind the Screens’ from Myanmar, ‘Brief Life of Insects’ from India, ‘The Journey Within’, about the journey of Coke studio, from Pakistan, and ‘Being Bhaijan’ from India (the latter two were screened in the courtyard) were very well made too and like the films above, had a lot of soul and are definitely worth multiple watches.
How I wish I had one of those time turner machines of Hermione’s, so I could’ve watched parallel screenings too. But, I am very pleased and satisfied for having watched the films I did, even though some of them were quite forgettable. One of the pioneers of the French New Wave, Claude Chabrol once said in an interview, that the script of a film i.e. the subject and the theme, doesn’t really matter, what matters is the director’s vision and style. After attending the festival I must say I couldn’t agree with him more. Some of my favourite films of the festival stood out not because of what it was about, but because of how the directors chose to handle the the subject he/she/they had chosen.
That being said, FSA15 to me was more than just the films. The ambience of Yala Maya Kendra, the people, the conversations, and the energy formed what I would think, could in itself be a film or part of a film. So, even though they were a bit behind schedule on a few screenings, it didn’t feel like I had to wait too long, because I was too busy soaking-in this sublime experience.
Nitesh is a filmmaker based in Mumbai…. If what Truffaut said about film-lovers being sick people; is true, then he admits affliction.

A glimpse of hardship

Taran Khan

Three documentaries offer moving and intimate portraits of the rural poor.

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In the documentary My Name is Salt (directed by Farida Pacha), set in the saline desert of Little Rann of Kutch in India, a sequence shows the middle-aged protagonist fretting over the quality of salt crystals forming in his fields. “Leave it to the sun”, advises a fellow farmer stoically. This quality of chance and the never ending toil that accompanies the life of the rural poor formed the canvas for three documentaries that were screened at Film Southasia’ 2015.

The opening film at the festival, Drawing the Tiger, does not focus directly on the question of rural poverty in Nepal. Rather, it follows the rhythms of life of a family that subsists on less than “a dollar a day”, as the film’s website describes it. Directed by Amy Benson and Scott Squire, a Seattle based couple, the film credits Nepal-based journalist Ramyata Limbu as a co-director. Shot over seven years, the film documents the journey of a young girl, Shanta, who leaves her village for Kathmandu with a scholarship. She promises to return to care for her parents, and help them break out of the trap of poverty. But tragically, she fails to return. The magnificent mountains surrounding the village of Bahunchurra in Central Nepal frame the long days of Shanta’s parents, who are deep in debt and under threat of losing their land unless they manage to repay some of their loans.

What stands out is the constant and difficult labour that define Sushila’s, Shanta’s mother’s, days and nights, from planting the maize to chasing runaway goats, to cooking treats for her grandchildren when she visits them in the city. The years of hard work take a toll on her health, and towards the end of the film a doctor advises her not to work. “Then how will we eat”, she asks simply. Drawing the Tiger tells the story of how the promise of a better future lies away from the village, through migration to cities and to other countries, and then complicates that promise. It is also a snapshot of the kind of uneven penetration of technology that has marked the rural terrain for much of Southasia. In several sequences, children amuse themselves by watching films on mobile phones, and a neighbour sends word of absconding livestock by calling from across the mountain. All this appears, to Shanta’s grandmother, like progress. In a moving sequence, she describes all the ways in which the current condition of her family seems like paradise. In her youth, she recalls, she had to walk to the river to fetch water, and had to work hard for a cup of rice. Now, she said, there was water at the doorstep, and you could buy rice by the bagful. The irony of her dirt poor family described in such terms makes the film a rich insight into the paradoxes of Nepal’s development narrative.

Farida Pacha’s My Name is Salt in contrast, moves almost wordlessly, creating vivid tableaus from the life of a family of migrant workers, labouring for eight months in the Little Rann of Kutch. Their harvest is salt, and the film begins with the arrival of a pump that will supply the brackish water which will yield the salt crystals. The film moves from long shots of the baking desert, the heat rising in vapours, to intimate mid shot of Sanabhai and his family as they tend to their salt fields. In a beautifully choreographed sequence, the family moves in a bizarre dance, treading the salt with their bare feet, crossing the camera one after the other. It is a joyless dance, one of difficult postures and no ease in movements. Yet the very next sequence shows Sanabhai’s young daughter dancing with carefree abandon to music as she plays on the salt field.

Pacha imbues the bareness of the terrain with the incessant industry of the family. The emptiness of nights where nothing happens is punctuated by days with no rest. Humans work as hard and with greater efficiency than machines, as the pump requires constant tending and repairs. Again, as in Drawing the Tiger, women form an active part of this landscape of labour. Sanabhai’s older daughter  wrestles with the mud to form the bunds for their fields, and sets the pump running with her mother Devuben when needed. The thud-thudding of this machine forms the soundtrack for much of the film. Mobile phones provide entertainment for children here too, but they communicate with winking mirrors across the desert. Pacha’s protagonists are not joyless – the family goes to the market and enjoys the rides and the shops. But they return to the unforgiving glare of the salt fields, and once their harvest of crystals is gathered, they pack up their possessions in sacks and move on. The fragility of their existence and the ecosystems that support them is beautifully and heartbreakingly brought home in Pacha’s closing sequence, when the desert is show to be transformed into a sea during the monsoons. The salt pans are washed away, the boats lying on the parched earth sail through the waters. Yet the next year, the film tells us, Sanabhai and his family will join 40,000 other families who will return to till their fields of salt.

Finally, from India’s northeastern state of Meghalaya, Tarun Bharatiya’s Brief Life of Insects offers a whimsical and charming look at the link between farm routines and songs. His narrative follows Bas Hos Shadap and his friends in a Khasi village called Umpohwin as they “thresh the paddy and sing”. Away from the fields too, they perform for the camera with their instruments, struggling briefly to remember the the tunes that come so naturally to them during the rhythm of the task. Despite its air of whimsicality, the film is not naïve or overly roseate in its view of village life. The farmers talk about the troubles that come to their homes during the pre-harvest season. The film’s visuals too are a testimony to the sheer manual effort that goes into the threshing. There is no machine in sight, and the work is done entirely by the farmers. But their voices add a certain cheer to the work, and lighten their cares, as one of the protagonists’ notes. The links between creativity and its environment, between culture and its ties to the seasons, come through in the 22-minute film, which simply makes one smile.

Together, the three films from the swathe that makes Southasia are a potent reminder of the beauty and intense loneliness of manual labour, Pacha’s film in particular frames the hands and feet of  Sanabhai and his family like sculptures,  caked with stubborn mud, muscles taut and tense against the elements. They also act as antidotes against romanticising rural life, by demonstrating how families live on the edge, always hungry, never entirely secure, subject to vagaries of nature and markets alike. With Southasia rapidly urbanising, the films are a reminder of the brutality and fragility that defines the lives of the rural poor, from the Himalayan villages of Nepal to the salt fields of India.

~Taran N Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist who writes on cinema, Islam and gender. She has been traveling to Kabul since 2006 where she worked closely with Afghan media producers and filmmakers. Her work can be seen at www.porterfolio.net/taran.

~This article is part of a series of column on cinema by Taran N Khan for Himal. Read her earlier column on what is it about funny women that scares Bollywood?

A road well travelled

Taran N Khan

The road in Yirmiyan Arthur Yhome’s documentary, This Road I know, carries the weight of many metaphors. At the beginning of the film, it takes us into the memories of the director’s idyllic childhood. As the narrative unfolds, it turns into a device to explore ethnic divisions and the history of violence that marks the region where Yhome grew up.

The road in question is the highway between Nagaland and Manipur. As the filmmaker notes, it is a symbolic, as well as an economic, lifeline to the rest of the country. Blockades are often enforced on this road, causing terrific damage to local economies and hardships to residents – a note that is sure to have resonated with the audience in Kathmandu during Film Southasia 2015. The capital is reeling from shortages due to the blockage of fuel and other goods on its border with India, now in its second month. this-road-i-know

The film traverses geography and history through the lens of Yhome’s personal journey across the terrain of these states. The first glimpse of Kohima of her childhood, for instance, is of a city of light, accompanied by singing of her siblings as they made their way home. Her coming of age coincided with state excesses, insurgency and ethnic divides between Nagas and Kukis. With time, she says, came an awareness of the army presence along the highway. And with adulthood came the scrutiny at the checkpoints on the road, that made residents feel like they were “living in a zoo”, in the words of one student activist. In one sequence that appears to have been shot surreptitiously, Yhome, who has lived in Delhi for many years, speaks in passable Hindi to a soldier at a checkpoint as he searches her car. This can’t be easy for you either, she tells him. And he agrees.

On this road, she recalls, she had a gun held to her head, once by the security forces and once by an “underground” or insurgent. Along with the conflict, her film documents the voices that rose against the killings. Yhome channels stories of incredible courage along the road. Like K Matia, who returned to her village on the border between Nagaland and Manipur to attempt to do what she could to stop the violence. From her roadside stall, she recalled getting into buses and urging people to get down and buy what they needed without being scared, as there were “mothers” there to protect them. A far cry from Yhome’s childhood, when the road was dotted with abundance, from pineapples to bamboo shoots, to dried mushrooms, especially picked up from Kuki towns.

The tallest figure in the film is Irom Sharmila, who appears in the film tangentially, through her mother. The well-known activist has been on a fast since November 2000, demanding the repeal of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts (AFSPA), which gives the Indian army sweeping powers in the state. She has been forcibly fed through a nose tube, and has spent years in prison or under custody in hospitals. In a moving sequence, Irom Sharmila’s mother shows a pillow given to her by her daughter, filled with flowers. She takes it with her everywhere.

The most valuable aspect of This Road I Know is such foregrounding of women’s experience of war. Yhome uses the experiences of iconic activists like Rosemary Dzuvichu of the Naga Mothers Association (NMA), who talks of the challenge of dealing with patriarchal controls as well as state brutality. During the years of conflict, the NMA emerged as one of the foremost voices from the region protesting against atrocities by the armed forces as well as demanding justice from Naga groups. Dzuvichu tells the director that, contrary to popular belief, women are not well-represented in Naga decision making bodies. And demanding such representation leads to push back from the community, which tries to dismiss it as interfering with ‘traditions’. Caught in the midst of these pulls and pressures from all sides, Yhome’s voice describes how the road, tortuous as it is, is even more difficult to negotiate for women.

It is a complex landscape and Yhome’s film raises important questions, even as it suffers from prosaic camerawork and unimaginative editing. The television style cuts and dissolve are a disservice to the importance of its protagonists, and the vitality of their voices. The music is an uplifting element throughout the journey, and one wishes for more of the distinctive sounds of the region that Yhome uses with love and skill. Despite these setbacks, This Road I Know is an insider’s account of an underrepresented terrain, and a valuable woman’s perspective on the conflict, and possible roads to peace.

~Taran N Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist who writes on cinema, Islam and gender. She has been traveling to Kabul since 2006 where she worked closely with Afghan media producers and filmmakers. Her work can be seen at www.porterfolio.net/taran.
~This article is part of a series of column on cinema by Taran N Khan for Himal. Read her earlier column on three documentaries screened at Film Southasia 2015.