Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

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.

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 Setopati.com, 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