Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

A haven for non-fiction!


In the last edition the theme of the festival was ‘Documentary won’t be confined’. MALLIKA ARYAL shared her thoughts on how FSA is a space to defend the free spirit of documentary filmmaking.


Kathmandu Valley’s love affair with documentaries started in 1994 when the first ever ‘Himalaya’ film festival took place. I wasn’t even a teenager back then, but remember attending the opening. A small hall that would, during a normal event barely hold 120, was packed with some 300 people, ready to burst. I sat on the floor of the hall and watched in silence with the audience. I remember little of the film, but what I will never forget is the audience—the palpable excitement, enthusiasm, anticipation. It felt like I was going to be a part of something big.

Over the next few years the festival morphed because Nepal is more than just the ‘capital’ of the Himalaya – it is also the ‘capital’ of Southasia. The years following the first Film Southasia festival, Nepal and rest of Southasia was going through extraordinary political times. FSA became a movement where journalists, activists and filmmakers from the far reaches of the Subcontinent and beyond found safe haven in Kathmandu every two years. Meanwhile, a generation grew up watching highly charged non-fiction film of great variety, including ‘real-time’ anthropology to travel diaries, archival presentations and dedicated, courageous and even lonely – activism.

The generation of Kathmandu documentary-viewers groomed by FSA is what I like to call the ‘perfect’ audience—we are young, excited, and we love good storytelling. I had the honor of working as the festival director for two festivals and continue to advise the FSA team today. During my time at FSA, one of our priorities was to groom a generation of excitable audience who will pay (money) to watch documentaries like they would watch a commercial film. In our selections, we went for variety and representation of course, but concentrated on the craft displayed, with Southasia as our playground. We moved the festival venue to a duplex theatre and it worked like a charm.

Watching the audience queuing up in front of the ticket counter, attending the interactions with filmmakers, I have been proud to have been a part of a festival that prepared this generation of audience who respect the work of filmmakers, watch films critically, are energized by the novelty of ideas and methods of storytelling, and most importantly, demand quality work. The FSA audience asks sharp questions, makes unique observations, and soaks up stories. This is the FSA audience we have seen over the last two decades, which will once again be part of the 10th edition of the festival this weekend 19-22 November.

Nepali documentaries have matured with FSA and its sibling festivals in Kathmandu— from Dhruba Basnet’s 2001 film The Killing Terraces that brought images of Nepal’s civil war to Kathmandu to Mohan Mainali’s 2002 film The Living of Jogimara that brought the issue of the war disappeared into discourse, Kesang Tseten’s 2012 Who Will Be A Gurkha, on the grueling process Nepali youngster with the dream of joining the British Gurkhas, and now to Ramyata Limbu’s 2015 Drawing the Tiger that beautifully depicts hopes, dreams, disappointment and heartbreak of a young girl in post-war Nepal.

I had a unique opportunity again this year to be part of the FSA ’15 selection committee. For two months, we met every evening for a few hours in FSA’s screening room at Krishna Galli, and were transported to places like Barpak (Nepal), Mes Aynak (Afghanistan), Nagaland, the underbelly of Delhi and the Nepali fruit markets of London. Munching on masala peanuts (in the true spirit of Southasia), we watched, discussed, re-watched, discussed again. Emotions ran high, tears were even shed sometimes, and one would have been surprised if there had been a fistfight (it almost happened, once). These 43 films are the result of many months of work of selections, happening through earthquakes, strikes and shortages.

Fundraising for FSA has always been hard, and this year it has been especially challenging because a lump sum that would have made FSA possible was promised over months and months of negotiation, and cancelled at the last moment without adequate explanation. FSA has since its start been run on a shoe-string budget, and when a promised sum doesn’t come through, it is not just the festival that suffers, but the entire documentary community of Southasia.

This year, the Festival sat down twice to decide whether to postpone FSA ’15 –once after the earthquake and once during the blockade, with scarcities rife. Both times, the organizers decided to proceed. The event was moved from the commercial duplex to the more modest Yala Maya Kendra in the old, historical city of Patan, a space that has become synonymous to cultural events and talks. As we go to press with the catalogue, the FSA’s programme coordinators are running around in bicycles from caterers to travel agents, designers and printers, to the designers. It is amidst a spirit and bravery that this incredibly motivated team is organizing FSA ’15.

Nepal has long been a space where filmmakers from all over Southasia gather every two years and they feel free when they are here. The organisers make sure that the delegates are well taken care of – they can let their hair down in an atmosphere of camaraderie and inclusion. This year has been incredibly challenging for Nepal as we deal with the aftermath of earthquakes of April-May, and the final phase of the festival was organised amidst a blockade. The idea was, that the spirit of Southasia, the energy of this international event, must not dissipate. The odds must be overcome.

There is something that has to be said about the safe haven that storytellers need to nurture their creativity and community. Nepal has become a de-facto venue for events that can be held only with difficulty elsewhere in Southasia. Journalists and activists here have fought hard for freedom of expression, and it is to the advantage of the larger Southasian community, including documentary makers. While societies in so many parts of our Southasian neighborhood have created insurmountable barriers for the screening of films, in Nepal we have been able to keep the door open. At FSA, we are part of the campaign to defend the free spirit of documentary filmmaking.

If a film, for any reason, is clamped down, FSA will find creative ways of showing it. With that belief and the hope for future this year’s FSA’s slogan is also aptly ‘Documentary Won’t Be Confined’. This year as you roam the streets of the old city of Patan between FSA screenings, look around the Darbar Square in its ruins, imagine what it was, and how Nepal is rebuilding it, take a moment to pay homage to the Valley of Kathmandu that has been home to FSA for the last two decades. May the next 20 years of FSA be as interesting, transformative and exciting as the last twenty.


Mallika Aryal is a video and print journalist, former director and present advisor to FSA. You can find her on twitter at: @mikaness

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

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