Film Southasia is held every two years, and in 2019 the theme of the festival of documentary films says it all: ‘Where the Mind Is Free’. Indeed, since the last edition of the festival, the space for free expression is increasingly constricted throughout the region.
From 14-17 November, 64 documentaries from the Subcontinent will be shown at Yalamaya Kendra, Patan – many of them films that would be difficult to have a public screening anywhere else in South Asia.
“In the region’s increasingly cloistered space, exclusion seems to be a common concern of the documentaries,” says festival director Mitu Varma. “The films focus on the marginalised like growing up in Ladakh, transgender love, and the crisis of Rohingyas and Dalits. Many of the films focus on people who have little in terms of resources, but a huge store of empathy and compassion for all living creatures, that marks them out as more human than many in the so called mainstream There are five films on Kashmir, and several films on migration and education.”
By its very definition, the documentary is a film genre that takes time to dwell on social injustices and delve in-depth into the structural reasons for discrimination, inequality, exploitation. Film-makers tend to give voice to the voiceless, show the plight of neglected or abused people whom the mainstream media ignores.
With the space for dissent and the marketplace of ideas shrinking all over the region, Nepal remains the last bastion of free speech. This year also, Film Southasia will be showing films that could not be screened elsewhere.
Read also: Documenting Nepal, Angelo D’Silva and Diwas KC
The focus of the festival this year is Pakistan, and the opening film Indus Blues profiles the country’s disappearing musical instruments and folk art, given the rightward movement of the state. Other films on Pakistan investigate scavenging ships on the Arabian Sea beaches and the murder of an activist who sought to provide a cultural space called “The Second Floor” in Karachi where all art forms could be shared and different issues could be freely debated and discussed.
With most of South Asia living under similar social-political conditions, the subject matter of the films focus on similar concerns common to all countries. However, there is a lot of experimentation in the form of film-making.
There is a documentary shot mostly in the night with striking visuals (And What Is the Summer Saying), another film that simply records conversations that swirl inside a tea shop at the centre of a heated religious debate (Chai Darbari). The documentary about old Delhi with a 400 strong cast of actors straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction (Ghode ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon).
“There are quiet films with little dialogue, where the story is told with visual imagery, or with the neutral eye of a fly on the wall,” explains FSA organiser Alok Adhikari. “The film-maker takes the backseat with these observational techniques lets the story tell itself.”
This year the festival went digital for the first time, accepting submissions online instead of asking for DVDs to be couriered to Kathmandu. The number of submissions soared to more than 2,500, a testimonial to the rising interest in this form of storytelling.
The festival’s jury comprises of filmmakers Sumathy Sivamohan from Sri Lanka and Ayisha Abraham from India, and Nepali journalist Kunda Dixit.
Read also: The world of South Asia