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.