Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

A haven for non-fiction!


In the last edition the theme of the festival was ‘Documentary won’t be confined’. MALLIKA ARYAL shared her thoughts on how FSA is a space to defend the free spirit of documentary filmmaking.


Kathmandu Valley’s love affair with documentaries started in 1994 when the first ever ‘Himalaya’ film festival took place. I wasn’t even a teenager back then, but remember attending the opening. A small hall that would, during a normal event barely hold 120, was packed with some 300 people, ready to burst. I sat on the floor of the hall and watched in silence with the audience. I remember little of the film, but what I will never forget is the audience—the palpable excitement, enthusiasm, anticipation. It felt like I was going to be a part of something big.

Over the next few years the festival morphed because Nepal is more than just the ‘capital’ of the Himalaya – it is also the ‘capital’ of Southasia. The years following the first Film Southasia festival, Nepal and rest of Southasia was going through extraordinary political times. FSA became a movement where journalists, activists and filmmakers from the far reaches of the Subcontinent and beyond found safe haven in Kathmandu every two years. Meanwhile, a generation grew up watching highly charged non-fiction film of great variety, including ‘real-time’ anthropology to travel diaries, archival presentations and dedicated, courageous and even lonely – activism.

The generation of Kathmandu documentary-viewers groomed by FSA is what I like to call the ‘perfect’ audience—we are young, excited, and we love good storytelling. I had the honor of working as the festival director for two festivals and continue to advise the FSA team today. During my time at FSA, one of our priorities was to groom a generation of excitable audience who will pay (money) to watch documentaries like they would watch a commercial film. In our selections, we went for variety and representation of course, but concentrated on the craft displayed, with Southasia as our playground. We moved the festival venue to a duplex theatre and it worked like a charm.

Watching the audience queuing up in front of the ticket counter, attending the interactions with filmmakers, I have been proud to have been a part of a festival that prepared this generation of audience who respect the work of filmmakers, watch films critically, are energized by the novelty of ideas and methods of storytelling, and most importantly, demand quality work. The FSA audience asks sharp questions, makes unique observations, and soaks up stories. This is the FSA audience we have seen over the last two decades, which will once again be part of the 10th edition of the festival this weekend 19-22 November.

Nepali documentaries have matured with FSA and its sibling festivals in Kathmandu— from Dhruba Basnet’s 2001 film The Killing Terraces that brought images of Nepal’s civil war to Kathmandu to Mohan Mainali’s 2002 film The Living of Jogimara that brought the issue of the war disappeared into discourse, Kesang Tseten’s 2012 Who Will Be A Gurkha, on the grueling process Nepali youngster with the dream of joining the British Gurkhas, and now to Ramyata Limbu’s 2015 Drawing the Tiger that beautifully depicts hopes, dreams, disappointment and heartbreak of a young girl in post-war Nepal.

I had a unique opportunity again this year to be part of the FSA ’15 selection committee. For two months, we met every evening for a few hours in FSA’s screening room at Krishna Galli, and were transported to places like Barpak (Nepal), Mes Aynak (Afghanistan), Nagaland, the underbelly of Delhi and the Nepali fruit markets of London. Munching on masala peanuts (in the true spirit of Southasia), we watched, discussed, re-watched, discussed again. Emotions ran high, tears were even shed sometimes, and one would have been surprised if there had been a fistfight (it almost happened, once). These 43 films are the result of many months of work of selections, happening through earthquakes, strikes and shortages.

Fundraising for FSA has always been hard, and this year it has been especially challenging because a lump sum that would have made FSA possible was promised over months and months of negotiation, and cancelled at the last moment without adequate explanation. FSA has since its start been run on a shoe-string budget, and when a promised sum doesn’t come through, it is not just the festival that suffers, but the entire documentary community of Southasia.

This year, the Festival sat down twice to decide whether to postpone FSA ’15 –once after the earthquake and once during the blockade, with scarcities rife. Both times, the organizers decided to proceed. The event was moved from the commercial duplex to the more modest Yala Maya Kendra in the old, historical city of Patan, a space that has become synonymous to cultural events and talks. As we go to press with the catalogue, the FSA’s programme coordinators are running around in bicycles from caterers to travel agents, designers and printers, to the designers. It is amidst a spirit and bravery that this incredibly motivated team is organizing FSA ’15.

Nepal has long been a space where filmmakers from all over Southasia gather every two years and they feel free when they are here. The organisers make sure that the delegates are well taken care of – they can let their hair down in an atmosphere of camaraderie and inclusion. This year has been incredibly challenging for Nepal as we deal with the aftermath of earthquakes of April-May, and the final phase of the festival was organised amidst a blockade. The idea was, that the spirit of Southasia, the energy of this international event, must not dissipate. The odds must be overcome.

There is something that has to be said about the safe haven that storytellers need to nurture their creativity and community. Nepal has become a de-facto venue for events that can be held only with difficulty elsewhere in Southasia. Journalists and activists here have fought hard for freedom of expression, and it is to the advantage of the larger Southasian community, including documentary makers. While societies in so many parts of our Southasian neighborhood have created insurmountable barriers for the screening of films, in Nepal we have been able to keep the door open. At FSA, we are part of the campaign to defend the free spirit of documentary filmmaking.

If a film, for any reason, is clamped down, FSA will find creative ways of showing it. With that belief and the hope for future this year’s FSA’s slogan is also aptly ‘Documentary Won’t Be Confined’. This year as you roam the streets of the old city of Patan between FSA screenings, look around the Darbar Square in its ruins, imagine what it was, and how Nepal is rebuilding it, take a moment to pay homage to the Valley of Kathmandu that has been home to FSA for the last two decades. May the next 20 years of FSA be as interesting, transformative and exciting as the last twenty.


Mallika Aryal is a video and print journalist, former director and present advisor to FSA. You can find her on twitter at: @mikaness

Representing silence


In the last edition the theme of the festival was ‘Documentary won’t be confined’. PUJA SEN wrote about political documentaries which were part of the selection for FSA’15. 

At the time of writing, more than 40 writers, 10 filmmakers, and various artists and scientists have returned their national awards in protest against the growing environment of cultural intolerance in India. What spurred these actions was the lynching of a Muslim man (suspected of having eaten beef) by a Hindu-right mob and the apathy of Indian authorities in the face of it. The task of resisting fascism — by filmmakers, writers and artists — is often a dangerous business in Southasia. Apart from the constraints of censorship, there is the very threat to life. On 31 October 2015, three bloggers in Bangladesh were assaulted in the capital city for writing critically against religion, only the most recent in continuing attacks on writers asserting their freedom of expression this year in the country. Where does the political documentary fit in this landscape, and can it help disturb the status quo in Southasia?

The documentary, by definition, calls on ideas of truth and veracity, having the power to uphold challenges to official or popular discourse. In this, its closest kin in the written medium could be said to be the investigative reportage. However, the documentary is able to go beyond reporting and do something that is difficult to accomplish in all forms of journalistic writing: representing silence. In the lineup for FSA’15, two entries stand out in this regard: Subasri Krishnan’s What the Fields Remember and Iffat Fatima’s Khoon Diy Baarav (Blood Leaves its Trail). Both films show us how historical memory is formed and political erasure is enacted through the silence of the state and central government.

Krishnan’s film is about the Nellie massacre of 18 February 1983, where more than 2000 Muslims were murdered under an ‘anti-foreigner’ movement, better known as the ‘Assam Agitation’. Krishnan’s quiet and haunting visuals evoke the trauma of the event and offer no catharsis to the viewer. The film bears witness to the characters’ memories of violence and loss.

Similarly, Fatima’s film, focused on the enforced disappearances of young men by state police and the armed forces in India-administered Kashmir, shows us what the trauma of waiting and uncertainty does to parents and families of the disappeared. Both these films foreground personal remembrance as a challenge to the deliberate silence of the state. This is what makes the documentary a powerful form, its ability to archive a collective memory against the officially mandated discourse.

The threat of the documentary is keenly felt on the ground, judging by the attempts to ban screenings and the difficulties in getting censor-board certificates for films that challenge national narratives. Nakul Sawhney’s film Muzzafarnagar Baqi Hai was disrupted by the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) student cadre – the youth wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – in a college screening in Delhi University this year. This spurred protest screenings all through India, and even outside, including here in Kathmandu. The film depicts the aftermath of the communal violence that shook north India before the 2014 general elections, eventually winning BJP candidates electoral seats. Sawhney’s film engages directly with events on the ground (in the tradition of Anand Patwardhan and Rakesh Sharma – both of whom, incidentally, are among the filmmakers who have returned their national awards in India), in which we see characters defy and challenge mainstream accounts of the riots, and resistance to the effort to communalise Uttar Pradesh. Sawhney takes us on a journey through regional and national politics, while staying close to those affected by its violence.

It is the political potential of films like these that make regional festivals such as FSA so important – they widen the scope of artisic and political interaction and create platforms for circulation beyond national boundaries. In countries in Southasia, where the space for dissent is shrinking rapidly before our eyes, the political documentary may stand out as the form par excellence.


Puja Sen is Consulting Editor at Himal Southasian.