Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

Documentary Bears Witness

16.11.2017 BY Mitu Varma

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

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