Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

The fiction of nonfiction

The Film Southasia 2017 festival held in Kathmandu, a curation of 63 of the best documentaries made in South Asia over the last couple of years, tellingly demonstrated the conflation of the personal and the universal, of fiction and nonfiction.

IN his Charles Eliot Norton lectures delivered in the early 1990s at Harvard University, subsequently compiled as Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Umberto Eco grapples with the categories of fiction and nonfiction in his subversively exploratory style. It is as if when he contemplates fiction long enough, it turns into nonfiction and vice versa. The fictional, or artificial narrative as Eco calls it, is partly comprised of and complemented by the nonfictional or natural narrative, and the other way round. At one point, Eco seems to suggest that if fiction were entirely unrelated to what is recognisable in the real world, or what is nonfiction, it would not be humanly cognisable. That seems commonsensical enough. What is perhaps not so self-evident is that nonfiction, which is rather simplistically considered as a repository of fact or truth, is never really all that simple or unadulterated. There are elements of spin, distortion of perspective, innate biases and cultural contexts which colour or compromise the so-called factuality of what is observed or recorded. One man’s nonfiction may even be another man’s fiction, much like one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

It seems that behind the jargon in vogue these days of “alternative facts” and “post-truth”, almost as if like their raison d’etre, there lurks the dissatisfaction, the sense of inadequacy, with facts and truth as we have known and experienced and accepted at face value till now. What makes for this new urge to redefine these well-worn concepts is the widening, as against the deepening, of the public sphere and the surge of exchange and interaction, of opinions and facts, on digital, online platforms. If a glass being half-full is a statement of fact, the same glass being half-empty becomes the alternative fact. When express truth becomes platitudinous, and proves insufficient in illumining our condition, we seek beyond it to find intuitive communion with a belief system that poses as a higher truth. Digital technology’s multimedia aspiration seems to be to progress from text, visual, video and audio into the immersive state of knowledge experience. It is the idealisation of the virtual over the material.

Towards the very end of his last lecture, the last chapter of the book, Eco talks about how to “deal with intrusions of fiction into life…” and how “reflecting on these complex relationships between reader and story, fiction and life, can constitute a form of therapy against the sleep of reason, which generates monsters”. He says we will continue reading fictional stories, suspending disbelief, to make meaning of our lives: “Throughout our lives, after all, we look for a story of our origins, to tell us why we were born and why we have lived. Sometimes we look for a cosmic story, the story of the universe, or for our own personal story (which we tell our confessor, or our analyst, or which we write in the pages of a diary). Sometimes our personal story coincides with the story of the universe.”

An epiphanic experience while on a visit to the science and technology museum of La Coruna in Spain clinches this conflation of the personal and universal for him. The curator of the museum takes Eco to the planetarium where a surprise is in store for him. The lights dim and to the accompaniment of a lullaby by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla on the soundtrack, the planetarium’s ceiling slowly configures back into the same sky under which Eco was born on the night of January 5/6, 1932, in Alessandria, Italy.

“Almost hyperrealistically,” Eco recalls, “I experienced the first night of my life…. The planetarium used a mechanical device that can be found in a great many places. Perhaps others have had a similar experience. But you will forgive me if during those fifteen minutes I had the impression that I was the only man, since the dawn of time, who had ever had the privilege of being reunited with his own beginning. I was so happy that I had the feeling—almost the desire—that I could, that I should die at that very moment, and that any other moment would have been untimely. I would cheerfully have died then because I had lived through the most beautiful story I had ever read in my entire life. Perhaps I had found the story we all look for in the pages of books and on the screens of movie theatres: it was a story in which the stars and I were the protagonists. It was fiction because the story had been reinvented by the curator; it was history because it recounted what had happened in the cosmos at a moment in the past; it was real life because I was real, and not the character of a novel.”

Even without that conclusive edifying personal anecdote, under Eco’s critical gaze, the two, and too, neat categories of fiction and nonfiction are already unsettled and collapsing into one another. Fiction draws on nonfiction as freely as nonfiction takes recourse to fiction. The Film Southasia (FSA) 2017 festival held in Kathmandu from November 2 to 5, which was essentially a curation of 63 of the best documentaries made in the countries of South Asia over the last couple of years, tellingly demonstrated this conflation, this mutuality, of the two.

Voyage of personal catharsis

The entry that was the joint winner of the first prize at the festival, Demons in Paradise, is a voyage of personal catharsis of the director-protagonist Jude Ratnam, in which the fiery imaginary of Tamil liberation from Sinhala domination in Sri Lanka is pitted against the reality of internecine, mainly cruelly LTTE-led, attacks that decimate the Tamil militant groups, and is tempered by the goodness and kindness of sundry Sinhalese individuals and families providing succour and support to their Tamil neighbours and friends in defiance of the majoritarian aggressive chauvinistic mood. There is more grey than black in the tragic retelling—and for the protagonist, reliving—of the cause that was as much defeated by the ruthless military might of the state as it was betrayed by the power politics of the Tamil resistance fighters themselves. The victory of the Sri Lankan armed forces is pyrrhic. The military defeat of the Tamils is unsustainably demeaning. There is no closure, not yet.

Nepali immigrants working for a living in abysmal conditions in coal mines in the north-eastern parts of India is a calamitous enough theme. An eleven-year-old boy with a sunny disposition, Suraj, at the centre of it, who, with unwieldy pickaxe, ventures into the dark cramped bowels of this inhospitable terrain to cut out a future for himself, because he has lost his mother and his father is a chronic drunkard, makes it searingly engaging. In this memorable film, Fireflies in the Abyss, director Chandrasekhar Reddy and his crew stay with the group like dogged chroniclers who have won their confidence and who can, without artifice, record their lives, shunting between the pits and their hovels, fairly intimately, capturing their very private moments with a matter-of-fact simplicity that is devastating, and yet retaining that light touch that gives us colourful characterisations from the deadening amorphousness of coal. The cruel paradox of the lure of their home in Nepal that keeps them away from it in order to save enough to go back to a decent life there seems, at the end of the film, their unending story.

Speaking about gaining someone’s confidence, it is incredible how Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Naqvi wormed their way into that of the fundamentalist cleric and Islamist cultist, Abdul Aziz Ghazi, who shook the Pakistani establishment from his Lal Masjid, or red mosque, in Islamabad from where he preached and taught his jehadist doctrine, through a twisted, mind-numbing religious indoctrination, to scores of impressionable young minds, and which had to be taken like a fortress in a war, in 2007, by the armed forces of the government. Abdul Aziz’s mother, brother, son and 150 students died in that action. But the man remains as unrepentant and unrelenting after this as he was before it, asserting without any qualms, in fact with unabated rabid fervour, that if he had a hundred sons he would martyr them all to his desperate cause.

The forcefulness of his personality, his poisonous spell over his believers and his devastating candour with his interlocutors (the filmmakers who follow him about), are pitted against the story of a sensitive girl who escapes from the red mosque and wants to learn about the world other than as warped religion prescribes it, a local elected leader who courageously sets out to run a normal school where children can learn the things they do at their age, the secular public mood against such force-feeding of religious dogma and intolerance in young minds, and the Herculean effort of a prominent activist, the nuclear scientist Prof. Pervez Hoodbhoy, to speak rationality and secularism to blind and blighting faith.

It may not be the film-makers’ fault that the man at the centre of this constantly brewing storm, the defiant cleric Abdul Aziz, demands and commands our attention and reluctant awe. The abnormal has that effect on the human psyche. The film makes no false promises, offers no easy denouement. You are either one Among the Believers or you are not. Period.

There are other more heartening and enthusing profiles like the intrepid ones of the Tenzings of Pakistan who spur and support, and bear a sizeable physical burden of, the mountaineers who seek to scale the peak of the K2 mountain, the second highest in the world, located at the border between China and Pakistan, and in the estimation of the veteran climbers, more treacherous and hazardous to negotiate than Mount Everest. Brazilian film-maker Iara Lee tells the story of K2 and the Invisible Footmen, about the unsung porters who risk limb and life for a pittance, but nonetheless share the excitement and challenge of the principal climbers whom they are contracted to serve. The glory, every time the peak is scaled, is not to be theirs, but without them the task would be impossible.

The understated but powerful film by Mahera Omar, Perween Rahman: The Rebel Optimist, about a young driven architect who dedicates her professional skills to bettering the living conditions of the very poor, largely migrant, inhabitants of a slum in Karachi with open sewers, no water supply and zero infrastructure, for which she pays with her life because her plans run foul of the land and public resources-grabbing mafia, points again to how cheap life in the subcontinent has become in these impatiently market-driven times for anyone who acts on behalf of the dispossessed against aggrandising vested interests. Perween Rahman’s fault was that she did not subscribe to the illegal power lobbies that ran the system in each locality; that she had a different vision of inclusive development; that she saw the Dubai or Singapore model of development as an incongruous imposition on the natural growth of an Asian society like Pakistan.

There was, understandably, more of gloom and the seamy side of life showcased in the festival because that is the given in this unequal part of the world. So when kites bloom in a riot of colours in the Ahmedabad sky in Hardik Mehta’s Famous in Ahmedabad, it takes your breath away in a fun splurge sort of way. Young Zaid, the ace kite capturer and flier at the centre of this carnivalesque seasonal celebration is the same age, at eleven, as Suraj in the docu-feature on coal mine labourers. Whereas Suraj struggles to see in the dark dingy mines below, Zaid’s sights are set on the blue skies above, on a kite to be cut, on a cut kite to be caught. With bubbly abandon and infectious joy he criss-crosses the roads of Ahmedabad in unruly peak traffic, clambers lithely on to rooftops, chasing a drifting kite he must get to before all those others in pursuit of it. When flying his kite, he is all provocation and challenge, daring rivals to tangle with him. It is game, revelry, rivalry, bonhomie, fulfilment and disappointment all rolled in one and thrown up as a brilliant burst of a film. Zaid’s adoration of his sky game is as complete and compelling as Emerson’s of multifaceted nature: Give me a kite and a sky, “and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous”.

What is common to many of the films in this festival collection is that they cannot be publicly screened in the country in which they were made, whether in India, or Pakistan, or Sri Lanka—so much for how democracy and freedom of expression are unravelling in the subcontinent. Kathmandu, though, continues to be an oasis of free creative expression in the region, although there are hints from those who are in the know that we may not be able to take that for granted for far too long. But at least for now it has a legitimate claim to being south Asia’s cultural capital.

By Sashi Kumar on Frontline

‘Ralfa’ and the People’s Anthem


by Pranay Limbu and Dambar Krishna Shrestha on the making Satisaal in the Inferno

‘Ralfa’ and the People’s Anthem by Pranay Limbu and Dambar Krishna Shrestha on the making Satisaal in the Inferno
Saatisal in the Inferno is the untold history of ‘Ralfa’, the group that breathed fire against the autocratic Panchayat system by echoing the villages of Nepal with songs of people. The troubadours sang for social transformation and political emancipation from the regime, which had held sway since 1960.

Raamesh, who uses his first name only and who may be called the ‘lead singer’ of the group, first visited Kathmandu in 1961. He went with his friend Rayan to participate in Radio Nepal’s National Folksong Competition. The noted litterateur Parijat became a fan after hearing the duo’s song. Soon, the ‘Ralfa’ group was formed, with the poet Manjul joining in.

The songs of ‘Ralfa’ became the rallying cry of the oppressed, not only against the Panchayat, but against the
autocratic, unfeeling, Kathmandu-centric state in the later decades. The songs that have reverberated across the hills and valleys, sung by many others, include the evergreen:

‘Gaungaunbatautha, bastibastibatautha’ (Rise from the villages, rise from the settlements)
‘Ek joog ma ek din ek choti aauchha ‘ (The day comes only once in an era)
‘Aau milau hamra haat haru’ (come, let’s join our hands)
‘Sangrasha jo jeevan’ (life is a struggle)
‘Rokneko ho dur darshi bicharka dhara’ (Who comes to stop the stream of visionary thoughts)
‘Sunko bihana’ (Morning of the glory)
‘Koi ta bhane jahaj ma sarara’ (Some fly on the airplane)

These lyrics, the zestful singing and the music firstly rang across the hills and valleys in the deep Panchayat years of the 1970s and 1980s, when they were considered treasonous. They supported the people during the 1990 People’s Movement for democracy, and again during the 2006 People’s Movement for peace and democracy.

Even today, activists, communities and groups that seek social and political change use these songs as the people’s anthem. They are classics, but they are still used as a contemporary call to arms.

The new generation has heard the prominent songs of ‘Ralfa’ and Raamesh, but in the process of filmmaking we
discovered that there were many other songs which need-ed to be re-introduced to the public. Further, the public at large by now knows very little about ‘Ralfa’ and its members. And it goes beyond the activist oeuvre of ‘Ralfa’ – the generation that grew up singing ‘Chi musi chi’, ‘Lekka hami ketaketi’ or ‘Aaitbaar bihanai’ in school grounds does not know these children’s songs are composed by Raamesh.

Raamesh, Rayan and Manjul are very much with us, but with the passage of time and earthshaking political events
every few years, less and less is known or remembered about these poets and singers who added entire new di-
mensions to Nepali music in the modern era. That is what got us committed to producing this documentary. We have
made ‘Satisal in the Inferno’, to help the contemporary Nepali-speaking world understand the life and times of ‘Ralfa’, as also other groups with similar objectives of the same time, ‘Sankalpa’ and ‘Astha Pariwar’.

Raamesh, 73, is at the center of ‘Satisal in the Inferno’. His colleagues Manjul, Rayan, Ganesh Rasik, Shyam Tamot, Ram Krishna Duwal, and J B Tuhure speak to the audience, bringing alive the politics, music and personalities of the times. Not only the participants of the musical campaign of ‘Ralfa’, but the contemporary politicians, actors, writers and critics influenced by the group and its music appear in the documentary.

Raamesh says, “Our songs should not only talk about love and affairs, but should raise the voice on behalf of the people, their challenges and difficulties.” He has turned this belief into the creation of the songs of the people, and thus he became the ‘Jana gayak’, the people’s singer. Raamesh is unflinching in his belief in the people, and he puts the citizenry ahead of the political parties, who tend to meander in their commitment. Indeed, many political personalities have fallen into disgrace, brought down by their deeds in spite of revolutionary rhetoric. But Raamesh has stayed the course, in thought, words and deeds. That is why he is rare,
he is the ‘satisal’ in the ‘inferno’, the pine tree that survives the forest fire.

It is possible to tell some stories of music that talk more to the heart than to the brain through the fictional medium. But some subjects of history can be done justice to only in non-fiction. This is true of Raamesh and ‘Ralfa’, hence ‘Satisal in the Inferno’.


I ran into Perween Rahman at the Karachi Literature Festival in 2013. She met me so warmly that afternoon that it is forever etched in my memory. We spoke briefly about the feature length documentary I wanted to make with her about Karachiʼs sewage system. She was glowing, and since several people around her were vying for her attention, I told her I would visit her at her office in Orangi to discuss the documentary in detail.

That was the last time I saw her. On the evening of March 13th, 2013, she was shot dead on her way home from work. Perween was a much-loved architect and urban planner in Karachi, Pakistan. She was the director of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), a non-governmental organisation based in Orangi town, a low income neighbourhood of 2.4 million people in the northwestern part of the city. OPP had led community-based improvement of sanitation in Orangi since the 1980s. These efforts were based on extensive mapping of the townʼs drainage channels under the leadership of Perween.

The mapping team went on to document the entire sewage system of Karachi in the 1990s. They discovered that the
untreated sewage of the city was flowing into its natural drains all the way to the Arabian Sea. This led to an explosive situation with the cityʼs municipal authorities whose claims of functioning sewage treatment plants were now laid to waste. OPP’s sewage disposal plan for Karachi was later accepted by the authorities.

The inner workings of Karachiʼs haphazard sewage disposal and its effect on the urban environment has always held astrange fascination for me. This is what I wanted to make a documentary about. I wanted to film it like an adventure though, as a discovery of the city. And I wanted to film it with Perween. I had pitched the idea to her and she got it.

She said she would help with the fundraising efforts. Little did I know that I would end up making a documentary
about her life and work instead. But who would fund such a documentary? In the absence of grant providing institutions for documentary films in Pakistan, one option is to look for international funds. There
are opportunities for us to apply for grants from institutions like the IDFA Bertha Fund, Filmmakers Without Borders, Sundance, Tribeca and the International Documentary Association. Applying for a grant is highly competitive, so an increasingly popular option for filmmakers is to use crowdfunding platforms like IndieGoGo, GoFundMe or Kickstarter.

If you are really passionate about a project, you can also pitch to interested individuals, corporate bodies, NGOs or TV channels in Pakistan. That worked for me in the case of my documentary City by the Sea: The Future of Karachiʼs Coastline, which was funded by a private company as part of their corporate social responsibility. Adventures in Hingol was funded by family and friends. Sea Turtles of Pakistan was produced by Geo Television. Perween Rahman: The Rebel Optimist was funded by the NGO ‘Asian Coalition for Housing Rights’.

Finding funds is not the only challenge of making a documentary film in Pakistan. Safety concerns are something to consider in choosing a topic to film as the country struggles with domestic terrorism. I have known of people being picked up and questioned by the powers that be when they have been filming ‘sensitiveʼ topics.
While filming for the Perween Rahman documentary, we almost got beaten up at an illegal water hydrant in Karachi
when we lingered on way too long. We also had someone pull a gun on us on the outskirts of the city, well known to be a hotspot of the Taliban at that time.

However, that is a choice for the filmmaker to make about the kind of situation they are putting themselves in. Luckily, I only have to worry about not being picked up while filming hermit crabs and migratory birds on the polluted city beaches!

As for being female while filming, it has only been convenient for me as it tends to let one have greater access to subjects, especially women. And one can always don a burka when travelling to restricted areas in the middle of the night! In some cases I have been lucky to have talked my way out of sticky situations, saving my male colleagues in the process.

The options are wide open. You can make it happen. The bottom line is, keep telling stories.

Experiments with Truth: The Documentary Crisis

Documentaries are like birds, with feathers and wings. They fly, they cross borders, they migrate, they rest in strange places. These are particularly exciting times for docs with wings when images are being produced by just about everyone and let loose at a scale that was unimaginable two decades back when Film South Asia was born. And these are challenging times too for documentary film makers because everyone is a film maker today. Images that made films, that made heroes and heroines of film makers are now being made by everyone.

Two decades back, travelling deep into their respective countries the South Asian film maker brought images that made us smile, cry or be horror struck. They now come live, made by the people who are the story. Some of it is ugly when it comes coloured with blood and made by reporters who are participants and chroniclers of the attacks on Dalits and Muslims in India. Most often however the images come as life affirming. They are about people’s everyday, their little joys and pleasures, pain and suffering, achievements and failures. They are sometimes witness to inhumanity, at others to compassion.

Images are bringing us together, creating a community of a shared aesthetics and the sensory. It is also a community with a sense of immediacy, a temporality that is of now and of the past at the same time. This has never happened at the scale at which it is happening today. The image makers are creating and foraging personal archives of lives, events and the emotive that are marked by memory as also change by a mapping of the present. The documentary as an instrument that has at its core an unwavering relationship with the factual, with evidence, with the real is now the most gripping story that has everyone hooked across media and across countries.

Besides capital it is the documentary image which is seamlessly connecting people in a world wide web of sensory responses to the ordinary and the extraordinary that make human lives. Each and every technology that can produce images is being deployed by millions across the globe to tell their stories. They are seeking a connection, an entry into a sensory network of the emotive that is travelling across borders, across cultures, across languages, across nations, across enmities in multiple directions. The documentary today truly has vast wings and it is flying as it has never flown in the past. Is this a crisis for the art form and the professional documentarist?

All art forms are perpetually in a crisis. There would be no art if there wasn’t a crisis to be overcome. These crisis come gift wrapped in lurid and mocking cellophane paper, they come in the form of technology, they arrive as paucity of funds, they drive in as the industry, they come dressed in the uniform of authority or they simply knock at your door as the censor. But they always do arrive, unfailingly and repeatedly. They also fly in as challenge of form, of aesthetics, of the grammar of story telling.

The documentary arguably is the most difficult art form to experiment with because of its intrinsic and etymological relationship with time, with that which is now, that which is the ‘truth’, with that which is the ‘real’. This is a crisis that the documentary form has grappled with since its inception and will continue to do so till it survives as a form of story telling. However the current crisis is unique in the sense that it threatens to make the form redundant as art, as a form of self conscious story telling through images that are in dialogue with its own history and grammar. The brave new documentarists come with no baggage, they simply reduce the form to its core objectives, a form that allows images to be created from that moment that can never be recreated, time that gets trapped in an image for posterity.

This crisis though rapid in its appearance didn’t come unnoticed. The documentary filmmakers have been responding to it even as it was unfolding. The response until now has been two fold. At one end, there has been a re-description and re-presentation of the documentary in spaces that until now were denied to it, the art museums. The documentary in the last decade has slowly inched itself inside museum spaces, facilitated both by experiments with form and the deployment of writing on it by the academic world which strengthen its case as an artistic response to the world. Art museums struggling to respond to the challenges posed by the cataclysmic changes in media and communication have been redefining what construes art and simultaneously creating and even discovering new art forms. The documentary is one such new art form. At the other end, the story telling is becoming more and more grand and vast in its ambition and in its scale. The documentary now has to mimic the large heart of the fiction film, it has to carry us through momentous events, it has to lock us into an emotive response that until now was the preserve of the fiction film. The documentary art practice of everyday no longer hides in its mundane details the churning of life with its insignificant moments and stories, but it has to be imbued with the allegorical, the potential of being more than what it can be, the confluence of a temporality and aesthetics that locates itself outside the form.

In a strange twist to the tale of the documentary, it is people armed with a range of electronic equipment capable of transforming what they see into images who have become the most ardent protectors of the form even as the professional documentarist is withdrawing into another world. The documentary it was always argued has a limited audience and today when the documentary image is the most visible image across the globe, the documentarist is facing her toughest ever battle for survival.

The film space was a secret tryst between the director, cinematographer, the sound engineer and the editor. It was a space to be experienced as a sensuous collective intervention that hid in its underbelly myriad sound tracks, colour/light strategies and multiple narratives that came together in ways that were inseparable when seen as a moving image, a story, a film. It was a truth that was manufactured as truth.

The same shades of truth are now being manufactured by people at large and it is no longer a secret tryst but part of a hyper reality that can be fake, fractured, omni present or dressed but with the same documentary zeal for the real and for the now. The obsession with the real and the present and the documentary is at an all time high and that is the crisis that the form faces today. Everyone has the capacity and the capability of producing their real, their present, their narrative and more importantly a community out there to accept it and make it their own.

As a practitioner what has surprised me is the reams that have been written on realism and the documentary while there is almost an intriguing silence on magic realism and the documentary. The word was almost invented for the documentary but has not even skimmed the practice and its understanding. The hyper reality of the documentary form, its commonly used phrases like – the magical documentary moment, the fantastic in the mundane everyday, all point towards a certain discomfort both by practitioners as well as film theorists to acknowledge that disjunction which is the key to magic realism is structurally present in the form. If at all the experiments and moves in the documentary art form have been more with surrealism rather than experimenting with magic realism, which is grounded in hard material reality. The reasons are somewhat obvious. The surreal does not take the documentary away from its pretence of realism and at the same time allows it to psychologize the inner world of the object to archive the inexpressible, the unconscious, etc while magic realism would subvert its truth claims in fundamental ways. The documentary has to learn to unlearn the relationship between truth and evidence, it has to move away from forensics and see truth as disaggregated, as hard and yet slippery, the narratives have to drive truth and not the other way around. I think the future for the documentary practice especially in the non west context lies in opening a new register of magic realism. There lies the brave new documentary.

– Rahul Roy is an independent documentary film maker from India and an FSA alumini.

Documentary Bears Witness

There is a nip in the air as the November weather clothes Kathmandu in its charming best. It’s time again for FSA – the 11th edition in its 20th year! We greet you – our audience – hoping you will enjoy the smorgasbord of films put together for you.

These are not easy times as the world and Southasia lurch towards extreme ideologies, locking individuals and whole communities into silos of exclusivity. At a time like this, we trust the power of non-fiction film to open a window to allow a glimpse into our common humanity.

Our documentaries “bear witness” to these threads that bind us. So, in Among the Believers – banned in Pakistan – even in the most rigid of madrasas where hatred is preached day in and day out, the little wards sneak off to grab a spot of cricket, while brave citizens battle threats to life to provide them with open-minded education and access.

The Colour of My Home quietly and poignantly takes us to the homes of people, predominantly Muslim, displaced by the riots of Muzzafarnagar, in the heart of the Ganga plains. The film attempts to understand what it means to be uprooted and then ‘rehabilitated’. How does one reclaim one’s citizenship in times like these?

What does it mean to be born to women jailed for crimes (allegedly) committed? Born behind Bars explores the shadowy world of a Telengana prison where children are allowed to stay with their mothers up till the age of six, imbibing a morally ambiguous universe. What becomes of childhood if pushed into a dark, dank rathole mine to extract coal, risking life in a bid to earn a living? The brilliantly shot Fireflies in the Abyss takes us into the world of young Suraj, an immigrant from Nepal in the Jaintia hills of Meghalaya. Even When I Fall follows two young girls from Nepal sold to a circus in India as they grow into independent young women seeking to stand on their own feet. Childhood can also include joy and passion, of the kind 11-year-old Zaid experiences in kite running and flying in Famous in Ahmedabad.

Forced to flee his home and country at the age of five due to the raging civil war instigated by the majoritarian Sinhala regime, Jude Ratnam returns, older and wiser. In Demons in Paradise, he dissects the implications of the strife and – at the risk of being branded traitor – recounts how it brutalised his own Tamil community. From Myanmar, before the Rohingya issue exploded, comes a lyrical depiction of a country emerging from years of dictatorship in Burma Story. The crowd-funded Sramik Awaaz brings out voices of women working in garment factories of Bangladesh. In Afghanistan Night Stories, for the first time, a woman with a camera enters the male barracks of soldiers to capture their hazardous missions.

There are interesting experimentations in form and technique, such as the bitingly satirical Nuclear Hallucinations centred on the protests against the Kudankulam Atomic Power Project in Tamil Nadu. Or the tale of two transgender women in search of a rented apartment in Chennai, rendered through theatre, songs and dances in Is It Too Much to Ask?

Southasians take to music, song, dance, theatre and cinema, to tell their unique stories from different nooks and crannies of the vast Subcontinent. In Indian-administered Kashmir, the rhythms and blues of resistance take the shape of hip-hop and folk music in Soz: The Ballad of Maladies. A rock star teaches young girls in one of the most forbidding and orthodox neighbourhoods of Karachi to sing in Lyari Notes. The “Ralpha” group of troubadours took on the powerful Panchayat regime through their songs for political change in Nepal. Their history is recounted in Satisal in the Inferno. Ima Sabitri is the story of a diminutive powerhouse of a woman, the backbone of a renowned threatre group, who adroitly depicts the violation of human rights during army rule in Manipur. Then we have Rasan Piya, the story of an ethereal musician of the lineage of Tansen, who represented the acme of Southasia’s composite culture, teaching, singing, writing till the age of 107, when he passed away in 2016.

These are the gems strewn throughout the calendar of FSA ’17, too numerous to recount here. The stunningly shot Machines that takes one into a modern version of Dante’s inferno, where de-humanising physical labour and hardships in a Gujarat textile factory unmask the ugly face of industrialization. The gently humorous cadences of Last Days, Last Shot explore death and dying in the city of salvation, Varanasi. Lock and Key introduces us to recovering addicts in Indian Punjab and Aspatal describes health care based on the courage and goodwill of the ordinary people of the western Nepal midhills.

In the FSA ’17 schedule, you will find multiple award-winners and others that have just started out in their journey to festivals around Southasia and the world. The variety and depth rule out the possibility of favourites. Indeed, it was a difficult and heartbreaking process for FSA’s international committee to select from the more than 300 films that were submitted. The reason we have the largest number ever being exhibited – 63 – is due to the high quality of entries this time around. It just goes to show what a good job all our non-fiction filmmakers are doing despite the constraints of resources and curbs on freedom of expression.

The FSA family of participating filmmakers is growing by leaps and bounds, and this time we have added so many more. Most of our filmmakers, right since 1997, have kept in touch with the festival, often connecting us with new talent and alerting us to some of the best non-fiction coming out from the far corners. One of FSA’s first ‘alumni’ – Farjad Nabi from Lahore, who has moved from making non-fiction to feature films – is a member of our jury this time.

Of the 63 films selected, twelve are being screened in the ‘Documentaries of Dissent’ section, where the focus country this time is India. Six are part of the student selection meant to engage with fresh new talent in the field of non-fiction. We promise you interesting times from the 2nd to the 5th of November. Even as the surrounding mountains bear witness, we bring you Southasia, warts and all, in a clear, unvarnished reflection of our life and times.

– Mitu Varma, Director Film Southasia