Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

Film Southasia’15

Nitesh Pradhan
 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.



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

~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
~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.

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