Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

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


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

“Let’s get together: it’s stupid to fight, and lovely to be friends”: Film Southasia 2013 launch

The official Film Southasia 2013 opening had it all: intelligent speeches, beautiful music, and some serious political controversy.

Three addresses started the proceedings, from Kanak Mani Dixit (FSA Chair and editor of Himal Southasian magazine), Sadanand Menon (the FSA Jury Chair) and Mani Shankar Aiyar (Indian Politician and Writer). One theme ran through all addresses, reflecting the ethos of the Film Southasia Festival: that greater unity is needed amongst the nations that make up Southasia, and that film is one means through which this can be consolidated. Kanak Mani Dixit commented that in these days of ultra-nationalism throughout the region, it is imperative to reach out to the ‘other’ side without losing sight of one’s own ethos and views. This is, India need not be hostile towards Pakistan, it will not weaken the Indian identity; similarly, Nepal need not be hostile towards India. The overarching animosity between India and Pakistan tends to overshadow, and leave behind, the other countries that make up Southasia. Sadanand Menon furthered this line of discussion, stating that while many genres of the arts around Southasia have been pushed into conformity, and ultimately commodified, documentary film is one genre that has resisted this and provides a platform for non-conformist views to be aired. Mani Shankar Aiyar—described by some on stage as a politician who actually makes sense—said that he had always found it easier to connect with people from around the Southasian region than from further afield. Therefore, he finds India’s foreign policy baffling: they are best friends with Paraguay, but don’t know what to do about Pakistan! Southasians from Afghanistan to Nepal to Myanmar to Sri Lanka (and of course, India in the midst of it all) are enormously diverse, but it is in everyone’s best interests to recognise the connections and similarities.

The talks were followed by beautiful Baul musicians from Dhaka, singer Anusheh Adanil and her guru accompanying her, a memorable and uplifting opening to the festival.

Some breaking and serious news was announced before the screening of the first film of the day: Kanak Mani Dixit had warned that the spaces for open discussion were being constricted in Nepal, and this news emphasised the truth of his statement. The Sri Lankan government has pressured the Nepali government into censoring the Sri Lankan films to appear in this year’s FSA. Callum Macrae’s “No Fire Zone”, and Kannan Arunasalam’s two films “The Story of One” and “Broken” will not be screened at QFX Kumari Cinema. But, refusing to be silenced, FSA will screen these films at a ‘private’ screening, the venue and date of which will be announced on Friday morning. As Kanak stated, “FSA protests this unwarranted intrusion into the cultural sphere. It obstructs our festival’s goal.” The three films will remain in the official competition, and hopefully greater interest in them has been generated, and they will receive strong audiences.

Blog by Elen Turner